SXSW ’14: Berkeley enters a comedian’s psyche in “Harmontown”

Neil Berkeley talks to realscreen about making his second feature documentary, a chronicle of Community creator Dan Harmon (pictured, center) and the improvised stage show based on his popular Harmontown podcast.
March 13, 2014

Director Neil Berkeley talks to realscreen about making his second feature documentary, a chronicle of Community creator Dan Harmon’s national tour based on his popular Harmontown podcast.

In 2012, comedy writer and performer Dan Harmon emailed director Neil Berkeley after watching Beauty Is Embarrassing, his documentary about pop culture artist Wayne White, and asked him to film the national comedy tour based on his podcast Harmontown.

The two met up and Berkeley, who runs a Los Angeles-based motion graphics company, agreed, thinking it would a quick three-week director-for-hire project along the lines of the comedy tour doc Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.

However, after watching his NBC series Community and listening to his Harmontown podcast, Berkeley felt like there was more going on than a mere stand-up tour.

The autobiographical material and improvisational nature of the podcast felt a lot like sitting through therapy with Harmon, so he asked the polarizing performer to consider expanding the scope from a tour doc to a film that would appeal to an audience broader than his devoted cult following of comic book nerd types.

Before he knew it, the director was piling into a van with 13 cameras – including iPhones and VHS camcorder – a roll of green-screen, two shooters, a producer, a production assistant and a sound guy, and the right to final cut on his second feature doc.

“It all happened really fast. I talked to Dan on Thanksgiving and the first show I shot was on December 3,” says Berkeley. “I’ll be honest, I was still thinking this was going to be tour doc more than a deep, dark doc.”

Harmon is best known as the showrunner for the NBC comedy series Community. His credits include the Jack Black-starring sci-fi comedy pilot Heat Vision and Jack and Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program, for which he served as head writer. Many of his peers revere him as a comic genius but find him extremely difficult to work with, and loathe his penchant for procrastination.

At the time he decided to take his podcast on the road with piano man Jeff Davis, his girlfriend Erin McGathy, and Dungeons and Dragons master Spencer Crittenden in tow, he had been fired from Community after three seasons. (He was rehired in June 2013.)

Harmontown includes candid interviews with many of Harmon’s collaborators, his devotees, and Harmon himself, who treats the tour and documentary as often painful investigation into the nature of his success, his vices and his relationships. Prior to the film’s premiere at SXSW this week, realscreen spoke with Berkeley about his experiences tagging along on Dan Harmon’s journey of self-discovery.

How much access did you have with Dan Harmon during the tour?
I had 24/7 access. I was within six feet of him all day long. The only time I didn’t see him was when he was in his hotel room or sleeping on the bus. After we were done touring, he would sporadically sit down with me and talk about other things.

I really wanted to keep it about the tour. I really wanted it to be this moment in time and this thing that happened to these people. He never said don’t shoot that, don’t ask that question, don’t put that in the movie. He never said anything.

Many critics have said scripted TV is going through a golden age right now, and showrunners are becoming public figures. Did you also want to give viewers a window into that world as well?
Dan’s done a lot of things and because he was writing [a series for Fox] while we were on the road, that ended up adding another personal layer. We get to see him work and go through that process. If you like TV, it’s fascinating to watch a guy like him write  or not write depending on what day it is.

He is part of this new group of showrunners that talk directly to their audience and shape their shows around that input. It ended up being very timely because there aren’t many like Dan who are as public as their shows. When you think Community, you think Dan Harmon more so than the cast.

neil berkeley

Director Neil Berkeley

He had been fired from Community by the time you began production. How did you decide to handle that in the film?
I started in December and he had been fired in March. So he had been fired for a while. I was struggling with the story giving the story an ending and then when he got re-hired, it was like, OK how can we make this about what he did between getting fired and re-hired?

This was the moment in time between those major beats in his life. One day he called me up and said, ‘Oh by the way I’m putting Spencer on the show.’ A huge lightbulb went off and I was like, there’s our ending.

What was it like documenting the performances? What was the atmosphere like?
It was insane. There were 20 shows in 23 days. No script. Shows would go from an hour and a half to two-and-a-half hours. On a usual comedy tour, you know the jokes. You know when the punch lines are. I could’ve said to the shooters, ‘Make sure you get someone laughing at this joke. Make sure you get this shot of him.’ But we had no idea where he would be or what he was gonna talk about.  Every night was like inventing a new edit in my head.

The editor started working the day we left. I would send back footage and a tour diary every night, saying ‘Dan talked about jerking off instead of writing. I think this is going to be really good because his writing thing is starting to take shape.’ There’s a note in my notes that says, ‘This guy Spencer… there’s something going on with him. You’re going to start seeing a lot more footage of him.’ Sure enough, more footage of Spencer started coming back. I had no idea he would become such a central character. Every day was a new day.

There is a whole class of people who will hate Dan and will hate this movie. There are a lot of people who find it offensive to behave this way. Tried-and-true comedians and performers think it is offensive to go on stage without an act. But we’re in this new world of podcasts and improv where it’s OK and there is a whole group of people who adore it.

The movie begins with Dan musing about what he learned on the tour. Do you feel like he learned anything?
He won’t admit but I think he’s mellowed out a lot. He’s become more responsible for his actions. He’s quicker to say I’m sorry. He’s quicker to not get into an argument that he would normally get into. The way I handled it in the movie, you see him in his bedroom and he says I’m 40 years old. I need to grow up and be responsible and the next step is up to me. There’s this long pause where he looks down and we don’t know if he’s changed. But he gets his job back and in that scene we see he helps this kid Spencer have a new life.

How did you go about making his story appealing to broader audience than his hardcore fans?
We had to do this thing that most filmmakers hate, including myself, which is 10 minutes of exposition where celebrities tell you who this guy is and why he’s important. Beyond that, I tried to focus on being honest. Dan’s his most relatable when he’s honest: showing him procrastinating, showing him being a dick to his girlfriend, showing him drinking too much, showing him being very, very human.

We all put off our work and we all struggle in our relationships. I tried to show things you don’t normally see in this type of movie. That’s why I wanted final cut, because if I didn’t have it we might not have shown him getting drunk in Nashville or not writing scripts that he was paid lots of money to write.

To turn Dan’s question around on you: what did you learn about yourself while making this film?
The whole idea of honesty really has affected the last year of my life and my relationships. I’m not a comic book nerd. I’m not a Star Wars nerd. On a social level, I can’t relate to Dan’s fans but there’s a texture to them. Community fans are pretty clean.

The Harmontown fans have got something in their past. They’ve seen something. I can relate to them. In my relationships I’ve become very honest and very open about who I am and where I’m coming from. It’s so important to be like that. Say what you will about Dan, he is very honest and that’s so important in business and in your love life.

  • Harmontown world premiered at SXSW on Sunday (March 9) and screens again this Friday (March 14) at 2 p.m. CST.
  • Watch the trailer for Harmontown below:

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