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The past few years, I have taken a break from writing fictional comedic films and have focused more on making documentaries. After co-directing two films with Michael Bonfiglio — one about Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden for ESPN’s 30 for 30 ?and another about the band The Avett Brothers called May It Last — I spent the past two years directing a film about my friend and mentor Garry Shandling for HBO.
These are the pros and cons of directing documentaries as opposed to comedies.
PRO You don’t have to work with actors.
CON You don’t get to work with actors.
PRO You don’t have to make anything up. ?The story already exists, you just need to find it. But where is it?
PRO You don’t have to make anything funny. That’s a real time-saver. Writing jokes takes forever. Plus, Garry was always funny, so the jokes are there if you need them.
PRO No early call times. No shooting nights. You can set all the interviews between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and sleep as late as you like.
PRO No test screenings. You don’t have to schlep to the Valley to talk to real people who think they know everything about film because they watch a ?lot of movies on their iPads and are sure ?they know exactly what you did wrong and how to fix it.
CON Without those people, you have no idea ?if your film makes any sense.
PRO You learn things about a friend and wind up admiring him more than you ever thought possible.
CON It’s hard to not cry during interviews about your late friend. I only made that mistake between seven and 14 times.
PRO No production design. No choosing wallpaper and bedsheet patterns and pretending you know how to do such things even though you clearly don’t. Same for costumes and makeup.
PRO No stunts. You don’t have to worry about safety, other than if Sacha Baron Cohen will choke on the vegetables he’s eating way too voraciously at your sad, neglected, possibly salmonella-infected craft service table.
CON No catering. You will be forced to Postmates your meals. Sometimes they take longer than they say ?it will because the driver is not?from this area and goes to East Pico instead of West Pico. It seems like he should have known that.
PRO No worrying about opening-day grosses. You don’t even worry about ratings because it’s not a series. If they are bad, they can’t cancel you — so you don’t even ask what they were. In your mind, they were as big as the finale of M*A*S*H.
CON No good opening-day grosses. No backend. No front-end. Did you even get paid? I think it all went back into the budget to pay for that one clip from Make Me Laugh we couldn’t afford. No big deal, you can still live on Get Him to the Greek residuals.
PRO You can edit for years. No one ever tells you to stop. Most times it feels like no one knows you are working on it.
CON You don’t make any money. Oh, I mentioned that already.
PRO Since you aren’t making any money, ?you can brag about how pure you are. You are finally an artist, and you are going to tell everybody because that’s what we artists do.
CON You had to cut out Jeff Goldblum, who was an amazing, fascinating and funny interview subject who didn’t say one usable thing.
PRO You put the entire Goldblum interview on the DVD.
PRO You spend a lot of time with a friend you miss. Would you watch hundreds of hours of a friend talking and performing if you weren’t making a documentary? Probably not. And if you did, people would be really concerned.
CON It ends. You can’t make it forever. At some point you have to say goodbye.
PRO You can start working on the Garry Shandling book project. But when that’s done, you will really have to say goodbye. Maybe it’s time to write a comedy.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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