Inside ‘SNL’ and ‘Documentary Now!’ with Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono
It’s unlikely that there are many kids out there whose dream is to direct and create pre-taped segments on Saturday Night Live. Of course, as you get older you realize that’s an incredible opportunity that countless directors would love to have, it’s just not your typical Hollywood vision. It certainly wasn’t what Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono expected either, but the years they spent making those sketches for SNL are also a big reason why they’re two of the most interesting and unique visionaries in comedy today.
Recently Emmy-nominated for their work co-directing Documentary Now! — their second such nomination in two seasons of the show — Thomas and Buono have a resume unlike most in the industry. Everything they create on Documentary Now!, much like it was on SNL, must look different than the last thing they shot, and also must be done quickly on a tight budget. Thomas has been described as “TV’s most interesting director,” and the duo’s unparalleled list of credits — as well as their passion for being challenged by budget and time constraints — could also make them TV’s most sought-after directors before too long.
The SNL experience may not have been what they expected, but it definitely prepared them for the unexpected.
Are there any particular moments from the first two seasons of Documentary Now! that you’re proud of, in terms of being able to pull something off that you didn’t know if you could?
Alex Buono: The whole show feels like a little miracle, partially that it even exists. That there’s a network that will let us do this. It’s always felt like this passion project for everyone; Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers will say that it’s just a show that they make for themselves to amuse each other. And it really does feel like that’s the game that Bill and Fred are playing: Let’s just crack each other up. For Rhys and I, it’s an enormous technical challenge. Part of it is that it’s just such a low-budget show and we have to shoot it so quickly. That any of it makes sense is always tremendously satisfying. Half the fun of my part of it and Rhys’s part of it is the opportunity to recreate all of these documentaries that we know and love. I think the ones that are sort of more dramatic looks, like “Globesman” from season 2, felt really satisfying — when you can get to that place, not when you’re shooting it or editing it, but when you’re literally watching it after it’s been color corrected and fixed: “Oh yeah, that kinda feels like 1968. Yeah. Cool.”
Rhys Thomas: I think there’s quite a few of them, just because the show in itself is quite a difficult show to make. One kind of thread-the-needle moment for me was the parade at the end of the Al Capone episode in Iceland. We had very little money and the whole thing was thrown together very quickly. We landed on the ground in Reykjavik, and we were shooting this crazy made-up festival basically whilst also shooting the Nanook of the North episode on a glacier. The whole idea of the episode is to end in this celebratory parade and the contestant judging, so we really were purely relying on the weather cooperating — it rained pretty much every day we were there except for the day we shot all of the outdoor stuff for the Al Capone episode. I woke up that morning and the sun was shining, so that was the first bit of good luck.
It could have gone so wrong. We could have had zero ending to that episode, and somehow everything worked. It was also the very last day of shooting season 1, so that whole thing is very sweet.
People can binge a season of Documentary Now! in under three hours, and doing that gives you a sense of just how textured this show is. How does that stretch you as a director or as a director of photography thematically or artistically after a couple years of doing that, plus a long run at SNL?
Alex: I was at SNL for 17 years and Rhys and I worked together in a partnership for like eight years, and every week we’re doing some version of this game: “What’s it this week? Oh that look? We’ll do that then.” We have the muscles built for switching gears like that. Those of us that come from SNL are even more comfortable in that space than the rest of our crew that doesn’t come from SNL. When you’re saying “Tomorrow this has to look like that,” it’s tough. This is one of those shows that really relies on an incredible costume designer, art director, production designer. Our hair and makeup department, they have so little money, they have to make really specific choices. In terms of approaching every episode like a totally different thing, for me that’s a big part of the fun. Every episode is a reverse engineering detective game of “I wonder how they did this.” You’re watching the reference documentary and it all kind of reveals itself. There’s a research aspect to what we do, that’s a big part of it, and we try to talk to the original filmmakers whenever possible and ask them: “How’d you do this?”
We found that the filmmakers who made the original films, the whole documentary community, has been so game. They’re so amused by this show. When it first came out, some journalists and reviewers, there was this sort of “Don’t you think the community is gonna feel like you’re making fun of them?” I have a background in documentary myself and know the community really well, and I’m like, “Come on you guys, these are really smart people. They have a great sense of humor.”
Rhys: I had an education at SNL to have to dip into different genres and styles every week, so it’s something I kind of enjoy. That’s the pleasure of Documentary Now! — to be able to switch from place to place. The hard side of it is our budget and schedule. With other shows you can build five sets and that’s gonna be your show with a few locations. There’s a repetition to it, but we build no constant infrastructure and everything’s a complete tear-down, start again. We’re shooting all of those episodes simultaneously because there’s no way to piece them off. On some days we might be shooting black and white for “Globesman” and then still photos for “Mr. Runner Up,” then something contemporary or B-roll for “The Bunker.” It’s a challenge that way, a jigsaw puzzle on how to execute and keep the standard up and make it feel authentic, working in the constraints that we have. It’s fun to tackle that too.
Because each episode is roughly 21 minutes, it seems you have the freedom to blow out these worlds as much as you want, and for me I’ve noticed some really bold choices in doing that. Do you feel a freedom to make bold choices because of the format?
Alex: Yeah, I think you have to. I think that in 21 minutes if you’re trying to call something out — a style or referencing something that people are gonna enjoy — you can’t timidly walk into it and try to do it super subtly. It’s already so niche, you’re already asking the audience to be somewhat familiar with these documentaries. I don’t think they’re obscure, but I recognize that the entire world is not familiar with all of these titles. We hope that if you haven’t seen the film you can still enjoy these episodes. You occasionally hear from somebody, “Oh I’ve never seen The Thin Blue Line and I was inspired to go see it because of your show.” That feels amazing. That’s one of the highest compliments that we get on the show: You discovered a truly great piece of cinema because of our silly show.
Rhys: Ultimately what’s really cool is IFC just let us make the show we wanted to make and never really gave us any kind of prescription of what they wanted, so it really does feel like we can go wherever our minds and abilities can take us. I think that’s why I always isolate the Al Capone episode as one of my favorites because the fact that we got to do that and did do it and did it in Iceland with Icelandic actors, and Fred is in it but he’s kind of just a character amidst an ensemble of Icelandic characters — it was kind of this moment of, “Now we’ve laid the template that we can really go anywhere or do anything.” I don’t think we ever come from a place of needing to make bold choices, I think we really just want to deliver a season of variety and to do things that we don’t get to do normally.
This show treads between fiction and nonfiction and puts these comedic stories in a real-world setting, and it seems you may be the most experienced short-form “mockumentary” around. Christopher Guest also comes to mind. Do you think that could be true? Are there “mockumentarians” you look up to?
Alex: Christopher Guest is great, but I don’t even associate what we’re doing with what he does. I feel like his comedy style is very unique to him. It would be weird to try to do that. What Rhys and I are interested in, and what the show is trying to do, is to really pretend like this is real. We aren’t Rhys and Alex directing this, we’re these fake filmmakers directing this. For us it’s totally real. Bill and Fred have to treat it like it’s real. Whereas in some other types of mockumentaries, there’s a bit more of a sketchy, winky quality to it where they’re letting you in on the joke or playing the joke or taking a big swing at the joke. Whereas we’re trying to keep it real, authentic, and grounded. There’s totally absurd characters and crazy shit’s happening, but that just happens to be what’s happening.
Rhys: The short answer is that I don’t think we ever set out to make anything like something else. We didn’t set out for a comparison. We’re all informed and share a love of people like Christopher Guest and that world. Looking back at the comedy that I started paying attention to and enjoyed growing up, a lot of it has to do with people who were reframing, using devices, or using genres. Obviously the one that everyone would say is Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Life of Brian. Growing up in the UK, every Christmas and Easter they’d show Biblical movies, so I sort of knew that world and seeing someone reframe that in that way was mindblowing. Obviously Spinal Tap. I love things like Alan Partridge, and an idea of a totally fake talk show. All of that was stuff I loved, and I think it informs the joy that we’re all taking in doing the show.
Alex: To point to any mentors or inspirations within the show, it’s really the original filmmakers. You’re in the writers’ room and there’s such awe and admiration for those guys that it’s a lot of “How did they do that?” Even our version, it’s such a cheat. The genius of Seth’s writing on “Globesman” is that we know the Maysles brothers were constructing these scenes out of hours and hours of footage for the source documentary, Salesman. And the dialogue, they’re reconstructing conversations out of much longer conversations. Seth had to write that so it didn’t feel like a scene — it feels like a fake scene, which is such a hard trick.
Alex, you have now been nominated twice for an Emmy for Documentary Now! but it’s not your first major nomination. How different is it to be nominated for an Emmy compared to when you were once nominated for an Oscar?
Alex: The Oscar nomination was for a short live-action film, which with some hindsight, I realize that not many people care about. It’s not a category where anybody has any idea what those films are. When I was 30 years old and having an Oscar nomination, it was the only thing in the world that mattered. I was trying to drum up votes by contacting anybody who knew anybody and didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t really helping. No one was gonna go see it and maybe I drummed up 12 votes. Even for Documentary Now! we recognize that it’s a small show and it’s hard to compete with our friends at Saturday Night Live, who are weirdly in our same category. Having a show that has more recognition than a live-action short is super satisfying.
I think also at that time in my life, during the Oscar thing, I was much earlier in my career and what it means to win a major industry award wasn’t as clear to me as what it means now. In that at that time it was “Oh my God, if I just get this award, my career is made!” Now I recognize that’s not what happens. That’s not what the award is about. I think the best thing to come out of even being nominated is having conversations like this with you, and more people hear about the show. It’s not about putting something on my mantle, I just want people to know the show exists.
Looking back on your days at SNL, are there other moments that stand out as the most satisfying?
Rhys: Almost every week you’d think “If I had just spent another half hour with this actor” or “If only the sun hadn’t come up” or whatever it was. It’s such an insane schedule already, and generally, I think what we all strived for every week was to push beyond what seemed possible. That was the weird thrill. The addiction I got was you had such precise parameters in terms of how much time you had, that it was fun to push as hard as you could against those and go for something that you had no right going for. You don’t get much perspective going in each week, which got me used to not being able to predict how an audience is going to react. I don’t think I ever went into any show confident that I had a surefire hit. My last episode was “Farewell Mr. Bunting,” and I think the fact that it was my last episode and it was a fun piece because I got to take my time with it.
I remember sitting, watching dress rehearsal with Lorne Michaels, it’s playing, and it’s a solid two minutes where there’s no laughs. You could feel the audience trying to figure out when the joke was coming. I remember Lorne sitting there, turning around and looking at me and having this questionable look on his face like “What the hell is this?” Then when Pete Davidson’s head gets severed, the whole audience just exploded and laughed for a solid 45 seconds as it all got crazy. That was really satisfying. I felt proud that we kind of manipulated the audience in that moment. There’s lot of pieces that are watershed moments in executing something we hadn’t done before. That was the fun of SNL — you do so many films week after week that you can never rest on your laurels, and you also don’t have long to feel proud of yourself. Just keep moving.
You make documentaries that we know are not real, but what do you think about some of these movies that are accused of being faked, like Catfish and Tickled?
Alex: I certainly think it happens and part of me even understands how it happens. I think there’s absolutely some documentaries where the goal was “Let’s make something really crazy and we’ll just trick everyone,” but I think a lot of them can go down the road with the best intentions, then, “Nobody’s saying the right thing right now and if I just change the words around it’ll make more sense.” Then you’re on this slippery slope where none of this is fucking real anymore. If it were so limited within the scope of “If it’s not 100% true then it can’t be in a documentary” a lot of your favorites would be really fucking long and really fucking boring. There has to be the filmmaker’s hand there whether you like it or not. Films like Catfish where there’s this controversy of “Were they just faking it the whole time?” — I kinda don’t care about that. Probably because that’s just not for me. Some people would watch it and not care whether it’s fake or true, it was entertaining. Other people get really uptight about it. I think that if I found out that a documentary that I truly loved was actually a total hoax, I would be more upset than if I found out that … I don’t know what the corresponding metaphor would be. If The Act of Killing, none of that were actually true, that whole backstory that you heard was made up, that would be really upsetting. If it’s Catfish, I sorta don’t care.
Rhys, what do you want people to know about your new Amazon series Comrade Detective? Like Documentary Now! it looks quite unique.
Rhys: It’s a dip into the ‘80s thriller genre. It’s funny, reactions to the trailer has sort of labeled it as a “spoof” and I can understand why, but I don’t think that’s a correct label. I think it’s satire. Similar to Documentary Now! celebrating documentaries, it’s a chance for me to have fun doing a genre that I love, referencing De Palma and Polanski and McTiernan, and living in that universe. So again, I think people going in expecting a crazy spoof might have to shift expectations. It walks the line of yes, it’s a genre, a Romanian noir that has just a different point of view and that’s where the absurdity settles.
What comes next for all of you who have traveled this road from SNL to Documentary Now?
Alex: I just got off the phone with all those guys, talking about possible season 3 schedules. Yes, season 3 is something we’d all love to do, it’s been greenlit, it’s just about getting schedules aligned. Which is super exciting because there was definitely a point of “I don’t know if we’re gonna do a season 3.” Everyone was really happy with what we did with those 14 episodes, everyone’s really busy and I don’t know if we can get the band together, but then everybody sort of has come back like “You know what? I really wanna do this. I love this show and I want to make more of them.” There’s definitely a very strong energy in making more, which is super exciting. I love the show, I would keep making it forever, I fucking love it. We talked about what season 3 would be and is there a world where it’s one long story divided into six episodes versus doing a variety of episodes like in season 1 and 2. Everybody is open with experimenting with the format. There’s never been anything that’s like “That idea is so good that let’s do it as a feature.” It’s always just been, “What’s our best idea? Let’s do it as an episode.”
Photo credit: Katrina Marcinowski/IFC