Exactly 10 years ago today, on May 21, 2010, a raunchy action comedy inauspiciously premiered in theaters. It was called MacGruber, and it was based on a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch with a rather basic premise: The titular, MacGyver–like lead character (Will Forte) and his trusty sidekick Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) were always in situations where a bomb would have to be disarmed, and they would inevitably always fail. That’s it, that’s the gag.
While critics weren’t unanimously against MacGruber, even people who thought it was okay still seemed to think the film was slight to the point of being unnecessary. (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott pointedly asked in the lede of his review, “Why does this exist?”) Perhaps that sort of critical reaction is to be expected for a film with not one but two scenes in which a person parades around with a celery stick up his butt. But audiences were also indifferent — in the end, MacGruber grossed just $9.3 million, not even enough to cover the fairly measly $10 million budget.
The story might have ended there except … MacGruber was actually hilarious. Genius even. Directed by SNL writer and Lonely Island member Jorma Taccone, who wrote the screenplay with Forte and fellow SNL writer John Solomon, MacGruber is an unusual but highly effective mix of two wildly different comedy styles — proudly stupid slapstick and very smart and deadpan ’80s action-movie parody. Along with Forte and Wiig, the movie stars a bevy of invaluable ringers who play this silly material straight: Val Kilmer, Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe. As a director, Taccone is also adept at directing bombastic action sequences that work surprisingly well at face value as enjoyably dumb adventure fare.
The result is a film that actually outsmarted many of the critics who condescended to it back in 2010, given MacGruber‘s eventual well-deserved status as a cult favorite. To celebrate the movie’s 10th anniversary, I phoned Will Forte earlier this week to talk about my favorite bits — the throat rips, the endless sex scenes, Powers Boothe’s impervious reactions to Forte’s absurdity — as well as his feelings about how MacGruber was initially received.
What I found is that the film’s box office failure is still raw for him. (He likened our interview to a therapy session.) Though it wasn’t enough to discourage him and the other creative minds behind MacGruber to push forward with a TV series that will hopefully soon see the light of day.
Put yourself back exactly 10 years ago. The reviews for MacGruber are coming in, as are the box office numbers. Neither of them are all that positive. What was that weekend like for you?
Oh, it was a real rollercoaster. We didn’t have a lot of time to think too much about it because we were still doing SNL at the time. The SNL season ended on a Saturday, obviously, and then I think it was that next week. We just had a week of doing press, and we were excited going into it. We were proud of what we had done, and the screening went so well at South by Southwest. The reviews, although not all were rosy, there were some that were pretty good. And we never went into it thinking we’d get any good reviews. So to have even some legit good reviews was an exciting thing.
So it was all kind of the perfect storm to rip our hearts out. To have it shit the bed was hard. I mean it didn’t… Other movies do that poorly, too, and we had kind of a low budget. So I guess we didn’t shit it in a historically bad way. It’s just tough when your SNL character is about a bomb going off. It’s going to play right into the hands of the headline writers.
This is something I don’t think most people appreciate: You spend so much time making a movie, and then it can be forgotten after just one bad weekend. At the time, did you think MacGruber was dead on arrival?
Oh, sure, yes. It was very tough. It was very tough. I’m no stranger to being in movies that bomb. So I was used to it. But there was something about this one that was different, because this was the first time that we actually got to be a part of something where we got to control it. Where we were given an opportunity to make the exact movie that we wanted to make. It was tough because everything inside of you is loving this movie, and you know the outside world only really sees what the box office numbers are. It’s hard to tell your mom, “Oh it was worth it for all your friends to go see this disgusting, filthy movie because look, it did well at the box office.” It didn’t really have anything like that. So you just had to believe in it in your heart. And at the time it took a while. You wrestled with that inner conflict of, “Oh jeez, it didn’t do well. Was I just crazy?”
But then after a couple of weeks, the other stuff kind of goes away and you can have some perspective on it. A week or two later, John, and Jorma and I all got together and talked. And we said, you know what? Fuck it. Fuck everyone who didn’t go see it. We love this movie, and we’re not crazy. This was a movie we’re proud of. We’re going to remain proud of it, and let’s move on with our heads held high. And that was where it was at. Because there was no reason to think that it was going to get a second chance by other people at that point.
When did you realize that MacGruber had become a cult movie?
I started hearing little by little, “Oh my friend watched MacGruber, and all their buddies in college really like it.” And you go, oh that’s nice. But how do I know? The full extent of it could just be a couple of tiny little clusters. But it’s nice to hear, no matter what, to hear that people after the fact got a chance to check out the movie. We didn’t give a shit about how much money it made. We just wanted people to see it because we were proud of it.
It’s tough when you are the actual person who is the title character. People are kind of forced to say those things to you about it. So I can’t really accurately judge. If I was one of my friends and somebody came up and said, “Hey we loved MacGruber,” then I would believe it a little more. I mean, I am delighted to think that people would consider it a cult movie, if that is the case. But I certainly will not ever think that. I’m super proud of it, and I love thinking that people have given it a second chance because that’s all we ever wanted — was for people to watch it. And that was the worst part of the whole thing. I’m totally rambling here.
No. Go ahead.
This is a real therapy session! One of the toughest things was there were definitely some reviews of it where you could tell that people just hadn’t seen it. Not all of them. Some reviewers legitimately watched it and hated the shit out of it. We just wanted people to give it a fair shot and hate it after watching it. We didn’t want you to hate it beforehand.
I read some of the MacGruber reviews recently. In the lede of the New York Times review, A.O. Scott asked, “Why does this exist?”
I don’t give a shit what he says. Would I have liked him to like it? Sure. But if I went into it and you said, “What do you think A.O. Scott’s going to say?” I would say, oh he’s going to fucking hate this! So, yeah, I don’t give a shit. By the way, fucking David Letterman loved it. That’s what I care about. He was one of my heroes.
To what degree was the film’s connection to Saturday Night Live a hindrance? SNL films have a checkered reputation for being a little thin and just reiterating the beats of the original sketch. But the great thing about MacGruber is that the connection to SNL is pretty glancing. You take the character and this world in a completely new direction. In a way, I wonder if you could have made an action-comedy with a similar lead character with a different name, and avoided that baggage.
I have no idea. Do you remember that movie Who Killed the Electric Car? It came out 15 years ago, and they kept going through and saying, was it the government? Was it the auto industry? And basically the answer was, it was all of them. Basically, I think that’s what it was, just a little bit of everything going in. I think expectations were so low that some people were just like, “Oh this can’t possibly be any good. I’m not going to give it a shot.” I’m sure there were some people where their expectations were incredibly low, and we dove under their already super low expectations. I’m not trying to say this is freaking Citizen Kane. I’m just saying I feel like it didn’t deserve that kind of level of, what I thought was, poorness. I don’t know how to say it.
In a way, MacGruber reminds me of another film that Jorma Taccone directed, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, which I think is one of the best comedies of the last 10 years, and it also did poorly at the box office. Maybe the problem is that this kind of comedy — where it’s very dumb and very smart at the same time — is weirdly hard to market.
Hot Rod is so freaking funny, too. It makes me feel better when I see movies that I freaking just love where the same thing happens. I don’t wish that on other movies. But at least it makes me feel better, because I’m like, okay, yeah, this is a freaking super great movie.
MacGruber pulls this clever trick on ’80s action movies, in that movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon usually have a scene or two of just gratuitous female nudity, while nearly all of the nude scenes in MacGruber are done by you. Is it true that the movie was in danger of getting an NC-17 rating?
I remember something about the number of pumps in the sex scenes. It was all about pumps. Like, that was the term that was used, too, in the official document of that ratings board stuff. It was all about pumps. I was always the guy who wanted probably double the amount of pumps than everybody else did. Jorma would want a little bit less and John would be somewhere in the middle. John is the sane person of the three of us. It goes John, and then Jorma and then me in levels of sanity.
I have to compliment you on your orgasm sound in the Kristen Wiig sex scene. It might be the grossest orgasm in the history of movies.
It’s pretty repulsive, right?
Yes. Hilarious and also very disturbing.
That was Kristen’s birthday. I felt so bad for her. My present to her was dripping her with sweat and body hairs. She is fucking obviously the funniest person on the planet, but just the coolest too and just game for everything. Just will do anything. I’m not breaking a major story there. Everybody knows this. But she’s just the best there is.
Is it easier or harder to do a sex scene with someone you’re friends with?
It is definitely easier to do it with somebody you’re friends with. And actually Maya’s sex scene is a real testament to that. Everything I just said about Kristen, you can also shift over and say it about Maya. She is just amazing. I went through The Groundlings with her in the mid-’90s. So I’ve known her forever, and she’s like family. She was like eight months pregnant at the time, and so that’s how amazing she is. Comes out to New Mexico, it’s a night shoot. She’s out there carrying this big baby. There’s these gravestones and she’s got to sit on there with no back support. So we would have her in there for the closeups. And then we would have a body double for the wide shots. I had to do a lot of that sex stuff with this woman I just met on that night. I had this little, like a coin purse, cinched onto my genitals. And this woman’s just got this hairy stranger thrusting away.
One of my favorite bits in the movie is when MacGruber attempts to a get a bowling-style “turkey” of throat rips. I assume the throat rip is a Road House reference?
We had all seen Road House. It must have been that. I’m so bad with memories of movies, that I don’t remember that throat rips came from that. But I bet the other guys did. Are there other movies where they rip people’s throats out? I mean, I just love ripping whatever out.
Val Kilmer is so great in MacGruber. How did you get him in the movie?
That came out of the blue. We were going to do a table read, and I don’t think we knew who we wanted. The casting people asked him to come to do the table read as a favor. And he said yes, and then he came. And what we found out afterwards is that he delivered a complete cold read, and he was fucking awesome. As you would imagine because he’s Val Kilmer. The shoot was out in New Mexico, which is where he lived at the time. And we started hearing, oh yeah, Val might do this movie. And we couldn’t believe it. We were so excited.
You and Val do a lot of very close talking in the movie. And it makes me think about those iconic scenes between Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun, where they hate each other but it also looks like they’re about to kiss. Was that a deliberate homage?
Huh. You know what? I don’t know. That move is a move that I just love in all movies. That people who hate each other’s guts and are right up in each other’s faces. And for sure Top Gun is an amazing version of that. But I don’t know that I would say that we specifically took it because of that.
I’ve clearly thought a lot about MacGruber. And I think Val Kilmer is the Marlon Brando of close face-talking.
Oh yeah. It was so fun getting to do this with him. Because he became part of our little weird family there. A couple of years after we made MacGruber, he was moving out of his place in Malibu and he said, “Hey can I stay with you while I am getting a new place out here?” And I said, “Yeah sure,” thinking it would be a couple of days. And it was two and a half months. It was while he writing his wonderful Mark Twain one-man show, which I got to see basically every stage of. He’s an indescribable, wonderful person.
I also wanted to ask you about Powers Boothe, who is the most deadpan person in the whole movie. His performance seems the most like an authentic ’80s action movie performance, and it’s so funny as a result. Did you have to coach him to keep him so straight?
First of all, what a guy he was. That is such a tremendous loss. We were just so sad when we heard that he passed a couple of years ago. Because he just was such a sweetheart of a guy, and obviously such a talented actor. And to have him come do this part and besmirch his otherwise scintillating record, again, I will use the term blessed.
There were certainly some times when he was not quite sure how he was supposed to play it. I think it was mainly the first time that I said I would suck his dick or let him fuck me. And he’s like, how am I reacting? And basically we said a few words to him, and then he delivered what you see on film. Which is just perfection. It’s just playing it totally straight, not seeing any cracks. And really it’s because of his performance, and Ryan Phillipe’s performance, that the movie is grounded and seems like an action movie.
You, Jorma Taccone and John Solomon are currently working on a MacGruber TV series. What’s the status of that?
It’s no secret it’s a weird time right now. And I just don’t know how this will affect things moving forward. It was looking really good for us before and we were able to keep writing. But we don’t have the official green light yet. This changes the possibilities of that happening. I still am feeling very positive about it. I know John and Jorma are, too. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed and we’re continuing to write and polish it up, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to do it.
What’s the premise?
It’s a continuation of the movie. It starts about seven years after the end of the movie. And let’s just say that the situation is pretty different than we left it.
What is it about this character that keeps you coming back?
It’s a really fun character to do because it’s such an absurd guy and it’s really fun to say stupid stuff. But the main part of it is just the group of people that we get to work with. Everybody’s so good at what they do. But more than that, they’re fun, awesome people. Even when the movie was just shitting the bed, we were already thinking about doing another one. We were like, this is just too wonderful a collection of people. I want to have them back in my lives for another couple of months. So, why not, you know?