With so many moving parts and last-minute changes, there’s a lot that doesn’t make it into a show like “Documentary Now!” Even for a series as nimble, precise, and eminently watchable as IFC’s riff on documentaries new and old, not every promising idea can make it to the screen. For Season 3 of “Documentary Now!,” series writer/directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas had one great idea they had to let go.
“We wanted to do a documentary about the fake moon landing, but we couldn’t crack it. We were basically going to take it for granted that it was faked and just do the story of the live television production,” Thomas said.
“Kind of in the style of one of the many behind the scenes of ‘Saturday Night Live’ things that we see,” Buono added. “The production manager’s like, ‘Oh, you have no idea. Just the catering alone! We had to get all those extras out there to Cape Canaveral!'”
Though that idea never came to fruition (and for those upset that it didn’t, might we suggest the Matt Johnson film “Operation Avalanche“), Season 3 of “Documentary Now!” still featured plenty of impressive work in front of and behind the camera. While much of it came from performers like Cate Blanchett and old “SNL” cohort Bobby Moynihan, there was one group of roles that couldn’t be filled by old friends or A-list actresses. For a Portland-set episode that drew from “The Source Family” and “Wild Wild Country,” the show found much of their cast from local TV.
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“‘Batsh*t Valley’ has just so many newscasters. So we just hired newscasters,” Buono said. “They would just walk in and ask, ‘This is all you want me to say?’ And they would just say it. First take, perfect. It’s this thing you cannot put your finger on. I don’t know why I cannot get an actor to do that. But the rhythm that they speak at, they’re all amazing at it. You cannot fake it.”
Each new project in the expanding “Documentary Now!” canon brings a tiny production detail that needs to be replicated. For a wonderful bowling-centered fake “30 for 30”-style episode that caps off the season, the show had to recreate archival footage with dated on-screen graphics. Thomas explained that getting the feel of an early-2000s ESPN clip is an example of the team doing whatever it took to make an idea work.
“We have this wonderful editorial team: Micah Gardner is our lead editor, and…[he has] this little group. Naively, like us, they’re biting off more than they can chew, but going for it,” Thomas said. “They’re definitely a key component of what enables us to get away with what we get away with.”
That enterprising attitude towards the latter stages of production came in handy, singlehandedly saving a sequence in this season’s lauded musical, based on D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary depicting the recording of the original “Company” cast album.
“During an entire song, Renée [Elise Goldsberry] had an earpiece in and it fell out. It was sitting, the entire song right in front of her sweater. We hadn’t noticed it. Then watching it we’re like, ‘Oh, shit. There’s an earbud in every single shot.’ And then we just have Neil [Lokken], who was just like, ‘I’ll just clean it out!’ Every shot. It was major 3D graphics work. We’re very lucky to have such a great team,” Buono said.
Even though the “Batsh*t Valley” episode was already starting to germinate before the Netflix series dropped, not planning too far in advance gives the show the chance to respond quicker to popular trends in this corner of the film world. Should Season 4 come to fruition, the team has a well-established plan for vetting potential episode ideas.
“We generally do start fresh. We basically just wait until we get together,” Thomas said. “We all get together as a group for like two days. Ahead of that, people will start sharing, emailing like, ‘Check out this documentary if you can.’ So we’ll come in and sort of with a similar base of things we’ve seen. But it’s really those two days, discussions where things start floating to the top. There’s also so many documentaries coming out every week.”
Sometimes, as with the initial season’s “Thin Blue Line” parody or last season’s Spalding Gray episode, both reworked or written from scratch the weekend before cameras started rolling, a large number of people have to pivot at a moment’s notice. It’s all part of the “Documentary Now!” crew’s unofficial training from “Saturday Night Live,” knowing that even if things need to be scrapped and reworked in a matter of hours, each department of the show’s production team will be ready to answer the call.
“It’s kind of nice to be fresher, on your toes. It’s funny, it’s a weird, almost useless skill to have except for this show,” Thomas said.
“Documentary Now!” Season 3 is now available to watch on the AMC app. Previous seasons can be also be found on Netflix.