It was "Saturday Night Live" on a Sunday afternoon, as James Franco's "SNL" documentary screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The actor introduced his film just blocks away from the sketch comedy show's Rockefeller Center home. His film, "Saturday Night," documents a week in the life of the show — in particular, the December 2008 week hosted by John Malkovich.
Franco, who has twice hosted "SNL," said he wanted to find out "what that mysterious comedy process was." It began as a seven-minute school assignment for Franco, who was studying film at New York University, but grew into an hour-and-a-half documentary that premiered earlier this year at the South By Southwest film festival.
It follows the episode from the Tuesday morning pitch meeting in the office of creator Lorne Michaels, through the table read when players recite their scripts and dress rehearsal, and finally to the live show. (The process starts anew Tuesday when Betty White begins her week as host.)
Granted access that few, if any, have been given, Franco captures — mostly in intimate, handheld footage — cast members like Bill Hader and Will Forte creating sketches in the early morning hours. He shows the rigorous process that, on this week, whittles 50 sketches down to nine.
One sketch by Forte about the making of mattress TV commercial cruises through the process with big laughs all along the way, only to get cut shortly before show time. Franco also captures Casey Wilson, who is no longer with the show, bringing a poorly planned sketch to table read, and it falling flat.
A panel discussion and a press Q&A followed the screening with Franco ("Superman," "Pineapple Express") and three current "SNL" cast members: Forte, Kenan Thompson and Jenny Slate. The comedians all agreed that those painful moments are a part of every cast member's experience.
"It's just the way it turned out that week," said Franco. "I really didn't want to impose too much design on it."
The documentary is by no means complete or objective. Franco, whose rapport with certain cast members is obvious, didn't try to capture everything. But he does show many remarkable, often unseen moments, like the precision of last-minute edits to a sketch by head writer Seth Meyers.
Perhaps the rarest sight is that of Michaels making the decisions of what sketches make the show. In shaky black-and-white, Michaels, Meyers, producers and Malkovich debate the options. At one point, Michaels wonders if there's enough of Forte in the episode.
"There's a lot of stuff I saw for the first time watching this documentary," said Forte, as Slate and Thompson nodded.
Franco also stars in another film that played at Tribeca: the languid noir "William Vincent." He said he did not yet have distribution plans for "Saturday Night," but has had offers. He said it most likely made sense to broadcast it on a cable network like the NBC-owned Bravo, possibly along with a limited theatrical release.
Forte, whose stars in the upcoming "SNL"-sketch adaptation "MacGruber," said he was unfamiliar with the economics of documentaries. He wondered: "Do we get a cut of this?" Franco shook his head.
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