Before “The Last Man on Earth” premiered, very few people knew what to expect from the new Fox comedy. It appeared to be about exactly what the title suggested, only Will Forte’s “last man” was a slovenly, inventive goofball. Promos only showed him blowing up cars or making friends out of tennis balls (all balls, really). The actual plot was a mystery, which ended up adding to the level of intrigue around the show.
Letting an audience’s imagination sell a series is a dangerous ploy, and it takes a skilled team behind the camera to be as creative as the millions tuning in for Episode 1. The pilot didn’t disappoint, which speaks volumes to the vision of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The imaginative duo known for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street” and “The LEGO Movie” partnered with Forte to develop the story of Phil Miller — a character whose name is not so coincidentally a combination of the two directors’ first and last names — serving as executive producers on the first and second seasons.
With a successful Season 1 behind them and an Emmy nod under their belts, the two in-demand directors (signed on to helm the Han Solo “Star Wars” prequel as well as produce and write a bevy of other high profile projects) spoke with Indiewire about the challenges of telling a half-hour story with only one character, establishing an entire season in the same, brief time restriction and why viewers should be excited for Season 2.
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I really wanted to focus on the pilot of “Last Man on Earth,” because it felt like such an important moment for broadcast comedy. Obviously, that’s what you’re nominated for, so that’s a good reason to get into it.
PL: It’s a good coincidence.
[laughs] Exactly. Starting from the very beginning, when did you start developing the show?
We started a TV company with a deal with 20th Century Fox, and one of the first people we reached out to was Will because we’ve been long-time friends and we’ve worked together a little bit. We were massive fans of his voice and we said, “We want to do a show that has your voice.” Initially, he was just going to write it. We spent a few days batting ideas back and forth with him. We went to his house and threw out a bunch of ideas that we had, and he threw us some ideas that he had. We came upon one that was an idea in a slightly different form that we had had for a feature film — that was a post-apocalyptic film about how people don’t know how to do anything anymore. It would be a fairly useless apocalypse. He stuck to that and took it in his own direction and wrote up this treatment for what our first season would be, which is pretty much exactly what the show ended up being.
Phil Lord: Good answer, Chris.
When you were nailing down the story of the pilot itself, what was the brainstorming like when you were trying to come up with how to make this one-man show visually appealing? As directors, what kind of ideas did you come up with or throw out to make this really work?
You’ve hit on something important, which is watching one person for the better part of 22 minutes has the danger of being kind of boring, so we knew that the show had to be visually really compelling. The filmmaking had to carry your interest, a lot of the time. It wouldn’t necessarily be a lot of conversation, which is different than a lot of other shows out there. They sometimes minimize the visualization in order to facilitate writing, dialogue, riffing and stuff. One of the reasons we got so excited about doing it was that Will is really a silent comedian in a lot of ways, especially as a result of this show. It allowed us to be writing a kind of comedy that doesn’t normally get on television
. It allowed us to use some of our superpowers that we don’t always get to employ. Since we come from animation and that’s just a purely visual, movement-based medium, this episode allowed us to bring all of those things into harmony with one another.
You could really see it in the final product, but at the same time it didn’t immediately strike me as something that was directly similar to what you did with “21 Jump Street” and “22 Jump Street,” where you used extreme animation to illustrate some of the wilder and crazier moments. Instead, it was packed with memorable imagery. I was curious about how you came up with those individual stunts — crashing the cars into each other, rolling over the beer cans with a cement roller — and how you made sure they were all visually alluring.
CM: A lot of that stuff was in the script. Most of it comes from the stellar mind of Will Forte. You could give him the question, “What would you do if you could spend a day doing anything and no one could stop you?” And that’s the type of thing that he would do.
We would sometimes try to augment his thing — like he had the idea to do a margarita pool that he would sit in and drink from. We suggested that he add salt to the rim. But the craziness was his from the beginning. The show has a different pace than we normally do, and I think from the concept we wanted to make sure that we were highlighting the emptiness and loneliness, which meant a lot of wide shots and some lingering shots to just remind you of how alone he is in the world. The concept really dictated a lot of the staging.
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Some of the staging is kind of driven by the fact that so much of the performance is physical. That means you want to hold the camera still, so the movement of the actor is something you’re paying attention to; the way that you’re looking at a Fred Astaire movie or a Buster Keaton film or even a great dance film, like “Pennies From Heaven” or a big musical. We wanted to get out of the way of how funny it is to look at Will in a margarita pool.
Because so much of the humor is visual, it put much higher stakes on things like production design and costumes; how much garbage was in the pool behind him, and how many water bottles there were in his way to the bathroom. Those things suddenly started to matter a lot. That example in particular — that shot of him walking to the toilet — when we went up there before rehearsal, it just wasn’t funny. [both laugh] The only way to make it funny was to gather every single water bottle in the building and shove it in this room and suddenly it became a really interesting thing to just watch him make his way across the bottles. Something that seemed so simple turned into something that’s so weirdly thrilling and so rare for television.
All of those choices don’t have anything to do with the way broadcast TV works and has worked and worked well for a really long time. It was a big leap of faith on the part of the Fox execs to let us do something on TV with no other people.
How important sex and women were to Tandy, from the very beginning of the show, was something that really struck me as unique to this show and unique to broadcast TV, even though dating and relationships are a very common trope. To that end, when you were talking about setting up shots that establish his loneliness, one that stuck with me was when he drove by and saw the mannequin for the first time in his truck. It was a lingering shot that created a lot of sexual tension and set up his character really well.
In the script, it said that he passes by a mannequin shop and looks at it for various body parts. We wanted to play that lingering quality and [also] make sure that there was a silliness about it, at the same time, to make sure it didn’t get too creepy. When you’re putting yourself in his shoes, you could understand why he’s gone more basic and primal. It’s no longer about the pickiness of relationships anymore. Obviously, we knew where we were headed downstream for this season, and a big part of the middle of the season, was Phil/Tandy’s sexual frustration. The idea that we wanted to make sure that that was an aspect of the character and wasn’t something that came out of the blue in Episode 3 was important.
There’s a lot of trying to figure out how much or too much would make it be creepy for him to make out with a mannequin. There was a cut that was longer that we thought was funny, but we showed it to audiences, they did not laugh at all. [laughs] We realized that we had crossed some sort of imaginary line that I don’t quite know where it goes from being stupid to creepy. We probably crossed that line during the season a few times, but we were trying to do something really crazy.
That shot that you’re talking about in the car when he’s driving past the mannequin shop? It’s kind of like a very classic trope of a guy taking a second look at a girl and catching her eye, like, in the mall or something. But because of the kind of show it is and what’s going on, the interpretation of that is like, “Oh, now he’s driving around in this truck with no shirt on,” and you’re not doing that on your feet anymore. What I like about the show is that it feels like things that are familiar in their bones, but the situation that they’re happening in is so strange that it feels really refreshing.
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Finding that line between having empathy for this man — who is completely alone, trying to figure out a way through the world, and later on when he crosses a few lines — became such an important part of making this show work. I think a big part of that was to make Phil suicidal by the end of the pilot. Why was that decision so crucial to include in the pilot?
PL: We wanted to put that guy up as the most desperate person possible. It also seems like the logical conclusion of being completely by yourself. You’re going to go crazy. There’s no point to your existence anymore, and life isn’t worth living. That was Forte’s impulse from the beginning, was that this guy’s got to get that love. It really is an advantage because you forgive a lot of ills because of that choice. And then also, you want to start the character in the most extreme desperate position possible. It’s a really nice counterpoint to going from wanting to die to meeting somebody that makes you want to kill yourself. [laughs] I think that I just like that the show is on that kind of an extreme. It’s basically taking things of that we all experience and heightening them.
CM: There was another thing that we talked about a lot, which was that we wanted later in the season to show why he doesn’t leave the group. When people don’t like him and they’re putting him in uncomfortable situations, he could always just leave and go on his own, but we know what happens to him when he’s on his own and how dark of a place he goes to. So it was sort of setting up the stakes for him to why he needs to be a part of this community, as part of the story.
Can you talk a little bit about having so much creative freedom in the premise? There’s such an opportunity for the show, along with high expectations going into Season 2. As developers/executive producers/directors, what have you thought of for the future and maybe wrote off in the past?
The first thing [Forte] wrote, his first draft of the pilot, had the car bowling scene in it, and that’s something that stood out to us as, “This is what the show should be!” This big, visual whimsy moment and taking the concept that he can do whatever he wants and go wherever he wants and no one’s going to stop him from this. A lot of Will’s fantasies involved destruction. [laughs] That’s sort of a running theme for him. There’s more. We loved it so much that there was a lot of brainstorming with us and the writing staff about what we would do. We ended up being constrained a little bit by time and money, which people always are — time of the actual show running time and shooting time. As we’re working on the second season right now, a big directive we all had was to really make sure we take as much full advantage as we can, and open up the show as much as possible and take advantage of the concept and go more places and do more big, visual, whimsical things. We’re definitely doing that. So get ready.
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