The Lonely Island Talks Popstar and Why They’ll Never Stop Never Stopping

Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, aka the Lonely Island, talk about the group’s first feature, Popstar.

It isn’t that uncommon for comedians to break into the world of pop music, but few have done it with as much success as the Lonely Island—Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer—whose “Digital Shorts” on Saturday Night Live introduced popular songs like “Dick in a Box,” “I’m on a Boat,” and “YOLO.”

The first official Lonely Island movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (obviously a play on the title of Justin Bieber’s first doc Never Say Never) follows pop star Conner4Real (Samberg) as he tries to break further away from his popular boy band, The Style Boyz, with the release of his second record “CONNquest.” Unfortunately, it’s not as well received as his debut, and his American tour is hitting more snags as ticket sales aren’t where they should be.

This is more than an extended SNL sketch, however, as the group has created a hilarious mockumentary that pokes fun at the pop music world, as well as social media and tabloid shows like TMZ, while surrounding themselves with some of the biggest names in comedy and music. These guest artists include Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, and even Bieber buddy Usher.

Den of Geek sat down with the three guys at their New York press junket for the following interview:

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Den of Geek: It’s a really funny movie but I might be an easy sell. I love mockumentaries like Spinal Tap, but I also watch a lot of music docs—not just the big ones that everyone sees, but any single one I possibly can.

Andy Samberg: That’s not the easy sell, if you’re super into Spinal Tap that’s…

Akiva Schaffer: That might be the hard sell. I mean, we love Spinal Tap too, but nothing can ever really touch it, but Judd [Apatow] watches all the music documentaries too. I don’t know how he finds the time. Every time I talk to him, he’s like, “Oh, did you watch the new one about blah blah blah…” He somehow finds the time.

Samberg: Yeah, we probably watch the same ones. Every time they put a new one on Showtime or HBO or something, we’ll watch it.

Schaffer: Yeah, I just watched the new Michael Jackson one.

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Samberg: Yeah, that was awesome.

They’re always interesting because even if you know the music, there’s always something juicy or “I didn’t know that these guys never talked to each other for five years while they were a band.”

Samberg: I watched the Eagles one and the…

Schaffer: The George Harrison one was great.

Jorma Taccone: The Metallica one is amazing.

You’d been doing the “SNL Digital Shorts” for a long time, so what made you want to do something bigger? Conner4Real in theory could have been a character video on SNL as a Digital Short, but you must have wanted to do a bigger story.

Taccone: We’ve always wanted to make features together. That was one of our main goals when we first met up after college, our goal was to try to make features together, and it was to go to LA and start working together.

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Schaffer: And to write one… we’ve all worked [on movies] in various ways, but this was the first thing we’ve done from the ground up where from the very beginning of a concept, just written it and then seen it through the whole way. That’s what makes this one very unique for us, and exciting.

Taccone: Hot Rod was based on a script by Pam Brady, and we obviously rewrote quite a bit…

Do you consider Hot Rod a Lonely Island film?

Taccone: It’s certainly our sensibility.

Schaffer: Yeah, I would, but it still has DNA in it from somebody else whereas this is the first thing we’ve done which is purely us, which is nice and exciting.

Had you been accumulating ideas over the last few years, and was this something that came to you a long time ago and you’ve written down ideas as they came? Or was it literally sitting down one day and saying, “Let’s do this”?

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Schaffer: Both?

Taccone: Yeah, totally both.

Samberg: The premise and the format was something we’d been talking about for a few years, and then Akiva had a meeting with Judd Apatow who had a similar idea—he pitched it to Akiva basically: “I think it would be cool if you did something like this,” and Akiva was like, “That’s the idea we’ve been talking about,” so Judd said, “If you write it, I’ll produce it.” So, we started writing it.

Schaffer: Yeah, that’s when it switched to the second half of what you said, the moment of like, “Oh, let’s do it right now” and that’s when we had to cancel other things that we had percolating, other movie ideas, and go, “Let’s act like this is happening and start writing.” That was about two and a half years ago.

You both had been directing other movies and you’d been acting in other things, including Brooklyn 99. So, how were you able to find the time for all three of you to get together? When you’re acting in a movie, you can just go in, film your parts, do some voiceover, but for this, you’re also writing and producing and have to be involved every step of the way.

Samberg: Every day.

Taccone: It’s exactly what you just said. We really had to make the decision to clear the decks and have this be our only focus.

Schaffer: Yes, well before we’re greenlit and know it’s real and have a writing deal. Judd saying, “I’ll produce it if you write it” was enough that we said, “Okay, let’s treat it like it’s going to be a real movie.”

Taccone: We have to pretend like the train is moving and then other people need to get on board, kind of thing.

Schaffer: Cause otherwise, two months in you’ll always get some offer even to just go do a commercial or something and go, “Well, that pays the rent so I’m out of here,” and then it will fall apart, especially with the three of us. So, we literally have to have a business meeting of the three of us and go, “Alright, we all promise none of us are going to bail. Alright, let’s do it.”

Taccone: A lot of looking each other in the eyes making sure that nobody is going to skate out.

Have you all been on the same coast at least?

Taccone: I’m still in New York.

Samberg: Akiva and I are in LA.

Taccone: Yeah, it was like 14 months I was in LA, yeah?

Schaffer: We shot in LA, so he’s been in LA for over a year, but his stuff has been in New York.

Taccone: I keep my stuff here in Brooklyn.

One of the things that really impressed me were the concert performances. I know what’s involved with creating these massive stage pieces with the video panels, but usually they’re using them for a tour with a hundred shows so they’ll make the cost back. You created these sets for literally one performance that lasts a few minutes in your movie. What are the logistics of creating such a big production for one performance?

Taccone: I’m glad you noticed that. And we wanted it to be, if not on par with Beyoncé’s stage performance, potentially even bigger—more screens and more to look at.

Schaffer: I would say that it’s WAY better than Beyoncé.

Taccone: Yeah, yeah, yeah… on the record.

Schaffer: But it had to look huge, so we rented the Forum in LA and they really just built us a big stage, and they had to build the specs a little different, so it would look good on camera as opposed to real life, but it was cool when it all came together and we had extras, and Andy had to get up there and really perform the song. It was like, “Oh, this is really happening.”

Taccone: It was really funny though, to your point, we were at the Forum for a couple days before we actually got on the stage, because it was being built, so we were shooting backstage elements. One of our make-up people, she was looking at this whole thing being built and when she finally realized this was for us, she just thought it was another concert. “Oh my God, this is for you guys, this is huge!” What did you think we were doing here?

Schaffer: Because we were filming in the hallways and backstage. We used the whole Forum, every part of it.

Taccone: Yeah, we shot a ton of stuff there.

Andy, this must put a lot of pressure on you, because while they’re building all this stuff, you have to learn the choreography and create this performance, so how was it learning the moves? You did it for the videos obviously, but this was on a much bigger scale.

Samberg: It was a little new—that level and also I didn’t anticipate how physically taxing it would be to do the songs over and over again, but I also knew that we had five cameras rolling, and that we would all be in the editing room making sure that I didn’t look like an asshole.

Shaffer: But did you have more respect for real pop stars afterwards?

Samberg; I’ve always respected them a lot, and I’d say a little more though [now]. Every time we do any kind of live performance, it reminds me how hard it is, and I look at it differently when I watch other people do it. Even our Will Smith tribute at the movie awards, we had to learn a little bit of choreography and hit all our marks, and all that stuff takes time and rehearsal. It doesn’t just pop into your head.

You met a lot of people while doing SNL, so what was the process for getting them involved to shoot stuff for the documentary? Did you write a lot of stuff for them to say or did you let them play with their own characters?

Taccone: It was kind of a bible of general stuff that we had that was suggestions of what to say and then we’d describe the parts of the movie that they were referencing, then people would often times put it in their own words to make it feel natural.

Samberg: Especially comedians would come in and we’d cut them loose, because that’s why you bring them in. You just bring in somebody like Maya Rudolph or Tim Meadows, or Sarah Silverman, you’re going to get good stuff if you let them go for it and sort of add [stuff].

Taccone: And all of the TMZ guys, we just let them riff, but they’re obviously talking about what’s happening in the film but they’re just going off.

That TMZ section was hilarious because if you’ve seen the show, it’s actually that ridiculous.

Schaffer: We were barely making it up.

I was definitely interested in the amount of improv, but I wondered if any of you had seen the five-hour edit of Spinal Tap, which had circulated a while back?

Taccone: No, we should.

Samberg: I keep hearing about it.

Schaffer:  Yeah, people keep telling us about it. We need to see it immediately.

Taccone: I hear it’s incredible.

Schaffer: Someone said it’s on the laser disc, but I wonder if it’s on the Blu-ray. Were they actually edited into story order or was it just a bunch of scenes?

It was five hours long and it had storylines that never made it into the movie.

Schaffer: I saw a little bit of it. I saw explaining the cold sores one on YouTube, because when we were doing this, we were not only watching every real doc like Bieber: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me, etc., but then we would go back and relook at Spinal Tap sometimes, and I did look up on YouTube to try to find some of that stuff. So, I saw the cold sore one because it’s the same groupie…

Right, it was the singer in their opening band who gave it to them, but it would have been a half hour longer if they kept all the scenes with references to her.

Schaffer: Got it. I probably saw a 10-minute version of it.

Taccone: But it’s gotta’ be all the people that stopped by like Billy Crystal. I’m sure they did a ton of stuff with him to make that one line that he has in the movie. The same thing with ours. There’s a full hour of footage for every person that we shot.

Schaffer: Yeah, the movie’s about 90 minutes and there’s 90 more on the DVD. Yeah, Nas, or Usher or any of those people, we would basically spend 10 minutes telling them the whole story of the movie so they understood what the thing was, then we’d be able to walk them through each part of the movie. “Okay, now’s the part where you’re a huge fan of him but the album’s not what you want it to be. Let’s talk about that.” We would write a bunch of jokes, but they would also just talk about it. We would say, “Okay, the Style Boyz were like the Beastie Boys or a fun party band, talk about that.” And then I’d go, “So, did you grow up listening to Style Boyz?” and then Nas would go, “Oh my God! Style Boyz was one of the best groups of all time.”

Taccone: Which for us, as fans of Nas, was amazing.

Schaffer: Technically, that’s improv, so technically we made everybody improv a lot, I would say, because we’d just give everybody the guidelines so they could improvise in character…

Samberg: In the talking heads….

Schaffer: Yeah, and we’d be like “Conner’s first record might be like the moment when Beyoncé made her first solo record with Timbalake, where you knew they were in a group, you knew you liked them okay, and then they do this crossover record and you’re not sure if it’ll work… and then it REALLY works.” We’d give them that and then we’d take about. “So what did you think of Conner’s album CONNquest?” and they’d be like, “Woah, I was blown away, it was so good.”

We have an hour of Questlove, an hour of Nas, an hour of Usher or A$AP Rocky, where they’re taking you through all the things, and it’s all really useable and really good, and it was a challenge in the editing to figure out which ones were the winners that would forward both story and be funny and not be overindulgent.

Taccone: We were shooting most scenes with three cameras, so obviously we have a lot more footage because of that, but there’s I think around 450 hours of footage for this movie, so the same amount for a doc that would be shooting for a year, and granted, it’s smaller scenes, but I think a normal movie has maybe 120 hours of footage?

Schaffer: It was not unlike editing a real doc. We were always saying that if we got a real doc editor in, didn’t tell them it was fake and just handed them the footage, they might go, “Oh, yeah, this is editing a doc.”

Taccone: And we met with a buddy of ours who wrote The Cove, so we were at certain points [saying], “This feels like a real doc.” It feels malleable like a real doc feels malleable to move around scenes, so we actually met with people and asked, “So how does a doc work?” Obviously we’re following a story structure of first, second, third act kind of thing but it has elements of that.

How do you explain to Justin Timberlake, who you’ve known for a long time, “Hey, we’re doing this comedy about a guy who leaves this band and goes off to do a solo thing?” Obviously he must have gone through some of this.

Samberg: Well, we’re not actually talking about him being in the movie. I think the studio told us not to. I pitched him the idea and he was like, “Oh, that’s funny.”

What about Usher, who also appeared in the Justin Bieber movie since he sort of discovered him?

Schaffer: Usher, he didn’t know what level of game he was, and he was awesome.

Samberg: He was really into it, yeah. I think anyone that has actually seen the movie doesn’t walk away from it going, “This was about Justin Bieber.” It was certainly not our intention.

Schaffer: Yeah, the marketing is taking it more that way as opposed to the film itself.

That reminds me. Director Jon Chu told me to let you know that he’s pissed about all the shots you stole from his Bieber movies.

[They all laugh, realizing that this is a joke.]

Schaffer: Well, he did a great job.

Samberg: He did a very good job. They’re super-fun movies.

You’ve written a lot of songs that have become surprise hits like “I’m on a Boat,” so what are some of the songs in the movie that you hope break out. Obviously, the “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” had a video on SNL

Schaffer: Yeah, we really like that one.

Samberg: I would say all of them. I hope that all of them jump out.

Schaffer: Good answer, good answer.

Samberg: But we never know. We never try and predict. We just make them and when people like them we’re happy.

Taccone: There’s even more stuff on the soundtrack, stuff that didn’t fit in the movie. There’s a song with Akon on the soundtrack. There’s other stuff that didn’t fit.

My editor wanted me to ask you if the new MacGyver movie might help get another MacGruber movie made. The movie has a cult following, including many of my fellow movie journalists.

Taccone: I think it helps. I’m just hoping we can get Richard Dean Anderson in the next second one.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens Friday, June 3 with previews on Thursday night, and the soundtrack drops on the same date.