This week, we catch up with Bay Area luminaries, both in the business of making people laugh, but also occasionally giving us the feels.
Actor and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Will Forte, who was born in Alameda, and director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) who has an office at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, have new movies opening March 6.
Forte’s new comedy “Extra Ordinary” opens at the Alamo Drafthouse, while Pixar’s “Onward” opens in theaters everywhere.
In “Extra Ordinary,” which slyly claims to be “based on a true story,” Forte plays Christian Winter, a former one-hit wonder rock star who hopes to restore his career via a dark, satanic ritual.
The movie provides a hilarious music video for Winter’s hit “Cosmic Woman” and then a glance at the chart listing (#300) for his follow-up song, “I Like My Hat.”
“I’ve probably seen this movie four times now, and it was the first time I noticed that,” says Forte of the ridiculous song title about headgear.
Even though the brief music video and song of “Cosmic Woman” feels like a Forte-written “SNL” sketch, he says it was written by co-writers and co-directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman. “I love the song!” says Forte.
“They have such a weird sense of humor,” he says. “They’re kinda moving around all the time. You never get too comfortable. You’re watching this movie that you kinda want to explain as a horror movie, but it’s also a comedy and a love story, and these things are kind of ping-ponging around.”
The movie stars Maeve Higgins as Rose, a retired medium who reluctantly agrees to help Martin Martin (Barry Ward), exorcise the pestering spirit of his dead wife.
Forte’s character is more or less the villain; he kidnaps Martin’s teen daughter (Emma Coleman) to use in his devilish ritual.
Forte says he’s in awe of the filmmaking team, who were able to make a high-quality movie on a low budget and a short shooting schedule.
He describes crazy moments on the set, from stepping over the realistic-looking model of a ripped-in-half corpse, to having to perform a blood-curdling scream without making any noise.
He says there were some vague similarities between the idea of a one-hit wonder music artist and Forte’s own time after leaving “Saturday Night Live” in 2010.
“It’s a very scary thing,” he says. “When I was leaving, ‘MacGruber’ had just bombed. There was no guarantee that I would ever get an acting job again.”
Happily, Adam Sandler kept Forte afloat, casting him in small roles in a couple of movies, and then “Nebraska” came along in 2013. In that film directed by Alexander Payne, Forte played a man who hits the road with his cranky father (Bruce Dern) to collect what he thinks is a winning sweepstakes ticket.
The movie received six Oscar nominations, and Forte’s performance was widely acclaimed. In the meantime, Forte’s “MacGruber” film achieved cult classic status among fans.
“I got super lucky,” he says. “There’s still no guarantee. I may never get another job ever again. It is funny how you can get in your head; you forget to be thankful for these experiences that you’re having, in the moment. Now I appreciate everything.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty
Written and directed by: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Similarly, working on “Onward,” Scanlon’s experience caused him to re-evaluate and newly appreciate all the things in his life.
After making the sequel “Monsters University” at Pixar, Scanlon was given the opportunity to create an original film.
“My father passed away when I was 1 year old, and my brother was 3. Growing up we didn’t know much about him at all. There was always a question of how was I like him, or how I was going to be like him,” he says.
The story evolved from there. In a world where magic once existed, shy, awkward elf Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his exuberant older brother Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) are given a spell that will allow them to spend one day with their late father.
But something goes wrong, and all they get is his lower half; this leads to a quest to find a specific gemstone to complete the spell.
“We initially thought maybe the boys are creating dad piece-by-piece. But then we thought it would be stronger if they made one big mistake and they were stuck with it. And the pants were funnest part. It’s so awkward! You don’t know where to look!” he says.
In another personal touch, Scanlon included a pet dragon for the elf family, originally modeled after his own beloved dog, Carol, a 15-year-old Japanese Chin.
“Ian is sort of a nervous, shy kid who likes order, so we wanted the house to be chaotic, wildness all around him.” Scanlon insisted that the dragon look just like Carol, but after many sketches and attempts, “in the end it looks nothing like her. But I still think the spirit is there,” he says.
Before anything went on paper, however, Scanlon had to discover the story he truly wanted to tell in his heart of hearts.
“You have to sit in a room and look deep inside yourself at all your greatest fears and joys. You bring your friends in, your fellow filmmakers, and you talk about your lives. It’s like therapy. It’s very scary and hard and it’s really wonderful,” he says.
He says the experience changed his life for the better, and that, even if the film was never made, this process was worth it.
Scanlon tells a story that came out, from when he was 16. He and his brother were given a tape, recorded on the eve of their mother and father’s wedding.
It was a moment of great excitement. “We’d never heard his voice and assumed we never would,” he says.
“So we’re listening and we’re starting to get closer to the end of the tape, and he’s not on there.”
Then they heard their aunt run toward their father with the tape recorder. “She said, ‘Bill, say something into the machine.’ And he says, ‘Hi.’ And she says, ‘say something else!’ And he went, ‘Bye.’ And that was it.”
That moment evolved into one of the most moving scenes in “Onward,” in which Ian listens to a cassette tape of his father’s voice, and has a pretend conversation with it.
At one point while making the movie, he spoke openly with his mother: “’I feel like I’m exploiting my life for my art,’” he told her. “And she said, ‘I think it’s the other way around.’”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer (voices)
Written by: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes