SXSW Review: Saturday Night

By  · Published on March 16th, 2010

What’s most striking about Saturday Night, James Franco’s documentary about one week (and one show) in the lives of the 2009 “Saturday Night Live” cast, is how calm it is. With most documentaries trying as hard as they can to shove meaning into every moment and add clever little commentary, Franco allows the footage to speak for itself without putting it on a pedestal.

Of course, he doesn’t really have to. The show is the most famous sketch program in the country, and has been on the air for over 30 years. We can put it up there all by ourselves. Still, it’s impressive to see a young documentarian sitting back and doing something radical – letting reality unfold.

Saturday Night begins on a Monday with the cast meeting host John Malkovich and drags the audience through the hellish, exciting work week that faces the men and women who put on a show every Saturday for millions. From happy laughter, to sleep deprivation, to the ultimate fart soundboard.

What we’re looking into is the world of creation. We’re getting a strange insight into how a television icon is made. It’s compelling subject matter considering how many of us were raised on the show and how rarely we get to see how the comedy sausage is made, but like all documentaries, it’s the human element that makes it consistently interesting.

The dichotomy between the fame of the show and the quiet franticness of the process is what makes the subject matter so fascinating. Franco leads his cameras casually through the hallowed hallways and offices where faces we recognize are typing furiously away at keyboards, staring blankly at screens or riffing off one another. In one segment, Will Forte stands bleary-eyed, commenting on how little he’s slept. In another, Bill Hader and a writer are cracking each other up pretending to be movie producers, promoting the inanimate objects around them.

That imbalance can be a startling thing all its own, but the film gets its energy organically through the joys and rejection of the writing process as well as the natural buzz of performance. It focuses on just about everyone – although a dozen documentaries would be needed to capture the entire process – swinging from the confident senior players to the fledgling newcomers. It also shines a small light on the production staff and the creative crew responsible for building sets on a ridiculously demanding deadline.

It’s not at all pretty. There are 50 scripts to dig through, and only 9 of them will be chosen. From those, some might get cut at the table reading, and others might make it all the way through the dress rehearsal on Saturday evening before getting the axe. The disappointment seems both shockingly prevalent and absent from the faces of most of the subjects on screen.

In one major departure from that, one sequence involving feature player Casey Wilson as she flubs a table read becomes even more poignant in the light of her being let go from the show shortly after the documentary was filmed.

Interspersed in the raw footage, Franco plays interviewer to Lorne Michaels and several cast members as they get a chance to actively reflect on what they are doing, their passion for it, and its grinding effect on their lives. These help greatly to ground and give context to the footage that, to be honest, tells a story on its own but remains a little rough around the edges.

There are only two main problems with the documentary. The first stems from how huge the production of an episode of the show is. Franco sticks close to a handful of the performers, only tossing in a few scenes with other sides of production that, while admirable, seem out of place since they barely get a blip of screen time. The other problem leads to a fundamental question of documentary-making: whenever you put performers in front of a camera, they have a tendency to perform. This issue is actually raised at one point in the film – by the wise Lorne Michaels – who claims we as an audience might not be seeing the real thing because of the very nature of who Franco is filming.

The second problem exists for every doc, and the first is ultimately forgivable because what does end up on screen is presented so well. It speaks for itself.

With shows like “Studio 60” and “30 Rock” exploring that world in a fictional way, it’s even more relevant culturally to take a look inside, to walk down the concrete corridors alongside the host as he prepares to walk on stage for his monologue, to take that week-long journey with professional comedians who have to celebrate the wins and mourn the mistakes before starting it all over a little more than 24 hours later.

All in all, Saturday Night is a curious, often funny, look into a process and a people that will change every few years. If anything, the strength of this documentary proves a need (especially for those interested in writing, performance, directing and hard work) for a new Saturday Night installment to pop up with each new major iteration of the show. It also makes me lament the fact that they haven’t been documenting the show in this fashion since the very beginning.

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