Akiva Shaffer directed The Watch, a comedy about a Costco manager (Ben Stiller) who leads his neighborhood watch (Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade) to battle aliens in their small town. The film’s title was originally Neighborhood Watch, but when the Trayvon Martin shooting happened just after posters and teasers went out, the studio decided to shorten the title. The interview with Shaffer took place the weekend of the Aurora, CO shooting tragedy as well, so the interview got a little real, but mostly stayed fun.
CraveOnline: Did you want to make a badass alien movie in the middle of this comedy?
Akiva Shaffer: Yes. I feel like in comedies that are genre comedies, not just comedy but action-comedy, whatever, there’s a tendency to do a less-than version of the genre, to kind of sh*t on the genre a little bit, to just be like, “Yeah, yeah, we’re a comedy so who the f*** cares? The alien can look stupid. The shots don’t have to look good. We have to light it like a comedy.” That’s not across the board. There are some excellent examples where they didn’t do that but when we were going into it, I was like, “The aliens should actually be kind of scary and realistic. The world doesn’t have to be all overlit. It can look like a classic sci-fi movie and I can use some cool camera angles that you normally wouldn’t see in a comedy.” Where I had to draw the line was, you’ve got to see the actors’ faces. Because in a sci-fi movie you might go like pure silhouette and cool sh** like that. At a certain point, my DP Barry Peterson would take it almost too good to where it really looked like it was from Alien. And then I’d be like, “Dude, you’ve got to put a light on his face” because it’s a comedy and you need to. But up until that point, that’s what I was trying to do.
Was part of that making it bloody and R-rated and with naughty language?
It was that way when I came into it. I read the script for the first time in May of last year. Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] had just finished their rewrite and it got sent to me, so I had heard of the previous version that was PG-13 but I never read it. So when I read it it was already what you saw basically, and that was part of why I wanted to do it because I’m a fan of Seth and Evan’s work.
Was the scene with Vince Vaughn and the Russian nesting dolls in the script?
That was in the script. Once Vince puts his spin on it, it’s Vince’s. That’s part of his gift, all these guys, is making everything feel natural and like they really happened. These guys make everything feel like it’s improvised. You can’t tell the difference in the movie that well of when things are totally improvised, when they’re not. It was totally in the script but once he gets going, all the words he’s saying are his words.
Was letting it go on just a little too long your touch, or Vince’s?
Both I would say, because he did it. The philosophy on the whole thing is let everything go too long, so you have it in editing. When you’re on set, it’s like try everything because you don’t want to be stuck in editing and not have it. In terms of that moment of taking forever, it’s just something he did and in editing you’re like, “Ooh, I like that.” Did it play at your screening last night?
Yeah, it did. Isn’t it better for comedy if it goes on longer, than if it’s cut down to the point?
Exactly. That’s always the careful blend of trying to let it go just long enough that it gets really hilarious and not so long that people say it’s long.
They changed the title out of sensitivity to the Treyvon Martin shooting, and now there’s been another tragedy in Aurora that Hollywood is responding to. Do you think movies need to respond to incidents like that?
I would assume it’s a case by case basis of wanting to be really sensitive and respectful to people who are going through something that is much more serious than a movie would ever be. Something in real life whereas movies are pretend. So I think there is a place for sensitivity to a certain degree, and then in another way there has to be a line because at a certain point, you can’t let the terrorists win, you know what I mean?
Well, at a certain point it becomes more putting on a show than actually being sensitive.
Appearing sensitive rather than being sensitive.
Was the title an easy change to make?
No, it was not an easy one but as soon as that thing happened, my first instinct was it had so little to do with the movie, you’ve seen the movie, there weren’t aliens in Florida. So it didn’t even occur to me that we had a problem. Then as a few people started e-mailing me over the couple days and the press started making it, I realized oh, there’s a real connection here because of our title, but it kind of ends there. So it kind of became clear to all of us and the heads of Fox really, because no one had seen the movie so no one was talking about anything but [the title]. They’re basing it all on the title, not on the movie. If they’d seen the movie they would know there’s no issue. So it became clear that if we just change the title, we’re going to separate the connection between our movie and this terrible tragedy.
Were they already calling their group “the watch” in the movie, or was that added later?
Yeah, the movie was totally done. That’s the second reason it was easy because we had it. Someone was like, “Well, the other title is The Watch.” We had talked about it on set actually, “Should this be called The Watch because that’s what we keep calling it and it’s more unique?” Then we decided no, Neighborhood Watch is better because it tells you what the movie is, whereas The Watch could be about a wristwatch, which is still [a concern]. I think our marketing is getting us passed that but The Watch is a more bland title than Neighborhood Watch.
I never worried that it was about a wristwatch. Did you shoot in a real CostCo?
No. We built that. It was a stock store built to be like a BJ’s or CostCo kind of a place in Atlanta that was abandoned. Whatever store had been there had gone out of business. So all the infrastructure was already there. It was a real lucky find. The parking lot, the shape of the building and even inside, the freezers were already there. We just had to add the CostCo. Like we basically had to do the same thing a real CostCo would do if they said, “All right, we’re going to put a CostCo there.” We toyed with it being like "Cost Club" or something fake, and that always bumps me in movies. I like it when it’s the real thing personally. So we had to ask CostCo and get their permission and they were nice enough to send us Kirkland stuff and the banner to really make it real, but we owned that place which was awesome because we could shoot it in the day and make it look like night. We had the lights on the ceiling to make it come through the skylights to look like real light. We could really control it rather than going to a real CostCo where we would have to work at night.
Do you get to be involved in the scripting of MacGruber 2?
[Laughs] I haven’t been asked yet, no but as an executive producer of MacGruber 1 I will demand a similar credit on the second one.
We’re just happy they’re writing it. Does your producer capacity extend to actually making the movie?
I don’t know what they’re really doing. You’d really have to ask Jorma [Taccone], [Will] Forte and [John] Solomon about that. I think that they love writing it and doing it so much. They basically made the first one for free. No one got paid on that movie so it’s always a labor of love for them. I think they enjoy it so much that they have started writing things, literally knowing it will never be made, for the fun of it.
I think writing it is a step because once it exists, someone could make it.
It could be possible.
Does Universal own it now? Could they step in and say no, you can’t do this?
I wouldn’t worry about that. If somebody wanted to let it happen, if somebody wanted to finance it, if there’s money, there’s a way to make it happen.
Are there plans for further adventures of The Watch?
Everybody’s open to it. We’ve just been really specific that this movie was all at night. It was a lot of really cold nights out in the streets, so we all got together in the middle of the shoot and decided that it would be called Day Watch Hawaii. The aliens can only come out during the day. At night you just need to go to bed, rest up for a big day of Day Watching on the beach.
What was your experience making your second feature? How different was it from Hot Rod?
It was pretty different for a lot of reasons. Hot Rod I was 26 and we had just gotten “SNL” that year. Everything had changed at once. We also had to make it on a very strict time schedule to get back to the show, so it was all kind of rushed and “What are we doing?” This, I have that under my belt and six years of shorts and dealing with people and the politics of personalities. In a lot of ways I was just much more equipped to do this, but on the other hand this one now has big movie stars, a much bigger budget and CG and effects so there was plenty to learn. I’d say I’d learn just as much on this one. On the first one I learned from here to here. On this one I learned from there to there. It was a whole other set of things to learn.