James Franco’s SATURDAY NIGHT Goes Backstage at SNL: Highlights from Screening with Franco, Will Forte, Kenan Thompson and Jenny Slate

     May 5, 2010

James Franco (Spider-Man and Pineapple Express) showcased Saturday Night, his all-access documentary about SNL for a New York premiere& panel at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday at the Directors Guild of America.  The film (which debuted at SXSW in March) is a fly-on-the wall look at the show’s production week for the December 6, 2008 episode with host John Malkovich.

Hit the jump to hear audio from a very lively panel moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger with Franco (who’s hosted SNL twice) and cast members: Will Forte (MacGruber), Kenan Thompson (Fat Albert) & Jenny Slate (who joined the cast nine months after the documentary was filmed).  They give away several secrets, including how Franco got unprecedented access; a big dispute over MacGruber & why Kenan Thompson didn’t think Ludacris was the most supportive host.

Here are the highlights.  Click here for audio

– The film started as a November, 2008 school assignment for Franco, who’s an NYU film student.  He had to make a 7-minute observational (read: Maysles) documentary about a person “to shape a character.”  His initial subject, artist Dan Colen, had a December 18th showing at the gallery of art dealer/2010 Tribeca Film Festival juror Larry Gagosian.  With 6 weeks to do 1 painting, Colen was behind, so Franco figured Colen, “was gonna be really stressed to do it, I thought, ‘oh this is perfect.’  But he was too stressed and (he didn’t) want to be on camera.”  Franco had just hosted SNL on September 20th, so with the experience fresh in mind, he shifted focus to cast member Bill Hader.  Lorne Michaels quickly gave his blessing.

– The idea expanded and Franco discussed potential hosts with SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels & producer (& Jimmy Fallon sidekick) Steve Higgins & they quickly settled on a very amenable John Malkovich.  Franco asked nervously, ‘’Can I get you changing during the show?’ ‘Yeah, that’s fine, whatever you like.’”

– Franco remarked how rare the access was.  A&E Biography covered the process before, but had to rely on clips & sit-down interviews.  Franco revealed that Michaels told him that acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back and The War Room) asked in the 70’s (with a cast known for both brilliance & excess), but “Lorne thought maybe you shouldn’t see behind the scenes with THAT cast.”

– Franco also talked his way into Michaels’ office as they picked the final sketches for air, which cast members rarely witness.  Will Forte admitted, “There’s a lot of stuff that I saw for the 1st time watching this documentary.”  The crowd burst into laughter before Franco added, “we were very fortunate to get that.”

– Forte joked he wasn’t concerned about saying yes to appearing on-camera, because “I never say anything that’s dumb.”  After the laughter died down, Forte later added “We all got along so well with him when he had hosted, (it was) very comfortable.”

– After Franco apologized to Thompson for his limited screen time, but the cast member said he was actually reluctant to be on-camera because “I don’t necessarily like watching myself.”  He added, “Weeks where it’s a John Malkovich-type host, there’s not really a lot for me to do.”  He explained, “There’s not really something that makes sense, like a European, like, old medieval skit.  You know what I mean?  Like, I’m always left out of those for some reason.”

-Franco talked about the graciousness of former cast member Casey Wilson who allowed the filmmakers to show her bomb at the table read in a skit.  She was very frank in the film about the experience & the insecurity she felt.  Forte related that everyone on the show’s been there.  He continued that his comfort with being filmed for the documentary in 2008 may have been different if it was earlier in his career, “I don’t know that I would feel that if I was in my 1st or 2nd year.  The show was a way different experience.  I was s—-ing my pants every second of every day.”

-Slate related her character of “Tina Tina Cheneuse” (who sells doorbell & car horn ringtones) “came alive at like 4 in the morning when I was trying to write something else about a doorbell that was broken & it was the worst. “  As the writing process dragged on, “I just kept saying (in the Tina Tine voice) ‘oh, that’s bad.’ … And then all of a sudden, started to make doorbell sounds …  There’s no grand plan, except for, for it needs to be funny.”

-Thompson mentioned he felt intimidated by some of the show’s more established stars.  He said new cast members go into pitch sessions with the new host “with such humility … Everybody that gets to (join the show) is a very confident person … Then you get around these people that have, like, done the show for some years … And now they’re just like icons and like, all these people know their name and when they walk out of the building all these people are rushing them and stuff like that. To have to witness that and then introduce something that you feel is funny is like going out there like a naked baby.  It’s terrifying.”

-Forte’s getting ready for this month’s release of MacGruber but claims he didn’t think it would survive as a sketch when he pitched it.  He said, “When we were putting the sketch up at the table, I didn’t think it would make the show.”  Thompson didn’t buy it, “I’ll just chime in on that right now, because that is mind-boggling.  Number one, Forte puts up the most brilliant sketches every week.  You know what I mean?  So for him to sit here and say, like, ‘I don’t know if a sketch is gonna go well.’  It’s like, kind of like bull—t to me.”  He continued, “That sketch (MacGruber) was a rock star, like every time he went up (it was an interstitial so there were several per episode), every joke landed on it.  And the final joke, people started applauding at the table.  You know, how could you not think that was gonna make the show?”

-Franco said his biggest surprise, the 1st time he hosted, was how fast the show moves. “They’re yanking me from, from set to set … There’s like 4 or 5 people, you know, somebody ripping the Velcro pants off and, you know, somebody’s putting a moustache on my face and that, that kind of thing, and that’s just like, you know, all the way through.”

-Slate admitted, “I’m afraid to watch on Sundays, sometimes.  Although, I want to.  I want to see it.  And I tape it on my television and then I, I don’t watch it & I just ask my boyfriend to watch it and tell me how it was.”

-Thompson said, “I was nervous about Ludacris, when he hosted.  Only because, like, when we were trying to pitch him ideas, he was just, like, two-waying (texting) the whole time … Then he like went to the club, at like 11:00, on Friday night, like, when most hosts kind of, like, stay around and like, ask questions …  He just wasn’t really into it, but Saturday, like, and well, really like, on Wednesday, he came with it.  You know what I mean, on Thursday & Friday; he even attended one of our rehearsals and started giving us notes back.   I’m like ‘we would’ve appreciated those notes on Tuesday, (audience laughter) but no time like the present, I guess.  Saturday, he committed to the show, like I saw he can act.” Thompson left the impression that it did, ultimately, work out well.

– Justin Timberlake became the 1st person to win an Emmy as an SNL guest host this past year, but Forte revealed the cast weren’t sure he would do.  “Nobody had seen him act.”  Forte called him, “one of the great hosts,” but “I don’t think any of us foresaw that.”

-Thompson confessed, “I hate the pitch meeting.  It’s my least favorite thing … We have so little time to come up with stuff every week.  So, like, you’ll be partying Saturday like ‘yeah, it was a good show, good show’ (then) ‘Oh s—t. It’s Monday.’  ‘Ah yeah, I got an idea, we’re in a canoe and we’re singing songs and I’m trying to kill you.”

-Slate talked about this week’s host Betty White “I have fantasies that Betty White thinks that I’m her best friend and we, like, get a condo.”  She already picked out her outfit for the pitch session by the pitch session.  Forte joked that he had, too.

-Franco said he’s gotten “some incredible” distribution offers and suggested that it may be on NBC affiliate Bravo, but also hinted at a possible theatrical run.  Forte asked, “I don’t know the economics of documentaries.  Do we get a cut of this?” Franco simply shook his head, no.

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