Rodman Flender, a friend of Conan O’Brien since their days at Harvard, followed O’Brien on his recent 32-city tour following O’Brien’s much ballyhooed separation from NBC. The resulting documentary, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” hit select cinemas last Friday. Below find an exclusive scene from the film along with Flender’s thoughts on the shoot.
When Conan O’Brien decided to take his act on the road and embark on a 32-city live tour, I immediately pitched him the idea to chronicle the adventure in a documentary. I didn’t want to make a concert film, nor was I particularly interested in the circumstances that led to this tour. My goal was to make a comedy “Don’t Look Back” and capture a specific chapter in the evolving story and life of Conan O’Brien.
Every director faces a new set of challenges with each new endeavor. I’ve improvised shots on a New York City rooftop while gusty winds carried away bounce boards; I’ve shot in a swamp with a party of black flies chomping on my legs; I’ve had to interrupt a location shoot while a camera assistant was arrested on a warrant and then wrap for the day to bail him out of jail. But trying to keep up with Conan to make “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” brought a whole series of challenges which I never could have imagined when I pitched him the film and for which few previous experiences could have prepared me.
Take, for example, the clip I’ve chosen for indieWIRE. Conan O’Brien is a man almost constantly on the move. As he approached the small jet on the airstrip, I had to immediately adjust the camera’s color temperature from the inside waiting area (where we see him shake the pilot’s hand) to the cloudy outdoor skies, race to keep up with his long-legged strides, keep him in the frame while trying not to stumble into any moving propellers or jet engines. When we landed in Eugene, Oregon, I did it all over again while simultaneously adjusting the levels on the radio mic (which, thankfully, he wore) so I could hear his impromptu riffing on the throng of people rushing toward him. Good thing the throng was non‐existent or I probably would never have gotten the shot.
But I chose this clip not just to illustrate the challenges one faces while shooting a cinema verité documentary. In just over one minute, it seemed to capture the many different themes and elements I discovered while editing the entire motion picture. The clip starts with a moment of contemplative intimacy. There are sequences in the film where Conan performs for huge crowds. But it’s these moments of intimacy that I believe set this film apart from other show-biz-centered documentaries. While people assume that celebrities walk around with a sense of earned entitlement, Conan freely confesses his own continued amazement at the situations he finds himself in. I’m certain many folks in the public eye feel this way; very few are willing to admit it in on camera. I think this honesty and humility are why Conan’s fans are as passionate and loyal to him as they are.
I purposefully juxtaposed shots of fame and privilege (riding in a limo en route to a private air strip to board a luxurious private jet) against the confession of “acting as if” it’s all natural. I ended this sequence with an example of Conan’s gift at improv as he continues to “act as if” he’s a prima donna, acting as if there’s a Beatles‐arriving‐at‐JFK‐like crowd pressing against police barricades. It’s a perfect example of Conan’s super‐speed wit– perhaps the most challenging thing with which I had to keep up. He’s saying the same thing on the empty airstrip that he admitted to me privately in the “act as if” conversation, only he’s expressing it in a way that is pure Conan. He’s having fun, he’s finding absurdity in every new situation and challenge that’s thrown in his way.
I’ve been asked if I learned anything new about Conan while making this film. I’ve always believed that the funniest Conan was not always the talk show host we see on television every night. The tour provided Conan an opportunity to personally connect with his fans and work out a few of his own challenges with his rapid comedic skills. “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” provided me with the challenge and opportunity to capture a complicated artist improvising a new turn in his life and career.