By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 25, 2012 at 12:03PM
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."