James Franco is an actor not only known for his expansive film career, but also for being a tireless multidisciplinary thespian with an affinity for higher education. His documentary directing debut “Saturday Night,” a product of his time spent toiling on an M.F.A. at New York University (NYU), exposes all that goes into bringing one episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL) to life. The film had its New York premiere to a sold out audience at the Director’s Guild Theater uptown last night on the final day of the Tribeca fest. On hand for a Q&A moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger after the screening were James Franco, along with SNL stars Will Forte, Kenan Thompson and Jenny Slate.
Franco revealed that his original assignment was to complete a seven-minute documentary centered on a person, as an exercise to shape a character. When he chose to profile SNL’s Bill Hader for a week, the opportunity to do go behind the scenes with the show’s staff was too good to pass up. His short quickly morphed into a feature.
“They’ve done docs on SNL in the past,” Franco said. “But they didn’t get access, they just got interviews and people talking about the process. I had an assignment to do an observational documentary. I wanted people to feel the process and go through the process, rather than hear it.”
While Franco said he got to choose the week’s guest host, John Malkovich, collectively with SNL, Franco alone asked Malkovich whether he’d be comfortable being followed by Franco’s camera team. Malkovich said yes.
Thompson, who notably has less screen time in the doc than some of the SNL cast, revealed that he wasn’t so keen on the idea. “It was weird for me cause I don’t necessarily like watching myself,” Thompson said. “Whenever I see cameras and I know that’s it’s going to end up on like some reality show format I hate it. Plus when there’s a John Malkovich type host there’s not a lot for me to do anyways. Medieval or European skits – you know I’m always sort of left out of those for some reason.”
But the decision to follow certain SNL members over others wasn’t part of a big plan according to Franco. “I had two main cameras,” Franco explained. “Going into it we knew it was going to be a week, we knew we had to have some structure. But we all thought it would be more interesting to see archs of a few sketches. We had to pick certain ones, and we didn’t know if they were going to make it or not. Some ended up getting cut in dress rehearsal.”
One of the few to get nixed late in the game was a mattress commercial parody conceived by Forte. “I think you never really know what’s funny,” said Forte. “You trick yourself into thinking it is. You always go in going ‘this is going to be great,’ but usually it’s the one you don’t think is great that makes it through.”
Though the film chronicles the setbacks and insecurities that plague the team on a daily basis, “Saturday Night” ultimately celebrates the addictive nature of the creative process.
“The show to me is like a beautiful live animal that comes alive during the night, because you never know what it’s going to be,” said Slate. “Sure it’s scary. But mostly it’s just a thrill.”
Be sure to check out the video of the entire event here.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nigel M. Smith is currently working with indieWIRE in New York while pursuing a Master’s degree in Arts Journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. In June, he will be covering the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC for the The Post and Courier.