Honesty has gotten Dan Harmon in trouble in the past -- whether you're a fan of his or not, you're likely well-aware of Harmon's much-publicized trials with "Community," his meta-sitcom, beloved by critics and a small-but-diehard fan base. The show was taken away from him in May 2012, but honesty also seemingly ended up being his salvation, and not just because NBC hired him back to run the show's fifth season in June 2013.
Somewhere along the way, the "Community" mantra-turned-meme of six seasons and a movie became 20 shows and a documentary. And much like another fan favourite ousted by NBC, Harmon decided to hit the road during the ensuing layoff, taking his nerd-friendly podcast Harmontown on a 20-city, 23-day cross-country tour with a documentary crew, his co-host Jeff Davis, fiancée Erin McGathy and personal D&D dungeon master Spencer Crittenden in tow. Bringing his brand of unfettered candour to the people with a barnstorming tour by way of group therapy, it was Harmon's way of thanking the people who stuck with him throughout it all: his loyal fans.
Screening at the Hot Docs film festival, director Neil Berkeley's film "Harmontown" initially started out as a tour documentary in the vein of "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," but, fittingly, soon morphed into something else: a more meta, more honest, and more dark, but also strangely uplifting look at the relationship between a man and his fans, as well as the perverse, and frequently hilarious, therapy each offers the other. Here's a look at the story behind the story, according to Berkeley.
Who is Dan Harmon?
It's a question the documentarian asks of Harmon's friends and co-workers, both current and former, early on in "Harmontown" (right after a scene of Harmon asking if this is the part of the movie when Berkeley will play clips of people "saying bad things about me"). There's his "Community" cast, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman -- who recalls their up-and-down time when Harmon was the head writer on "The Sarah Silverman Show" by saying, "I'm his biggest fan, and I fired him."
When Harmon asked Berkeley to join him on tour (he had recently watched his previous documentary "Beauty Is Embarrassing"), the documentary filmmaker knew Harmon, but was by no means a super-fan. "I had never listened to Harmontown, I'd read some of his writing online, obviously I knew about the Chevy stuff," Berkeley explains, referring to Harmon's public spat with former "Community" cast member Chevy Chase. "I knew what he was up to, I knew his style, I knew what he was doing. But I hadn't been deeply invested in all things Dan Harmon."
"He has this perception of being an angry, mean person, which I know he can be to certain people. But he was a joy to work with," Berkeley says. "He was helpful throughout the process, he would watch cuts and make suggestions, and he was very direct when it wasn't going right. He was very supportive when I needed a pep talk." Throughout it all, however, Berkeley maintained final cut, to ensure his outsider's perspective remained objective.
Harmon did fight Berkeley on one thing. When his co-host Davis was being filmed doing some pre-show vocal warm-ups, improvising tongue twisters, Harmon added one of his own: "Pedophilia is an option when you have the gumption."
"He fought to put that in," Berkeley laughs. "He wanted that in desperately." And he was willing to go to the mat for it. "We were trying to let people know that he had a lot of anxiety, and I was worried that if he rattled off this hilarious joke, he may appear too confident, when he was very nervous about that show." In the end, the joke -- and Harmon -- won out. "It just shows how real he wanted this thing to be."
It's honest. Maybe a little too honest.
The filmmaker recalls questioning why Harmon didn't simply make the tour movie himself -- "Why don't you just give the camera to five Channel 101 kids and let them follow you around?," he remembers asking -- but that wasn't what Harmon wanted. Says Berkeley, "He knew that if he's going to put his name on this, it has to be very honest. And very revealing."
Sometimes literally. Berkeley started filming "Harmontown" a week after the two first got in touch ("I figured, if I do get involved in this, I'll want as much footage as I can," he explains). Which is how he ended up filming Harmon taking a bubble bath instead of working on pilots for CBS and Fox prior to going on tour. "He said, 'OK, well if you're shooting me today, you're going to shoot me taking a bubble bath, because they just fixed my bathtub, and I'm dying to get in it,' " Berkeley laughs.
The way he sees it, it would've been more of a disservice to Harmon to not show him exactly as he is. "His act is honesty, his act is being revealing. That's why people go to those shows, that's why people love him," Berkeley explains. (To his credit, Harmon has agreed, jokingly calling the documentary "a fair and accurate movie about what a piece of s**t I am" in a recent interview with "Rolling Stone".)
Don't bother trying to tell Harmon what to do.
It's a lesson a lot of his bosses and co-workers have learned the hard way, but Dan Harmon doesn't respond well to being told what to do. "So even if I said, 'Dan, can you take a step to your left? Because you're not in the light,' he would say, 'Well, this is where I am. This is where I'm standing right now, shoot this,' " Berkeley laughs. "Which is great, but to me, it's like, if you just move six inches to your left, you'll be right where I need you."
"He wants things to be very natural," explains Berkeley, which is why the famously meta Harmon was quick to call him out on seemingly unnatural parts of the documentary process, like filming Harmon getting into his car with the camera already in the passenger seat. Still, Berkeley says that self-aware streak just made Harmon more interesting, albeit more difficult: "It makes him a better subject because throughout the entire journey, he's always talking about story and where he is emotionally, and what's going on."
They literally covered him with cameras.
For the most part though, Harmon was game to do whatever the documentarian asked of him, including being hooked up to several cameras at once, which was as much a way of staying loose during the lengthy bus tour as it was of getting more footage. "Covering him in cameras became a funny thing to do," says Berkeley. "I knew right away because Dan's so meta, that it would great if they wore these Looxcie cameras and talked to each other and had conversations and worked out bits."
The result, besides an estimated 500 hours of video for Berkeley and his editors to dig through, was a few happy accidents, including an emotional monologue Harmon delivered to the bathroom mirror where he questions his ability to change, and whether he's his own story's hero or villain. "He didn't even give me that footage for six months, he kept it," Berkeley recalls. "He says he thought it was boring, but he may have been just more concerned." In the end, it became an important climactic scene for Berkeley, who says getting the footage changed their whole editing process.
The tour was better than therapy.
"It was a really hard challenge: how do we show a tour, how do we show his bio, how do we show the humour, how do we show the darkness?" Berkeley says. "It was really, really difficult jigsaw puzzle to piece together in 90 minutes."
But things came into focus when he decided to make "Harmontown" less about the endurance test of the tour and more about the emotional release the confessional podcasts offered. "We kind of made these scenes more like therapy," he explains. "Whenever we focused on Dan's emotional journey instead of the physical journey of going on a tour and coming back to LA, that's when it really clicked."
"It's one thing to listen to it, but to see it on stage, you realize, Oh s**t, he really is drinking a bottle of moonshine. He really does drink vodka all day, he really does act abusively towards Erin," says Berkeley. But that kind of honesty was exactly what Harmon was aiming for, to show both his fans and the general public a side of himself they haven't necessarily seen before. "On stage, it's always a performance, there's always a joke, there's always a punchline and a laugh," Berkeley explains. "He's saying the same thing on stage as he is backstage, but when we're backstage and it's just me and him and the camera, it becomes so real and so much more honest than if he's entertaining 200 people."
Berkeley's understandably reluctant to say the experience made Harmon a changed man. Still, whether it's a result of being rehired on "Community" last June or the success of his new Adult Swim show "Rick and Morty," he thinks Harmon has mellowed in recent years. "I think he had something to prove back then, something to get off his chest, and I think the movie helped do that," says Berkeley.
"I think he's in a really good place right now, and probably, dare I say it, happy," Berkeley laughs. "I hope so anyway."
"Harmontown" premiered at SXSW, is playing at Hot Docs 2014 in Toronto, and will hit theatres at some point in 2014.