As one-third of The Lonely Island, the comedy collective behind the SNL Digital Shorts, Akiva Schaffer (along with confederates Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone) efficiently optimized “Saturday Night Live,” a flagging late night mainstay, into something vital and immediate. With the Digital Shorts format, placing an emphasis on music video rhythms and absurdity that bordered on the surreal, they re-contextualized the show into bite-size nuggets you could swap with friends or post on Facebook. But there’s more to Schaffer than “Jizz in My Pants” (although, honestly, if that was the only thing he directed that’d still be pretty awesome). After directing the little-seen cult comedy, “Hot Rod,” Schaffer is back in a big way with the superstar-filled sci-fi comedy “The Watch.” We talked to him about influences, movie stars, and that weird British guy on the poster.
The premise finds an ill-equipped and totally goofy foursome of suburban schlubs (led by Ben Stiller and including Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, and British import Richard Ayoade) banding together to form a neighborhood watch after a security guard is murdered in the Costco Stiller manages. Most of them use the neighborhood watch as an excuse to get away from their wives or families and drink beer, but a larger threat arises when they come in contact with alien creatures bent on Earth’s destruction (as they tend to do). It was this aspect that Schaffer really wanted to maintain, even amidst all the laughs.
“It’s a comedy first and foremost but it’s a genre comedy,” Schaffer explained. “And I wanted to be respectful of the genre. There’s a tendency in comedy where people go, ‘Yeah it’s an action comedy but people only care about the jokes so don’t worry about the action.’ ” To Schaffer, it was imperative that they avoid this mentality at all costs. “I wanted it to look and feel like a real sci-fi movie because I felt like, if it felt like a big real movie then the comedy would actually be funnier and it would make the whole thing feel more exciting.”
When it came to films that Schaffer wanted to evoke with “The Watch,” which does have some surprisingly sophisticated camerawork and visual effects for a movie where a bunch of dudes compare alien goo to semen, the references were varied. “A movie that had done that to great success is ‘Ghostbusters,’ ” Schaffer said. “And although there’s nothing specific that references ‘Ghostbusters,’ it’s more of the overall philosophy of ‘Ghostbusters’ – where (at the time) the ghosts look really good… But the movie genuinely told its story and the characters were very grounded.”
On the supernatural side of things, Schaffer set his sights just as high, taking inspiration from another all-time classic. “On the sci-fi side the big one was ‘Alien,’ just in terms of now naturalistic the characters were – it made everything so real,” Schaffer said. “The characters on that ship, that was their real life and their real jobs. They weren’t weird space people or anything, they were regular people who lived in that world.” And it’s true that “The Watch” does go to great lengths to stress and maintain the regularity of these guys, their small town lives and conflicts (and banter).
While Schaffer noted that “on an aesthetic level,” he was inspired by “everything from Spielberg, ‘E.T.,’ ‘Close Encounters,’ to new J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Super 8‘ and ‘Star Trek,’ ” the movie that most nerds, after seeing the trailer and other promotional materials from the film, seem to draw a connection to, is last summer’s “Attack the Block,” Joe Cornish‘s brilliant science fiction romp set in a rough inner city neighborhood in London. Turns out the connection is (almost) entirely coincidental.
At first Schaffer said that he hadn’t seen it before shooting, then took that back. “Actually, I saw it right before we started shooting,” Schaffer said. “I’m friends with Edgar [Wright, producer of ‘Attack the Block’] and he invited me to a screening where he did a Q&A and then we went to dinner afterwards and I quizzed him about the special effects and how things were accomplished. But this script was written four years ago.” Still, this was a period when the script was very much in flux and, given the movie’s bumpy production history (it was originally envisioned as a PG-13 romp directed by “Night at the Museum” auteur Shawn Levy), was anything but a sure thing. “It was rewritten and I read it for the first time in May, so the similarities between the movies are coincidental. And there really aren’t any similarities except the overall premise of regular people and an alien. So I understand when they bring it up, but beyond that – that’s where the similarities end. It’s in no way related.”
The naturalism that Schaffer pressed for came about, well, naturally, with the talented cast being very generous with their lines. “Everybody had an idea about what their character would and wouldn’t say,” Schaffer explained, noting that he tried to create an atmosphere where anything was possible. “We tried to have a very open set where anybody can pitch a joke to anybody. And it’s not like everybody keeps it to themselves. I tried to give the guys as many options as possible, so between a take I would give them options. Sometimes they’d go ‘Yeah!’ and do it and other times they wouldn’t do it. I didn’t take that personally.” This was based on something that he picked up from his many years at “Saturday Night Live.” “You learn, even at SNL, that the funniest scripts a lot of the time were written with the actor, because they know what makes people laugh,” Schaffer said. “It’s always going to be better if they own it.”
We wondered, though, if this emphasis on naturalism ran counter with the movie’s elaborate visual effects, which includes a number of slippery alien beings and a metallic orb that blows up stuff (including a cow). “That’s why we got Doug Jones and wanted to go with the practical alien instead of all CG,” Schaffer said. Jones, for those of you who have let your Fangoria subscriptions lapse, is a talented mime and actor best known for his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro (he portrayed The Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies). “I wanted them to have something real that they could interact with and see. I didn’t want them playing scenes where they were looking at a tennis ball on a stick. By putting Doug in the suit and in the scene we were able to keep a good flow going.” But the movie isn’t without its computer-generated embellishments. “In post I got to decide when to use CG or when to use a hybrid,” Schaffer said. “Where I would use a close-up of the alien safe which is the suit and then I would, in CG, make the eyes dilate.”
Given Schaffer’s background in short films, we wondered if he ever has trouble with the feature-length demands of the longer format. There’s a particularly wonderful sequence in the film towards the beginning when a Costco security guard parties around the warehouse, smoking weed, drinking, and watching “Wild Things” on a massive bank of flat-screen televisions. It felt very contained and spritely and, for lack of a better phrase, Digital Short-y.
When we told this to Schaffer, he shared that he hopes everything is part of a bigger picture. “I’m wary of that, too, because you never want to make it feel episodic,” Schaffer said. Still, it was all part of the process. “Sometimes I would try different cuts where I would make it feel more and less like that. I found that people really enjoyed it when it felt like a moment was happening, for instance that sequence with Antonio in the Costco. When I did just let it breathe there for a second and let him have fun around the store.” He boiled down the differences between the Digital Shorts and features as this: “You’re trying to tell an actual story that will hold your interest where in three minutes, none of that matters.”
Having seen “Mystery Men” and knowing all too well how disparate comedy styles can collide, we wondered how Schaffer juggled the different approaches of his comedians. “In terms of the individual voices it’s always difficult just when you have that many people, like how long the day is, because you have to have a camera on each one of them,” Schaffer said. “You have four people, all of a sudden you have to figure out how to manage the day and who to shoot first. But they were very generous with each other, making sure everybody got their jokes in.” He said that the largest hurdle was actually getting them to stay focused. “My biggest problem was actually in between takes they were gabbing with each other and it was really difficult to get them to fucking pay attention to me. That was the biggest challenge.”
We also had to wonder about Richard Ayoade, the British comedian (and writer/director of last year’s coming-of-age comedy “Submarine“), and how he fit into the milieu of high-powered American comedic talent. While describing Ayoade as “delightful,” Schaffer said, “He showed up like, ‘What am I doing here?’ He loved being there but he had no idea how he ended up there.” He then went into a little more depth: “Ben had been a producer of his on ‘Submarine’ and I had seen him on ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace‘ and I hadn’t seen [popular British workplace comedy] ‘IT Crowd‘ until we thought about him for the role and I watched it all in a weekend and called him and asked if he’d be interested…On his first day he said, ‘People are going to see the poster for this and think that I was a radio contest winner.’ ” Well, maybe. But after the movie they’re going to think: Who is that guy? He stole the show!
“The Watch” opens this Friday across the galaxy. Check out the outtakes trailer for the film below.