Directed by Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing), the road documentary Harmontown follows Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community and co-creator of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, as he takes his live podcast on an unpredictable tour.
The volatile Harmon has been described by comedian John Oliver as “a human hand grenade who has a predilection for pulling his own pin out.” When the film premiered this March at SXSW, MovieMaker spoke to Berkeley about shooting on the go: carving out a narrative along the way, capturing 400 hours of footage with both a DSLR and wearable cameras, and the importance of contextualizing Harmon’s mad genius within the presence of his fans.
Neil Berkeley (NB): Not really, it all happened very fast. Dan emailed me Thanksgiving weekend, and I started shooting December 3, 2013. That’s a 10 day window, which is very short! I checked out the show, I listened to all the episodes that were out, and I thought, “If I’m gonna go to the show, I may as well shoot, because who knows what might happen.” So I just started shooting everything and I’d film interviews with Dan. My thing is just shoot it all because you never know.
At first this was gonna be a goofy Comedians of Comedy romp. We brought 13 cameras between three people: we had Looxcie cameras on their ears, their heads; I even brought a sword and a roll of green screen! Looking back, I can’t imagine why I’d do that. At the time, I didn’t know what it’d be. I thought it’d be more fun and silly.
MM: And when did you discover what it’d be? Was it during the tour?
NB: Just listening to the shows, there was something telling me, “If this movie isn’t honest or pulls punches, people will say you blew it.” Because everyone knows Dan gets candid and we had to show everything, and it occurred to me really early on that there would be dark moments and low points.
MM: I remember hearing them saying on the podcast they’d try to get you into the narrative, and you tried to remain like a ghost. You didn’t want anything to do with putting yourself into the movie.
NB: It’s just not my style to affect the narrative.
MM: Well, my question is more how you do that, because you’re on a bus with these people constantly capturing these candid moments, while also standing right in front of them.
NB: My style is to make the subject as conversational as possible. The beauty of it is that even with the Canon C100, which is a big machine with a big microphone, if they can look me in the eye and I’m behind the camera, it eventually becomes a conversation. And then we just talk.
MM: And as you go through the tour are you pushing your questions towards certain themes? Are you trying to build a narrative with them?
NB: I would send back footage to my editor every night with notes like, “You’re gonna get more footage of this guy Spencer, there’s something going on with him.” We just didn’t know. And if you look at my notes, the movie eventually became what I thought it’d be as we were touring.
MM: From a technical aspect, what are some of the challenges of shooting a road documentary?
NB: This was a low-budget deal, very small crew. The difficulty is I’m a director but I also have to shoot, which is tough. You should have story editors with you to track stories and get what we need. It would be nice to have people that just do that job. But the challenges were why the film’s good.
MM: I think you made great aesthetic choices, like the way you cut your close-ups of the fans. Did you always have choices like these in mind or did they develop over the shoot?
NB: Again, that’s where a challenge became a benefit. Explaining why the fans were in the room was always important to me, because a lot of people could look at Dan’s behavior as terrible and not understand who would pay $20 to watch this guy. So I went to Meltdown Comics [in Los Angeles], where they hold the Harmontown podcast, and interviewed as many fans as I could. Their green room is this rectangle where on one end there’s a bathroom, so I sat on the toilet, set up one light and sat them across from me. There was no room for them to look at me, so I had them look straight into the lens and it was amazing. We watched in the editing room and were like, “Look at these faces.” We shot the celebrities the same way and didn’t want to put lower-third credits or anything because no one’s more important than anyone.
MM: I want to talk about the editing process. You threw out a number like 400 hours of footage at the Q&A. How do you sift through it? How do you build your narrative?
NB: Well, that’s the genius of [editor] James Leche; he started as an assistant editor and he watched every frame. And he would build themes. We had four assistant editors working around the clock and we’d have them build themes about, say, the relationship between Dan and Erin [McGathy]. So they’d find all those moments and then we’d watch through them. It got to a point where I could say, “Build me a story about this,” and a day later I could be watching that scene. And James can tell you where any frame of the movie is and find it immediately. He’s a genius.
AY: Any last-minute advice to documentarians about to shoot a road doc?
NB: Shoot everything, because eventually you’ll get what you need and eventually everyone will relax when cameras are there. So just start rolling. And find a skeleton crew you can trust: a DP that knows how to handle media and get it safely back, an editor that can sift through it and knows everything you’ve done, a producer that can handle the nuts and bolts. Find that little group of people that can do their jobs very well, so that you can tell your story. MM
Harmontown: The Numbers
Shooting Days: Approximately 45
Primary Locations: All the stops on the Harmontown tour (17 states in total)
Budget: Between $250,000 and $350,000
Crew Size: Eight
Gear: Canon C100, Looxcie and GoPro cameras, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, Panasonic VHS
Harmontown opened in theaters and on VOD on October 3, 2014, courtesy of The Orchard.
Excerpts from this interview were first published in the article “Born to be Wild” in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2014 issue.
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