Inside Directing for ‘SNL’ and ‘Darby Forever’ with Oz Rodriguez
It’s been several years since the Lonely Island guys left SNL, but the show’s pretaped shorts continue to be among the show’s sharpest, funniest, and most viral material these days thanks in part to Oz Rodriguez, one half of SNL’s filmmaking duo Matt & Oz and the editor/director behind hits like “Darrell’s House,” “Back Home Ballers,” and “The Jay-Z Story,” among others. He’s also the director behind Vimeo’s first-ever original short Darby Forever, which stars Aidy Bryant as a bored and lonely fabric store clerk with a penchant for daydreaming (into musical fantasy sequences, no less). With a cast that’s rounded out by Retta, Luka Jones, Natasha Lyonne, and Mary Sohn, Darby Forever packs a lot of small-town soul-crushing, musical numbers, and heart into just 20 minutes. Ahead of Darby Forever’s release on Vimeo today, I spoke with Rodriguez about how he got into comedy, what he’s learned from working at SNL, and how this new project with Bryant came together.
Hey Oz! How’s it going?
It’s been good! I’m off from SNL right now. We have the next two weeks off, so I’m catching up on sleep. This weekend I’m probably not going out…I’m probably just gonna be sleeping.
Sounds great to me. So, what made you want to be a comedy director?
Well, I grew up watching movies. I was just obsessed with movies, and once I figured out how they’re made, the idea of being a director appealed to me. I grew up in the Dominican Republic and I was watching all kinds of movies — not just American, but I watched movies from Europe and Latin America — I was way too obsessed with movies. I probably should’ve gone out of the house a couple times. [laughs] And I actually started watching SNL there in the Dominican Republic. That’s where I found out about it — not ever thinking that I would ever be working there, but I was just a fan of the show.
Then I went to film school where I met Matt Villines, who I direct stuff with at SNL. We went to film school, graduated, and we were starting out trying to do stuff like music videos and whatnot. It was around the time where music videos were really popular on TV, so all these bands wanted to pay us for videos and we were trying to pay off our debts. Then we met a friend who had a sketch idea and we shot that, and soon after that I started working at Super Deluxe, then Funny or Die, and then got called to the majors. That’s the very quick answer. It was a weird turn of events. I’d always liked comedy but I never thought I was just gonna do that, but it worked out great. The SNL thing was an awesome opportunity that I didn’t even know…like, if people ask me if my dreams came true, I say no only because I didn’t even think you could end up doing this.
You’ve been at SNL for a little while now — what have you learned from working there so far?
You have to rely on your gut a lot, because there’s no time, at all, ever. Our production time is very compressed — we shoot Fridays and are on TV on Saturday. There’s very little time on set, so you learn to trust your instincts and quickly figure out the best way to shoot the sketch, or at least figure out what the bare essentials you need are before they take the cast away to rehearse the cold open. It also taught me not to be too precious with our material, because sometimes you think you have an amazing joke, but if it doesn’t play, you just have to always think of what’s best for the piece instead of what moment is appealing to you.
When it comes to SNL, are there certain kinds of sketches you enjoy directing the most in terms of format?
I probably like the narrative pieces the best — the short films, like the stuff we’ve done with Mike O’Brien or the pieces we do for Michael Che. The music videos and commercials and trailer parodies are super fun to do, but you’re sort of following a style that’s already been set up, and the way these narrative shorts work is you can figure out what the look’s gonna be or how that story is going to be told yourself. Instead of having to go to a reference, you’re able to have more say in what it’s going to look and feel like.
How do you do that as a director — work with the writer or the star of the piece to land on a look and feel that works best?
There’s a constant conversation. Time is very compressed on SNL so that’s why so many times you just have to go with your gut. You have to read the script and figure out what will work best for the sketch and sort of plan out how you would like to accomplish it. You almost have to think about how you’d do it on a perfect day in perfect conditions, but then when you shoot you’re facing the realities of the day where the schedule has been changed, you don’t have a lot of time with the host, and you’re constantly battling these different schedules and you have to think on your feet.
You always need to be thinking of what you need to tell the story. I’ve never done anything like it — where you sort of prepare, but at the same time know that there’s gonna be chaos. And as far as style and whatnot, I think the sketch usually tells you what it needs as far as look or what it’s referencing.
Yes. Capital Chaos. [laughs]
You’ve obviously worked on tons of hit sketches since then, but that’s always stood out to me as really special…and dangerous for SNL too. It’s one of my favorites.
Oh, awesome! It was my favorite working experiences at SNL. It was one of my favorite days. It was so bananas and such a great challenge, and I’m really really happy it worked. We were all sort of counting on it working and we were so excited about the idea that we didn’t really have a backup plan. [laughs]
It’s so great. So let’s talk about the Vimeo short you made with Aidy Bryant. How’d that come together?
Well, Aidy had had the idea for a while now. It’s based on this lady she knew while she was at Second City who worked at a fabric store. She had the idea for the character forever, and I remember during one of our pretape shoots I went up to her…I think we had just shot a Mike O’Brien piece, and I told her I’d love to do something with her like that — like a narrative short with her for the show — and she said “I actually have this character idea…”
Flash forward to like a year later in the summer…I got a text from a producer Jason Carden asking me if I was available and down to do it, and I said “For Aidy Bryant? Anything.” So she had had the idea, they reached out to me, and I was excited for maybe the same reasons as Aidy as far as it was a longer piece, a longer short than we usually get to do at SNL, and it’s funny but a little bit different than what we usually get to do on the show — it has some heart and some emotion — so it was just a little bit different of a challenge and appeal than SNL for both of us, I think.
It must’ve been freeing to work with the short film format and have a little breathing room for a change.
Yeah, yeah! We were excited about being able to use a little more time — obviously not too much more, but just to be able to display Darby’s life and show her life at the fabric store and how not exciting it can be and be able to tell our story in this pace.
How’s it been working with Vimeo?
They are the best! They’ve been super excited about the short, they’ve been putting it out there for people, and it’s been great. I’m a big, big fan of Vimeo. They’ve been very supportive of short films and we’re big fans of High Maintenance, so we’re really excited to be in that family.
Would you like to do feature films too?
This is going to be sort of a vague answer, but I’d like to work on movies and I’ve been having a great time working on TV, so I think it just comes down to the right project that’s exciting — for me or for Matt and I. Something that excites us that we think we can add our voice to and make it ultimately better…so it’s a big blanket yes to everything. If it’s cool, we’ll do it.
Darby Forever is now available on Vimeo.