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What if you became the most powerful entity in the universe and could make your deepest desires come true with a simple wave of the hand? It's the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario that was carried to its logical conclusion in 2003's Bruce Almighty.
The film, now streaming on Peacock, was the third blockbuster team-up between Ace Ventura and Liar Liar alumni — director Tom Shadyac and actor Jim Carrey. In it, Bruce Nolan (Carrey) is a put-upon puff piece reporter who suddenly receives the omnipotence of God (a perfectly cast Morgan Freeman).
This genuinely limitless premise coupled with Carrey's unparalleled talent for physical comedy and universal themes of responsibility and goodwill unto humankind ensured divine box office results. Bruce Almighty opened on the big screen in late May of 2003, securing nearly $500 million worldwide against a budget of $81 million by the end of its theatrical run.
The night it opened in theaters nationwide, the movie's screenwriters, Steve Koren and Mark O'Keefe, ran into producer Michael Bostick and pitched him a hellish sequel idea about Bruce gaining the powers of Satan. Naturally, the follow-up would be called — what else? — "Brucifer." The duo later brought the idea to Universal Pictures around 2010, but by then, the studio had long since endured the colossal financial bomb that was 2007's Evan Almighty (a pseudo-sequel starring a then up-and-coming Steve Carell). Despite enthusiasm on Carrey's end, a third chapter was doomed to enter purgatory.
"His manager and him wanted to do Brucifer," Koren recalls during a recent Zoom call with O'Keefe and SYFY WIRE. "We went in and pitched it, but it never quite worked out, because it was later on … It would have been another giant movie and I don’t think they wanted to do it. It just didn’t work out for some reason, but a lot of people loved it, including Jim."
But why would Bruce would lose his faith and throw in with the Devil after being confronted with irrefutable evidence of a higher power? Their solution was simple: Bruce's wife, Grace (Jennifer Aniston), needed to die.
"You tend to lose your faith when the world seems unfair, and that's what got him," Koren says. "It came from a serious place, but we were gonna write it in a very friendly way. We certainly didn’t want to depress people. So I think that scared [the studio] a little bit, but to Jim's credit, he totally understood that we were going to make a big comedy and thought everybody would connect with it."
For example, they proposed the idea of Bruce using his Satanic powers to resurrect Grace. Carrey took that a step further, suggesting she first appear as a rotted corpse, à la Jack Goodman in An American Werewolf in London. "I remember when we pitched it, he was laughing his ass off," Koren says. "Because we had her come back as Jennifer Aniston. He said, ‘No, she has to look like a zombie first and then we'll make her beautiful again.’ We thought that was brilliant."
"It was going to be the Trials of Job, essentially," O'Keefe adds. "The world had not gone his way since he was God. Everything was great for a while; he was married and it all fell apart. He was once again questioning everything and then got a different way to solve things." O'Keefe goes on to describe Brucifer as "the most cost-effective sequel imaginable," given how they planned for Beelzebub to either be played by Freeman or Carrey himself. "Totally different themes, of course, but the beats everyone enjoys."
With so many popular films being adapted for television these days (i.e., A League of Their Own, Fargo, Westworld, Limitless, Minority Report — to name a few), the co-writers aren't opposed to repurposing their original draft, "which was somebody becomes God of a specific neighborhood," Koren reveals. "You get these three blocks. You think you can be God? Here, try it on your own."
"It was very much like a Mel Brooks movie," O'Keefe says of that initial concept. "It was like 'The God of 57th Street.' What area he was in charge of, essentially. And so, we decided [on] a couple blocks in New York." In addition, the overall tone was much raunchier and Farrelly Brothers-esque, "which was very popular at that time." Carrey, of course, made two profitable movies with the sibling filmmakers: Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000).
Prior to selling the spec script to Shadyac and Bostick at the turn of the millennium, Koren and O'Keefe envisioned Jim Breuer, Chris Farley, or Will Ferrell for the part of Bruce, especially since Koren already had a number of Saturday Night Live connections from his time as a writer on NBC's long-running sketch comedy program throughout the 1990s. It's worth mentioning that this was just before Will Ferrell became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet with Elf, which released several months after Bruce Almighty.
"We went into [Shadyac's] office, and he's like, ‘Okay, it's up to you guys. If you want try to make it right now, we can give it Jim Breuer or we can take a big swing and try to get Jim Carrey,’" O'Keefe says. "We were like, ‘Okay, let’s just let's take that swing, because it's a much bigger swing.’ And it worked out. The reason it was Bruce is [because] Steve and I are both big fans of Bruce Springsteen. I was just remembering your office at NBC, Steve. You had a Bruce Springsteen poster on the wall."
Once Shadyac and Carrey got ahold of the screenplay, their colleague, Steve Oedekerk (The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls), did a credited pass, which changed Bruce from a car salesman to a Buffalo-based reporter hoping to become a full-time network anchor. This opened the door to some of the movie's most memorable gags — whether it's Bruce solving the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa's missing corpse or Steve Carrell hilariously misreading a teleprompter during a live newscast. "I think Jim wanted to be a reporter or something," states O'Keefe. Then it was him and Oedekerk, who brought that home, which was hilarious."
"Generally, anything that we read in the rewrites that we were like, ‘Well, why would they do that to our script?', we ended up being very thankful for many of them because it certainly turned into a movie a lot of people love, Koren continues. "If there was a 'genius,' it was the combination of what we did with Steve Oedekerk and Jim and all those guys."
Bruce Almighty had the potential to piss off a lot of people, but it didn't. The ambiguous religiosity of the piece kept the movie non-denominational and appealing to any and all belief systems. "We were just like, 'God is God,’" declares O'Keefe. "I guess there's a common conception of God to so many cultures. And so, it just seemed like it would resonate with everyone."
"We went out of our way to not ever address a specific god of a specific religion," echoes Koren. "We tried to keep it general so everybody could relate to it. On the first night that it premiered, we went to The Grove and I remember we were in shock because there was a line around the block. It was so diverse. And I went, ‘Oh my God! We really we hit that nerve.’ We were so blessed, to use a God-like word here. We couldn't believe it actually worked and seemed to hit a chord with everybody."
Bruce Almighty is now streaming on Peacock.