This week I attended the press junket for Universal’s movie adaptation of the SNL sketch MacGruber and had a chance to talk with stars Will Forte, Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillippe, along with SNL writers Jorma Taccone and John Solomon who directed and co-wrote the film, respectively.
The conversation was fast and funny, with topics ranging from the unlikely journey of MacGruber from sketch to feature film, the late 80s/early 90s action flicks which inspired the movie, and the soon-to-be-infamous “celery scene.”
To be specific, I had a chance to speak with stars Will Forte (who also co-wrote the film), Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillippe, and director Jorma Taccone; somehow we made it through the entire set of interviews without co-writer John Solomon saying a word. Maybe he said half a word, but if so, it was too soft for the voice recorder to register.
Although, looking over the conversation it’s understandable why someone would remain speechless. Here are the highlights:
Will Forte on his mom’s set visit on the day they shot that infamous “celery scene.”
WF: Yes she was there for the scene…involving celery – and she was not alone. She was with two friends…We were shooting in Albuquerque and they very quickly decided to go to Santa Fe for the afternoon…I forgot that I should probably warn her about what was going on. She was actually ok with it – it’s really more her friends. She couldn’t seem like she was ok with it in front of her friends, but I knew she was ok with it…She’s seen me in compromising positions before.
RP: I had to go to a really dark place for that…no body double…When I first read the script, I’m like, “I wonder how tied they are to this moment? Wonder if I can get them to do it a different way…” And then after spending a couple of weeks on the set and seeing Will constantly naked doing anything it took to make the scene work and be funny, there was no way I could back down.
KW: And they made him do it.
RP: Yeah, I just went for it…and it will follow me forever.
Has MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) seen MacGruber?
JT: I don’t know if he’s seen it…
WF: I don’t think he’s seen it…he just sent me an email last night just saying “Good Luck” and we love that guy – he is such a tremendous guy. We got to make a couple of MacGrubers [with him] for SNL and for the Super Bowl Commercial we did last year and just fell in love with the guy.
Which 80s/90s action flicks influenced and inspired MacGruber?
JT: We all sort of grew up in that era…All of us are HUGE fans of the original MacGyver series, and obviously we found that inspirational for the initial pitch for [the MacGruber sketch] – we basically took his name and made it stupid…In terms of inspiration for the movie, that really came from our love of late 80s/early 90s action movies. So like the whole Lethal Weapon series, and Rambo, and Die Hard and every single Schwarzenegger and Stallone movie…
WF: Uncommon Valor, Tango and Cash…
JT: Road House gets a little nod with the throat rips…there’s a lot of different stuff in the movie. It’s detailed…like when you first see MacGruber working on the bomb in the opening credits – that bomb is a replica of the Die Hard bomb…When Piper, Ryan’s character, is looking at POV through binoculars, I went and found binocular [POV] from Commando and freeze-framed it. There’s a lot of stuff like that. The love runs deep.
RP: I think we were all conscious of paying homage to Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon and Rambo…but in terms of actually portraying the character, for me it was just about trying to play a legit soldier and trying to deal with this complete moron…but I didn’t base the character on anyone in particular…we played it like we were in a real 80s action movie and it works that way.
KW: I don’t think there’s a character that’s like Vicki in those ’80s movies…so I kind of made it up as I went along…I think that heightens the comedy, when you have people really playing it serious.
How does MacGruber compare to Naked Gun?
JT: We were in a lot of ways trying not to be spoofy…this is our attempt at sort of making our own ode to late 80s/early 90s action movies. A lot of the acting in it we were sort of trying to have be as deadpan and serious as possible. All the characters that are surrounding MacGruber, it was our intention to make them a little less goofy than you’d maybe expect from an SNL movie.
WF: Make no mistake though, we are huge, fans of those [Naked Gun] movies.
JT: Powers Boothe, when he first found out we were interested in hiring him, he was like “What is it – am I Leslie Neelson?” And we’re like “No, no, pretend you’re in a real action movie…” It was always our intention to surround this character with a cast of dramatic actors.
WF: It’s a lot different than the sketch. I think people are thinking that it’s just going to be the sketch over and over again for 90 minutes and I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised by how different it is.
JT: …It’s hard because I think when people hear “SNL comedy” I think that rightfully so you expect it to be a certain type of goofiness…so we would constantly have to fight against that and try to go for the more real 80s action movie kind of choices.
What’s it like to play the straight characters in a film such as this?
RP: It was fun. I felt like my whole job on this movie was not to break. Particularly with Will and not knowing what he may or may not do on any given take – it was always an adventure. I’ve developed a technique of stabbing my fingernail into my thumb to distract myself when I needed to keep it together.
KW: If you watch [the love scene] again you can see I turn my head a little bit because I’m actually laughing – I don’t know if they got [a take] where I’m not laughing. Sorry! [To keep from laughing] I wear really tight underwear…no, I just bite my lip.
How do you pitch a movie like MacGruber?
WF: We had to sell ourselves on the idea first! [Lorne Michaels] approached us and we were as skeptical as anyone else – I mean it’s a 90-second sketch about a guy who blows up every time. But we also thought it would be stupid of us to not at least see if we could come up with some ideas, and when we sat down to write it the first thing that was clear was that we couldn’t just run the sketch over and over again for 90 minutes – we wanted to do something different. So we started throwing out all these really insane ideas and soon had enough of them that we thought, “Aw man this is really fun, let’s keep going!” Every step of the way we kept thinking that somebody was going to come and say “You cannot do that, are you crazy? That’s weird, that’s disgusting…” [But] that step never came! They let us do whatever we wanted to, we had so much freedom on this and really were able to make exactly the movie we wanted to make! It was…
WF: We’re really happy with how it turned out.
KW: I had no idea – I think I was like everybody else in the world, where it’s like, “How are they going to make a movie out of that little sketch?” We don’t know who these characters are, we don’t know what they do, we don’t know anything about them…but Jorma, John and Will are some of the best writers I’ve ever worked with, so I just knew they would make it crazy and fun.
RP: Having seen the [SNL digital shorts] which Jorma is very much a part of, I knew the film would have an edge…that’s what really excited me, the fact that Jorma was directing it.
KW: When I would tell people about the movie I’m like, “Well Ryan Phillippe is in it, Val Kilmer’s in it!”…So that helped us out.
RP: The Internet predicted it was the end of our careers – of mine and Val’s career. So that was funny.
How does the Forte, Taccone, Solomon writing team function?
WF: Well Joorma is a good typer, John is really good at brewing coffee and I’m great with punctuation, jokes, structure – no I’m kidding.
JT: Well we write all of MacGrubers on the show together…
WF: We all have a very shared sensibility…
JT: I feel like with writing teams that kind of work you have the most fun when you start to piggyback on jokes. So one person has the initial idea and the next person adds on to that and then the next person adds on to that…those tend to be the jokes that I get most excited about – when I see a joke that feels really inspired and has levels to it…There was a moment where me and John were watching… it may have been a Steven Seagal movie…where there was an explosion and we heard this cougar growl – ROWRL! – and we were like “That’s the most ridiculous…did you hear that? Oh my god we have to put that in!”
KW: They kind of went off on their own to write it and they had a very short amount of time to get it all together and they were basically like “We’ll send it to you when it’s done.” But luckily, when they sent it to me it was great and there was this whole backstory and [Vicki St. Elmo] was a singer now and it was…so good we would do the lines and be like “Alright, we’re good!”
RP: When the script got sent to me I sat at home alone and read it – I laughed at every page and I just was like, “There’s no way this movie cannot be funny – it’s all there.” I think it’s hilarious.
Speaking of Steven Segal, is it coincidence that Val Kilmer looks like Segal in the movie?
JT: I would say it was almost Val’s idea! He had that ponytail already and he asked us whether we wanted him to keep it, and all of our hair people said “No, please make him cut it, make him cut his hair!” and we were like, “Absolutely not, you look great.”
KW: [Val's] incredibly interesting and playful and he’s crazy in the best way – the way I like…
RP: A lovable eccentric…
KW: He’s amazing, always joking around…
RP: And he was so into it too – like during the production he was sending threatening emails to Will as Cunth… All of us just came to play and had the right attitude to make this silly movie.
What Will SNL be making fun of next season?
JT: You mean like what in the future will be funny?
WF: “In the future there will be another oil spill but it will be hilarious!”…No, it’s an immediate situation, we don’t really bank ideas, so the stuff you’re going to see on Saturday is stuff [we] start thinking up the Monday before. So it’s impossible to tell.
JT: It’s very difficult to comprehend via the show that it actually is live until you go there. It’s so fast, and the schedule is so grueling… The last MacGruber sketch we did for Betty White, we ended filming at 6 p.m. Friday…and it was literally going out [on air] as it was being ingested into the computers. It’s that last minute.
WF: Lorne’s famous quote, which is perfect, is that “We don’t do the show because it’s ready, we do the show because it’s 11:30.”
How crazy is it to shoot a movie like MacGruber in just 28 Days?
JT: They advantage we had with MacGruber is honestly the speed with which we had to put it together. It was moving so fast – we had six weeks of pre-production, we had 28 days to shoot it and we had such a short period to write the movie – and such a short [post-production] period – it’s almost like the way [SNL] works, where everything is happening so fast you have to just go with your gut. We basically just wrote exactly what we wanted, and executed to the best of our ability – with the money and time that we had – exactly what we wanted…from this very stupid pitch originally, to this character that we grew to love…to then being able to put him into this crazy action movie…honestly it’s been such a dream that we’re just happy that it exists.
RP: I’ve done enough independent films…so I’ve kind of been down [this] road before. Sort of out of my element in the comedy aspect, but the brevity of the shooting schedule I was kind of used to…so that wasn’t new to me…I can say it’s the movie I hoped we were making – it is what I hoped it would be…Will was so dedicated and gives really an incredible comedic performance.
KW: I think it’s pretty true to what I [imagined]…It’s fun to see the scenes you weren’t there for and how they turned out.
WF: We’re really proud of how it turned out. It’s filled with filthy, disgusting crap.
[Laughter all around]
MacGruber will be in theaters this Friday, May 21st. Be sure to check back tomorrow for our official Screen Rant review!