Interview | The Writer/Directors of ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’
Director Akiva Schaffer is a veteran of Saturday Night Live, having directed 65 episodes from 2005 until 2011. He branched out into feature film work with the Andy Samberg vehicle Hot Rod, and the 2012 flick The Watch which, if you recall, featured the members of the comedy The Lonely Island being casually intimate with one another during a suburban orgy. Jorma Taccone has a similar pedigree of having directed 26 episodes of Saturday Night Live, and broke into features with the surprisingly well-reviewed MacGruber.
Oh yes, and they’re both members of The Lonely Island. They, along with their Island cohort Samberg, have conceived of, starred in, and made a feature film that is, it could be said, a fictionalized version of The Lonely Island story. Or perhaps it’s just a mockumentary spoof of the current state of music industry. At any rate, their film is called Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and it brings to mind the spate of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction docs to have hit theaters over the last few years. In it, Samberg stars as a cocky pop star named Connor who is slowly corrupted by fame.
Crave was given access to the set of Never Stop Never Stopping, and was granted the following extensive interviews with the two writers/directors/co-stars. In it, they talk about how the film came to be formed, and how working on set can change the general thrust and attitude of the process.
Akiva Shaffer: [It’s] gonna be a train wreck. By design, but it’s not going to be like, super awesome to look at or anything. And it’s kind of like what you’re hearing now. It’s basically two songs colliding, because, story-wise, basically he, Andy’s character, puts a new opening act on the tour. Just stop me if someone already explained this to you. He puts a new opening act on the tour and the opening act, as the movie kind of progresses, starts getting more popular than him at his own show. As that guy is getting more popular, he’s going a little longer every night, too, he notices. So, earlier today we shot the scene with him on the sidelines, with Sarah Silverman and Tim [Meadows] kind of ranting because he’s watching and he’s like a half hour over. Watching him just not get off the stage and continue his set and he goes—ultimately where this scene picks up his where he goes — his name’s Hunter, who’s on stage — “Yeah, Imma be up here all fucking night!” Andy goes, “Fuck that, I’ll start my show.” So his show starts on top of his show.
So that’s why it’s truly going to, just like, there will be no jokes that play or anything except for just that, it’s a pure story moment of like, where it sounds like two songs colliding. Literally just two songs colliding. Just like at any one of these kinds of arena shows, the opening act gets a very small stage with a banner, and then they save if for when Maroon Five goes on, and that’s when all the stage lights—so you’ll see it’s like, his banner will start falling from the ceiling and roadies will be out there trying to quickly clean up. There will be girls, dancers you see come out in costume, and they’re coming out on a missed cue, cause he skipped to a different song, so they’re dressed for a whole different musical number that you guys haven’t seen. But they’re going to come out, very confused, dressed like Mona Lisa for a different song. And then it’s just going to be this weird collision for a while. So I thought I’d better explain it, otherwise it would bel like dumbfounding the whole time.
Is it Hunter who is dressed like a Native American?
Yeah, it’s one of his songs. Exactly. It’s him and his kind of knucklehead crew up there with a random with his offensive—he’s supposed to be sort of a mix of over the years, any rappers who have been kind of the scary, young, you know, when Eminem came out, that are purposefully offensive but are actually really good and kind of represent the youth culture or whatever, which would be really scary to Connor who’s already had a few hits and definitely rather hit albums and now represents the status quo and is that. So he’s the youthful energy coming on to disrupt. But then, ultimately his “I don’t give a f***” anarchist ways backfire on Connor and this is the culmination of that. It’s kind of that attitude backfiring.
What rapper is Connor’s real-world counterpart?
Akiva Schaffer: He doesn’t have a specific one either. It’s kind of like a lot of our videos where we tried to take from many things to kind of create the idea of a genre or the pop trope we were making fun of. There are moments where he’s magic on stage where he’s more like Katy Perry shows or even Taylor Swift or something. And then he also sings a lot, which is kind of like Drake, almost, because he sings and raps, and also has a lot of pseudo-political things where he thinks he’s like really intelligent, like Macklemore with his rants, when the world kind of turns on him, as happens in the movie, he kind of goes into “the press is against me” kind of Kanye style. So he’s got many of them put together.
Is that driven by character and plot, or by gags?
It’s more driven by character and plot because the premise is that this was his band with me and Jorma that predates the movie. Then he becomes the Beyonce to the Destiny’s Child of the movie. Then he had this huge hit where he really made the leap like Timberlake did, and then this is his second record. He’s kind of overreached a little bit and he’s using way too many producers. Every song kind of sounds like it’s from—which is also driven by comedy because we wanted to build a touch on like, tracks of world music but also have hardcore hip hop, so the idea is that he’s kind of overreached a little bit.
Are you using certain beats and moments from either the Katy Perry movie or the Justin Timberlake, kind of riffing on them?
And the One Direction one. That was kind of my favorite. I don’t know if you guys saw it. It’s actually kind of great. Question: How many times did you watch those? Akiva Schaffer: A lot of times. I mean once, truly watched, then a lot of times, just checking back on them to see angels and kind of catch vibes. And just see how they were structuring it a little bit. Because we can’t actually do it the way that they do it, because that would actually be, I think, boring. Because half of what is cool about that is that it’s actually the people that you’re seeing. We have to make a real movie. But we’re trying to make it feel like one of those movies.
What can you tell us about the songs in the film?
We were just talking about which songs to talk about. Sometimes talking about songs just ruins them. Or falls flat.
I don’t know. Those titles were pretty awesome.
But like, if you talk about “I’m On a Boat,” it wouldn’t have sounded that interesting, you know what I mean? Or even “Dick in a Box” would sound just downright terrible.
How hard was it to write them?
Not that difficult. It was actually a little bit freeing, writing from a character. Because even though we’re kind of writing as characters, never ourselves, we do have to think of the songs as representing ourselves, whereas on this we kind of didn’t. At all. You have all the information you needed, that it’s not us, it’s this character. So it was kind of fun to write songs that maybe we wouldn’t have written for one of our things. Some of them could have been one of ours but a lot of them have a perspective that is either dumber or more arrogant than something we would have done on our own.
Can you tease any of the music cameos?
Well, once again, if you guys are under embargo, I can just tell you—when does this embargo lift?
Probably after it’s out.
I actually have to ask.
Is there any actual live performances?
You mean, like up on the stage and stuff?
Yes, are the actors performing songs live?
Yeah, sometimes. I don’t know if there is ever going to be a full one. I mean, it depends how much they lie in Les Mis. I don’t know how much of it was live. Do you know what I mean? I know what we do because I edit and do sound mixing. I know when we’re going to get in there and add extra vocal layers and tweak it all and tune stuff and cheat all over the place, but the mics are live. Some of what you’ll hear here will be live, but it’s not a real PA system that is mixed sweetly. But we’re always recording their voices but also have the piped in one, just for this audience so that it sounds good in the room. And then, if you ask me that again once it’s mixed, I’ll tell you how much of that we used or didn’t use. Cause you know, once we’re mixing, we’ll be like, that one sounded great. This is going to be a lot of like, starting to rap a line and then going, “What the fuck? Get off my stage!” So these are definitely live mics so we can get them reacting. But once again, once they’re rapping, I’m sure in post I’ll decide what to use from here and what not to use.
How’s it been kind of adjusting to the documentary format? Are you doing talking heads and stuff? Or are you doing hidden cameras also?
Yeah, we’re doing all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting. We’re doing—and once again, when we’re edited, we’ll see how much we’ve succeeded at this, but once again, we’re trying to separate ourselves from kind of the tropes you see on comedy network TV, that style. There’s moments when we’re shooting where I go, eh, it feels like that could be on shows that I really like so I don’t want the movie to feel like what TV has become. I’m trying to make sure we really avoid those moments. So we figured out tricky ways—well, not tricky ways, but story ways to make things happen outside of talking heads. But we’re definitely doing those as well, with a consciousness to seem bigger than those things.
You just don’t want the characters to just say what they feel, kind of thing?
Yeah, and they’re not being interviewed everyday the way they are on reality shows, they way they are on those? Where they’re saying, “Yeah, I’m feeling kind of blah blah blah.” We’re sticking to the idea that the documentarians maybe interviewed them maybe once before they started and got all that information an now has to apply it. And then, once or twice on the road, they caught them, but we’re more trying to tell it through just finding them doing what they’re doing and then putting it together. Once again, in editing I might go back and say, oh, no, now I’m going to have them record a bunch more things to just explain it, but we’re trying to be conscious of that. And the doc style—I think the reason that half of all TV comedies use it is because it’s so useful for comedy. It’s realism and naturalness and makes everything feel kind of found and cool, so it’s a huge style plus, I think, for the movie, too. Because they’re dressed so ridiculous and they’re in such ridiculous situations, I think it’s really that they can—there’s like a wolf attack in the movie and I think we treat it pretty real for a wolf attack.
I didn’t expect to hear that, but okay!
And then in a big comedy it would just be like—in a movie that was supposed to look like—a big glossy one, maybe it would look more just like, obvious. And in this one, maybe it could feel a little bit more like it just sort of happened.
Rodney was giving us some backstory about the Style Boyz, I think the portrayal is like a boy band, but—
Let me wait for this [performance on stage]. I have to check the lighting cues. It’s basically two lighting cues on top of each other. [Pause for scene take.] As you can see, pure collision. Also, I think when they’re arguing, they’ll have their mics down you so guys won’t be able to hear it.
The Style Boys were described as a boy band — the Beastie Boys meet Sublime, but he said to check with you guys about it.
That sounds fair. yeah. It’s not — I don’t know if I would go Sublime, but it’s not pure Beastie Boys either. It’s definitely not a boy band in the sense that you’d be thinking of. It’s much more like—like our Lonely Island thing or something. Yeah, Beastie Boys is pretty fair. They’re just a little bit dumber than the Beastie Boys were. Let’s say License to Ill Beastie Boys. Like when they were doing their fake Beastie Boys that were more offensive and lame. I mean, they were awesome. Fight for Your Right to Party, yeah, exactly.
What parallels are there between the Style Boyz and Lonely Island? Their trajectories?
Not really very many. There’s elements of—I mean, making Andy the star was—we were like, oh we’ll make you the big one, so there was that parallel. Just in that way, but almost every other personality trait and stuff, were not like, I’m not playing somebody similar to who I am. Any writing, comedy or drama, you pull from people you’ve seen and things you know, so there are elements of us, but it’s not delineated between the three of us.
When you say “making Andy a star,” you mean…
Well, he was, as I said, the Beyonce to the Destiny’s Child, and in real life he’s more famous than me or Jorma. It’s that way in the movie. I mean, Jorma’s being pushed—he becomes the Ryan Lewis to his Macklemore. He becomes his DJ, and midway through the movie, Andy’s character makes him wear a helmet on stage like Dedmouse, to make the show sparkle more, but it’s really because he sees that, on his downward spiral, he’s the only friend that can still tell him the truth. And be like, you’re messing up and he just wants to silence him. So you can see, when he gets up on the DJ booth, he has this big, light up helmet on to silence him and I’m on a farm. He was all mad at the way he was treated when he went solo and I left the business altogether. So me and Jorma have not done that.
Did you have to do a coin flip for those roles?
No, I didn’t want to be on camera as much so I was like, I’ll be out on a farm. Question: Why didn’t you want to be on camera as much? Akiva Schaffer: Oh, I mean, I’m kind of just joking. I liked the idea of making a hard choice for myself, because I haven’t acted very much, and I was like, it will be good. I’ll be on a farm. I know exactly how to play that. The song you’re hearing, that’s Adam Levine. He’s not here today. In the movie, I believe he’s actually a hologram. We’re shooting that in the next two days. I think we’re going to make him like a Tupac hologram on stage.
Is it you and Jorma directing?
Yeah, we’re co-directing.
How did that work? I mean, obviously you’re here and working, and he’s up there [on set].
Well, generally I’d be up there, too, but we divvy it up here for a second. We generally are doing everything together, I would say. I think if we hadn’t written it together it would be more difficult, but because we spent the last year on and off, putting it together and going through all the pre-production and the scouting and everything, to be honest, Andy could answer all the questions, too. The three of us know everything pretty well, so it’s easy to do it.
How has your collaborative approach changed since working together on Hot Rod? Which is one of my favorite movies. For reals.
Nope. Nope. That’s garbage. Thanks for bringing that up. I don’t know how it changed. I mean. We’re all just married now and adults and some of us have kids. So it’s changed in the same way everyone’s lives change. But the collaboration is relatively similar when we get in a room. Sometimes we fool ourselves and say we’re going to be quicker and not stay up late or be able to get things done in a more smooth way, but ultimately it just goes back to the way it was at SNL when we’re just locked in a room.