Behind the scenes of Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell’s chaotic ‘Spirited’ tap dance
The following contains spoilers from the movie “Spirited,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
The most over-the-top sequence of wasn’t supposed to happen. It was just a throwaway joke in the initial script.
Yet the five-minute number called “Good Afternoon” has Ryan Reynolds singing with a bad cockney accent, Will Ferrell tap dancing on a fallen wall, 40 other performers flooding a cobblestone street and Dame Judi Dench making a self-referential cameo.
“We wanted to make this one the most comedic song in the film,” says director Sean Anders of the show-stopping moment. “It took a lot of work because it’s so over the top and ridiculous and has so many moving parts, but it’s just so much fun.”
The standout scene takes place midway through the meta movie-musical, which retells “A Christmas Carol” with more than a few twists . At this point, the story’s resident Scrooge — cynical media consultant Clint Briggs (Reynolds) — frustrates the ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) by questioning whether overnight transformations actually work.
The two are soon transported to Victorian London, where Clint and the audience learn that Present was the original Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella. He surely was redeemed by three ghosts that night, but he also died just weeks later.
Anders says he and co-writer John Morris framed the reveal as a way to harken back to Dickens’ classic text, but also to set up a new tension: “Present is trying to change this guy who believes people never change, but deep down, he has that same fear, because he isn’t sure he ever really changed either.”
Clint then notices how the miserly grouch shuts down conversations with a stern greeting that shocks onlookers for its vulgarity. “In the 1800s, ‘good afternoon’ was a sick burn,” explains Present. “It more or less meant f— you. Extremely graphic.”
In reality, the innocuous phrase is not a historical insult. But it is what Dickens wrote Scrooge to shout at various other characters, “and older versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ from the ‘40s and ‘50s use that vernacular as if it were a bad word,” says Ferrell. Reynolds suggested the joke be expanded into its own musical number, in which Clint tries to entice Present to let loose and revert to his former, unredeemed self.
That song — a catchy combination of visual gags, internal rhymes and self-aware humor — “leans into the fact that Ryan is an aces troll in real life, and Will is so great at squirming and seeming uncomfortable,” says Justin Paul, who wrote the tune in a songwriters’ room of sorts with Benj Pasek, Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones and Mark Sonnenblick. “We were all working together in a 20-page Google Doc every night,” recalls Hursey, “trying to figure out the best lines possible and making each others’ jokes better and better.”
The elaborate set piece was filmed over four days on Boston’s historic Marshall Street. It starts with Clint inciting chaos with a “good afternoon” at a pub. Present gives in, and the two sling the greeting at everyone around them. They interrupt a wedding, they curse a police officer, they shout in unison at a begging child plucked right out of “Oliver!” Dench suddenly strolls by and sings, “Just deplore them with decorum like you’re Judi bloody Dench” — a lyric written for Reynolds and Ferrell that the writers never imagined the screen legend herself would deliver.
The rambunctious duo then lead an aggressive procession down a cobblestone street and launch into a quick tap dance atop a fallen wall. It was both actors’ first time tapping, and since Reynolds and Ferrell turned down dance doubles, they each worked with tap trainers — Jason Luks and Jason Holley, respectively.
“The tap was the hardest nut for me to crack because you’re really running up against the physical limitations of your own body, and that can be frustrating,” says Reynolds. “It’s a unique discipline that isn’t very forgiving because you’re not just dancing, you’re also an instrument, you’re making a clean percussive sound that is integral to the song.”
Adds Ferrell, “Other steps you can learn at quarter-speed or half-speed, and then go full-speed. But tap, you have to go full-speed from the beginning to get that sound, there’s no baby steps. We ended up enjoying it, but we really pushed ourselves in ways we never thought we could.”
Despite the difficulty, choreographer Chloe Arnold was impressed by the lead actors’ commitment. “They both worked hard to nail those moves and they never, ever complained,” she says. “They were instead incredibly enthusiastic during every rehearsal; they were never weary about doing another take on long shoot days. They even volunteered to rehearse on weekends to brush up for whatever number was coming next.”
The ambitious section ends with Clint and Present singing directly to the camera, dancing in unison with the crowd and newly bonded by their devilish detour. “It was a lot of work but are we glad we did it? Yes, extremely,” says Reynolds.
“I’m also obsessed with tap now,” he continues. “After we filmed this big number, I remember texting Hugh Jackman and saying, ‘OK, I get it. I get why you love this art form so much,’ because it’s really special and it’s something that needs to grow.”