This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When the curtain goes up at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 15 to 26 in Manhattan, one New York institution will pay tribute to another. Live From New York!, which promises a fresh look at Saturday Night Live, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, has been selected to screen as the opening night film. It’s the first feature from Bao Nguyen, 31, a Vietnamese-American director who has helmed several short films and worked as a cinematographer on 2011’s Saigon Electric. He accepted the challenge of distilling SNL‘s decades-long cultural impact into a swift 84 minutes.
Why another look at Saturday Night Live?
It started with our producers, J.L. Pomeroy and Tom Broeker. They came up with a concept about how we could talk about SNL in a different way. We’re really looking at how SNL reflected American culture and society over 40 years. It wasn’t about finding the funniest clips or sensational stories about SNL. Obviously, politics is one of our main points — also diversity in comedy, women in media. We had a very specific scope.
So what’s an example?
I would say the way we look at Sept. 11. It’s interesting to see how a New York institution that deals with comedy and satire dealt with something so tragic. I remember turning to SNL to see how they were going to react, how they were going to come back from that moment.
So many comics have passed through the doors of SNL. How did you decided whom to interview?
That was the toughest challenge. It was not so much who was the funniest person on their season, the biggest stars, but who were the castmembers who could tell the story we wanted to tell. Will Ferrell was one of the best interviews. Typically on TV, he’s always the funniest guy in the room, trying to make everyone laugh. But he took off his comedic face for a bit and had some really insightful things to say about SNL.
How about the backstage footage? Did Lorne Michaels give you notes?
No, he welcomed us with open arms. They saw us shooting, but they just did their typical thing, putting a show on. We were in the background. He really trusts creative people. That’s why the show’s been so successful.
Did you test the film before an audience to figure out how to build in time for the audience to react?
Yes. Working with my editors, we left some room for laughter. We did a few screenings externally, and it was funny to see when the younger generation laughs and what the older generation laughs at.
Growing up, what was your introduction to SNL?
I grew up in Silver Spring, Md. My parents wouldn’t let me stay up to watch, but I’d sneak into the family room to watch the early ’90s bad boys — Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Farley. I was young, but I could still understand the humor. People argue with me that they were the worst cast, but I’ve always been attached to that one.