“Saturday Night,” James Franco’s fascinating verite portrait of a week in the life of the cast and crew of “Saturday Night Live,” pulls back many curtains at once. Given exclusive access to the frenzy of pitch sessions, rehearsals and the final broadcast that fuels each show, Franco captures the mania associated with “SNL” over the course of three decades while simultaneously demystifying it. The movie unquestionably delivers enough behind-the-scenes peeks to satisfy a basic level of curiosity about the production, but it also depicts the virtually unflagging motivation required of the show’s performers — an adrenaline mode that can’t afford to quit.
From its very first shot, “Saturday Night” reveals its intention of getting intimate with the “SNL” production. The camera trails “SNL” guest host John Malkovich as he wanders around backstage, heading to a door that will place him before cameras and millions of viewers. Having established our exclusive vantage point, Franco flashes back to earlier in the week: the pitch session. The cast throw around various comical ideas, while legendary producer Lorne Michaels keeps a watchful eye on the process as its trenchant overseer. Franco catches castmember Will Forte to ask him about pitching material, but when Forte tries to give a canned answer, Franco stops him. “We know what it is,” he says, “but is it all bullshit?” The question never gets answered, but the attempt to obtain a deeper truth gives “Saturday Night” a greater sense of candor than your average fluff piece.
Franco engages in a constant dialogue with the nature of “SNL,” from the elusiveness of comedic material to the revolving door of the cast. The actor-turned-director himself occasionally appears on camera, chatting with “SNL” participants in an offhand fashion that rejects the stagey nature of a talking heads approach. While his fly-on-the-wall style occasionally leads to a meandering pace, the looming deadline of the broadcast creates an overarching suspense. Faces well-known for their weekly television presence and various movie roles wax poetic on the difficulty of searching for comedic goldmines. “There’s no way to know” if an idea will work, confesses castmember Fred Armisen, but they certainly appear to slave over it. Franco’s camera roams the 30 Rock offices during an all-night writing stint, revealing a labyrinth of pontificators. Bill Hader stares into the mirror and unloads a series of hilarious impersonations. Head writer Seth Meyers passes out on the sofa, shortly after we hear him confess that “You can’t think of good ideas when you’re also sleeping.” Forte expounds on the surreal nature of the weekly scramble. “You live in a haze,” he says.”
Tension rises over the course of the week, as a list of 50 potential sketches gets whittled down through table readings and closed door discussions. When the broadcast actually begins, it erupts into a wild marathon, with Franco’s cameras capturing both the bright lights and the backstage rush. It’s impossible not to marvel at the constant energy of the performers, a staple of “SNL” life infamously attributed to drug use — but, when viewed up close, appears inextricably linked to instinct. Actors generally seen as goofy troublemakers talk in serious tones about their collective process and motivation. “I never wanted to be an actor,” says Andy Samberg. “I always wanted to be a comedian.”
But the outlet for such a desire has changed in the era of the Internet celebrity, establishing a contemporary challenge that Franco barely addresses in any blatant terms. (Appropriately, Samberg’s involvement in the production of “SNL” Digital Shorts provided the show with its most popular new segment in years, as it allows the program to cultivate a viral audience.) In a concluding dialogue with Lorne Michaels, Franco asks the veteran how he has managed to keep doing the show with the same underlying techniques for so long. Michaels chalks it up to the changes in the cast, a means of continually injecting new appeal to the program. Nevertheless, the most engrossing aspect of “Saturday Night” is the way it depicts the sheer insanity of live television, a format as old as the medium itself. As a result, Franco’s portrait emerges against all odds as a compelling look at anachronistic media in action.