With Saturday Night, James Franco the actor becomes James Franco the filmmaker, as he sets the camera loose inside the very closed and somewhat private world of Saturday Night Live. From that first team pitch meeting with that week's celebrity guest to a full, live show one week later, Franco's doc takes us through every step of the process with a cast and crew who truly appreciate the art of the joke, and are relentlessly committed to the long, arduous journey it takes to put just one episode of Saturday Night Live out on the air.
Franco never shifts and shapes his documentary by fitting it into some corny mold with voiceovers, music or excessive talking-head interviews. Instead, it's as if he just tosses the camera into the air and lets it float – capturing the SNL creative process from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, allowing the audience to mix and melt with castmembers and writers so they, too, become a part of the madness. Saturday Night doesn't reinvent the wheel and it won't reveal any shocking truths (except maybe that Bill Hader deserves way more credit than we give him), but you'll definitely walk away with a lot more respect for not only the show itself and what it manages to produce with only one week of prep time, but also the people who make it all happen.
Perhaps the one thing folks at home don't necessarily realize about Saturday Night Live is that the actors we all know and love don't just show up on rehearsal day looking for a script and someone to help them memorize lines. Nope, some of the actors are also writers, and a lot of them are there from day one pitching ideas, brainstorming jokes and writing scripts for hours upon hours upon hours – locked in rooms with other writers and castmembers, agonizing over one little punchline and the best voice to deliver it in.
The doc follows the creation of the episode where John Malkovich hosted; one of my personal favorites because I'm a sucker for the "calculator" sketch that dropped in somewhere near the end. Needless to say, as a fan already of the episode, it was fun to watch them create these new characters and come up with the dialogue right there on the spot. It was also fascinating to watch them welcome Malkovich into their little warped community with open arms, and then to see the actor enjoy it all immensely.
Another great part about the way Franco decided to shoot it was that the looseness of the whole thing allowed for these really great human moments from the cast, like when Casey Wilson (who has since been let go from the show) botched a "Weekend Update" Roseanne Barr impression during rehearsal, and then opened up about how embarrassing it was afterwards. The bit was then dropped from the show. Another sketch that was dropped at the last minute (following several awkward rehearsals of it) was one written by Will Forte that involved making fun of an Empire Carpet commercial.
Almost all of your favorite SNL castmembers make appearances in the doc, with folks like Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Will Forte and Fred Armison a lot more involved in the action and creative process than, say, Kristen Wiig, who barely ever shows her face. Whether or not Wiig – one of SNL's most recognizable stars – was working on another project that week or simply didn't want to be involved in the making of Franco's doc remains to be seen. She's nowhere to be found, and only first pops up during the dress rehearsal. Other castmembers roam about during the scriptwriting stages, trying to find ways to get involved so they'd have work that week, and, like a high school production, everyone comes running in when the final sketches (cut down from the many that were written to only a select few that will make it to air) are tossed on the table to see if they got a part or not in that week's episode, or is their idea was chosen for the spotlight.
Franco, as a filmmaker, does a pretty good job delivering to us stuff we've always wondered about. While there are times where he can't seem to decide what type of character he wants to play (some scenes he's in front of the camera, then he's not), it's obvious he's one of only a few people who could've made this kind of documentary since he's friends with a lot of these people, and, as such, they open up more than they probably should.
While not every SNL sketch works (and I'm sure you're more inclined to agree that, these days, there are more that don't work than those that do), there's still something to be said for the collaboration and teamwork on display here. These are people who are funny, creative and extremely committed to the work they do – perfectly willing to sleep on couches or pass out on the floor after a marathon of writing and brainstorming; collapsing into a pile of sleep-deprived insanity as only a person who's living their dreams can do.