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‘Harmontown’ Director Neil Berkeley on When Things Got Tense With Dan Harmon

'Harmontown' Director Neil Berkeley on When Things Got Tense With Dan Harmon

So when “Community” creator Dan Harmon came to Berkeley and asked him to make a documentary about the forthcoming cross-country tour of Harmon’s podcast “Harmontown,” Berkeley’s first instinct was to say no. Then, Harmon gave him final cut — and Berkeley said yes. 

The result is a combination of road movie, concert film and artistic introspection, as Harmon puts his neuroses and bad behavior right in front of the camera lens. In our interview, Berkeley told Indiewire about why final cut was key, how Harmon’s attitude towards honesty affected the film and why (almost) no one gets a title card. 

The first thing I want to ask is this: How do you go about making a documentary feel honest about its subject, when its subject is very much a part of the process?

Well, step one is Dan’s courageous decision to give me final cut. That was the first thing he decided — he said, “It’s your movie, I’ll be in it, it’s whatever you want.” And, yeah, he was a part of the process but even shooting, any sway he held wasn’t character-based. It wasn’t about “hey, make me look good” or “I look bad.” It was always structural and positive and supportive and motivational. It was always, “Here’s how you can make it better” or “I’m not sure about this cut” or “This cut is looking kind of rough.” He was never guiding the story. He was never shaping the movie. He was always just sort of helping.

You’re talking about post-production, essentially?

Even on the road. I could shoot whatever I wanted. I could ask any question. I could talk to anyone about anything. Never said no, never said “don’t shoot this.” He was always like “You’re here to document a moment.” He would even say “make sure you’re getting all of this — don’t leave things out.”

What’s really interesting, then, are the moments of the documentary when he’s literally winking at the camera and playing to it. What was your thought process behind including those moments?

Well, if you think about it, you kind of have to. He’s a storyteller. He’s beloved because of the stories he tells. So, if you’re making a movie, it’s the same way if you were making a movie about a painter — you would want to show them painting. If you’re making a movie about a storyteller, you want to show them telling stories. 

So when he tells us where we are on the tour, that we’re going to cross this threshold — that’s his craft, that’s what he does. So, yes, that goes in. And when he’s saying there’s a point in the middle of the movie where the hero gets everything he’s ever wanted — but then, so what? That’s him saying “Here’s how stories work, here’s how movies work, and just now in Brooklyn, they carried me around on their hands and I got everything I ever wanted, but get ready folks, ’cause it’s about to get dark.” [Laughs] And it does. If you’re making a movie about a baseball player, you show them hitting baseballs.

Were there ever any moments during the actual filming process when you felt uncomfortable, or felt unsure that what you were filming was something that you should be filming?

Uhh, no. The only time it was uncomfortable was after one show — Pittsburg — it was a particularly dramatic show. He had gotten in a fight with Erin on stage. He was sick. He wasn’t in a good mood. I felt that this was the night that he tells me to fuck off. But he didn’t! Luckily. But, that was the one time where I walked into the room and felt like “oh shit, this could get ugly.”

What was his reaction in that moment? To seeing you?

He was fine with seeing me. The line of questioning — I think he was a little defensive. I don’t think he and I had the same interpretation of this show and he was sort of letting me know what he thought the show was, but in a way that was like “You’re wrong about this.” It wasn’t aggressive, it was just a vibe I got, that he and I weren’t on the same page as far as what had just happened in that room.

It’s funny that I just realized this, I’m talking about how uncomfortable it is — in the movie, I walk in and I say “Do you mind if I come in here?” It’s the only time that I ask permission to go in the room. Because the way we shot it, I would be in the room alone with him before and after shows, with me and my camera, and I would ask him questions. That was the one time I asked him if I could come in. Because I was, like, this is tense. And he said “Yeah, sure.”

So, he didn’t think the show had gone that badly?

I think he knew it had. You know, it was a great show. It was very honest. It was probably before the show that I said, “Is there anything you can do or say to this crowd that could make them not like you? Because they love you. They line up for your autograph no matter what you say.” And he tried it out that night. [Laughs] And I do think people walked away thinking this guy is not that great, or he can be not that great. And I think [afterwards] he was reacting to that a little bit because it was tense. He was very honest in the moment. Even the show — the podcast itself — got very tense.

It’s interesting because, when you think of honesty, would you think of, say, editing and tailoring footage to tell a story? Do those things work together at all?

It’s a good question. I don’t know, I’ve talked to a lot of people that make docs about this and most documentary filmmakers — the good ones, anyway — will tell you that there’s no objectivity in this. I am deciding which pictures to put next to which pictures and we’re going to line them up for an hour and a half. And that’s a choice that I am making. I am deciding what parts of Dan to show. 


But, if you do it in a way that feels manufactured… That’s why with shots, you hold on the person so [the audience] knows there’s no cuts. You have them tell you everything. Dan, if he’s going to talk about this, he’s got to talk about his parents abusing him, he’s got to talk about being abusive to Erin. If he’s going to get drunk on stage, we have to show it, and the next day, we have to show his reaction to it. That’s how you do it. You can feel it. The moment you go, wait, I think that, right there, will really make him look like a bad person. And then you go, “well, no, that’s not how that worked.” You just have to be really careful of that.

Would you have done this without final cut?

No. You couldn’t do it. 

Yeah?

No, because for someone’s act to be so based in honesty, they can’t be a part of that storytelling. That’s what I mean. That’s where the objectivity goes out the door. It would then be Dan shaping that story about himself. You can’t do that.

He can tell his own story, but you can’t tell his story?

Yeah, yeah. I think when it comes to something like this, it would be like me saying to you, “So I’m going to take this interview and I’ll write it up and I’ll give it to you.”

Do you want to do that? Because that would save me a lot of time. [Laughs.]

It just doesn’t work. It’s a bummer when you see movies — or docs, anyway — especially when the person is involved and has their name on it. Dan was so aware of that and protective of that. He said, “Look, it has to be real.” 

READ MORE: SXSW Doc ‘Beauty is Embarrassing’ Opening in Theaters September 7

It almost sounds like he would rather be seen like a complete and utter asshole on screen, than be seen as fake.

The line he always says, and it’s a good line — he’ll probably say it to you later, I think I’m blowing it — is “I’d rather be a bad person in a good movie, than a good person in a bad movie.”

What has been the general mix of audiences that have come in for the screenings? Largely Dan fans?

Yeah, I think so.

So, what’s been, for you, the most surprising reaction to the movie?

I love watching people who don’t know who [Harmon] is.

Really? Have you shown it to your mom, try to explain to her?

Umm… well… we won’t go into that. She didn’t love it.

Aw, sorry.

She said “It’s a good movie, it was made well.” But, it’s not for her. The reaction from outsiders, people who aren’t into “Harmontown” or “Community,” that reaction has been really, really interesting. You know, I’ve made two movies, and people that watch this one who don’t know Dan always say, “This is a much better movie than your first one. Because of the things you allowed him to say and the roads you went down.” That’s been really good to hear.

How much of this film is about introducing Dan to people who don’t know him?

Way more than I wanted. [Laughs.] Exposition is horrible, but you have to do it. There’s two ways to do it. You can roll it out over time and explain who they are over time, but Dan goes up on stage in front of 400 people… So unless you know why he gets to do that — because he’s a writer for TV and he’s going on stage — it’s very confusing. So the beginning is all this exposition about who he is and why people know who he is. That’s the part that gets kind of boring for me. 

How did you come to the approach of that dead-on, talk directly to the camera, no title cards, approach?

Those were decisions that were made very very early on. I knew I wanted to talk to all the fans. So, the way it happened was, I knew I wanted to talk to fans, and what I noticed about all of them was that eye contact is very complicated for them. They’re introverts and they’re socially awkward and they look at their feet when they talk to you. And I wanted to capture what it is like to talk to these kids. So, I say, “look right into this glass eyeball. Just stare at it.”  And i was like, holy shit. They’re so weird-looking, but beautiful. It’s really striking when these kids or these people talk to the camera.

Then, actually, Steve Agee was the first celebrity we shot. And I said to him, just stare right into the lens. I had him do the exact same thing. And I thought hopefully we’re going to talk to Ben Stiller and Jack Black. I’m going to have them do the same thing. That’s the point of “Harmontown” — we’re all people. We’re all humans. So I’m gonna have everyone do the same thing and I’m not going to title card anybody. No one is more important than anyone else in this movie. So, we don’t title anybody. 

The documentary “Harmontown” is in select theaters today. 

READ MORE: ‘Community’ Creator Dan Harmon Is Not Ashamed, and Yahoo Doesn’t Mind

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