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Reflection Of Success: “The Last Man On Earth”

By Marjorie Galas

Will Forte had a fun idea for a television series.  He figured he’d bring to friends and award winning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Lord and Miller were the masterminds behind hits including the remake of “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie”, and they immediately saw the possibilities behind Forte’s comedic concept. As the idea gestated, Forte maintained low expectations.  After all, material he previously presented failed to strike a strong chord amongst the general consciousness (such as “MacGruber.” In fact, the team felt comfortable pushing the envelope of the main character’s despicable behavior instead of playing it safe – they felt they had nothing to lose.

“We stuck to her guns about a lot of things and at times made it kind of weird,” said Forte. “There were directions we took that were not safe and usually when I do that I’m rewarded with nobody seeing it and nobody liking it. It was nice to have people embrace it.”

Unlike recent fear-based examinations of the apocalyptic genre, “The Last Man on Earth” follows an “Average Joe” who survived a deadly virus. After the novelty of being able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants wore off, he realized he was desperately lonely. After driving around the US writing on billboards that he’s “Alive in Tuscon” he settled into a McMansion and waited listelessly for companionship to arrive. The first character who entered his world was Carol; a woman who annoyed the crap out of him. Desperate for intimacy, he “betrothed” Carol, only to meet far more desirable women shortly thereafter.

Long standing friends Lord and Miller were immediately taken by what they call “the reverse jenga affect” where various personalities are added to the main character’s fragile, re-assigned society. As a tribute to their faith in his project, Forte used named main character after them: Phil Miller.

“That name is a practical joke played by Will Forte. We were so afraid to say no to him,” joked Lord. Said Miller, “We’ve been friends for years. We were excited to bring this project to life.”

Lord, Miller and Forte were delighted Fox green lit the series, particularly since it was quite unlike other series or sitcoms currently on the air. Forte was particularly excited a network offered him the opportunity to handpick his writing staff. Many of the writers he chose, including Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey, were people he’s worked with for years. Forte was also enthralled with the crew Lord and Miller hired to bring the production to life. While a few key crew members from the first season, including Emmy nominated editor Stacey Schroeder, were unable to return due to other commitments, Forte is excited about the new talent who have joined the series to bring every aspect of the world to life. He’s also grateful many of the folks who were so crucial in setting season one’s tone, such as production designer Bruce Hill, have returned to flesh out season two’s new California setting.

Lord and Miller, fully appreciative of the fine work department heads such as art, camera and VFX do, work to protect the crafts people from Fortes sometimes grandiose ideas. These have ranged from complicated shots where Miller’s circle of “ball” friends (a tip of the hat to Wilson in “Castaway”) fly off a truck and land in an aquarium that was eventually worked out with a more realistic green screen.  Rights protected material has also required their guidance in the past. Instead of using an authentic article that Forte prescribed (for example, using the image of “Washington Crossing the Delaware”) they find a cheaper alternative that maintains the comedic impact of the scene.

Actress Kristen Schaal (Carol) experienced her first leading lady role through “The Last Man on Earth.” She’s grateful the show provides an opportunity for her to constantly stretch her acting chops.

“Every day I just learn how to be better,” said Schaal. “With this project in particular, I learned how to not play the premise, that is not where the comedy is. (I) just play the moments with Phil and all the other characters.”

Finding a balance portraying Phil’s adolescent, self-absurd tendencies and his kinder softer nature has been a fun challenge for Forte, not only as the show’s creator, but also as its lead actor.

“Well, it’s been really fun. I’ve been interested in the challenge of having a character who has flaws and can be unlikable, and keeping this person watchable,” said Forte. “Even the best people in the world have their demons and their flaws.”

As ”The Last Man on Earth” heads into season two, get ready to watch as Forte, Lord and Miller continue to push the boundaries of human nature. While Forte admits there may have been times they went “a little too far overboard” with the Phil Miller’s unlikability last season, they remain true to their intention: to see where his behavior goes, and to follow the more interesting storylines rather than merely “playing it safe.”

“People are ready to see something really daring and something really different,” said Lord. Added Miller, “Fox has been great. They give us a lot of support to do something really unique.”

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