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‘Documentary Now!’: The Secrets to Recreating Film History the Right Way

This mockumentary show is serious, low-budget period filmmaking at its best.

Bill Hader, Fred Armisen - Documentary Now! - Season 2 - Globesman

Bill Hader, Fred Armisen in “Globesman,” from Documentary Now! Season 2

Katrina Marcinowski/IFC


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IFC’s “Documentary Now!” has always gone for more than the cheap laugh. While it’s a mockumentary of public-TV programming and the documentaries they feature, the real pleasure lies in watching how it will create homages to great nonfiction filmmaking.

“We really wanted you to be clicking through the channels, landing on our show and thinking that it is a real documentary, and then suddenly say, ‘Hey, hold on for a minute — that’s Fred Armisen, what’s he doing in this documentary?'” said  Alexander Buono, the executive producer who has co-directed and served as cinematographer on every episode of the show’s two seasons.

Buono and his fellow co-director, executive producer Rhys Thomas, started their collaboration on “Saturday Night Live” where every week they were charged with creating send-ups of everything from a suspense drama to a pharmaceutical commercial to a music video.

READ MORE: How ‘The Americans’ Turns Brooklyn Into an ’80s World of D.C. Espionage, All on a Basic-Cable Budget

“We entered a real comfort zone of watching and analyzing – figuring out the coverage style – and coming up with a visual shorthand of how to recreate something,” said Thomas.

With “Documentary Now!,” though, the challenge is steeper. Instead of referencing generic elements with a wink and a nod, the collaborators need to credibly recreate the look, feel, and documentary style of a film by a great director like Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense”), Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”), or Robert Flaherty (“Nanook of the North”).

Fred Armisen-Documentary Now! - Season 2

Armisen, Buono, and Thomas on location shooting “Globesman”

Elizabeth Morris

To get inside how they accomplish this, we asked Buono, Thomas, and key members of their art department to break down “Globesman,” their take on David and Albert Maysles’ classic “Salesman” – a sobering look at door-to-door Bible salesmen in 1969. What’s remarkable about the episode is not only do they capture that black-and-white 16mm look of the Mayles classic, but they also create a satisfying low-budget period piece in the process.

Period Detail

“This first thing Rhys and I do is try to get inside the filmmaker’s process and try to recreate their technical and coverage approach,” said Thomas. “Whenever we can, we reach out and try to have a dialogue with the actual filmmaker we were paying homage to.”

Albert Maysles died two years ago, but Thomas and Buono were able to talk to him before they did their sendup of the Maysles’ classic “Grey Gardens” for season one.

“Al thought it was a really funny idea,” said Thomas. “He told us, ‘Here’s the camera I was using, here’s the lens that I shot with, here’s how we lit the scene, here’s where I would stand in the room.’”

According to Buono, tracking down the exact lens, light and as many period specific elements is vital to the show’s success.

“I know it can seem like a very mannered exercise,” said Buono, “but we learned that level of fanaticism makes it much easier and can answer so many questions while we are figuring out how to shoot something.”

"Salesman"

“Salesman”

For example, a good portion of “Saleman” is shot inside people’s homes, which required some basic lighting. Maysles told Buono the specific light he used, which he’d place a foot above the camera and shined toward the ceiling – out of his subjects’ eye line – to give the room a general fill light.

“They used this very bright, almost like a car headlight-type of light,” said Buono. “I literally found the specific light they used on eBay, bought it. There’s still elements of lighting involved for every location, but having this let me problem solve and approach the scene the way they would have.”

READ MORE: The ‘Mr. Robot’ Experiment: Can a TV Show Be Shot Like an Indie Film?

Production designer Katie Byron said her process for “Documentary Now” is completely different than for indie films and TV shows. A movie like “Saleman” gives her such specific reference that taking an obsessive approach to period detail allows her to create the look of a 1969 home within the time and budgetary constraints of the show.

“It’s different than designing something from scratch, which is what you do on everything else,” said Byron. “This is more of an elaborate matching game, which can be easier and and much harder.”

Bill Smitrovich - Globesman

“Globesman” from season 2 of “Documentary Now”

Rhys Thomas/IFC

For example, instead of selling Bibles in the Maysles film, the characters sell globes. Therefore, the main props are period-accurate globes, which aren’t easy to find in bulk. By the time set decorator Rachael Ferrara and Byron found them, there wasn’t enough time to ship them to the Minneapolis location.

“We gave every member of the cast and crew a globe to check as their carry-on for the flight,” said Ferrara.

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