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Will Ferrell and Trans Comedy Writer Harper Steele’s Heartfelt Documentary Draws Multiple Standing Ovations at Sundance Premiere

Unlike Cannes and Venice, Sundance isn’t a film festival that inspires too many standing ovations. But moviegoers at the Eccles Theatre were moved (more than once!) to stand up and applaud after the premiere of “Will & Harper,” a funny, heartbreaking and poignant documentary about Will Ferrell taking a road trip with his longtime friend, Harper Steele, who transitioned at 61.

“Look at this! And this is for a documentary,” Ferrell said as he greeted the packed house in Park City on Monday night. “Wow! If we were going to be at Sundance, we thought it would be at a 10 a.m. screening in someone’s garage.”

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“Will & Harper” chronicles the duo over 17 days as they drive from New York to California, making pit stops at basketball games, dive bars, “swanky” Las Vegas restaurants and other places where Steele hopes to feel more comfortable since she came out as a trans woman in 2022.

Along the way, they are greeted by many “Saturday Night Live” veterans, including Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Molly Shannon, which is fitting because Ferrell and Steele met while working on “SNL” — as a performer and writer, respectively — in the ’90s. (“They were important to my transition; they’re my family,” Steele said of her “SNL” friends.)

“The love these two friends have for one another fills me up,” a misty-eyed director Josh Greenbaum said during a post-screening Q&A. “I’m so grateful for this moment. I’m going to get it together and –”

“Answer the question,” Ferrell, who wiped away tears as he took the stage, jokingly interjected.

Although Greenbaum is known for kooky comedies like “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and “Strays,” Steele said the director felt like the right fit to handle this documentary with love, care and sensitivity. “Will & Harper” captures serious and emotional conversations about being transgender, but there’s plenty of levity from comical moments involving Pringles, wacky costumes and a fateful trip to Dunkin’ Donuts.

“We are comedy writers, so we came up with a lot of bad ideas at first. We planned setups, and it felt weird and prank-y and inauthentic,” Steele said. “We said, ‘Let’s get in the car and see what happens.'”

Ferrell, who has endeared himself to America through comedies like “Elf,” “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman,” wanted to share a more personal side in the documentary. He broke down in tears more than once during conversations with Steele throughout the film.

“I felt like if we were going to be a part of this and create it with integrity, I owed it to Harper to be as open and emotionally available to what was going to happen,” Ferrell said.

Steele said she was inspired to make the documentary at a time when LGBTQ rights in the U.S. have been under attack.

“I had this friend — this is my privilege — who has made movies that appeal very broadly. That was the deciding factor … I could abuse this relationship for the good,” she joked. “I still don’t think Will knows what he did.”

Ferrell spoke to Variety prior to the film’s premiere and admitted that he had “zero knowledge” about the trans community before Steele came out.

“I had met trans people, but I didn’t have anyone personally in my life,” Ferrell said. “So this was all new territory for me. It’s a chance for us in the cis community to ask questions, listen and be there as a friend to discuss this journey.”

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