North Shore native Richie Keen’s feature film directing debut “Fist Fight” takes place on an out-of-control high school’s “Seniors’ Prank Day,” and the former Highland Park resident reflected on his own high school years while back home recently.
“When I was [at Highland Park] High School, my friends and I had talked about how much fun it would be to take apart the principal’s car — and then reassemble it in the lobby of the school, so no one could get it out.
“It was a fun idea, but it never happened when I was in high school, because none of us could figure out how to execute the stunt!” said Keen with a big laugh. “So, I put it in the movie, the scene with the principal’s car being in the school lobby — a homage to my high school days!”
Playing pranks is also part of the heritage of “Fist Fight” star Charlie Day, who joined the director in Chicago to promote the film.
“My great-grandfather was in the first graduating class of the University of Rhode Island. He and a few of his classmates took a cow, and they somehow got it on the roof of the school. So, as you can see, I come from a long line of pranksters. Guess I’m trying to live up to that legacy by doing this movie,” said Day. “It’s probably part of why I’ve become a comedic actor. There’s something simply hard-wired into me about comedy.”
In “Fist Fight,” Day plays a much-put-upon high school English teacher dealing with the threat of losing his job in a massive layoff, his wife past due on expecting their second child, and juggling his school day with keeping a promise to sing with his daughter at her elementary school’s talent contest.
On top of everything else, circumstances lead Day’s Andy Campbell character to get tough-guy teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube) fired, after he throws a tantrum in his classroom and scares the kids. Strickland then challenges Campbell to an after-school fight in the schoolyard that goes viral, with all the students excited by the prospect of seeing the non-athletic English teacher beat to a pulp by a former Navy SEAL.
The filmmaker couldn’t wait to give Day a sense of his favorite Chicago hotspots. “After we finish this interview,” said Keen, “we’re going to the Wiener Circle [the famous hotdog stand on North Broadway], and then we’ll head over to check out Wrigley Field. After all, as a lifelong Cubs fan, it’s nice to celebrate the fact the long, grey winter of Cub fans’ discontent is finally over. That’s true for me and my family as well!
“After we do all that, I’m going to take Charlie to Lou Malnati’s for some deep dish [pizza].”
Turning back to “Fist Fight,” Keen explained, “I call this an R-rated John Hughes movie. As a kid who grew up in Highland Park watching John Hughes’ films, plus riding my bike past all the scenes shot in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ I wanted to cast the kids in this film who would look authentic and natural. I didn’t want the high school kids to be beautiful and totally perfect. I wanted kids who look and act like real teenagers.”
Also important to Keen was the way he combined established comedic actors like Day, Tracy Morgan (in his first film role since that life-threatening car crash) and Jillian Bell with others audiences might be surprised to find in this kind of film. “We’ve got Dean Norris from ‘Breaking Bad’ and Christina Hendricks from ‘Mad Men.’ Most people wouldn’t expect to find them in a film like this,” said Keen.
While Day said he loved making “Fist Fight,” he did admit, “It was fun until we started the actual fighting scenes. That wasn’t so much fun. It was eight straight days of 12-hour days — getting thrown on that asphalt and dragged down a hallway and slammed into a school bus.”
Keen interjected, “Charlie isn’t kidding. Out of a 40-day shoot, we took eight days to film the actual fight sequences. And listen, I don’t care who you are. Fighting with Ice Cube for eight days is not an easy thing to do. The fact that Charlie kept up with it all is pretty impressive!”