INTERVIEW: Emmy Nominated ‘Documentary Now!’ Directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas

One of the funniest series on television over the past few years has been “Documentary Now!” on IFC. The series stars Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in changing roles each episode. Each episode parodies a famous documentary from history, ranging from the 1920s through the current day. Directors Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas have been with the show from its origins as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Both worked for SNL for a very long time, and are influential in the way the series is now crafted.

I interviewed both Alex and Rhys a couple weeks ago. Due to conflicting schedules, we couldn’t interview both together, so several answers are interwoven around the questions I asked each of them. They are not discussing the same topics in the same setting, so their answers do not always line up perfectly. That said, our exclusive interview reveals the process behind how the show is crafted, how each approaches the style of each episode, and most importantly, a potential release timeframe for Season 3. Enjoy!

AF: So how did you first come to work on “Documentary Now!”?

Alex Buono: I have a background at Saturday Night Live. I was there for 17 seasons and started in the film unit and was hired as a cinematographer for the legendary Jim Signorelli who had invented the film unit and commercial parodies. I had been on and off working there for a long time, known Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers from the show. Like I knew them from the moment they arrived at SNL and worked with them for eight or nine years or however long they were there. And Rhys and I have been incredibly close friends for like a decade.

Rhys Thomas: I was a director on SNL for years, and Alex was my cinematographer. The film department had started to experiment around with shorts, and one of those shorts kind of became the blueprint for “Documentary Now!” called “The History of Punk.” It starred Fred Armisen as “Ian Rubbish” and Bill Hader is in his band.

AB: This short film was like a mini-documentary, and we shot fake archival footage and this fake British talk show. As soon as it went to air on Saturday Night, the Broadway Media folks were immediately like, “Oh my god! This could be a show! We should go to IFC about this.” They were already making “Portlandia” and from what I hear, the IFC folks were also watching this and they said something like “Woah, this could be a whole show.” So it was like Sunday morning, Monday, it became, let’s do this as a show!

This was the natural extension of our experience together. It became everybody’s transition away from the show. Rhys and I stuck it out and did another season of both SNL and “Documentary Now!” at the same time, which was kind of crazy. It was the kind of comedy we were all developing in the film unit, and it wasn’t as sketchy. It was celebrating all that stuff we love.

AF: How do you decide which documentaries to do?

AB: The way each season begins, we all sit in a room and pitch around ideas. It’s me and Rhys, Seth, Fred, Bill, John Mulaney, Duffy Boudreau and Erik Kenward. We’ll watch a scene from it and we’ll be like “what if this happens” and start riffing on it. There are some documentaries that come up. Michael Moore documentaries are already playing on the genre and use humor, so what will we be able to do that he isn’t already doing?

AF: I’m interested in how you work on the individual episodes. Each documentary you draw from is so different and unique, and many of them come from well-known directors. How do you become, what is in essence, a chameleon director and blend into their style?

RT: Well I think a big part of that is becoming the director in question. We watch the original source material a few times, and then move in our own direction once we feel we understand the director’s headspace. We don’t just want to duplicate them but live in their style. It’s one way you can begin to understand the nuances of how someone like the Maysles brothers would set up their camera in a room, or how they film the people in the room. You get an understanding of how they shot it and try to incorporate that style into our own work.

AB: The approach is a big part of what this show is. It’s a formalist, almost obsession, with getting it right. We go to as great a length as we can on our budget to get it right. My background as a cinematographer probably helps to understand what’s happening on a technical level. Whenever possible, we’ll talk to the original filmmakers about what they did. The real documentary filmmakers have been supportive about the show and amused by it. I had an opportunity to talk to Al Maysles before he passed away when we were making our “Grey Gardens” and a lot of what he told me about how he and his brother were making these documentaries applied to “Globesman” as well.

On a technical level it involves digging deep and finding out what kind of lenses did they use, what did they use to light these scenes, did they light them at all? Then being aware of how each filmmaker covers their scenes. There are subtle differences, for example, the Maysles tended to cut out the panning cameras or the zooming, and just give you these really nice, static portraits. Yet with Pennebaker in “The War Room,” there are a lot of zooms and pans and reframings. It gives the shot a sense of immediacy, and a “this is really happening” right now.

It’s funny because in trying to recreate that, one of the things we do is trying to find the exact lens they used too. It makes a huge difference, just in terms of aging the image and creating subtle flairs. Even just zooming, with your hand on the lens is very different than a modern zoom lens today.

AF: I think that makes sense, especially given how far apart in time some of your documentaries take place. Like “Globesman” or even “Kunuk Uncovered” take place 30, 50 years before something like “The Bunker.” By the way, that’s such an incredible take on “War Room.” When you were bringing that together, did part of that come from the fact that Hader already had the Carville impression?

AB: Well certainly, it was kind of unspoken, like yeah Bill can do Carville. But Bill wanted more than that. At SNL his Carville was so insane, it was like a crazy evil version of Carville.

AF: Absolutely.

AB: Well he wanted this to be pre-“War Room” Carville. He’s not Carville yet, he’s trying to make it as a campaign consultant. You can still see the bones that this guy is going to be really crazy someday, but it’s not Carville, it’s Teddy Redbones because of the subtleties he brings to the table.

AF: It is a different version, that’s true.

AB Yeah it’s a little more restrained, but also it’s an insanely Cajun thing at the same time. It’s like in the “Mr. Runner Up” episode. He can do an amazing Bob Evans impression, but it wasn’t supposed to be Bob Evans. It was Jerry Wallach, a Bob Evans personality who also lives in a universe where Evans exists. Maybe that line is an illusion, but we want to transcend imitation and create an homage instead.

AF: You guys have done a lot of stuff with music on this show. This season you did “Final Transmission,” and last season you did “Gentle and Soft.” How do you build those episodes? They all have original music, right?

AB: Oh yeah, that’s Fred. Now in the case of the music episodes, all eyes go to Fred. He writes so much of his own music and is a musician at heart, I think that if Fred could just be a touring punk rock star, he would give up his whole career to just do that. He naturally thinks of stories in terms of music and lyrics. So we’re all like, yeah Fred, go with that.

Over the course of the next few months, like in the case of “Final Transmission,” you’ll get an email with the first song or here’s the third song. Sometimes it’s just Fred playing a guitar singing to himself, sometimes it’s like he somehow produced it. He writes all of those songs himself and has a friend he works with, Jon Spurney. He was actually in “Blue Jean Committee” and “Final Transmission” too. We just sit back and admire it all.

AF: So is there any reason, in particular, you go with a co-director setup, instead of each taking on individual episodes?

RT: One of the things we worked out early was deciding the director versus co-director setup. We had discussed taking turns on different episodes, which could have freed up some time. That said, I think Alex and I both loved so many of the ideas, we didn’t want to let any go. The co-director aspect just works better for us.

AF: I know he’s mostly been behind the scenes, but can we get more Mulaney?

RT: We actually started first discussing the show in Mulaney’s office when we were first developing “Documentary Now!” At the time, he had just gotten his show on FOX, so he would pitch in when he wasn’t working on his stuff. Because it’s John, and we all worked together on SNL, it was pretty easy to bring him in. We’re hoping he can continue to be involved, maybe even more than he already is.

AB: Wouldn’t that be great? He is the best. There’s nobody funnier than John. It’s really intimidating to be in the room. I don’t consider myself a comedy writer, but when they get going they are so funny and so fast. I’ll take it all in, and when I think of something clever in a week, I’ll send it your way. With John, we don’t want to just put him in the background, but we’re working on getting him in this next season.

AF: What is your favorite episode of “Documentary Now!”?

RT: Well for me, it’s probably the Al Capone episode.

AF: I love that episode. My wife and I quote the way Fred pronounces “Chicago” all the time.

RT: Yeah it’s one of our favorites because it’s not actually based on any particular documentary. Sure there are influences, but it’s more imitating a style of documentary versus a specific. On the BBC, there are all these travel documentaries and series based on these smaller cultures, and that’s part of where this one came from.

AB: Yeah that one was based on Fred saying “what if we did an Al Capone festival in Norway?” Your response is, just wondering, how does your brain work like that? Where did that come from? It eventually became Iceland, but it was more of a type of doc. Almost like a BBC documentary, it’s just a type of doc. It’s on everybody’s favorite list, but I think its because it was more original and not following a specific topic. But there’s no specific reference for this one.

AF: Now Rhys, I know you’re also working on a new series, “Comrade Detective,” on Amazon. I’ve seen the first few episodes and I love it.

RT: Really? That’s great to hear. What do you like about it?

AF: Well, a lot of things really. Everyone is so funny and it’s just a unique show like “Documentary Now!” How did you guys make this one?

RT: Well, originally we were looking into buying an old propaganda or documentary show and just dubbing over it. Turns out that is really expensive, so we wanted to try something else. We were working with A24 and decided we could just shoot in on location and then dub over it with American actors. It gave us more control anyway, so that’s what we did.

AF: Did you know that you were going to put it on Amazon?

RT: Not originally. We actually had filmed it but hadn’t started in on the dubbing when we started looking for a distributor. Amazon scooped it up instantly. I’m thankful too because I don’t know how we would have cut this for commercial breaks.

AF: It works really well as a binge show.

RT: How many have you seen?

AF: I’ve seen the first two, starting in on the third.

RT: Oh, well it really picks up on three. I think that’s the episode that will be the turning point for most people.

AF: Well, with such a huge cast, who was the most fun to record their dialogue?

RT: That’s a tough one. You have Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who are both incredible. I really loved working with Daniel Craig too.

AF: Wait, what?! Daniel Craig’s in it?

RT: Oh yeah! He actually comes in for episode three. He’s got a great role and was a lot of fun to work with.

AF: Well what’s next for “Documentary Now!”? What can we expect from season three?

AB: Well there is a season three that’s been green lit, but we haven’t shot it yet. Bill Hader has a new HBO series that’s going to be insanely good, but he’s been making it the whole year. We’ve got to come up with some fresh ideas, I don’t want to spoil what we’re doing for the third season, but Seth wrote a script for a very well-known documentary that everyone will know and enjoy. John Mulaney wrote one that is really weird and hilarious that is more in the vein of an industrial film but is not one anyone will recognize.

RT: Unfortunately, it’s going to be some time. We haven’t started filming yet, but we have some scripts ready to go. We’re trying to get the schedules to line up because both Fred and Bill are so busy, and Seth has his show. It’s tough to get us all together. That said, I would expect it sometime in Spring or Summer of 2018.

AF: The last thing, I want to congratulate you guys. At Awards Circuit we have community awards called ACCA for TV and film every year, and this year you guys got nominated by our readers for Variety Series!

RT: Really? Well, thank you guys so much! Who are we up against?

AF: Well I know SNL, but also Billy on the Street, Drunk History, Mystery Science Theater…

RT: Darn those guys at SNL! The one year I’m not there!

AF: True, but I think you guys will put up a strong fight. It was pretty close.

RT: Well that’s great to hear. Thank your readers for us, we very much appreciate it!

Seasons 1 and 2 of “Documentary Now!” are available to stream on Netflix.