Interview: 'Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping' Co-Director Jorma Taccone On How Steven Spielberg Helped Make One Great Joke Happen

The Lonely Island joined forces 15 years ago. Instead of waiting around and struggling to find work, the trio – Jorma TacconeAndy Samberg, and Akiva Schaffer – began generating their own, which led to them working on Saturday Night Live. "Lazy Sunday," "Dick in a Box," "Laser Cats," and their other digital shorts are some of SNL's most memorable sketches from the past decade or so. The Lonely Island has always had a talent for music as well, a skill that's on full display in their latest project, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

Samberg stars as Conner4Real, a pop star struggling with ego and failure, and Schaffer and Taccone co-star as his former bandmates. The trio co-wrote the film, and Schaffer and Taccone also co-directed. Taccone, whose last feature was MacGruber (he'll make the sequel "before he dies," he promised), was kind enough to discuss Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping with us.

Below, read our Jorma Taccone interview (minor spoilers are ahead).

Taccone: Sorry, we're just trying to figure out phone stuff. How are you?

It's no problem. I'm doing good, thanks. How about yourself?

No, it's all good. I'll bring this over here. I'm sorry, I'm just trying to be relaxed, sitting on the couch while I talk to you. All right. Here we go, this is great. Oh man, I'm so relaxed. You're going to feel it in the interview. You're going to go, man, this guy's relaxed.

[Laughs.] It's obvious over the phone you've got a good energy going.

Thank you. We're doing a lot of press, so I'm slightly punchy.

[Laughs.] I understand. The noise that Owen's (Taccone) helmet makes, is that a sound effect from War of the Worlds?

I'm so glad you brought this up, because yes, it is the sound from War of the Worlds. From even the moment we saw the trailer to that we were like, "Holy shit." That one and the Prometheus trailer just had the best, clearly made for those movie sound effects, that we were like, there's nothing better than this.

We don't make mention of it, but nothing else would do. They tried to replace it. They told us we'd never get the rights to this. We were told we would not get the rights to many things in this movie, but we were told absolutely no way [for this]. We had made a "Laser Cats" on SNL and Steven Spielberg was in it. We were also friendly with his daughter through our buddy. We had contacts with him, called his office directly, asked for permission, and got an email confirmation from him, and that was good enough for the lawyers at Universal. I'm sure we had to pay some amount of money, but it had to be approved by Steven Spielberg, which is very funny.

What else was difficult to acquire the rights for?

One of the other things that we were told immediately that would never happen was with this one joke at the beginning of the movie. There is a mention of a former DJ of ours, who is played by DJ Nu-Mark and it's mentioned that he went off to Japan to hunt dolphins at one point. There is a picture that we use that is directly from the documentary The Cove, and we were friendly with the writer of that movie. We were told by the lawyers, whose job it is to protect the film, and good on them for that, and... They were like, "You want us to get the rights from the Oscar Award-winning documentary The Cove?" We actually contacted them personally again and got the rights to the photo. We did a lot of that.

There was a lot of like going out, using every personal relationship we've ever had, or a third party, a friend of a friend kind of relationship to be able to be able to get the rights. We had to approve a lot of stuff like that. So you'll notice there's a cutaway of Justin Bieber and Jay-Z, and those obviously have to be approved by those camps. We hope they'll take it into account that Bieber's a supporter, and he's worked with us before. He's been nothing but kind to us. We feel the same way about him.

Popstar Never Stop Never Stopping green-band trailer

There's a lot of jokes that in the film, like namechecking the DP of Joel Schumacher's Flatliners, that just gives this specificity to the jokes. Even though this is the biggest movie you guys have made, it still has those out-of-left-field touches. 

Our standard is still trying to make each other laugh. That maybe is an advantage, not that we're in an insulated crew, because obviously with many, many outside influences that also become a part of our group. It's like [producer] Judd [Apatow], [producer] Rodney Rothman, and all of our other friends that are really funny contributed jokes to this movie.

That is our standard, always trying to make each other laugh. We're very responsive to what we think works story-wise or works with an audience. We go through like a standard testing process, and we're not just saying, "We love it, so we're putting it in!" [Laughs.] If it doesn't get a laugh, it's not that we immediately take it out, if it's something that we love, love, love. There are things in this movie that we had to take out not just because of an audience response but because of time. We wanted the story just to be moving forward at a certain pace.

I'm glad that you noticed, that there are still things for us and things that are detail jokes, that maybe you wouldn't even notice on a first viewing, but on a second or third time. I think our goal is to make movies that feel like you could watch them over and over again, not just a one time and you're done kind of deal.

With the first draft, do the three of you let your imaginations run wild? What sort of shape was the first draft in?

There were a ton of extra scenes written for this movie, alt scenes, and just jokes we wanted to put in. So we had a sense of everything that we knew we wanted to get on the day, so to speak, and that draft was maybe 120 pages or something like that. Then there was also a 300-page alt and deleted scene document that was also with us every day. We knew once we got what we wanted and were on the page for a scene, we would also try then to get as much of that alt script. Because it is more of a documentary format, we could set things up fairly quickly and get alternate bits and deleted scenes, or things that might not have been but we would try to throw into the edit.

There are maybe an hour and a half, or an hour and 40 minutes, of deleted scenes that will be on the DVD. Some of that was very difficult to cut because we loved it. For whatever reason, it wouldn't work with the story. So it was a balance, always a balance of trying to tell a good story and one that people found engaging, while at the same time trying to keep as much of the stuff that we thought was really funny in.

[Spoilers ahead.]

The final song and scene in the film ends the story on a great note. How did that song and sequence evolve from the beginning to what we see now? 

That song was originally... This happened a couple of times where there was a Style Boyz song that became a Conner song, or there was a Conner song that became a Style Boyz song. That originally was written as a Conner song, since it matched his vibe. It felt big and epic enough, very much in the wheelhouse of the kind of thing that we thought was funny that Lawrence's character would have written on the farm. It was a process of finding it and wanting to have some big, epic song to end the movie with, but also became more epic as we added people to it. Obviously, adding Michael Bolton to the chorus, and then we wanted to have that feeling of joy, where things are paying off, so we wanted to be able to have Tim [Meadows]'s character have a big moment with his sax playing. He's a musician in the movie, and we wanted him to be able to come back and have a big epic moment.

Then, obviously playing off Justin Timberlake's character of... because it's so funny, the idea that he's embarrassed to sing to us. So it became more epic as it went on. That was the vibe for the whole writing process. The music was being created both before the writing of the script and then during it. So like, for a song like "Two Banditos," we knew that would help with Conner and Chris Redd's character [Hunter the Hungry] just becoming friends. That was something that as we got to that part of the writing process, we went and made the song, then we had that. The whole process was kind of malleable.

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is now in theaters.