Akiva Schaffer Interview: ‘The Watch’ Director Talks Aliens, ‘MacGruber 2′ and Life After SNL
This weekend Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Jonah Hill are all that stands between us and a global apocalypse whose epicenter is suburban U.S.A., Costco, to be specific. So best stock up on your bulk items and close all accounts with your loved ones.
SNL’s Digital Shorts mastermind Akiva Schaffer directs the foursome in 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi comedy ‘The Watch,’ a film that follows a neighborhood watch group as they attempt to stave off an alien invasion. We had the opportunity to speak with the director recently about transitioning away from his work on SNL, attempting to wrangle his cast and keeping a foothold in online comedy.
Schaffer is one third of The Lonely Island comedy group that made their way from the Interwebz to the hallowed halls of 30 Rockefeller Center (where ‘SNL’ is shot) and from there to the big screen. Slices two and three of the comedic pie that brought us ‘Motherlover’ and ‘Jack Sparrow’ are, of course, Jorma ‘Jorm’ Taccone (‘MacGruber’), and David Andrew ‘Andy’ Samberg.
Schaffer was completing his sixth season at SNL in May of last year, putting the finishing touches on the aforementioned ‘Jack Sparrow’ short and beginning work on the Justin Timberlake/Lady Gaga ‘3-Way’ short that would play during the show’s finale when he let his agent know that he was planning to move on from SNL and focus on films. The original plan was to write an original screenplay to direct and, in preparation for the task, Schaffer asked to see any scripts that his agent felt were strong.
“I just wanted to read something good and remember what a good screenplay feels like,” the director says. The script for ‘The Watch’ (then titled ‘Neighborhood Watch’) had been floating around in various stages of development for a few years but had been treated to a pass by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg which took it from a PG-13 family film to and R-rated comedy.
Schaffer loved the script which he, at the time, was simply looking at for inspiration. To the director’s surprise, he found himself meeting with producer Shawn Levy and star Ben Stiller a few weeks later to talk about helming the comedy.
At that point he began to amass his cast; a crew that one can only imagine occasionally became a wee bit unruly. “The plus side was that we already had a strong script that everyone agreed to. We all felt that this was the movie we wanted to make,” Schaffer says. “But the only problem was that they also signed on because they wanted to work with each other. And so I would yell cut and then the gab fest would begin and it would be them just chatting all the time. And I’d be like, ‘okay, we’re gonna go again!’ And they’d just be chatting and not listening to me at all and then I’d say, ’rolling…and action!’ And then ‘ACTION’ a little louder because they’d still be on ‘oh, that’s a nice shirt! Where’d you get it? Where should we have drinks tonight?’ Basically I’d have to be the bad guy coming in to tell them to stop chatting.”
Schaffer, who has worked with many familiar faces for the vast majority of his career, joined with his Lonely Island cohorts for his feature film debut ‘Hot Rod’ and acted as an executive producer on ‘MacGruber’ which he refers to as Jorma’s ‘new Lonely Island with John Solomon and Will Forte.’ Schaffer, like many, loves ‘MacGruber’ and would be delighted to see Taccone helm a sequel. “I would do anything on that film,” he says. “I would do craft services if he could get that going.”
For ‘The Watch,’ his first foray into the world of science-fiction comedy, however, the director wanted to strike a balance between real sci-fi horror and broad comedy. “I wanted to make sure that the alien was actually scary, first of all,” Schaffer says. “I didn’t want it to be a comedy version of an alien. I wanted the whole movie to be grounded and real. I hired this company Legacy, who are the descendents of Stan Winston (designer of the ‘Alien’ alien), to do it. And it does have the elongated head like the one in ‘Alien’. I wanted an alien that wasn’t unlike any other alien that you’d ever seen before. So I went for kind of an updated classic. In a way he’s just like the scariest version of a cartoon alien, like the most generic version of an alien that you would draw with the big head and eyes and the skinny body. He’s kind of the realistic/frightening version of that.”
Indeed ‘The Watch’ has a few more scares than some movie goers may be expecting.
With ‘SNL’ behind him and an emphasis on movies ahead, Schaffer says the on-again-off-again ‘The Adventurers Handbook’ is still a possibility. The comedy was co-written by ‘The Watch’ co-star Jonah Hill who’s enjoyed a remarkable upswing in his career since the project began in 2009.
“I have been talking to the writers Matt Spicer and Max Winkler and Jonah, of course, about finding a new way to try and make it work again,” Schaffer says of the film. “It got very close last time and there were just too many scheduling problems. It’s another ensemble movie like ‘The Watch’ where you have a lot of conflicting schedules. We’d have to look at it again, but it’s definitely a possibility.”
‘The Bu”, The Lonely Island’s contribution to Dan Harmon (‘Community’) and Rob Schrab’s short film festival with and online arm, Channel 101, was a massive success and now that he is officially off late night television duty Schaffer may find himself taking a look at the emerging sketch makers that can be found there (and elsewhere on the webisphere). “I was so busy at SNL and that wasn’t my job there so I lost track of what anyone else was doing. I feel like now that I’m back in L.A. there’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to catch up on.”
Good news for up-and-coming comedians.
‘The Watch’ opens in theaters this Friday, Lonely Island fans will want to keep an eye out for a memorable cameo.