Created by actor Will Forte and filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the Fox series The Last Man on Earth chronicles the life and adventures of an average guy, who discovers what life is like when no one is telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s the year 2020 and a deadly virus has swept the planet, leaving only Phil Miller (Forte). Driving his RV around the country in search for other survivors with no luck, he returns to his hometown of Tucson, resigning himself to being the last living being on the face of the earth.
During this recent interview with press to discuss the hilarious new and unique series, writer/executive producer/star Will Forte, along with executive producers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, talked about how tricky it is to protect the audience’s experience of watching the show, how they came up with this concept, what they would do, if they were the last person alive, the journey of Phil Miller, what makes this character special, the challenges of getting the pacing right, and which movies they turned to for inspiration. Will Forte also talked about the status of the MacGruber sequel, his goal of sitting down to write it in about a month, and that it looks like there is a very real possibility that it will get made.
WILL FORTE: It’s definitely tricky. It’s been tricky because we want to find that right blend of explanation and description of the show, but we also want to save some of the fun surprises. Unfortunately, we’re not going to know until after [it premieres], if we’ve struck the right balance. I feel there are so many discussions. I know that I am more on the side of keeping the secrets. But then again, I’ve really never been in anything that people have gone to go see, so I’m not a marketing genius, by any stretch.
PHIL LORD: The trick for us is that we want to protect the audience’s experience of watching the show. Part of it is getting to enjoy all of the delicious surprises. It’s one of the joys of Will’s writing. The marketing team has done a great job of saying, “Hey, kids, there’s a present under the tree.” But we still give everybody the opportunity to go under the tree and unwrap it instead of saying, “Hey, Santa got you something. And by the way, Santa doesn’t exist.” There’s no fun in that. I’m really happy that people have gone along with the ride. There are a lot of great surprises on the way. The one thing that’s challenging is seeing people say, “There’s no way that concept can last for an entire season.” We’re sitting here going, “You don’t know. There’s so much more to it.” But, we’re not able to say that. Hopefully, we can get the message across that there’s a lot more to come, and we just don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
FORTE: Yes, and pretty much every episode ends with a twist, or a cliffhanger, or a new development, so it’s pretty fun.
CHRIS MILLER: Well, it was a team effort. Phil and Will and I hung out for several days. We wanted to make a TV show together, and we’ve been friends for many years.
LORD: We came to Will, as a writer first. And then, we said, “Look, I obviously would love for you to be in this.” We met Will when he was a writer. That’s how he was paying his rent. And we just had so much respect for him and his voice, so we wanted to figure out the best vessel to get that on to television.
MILLER: And one of the ideas that we tossed around was this idea of something that takes place in a post-apocalyptic state, and all the questions that that brings up. It was something that Will sparked to immediately. And then, we basically went home and, over a weekend, wrote a treatment for an entire season, and it was amazing. It was just something that Will was really inspired by, and we were just excited to help support his vision.
FORTE: We knew that it was the right thing for us to work on because, once we settled on this concept, it just jumped out at us. It was almost hard to stop typing because it was just like we had talked about, with so many different areas. We were trying to figure out how to turn it into a show, and then this just leapt out at us, and it immediately felt like the right thing to do.
FORTE: A lot of the things that I would do are things that I actually do in the pilot and the first couple of episodes. It was a lot of wish fulfillment stuff. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, so if you give me a steamroller or a flame thrower and some breakables, I’m pretty good. Another thing that I think would be at the top of the list would be going and finding all the classified information that’s out there in Washington, D.C. and just figuring out what really was happening with all those conspiracy theories. I love that stuff.
MILLER: I’d go to Area 51 and see if there’s actually aliens there.
LORD: I honestly would be thrilled to just figure out how to make a fire and get back to basics. I’d want to just see what it’s like to live in ignorance for a little while.
How long do you think it would take you to go insane over being the last person on earth?
FORTE: I think I would go insane pretty quickly. Actually, I might last a little while because I get a hyper focus going, so I think I would probably get into some weird computer game that would take my mind off stuff for awhile. But inevitably, that would wear off and I would go crazy pretty quickly. I’m starting from a place of near craziness anyway, so it’s debatable that I’m not already there in a land with people.
MILLER: It would take seven months before I would go crazy. I could watch a lot of movies, distract myself, drive around, check out some stuff, but then, after seven months, I think I would go full-on crazy.
LORD: I vote for seven days. I enjoy myself entirely when my girlfriend is away. Seven days is great. But then, I get real lonely.
MILLER: People go on those weird retreats where they have to be quiet for seven days, all the time.
LORD: And they come back maniacs and schizophrenics.
MILLER: It’s been great. The show itself is so original and funny, and it’s been a real joy for us to work on something that is good, right out of the gate. It’s been a really good way to get back into television.
LORD: It really is one of the most enjoyable professional experiences that we’ve ever had, and probably the most fun shooting on a set that we’ve ever had. It all comes down to just having great collaborators, Will giving us such original material to start with, and being such a great creative partner on set. I’d say it couldn’t possibly be better. Certainly, we’ve spent a lot of time writing on sitcoms, and we wound up on How I Met Your Mother. That was the last thing we did before we went off to make Cloudy, and we felt insane because it was the first show we’d ever worked on that went past 13 episodes. The minute they hit Episode 17, we were like, “Alright, we’re leaving. We’re going to go try to make movies.” We left behind what would have been a very pleasant and comfortable life, so it’s really nice to come back and work in television again and have it be just as satisfying as that experience.
What can we look forward to, as far as how this guy is going to grow? What is the point of his journey?
FORTE: It’s very hard to answer that question and not give away some very tightly held secrets for what happens down the line. I guess the best way to answer it is that we had a plan, from the very beginning. We pitched the show with the general outline of the whole first season already pretty well thought out. We certainly had to buckle down and figure out a lot of intricacies and pain in the butt stuff, but the big, bold strokes of the season were already formed. And Fox loved the idea and really supported us, and liked how we had envisioned the arc of the first season. They were really great about giving us just a ton of creative freedom. They were great partners. I think we always saw this as more of a cable show, to be honest. They claimed from the get-go that they didn’t want to change the tone of the show, and I went in with an eyebrow raised thinking, “Okay, when’s it going to come out that we have to change it around?” But, they were great. They stuck by their pledge and let us make this different type of show, and we’re so happy to have had this experience. It was just a great, great experience.
LORD: I would also add that, even though it’s a very unusual show, Will’s original pitch had an emotional character arc for Phil Miller that is an extremely universal thing. When I show my hipster friends, they think this show is amazing. When I show my mom, she thinks the show’s amazing, too. People really relate to Phil’s struggle. When you’re asking about what this guy’s journey is going to be like, we always talked about him as this person who is very flawed. He’s a person who maybe needed the entire world to end, in order for him to become his best self. We’ve always talked about writing the show about somebody for whom the end of the world might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, and over 100 episodes, he basically turns into the person that we all hoped that he could be. He’s a guy who maybe wasn’t the best guy in the regular world, but if you took the regular world away, he could eventually get back to being the person that all of us hope that we can be.
FORTE: I’m used to the experience at SNL, where I was an absurd character, all the time, and had so much fun. It was such a blast. But, I don’t know that people ever really got to know who the heck I was. I was just the dude in these huge, thick mustaches, every week. I guess that’s a bad way to answer this because I do have an enormous beard in this show. This is a chance to play a character that’s a little closer to who I am in real life, and to be a real person. In a lot of ways, this is a combination of the SNL craziness side and the Nebraska, slightly more subdued side.
This seems perfect and effortless on camera, but what is the biggest challenge with getting the pacing for this right?
MILLER: Because the pacing is a really important part of it, we like to spend a lot of time in the editing room. Will is equally as fussy as we are, as far as what feels right. Then, we also like to watch these things with a group and see where people are engaged, and where people are fidgeting in their seats and checking their watches.
LORD: These are themes that land with a lot of different kinds of people. There were a few things that nobody got, but they got everything else. The big thing that was important to us, and important to Will, is that the performances didn’t feel fake, or zippy, or cartoon-y. With some of the stuff, it’s a very short moment, but the pacing of the moment within that space was very natural. We were really careful about making sure that the audience had time to project what they might be thinking and feeling, instead of being told that with dialogue, all the time. Sometimes when shows are cut really, really fast, they feel a little bit like they’re hiding something, or they’re a little scared to let you sit in the moment. So, it was really important to Will, in particular, to allow us to experience things with the characters. We think it adds to the engagement with the show. While we knew it was 21 minutes and it was on Fox, we wanted to make sure the show felt like it was never wasting your time. That’s really important. People are busy and they’ve got stuff to do, and we always take that really, really seriously. It’s the same thing with our movies. We wanted it to be immersive within the time that our audience is entrusting to us.
What are some post-apocalyptic or dystopian movies that you talk about in the writers room?
FORTE: There’s a ton of stuff. There are a bunch of very obvious ones that you would think of, from the get-go, like Omega Man, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, when he’s walking around the empty streets. But, one of the big things to me was my fascination with that show Life After People. I loved that show. I was so fascinated by it. When characters just wander around an empty city, it’s so fascinating to me. It always makes me wonder what it would be like, if I was that person, and what I would do. That was a big deal to me.
LORD: The one I can’t stop thinking about is Omega Man, just because it’s so crazy. I like the Will Smith version a lot, especially before the zombies show up, but the Charlton Heston version of that character is so B-movie, and his performance just really feels like a guy who went crazy, driving around with just a shotgun in a convertible. That just seems like the funniest thing to me. I felt like no one had explored how silly that experience would be. And in a strange way, Will wrote the most grounded, most real version of that experience. In a weird way, it felt like we were simultaneously doing the comedic version, but also the most honest version.
Will, have you just always had a natural gift for comic timing?
FORTE: I feel like being at The Groundlings, which is such a wonderful comedy improv theater in Los Angeles, it has become such a family to me. You get there and you feel protected and safe, and you really get this wonderful confidence being on stage. I don’t think that I would ever have found any kind of comedy timing, if I didn’t feel so safe in that environment. I would give all that credit to The Groundlings.
Do you have any updates on the MacGruber sequel?
FORTE: As for MacGruber 2, Jorma [Taccone], John [Solomon], and I have been so busy. John is working on the show with me. He’s writing and directing some of the episodes, so we’ve been going nuts on that. And Jorma is very busy with his own stuff. But we already have about half of an outline done, or maybe more than a half. The way we outline it is so in-depth that, by the time we actually sit down to write it, which I believe we’re planning to do in about a month – at least my goal is to just get right in there – I think we’ll have a script pretty quickly. And it does feel like there are some very real possibilities of places that might let us make it, which is very exciting. It seems like it could actually happen, which is very exciting.
The Last Man on Earth airs on Sunday nights on Fox.