After a year of extraordinary highs and peculiar lows, everything’s still pretty awesome for The LEGO Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Currently master-building three franchises at different studios – the Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs films and 21/22/23 Jump Street at Sony, and The LEGO Movie sequels and spin-offs at Warner Bros. – the longtime writing and directing duo are spinning off into television with the new Fox sitcom The Last Man On Earth, starring SNL alum Will Forte as a Tucson, AZ slacker who finds himself lonely, lazy, and way existential after a virus wipes out almost all of humanity.
Oh, and they totally stole the Oscars.
Lord and Miller aren’t yet 40, but last year alone they had two films open at #1. One was 22 Jump Street, which managed to make Hollywood’s bad case of sequelitis actually… fun. The other was a subversive little movie about creativity and corporatization disguised as a flashy toy advertisement, a $468 million blockbuster made of animated LEGO bricks.
Now Lord and Miller are flying high into television with Forte, who commands the screen in The Last Man On Earth by virtue of being the only man alive in the post-apocalypse – free to go pantsless, grow a mountain man beard, bowl with cars, and ponder the futility of life from atop heaping piles of priceless collectibles and garbage, because who’s gonna stop him?
“Originally we just wanted to make a show with Forte because we think he’s a genius and we think his voice needs to be on television,” Miller told The Daily Beast on the eve of Last Man On Earth’s broadcast premiere Sunday, phoning from the cheery halls of the Hollywood office dubbed the Bricksburg Chamber of Commerce. Forte, whose previous credits include the cult comedy MacGruber, is the show’s creator, star, and lead writer.
It all started when the two threw a movie idea they’d once tinkered with at Forte, who took off running with it and wrote a season-length treatment in one weekend. In spite of its risky brand of comedy – actually, because of it -- 20th Century Fox sprung. (The studio is also working with Lord and Miller on an hour-long Great American Hero reboot.) “They thought, we need to be doing stuff like this on our network,” said Miller. “It took some convincing to Will that they were actually going to follow through on that and not turn it into something generic and sanitized. But they really stuck to their word, as crazy as it is.”
Fox was looking for something to shake up its lineup, and moderately weird-but-accessible is Lord and Miller’s bread and butter. Critics love it, even if the media hive mind wonders how Last Man On Earth can possibly sustain such a strange but simple premise. “Every episode has a twist, or a cliffhanger, or some new development,” promised Miller.
So far, the network has given a green light to the majority of the trio’s wackiest ideas. Except for one. “There was a dead body in the pilot that was briefly seen, but they rightly felt like it was a comedy killer,” said Lord. “In general we’ve been avoiding the dead bodies and the dead body question.”
Lord and Miller, who produce the series, directed the first two episodes before recruiting other veteran TV talent behind the camera including Eagleheart’s Jason Woliner. “There’s definitely a philosophy of ‘Nobody cares what it looks like in comedy,’” said Lord. “I understand that impulse but for us, the bar is just getting raised by every other show on television. Everything has its own distinct feel, so that you turn it on for one second and recognize it instantly. We wanted to have that so you know when you’re flipping through the channels that you’ve landed on something special.”
Meanwhile, as the pair was finishing up the first season of Last Man a few months back, everything was not awesome over in Culver City. In November, Sony Pictures was attacked in an unprecedented cyber assault over the North Korea-skewering comedy The Interview, and sensitive information and private emails from the desk of studio head Amy Pascal were leaked to the public.
With the exception of celeb extraordinaire George Clooney, Lord was one of the few to publicly come out in defense of his studio overlords. He and Miller were more directly violated by the hack when, eventually, their own dealings with Pascal were leaked, exposing a potentially “clean and rad and powerful" 23 Jump Street-Men in Black crossover and, most tantalizing, the possibility that the LEGO duo would direct a future Spider-Man film.
“The Sony hack is terrorism. Publishing the information aids terrorists. Sony execs are victims, and filmmakers. We should stand with them,” Lord Tweeted.
“It was certainly easy to relate to the position a lot of people were put in,” Lord told me. “More than anything, it’s important to be vigilant about free speech because it doesn’t take much to make people’s flower shut down and close up. You want there to be free and easy dialogue between creative people. How terrible is it to think I can’t send a buddy an email going, ‘This is how you might make something better’ if I’m afraid someone’s going to snoop around and publish it?”
(As for those Spider-Man directing rumors, Lord and Miller play coy but hint that anything that was possible before the hack is still potentially on the table.)
Then came the biggest shocker of the year in movies. In January the critically acclaimed The LEGO Movie was passed over by the Academy in the most unexpected snub of the 2015 Oscar race despite its raves, its monster box office, and the fact that its subversive anti-corporate messaging was so effective that even ex-WB Pictures President Jeff Robinov would send emails signed “Lord Business.” Nonetheless, the unfailingly genial pair took the blow in stride. They turned the moment into a creative opportunity and spawned an even bigger idea.
“It's okay. Made my own!” Lord Tweeted, posting a photo of a life-sized Oscar made entirely of LEGO.
Besides, nominated for Best Song, The LEGO Movie was still Oscar-bound. “[The producers] approached us and said, ‘We really want to do something special with the song.’ We convinced The Lonely Island to perform and Tegan and Sarah were gracious enough to be a part of it. We all got together and tried to think of the craziest thing we could get away with. Then Samberg was like, ‘There’s gotta be a guy in a possum costume,’ and I said, ‘We should hand out LEGO Oscars!’
Hand them out, they did.
Twenty LEGO Oscar statuettes were custom made by LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya for the 87th Academy Awards show and doled out during the party-on-the-stage performance of “Everything is Awesome.” Emma Stone clutched one all night. Oprah took giddy photos with hers. The cabbage-patching dude in the possum suit became an Internet sensation.
Although they went home empty-handed (John Legend and Common beat out “Everything Is Awesome” with their Selma song “Glory”), the LEGO crew and its best of show underdog triumph won the night. “The LEGO Movie was very much outside of the system, but somehow infected the Oscars and took it over,” Lord laughed. “The Oscars were the host to the parasite that was The LEGO Movie.”
Yet again, the LEGO boys managed to sneak something unexpectedly fun and moving into a trifle of mainstream pop culture. “There’s something really cloak and dagger about hiding something interesting in plain sight, in the guise of something else,” said Lord. “It’s like a secret message for everyone.”
That sentiment also applies to Last Man On Earth and the twinge of melancholy beneath Forte’s ridiculous post-apocalyptic shenanigans, from sunbathing in margarita to fashioning a “toilet pool” when indoor plumbing fails and Phil starts giving up on life. “The metaphor of a guy wandering the world alone and looking for companionship is something we can all relate to,” said Miller. “This is a heightened version of how everybody feels.”
Everything is awesome when you’re living your dream.