The Last Man on Earth launched this week, sparking a national discussion on the psychological link between isolationism and self-destruction, along with toilet pools and incest. We took our questions straight to series producers and directors (the Lego Movie guys), Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Spoilers ahead...
io9: What was it like when you pitched Last Man on Earth? [Were people open to a series that starred only one person]?
Phil Lord: Strangely enough, and I don't know how many episodes you've seen, this was a really hot pitch even though it's a really outlandish idea. At that point Will was only attached as a writer, but he came up with a plan that was so appealing and full of surprises. And even though it was a big, silly idea it was grounded in emotional honesty and things we all experience. How do you deal with loneliness? What parts of society should we hold on to, and which ones don't we need? What makes life worth living, essentially. Those things were really big and universal that a lot of the networks wanted a piece of it. Fox obviously wanted it more than anybody else. [They had] passion for it, and they were able to convince us that they could make this work on a network. And we were really excited to to help fulfill that dream.
Isolation is a huge touchstone for this show. What is it about isolation that brings out the worst in Will? Well, in his character.
Lord: What do you do when no one is watching? The minute the oversight is gone you can kind of just be honest. I think that's what's fun about watching Will turn around, basically. It's the kind of mundane things that he might do. Something one guy could pull off with plenty of time on his hands. All that stuff just kind of came out of his brain. And the idea of slowly making yourself go crazy because you're so alone, was the thing that he wouldn't let go of. And he insisted on it, no matter how many people said, "Look this kind of a big risk to take in television." And he was like, "Nope, I want to do it this way or I don't want to do it." And we all got behind him.
His descent is very destructive. What do you think this says about humanity that the first thing he wants to do is start destroying things?
Chris Miller: I think it really says something about Will. This is really living out his personal fantasy. It's a very clear window into the mind of Will Forte, if nothing else. I think there's something fun about breaking societal rules that don't exist anymore. There's something perverse about doing things you're not supposed to do in regular society. Even if it's something like stealing a painting from a museum and artifacts from the White House. You're not supposed to do that, and there are consequences to that in this world, but not [in the show]. So that's something that feels naughty.
In an early scene of destruction, Will smashes a bunch of aquariums by stuffing a truck bed full of bowling balls and launching them all collectively off the back. How did you come up with that?
Miller: It was all Will. It was the kind of thing where we only have the time and money to set up one stack of aquariums, and then Will fills up a truck with bowling balls, slams on the breaks and see what happens. If it didn't work, well, that would be part of the fun as well. A lot of this is [asking] what would happen. In the third episode, we take a steamroller to a bunch of beer cans. What would happen? Would they just push the beer cans? Are they going to roll? Are they going to smash them and pop them? What's going to happen? We'll find out when we do it.
The show starts off as playful and fun, but then it gets really dark and sad. Did it feel like that on set, because you're watching the deterioration of this person's spirit?
Miller: Well, while we were shooting it was pretty fun. Playing around with Will's hair, covering him with Cheez-Its and pills. So it was honestly was one of the best on-set experiences we've had. Just because the cast is awesome — it's just Will. There are other character in various different ways, and how you see them… there's a bunch of different surprises along the way. The people were wonderful and really committed to doing something new and special. So we had a blast.
Lord: There were some cues. The moments where Will is alone celebrating his birthday and blowing out his candle on the cupcake in a dark bar. That part we found really moving on set. We knew he could do both of those things, be wildly funny and be moving. It just speaks to the ambition of the show that we wanted and the crew wanted. We were really inspired by trying to reach for something universal in addition to something funny. To make it beautiful, to make you feel moved by it, in addition to something else was something that sort of invigorated the crew and the whole experience of shooting.
And then there's the reveal that he isn't alone. Kudos to you for creating a character (played by Kristen Schaal) with the most annoying character trait possible — correcting someone's grammar mid-sentence.
Lord: I can't take any credit for it.
Miller: It was something that Will put in the original pilot. And I remember asking for more of that, because it seemed like it was the perfect encapsulation of something that would A, drive you crazy and B, represent a recurrence of societal rules.
It's interesting, because even though these two people are ill-suited for each other, I thought their chemistry was electric.
Lord: They're in love and it's weird because they hate each other at the same time. They're drawn to one another. It's not dissimilar to the chemistry between Jillian Bell and Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street. They're adversaries, but they're kind of in love as well. It was always going to be Kristen. That's who Will was writing about and for. We were really excited about that choice. Because she's played the annoying neighbor, like in Flight of the Conchords, but she's always a really welcome presence on screen. You fall in love with her and you want to be her best friend and you want to marry her. All of those things. We wanted someone who started off as, "oh, that would be an annoying person to be married to," and then slowly you kind of fall for her. Hopefully, this is a 100-episode of two people getting together. Two married people falling in love.
And you slowly start falling out of love with Phil because he's such a dick to her.
Miller: The show, sort of, as it goes on… he wasn't very successful at life before the virus. He was moderately successful for awhile [after the virus] and then it took a sad turn. But then I think his sort of inherent selfishness and lesser qualities undo him. Particularly, there's a series of a events help him figure out how to be a better man throughout the course of the show.
I think a big tell is that he has absolutely no shame in showing her his toilet bowl and his masturbatory magazines. It's very "this is who I am now." There's no shred of humanity left in him.
Lord: That's actually true, the only way he could actually be with somebody is if he's entirely honest with them. That's actually a big part of the show — about how you fail by trying to present a false version of yourself. The person that you can really be with in real life is the person that you reveal yourself to.
Miller: Warts and all.
What other themes are you going to play with besides that and isolationism?
Miller: There are a ton of themes in the show, because it's really about how you start a new society. What rules do you keep and what rules do you not? If you got to start over, what would be important and why? Why did some of these social conventions come about.?And for some of them there's an argument and there's a reason why they exist, and the others maybe not so much.
Lord: And do we need one another to keep one another in check. I think that's a big thing about the show. Alone, we're terrible. But together, because we have to answer to somebody else, we are challenged to be our better self. And that's kind of Phil's struggle.
Are you going to address the fact that Kristen's character wants to repopulate the Earth? Because they can't really do that without ending up with incest, since their children will have to reproduce with each other..
Lord: Yes. That is addressed very directly.
Miller: That issue is explicitly addressed.
Lord: That issue is very, very explicitly addressed. And uncomfortably. And, um, I hope you enjoy it.
When do the mutant people show up, Night of the Comet-style?
Phil Lord: I can't tell you much more without getting into a lot of spoiler stuff. I can tell you that there are surprises around every corner all the time. That was kind of central to Will's vision of it. His pitch for the series was 13 twists, all sort of told in a role. Which was part of the reason everyone was so excited for it.
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