At the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, back when James Franco had only directed five films and he was busy filming “127 Hours,” the multitasking multihyphenate explained via a video introduction for the premiere of his documentary “Saturday Night,” his student film for NYU’s graduate program was originally intended to be a portrait of “Saturday Night Live” star Bill Hader, but “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels had other ideas. Despite the fact Michaels had nixed a similar treatment from D.A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock during the ’70s, Franco managed to pry open the doors of 30 Rock for what he pitched as a “Maysles brothers-style observational doc,” though after “Saturday Night” made the festival rounds and was ultimately picked up by Oscilloscope, it fell into limbo, left to be teased every now and again by Franco as potentially finding a new home. That day has come with Hulu Plus finally making the film available on the eve of “Saturday Night Live”‘s 40th season.
One shouldn’t expect to see Franco on camera during “Saturday Night,” though he’ll occasionally make his presence known. Nor is the star of the film Hader or any particular “SNL” cast member, but rather the grueling artistic process that starts anew every week. (As Will Forte says at one point, “You just kind of learn to live in a haze.”) Day by day, Franco breaks down how the show’s sketches are pitched on Mondays, written during an all-nighter on Tuesday, subject to a cast table read on Wednesday, fit for sets and props on Thursday and start to be rehearsed on Friday where only nine of the 50 sketches (on average) will survive. On the particular week Franco was allowed to bring cameras in, John Malkovich was the host, which only makes things more interesting.
There’s an added level of intrigue for loyal viewers of the show who can recall Malkovich’s December 2008 turn — fans will greatly enjoy Seth Meyers’ irresistible itch to write a skit about a hot tub-set “Dangerous Liaisons” sequel called “J’acuzzi” and writer/producer Paula Pell and Kristen Wiig evaluating fart sounds to put in a skit about Wiig’s flatulent office bombshell. (Unfortunately, that’s about all there is of Wiig.) Yet Franco’s film also functions as a drama about the tension that exists when creativity is scheduled for a deadline; the laughs that are in “Saturday Night” are mostly incidental from the sketches being prepared.
Forte, Hader, Meyers and Fred Armisen look particularly beaten down by the Tuesday routine, unshaved and unkempt as they head home at 8 in the morning after a night of brainstorming only to return to pitch their complete skits an hour or two later at the table read. Casey Wilson, who was unceremoniously dumped in 2009, is another victim of the demanding schedule; perhaps because she was fired, Franco was more willing to include footage of the actress describing how she had “zero confidence” amongst the cast of pros with seven-plus years of experience and after giving her all to a rendition of “All That Jazz” that falls flat at the table read, she says in no uncertain terms that “I wanted to kill myself” when she realized it went off the tracks.
You’ll notice I’m mostly mentioning the performers — Franco rarely strays from them. He goes to the “Scene Shop” where art director Joe Detullio creates all the show’s sets and spends some time in the writers’ room and in the recording studio, where the music department works on a theme song for a Jason Sudeikis-Kenan Thompson sketch called “Horsecops.” But by and large, we get to see the evolution of the sketches from the performers’ perspectives, specifically the nips and tucks that occur to a skit involving Hader’s lecherous Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci, a Judy Blume-inspired sleepover sketch and a Forte-penned bit where Malkovich plays a voice actor forced to sing the Empire Carpet jingle. (The latter doesn’t make the show, but watching Forte rewatching the ad on a loop is one of the film’s funniest scenes.)
Franco includes some other nice touches along the way, including a talk with one of the lead writers who admits he looks down from his office window at the NBC News ticker at Rockefeller Center for ideas for “Weekend Update,” an all-too-brief interview with a man who has sat at the head of the studio audience line for 573 shows, and remnants of what must’ve been Franco’s original doc on Hader, where the actor screws around in his dressing room by imitating Franco’s “Spider-Man” co-star Willem Dafoe and getting heavy with a lip-synced version Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” But there’s also plenty that either must not have made the cut or was simply off-access to Franco — we see the end result of the popular digital short “Jizz in My Pants,” but nothing related to its production, and the absence of Wiig, Thompson, Darrell Hammond, and then-freshman Abby Elliott, except for brief glimpses, is notable.
In an exit interview, Franco asks Michaels, “You think we’re not getting the whole thing?” to which Michaels replies, “There’s many surfaces to things.” Michaels is right. There’s a kind of magic that remains elusive about “Saturday Night Live”‘s creative alchemy even after Franco’s film ends, but this rare peek behind the curtain still gives the viewer a new appreciation for what the “Not Yet Ready for Prime-Time” players do, even if it’s just a glimpse.
“Saturday Night” is is available now on Hulu Plus.