Fall/Winter 2016-17

Go With the Faux

It's a thin line between reverence and parody for the directors of Documentary Now!


Directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono on set with actor Fred Armisen (Photo: Elizabeth Morris/IFC)

Over two seasons of IFC's parody series Documentary Now! it isn't just the on-camera talent—comedy stars Fred Armisen and Bill Hader—who get to act in spoofs of everything from Grey Gardens to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, in aping the styles of famous documentarians like the Maysles brothers and Errol Morris, are performers in a sense, too, with their Red Dragon digital camera. "We're giving ourselves the constraints of being characters as filmmakers," says Thomas of their imitation-game rigor. "You're saying, 'This is where Albert Maysles would have stood in the room.' It's the fun of getting it right." Here, the pair, who first collaborated as segment directors on Saturday Night Live, offer background on the making of some of the show's memorable episodes.

EPISODE » "Kunuk Uncovered"

SOURCE » Nanook of the North (1922), Nanook Revisited (1990)

(Top) A scene from Nanook of the North; (Bottom) Fred Armisen in "Kunuk Uncovered" (Photos: (Top) PhotoFest; (Bottom) Alex Buono & Rhys Thomas)

Robert Flaherty's own writings gave Buono and Thomas a good idea of how the director made one of the earliest feature-length documentaries, a silent, partly-staged glimpse at an Inuk fisherman in the Canadian Arctic.

They even tracked down Panchro lenses from the '30s. "We absolutely were pretending to be Flaherty," says Buono, "limiting ourselves to a panning shot at most, because he had a big heavy camera, locked off most of the time because he was trying to do everything himself." Directing the actors—Armisen as Kunuk, and John Slattery, as their version of Flaherty—involved specific blocking, since dialogue wasn't an option. Says Thomas, "It was all physical, in the posture, the gestures. It was like staging a play, where you had this proscenium. It was definitely a weird exercise. John Slattery, bless him, he came all the way to Iceland with us not to say a single line."

EPISODE » "Globesmen"

SOURCE » Salesman (1969)

(Top) A scene from Salesman; (Bottom) the Documentary Now! recreation. (Photos: (Top) PhotoFest; (Bottom) Elizabeth Morris/IFC)

It all starts with research, since before a script is even written the directors know the look they're after. In this case, it was the black-and-white harshness of lonely door-to-door salesmen, as originally captured by the Maysles. "I found out the light they used, and bought two of them on eBay," says Buono. "They looked like mini car headlights, and they were scorching hot. But we bounced it off the ceiling and something magical happened. It looked like Salesman."

Whether filming in motel rooms or living rooms, they stuck mostly to the brothers' one-camera aesthetic (Albert filmed, David recorded sound), which meant no coverage. "We had to be a little bit behind the action," says Thomas. "The camera can't be on Fred before he says a line. We had to react to hearing it." Later, in post, using the texturing tool LiveGrain, they made the footage look old, but not too old. "It's a fine line of making it look like the Criterion version, so they would have cleaned it up a little bit, but there were scratches they couldn't get rid of," says Buono, adding, "it's that geeky world we play in."

EPISODE » "The Eye Doesn't Lie"

SOURCE » The Thin Blue Line (1988)

(Top) Randall Adams in The Thin Blue Line; (Bottom) Bill Hader in The Eye Doesn't Lie. (Photos: (Top) PhotoFest; (Bottom) Rhys Thomas)

Errol Morris' groundbreaking mix of crime scene re-creation and probing interviews got a man off death row. Over two days of filming their homage, with Hader and Armisen as orange-jump-suited prisoners, the directors had to keep track of an evolving, improvised timeline. "We'd let them wander a bit. We'd do an interview, someone would say something funny, then we'd have to make sure it's consistent when we did the next one. It kept snowballing." This time around, the duo's technical research made for some cosmic luck.

Morris and Saturday Night Live employ the same rental house, so it had the exact 50mm Zeiss super-speed lenses Morris utilized. "We put it on our camera and it was like, wow, there's no question they used these," says Buono. Then there was the woman they hired to do courtroom illustrations, based on her similar-looking website examples. "We sent her the script, and she said, 'That's funny, I was the illustrator on that trial,'" recalls Buono. "That was an insane coincidence. We realized what a weird meta-experiment this was becoming."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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