This movie is so long in coming, its antecedents so personal to me that I barely know where to start. So let me begin by stating here, as I do often to friends and even strangers, that life is so full of rich and complex moments, it’s enough to make me sob, which I do quite frequently in my sleep. But it’s joyful it’s not weird or anything.
I must lay the groundwork for you by zipping backwards in time to 2004, to the very first directing credit I ever got. I had written a movie called Melvin Goes To Dinner, and Michael Penn did the score. We became very close during that project and for fun I started filming him perform at Largo. I still have all the tapes, but they are DVCAM format and I no longer have a deck. If anyone has a DVCAM deck please DM me or something and I’ll redigitize that footage. Those were magical performances and you should listen to the album he was recording at the time Mr. Hollywood Jr..
Patton Oswalt used to open for Penn, so over time I built up a decent library of Patton footage as well.
One day Patton called and mentioned that he wanted to shoot his own standup DVD. Since I’d been hanging around with a camera, would I be interested?
Yes. Yes I was.
Now double backtrack with me to the launch of Melvin Goes To Dinner, and my conversations with a friendly younger Ted Sarandos at Netflix. Ted was incredibly supportive of Melvin and he hosted a premiere event with us at Cinespace in Hollywood. Ted mentioned to me the night of the premiere that he was hoping to get into original productions someday. At the time I assumed that he would have to hard fork in order to do this since Netflix was just a dvd distribution company at the time. But over subsequent conversations with me that year he unveiled the entire master plan. What Netflix is now is what Netflix has always been in his and Reed Hastings eyes. The world just didn’t know it yet.
I filed this away in the back of my mind. Hmmm….dvd company wants to fund original programming. Okay. Good to know.
So in 2004 I get this call from Patton and he wants to know if we could shoot a dvd on the cheap and I say “let’s bring it to Ted Sarandos at Netflix and see if he’ll pay for it.” But before we did THAT, we shot a proof of concept video and this contains the crystallizing moment I am trying to conjure for you. The poc video was a short tour doc starring Patton and Zack Galifianakis (DJ Paul produced it). We went to Athens, Baltimore, and Charlotte. I filmed them onstage and off for a week. There was one moment in particular that has stuck with me my entire career. We were in a van between cities and Patton wanted to do a bit where everyone was asleep cuddled up on the seats of the van. So I get a shot of Patton, curled up like a Hobbit, snuggly and content. If I could name his bit I’d call it “cute sleeping.” Then I pan over to Galifianakis who’s doing a different bit. He’s sleeping with his mouth open and by the way he doesn’t really look like he’s asleep either. If I could name his bit I’d call it “bad sleeping.” Two comics, two different bits. As a filmmaker I wanted cohesion. I wanted one bit. So I reach into frame (if I ever find the tape you’ll see this) and I push up on Zach’s beard, closing his jaw. I withdraw my hand. He opens his mouth again. He wants to do bad sleeping. So film him doing bad sleeping.
I never forgot the lesson. Comedians will offer you gifts. You cannot choose which gifts you get. Doing documentary this way is all about creating an empty space, a stage if you will, and you invite the comedian to step into that empty space and fill it with their comedy. Comedians want to perform for the camera. They want to make you laugh. They want to be understood. If you are patient and willing to be receive these gifts you will get them.
Zip along with me now 10 years to 2015. I’d been directing half hour television for a while by then. Much like the Comey testimony, there is so much about half hour directing that I cannot say in open session. Eventually all that I know will be revealed, but this is not the place.
What I can say, and what you must know, is that I was feeling an itch. In my professional life I was searching. Personally a lot had happened in those 10 years. I met Erin, got married and divorced. I dated. I had met my current wife Mairi. I was happy. Mairi was the Costume Designer for Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, and she had to live in Atl for the two seaons that she did that job. I would stay with here there for weeks at a time when I wasn’t working. Those were abstract days, lost to contemplation and quiet. I’d hear Mairi rustle herself out of bed at 5:30am. I’d wake up a few hours later and wander across the street to Octane Coffee, the one on Cherokee. Then I’d go to Snap Fitness in the afternoon and start the countdown to Mairi’s return, usually around 8pm. We’d have dinner usually at Whole Foods (our old person ritual) and climb into bed by 10. I had time to ruminate on all I had done in the past decade and made a list of the work that meant the most to me. There were some music videos that Zach and I made. A couple pilots that no one ever saw. The 150 short films I made with Jimmy Fallon, and there was the standup comedy. Comedians of Comedy the movie, then the Comedy Central TV show, then Zach G Live at the Purple Onion. These titles were my genesis block. The experience of being part of a small crew, travelling with comics I loved. This was an experience I longed to have all over again. It was in that frame of mind that I went to see Erin and Bryan perform live when they swung through Atlanta on a Saturday 8/16/15 at The Earl. Mairi and I went together actually. We were sitting in the back. I could see all the heads, feel the anticipation. It brought me right back to those shows in Athens, Baltimore, and Charlotte, to crowds who all seemed to be sharing the same secret.
To know what I felt when Erin and Bryan emerged, bathed in applause, you would have to have known Erin as I did, as a fresh transplant from Chicago, newly married to a total stranger (we’d known each other for 50 days) with no clue how to navigate in Los Angeles, with wild ideas about comedy and literally not one friend or contact in comedy. I was orthodox in those days about not helping her. We were just at different stages in our life and for her, the ability to make friends and earn respect in comedy, particularly as a woman, would determine her fate entirely. I never got her an audition. I never wrote a joke for her. Instead she took classes, tried out for 2 million things she did not get, shot a web series and then another, and grinded it out one performance at a time, year in and year out. Now that was all prologue, and she had carved out her niche, and become the Erin Gibson we see today. She is quick witted and raw and charming. Seeing her dynamic with Bryan was just another level. In both of them I saw everything that saw in the young comics I had known when comedy still felt important and so close to me that I could reach out and touch it’s beard. I had a moment then, one of those rich and complex moments that makes you grateful and nostalgic, that makes me well up with tears as I think about it now. I could see Mairi’s face, illuminated by the spill of the stagelight, and she was laughing unselfconsciously at Erin and Bryan. Mairi and I got married 7 months later fyi.
Though we had a crew of 10 on Comedians of Comedy, including a sound guy and 3 camera operators (me, Brandon Hickman, and Elizabeth Mcdonald) I made myself, Brandon and Elizabeth do our own sound recording when were offstage. Each operator would be tied to a comic or two, and carry a wireless receiver with only that comedian’s audio. We all took turns on who we were assigned to, with Patton and Brian usually paired together since they hung out that way. Very often on that shoot I’d find myself alone with a performer, separated from the rest of the crew, on our own at a hotel or on the street. In the intimate simplicity of those moments I always wondered what it would be like to film an entire special or doc this way. On Super High Me as well there were a few venues where I traveled alone with Doug Benson and shot solo coverage of him doing standup. Something special happens when you know that you’re the only one covering a concert and that the editor will never have anything else to cut to. That, essentially, was my pitch to Bryan and Erin. I would capture everything, from shows to audio to the musical number at the end, with a crew of one, which would be me. This is part of a new stylistic epoch for me and I have begun to work this, in different ways, into my scripted work as well. I call this technique “Less Options”.
If you capture a moment from a show that’s amazing, you have to include it in its entirety, unedited. If you must cut away for some reason, you have to cut to another show, or to doc footage. But one thing you really can’t do is cut to another angle of the same joke. I did not know if this would work, but seeing it in practice I think it does.
To be honest I find most standup specials boring, flat, and claustrophobic. Furthermore I don’t love seeing shots of the audience. I also don’t like seeing standup comedy edited into a perfect monologue with laughter that sounds like it was stolen from another part of the evening. These things are violations to me. I have always tried, in my concert films, to include as much of spontaneity and ad-libbing as possible. These are the things that most specials cut away from, but with Less Options, you cannot trim them out without jumping to another point in time.
In Erin and Bryan’s case, there were so many spontaneous moments in every show, I had trouble choosing which to include. With Less Options you must make hard choices.
While this is billed as a concert film, it is only about 40% concert footage, and 60% doc. In order to maintain the thread of their act I had Bryan and Erin go through every piece of their set in every location we traveled. Sometimes a bit just sounds better in its conversational form vs. the onstage form. Sometimes it’s fun to mix the two. This approach is extremely time consuming. I was with them for 10 days and filming for all of it. I would get into my hotel room at night and start backing up footage. I would wake up throughout the night to swap cards and drives. I could never do this with comics I didn’t love.
One thing that nagged me throughout this shoot was domestic politics. We were on the road in September of 2016, just before the presidential election. Trump was omnipresent, which was alarming enough because his campaign was loathesome and a black eye to our country. Erin and Bryan were outraged as well at this and Bryan’s entire issue was the GOP platform. We assumed that while this was a bad sign, we’d never have to actually deal with a Trump presidency. I was convinced, the entire time we were on the road, that our doc would not be as relevant with the inevitable Hillary presidency. We talked about this a lot offstage, and some of that footage is in the final cut. All that happened in the election, however, has made this movie much more immediate, and the principles that we stand for need defending. I am proud of the stand we took. The outrage you see on screen is my outrage as well.
A big hurdle in post was figuring out how to get the publishing and sync rights to the song at the end. That’s something that would have been easy enough for a professional music supervisor, but it’s something I had never done and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so I sent a full treatment to the music publisher that included these storyboards.
Illustrations by Mairi Blieden.
I certainly haven’t exhausted all there is to say about this process. If anyone’s curious about any element of the movie you can leave a comment here or at the /r/ThrowingShade subreddit.