Former 'SNL' digital director keeps close eye on 'The Watch'
Schaffer makes most of being at helm of sci-fi comedy
For Akiva Schaffer, life as a feature filmmaker on the new alien invasion comedy "The Watch" wasn't really much different than it was for him for six seasons as a writer and director of several uproarious digital shorts on "Saturday Night Live."
That is, of course, except for the beeps.
After all, Schaffer -- along with fellow Lonely Island comedy troupe members Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone -- was known to push a button or two with such edgy music video parodies as "D--- in a Box" and "Mother Lover."
"With a lot of those 'SNL' shorts, we would do them just as we wanted to do the and then beep out the bad words," Schaffer told me with a laugh during a recent interview. "Since it was late night TV, they let us get away with a lot."
The funny thing is, while Schaffer could get away with a lot more on the R-rated "The Watch," he still wanted to make sure those words packed some punch when delivered by his stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade.
"What 'SNL' taught me that was useful on 'The Watch' was, only put in bad words if they can get a laugh -- there was no need for swear words and beeps in places that weren't necessary," Schaffer said. "Those beeps should only be in there when they mean something and it's important to the joke. So, while we had the freedom in this movie to actually just curse, I was very conscious of not just doing it for the sake of doing it."
But when an alien's involved, Schaffer added, all bets are off.
"When one of the characters sees an alien for the first time, they say, 'Holy f---,' because something like that would really happen in that situation. Cursing adds to the naturalness and reality of it. I'd say 'f---,' too, if I just saw that thing," Schaffer said, laughing.
Forming 'The Watch'
"The Watch" stars Stiller as Evan, a take-charge community advocate in a sleepy Ohio suburb.
Concerned with all things going on in his surroundings, Evan's latest venture is a neighborhood watch group, which he formed mostly to solve the ghoulish murder of a friend. Unfortunately, the community at large doesn't share Evan's enthusiasm to take to the streets, save for an overprotective dad (Vaughn), a flunky, wannabe cop (Hill) and an under-sexed neighborhood newbie (Ayoade).
Facing mostly ridicule from everybody, including community youths and the local police force, the fearless foursome remain undaunted, and soon discover that the threat the neighborhood is actually from alien invaders. The problem is, while some of them come in the slimy, creature-like traditional form, others have blended in among them.
Opening in theaters Friday, "The Watch" also stars Rosemarie DeWitt as Evan's long-suffering wife and "SNL" veteran Will Forte as the town's top cop.
Schaffer said the sci-fi element was one of the biggest reasons he signed on to direct the project, because it gave him a chance to made a bona fide alien picture.
"Shooting a normal comedy is fine for some things, but it just doesn't excite me the same way something like this movie does," Schaffer said. "When I read the script, I thought, I can make this look like a real sci-fi movie, similar to the way I could make music video parody look like a real, high budget rap video -- rather than a fake comedy version of one."
In other words, the aliens in "The Watch" are hardly like some dime store creation you'd see in an old Ed Wood movie.
"'The Watch' is first and foremost a comedy, but since I got to shoot the film using elements from the sci-fi genre, I wanted to make sure the alien didn't look goofy," Schaffer said. "I got to make a real alien that looks dangerous. That was a big plus for me because I got to do something really fun and cool."
"The Watch" also gave Schaffer the unique opportunity to not only work with Stiller as an actor, but get some insight from him as a director. Realizing they had the same sorts of comedic sensibilities as filmmakers -- Stiller masterfully constructed short comedy films of his own on Fox Television's "The Ben Stiller Show" in 1992 -- Schaffer said he didn't waste any time in absorbing his star's experience.
"When he would do one of their filmed pieces from that show -- whether it would be a parody of a movie or something else -- it was one of the shows at the time to really take the time to make it look right," observed Schaffer. "That philosophy is something we share. When we would do one of our comedy music videos on 'SNL,' I would try to make it feel, production-wise, like it was the real thing."
On top of that, Schaffer said he remained very cognizant of the fact that Stiller has made a huge mark as a movie comedy director.
"Everyone thinks of Ben as an actor because he's so famous as an actor, but as a director, his track record is pretty amazing," said Schaffer, who made his feature directorial debut with "Hot Rod" in 2007. "He's made a lot of fantastic comedy movies from 'Reality Bites, 'Zoolander' and 'Tropic Thunder' -- he's a great comedy director. So, on the set of 'The Watch,' there were times where he would give suggestions and I'd say, 'Wow, that's a great idea' and we went for it."
While Schaffer had a great time overall making "The Watch," he said the production was not spared of heartache. Formerly known as "Neighborhood Watch," the title of the film was changed during post-production after the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
"The first reaction to it was that it was saddening over the horrible thing that happened. I didn't really connect that it had anything to do with our movie, because it doesn't, really," Schaffer said. "Then over the coming days and weeks after it, when I started getting more and more emails from friends and the press started talking about it, we realized, 'Oh, people are making a connection because of the title."
In retrospect, Schaffer observed that changing the title was the absolute right thing to do.
"We really wanted to be sensitive to the people affected by the tragedy and didn't want to be disrespectful in any way," Schaffer said. "The movie is totally unrelated (to the real-life tragedy), so the easy fix was, 'Let's just change the title so the connection is broken.'"
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