A little over a year ago, late night talk show host Conan O’Brien was unceremoniously booted from the job he earned to host “The Tonight Show” by NBC executives who weren’t happy with the ratings and weren’t willing to give O’Brien the chance to build his audience. The severance arrangement stated that O’Brien couldn’t appear on television for six months following his departure, so he decided to do something crazy and take his show on the road for the 32-city “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” With a full band including back-up singers, he performed songs and did comedy bits across the country, often involving whichever friends were in the city on that particular night, which included everyone from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to Jim Carrey.
That tour was documented by filmmaker Rodman Flender (Idle Hands) and the results are Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a movie which debuted at the South by SouthWest Film Festival a few months back. Unlike many documentaries where the filmmaker and subject matter don’t know each other outside the process of making the film, Flender has known Conan since college, which may be why he was able to capture such a candid side of the comedian while following him around on his first tour. Besides showing some of the highlights of the tour, the film contemplates his evolving celebrity as he interacts with the growing fanbase who come out to support his battle against his 22-year corporate bosses.
If you’re a Conan O’Brien fan then it’s a movie that can’t be missed because it gives you a chance to see that he’s just as funny off-stage when he’s just hanging with his ultra-patient personal assistant or his friends.
ComingSoon.net spoke with Flender on the phone about the project last week.
ComingSoon.net: Looking at your resumé, you wouldn’t be the first person I’d think of to do a movie like this. How did you end up doing it? Did they find you, did you pitch it to them?
Rodman Flender: I had made another documentary feature about ten years ago that played film festivals, and I studied documentary filmmaking as an undergraduate. I didn’t go to film school, the only kind of film study I did was documentary filmmaking, so I did have a background in it, and I had known Conan for a while. We went to college together, so when he started putting this tour together, I pitched him the idea of documenting it for a film.
CS: Were you involved fairly early on, and was he already talking about doing this tour as “The Tonight Show” was winding down? How long after it went off the air did he start talking about doing the tour?
Flender: The next day, and I ask him that in the movie and he says that he actually had the idea while he was taping that final “Tonight Show.” The last “Tonight Show,” he did kind of a jam session with Will Ferrell and Beck and a few other people and they did “Freebird” and he told me he liked doing that so much. He knew he was prohibited from being on television for a while but he thought maybe he could do a few live shows at some small venues like the Troubadour here in L.A. with his band and just do some songs and then that quickly evolved into this 32-city massive coast to coast tour, and that process interested me. As quickly as he thought of and put the tour together, that’s how quickly I thought of doing this movie and capturing that process.
CS: This isn’t really a concert film though we’ve seen many movies where they follow a comedy tour across the country–HBO does it all the time, where they document a concert somewhere. This movie has bits from each city but it’s really more behind the scenes. What kind of conversations did you have with Conan in terms of how much of the stuff off-stage you’d be using?
Flender: I told him right from the get-go when I pitched the idea to him that I wasn’t interested in doing a concert movie or as you say, an “HBO concert special.” I didn’t want to do a Conan O’Brien “product.” I was interested to see how he was going to use what had happened to him at that time creatively, how he was going to use this outlet of performing to deal with the biggest disappointment of his career. That’s what interested me and I told him that right from the beginning. I said, “I don’t have an agenda, I’m not Michael Moore out to prove a point. I have no thesis that I want to illustrate.” I had no axes to grind, I just wanted to capture what was going to happen, so I was very plain about that right up front, so hopefully, there’d be no surprises for him as he went along on the tour and I continued shooting.
CS: Obviously it’s one thing to say “I want to go on tour with a show” and I guess you can tell what he might do from the show, but were there any concerns before they started rehearsing whether he could pull this off? Or was it interesting to capture this whether or not the show actually worked?
Flender: I just wanted to see how the whole evolved. Whatever was going to happen, that’s what I wanted to capture. I started filming before one ticket was sold and then I filmed him tweeting the announce of the show and then the show sold out very quickly and I captured that. Just sort of this arc of improvisation was interesting to me, and I was improvising the movie as he was improvising the show.
CS: You’ve obviously known him for a while and he’s used to being on camera, so did it take long for him to start being himself with the cameras around rather than just being “on” and playing up to them?
Flender: I think he was himself all the time. What you see in the movie is what you get with Conan O’Brien, and I think that’s true when you see him as a talk show host. He has this job as a talk show host and you see him do that job, but that’s genuinely him. I captured a guy who is putting a show together and processing very difficult feelings and processing a difficult time. Whether or not it’s filming him unscripted or seeing him interview Tom Hanks, it’s always him, and I think that’s one of the things that his fans respond to as well, that he doesn’t have a wall up, that it’s always genuinely him.
CS: It’s interesting to see him interacting with different people. Because he’s a comedian, you never really know if he’s joking or not. Did he play jokes on you while you were making the movie? Or were you really just a fly-on-the-wall and no one really noticed you?
Flender: Yeah, I was more of a fly-on the-wall and there’s so much to do, there was so much going on. He was getting his show together and there was little time to pay attention to me, and for most of it, I was a one-man crew, and that’s very difficult and challenging, but one of the advantages of being a one-man crew is that you can disappear more easily then you could if I had a boom microphone and a sound crew and camera assistants and that sort of thing.
CS: I assume with different venues and gigs, you would have to expand your crew while stuff on the bus or plane you could shoot yourself. Did you do that?
Flender: For a couple of the cities, I was fortunate enough to have a real DP, a woman named Vanessa Holtgrewe who is a terrific cinematographer – I had her for a few of the cities, but most of it was just me. For the performances, the shows, it was me and at least one other person. For a couple of the shows, I had two or three cameras; for most of them, it was just two cameras capturing what you see on screen for the performances.
CS: I assume you had to get releases for everyone in the movie, but there were so many different people coming in and out and showing up for the shows. Was someone else dealing with that?
Flender: Oh, yeah. I have a terrific producer, and I wouldn’t have been able to have done this without her, a woman named Rachel Griffin who got releases and really made it all happen from a legal point of view. I would have been able to shoot what I shot but I wouldn’t be able to show it to anybody, so Rachel kept it all legal, but no one really resisted because Conan was so open. The fact that Conan was so comfortable in front of the camera made everyone around him comfortable as well.
CS: When were you shooting, did you know immediately when there was something you had to keep and use and were you able to do any editing while on the road? Or did you just do it the normal way of doing all of that after the tour was over?
Flender: I tried to do some editing while I was shooting but it’s very very difficult. I know there’s some directors who can (do that). Robert Rodriguez shoots and edits and then he’s got his movie done like four days after he’s finished his shooting. I have a harder time doing that. I kind of need to be in shooting mode, and then in post-production mode. I wasn’t with the tour for the entire tour. I took a few weeks off in the middle of the tour and during that time, tried to string together what I had shot up to that point with what I had, and then I put that on the shelf and joined up with the tour again and continued to shoot.
CS: There isn’t so much interviews or testimonial stuff either, so did you spend a lot of time talking to Conan about stuff going on or was it just a matter of getting his thoughts while he was doing other things?
Flender: Yeah, we didn’t really do any formal interviews. We had some conversations and you see those in the movie, you know, when he’s driving or some of the meals we had together or hanging out in his dressing room. No, I never set up and lit and put together a formal interview like that. Anything you see like that is really more of an informal conversation.
CS: How much footage did you end up with that you had to go through and how was it to whittle it down to a reasonable length movie? It feels like 90 minutes would be really tough with that much material.
Flender: Yeah, that was a challenge. I shot about 149 hours, that’s what I had in my Avid, and it was a challenge to boil it down to the 88-minute product we have today.
CS: Is there a lot of stuff you wanted to keep that’s just going to end up on the DVD?
Flender: Yeah, there’s a lot of great stuff that didn’t necessarily speak to the specific themes I was interested in exploring, which is about his celebrity and his relationship with his audience, the process of putting a show together, the process of improvisation. There were some things that were repetitive, but a lot of those will show up on the DVD extras, so it’s great to have that outlet to show the fans and the fans of the movie that there will be more.
CS: Most documentary filmmakers want to have the final edit and not be beholden to their subject, so did you have any conversations with Conan about that or did he have any comments after seeing the movie for the first time about things he wishes weren’t in the movie?
Flender: After he saw the movie for the first time, he said, “I feel like an alcoholic who has to go apologize to people,” that’s what he said. You’d have to ask him, but I can only imagine that seeing the movie for him now is very difficult, because I was following him around at a difficult point in his career and his life. He’s not there anymore. He’s in a very different place now. He’s got a new show, his own show, that’s been on for like nine months now, and to have to go back emotionally and relive a very painful time has got to be very difficult. I wouldn’t want to do that. Now in terms of cutting, he knew, as I said earlier, I told him exactly the kind of movie I wanted to make, that I just wanted to make an honest depiction of his process at that time, and there it is.
CS: Was South by SouthWest always your first choice where to debut the movie?
Flender: Yeah, it seemed like a great fit for this movie, because of the whole musical element and the live tour played in Austin, Texas to a very enthusiastic response, so it seemed like a great fit, and a great place to launch this movie.
CS: How long before South by SouthWest did you finish the movie? I guess the tour was about a year ago during the summer.
Flender: Yeah, the tour ended in June, and I think we had to show South by SouthWest a cut in like November, I think, so you know, three or four months I had to edit the movie.
CS: Is there a danger of Conan’s fans knowing a bit too much about him from a movie like this and how do you think they’d react to this movie?
Flender: I didn’t make this for his fans, but I hope they like it. Having known him off-camera, sometimes the funniest Conan is not necessarily the Conan you see on TV every night, and I think his fans will appreciate that. He’s an honest guy and a good guy, and I don’t think there are any revelations there or exposes.
CS: I got that same impression, and I definitely like him more after seeing the movie, so in some ways, this is a good promo for his new show. Any idea what you want to do next? Are you going to go back to doing dramatic features?
Flender: I hope so. I love both documentaries and narrative fiction films and would love to go back and forth. I think Werner Herzog or Michael Apted, those guys that can do both fiction and documentaries, have got it made. I’d like to have their careers.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop opens in select cities on Friday.