There are few TV shows with as much obsessive attention to detail as “Documentary Now!” That’s probably why it came as no surprise to series co-creators Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas that one shot of Cate Blanchett riding a mini tricycle in a massive Hungarian courtyard ended up taking a big chunk of an entire day.
“There was one moment in it where she’s riding on a tricycle in the square. And that’s on screen for like five seconds. And that probably cost us about five hours to get that shot. When you’re shooting for four days total, that was an expensive shot to get. But it’s worth it because they’re just going to take place as her somewhere,” Buono told IndieWire.
It’s the kind of creative choice that “Documentary Now!” has the freedom to make, given its bizarre mission statement. Over 17 episodes to date, the IFC series has taken some of the most venerated and iconic documentary films and flipped them on their head. But in the process of crafting these comedic versions, they still have to follow some of the same filmmaking tenets that govern the works they’re parodying.
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“You’re making a documentary. So the ability even just to put it up for a few frames, it has an immense value to opening up the scale,” Thomas said. “Sometimes the crew’s like, ‘Do you really need that thing?’ I feel like we always push to do more of that.”
The series, now in its third season, has tackled plenty of the biggest documentary titles of recent years. The show’s most recent episodes have tackled parody versions of “Wild Wild Country” and the classic D.A. Pennebaker look behind the recording of the Broadway cast album for the Steven Sondheim musical “Company.”
This week’s episode has a slightly more narrow focus — the 2012 Matthew Akers film “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” — but it enlisted the services of Blanchett, arguably the show’s most famous guest cast member to date. Luckily for the show, she came in with the same level of preparation that goes into making these episodes feel so close to the spirits of their predecessors. Playing this exaggerated version of notorious performance artist Abramović (the “Documentary Now!” version is named Izabella Barta), Blanchett plunged into all the wild riffs that the script called for.
“The way she threw herself into it was unforeseen. We knew she’d be good, but you don’t know until they walk up on set whether that they understanding the tone and the level of commitment, you know?” Thomas said. “But once she was on board, she was doing all this research. She had teeth made to shift her jawline. She had 15 wigs or something that she worked on with her longtime hair or makeup people. Her commitment to the detais matched our detail-oriented thinking.”
Filming all of Blanchett’s scenes in such a short time period meant not just making sure that all the logistical details were in place before production, but that the team could construct an entire fictional life’s worth of archival and artistic material in a single day.
“We basically created the body of work of her entire career. We had one day to do that because we needed to get all that footage and put together to projections and photos and stuff for the actual exhibit that we did at the end. We prepped like nuts. We were in Budapest about two weeks before we did it. Just seven days of 20-something-hour days, really trying to get it dialed in.”
One setpiece in particular gave the team an unexpected hurdle. One of the fake performance art pieces called for a prop toilet stall. In venue after venue, from the lodgings that inspired “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to one of the city’s famous train stations, the people in charge of the venues repeatedly balked at having something bathroom-related in a public space.
“Cate Blanchett is going to be in lingerie and she’s going to be lapping up milk and there’s going to be a cat there. She’s going to be tied to a wall,” Buono said, describing the pitch at various locations. “Then we said, ‘OK, we’re going to put a toilet stall right here.’ The Hungarians were just like, ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean a toilet stall? This is offensive that you would even suggest that.’ They wouldn’t budge.”
Eventually, they obtained clearance to film the scene in the Budapest Opera House. But that necessity of being flexible in the face of absurdity is a reflection of the same things the show asks of its performers, too.
“You’re moving so fast that unlike other shows, you don’t have trailers. Because the talent is never gonna go back to the trailers. It’s just, ‘No, no, no, stay with us. You’re gonna be shooting again in five minutes'” Buono said.
It all goes back to the insane weekly time crunch of another show that gave so many of the creative team their start.
“So many of us that make the show came from ‘Saturday Night Live’ and had been there for a very long time. I think a lot of our crew would rather not be that way, but we all respond really well to quick [turnarounds],” Buono said.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Thomas added. “That’s always the challenge of, ‘Well, how are we going to do it?'”
“Documentary Now!” airs Wednesday nights at 11:00 p.m. on IFC.