Q&A with MacGruber director, Jorma Taccone
Berkeley-raised comedian goes behind-the-camera to shoot action comedy based on his Saturday Night Live creation
When MacGruber hits multiplexes next month, Lafayette-raised Will Forte won’t be the only East Bay tie to the feature film. Director and co-writer Jorma Taccone is another local guy—Taccone grew up in Berkeley before making it big with childhood buddies Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer. The Saturday Night Live MacGruber character was Taccone’s idea, though originally envisioned as a five-minute sketch. I caught up with Taccone on his way to a Saturday Night Live rehearsal, just as he was making his final edits on MacGruber.
Peter Crooks: The film blogosphere felt its collective jaw drop when the MacGruber feature film was announced—how did the movie project come together?
Jorma Taccone: It happened really quickly. Maybe the fastest turnaround possible for a feature film. Getting a movie made is a new process for me. From the moment we finished the script to the moment it will be in theaters is about 14 months—that’s really fast.
JT: What really made the movie happen was the success of the Pepsi commercials we made for the  Super Bowl. Those happened really quickly as well. We had been working on a MacGruber sketch for SNL where we had him “sell out”—and then Pepsi approached us about shooting a series of spots, as a possibility for their Super Bowl ads. We were super excited to get paid for an idea that we were already working on.
JT: We got Richard Dean Anderson [TV’s MacGyver] for the spots and we shot six of them in one day. At the last minute Pepsi decided they wanted to run them. 109 million people watched that Super Bowl—it was a really close game—and the MacGruber ads aired in the fourth quarter. People responded very favorably and the next thing we knew [Universal Pictures] wanted to see a movie script.
PC: But you were filming Saturday Night Live, which every one knows is a very intense production. When did you have time to bang out a script?
JT: We wrote the script in our off weeks, really every minute of time off that we had. We all moved into Will’s house to write it. We came up with a script that was 175 pages long—the typical script for a film comedy like this would be 100 or 110 pages, so we have for MacGruber 2 if we are ever asked to make one. [Laughs]
PC: On SNL, the MacGruber sketches are like two minutes long—how did you stretch it out to make a 90 minute movie?
JT: Well, we were super excited about having the chance to make a big action movie. Basically the plot of every sketch is that he is a man with many flaws who makes the wrong decision—and he blows up after about a minute. But the blank canvas we had in creating a film around this character was really exciting. We were all big fans of late 80s/early 90s action movies: Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Robocop—those are the movies we were going to growing up.
This isn’t a spoof. I don’t like that, word spoof, it gives me the creeps. We wanted to make our own version of those films, not a Naked Gun type of movie. In fact, when we cast Powers Boothe, he told me he was nervous that we wanted to him to do the role like Leslie Nielsen. Powers is this intense, dramatic actor—he was just amazing on Deadwood—so he was relieved that I told him, “No you’ll play this straight.”
And we needed to have an evil villain character: we came up with a great one. [Val Kilmer plays MacGruber’s nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth]
PC: Were you intimidated by the idea of directing a big Hollywood film?
JT: It seems crazy, I guess, when you think about it. But I direct the MacGruber’s on Saturday Night Live; those were the really the first bits that I had directed on the show.
I was eased into the idea of doing something larger. On SNL, you have maybe 20 or 30 people working on something. On the movie set, we had more like 100. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.
But once we were are on set, everything sort of came together. We had an amazing director of photography: Brandon Trost, he loves the genre we are trying to replicate. We had amazing stunt teams, everyone just worked really hard to make it come together. This movie wasn’t made for a ton of money by Hollywood standards. We had to figure out how to shoot the entire thing in 28 days. Our first week had a huge opening sequence, a shoot out and a van blowing up, lots of stuff I had never done before. Directing was fascinating: To consider all these different decisions you can make for any particular shot or sequence.
PC: Do you read the Internet to see what people are saying about the film while you are working on it?
JT: Yes, I have to read that stuff, find out what people are writing. People are pre-disposed to say the SNL sketches don’t work as movies, I keep reading these things on the Internet that this movie will be like It’s Pat (the 1994 flop about an androgynous office worker).
If people are expecting It’s Pat, they are in for a surprise, MacGruber has murder and cursing and a bunch of sex. Even the R-rated trailer is much tamer than the actual movie.
PC: How much fun did you have directing Val Kilmer in the villain role?
JT: Oh, man, he’s the best. When Val came in for our table read, I’m pretty sure he was reading the script cold. But he just nailed it. I was just super excited to get him and he’s become a really good friend.
PC: The rest of the cast isn’t what I’d expect—I figured it would have lots of SNL cameos.
JT: Right, we know a lot of funny people but we did not want to cast that way. Like Powers Boothe, who was amazing on Deadwood and he had done all these serious roles he told me, ‘I’m really surprised I’m being asked to do this.’ He was just relieved that he was not going to have to play it like Leslie Nielsen. Ryan Phillippe had not been in that sort of movie either. I’m really pleased with the way we cast the film with serious actors around Will and Kristen Wiig.
PC: We’re featuring Will Forte on the cover this month, because he’s from the East Bay and this is a big breakthrough role. What is it like collaborating with Will?
JT: Working with Will is amazing. His brain is the most wonderful thing to experience. He is amazingly funny.
As an actor, he is exactly what we needed for this movie. You can only pull it off if you are 110 percent behind it. We could not have done this movie with anyone else. We were working on the script throughout the shoot. We’d give Will all these new pages, and he would go out and run five miles and memorize his lines and then just nail it the next day.
He is the hardest working guy I’ve ever met, just a huge workaholic and a perfectionist. He never gets sick—he’s a machine. And he could not be a nicer dude, just a sweetheart of a human being.
PC: Your dad, Tony Taccone is the artistic director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Did he prepare you to become a film director?
My parents really encouraged my brother and to go into the arts. They taught us that being allowed to be creative—that is the greatest gift. The point is being to share something with the world.
JT: I learned a lot from watching him work with actors, or direct a big production, but it is interesting to see how different film is from theater. That technical side is such a different process. The left brain side of yourself—looking at the lighting or how the camera is moving, learning Final Cut and shooting on a green screen.
As far as taking anything directly from my dad, well— he works with people like Tony Kushner and some of the best writers in the country. And I’m coming up with skits about putting your penis in a box. [Laughs]
PC: The last time I spoke with you, you told me that you were the one who first mentioned the idea of staging Green Day’s American Idiot album as a rock opera at Berkeley Rep. I spoke with your dad after that and he confirmed it. Did you get a chance to see American Idiot when it broke box office records at the Rep?
JT: No, the biggest bummer to me about working too much on SNL is that it keeps you isolated from so much family time and so many cultural experiences like that. Fortunately, American Idiot is coming to Broadway, so I will get to see it here. I can’t wait!
The reason I thought that would be such a fit for the Rep is that those guys from Green Day are from the East Bay area. I have never seen the kind of passion and love that people have for the East Bay area anyplace else. I think it is the greatest place on Earth, and I love running into people from the East Bay.
We had Green Day on the final show of last season and at the afterparty I saw Billie Joe Armstrong and Andy Samberg having this really animated conversation. I went over to them and said, “You guys are talking about Gordo’s [Taqueria on College Ave.] aren’t you?” They were!