In hindsight, it seems crazy it took this long to get a Lonely Island movie, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was well worth the wait. After making their mark on SNL, helping to usher the show into the digital age, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer entered the feature film world in various combinations with movies like Hot Rod, MacGruber, and The Watch. But it wasn’t until Popstar that the three were granted the opportunity to create a feature film from the ground up, together, and make it whatever they wanted. Producer Judd Apatow helped shepherd the film through production, but Popstar is 100% The Lonely Island through and through.
The mockumentary story of a successful solo artist (Samberg) whose sophomore album bombs spectacularly, right at the beginning of a new tour, is chock-full of the trademark ridiculousness and absurdity that makes The Lonely Island’s stuff so much fun, but the film also has a surprisingly effective emotional center—three childhood friends who were changed and broken up by the quest for fame and notoriety. And of course the soundtrack is phenomenal, with Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone putting a tremendous amount of work into crafting songs that are hilarious but also genuinely catchy.
Alas, when Popstar hit theaters last summer, audiences didn’t show up. The film was beaten opening weekend by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel, with Captain America: Civil War still lighting up the box office. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the intended audience for Popstar didn’t find the movie. But now the film has an opportunity for a second wind as it premieres on HBO on Saturday, July 8th, where it will hopefully develop the devoted following a film this funny, this memorable, and this good deserves.
With the HBO debut impending, and given my personal borderline-obsessive love for the film, I recently got the chance to speak with Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone for an exclusive, extended interview about all things Popstar. We discussed the film’s inception, how they went about writing the songs and script at the same time, and how the post-production process proved incredibly intensive with an enormous amount of footage to sift through. We also discussed the film’s release, with the trio remaining diplomatic about how the movie was handled while also pointing to a couple of things here and there that indicated Popstar may not be a giant hit. It’s a wide-ranging, candid, and unsurprisingly funny interview that I do feel any fan of the film, or the work of these three guys, will enjoy.
I do feel Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is going to have a very long and healthy life as a cult favorite, and hopefully the film’s rotation on HBO will help grow the legion of Popstar fans. The interview begins with me pointing out the recent resurgence for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s underperforming spy thriller that itself received a second wind on HBO and has spurred talk of a sequel.
AKIVA SCHAFFER: Adam was saying The Man From U.N.C.L.E. got a big resurgence on HBO because nobody saw in the theater.
ANDY SAMBERG: I watched that movie on demand and really liked it.
SCHAFFER: Yeah, we all did.
That’s the thing, a lot of these movies really get kind of a second wind on HBO. It seems like it’s the Blockbuster of today now, and a friend of mine interviewed Guy Richie and was like, “Everyone loves Man From U.N.C.L.E.” And Guy Richie didn’t believe him. He was like, “I’m telling you, that movie has fans.”
JORMA TACCONE: Yeah, silver lining on a much smaller cloud. But still pretty exciting. We just want people to see it, so …
SAMBERG: I believe you were saying that Popstar is as good as Silver Linings Playbook, is that right?
TACCONE: Thank you for interpreting that correctly. That’s what I was saying. Oscar worthy, definitely.
SCHAFFER: I always compared it to The Fighter.
TACCONE: Yeah, yeah but definitely one of his canon. It definitely feels like a David O. Russell joint.
I know that you guys and Judd both kind of had the idea to do something with this music documentary format. But I was curious, was it always a pop star? How did you kind of hit upon the idea of Conner4Real and The Style Boyz as the central part of this movie?
SAMBERG: Kiv feel free to correct this, but my recollection is in the beginning we had talked about doing more like a fictionalized version of ourselves and in a mockumentary style, and Akiva had a general meeting with Judd and Judd said that he thought we should do like a mockumentary, more in the vein of a pop star, but also about us, and we said that’s basically the idea we were already interested in doing. But I think Judd was geared more towards like a singular pop star, and we kind of took that and tried to turn it into like an amalgam of everything that was happening in pop music at the time.
SCHAFFER: I’ll clarify that a little bit just because I was in L.A. and in the meeting or whatever. Judd was not that specific. He was just basically like, “You three, music mockumentary, go.” So he would have been fine with it being a boy band, but boy bands barely exist these days beyond like One Direction. And so we were kind of like, the modern thing out there now is Drake, Justin Bieber, Kanye, just people, just singular superstars. But he wanted it to be a movie about the three of us, so we were like, “All right, we’ll figure that out.” So that’s why it’s the Style Boyz and him.
TACCONE: And I did feel like we kind of walked back into that too. Because even when we did our first table read, I think that the response that the three of us were surprised by was that people actually wanted more of the story of the three of us, which I think was a little hard for us. It was certainly hard for me a little bit just because it felt like, “Oh who’s going to care about this?” And it’s not us obviously, but it’s just diverting from that singular pop star kind of thing. It’s obviously a story that we enjoy telling but we were—I was a little nervous about it honestly, and the response we were getting was kind of pushing us more in that direction. That’s how it felt to me at least, I don’t know how these guys feel.
SCHAFFER: Yeah I would say it continually pushed to the three of us, and we had more stuff that was less about the three of us and that even just as we would show cuts to people and audiences and test audiences and everything, it just kept pushing more and more to be about the three of us.
TACCONE: And some of the reason that we really leaned into the singular pop star thing too, was just that we had watched so many of those documentaries, that there were a lot of funny bits that were either based on things we had seen. Like the Katy Perry documentary or this or that thing, like how the quick change thing came about or like, there was just a lot of those that just felt inspiring because there were so many of those documentaries, rather than like you know, there aren’t that many about NSYNC or anything.
SCHAFFER: Plus everybody just saw my performance as like a capital A actor and were just like, more of that.
TACCONE: In fact, there were two standing ovations during the table read right? They were like “Lawrence! Lawrence! Lawrence!”
SCHAFFER: Yeah, yeah I interrupted the whole thing, well if that happens in all the theaters nobody is even going to be able to hear the rest of the movie.
SAMBERG: Right, that would add that to the run time, because we’d hold for applause. Kind of the way the Marx Brothers used to do it, where they would time their performances and so we would have to be like, “Okay there is going to be like a five minute pause break here.”
SCHAFFER: Yeah so I guess that finally explains that five minute gap in the middle of the movie.
I will say the frog jizz outtake is the hardest I have laughed in a really long time.
SAMBERG: (Laughs) One of the most rad cuts we made. I love that.
TACCONE: I don’t think we really got through it very many times on set because we all thought it was funny.
It’s clear you guys shot a lot of footage for this, and the deleted scenes show a bunch of different directions the film could have gone, but how did the script develop and evolve before shooting began? Were there kind of different routes you guys were considering?
SCHAFFER: We put a ton of work into it but it was always kind of along the same path, right? Am I forgetting something guys? I feel like it was always kinda towards the same goal, just trying to write just tons of different stuff. And Judd would always just try to be that good third party keeping his eye on what it’s supposed to be, and just able to give us like gentle nudges to keep us on track essentially.
TACCONE: Yeah, yeah there was no huge plot shift. It was definitely a harder movie in the edit because it was just more malleable than other movies, like you could add a snapchat thing of him talking directly to camera. It kind of changed the tone of like the next 10 minutes of the movie. So there was a lot of us playing around in the edit of continuing to kind of write the story.
SAMBERG: We also had a lot of characters and songs that we liked and that was ultimately the hardest decisions to make because we didn’t want to cut anything, but we had way too much. And we also had way too much of Conner’s downfall, for some reason those scenes just came very effortlessly (laughs).
It gets dark in the deleted scenes.
SAMBERG: There’s a good hour of his downward spiral. But in the end the audience had the stomach for about 10 minutes of it.
SCHAFFER: And I mean to your question, yeah it wasn’t so much in the script phase as it was in the editing because it piggybacked on both of what they just said. Because you can just keep writing all the way to the last day of editing. You can always add another voiceover line or re-structure a whole section. Basically if you want to see all the ways it could go, it’s on the deleted scenes, as opposed to most movies where it’s just a page. You can actually just go watch all the different ways it could go, and every big musical number where we shot the whole thing but then couldn’t figure out a place in the movie to let it play the whole song. Like “Mona Lisa” is one of our favorites that we ever did yet we only show it in the movie for a second. The other opening of the movie where it actually showed all of “Mona Lisa” over like credits and stuff, I know we included the video, I’m not sure we included it in the context of that big jumbotron thing where we are throwing the hammer at the beginning of one of Conner’s concerts. That was always our intended beginning of the movie.
TACCONE: There was actually a moment where our editors were—we were just going and going and going and at one point our editors were like, “This is the most versions of a first act I’ve ever done on any movie.” At that point, and we were not done yet, we had 105 versions of the first act, and I remember there was a moment that we showed the movie to our buddies, Phil Lord and Chris Miller and a bunch of other very smart other people. And Phil pitched us like three different versions of the first act, and we could be like, “Yeah we tried every single one of those.” So it was like, it was nice to know, “Okay this is the best it’s ever going to be.” All you need to do is do it like 120 times (laughs).