Hilarious Homage to the Documentary

documentaryNowFor their final show on “Saturday Night Live, two years ago, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader did a sketch Seth Meyers wrote about a made-up punk rocker named Ian Rubbish.

“The only punk rocker who liked Margaret Thatcher,” Hader says. Directors Rys Thomas and Alex Buono got an authentic rockumentary look to the piece and when the show was over, the five got together and suggested they all try their hands on other documentaries too. “A week later, we met with IFC,” Hader told reporters at the TV Critics Association press tour, where Armisen also performed in a hotel lobby as one of his rock and roll characters.

The result of that meeting is the ambitious and surprisingly well-realized new series “Documentary Now!” (IFC, 10 p.m.) that begins tonight with “Sandy Passages,” an elaborate parody of the Maysles Brothers classic “Grey Gardens,” with Armisen as the dour matriarch Edith and Hader the flirty Little Edie. They get laughs from their critter-filled house, but also create an elaborate story about how locals have been disappearing.

“The discussion always started from early on it was just what documentaries do we love,” says Thomas. “And yeah, that’s really sort of how we chose our six for this.”

They range from a spin on the early black and white “Nanook of the North” to the hipster style of “Vice.” It all comes in the form of a 50th anniversary season for the fake series “Documentary Now!” and is introduced in a very public broadcasting way by Helen Mirren.

The filmmakers said they wanted to do their own versions of documentaries not to poke fun of the original works but to celebrate them.

More than that, viewers won’t have to have seen the original documentaries to get their parodys, Meyers says.

“We weren’t hoping that people had seen everything,” he said, “but we do I do think this is a time where people documentaries are kind of having a moment because they exist on so many of the streaming sites.

“Even mainstream places, like ESPN, have become so documentary friendly in the last few years,” Meyers adds. “People are consuming documentaries now, so we’re hoping they’ll be drawn to it for that reason.

“But I think if you’ve seen ‘Grey Gardens,’ you might enjoy ‘Sandy Passages’ more than people who haven’t. But I also would hope that maybe someone out there will see ‘Sandy Passages’ and it will make them want to see ‘Grey Gardens,’” he says. “Circle of life.”

To do so they use a lot of the same angles in some cases, lens of the documentary they’re spoofing.

It only looks like it cost a lot to shoot it’s just because “Rhys and Alex did a phenomenal job of shooting this,” Hader says. “I mean, the ‘Sandy Passage’ episode, the ‘Grey Gardens’ one, if the camera just panned a little this way, you would have seen USC. And, you know, we were, like and pan this way, you would have seen, like, just a bunch of people walking around. They did an amazing job of creating this world. And having the guff of saying, like, ‘No, we’re going to go to Iceland and shoot Fred as an Eskimo on a tundra.’”

The team actually did go to Iceland to shoot two of the six episodes; one on Nanook, and the other on a fake Al Capone festival in Iceland. Or what Meyers calls “the most Fred Armisen idea of all time.”

Part of it,  is “just wanting that authenticity,” Hader says. “If we did our job right, someone would be flipping through the channels and go, ‘Oh, there’s “VICE”’ or ‘Oh, that’s “Grey Gardens”’ or whatever. And then Fred and I pop up in it, and it’d be like, ‘Wait a minute. What am I watching?’”

So if they were doing a “Thin Blue Line” parody, he says, “we’re going to make it look as much as we can” like the original.

“Yeah,” Thomas says. “We went out of our way in most cases to find the most literal steps to each documentary. So in ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ we had the actual set of lenses that Errol Morris shot that doc on. And similarly with ‘The Kunuk,’ we got some glass from the 1920s.”

Buono says that even the courtroom illustrations in the “Thin Line” episode are accurate. “We found this woman online, and these illustrations looked great. We sent her our references, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s so funny seeing my own work being used as a reference.'”

That’s right, Buono says, “She did the [original] ‘Thin Blue Line’ illustrations”

In “Documentary Now!” Hader continues the interest in deep prosthetic costumes that he used to great effect in an episode of the FX comedy “Man Seeking Woman” last season when he appeared as Hitler.

“Yeah, in the ‘Nanook’ one, I’m the old guy who is kind of narrating,” Hader says. He did that nearly unrecognizable role for a simple reason, he says. “I didn’t want to go to Iceland. “

“I said, ‘How do I get out of going to Iceland?’ And they said, ‘You gotta play the old guy and be in prosthetics for five hours.’ And I was like, ‘Done.’

“I kind of end up narrating the whole thing. And that was so much fun,” Hader says. His inspiration was “a great documentary called ‘Hollywood’ that Kevin Brownlow did and that James Mason narrates. And my guy is kind of based on an interview with Hal Roach.”

All three are clearly fans of documentaries. And while Meyers and Hader say “The Thin Blue Line” was their introduction to documentaries, Armisen cites “The Rutles.”

“I was confused in a really good way,” he says of that mockumentary. “And that was, like, a real entryway into, like, ‘What is this kind of filmmaking?’ Making something like this with complete songs and characters and references to the Beatles, that, to me, was, like, a turning point of, like, a new kind of entertainment.”

And there’s no shortage of other documentaries to salute in future seasons.

“We liked Frederick Wiseman’s ‘High School,’” Hader says.

“We kind of went towards ‘The Staircase,’” Armisen says.

“‘The Jinx’ sort of happened a little too late for us,” Meyers says. “We almost tried to pull it off. Also, we talked a lot about that kind of documentary where the filmmaker goes sets out to make a documentary, and then very slowly it becomes clear the documentary is about himself.”

“Yeah,” says Hader. “There’s a lot of documentaries like that. Those are the ones where they always start out to be about some sort of subject, and it’s like, ‘Yep, there I am at age 6.’  It’s, like, interviews with their dad, like ‘I remember when you really liked this thing.’

“’You used to always talk about Appomattox,’” Meyers says, playing along.

“Yeah, ‘Appomattox,’” Hader says. “And I realize: We’re never going to see anything about this thing. It’s just about this guy who somehow made a movie about himself.”


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