“I always wanted to know what that mysterious comedy process was,” James Franco said during his introduction for Saturday Night — his new documentary about a typical work week at Saturday Night Live — before the New York premiere of the film on Sunday May 2, the final day of the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC.
The process becomes the protagonist in Franco’s documentary directing debut, which is shot in an observational, fly-on-the-wall verite style reminiscent of the Maysles brothers or D.A. Pennebaker. What began as a short seven-minute student film assignment (Franco is currently an MFA film student at NYU) about SNL cast member Bill Hader morphed into an unprecedented feature-length look behind the scenes of the television comedy institution. (Legendary documentarians Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock apparently asked Lorne Michaels for permission to film a similar documentary about SNL in the 1970s but were denied because, Franco guessed, “there was more to hide with that incredible cast.”)
“They’ve done docs on SNL in the past,” Franco, who has hosted Saturday Night Live twice, told the audience during a Q&A session after the film. “But they didn’t get access; they just got interviews and people talking about the process. I had an assignment to do an observational documentary. I wanted people to feel the process and go through the process, rather than hear it.”
With that in mind, and by avoiding the familiar talking-head documentary style that might reflect on over three decades of Saturday Night Live history and tradition, Franco is able to strip away the glamour of a career in TV comedy almost instantly. Throughout the week — beginning with the Monday morning pitch meeting, during which the cast greets that week’s guest host (in this case, John Malkovich) and pitches their ideas for new sketches; to the feverish 24-hour writing process that begins on Tuesday and extends into Wednesday morning; to the Wednesday table read where sketches are approved or rejected; and the flurry of activity on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays as sketches are rewritten and rehearsed — we watch every SNL cast member face sleep deprivation, insecurity, writer’s block, and nerves on a daily (or more likely hourly) basis.
“You learn to live in a haze,” cast member Will Forte says as he looks forward to his hour of sleep on Wednesday morning before the table read, where the 50 sketches written that week will be reduced to nine for Saturday’s live show.
“I don’t sleep well,” says SNL head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers after a typical Tuesday all-nighter. “I have dreams that I should be working. Because I should.” Meyers then adds, “You can’t think of good ideas while you’re also sleeping.”
Even the best ideas don’t always make it to the live broadcast, though. As a way to give structure to the narrative of Saturday Night, Franco traces the progress of several sketches throughout the film, from the initial pitch to the final performance — including an “Empire Carpet” sketch written by Forte, which doesn’t actually make it on the show because of poor audience response during the final Saturday dress rehearsal, despite enthusiasm from his fellow cast and writers during the week.
It is that reception from their fellow funny people that seems to be the major motivating factor at SNL. Fred Armisen states that he is most concerned with not wasting his colleagues’ time, and making them laugh comes first. This may speak to SNL‘s perceived lack of social relevance in recent years; after all, how can a dozen comedians operating on one hour of sleep, locked in a bubble in Rockefeller Center, really know what’s funny to the rest of us?
“I think you never really know what’s funny,” Forte said. “You trick yourself into thinking you do, but sometimes the sleep deprivation really helps the comedy, because it goes to way crazier places where you would never go with a more sane mind.”
Franco’s film, through observation of the process, addresses the challenge in deciding what is and isn’t funny, as well. At the Wednesday table read, for example, new cast member Casey Wilson falls flat with a Liza Minelli-inspired sketch that elicits barely a chuckle from the rest of the cast (and gives Malkovich time to take a snack break). Wilson did not return to the Saturday Night Live cast after the 2008-09 season, and Franco applauded her on Sunday for allowing him to use the footage, which was accompanied by her post-table read commentary that she felt like she “wanted to die.”
Forte pointed out at the Q&A that every SNL cast member has experienced that same feeling of failure during a given week, but that the only way to guarantee screen time for yourself on Saturday nights is to write a sketch for yourself. If you fail to come up with a good idea by Wednesday, and you don’t have other staff writers in your corner, you might not appear in that week’s episode at all — at which point, even the funniest performers become expendable.
“Everybody’s had that week,” Forte said of Wilson. “[James] just happened to catch [Casey] that week. I said earlier that it was comfortable to let them in [to film us]. I don’t know if I would feel that if I was on my first or second year on the show. The way that her experience was — I was shitting my pants every second of every day, so that’s a very common experience that she went through, and it just happened to be her week.”
In addition to candid moments with the cast, Franco’s film certainly benefits from the presence of Malkovich as host. The actor is involved from the first Monday pitch meeting, offering his input and gamely trying any wacky idea the writers throw at him — including cross-dressing as a pubescent girl with unusual problems, restaging Dangerous Liaisons in a hot tub and calling it “J’acuzzi,” or going head to head with Italy’s top celebrity interviewer Vinny Vedecci.
“If you’re not gonna surrender to the process, then you learn nothing and accomplish nothing,” SNL producer Steve Higgins says of the weekly hosting duties. “You get points for trying. Don’t come here if you’re a perfectionist, because nothing’s ever perfect.”
From brainstorming sessions to set design, from riffing to rewrites, and informal chats with producers Lorne Michaels and Steve Higgins, Saturday Night delves deep into the world of Saturday Night Live and shows that while the show may never achieve perfection, that goal is precisely what powers its weekly existence.
Finally, after the exhilaration of performing live on Saturday night and a quick Sunday off, the cast returns once again on Monday morning to the offices at 30 Rock to pitch their ideas to the next host. Slate admitted that she did not have any sketch ideas for Betty White, this week’s host, as of Sunday afternoon — but said she had at least picked out her outfit.
- “Asking someone to write with you is like asking someone to go on a date,” Casey Wilson says. “And you have to do it like three times a night.”
- “I never wanted to be an actor, but I always wanted to be a comedian,” says Andy Samberg, who is shown only sparingly in Franco’s film. “I haven’t taken any training, haven’t done anything very dramatic — but I can tell a dick joke.”
- Forte, Thompson, and Slate explained that their auditions for Saturday Night Live were a combination of impressions and character work. One of Slate’s impressions was Annette Bening giving a tour of the National Holocaust Museum. Thompson also had to perform stand-up for the first time for his audition.
- Forte noted that much of Franco’s behind-the-scenes footage, such as producers’ meetings and a scene in which Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, and John Malkovich decide which sketches to cut and which to keep, were new to him and generally remained a secret from the cast.
- Franco said that his desire to direct stems from the fact that directing is “about opening up and [being] collaborative. As an actor, I know my job, and I play that part. But as a director, you get to talk to the actors, you get to talk to the editor, you get to talk to the cinematographer, and it’s about being in on those conversations. I get to be a part of that, and it’s extremely exciting. Kind of like what they do” — and he pointed to Forte, Thompson, and Slate — “they get to write and act. That’s fantastic.”
- As for why he chose to enroll in graduate school programs for writing and directing after already achieving enviable success as an actor, Franco said, “School is a way to take those other pursuits very seriously. Yeah, I could go out and direct movies without having gone to school, I could go out and write before I went to school. But being at these schools, I am in touch with incredible teachers, incredible writers, and incredible directors who are in an environment where they are solely focused on helping me,” as opposed to worrying about the weekend box office gross or bottom line.
For more about Saturday Night and its New York premiere, read the AP news story at BackStage.com.
This story was posted online May 3, 2010 at Blog Stage.