If you're a regular viewer of Saturday Night Live, you're likely well aware of the recurring MacGruber sketches, which feature Will Forte as a ridiculous MacGyver-esque hero who always ends up getting blown up. They're simple but usually hilarious little sketches, and a version was even made for last year's Superbowl featuring Richard Dean Anderson as his classic character, MacGyver. Last summer, however, the seemingly unthinkable happened, and the concept was green-lit for a feature film.
While there have been many SNL sketches turned into feature films over the years, few have been successful, and only two (The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World) have been bona fide hits. Some have been funny, but for whatever reason didn't catch on with audiences (I personally loved The Ladies Man), while others have been a bit painful to watch. So with a decade past since the last sketch-to-feature being made, why make one now with a character as crazy as MacGruber?
The main reason must fall to the team involved in creating MacGruber for Saturday Night Live and for the big screen: writer/star Will Forte, writer John Solomon, and writer/director Jorma Taccone. Taccone, who helped re-work the script for Hot Rod (along with his Lonely Island buddies Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer) and also starred in last summer's Land of the Lost opposite Will Ferrell, took the time earlier this week to speak to me about how the MacGruber movie came about, his experiences helming his first feature, and what people should expect from the film (probably not what you think).
Paul Little: Can you explain your original pitch for the MacGruber sketch, and can you believe that it's gone from that pitch into now releasing a feature film featuring the character?
Jorma Taccone: The original pitch was actually for one of our hosts. I don't know whether it was Lance Armstrong or who it was but it was for the host to play MacGyver's step-brother MacGruber, who defuses bombs using only pieces of sh*t and pubic hair. So anytime he asks one of his assistants to hand him an item, nobody wants to touch anything that he's asking for. So it was an insanely stupid pitch and it got a huge groan from everyone in the room. And I think my second pitch that week was a commercial parody for a new kind of chunky mayonnaise. So both of my pitches got huge groans from the room, and then it took me like three weeks of re-pitching it to Will [Forte] and try to coerce him into writing it with me. Obviously it ended up being Will playing MacGruber, and I'm very glad it was, 'cause he's hilarious in it. A lot of our digital shorts, we write and sort of just execute on our own, but all the MacGrubers go through our whole table process where we submit them on Wednesday, it goes through table-read, and then we shoot them usually on Thursday or Friday. Even when it became a Pepsi commercial for the Superbowl, that was flabbergasting as well, 'cause we did that entirely on spec, thinking it would never work and that they'd never allow us to do an ad where we keep mentioning that he's a sellout for being in the ad in general. So it's been an awesome experience doing MacGruber just overall. I guess we're around our 9th including the Pepsi commercials, and so to have it go from that one pitch to now a feature film is crazy.
PL: Part of that, I guess, is Will himself being pretty much one of the most hilarious people I've ever seen. How do you keep it together directing someone like that, because from the R-rated trailers that I've seen, there's some crazy stuff taking place in the movie.
JT: There's definitely some biting of your hands going on. You know, we try to keep our video village, where you're watching things from, at least a good 20 feet away so we don't ruin takes with laughter. Ryan Phillippe, who's in the movie and has to play this straight man, often times would be digging his nail into his fingers as hard as he could so he wouldn't laugh. And I occasionally had to do the same sort of thing, like biting of my hand, 'cause there's some stuff that Will does that's hilarious -- and a lot of stuff that we can't even put in trailers, 'cause 90% of the movie is so R-rated. So that's how you cope.
PL: You mentioned Ryan. Your whole cast is pretty incredible. Even if it was a straight action film, I think it'd be a pretty awesome cast. How did you manage to get guys like Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, and Powers Boothe?
JT: Well we were really lucky 'cause we were really happy with the first draft of our script. You know we obviously made tweaks to it because the first draft was incredibly long. At the table-read, we were really excited to just sort of write whatever it was that made us laugh and so we were really proud of the script, and it went out to a bunch of people just to possibly be for the table-read. And Ryan read it and Val read it, and both of those guys immediately sort of wanted to be involved just based on the script. So it was really that, and it's continued to be that, because those guys were perfect at the table and we absolutely knew we wanted to get them but didn't think we'd be able to, because the budget of the movie's fairly low. So it's more out of love that people got involved. We really just got lucky, and we're glad that people thought the script was so funny. And it was a really awesome first table-read. Val was I think reading his part cold and killed every single moment of it and Ryan, same thing. So we felt just lucky to get them for the table-read, and then to actually have them want to be involved after that was amazing.
PL: The online chatter about the movie seems to be a little mixed, with some looking forward to it, while others assuming it'll be like Stuart Saves His Family and other SNL comedies of the past. Have you read any of these comments?
JT: Yeah, of course, of course. It's impossible not to see what people are thinking online. And it was so funny to me when I first read some of these things because two people get shot in the head in the first two minutes of our movie, and one of the first words is "f*ck", so it seems so shocking to me that people would think that it was going to be this other thing. But it's not surprising to me, because you know the history of SNL movies and maybe it's not the greatest. I mean, I personally think a lot of the SNL movies have some real redeeming qualities, and I really like a lot of the humor that's in movies like A Night at the Roxbury and The Ladies Man and Superstar. A lot of those movies get sh*t-talked about, but there's some really f*cking funny parts in all those movies. And this movie is not that at all. But I was surprised by how many people were thinking "Oh what? Is he going to get blown up every 90 seconds?" It's like, no, you have to make a story, you have to make a world around the character. Like, of course he's not going to get blown up every 90 seconds. So I would that think anyone who comes to see it will be pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, at how wildly different they might think it would be than any other SNL movie -- but also, it's nothing like the sketch.
PL: Well I guess because the sketch is just that recurring gag, you kind of got the option to start from scratch with the character and give him some depth that he obviously didn't have in those 90 second sketches -- other than his cocky stupidity. Was it nice to be able kind of write this character that you'd had for a while but didn't yet have anything to him?
JT: Yeah, we knew that we wanted it to be sort of a genre-movie, and we loved late 80s/early 90s action movies, so we basically wanted to take this character that we really liked who had a tremendous amount of flaws and stick him in this genre movie that's almost inappropriate for him to be in. And in that genre, you're always going to find the greatest hero the world has ever known and so you can make him larger than life and have all of his back story be larger than life and all his accomplishments be huge and grandiose. So it was super freeing to be able to do whatever we wanted, basically. And the rated R thing was extremely helpful with that as well, because obviously when you're making network television shows, there's many things you can't say, and I would say that MacGruber pretty much says them all in the movie. (Laughs) Just the fact that we have a character whose name we can't even say on television or in any of the ads, any of the print ads or anything, is hilarious to me. I think that's a pretty good example of the kind of foulness that happens in the movie.
PL: In the movie it's pretty much pronounced like you would want to pronounce it if you saw the name in print?
JT: Oh yeah. I think in the beginning Lorne [Michaels] was the only one who was pronouncing it like "Cünth", like with a liquid u or something like that. But yeah, everybody else was pronouncing it right on the money.
PL: Well you mentioned the budget limitations. I heard that the shoot was less than a month, which for an action feature film seems incredibly short. Did you pretty much have to work around the clock?
JT: Yeah, and we were doing 6-day weeks, too, after the first week. So I mean, it was a 28-day shoot and there were a few pickup dates a few months later. But yeah, when I first talked to director friends of mine like David Wain and Brad Silverling, and we sort of know Paul Thomas Anderson, and every person I talked to was like, "Don't make this movie in less than 30 days! You will be hating your life. It's not possible. You really shouldn't do it." And of course we had to.
PL: And did you hate your life?
JT: No. I mean, there was obviously a lot of stress in certain moments. Like basically every day, the hour before lunch and the hour before wrap -- or several hours before wrap -- our line producer Patty would come up and say "What are you going to cut? You're never going to make today. You're never going to make tomorrow. You're going to have to cut something later on today; you're going to have to cut something tomorrow." And we always somehow made our days and were able to get everything that we wanted. We just occasionally had to condense the shot and made things like a walk and talk when it was supposed to be an actual back and forth with two cameras and things like that. But overall we were able to get a tremendous amount of stuff in a really short amount of time, which is great, because there are explosions and stuff you just have to wait for just because of the process of it all, obviously for all the safety. And we have live ammunition on set and automatic weapons and all that sort of stuff, so it was a new experience for me, but it was a lot of fun.
PL: Did Akiva [Schaffer, Lonely Island member and director of Hot Rod] give you any advice before getting behind the camera of a feature film for the first time?
JT: Kiv's an executive producer on the movie, so he came out for the first week and helped out with stuff. We weren't sure we were going to go for the longest time, honestly, and up until the moment we were shooting we didn't really know if we were going to be able to do it. And so we were just getting budget approval, so we only had 6 weeks of pre-production. So everything sort of crept up on us really, really fast. We tried to prep as much stuff as we could but a lot of it was just guesswork, whether it was going to happen or not. We really are just supremely lucky to have made this film.
PL: You screened the movie for the first time at the SXSW Film Festival recently. Did the reviews from that, which were mostly positive, help alleve some of your concerns about the perception of the movie?
JT: Yeah, I mean anyone who sees it, whether you like it or not, I don't think it's possible for you to think that it's going to be like other SNL movies that you've seen. So I wasn't concerned about that, but I was sort of concerned that people might not get our tone exactly. We are trying to sort of take some of the violence a little bit more seriously and sort of actually make a late 80s/early 90s-style action movie that just happens to have a comedic lead in it. So whether people were going to go with this, especially being an SNL character, that was the biggest relief: that people really do understand it and like it, which is a great feeling. 'Cause it's always sort of a nervous moment, whether people are going to get it.
PL: Ryan Phillippe hosted Saturday Night Live last week. Did you get a chance to work with him on any sketches?
JT: Oh yeah, we did a digital short with him, and I helped make a song in the style of the Insane Clown Posse video "Miracles", and we also did another sketch that didn't make it to air. But I worked with Ryan a lot this week. It was great. He's so good, and we've been just so lucky that he wanted to be involved and is as committed to comedy as he is. He's a huge fan of comedy, which I don't know if you'd be able to gauge from his movies at all because they're all so serious. But the fact that he knows stuff as obscure like Tim and Eric -- you really have to be a lover of comedy to seek that sort of thing out.
PL: Did you manage to fit [former SNL castmember] Maya Rudolph into the film at all, since she was MacGruber's sidekick for the first couple sketches?
JT: Yes! Absolutely, she had to be in it, of course. She's sort of the reason that MacGruber has given up his life of fighting crime because it was too painful following the death of his wife. So she makes it into the film in several ways. There's several moment in this film that will make you think about our actors differently than you ever thought possible. There's a romantic scene we shot with Maya and Will that's, uh... fairly flabbergasting. And the fact that we shot it with her when she was 7 and a half months pregnant is crazy.
PL: Can you tell that she's pregnant?
JT: No, no. We hid it quite well.
PL: 'Cause that would be almost too ridiculous if you could also tell that she was 7 and a half months pregnant.
JT: Yeah. No, I think it will be a really awkward conversation for her and Lucy, her new baby, years later when she gets older. "You were in that scene!"
PL: I wouldn't be a good Winnipegger if I didn't ask about your experience working with Chris Jericho [WWE wrestler and lead singer of Fozzy] for a couple days of shooting.
JT: Chris is fantastic. I had no idea that he had done work with [Los Angeles improv troupe] The Groundlings, as well, so he was great with improv stuff. I was really surprised and delighted, I mean he's a great dude obviously, but the fact that he also such a funny dude, and added a button to one of the running jokes that we have in the scene with him that's one of the funniest buttons we had in the movie. Also in terms of Canada, we have several completely unwanted and unasked for Molson product placements in the movie. Molson gets talked about quite a bit and for absolutely no reason. And which we were not compensated for.
PL: Well I guess it kind of fits with that somewhat cheesy late 80s/early 90s action feel.
JT: I think I just love the word Molson's more than anything.
PL: Is there anything else you want to make sure people knew about the movie before they went and hopefully saw it?
JT: No. I just think that if you're a fan of MacGruber, I think you're really, really going to like it, and if you head into it thinking it'll be like another SNL movie, it's not!
MacGruber, in all its glory, hits theatres on Friday, May 21st. Until then, beef up on your hero training at MacGruber: Training Academy!
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)