‘Popstar’ Producer Rodney Rothman on New Lonely Island Songs, ‘Spinal Tap’ Influence

     May 18, 2016

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Last year, when Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was filming in Los Angeles, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. At the time, the film was shrouded in mystery, and we were all curious about the story and music. However, as a big fan of The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone), I knew whatever they were making would be funny and original. After watching Andy Samberg perform on stage as Conner4Real and talking with a number of the cast and the filmmakers about what they were trying to make, I left the set confident the finished film would be extremely funny.

If you haven’t seen any if the trailers, Samberg stars in the comedy as a rapper who, after his latest album bombs, re-forms his old boy band. Taking aim at the recent pop star documentary trend, directors Schaffer and Taccone blend behind-the-scenes shots with concert footage and a ton of celebrity cameos and the film looks hilarious. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping also stars Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Tim Meadows, Imogen Poots, and Maya Rudolph.

During a break in filming I got to participate in a group interview with producer Rodney Rothman. He talked about what the film is about, the original songs, if they were riffing on Spinal Tap at all, the cast and who they play, and so much more. Check out what he had to say below. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens in theaters June 3rd.

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Image via Universal Pictures

RODNEY ROTHMAN: As of today, there’s no official title for our movie, so I can’t give you the title, we’re figuring that out. But basically it’s our version, it’s really The Lonely Island guys’ version of a Katy Perry: Part of Me or Justin Bieber: Believe type movie. So by that I mean it’s a big, glossy tour documentary that follows an artist on six months of his life. And really it’s purported to be, it’s supposed to be propaganda, you know? It’s a two-pronged thing, it’s supposed to make the artist look really good, on the other hand it’s supposed to be up close and personal with the artist. It’s really kind of riffing on this whole idea that now being a pop star, being a rap artist, a big music icon is more about the branding than the music. That’s part of the idea. It’s their version of one of these movies where you’re a fly on the wall for six months, but also you have all these interstitial performances on the tour that are these big cinematic spectacular numbers, basically. So that’s what the movie is supposed to be.


What it really is it’s following this artist Conner4Real, who Andy [Samberg] is playing. So it’s “Conner 4 Real.” His given name is Conner Friel, so he’s turned that to Conner4Real. At a fairly early part in the movie, our film goes off the rails. It’s supposed to be documenting this guy, he had a huge first album, his second album is coming out, he’s going on this tour, his career has only gone up and things start not to go according to plan, and now there are all these cameras there and you’re watching someone who has never really faced adversity face adversity while everyone’s watching. And there’s sort of a central joke in the movie, which is that his name is Conner4Real, he tells you at the beginning of the movie he’s really all about being for real, he prides himself on giving his fans full access to him, he calls them “Conner Confessions”, he’s always talking to his fans. So there’s sort of a central joke that this is someone that’s actually not very honest with himself and isn’t really self-aware in any meaningful way, and this movie is kind of about him coming to terms with that. So that’s kind of the broad strokes of the movie.

Then, as far as the specifics, Andy is playing this character, the guys can obviously go more into detail about what their influences are, but he’s really no one person. One of the cool things to me about this movie is its very much The Lonely Island making a movie that’s like firmly in their wheelhouse. It draws on their ability to make music, talk about music, satirize music. It’s full of original music and not just for the main characters, but they’re basically building a full world of music, so you have some other musicians that are in the movie playing themselves, some musicians are in the movie playing characters who aren’t musicians, some musicians are in the movie playing other musicians that don’t actually exist, it’s sort of a big mix of things.

It’s very much like, for me I’m someone who has known The Lonely Island for a long time, and this is sort of the movie I always dreamed. I always wanted to see them make a movie like this that really just draws on their specific expertise. I genuinely think, the way I put it to myself is that they’re way far down a road that no one else is on, basically. The music they make is, I think is awesome, I think the music they made for this movie is fuckin’ awesome. It’s really authentic, to me, this is me talking, it’s so observant. There are jokes that I don’t get, that have to be explained to me, references in the music. So that’s sort of the coolest thing about this movie to me is that you’re taking these super talented people and you’re just giving them this playground to kind of go crazy and riff on a world they know really well. So that’s kind of the broad strokes, is there anything I can speak to?


popstar-never-stop-never-stopping-posterQuestion: Just in terms of the music, obviously The Lonely Island albums are comedy albums, comedy driven by music. For Conner’s songs, is it the same kind of thing, are the lyrics in themselves funny or how do you balance that line?

ROTHMAN: I think that line is going to be found officially in post, but it’s definitely something that we’re aware of. You’re right, The Lonely Island is comedy rap, this is supposed to be earnest music made by an idiot. So I would say that largely, I would say that there’s a mix of music. Some of the music has jokes, has comedy in it, similar to a Lonely Island song, some music, or just the more misguided music that a moron would make or it’s like real music but just 20% off, there’s really a whole variety of things. It’s definitely not Lonely Island music, it’s definitely more music for a character.

So none of this is the Lonely Island store? 

ROTHMAN: No, so the backstory is, Jorma [Taccone], Akiva [Schaffer] and Andy all play characters. They started out in a group called The Style Boyz, which, it’s funny because there have been articles –

I’m sorry, is this within the movie?

ROTHMAN: Yes, this is within the movie. It’s been written about so far as kind of a boyband, but they’re really not a boyband, they’re much close to like The Beastie Boys. A cross between, the guys would be able to speak more specifically, but it’s like The Beastie Boys crossed with Sublime. Really skate influenced rap punk.

That sounds awesome.

ROTHMAN: It is, their music is stupid, but it’s really catchy music. So they grew up in Sacramento, became pretty successful as The Style Boyz. However Conner, like in a lot of these groups, N*SYNC or whatever, there’s often one person who’s clearly more talented, or not even necessarily more talented just more charismatic.

The standout.

ROTHMAN: There’s a lot of things, and Conner is that person. He did a guest verse on a Claudia Cantrell song, she doesn’t exist in real life, but he did a guest verse on someone’s song, he became popular, he did a solo album, it was huge. He is effectively left – The Style Boyz don’t exist anymore. Jorma’s character is named Owen, and he’s Conner’s tour DJ, not dissimilar to a Ryan Lewis type. He was his producer, sidelined a little bit. And Akiva’s character has left the music business altogether. And this is kind of where we start. Conner is not Justin Timberlake, he really isn’t. But it’s that kind of paradigm, where a guy just went supernova and the other guys have had to deal with that in various ways. And I think, on some level the guys, The Lonely Island, are refracting a bit on what happened to them. Starting as a very by the seat of their pants, raw comedy group and then Andy in particular blew up. And again, they can really speak to that if they want to speak to that, but for Judd [Apatow] and for me as producers on the movie, it was very much about drawing on that real stuff and putting that into the dynamic of this movie. So, is that helpful?


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Image via Universal Pictures

You mentioned that there are musicians in the film, can you say who’s really in it? 

ROTHMAN: I’m not sure, honestly, I’m not sure. I’d say a whole range of people, from –and I’m not sure what’s gonna get announced and what’s not, but there’s some really big people in the movie and then there’s some people who will be really fun to see. And I’m not sure what we can say and what we can’t.

How much of the music has already been finished?

ROTHMAN: All the music has been finished.

How much did they make? 

ROTHMAN: They’ll be able to give you a more exact number, but I’d say at least 20-25 songs, full songs. So you’ve got Conner4Real songs, there’s got to be at least 15 of those, you’ve got 5 or 6 Style Boyz songs. There’s another character in the movie, who I think you’re gonna see today. So, one of the things that happens in the movie is that Conner is on tour and tickets sales aren’t going quite as they expected, he’s never had an opening act before, he never brings an opening act in. He ends up bringing in an opening act named Hunter The Hungry, who is played by this really funny comedian out of Chicago named Chris Redd, and Hunter The Hungry is definitely based on a variety of real people but think of him like he’s pure anarchy, he’s hip-hop, he really doesn’t care about rap or music, he’s just kind of a force of pure anarchy who has started to get more popular and Conner invites him on the tour right when this guy is really starting to really sell, which becomes problematic. Not just because it’s embarrassing, but also because the guy isn’t necessarily a graceful or grateful person.

So yeah, not only did they make all of Hunter’s songs, I’ll just say, Jorma in particular worked on those and he makes them in like 4 hours. He’ll just go away, he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, we need some Hunter The Hunter songs” and then Jorma will just email you at like 1 in the morning and there’ll be like a fully fleshed out hilarious track. Because what I’ve learned from working with the guys, I always wanted to see how they made music, and they really operate 100% like a real group, they are a real group. Their skills are that of real musicians, they write all their stuff, they produce all their stuff, they draw beats from the same pool of producers and beat makers as any real artist and they use pro tools –I even see Jorma and he’s in pro tools, he’s doing shit I don’t even understand, and he’s directing a movie at the same time he’s doing it, that’s crazy.


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Image via Universal Pictures

Did his brother work on the movie as well? 

ROTHMAN: He did, a little bit. I mean, his brother’s really busy, his brother’s here today actually. His brother’s really busy but there’s a lot of people that have been involved that won’t be credited.

So they called in a lot of producers?

ROTHMAN: Yeah. Well, they produce all their own stuff, nobody produces –There’s a guy named Greg Kurstin who is a major, major person, he did some work on finishing some tracks. Really the guys can speak to this, I’m gonna sound like an asshole if I do it, but he’s mixing things basically, but he’s mixing based on tracks that the guys supplied him with.

Are you riffing on Spinal Tap at all?

ROTHMAN: No. I mean, everyone’s 100% aware of that movie, it’s the best. This is a little different, just in that everything has obviously evolved in the last years in terms of musicians, there’s a lot more to play with. But it’s hard to enter this space and obviously not be aware that you’re probably competing for second place, and I think everyone’s fine with that.

Does the movie have script, is any of it improvised, or is it all scripted out?

ROTHMAN: It’s both, it’s all scripted out. The nice thing about shooting in a documentary style is that it allows for a lot of looseness, because you don’t have to do conventional coverage all the time, you can just shoot something, you can treat a scene like, “Oh this is something the cameraman snuck his way into, one shot, long lens” like a spycam basically. So everything’s super scripted, honestly it’s like every movie I’ve worked on, it’s like scripted, riff –I will say that there’s a lot more latitude because of the filmmaking style in terms of the kinds of things that we can steal or –You can move in a much more free way basically.

Do you guys have a rating in mind?

It’s rated R.

Is there anything you can tell us about what we’re going to see today?


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Image via Universal Pictures

Yeah, to be honest, we’ve shuffled some things today, because Andy’s not feeling well. But one thing we’re doing today, kind of a climactic scene… like I said, Hunter the Hungry joins the tour, it starts off very much like a love affair and really kind of invigorates Conner in a lot of ways, because that anarchy is very much where he came from. It’s something he has lost touch with a lot. So, at first in a really annoying way, they’re like two peas in a pod together. You know, they are pranking everyone, and they’re making music together that’s sort of really punk music, but eventually Hunter’s spirit starts to turn on Conner a little bit. Especially once Hunter starts to blow up. So you’re going to see a sort of climactic scene where… every night for weeks Hunter has been playing a little bit longer, even though he’s the opening act. It finally comes to a head where he plays for like an hour, an hour-and-a-half, and nobody knows how to get him off. And finally Conner storms the stage and they kind of have a bit of a battle onstage.

A rap battle?

You’ll see. But there’s another number we were supposed to shoot today but we’re gonna push a day or two that is… there’s a number called “I’m So Humble,” it’s one of Conner’s big hits. And he’s joined onstage by… someone guesting with him on the number is a hologram, and then Conner decides he also wants to be a hologram, performing with himself, and then he decides he wants 50 holograms of himself performing with himself, so that’s something we’re going to be filming over the next few days, is like him performing with 50 holograms of himself. So we already shot the holograms, which all have their own personalities, so now we’re looking to do that Tuesday or Wednesday. I imagine that while you guys are there we’ll be able to show you some of his numbers that we shot, which are awesome. But yeah that’s the main scene we’re doing today, which is the battle between him and Hunter.

How far into production are you today?

We have two days left.

How long was the whole shoot?

I think 35 days.

And how long have you been here?


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Via The Lonely Island

We’ve been here for like two weeks, which has been cool, very cool shooting here. We’re using The Forum to stand… we shot a lot of stuff backstage… 30 percent of our movie happens in arenas, so we shot a little bit at Long Beach Arena, and then mostly here, redressing certain areas or just making The Forum stand in for let’s say, eight or nine different cities. And same thing with the performances. Because he does the same show every night with the same wardrobe, we’re doing it for different cities. So I’m not even sure what city this is supposed to be. Maybe it’s in the script, I can’t even remember.

I’m curious what the time frame is for the movie. How much time passes from start to end?

Probably six months.

So are The Style Boys like a ’90s band?

Yeah, they’re like early-2000s.

So how old is Conner?

Conner’s in his teens, he’s in his late-teens, and then this is about 10 years later. So they started playing together in high school, they were discovered as high school kids playing an open mic night, and doing a really graphically disgusting skate punk song in front of a lot of suburban people. But their manager discovers them that night.

Is that shown in flashback?

Yeah. It’s treated… it’s similar to if you were to watch the Bieber documentary, or even One Direction… Everything’s on camera these days. Everything’s been shot as if found footage. So some of it is more well-polished, because it’s being shot by a very well-funded, puff-piece documentary crew, so when we interview people they’re very composed, beautiful looking shots, and then there’s plenty of other stuff that’s much more run-in-gun, was not supposed to be in the documentary or was captured on cell phone footage or whatever.

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Image via Universal

This seems like a very good opportunity to shoot cool, viral things that could be put online before the movie comes out, or cool extras for the Blu-ray. Are you already thinking about that while you’re shooting?

Yeah. We haven’t figured out what the strategy will be, but we’re shooting videos and performances and there’s a whole… we’ll end up shooting seven or eight music videos for various people and some of that will just be for Internet release, or some of that will be for the movie. A lot of it will only be seen for a couple seconds in the movie, even though we might shoot a whole video and only show it for five or ten seconds. “I’m So Humble,” you really only need to see 20 seconds of that before you’re like, “Yeah, yeah.” Whereas we have other songs that are packed-full of jokes that really deserve to be played in their entirety.


Can you tease any of the other song titles?

Well, let’s see. He has a song that’s sort of a same-sex marriage anthem that’s a little bit misguided. That’s called “Equal Rights.” And that’s with a guest spot. He has a song called “Bin Laden” that has a very important metaphor at the heart of it, considering it’s sort of a love song. The guys will be able to tell you more of this stuff. He has a very emotional song about his pet turtle, Maximus, one of his true loves.

Is that like Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” about his rat?

Never heard of it, I don’t know. There’s been a wonderful history of pop stars having very intimate relationships with their pets, of one kind or another. So definitely based on that.

I’m trying to think what else. There’s honestly like 15 of them, so having trouble remembering all of it. There’s a song called “Should I Move?” It’s a very personal song where Conner’s bought a very big house, and has then found another house that’s even bigger that he thinks is really nice and he’s trying to answer the question to himself in the song, about whether or not he should buy the second house. That’s cast as a very Drake-like song.

Can you tell us a bit about Sarah Silverman and Tim Meadows’ roles?

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Image via Universal

Yeah so Sarah Silverman is playing Paula, she’s playing Conner’s publicist, someone who’s been with him for a while, really one of the few people in his life who tells him the truth. Although he often thinks that she’s joking. But she’s one of the few people that actually speaks truth to him.

Tim Meadows is playing Harry, his longtime manager, really one of the first people to see The Style Boys play. He’s very well-intentioned, but he’s very much playing a character that, as this thing has blown up and grown, he’s recently been in over his head. There’s increasing pressure on Conner to fire him.

Is he kind of incompetent?

He’s not incompetent. But he was a bartender in a coffee shop when it all started, and he just doesn’t… Conner’s his only client, he doesn’t have any of the skillset… Once your artist starts to hit obstacles, and there begins to be other people to swoop in to offer advice… and he’s not a shark. He’s a very soulful character at a time when Conner’s music is increasingly soulless. That’s sort of his character. And he’s great…. Tim has really enjoyed playing the character.

They’re all playing characters, and musicians of the same age who write songs like Lonely Island. Why aren’t they just called Lonely Island?

Because they’re not a comedy group. They’re making earnest music. You’ll see when you see some of the songs, or hear some of the songs. They’re not self-aware like Lonely Island is. Lonely Island refers to themselves as fake-rap, or comedy-rap. These characters are more likely to make a really stupid-sounding song and then get really excited after making it about how amazing it sounds. That happens a lot in our movie – they’ll come up with something that is really stupid, and then just get super-pumped afterward about how awesome it sounded. So they’re not in on the joke. Lonely Island is very much in on the joke.

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