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Sundance: Tig Notaro on What It’s Like to Star in a Documentary About Yourself

Sundance: Tig Notaro on What It's Like to Star in a Documentary About Yourself

Comedian Tig Notaro had endured a life-threatening infection, the sudden death of her mother, a breakup and then a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer, which required a double mastectomy. What could be more challenging than all of that? Being trailed by a documentary filmmaking crew filming you every step of the way. The resulting film, “Tig,” co-directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it received a standing ovation. Indiewire recently spoke to Notaro about her involvement in the film and the challenges of being the subject of a documentary.

How did the project come about?

Kristina [Goolsby], the director, [along with Ashley York] has been a friend of mine for almost 20 years. She had always wanted to do a documentary. She reached out to me maybe four months after my surgery and asked what I thought about that. I said “yes.” It started two days later. They really caught me in the beginning of rebuilding everything.

Did you have any hesitations about being filmed during such a difficult time in your life?

Being so naive I thought I was through the tough stuff in life and that it would be pretty much be smooth sailing from there. I was thinking the documentary would just capture all the great highlights that were to come. There’s no way to know what it’s like to be filmed for documentary so I said “yes” and then of course, it drove me insane to have the cameras around. But I also didn’t want to do it half-heartedly. I wanted to fully do it, but it was really not fun to have the high highs and the low lows on camera. I think the fact that Kristina was behind the project and along for a lot of those rides made it possible for me to feel comfortable.

What was your biggest fear in terms of being filmed?

I didn’t really have any fears in the beginning because I thought they were going to be capturing really fun exciting cool things. Then it came over me where I was realizing “oh, I’m going to be emotional at times.” It’s hard for me to be emotional in front of people and here I’m going to be doing it for a possible movie. That was hard for me to really be vulnerable. That kind of stuff. But I was pretty willing to, once I said “yes,” I meant it.
Was there any step of the way during the process where you had second thoughts about being filmed?

Not really. There’s so much footage that there’s so many more moments of intensity and funny moments and emotional moments that actually didn’t make it in because it didn’t quite fit the story that they were focusing on.
Of course when I knew I was going to be giddy around Stephanie [Allyne] or sad about some event, I didn’t want the camera there but I had to bite my lip and let it happen.

That must be bittersweet because there are some amazing moments captured in the film, for instance, we watch you falling in love with Stephanie. Then obviously, there are some rougher moments. 

I feel so lucky to have it on film. It’s such an odd gift I’ve been given that we have our relationship captured on camera. And the fact that it’s not just maybe randomly dating people through this time period because I’ve done my share of dating and it’s not a random girl or two that are in the film. It’s really somebody that I can’t wait to be an old person with.

When was the first time that you saw the film in its entirety? Were you looking at it through the edit process?

I was way too busy to be in the editing room regularly or at all really. So I saw about four or five cuts of the film over the past year I guess. They were filming and editing in the last year. It was a very up and down situation because each edit would reveal an exciting little moment or a funny funny scene or a heartbreaking moment.

Each edit you see a different glimpse into things and it would go away or change in the next edit. I really wasn’t thoroughly happy with how the editing process was going and then finally about a month ago, one of the filmmakers called me and said, “I think you’re going to be happy with this cut” and I was like “well, we’ll see.” Stephanie and I went to the screening and I leaned over to her and said, “I think this might be really good.” And she said, “yeah, it’s amazing.” So it wasn’t until about a month ago. And they did a little more editing after that screening. That’s what they’ve come up with, which is the final product.

Did you have final say in the final product or did you give the filmmakers’ free rein?

I gave notes all along the way, but I had to put it into their hands as I was touring and writing my book and working on other projects so I couldn’t micro-manage the editing process. It would just be in their hands to do the best they could. I would get a cut and I’d give notes and they would address the notes and we would move on to the next edit. They definitely listened to me which was appreciated.

What would happen if there was a major editorial disagreement? Would you get final cut?

I think it was going to come down to me and the people funding it, ultimately. It never really got to that place and I guess there is probably some legal document saying what and who, but it really felt like me and the directors and Jennifer Arnold, who is the writer. Everybody chimed in, but it came down to me and the producers deciding and we would go back and forth on certain things, but there was never an all-out battle or anything. There were differences of opinion and frustrations at various points, but I feel like I was heard. And I imagine they feel that I heard them as well.

So what advice would you give to documentary filmmakers – or people who are considering being the subject of a documentary film?

I would say first and foremost, out of the gate, hire the best possible writer that you can find that can help you find the story from the beginning. And not to say that the writer is creating a false reality that you’re filming, but I had so many storylines going. They were following five important intense stories. In the last six months of the project is when we brought in a writer. I would have wanted to bring one in in the beginning. Even having not done that, I couldn’t be happier with the film. I’m very very proud of it.

It would have maybe made the process a little bit easier if somebody had that mindset of story story story story story, rather than just filming, capturing and then bringing on a writer. It just puts the clarity. You start streaming things immediately. I was authentically and genuinely living my life. It’s just a writer can put the pieces together. 

Did you feel pressure to be funny in the film?

No. Not at all. I think things just naturally are funny or are awkward and then become funny. I don’t ever feel pressure. When people put pressure on me to be funny, I quickly leave the moment or the room or the person — except for when I’m on stage doing stand-up obviously. There’s pressure. They’ve paid. But when I’m just a person out in the world…that’s why a lot of times I don’t enjoy parties because people put pressure on me to be funny. I like for things to unfold naturally.

READ MORE: This is How You Do It: 10 Filmmaking Tips from Mark and Jay Duplass

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