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SXSW 2010: 'Saturday Night's' all right for writing

March 15, 2010 |  1:40 pm


There were long lines and plenty of reported turn aways for the Sunday night premiere of "Saturday Night," James Franco's documentary about the making of an episode of "Saturday Night Live."

The hyphenate himself was not in attendance, but he did send along a video to introduce the film. In the video, Franco pointed out that his movie began as a film-school assignment to make a five-minute short on "Saturday Night Live" cast member Bill Hader but grew into a "Maysles brothers-style observational documentary."

Franco said it was "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels who suggested a longer project, while noting that Michaels also said he had once turned down acclaimed documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker from making a documentary during the show's early days. "I guess there was more to hide [back then]," Franco surmised.

"Saturday Night" is a strange and frustrating document because it succeeds partly at what it sets out to do: examine the making of an episode of "SNL." But it also requires a lot of reading between the lines. Franco did get access to many of the key moments of the creation of the Dec. 6, 2008, show, hosted by John Malkovich -- including the initial pitch meeting, the writing process and the all-important table read (where it is decided what will make it onto the show) -- but there is something essentially compromised about the effort.

Franco, who has previously hosted "SNL," spends most of his time with Hader, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, and it's tough not to feel they're just his buddies humoring him. Cast members Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Abby Elliott, Kenan Thompson and others are glimpsed only briefly, and so, perhaps unwittingly, Franco winds up portraying "SNL" as an impenetrable boy's club.  (On a similar note, cast member Casey Wilson, who has since been let go from the show, expresses her intense anxiety about not being good enough after a sketch idea bombs at the table read.) Franco gets his points in, but in portraying a frat-house chumminess he misses what are surely more complex power dynamics.

Franco's voice can sometimes be heard from off-screen, and there is a bluntness to his questions, as if he was trying to dig deeper than his subjects were letting him go. Some of the best insights -- and for comedy nerds there is still a lot here of interest -- come from moments when Franco smokes a cigarette with longtime producer Steve Higgins (now the announcer on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show). Maybe three-quarters of the way through, Franco uses footage from an interview with Michaels. The "SNL" creator points out that putting cameras in the room with performers always warps the situation. There is something wonderfully droll about the ease with which Michaels dismisses Franco's documentary even as it's being made, almost implying that by definition it cannot be an accurate portrait of what goes on at "SNL." Given the finished product, it's hard to disagree.

--Mark Olsen

Photo: A sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Credit: NBC