When Will Forte first appeared on “Saturday Night Live” as MacGruber in January 2007, few knew that a little over three years later, the bumbling character would be joining a rather exclusive club along with The Blues Brother, Wayne’s World and The Coneheads as one that proved popular enough to warrant a feature-length film.
In fact, MacGruber is the first SNL character to make the transition to movies since Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man, and it’s a far smoother transition thanks to the efforts of Forte, co-writer and director Jorma Taccone and co-writer John Solomon. Although Forte had key roles in the last couple of Broken Lizard movies, MacGruber marks his debut as a leading man, while Taccone’s experiences mainly revolve around his work with The Lonely Island, who make all of those great “SNL Digital Shorts” each week. (They also had a failed movie called Hot Rod a few years back.)
The movie is a stand-alone story that has MacGruber returning to active duty after the murder of his fiancée ten years earlier by Val Kilmer’s villainous Dieter Von Cunth. When MacGruber learns his arch-foe has gotten his hands on a nuclear weapon, he decides to assemble a crack-team of experts to take him down, but just like with everything else, MacGruber’s inept incompetence tends to do more damage than good.
Having seen James Franco’s documentary Saturday Night, which goes behind the scenes of the late night mainstay, we already were familiar with what went into creating the show each week. By most standards, it would be deemed completely insane. To even get as far as airing on the show, a sketch like “MacGruber” would have to endure a week-long series of pitches, late night writing sessions, a table read and a tough system that weeds down the show to just eight or nine final sketches.
That was an interesting precursor to seeing MacGruber, especially realizing how fast and cheaply the movie had to be made compared to most big action movies, and it made us interested in talking with Taccone and Forte about how they used that energy in the making of their movie.
First, we start with the film’s director and co-writer Jorma Taccone, who was nice enough to give us the rundown on how the idea of MacGruber first came about and what was involved with turning it into a big action movie on a shoestring budget:
ComingSoon.net: It seems like this movie was announced and made really quickly. Didn’t you just start making it a year ago?
Jorma Taccone: Yeah, literally. Like, honestly I think it was to the day it’s 14 months now, so it was really fast.
CS: I just saw James Franco’s movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet.
Taccone: I haven’t seen it yet. It was in South By Southwest the day after I left. Will got to see it. He was there and Akiva, my writing partner in the Lonely Island, and he’s a producer on this movie, or executive producer, but he saw it and was on the panel the next day, so I was really bummed I didn’t get to see it.
CS: I had to leave before “MacGruber” played there, but I couldn’t get in to see “Saturday Night” because it was such a long line, so I saw it at Tribeca instead.
CS: Having seen the inner workings of the show and how it gets written, was the original “MacGruber” one of those things that just came out of that process of writing the show? Did you and Will get together to write and this is what came out of it?
Taccone: The original pitch was–you’ve seen the movie now, so you kind of have a gauge of what our week is like–Our Monday is pitching ideas to a wildly famous host, whoever it is. The cast and writers and producers all get into Lorne’s office and it’s tiny, it’s like the size of this room basically. Everybody gets in this room, 40 people or whatever the hell, and they’re all sitting there and you’re just pitching ideas while everybody else listens to your idea. So I’m very bad at pitching something. I just can’t get the logic out of it ever or something. So my original pitch for that week was… I don’t know if it was the Lance Armstrong show or whatever it was – but my original pitch was MacGyver’s stepbrother MacGruber who diffuses bombs only using pubic hair and pieces of dog feces, and every time he asks one of his assistants to hand him one of the items that he needs, nobody wants to touch anything. So it got a huge groan from everyone in the room. Then my next pitch was a commercial parody for a new kind of chunky mayonnaise. So, both of my pitches failed miserably. (Laughs) Everyone’s like, “Oh God, shut up!” Then it was another four weeks of me repitching it to Will and saying, “Come on, think we should do this MacGruber thing.” Then we kinda figured out the format of it always happens in threes. They’re really short little pieces and they happen really fast, too. I was really glad that once it went to the table read on Wednesday, it did really well, the first one, which was the Jeremy Piven episode, and it was this faux dramatic situation, this bomb taking down. So we went from there of this kinda stupid pitch about this guy with the crassness of the pubic hair and that sorta stuff into just liking this character and doing it over and over with different things in his life that are causing him to spiral outta control, whether it’s alcoholism or whether it’s just flat-out racism. He’s always having something in his life that’s causing him to sorta spiral outta control while he’s trying to diffuse bombs.
CS: Did you always have Will in mind to play the character or did Will just show more interest and have more ideas to bring to the character?
Taccone: I was such a fan of Will’s before I got to “Saturday Night Live.” I met him about a year before, because we wrote with John Solomon on the MTV Movie Awards and through John, I sorta met Will. I’m such a fan of his on the show because I love sketches like The Falconer and it was really cool to get hired on the show and then be able to write Falconer’s with him because the two guys who created The Falconer left, so he needed somebody to write with. So I got to write The Falconer with Will and a bunch of other crazy sketches because he always tends to have this stuff at the end of the show which is the craziest part of the show. That tends to be a little bit more my sensibility as well.
CS: You also write music and make the “SNL Digital Shorts” on a weekly basis and it would seem that and doing the MacGruber spots would be the most time-consuming things.
Taccone: Yeah, the Digital Shorts have gotten a little bit… not by design or anything, but we tend to do them later and later in the week now. So if we’re on top of it, then we shoot on Thursday and we edit on Friday. Most of the time, we shoot on Friday and finish on Friday, and then edit up until the moment of the show, like those Betty White MacGrubers? Literally, I got done shooting those at like 6 p.m. on Friday and then edited it up until the moment that they aired. We were literally playing our little Final Cut system, it was going into the computer as it was being broadcast.
CS: Do you share the directing duties on the shorts? How does that work?
Taccone: Yeah, the MacGrubers are kinda my own thing, just because it something I created and then was allowed to direct and I edit all of them. We edit all of them ourselves then John Solomon has directed some of the MacGrubers as well. He did the Shia LaBeouf one and the one with Jonah Hill, but the Shia LaBeouf one is one of the funniest ones. It’s hilarious. It’s about his gay son who he’s trying to deal with his own homophobia. But we write ‘em all together, so it’s a tremendous amount of work because those things, they’re like 18 pages long and then we compress them into these tiny little packages of a minute and a half or what not. To shoot 18 pages is tough in this short amount of time and then edit it all. Just the sheer amount of footage it takes, and then the digital shorts are the same way. We shot for two days just last week on this one that we did, it was a musical about a guy who’s on cocaine.
CS: I loved that, that was great.
Taccone: Yeah, so when the three of us are together, me and Akiva, we’ll share a directing credit, and one of us will kinda take the reins sorta thing, then we switch off when one of us has to go to the bathroom or something like that. (laughs)
CS: So did Lorne (Michaels) first throw out the idea of doing a “MacGruber” movie or did you guys already have some more ideas that wouldn’t really work in the sketch format?
Taccone: We’ve just gotten so lucky through the whole process with MacGruber. I know Lorne’s always really liked MacGruber as a character. He’s been a huge champion of the project in general, but Pepsi came to the show and said, “Hey, there’s this opportunity for a Pepsi commercial.” This is a couple of years ago… when was it? I don’t remember.
CS: Last year, 2009, right?
Taccone: Yeah, was it? Oh my God, that’s crazy. It wasn’t even that long ago. So they came to the show and were like, “Maybe we could do something with a Super Bowl commercial.” He just came to us and was like, “Hey, do you want to maybe do this as a MacGruber thing?” We’d always wanted to do a MacGruber where he sells out so we basically wrote it on spec, shot it on spec and didn’t have any notes from anybody and just presented it to them like, “Hey, is this something you like?” We were just really lucky that it even aired in the Super Bowl, then it was a really high rated Super Bowl (commercial) too. Everybody was watching it because it was the fourth quarter and it was a really close game, so after that, it seemed like it was sorta in the ether of like, “Oh, maybe this could be a movie. People’ve heard of it now.” We’d made a bunch of sketches and a lot of people went and watched “SNL” because of it. It just kind of became this thing of, “Well, maybe this could make it.” Then in the same way, Lorne came to us and was like, “Hey, maybe there’s some interest for a MacGruber movie. You guys want to write a script?” At first we were like, “Oh, what would it be exactly? We only have this character who blows up after how many seconds. That’s not really a movie.” That kind of became a blessing in disguise and we just knew that we had a character that we really liked who was this tremendously flawed individual who is somehow lovable throughout all of his horrible flaws and narcissism, so we were able to sorta take this character that we loved and then stick him in a genre movie. We were all such huge fans of “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” and all the action movies from the ’80s. We really wanted it to be sort of an homage to those kinda movies, including “Beverly Hills Cop” actually. So that’s what we set out to do, and it was really fun to plug this character who maybe shouldn’t be cast in an action movie in an ’80s action film with high body counts and lots of cursing and sex and nudity and all this sort of stuff. So, yeah, so that was it.
CS: I heard the movie was made really cheap for $10 million or something really insane for a movie like this because all the movies you were inspired by were all huge big-budget movies.
Taccone: Yeah, that was one of the biggest things for us was trying to have the world be as big as one of those movies, because they go all over the world and the character’s larger than life. He’s thought of as this super badass sort of thing in a classic ’80s movie.
CS: Did you have to keep that in mind while writing it though?
Taccone: Yeah, I mean, you definitely had to think on your feet in terms of what the production budget was, especially because it was 28 days to shoot it, so it was really fast. It always slows you down when you have explosions and safety precautions and automatic weapons on set. The kinda speed that you have to have while trying to be safe on set, but it just made it really exciting. We occasionally would have to think on our feet and be like, “Well, we can’t get this shot. Let’s make this a walk and talk on a steadicam,” just because we had to constantly be adjusting. It’s funny, because when we wrote the original script it was like 175 pages long, even though we wrote it in probably five weeks, but stuff we took out were like helicopter battles and stuff that you probably wouldn’t be able to do even if the budget was doubled.
CS: Did you guys just throw any idea possible into this thing while writing it?
Taccone: Basically. As I said, because we had this opportunity of having this character we liked. We never expected to be able to make a movie, so when given the opportunity to write it, we just decided to write whatever we wanted. The only stuff that we really scaled back was stuff that was outrageously expensive, but we really tried to keep that vibe of an action movie that you had big shootouts and all that sorta stuff.
CS: You really captured the look of those movies from the ’80s and ’90s, too, so did you just find a DP who worked on them to do this movie?
Taccone: We all lived together in Albuquerque me, Will Forte, John Solomon and our DP Brandon Trost who’s a young DP who’s amazing. When I first sat down with Brandon and I started talking about movies, it was all “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” and then he was like, “Yeah, and ‘RoboCop!’” Then we just sorta realized we had the exact same kinda sensibility. So anytime it was an exterior scene that we would wet down the street and we’d always do that, and
anytime it was an interior we smoked it up as much as possible no matter whether there should be smoke or not. That works out really well for the love scenes, but it’s crazy. You go back and look at “Lethal Weapon” and you’re like, “Why is there so much smoke in this parking lot?” There’s smoke in every scene (laughs), it just makes it look cool. That’s really what we were going for.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of preparation? When did you shoot this, last summer?
Taccone: We shot it from August 10th to September 13th.
CS: Did you have to spend a lot more time preparing stuff once you figured it out?
Taccone: No, that’s the other thing about it, we had six weeks of preptime which is a tremendously short amount of time to prep a movie, too. So everything was kinda by the seat of our pants, but it kind of created a feeling of anything goes, and I think you can kinda see that in the film. I’m hoping that people can see that it doesn’t look like we held anything back. The movie is extremely rated R; it’s some of the things that I think you would not expect an “SNL” comedy to be.
CS: There is a stigma about movies that come out of “SNL” sketches, as I’m sure you know. There’s always the skepticism of how they’re going to make a sketch work as a movie? But you guys didn’t really try to make a movie out of the sketch.
Taccone: No, we just sorta threw out the sketch.
CS: Where do you go from here, because once you make a movie with this character it seems kinda hard to go back to just doing sketches with him again, doesn’t it?
Taccone: What’s funny is that I sort of love doing the sketches too, and I love the format of it. It was interesting actually after having made the movie and the movie looking so much better than I think people probably expected it to, then sort of deciding when we go back to the sketches, like we did a sketch with Charles Barkley where MacGruber is revealed to be quite a racist. That was our first one back really. Did we do another one, too? Maybe we did another one. I can’t remember. But it was this conscious decision of like, “No, these are two completely separate worlds. The sketch should look like a sketch and the movie should look like the movie.”
CS: So do you know what you’re going to do on break now that you’ve finished the movie and finished “SNL” for the season? Do you have anything else planned in the long form?
Taccone: I think we’re gonna try to make another album. I know we want to try to write something for ourselves as well.
CS: How long does it take to make those albums? Are you doing them in between or on summer break?
Taccone: No, we did them on summer break. The last one we did was over the course of like two and a half months, so we do them pretty quickly because we have to. I mean, everything is related to the show and when you have to be back to the show.
CS: Are you going to continue the Digital Shorts once the season starts back up again?
Taccone: We hope so. It’s interesting. We keep cramming everything into our summer vacation, and “MacGruber,” literally we were done shooting it like September 13th and we flew back and literally went straight to Rockefeller and started working on (the show). I didn’t even go home.
CS: It seemed like a pretty insane schedule in general.
Taccone: Oh yeah, it’s crazy.
Next, we have our interview with Will Forte, which we did roughly half an hour later in a different room… though it did look a lot like Jorma’s, only if they had been having a dinner party in it just before we arrived.
ComingSoon.net: I talked to Jorma already and he gave me the rundown of how this came about and how his pitch originally failed. It’s funny seeing Saturday Night and seeing what goes into doing the show each week, which is just insane to me, that kind of fast, compressed everything.
Will Forte: Yeah, and that kind of energy went into the creation of this movie basically, because a lotta the stuff we were forced to write during a couple of production weeks as well. We had very little time to write the movie, so we really started to get exhausted and I think that that actually made us go a little insane and we went maybe to some crazier places than you’d normally go. Then every other step of the way we were just so exhausted through the whole process, but we were never able to really become sane enough to realize we shouldn’t. (Laughs) It was all very… but I mean, we love it all, and we’re happy that we were so exhausted because I think that that really enabled us to go to some places that we never woulda gone to without it.
CS: You don’t have time to second guess or overthink stuff because you’re working that fast.
Forte: Exactly, and there was a lot of stuff that we’d over think and some really crazy stuff where we kept thinking somebody will come in and say, “You cannot do that. You just cannot do that.” (laughs) That point never came. There were so many places where it could’ve during the writing process, during the filming, during the editing, and we kept looking at each other like, “Is somebody gonna make us take that out?” It never happened. They gave us so much creative freedom, and we really got to do whatever the heck we wanted to, and that made it such an enjoyable process. I think you can see that on the screen when you watch it.
CS: This was done fairly independently and low budget though, right?
Forte: Yeah, it was relatively low budget for an action movie especially, which was great because for that amount of money they would let us kinda call a lotta the shots. I haven’t done a ton of movies, but I’ve certainly never been in this kind of creative situation where we really were able to make the movie we wanted to make.
CS: Were you able to learn anything from doing the Broken Lizard movies? They have the same kind of thing where they make their movies relatively cheap and have a lot of freedom. Did working with them have any kind of influence on making this movie?
Forte: Well, I love those guys. They’re sweet guys and it’s so fun to do parts in their movie, but I haven’t been with them throughout the whole process, so I get to see how they interact with one another, but I’ve never seen them in the writing process, so I don’t know how it really compares. I’ve been in two of their movies one I was only there for two days and one, it was a three-week chunk and I know they had filmed for probably five or six weeks. So, yeah, I don’t know how it compares, but I do know they have a lotta fun when making their movies and they still work very hard, but they also make sure to have fun while doing it, and that’s something that felt similar was that we were working our tails off, but still really enjoying ourselves and I think that that comes across also in the movie. You can tell it is a labor of love and we’re having fun.
CS: What about the stigma, which I’m sure you must’ve at least one point heard about, how can an “SNL” sketch be turned into a movie? There were obviously many sketch characters that didn’t really work when they went to a movie. When Lorne threw the idea out, was it like, “Well, we have this joke that works really well in this format?” Or, did you guys already have ideas of how you might want to take the character if you had more time with him?
Forte: I don’t think we ever could’ve envisioned this being a movie, but when he approached us, we also thought it would be crazy for us to not at least think about it. This is a wonderful opportunity. We started coming up with all these really fun ideas that you could never do on the show, but in the context of a very R-rated movie, you could do. Yeah, we had so much fun. I think a lotta people think that this is gonna be the “SNL” sketch over and over and over again for 90 minutes in that little room diffusing bombs. It’s nothing like that. I think people will be very pleasantly surprised by what it actually is.
CS: You put a nice twist on it too. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a nice twist on what you do in the sketch in the movie.
Forte: Oh, thanks. It sucked because you do get tied to “SNL” movies and sometimes that’s a good thing and people have good experiences with “SNL” movies, sometimes that can be a bad thing if they are thinking of the ones that they didn’t like so much. Every movie that has come out of “SNL” has been done by a completely different creative team, so it’s not like, “Oh, the same team is making this movie,” it’s really kind of unfair to judge our movie based on these other movies that we have no connection to.
CS: That might just be from the older and more cynical people like me, because the people who watch the show now who are 18 or 19, they probably weren’t around when those other movies came out.
Forte: Well, it feels like for people who maybe don’t have the best feelings about “SNL” movies, it’s really tough because you feel like you’re not getting a fair shake; they’ve almost pre-reviewed the movie.
CS: Right, that’s what I’m saying, yeah.
Forte: It’s too bad, because we’ve been screening the movie around the country and the screenings have been going very, very well. So, we just hope that people give it a shot because we love the movie and really are proud of it, and it turned out exactly how we wanted it to.
CS: One of the best things about the movie… I can’t remember who I was talking to, but they said that the best comedies are those that are just so full of jokes that you don’t have time to think about other stuff ’cause you’re laughing so hard, and this movie is kind of like that.
Forte: Oh, thanks. I mean, there are a lot of different types of jokes in here, and sure, there’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty dirty and we take full advantage of that R-rating, too much advantage.
CS: The love scene is hilarious.
Forte: Oh, thank you very much.
CS: Obviously I’ve seen those old movies and seen those love scenes so many times and that was also a nice twist on it.
Forte: Oh yeah, that was really fun to do for me, maybe not so much for Kristen. (Laughs)
CS: Did you realize you’d be doing so much nudity in this movie when you started making it or did it just become a case where once you started you just couldn’t stop?
Forte: Well, I was one of the writers of the movie, so I guess I kinda put myself in that position but yeah, I don’t think my parents knew how much of my own nudity. There is quite a bit of nudity in the movie and it’s not really nudity that you’re excited to see (laughs)… nudity that’s kind of forced upon you.
CS: It’s one thing to write “MacGruber sticks a stalk of celery in his ass” and another to actually go and do it. You must’ve realized you’d have to eventually do all this stuff that you were writing.
Forte: Not just do it, but have your mom on the set that day. Except for when we wrote it, she was there for every other step of the process. She happened to be there with two of her friends. They were somewhat appalled. Then she was there at the screening at South By Southwest. The screening went very well, so I think that helped her to get over it. She was like, “Oh, okay now I see why my son was putting a piece of celery in his butt.” But if the reception of the joke had not been as great, she’d probably been more upset that I’m disgracing the family name. (Laughs)
CS: I want to ask about Val Kilmer and Ryan Phillippe. Val hasn’t done a straight comedy in a while, though he did “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” with Shane Black…
Forte: Yeah, “Real Genius” and “Top Secret.” I’ve always known what an awesome comedic actor he was. Then he started doing more and more serious stuff, but geez, even his role in “Tombstone” is just so nuanced and brilliant. There’s a comedy to it as well, like God, that’s one of my favorite roles that I’ve seen anybody do in a movie was his “Tombstone,” his Doc Holliday. So it was such a thrill to get to work with him. He’s a guy that I’ve admired for a long time. I was also a big “Doors” fan, and I remember he did such a good Jim Morrison, and his voice, his singing in that movie was so good.
CS: Did you see the Doors doc “When You’re Strange” yet? You should try to see it, it’s really good.
Forte: Yeah, I was just a huge Doors guy.
CS: If you’re a big Doors fan, that’s the movie you should see. It’s amazing. They have all this footage you’ve never seen before.
Forte: Oh really?
CS: Yeah, stuff that no one’s ever seen before.
Forte: I can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet, yeah.
CS: Well, you’re been busy doing “SNL” and this movie for the last few months.
Forte: Yeah. (Laughs)
CS: After seeing James Franco’s movie I could never again at least not appreciate the amount of work that goes into the show.
Forte: They sent me many months ago kind of an unfinished version of it. My father I had told him all the time about what the week is like and all my family has heard me tell the stories about it, but this was the was the first time that he was able to see it and it really sunk in sank in… Sunk in? Sunk in.
CS: Don’t worry, my copy editor will make sure it’s right.
Forte: Too much coffee, too little food today. (Laughs) I mean, he was able to see… it really shows how much work goes into the week in a way that you really get it. Those weeks are so intense and grueling at the show that you need those weeks off to recuperate mentally and physically. But for the last year, every second that we haven’t been working on the show we’ve been working on “MacGruber” so…
CS: Do you have any idea what you’re going to do during the break?
Forte: I want to go and relax. I want to hit some beach somewhere and just pass out for a couple months.
CS: Do you think Kristen will return the favor and put you in her movie?
Forte: I would love to be in anything with Kristen. She is the funniest person on earth. She is such a delightful person because she could do it all. She could be super subtle, she could be really over the top. It’s like in baseball there is the five-tool player. She is comedy’s five-tool player. She’s comedy’s Willie Mays.
CS: Do you have any idea what you’re going to do now? Do you feel this is the start of doing bigger projects or writing feature films? Or are you just too busy to think about that?
Forte: It’s so hard with our schedule to ever look into the future. You learn to deal with the immediate, so it’s gonna be fun to sit down and just relax for a while after this. But yeah, I would love to have more opportunities to write and act. My first love is writing, so to be able to act in stuff that I have a part in writing is really a dream come true, but if that situation ever goes away and the acting stuff dries up, my first love is writing, I’d got back to that and I’m delighted.
MacGruber opens everywhere on Friday, May 21.