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INTERVIEW | “Conan O’Brien” Filmmaker Goes for the Jugular in New Doc

INTERVIEW | "Conan O'Brien" Filmmaker Goes for the Jugular in New Doc

Following a much bally-hooed separation from his former bosses at NBC that included a very lucrative buyout from his post as host of “The Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien embarked on a 32-city tour. His exit agreement from NBC included a clause that stipulated he could not do television for a period of time, so to connect with his fans – and perhaps as a form of therapy – he went on a live tour, dubbed the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.”

[Editor’s Note: This interview with “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” director Rodman Flender was published during indieWIRE’s coverage of SXSW. The film opens in limited release June 24.]

A friend of Conan’s since their days at Harvard, director Rodman Flender proposed doing a documentary on the tour, but he insisted that he didn’t want the film to be a traditional concert tour. Instead, the film spotlights mostly behind-the-scenes conversations with O’Brien and his team. Perpetually funny, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is liberally doused with the nonstop antics and near constant improv from its subject, though the comedian also reveals the turmoil he went through after being removed from the “Tonight Show” after he refused to be moved by network execs to the midnight slot to make way for rival Jay Leno in prime-time. “I didn’t want to be the host who did ‘The Tonight Show’ the next morning,” he joked.

Despite the doc’s obvious humor – audiences at the SXSW Film Festival were constantly roaring at its world premiere last weekend – O’Brien does manage to turn off his shtick, if even for a moment, to share the raw emotions he was experiencing post-“Tonight Show.”

“Sometimes, I’m so mad I can’t even breathe,” O’Brien said in the film. “I’m the least entitled person I know. I don’t believe I’m owed a show, or am owed ‘The Tonight Show’ or even success, but the way I was treated just makes me angry.”

In his interview with indieWIRE, Flender shares his feelings about O’Brien, how he decided to approach the topic and his refusal to be a marketing tool.

You’ve known Conan O’Brien for some time, why did you decide that this was the time to do a film about him?

It seemed like a great opportunity to capture a specific moment. I didn’t want to do a career retrospective. I wanted to capture something that was going on right then and there. This was a time in his life that was unlike any other. He’s had a career of improvisation and now he had to improvise again what he was going to do with his life after leaving the “Tonight Show.” He didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew something interesting to play out

What do you feel motivated him to want to do this film?

I knew from the onset that I didn’t want to do a concert movie and not interested in doing a Conan O’ Brien product – something that would be tied in as a marketing tool for him. I wanted to do a real documentary. I said that that’s what this is going to be if you let me do that. I said to Conan, “If you want a promotional tool, then I’m not the guy for that…” To his credit, he said that he knew that and gave the go ahead.

After your world premiere screening at SXSW, it was interesting when he took to the stage that despite some of the tough moments he went through, he’d do it again, though he wasn’t sure if it would be possible considering the unique circumstances he was in at the time.

The tour and experience came out of great professional disappointment for him. He loves performing and loves the musical component. He’s good at music and guitar. I’m sure he’ll do live performance again, he loves it and his fans love it and he loves the live interaction with a crowd. I think that tour influenced his set on the new show. I see more of an interaction with the audience in the new show on TBS. His audience is physically closer to him you may have noticed if you watch the show. I think this is a direct influence of that tour.

There were a couple of moments when he clearly let his feelings be known about the “Tonight Show” and Jay Leno and it wasn’t wrapped around a gag.

Those were conversations that you see. I cannot stand the sound of my voice so I cut that out as much as possible, but those were in fact conversations that we’d have and if anything he’s absolutely honest.

At what point in the production did you come up with the title?

At a certain point in the editing process it seemed to be a recurring theme that he can’t stop – won’t stop. Early on in the movie, I just said I want to have fun. I asked him if he could have fun without an audience in front of him and it was a question early on. That interested me, what was going on with this motivation.

If I was given a lump sum of money to not work, I think like most people I’d go on a trip – take off to Hawaii – but he couldn’t do that. He wanted to reach out to his fans and keep working. There was this ground swell of support among his fans and there were protests over his move off the “Tonight Show.” That all fascinated me. What is it about performers and actors that drive them to keep going?

In the film at least, Conan always seems to be on. Do you think it might be difficult for people around him to know when he’s actually mad or concerned about something and not joking? I’d think he might be difficult to read in a sense.

He’s nice to everybody. That’s the complexity of the situation. He’s meeting his fans and the tour manager is saying no photos, but he’s still stopping and does it. He can’t stop communicating with his fans. That’s the complexity. He wants to stop at times, but he can’t.

I think he likes to play a character as the worst possible boss, but it’s so outrageous and outlandish that anyone who for a second considers a modicum of sincerity then should have his brain examined. It’s all fun and joking, but there’s an edge to it…

You mentioned that you didn’t want this to be a concert film, but were there films that you looked to for inspiration when you began tackling the film’s style and point-of-view?

Barbara Koppel’s Woody Allen doc “Wild Man Blues” we referenced about an artist going on tour. Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” that intercut performance footage with what was going on with her backstage. Also referenced “Don’t Look Back,” the Bob Dylan film.

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