Created by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, and executive produced by Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels and Rhys Thomas, Documentary Now! is a docu-parody for IFC, where each episode takes on a different genre. Whether it’s as a mother-daughter duo akin to Grey Gardens, a pair of pseudo-journalists on the hunt for a Mexican drug cartel, or musicians hoping to go down in rock music history, Armisen and Hader are sure to make you laugh, endlessly, with their antics.
While at the IFC portion of the TCA Press Tour, co-creators/executive producers/writers Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers were joined by executive producer/director Rhys Thomas to talk about this new series, premiering on August 20th. We’ve compiled a list of 13 things to know about Documentary Now!, how they chose their subjects, the production, and what you can expect.
According to Rhys Thomas, the six documentaries that were chosen for parodying this season are documentaries that they love and are fans of.
- On the line they draw between just doing another mockumentary and actually parodying individual documentaries, Bill Hader said, “We’re parodying specific documentaries, but also just trying to get an authenticity to make it feel like one of those movies. We do a The Thin Blue Line parody, but we got the actual lenses they used, to make it look like that.”
- They didn’t want to follow mockumentary rules, and instead wanted to approach everything more like a documentary. Said Seth Meyers, “I think we did try to stay away from moves that have become mockumentary moves, and we tried to very much stay within moves that are documentary moves.” Added Thomas, “Each episode, because it’s standalone, was always about discovering that language. It was about fighting the instincts of traditional comedy, where it’s all about coverage and you have to make sure that, if you need to punch up a joke or speed things along, you shoot it a bunch of different ways. That was the thing that we always tried to constrain ourselves with. The biggest fight, a lot of times, was just simplifying and backing off and not overshooting something.”
- As the only one with his own nightly talk show, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Meyers said that he would not have been able to do a show like this, if it wasn’t with people that he already has a shorthand with. “You can write something, and then you don’t have to worry about the fact that you’re not there. You just know that it’s going to be executed well. Anything else that would require more of an intense eye, obviously, I wouldn’t be able to do.”
Even with so many funny people involved, they all jump in and have a voice in the finished product. Meyers said, “Someone would head up a script, and then people would jump in with notes for the rewrite. One of the things that would happen at SNL, and why I think we wanted to continue this friendship and relationship, is that you would write something in the course of a night, and then you would have to turn it over to people who would actually have to shoot it. You realized those people have to work so much harder than the writers, who were done in a few hours.”
- When it comes to the question of why IFC is the perfect network for this show, Meyers said, “IFC has been such a great home for this, from the beginning. If we were in an area with three networks, this would probably be a tough sell. But there are so many different, interesting shows. This is an extension of what we got to do at SNL, every week, where the thing you work on one week doesn’t have to tie in to the thing you work on the next week. That just gives you so much more freedom.” Adds Fred Armisen, “ There are a lot better resources, too, with wig makers and costume people. It’s really great that it’s expanding so much.”
- For added authenticity, two of the episodes were shot in Iceland, and part of another episode was shot in Tijuana, but they also worked with what they had when shooting locally. Said Hader, “Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Buono] did a phenomenal job of shooting this. For the Sandy Passages episode, if the camera just panned a little this way, you would have seen USC, and if it panned a little that way, you would have seen a bunch of people walking around. They did an amazing job of creating this world.”
Although the show might be even funnier, if you’re familiar with the documentaries that are getting the parody treatment, they weren’t counting on the fact that viewers will have seen them all. Said Meyers, “I do think this is a time when documentaries are having a moment because they exist on so many of the streaming sites. Mainstream places, like ESPN, have become so documentary friendly, in the last few years, that it is a format that people are consuming now. We’re hoping people will be drawn to it, for that reason. If you’ve seen Grey Gardens, you might enjoy Sandy Passages more than people who haven’t. I also would hope that maybe someone out there will see Sandy Passages and it will make them want to see Grey Gardens.”
- For the Grey Gardens parody, they had to have only one animal on set, in the house, at a time. They all had to get ready on set before the raccoon would be brought in, and then they’ve have to let it out for a little while before bringing it back again.
- Even though they tackle musicians, they did not want to take on Spinal Tap directly, and instead took on the Alex Gibney documentary about the Eagles. Said Hader, “You would never watch Spinal Tap and say, ‘Hey, let’s do it like Spinal Tap.’ You would watch the documentary and say, ‘What was that cutting style and the way they frame their shots? What kind of film stock were they using? What lenses were they using?’” Armisen adds, “Spinal Tap set such a great precedent that we had to watch out for repeating any of those same beats. It’s one of the greatest movies ever.”
Because they only parodied six documentaries this season, there are ones that they didn’t have a chance to get to, or that came out to let for them to tackle. Said Meyers, “The Jinx happened a little too late for us. We almost tried to pull it off. We talked a lot about that kind of documentary, where the filmmaker sets out to make a documentary, and then, very slowly, it becomes clear the documentary is about himself.” There is also not a Michael Moore episode, this season.
- While there were some documentaries they just couldn’t get to or didn’t have time for, this time around, no one is off limits, in the future. Said Meyers, “There’s no one who is hands-off. There are certainly some topics that have been covered by documentaries that we probably wouldn’t go near, but I don’t think any filmmaking style would be.”
- When talking about the documentaries that made an impression on them, in their lives, Armisen said, “I remember seeing The Rutles and I was confused, in a really good way. That was a real entryway into, “What is this kind of filmmaking?” Making something like that, with complete songs and characters and references to the Beatles, was a turning point of a new kind of entertainment.” Meyers said, “I remember watching Siskel & Ebert, and they were real champions of The Thin Blue Line. I worked at a video store, and that was one of the first documentaries that I remember watching.” Hader added, “The Thin Blue Line was a big one for me, too. I saw that, and I’d never seen a movie like that.”
Documentary Now! premieres on IFC on August 20th.