Akiva Schaffer, director of “The Watch,” knows very to apply the group dynamic to comedy.
As a member of the sketch comedy troupe The Lonely Island, Schaffer teamed with pals Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone to create some of the funniest and most memorable memes to hit the airwaves and the Internet in the past several years, crafting “Saturday Night Live’s” SNL Digital Shorts – including “Lazy Sunday,” “I Just Had Sex,” “Natalie’s Rap,” “Dick in a Box,” “I’m On a Boat” and “The Creep.”
Thus Schaffer made for a natural choice to oversee and fine-tune the comedy collaboration of superstars Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and Vince Vaughn, as well as rising star Richard Ayoade playing members of a ill-prepared neighborhood watch team which stumbles upon a local crisis of intergalactic proportions. Schaffer cast a flashlight on his filmmaking process for PopcornBiz.
What part of your skill set that you already had, had you covered on this? And on what did you really have to get up to speed to prepare yourself to tackle a feature of this scale?
Schaffer: I was up to speed on a lot of comedy stuff: jokes, things like that. I was up to speed on camera stuff, for the most part, I would say. As much as anybody would be who hadn't done a big-time movie. Because I had done so many shorts and they had all been different genres, really. They're all comedy, but doing a version of a comedy that mixes with genre I had a lot, from a technical standpoint, of making it feel like from an editing standpoint or a music standpoint, special effects – I had done a lot of stuff with shorts. In the category of new stuff was the big CG alien-y stuff. I had never really worked with real computer graphics. And we did a practical guy with animatronics that Doug Jones played – he was in a real suit – I hadn't done anything with that. And just the planning that it takes to storyboard and all that I hadn't really done before – pre-visualization. And then the ensemble: at 'SNL' we have an ensemble, but everybody's just part of the cast, and then you have one person that's the host that you kind of cater around. And having an ensemble of big actors was interesting, just in terms of the scheduling and even the mini-scheduling of the day, of like, 'All right, well, he's got to do all these lines, and he's got to do all these lines, and how to not have one of them waiting in their trailer for eight hours?’ With other movies where you only have one or two big stars, it's easier to just make sure that they get taken care of. Whereas this, there's nobody that you want to leave waiting – But there's too many of them. Somebody's going to wait.
I'm guessing that by the time you do 'SNL' live it's pretty tight. Everybody knows what they're going to do. This one, I imagine, in the moment you were able to be a little looser, and you were working with some of today’s great improv comedians.
Right. 'SNL' is not exactly – I wouldn't call it tight, because lots of times there is new stuff written between dress and air that you've never literally said the words out loud and you say it for the first time out loud on air. But at least two minutes beforehand you can read a cue card and think 'These are the lines I'm going to say...’ Whereas, yes, on this it was great to be able to be like, 'All right, we did three or four. It's written. We have it. Let's try it another way.' And then eventually I would just be like, 'Free one!' and it would be like, 'You don't even have to say a single word that's written. Just do anything.'
How much fun did you have with the film’s mayhem? Did you find yourself getting really into blowing stuff up?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's part of really what attracted me to the movie. Not explosions literally, but the idea of comedies generally you might get to play with a funny outfit or a wig or something, but beyond that you have to be pretty standard, and usually they're lit up a certain way and all that. So it's pretty fun to get to do one – which is what I got to do on the shorts a lot. The shorts kept my interest because I could go, 'Oh, this week let's do a weird one that's kind of like a suspense film for no reason.' In the same way it's like, coming from a filmmaker's standpoint, the comedy is great but I get to also not light everything super-bright. I get to make things dark and use smoke, and have people shoot something from the ground. Things that you're not allowed to do in a comedy normally, which was really fun.
Were you taken by surprise by just how popular the ‘SNL’ Digital Shorts became? Because it seemed like one day you guys were fooling around and then the next day – Bam! Huge.
Definitely the difference between the day before 'Lazy Sunday' and the day after was awesome.
How quickly did Hollywood start courting you to do something large-scale like this?
Something at this level I still had to go after a little bit. With this level of stars and this level of a budget, I still had to go like, 'Hey – I'm interested'. And I was in New York, so phone calls with the studio and the producers and eventually a two-hour lunch with Ben Stiller, because he was already attached. This was not just a, 'Do you want to do it?' 'Okay, I'll do it.' It wasn't that. It was me reading it and then my agent going, 'Hey, if you are interested you should let me know and I'll tell them you're interested. And you'll go on the list of people they're considering.' But I did 'Hot Rod', the other movie I did pretty much, because Lorne was doing it, of course. I don't think a random person would have done it, but basically after 'Lazy Sunday', a month later we were signed on to do that movie. I don't think somebody else in Hollywood would have been like, 'I saw one short thing. Here you go. Direct the movie.' Which was great. It was awesome.
What was the key lesson from ‘Hot Rod’ that you brought over?
Oh, man, one key lesson is hard. I was 26 when we did that movie and we'd just gone from being unemployed in credit-card debt, to getting the show, to a movie. The main thing that frustrated me on that movie was the schedule. Because you had to do it like we had money. We could've even shot a couple more days but we stopped hard because it was time to go back to work at 'SNL'. And at the time that was so frustrating to me because I was just like, 'What? This is a movie.' You know what I mean? And I think I still took that lesson. Like, better to maybe not make something right away and wait until you're ready to make it. But I will say, the other lesson – which is one Lorne is more in favor of – is really true: if you wait until you're ready, you'll never do it. And at a certain point you've got to jump in and trust in your team and everybody around that we're all going to figure out how to, you know, that you're rewriting on the set. Even if you think you're ready, once you get to set and you try the scene you might be rewriting anyways to make it work, so you'll never know when you're ready. So you just got to give yourself the best tools and jump in. But on this one, even the script I read, in the very first draft that I read, which was still the Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] draft in May, I read it and went, 'Oh, this is pretty good already.' So I felt more confident going in.
Do you and Andy have a couple film projects that you have in various stages now that he's a little more free?
Schaffer: We have a few things, but nothing that I feel like is our next thing. Me, him and Jorma [Taccone] really want to figure out something to do together next, because we've all kind of gone and done [something] – Jorma did 'MacGruber'. Andy did the Sandler movie and the one with Rashida Jones, 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'. So we're hoping to come back together now because in a week, for the first time in over a year, I'm free. And so I'm hoping that they are free, as well.