How to explain the enormous goodwill in Austin, Tx. during Sunday’s world premiere of Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop? The director, who sat across the aisle from O’Brien in the theater’s last row, said he started to relax when the audience started howling en masse eight seconds in during a scene of O’Brien baiting an L.A. tour bus from his car. The documentary follows the former Tonight Show host, still choking with rage from his shoddy treatment by NBC, as he pours his suddenly-freed up energy into last summer’s Legally Prohibited from Being on Television Tour. It’s behind-the-scenes gold watching O’Brien put together bits with his devoted, happily beleaguered staff and then take his material out on the road for a grueling run of 42 shows.
Within 24 hours of the premiere, the film landed a multi-platform distribution deal with Abramorama, Magnolia Home Entertainment and AT&T’s U-verse subscription TV service. The doc will first broadcast in an exclusive window on U-verse, then launch into a nationwide “event” screening tour via Abramorama; Magnolia will handle both VOD and DVD distribution. A specific release date has not yet been announced.
The Austin crowd on Sunday night seemed grateful to give O’Brien a standing ovation when he joined Flender on stage for a spirited Q&A after the premiere. He admitted parts of the film were painful to watch, particularly when he was still struck so low in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal from the Tonight Show. In the course of shooting, Flender amassed 149 hours of footage that he boiled down to a taut 88 minutes of a pivotal period in O’Brien’s life that seemed as painful as it was invigorating. “This really is a discrete moment in time, fueled by manic, insane, heart-wrenching energy that was real,” O’Brien told the audience. “Unless I get in a huge fight with TBS tomorrow, I don’t think that can happen again.”
On Monday, EW met up with Flender to discuss the glorious response to the world premiere, and the faction of fans who cringe that the film makes their hero look like kind of a dick.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been friends with Conan since you were both undergraduates at Harvard. How worried were you that this experience of making a documentary about him would be the end of a beautiful friendship?
RODMAN FLENDER: I had heard that Terry Zwigoff and Robert Crumb were good friends before Crumb came out and I’d heard that that effected their friendship. I don’t know. I’d hoped that it wouldn’t and it hasn’t. I’ve been nothing but honest with him from Day One. When Conan was going through this crisis and started talking about this tour, it seemed like too good an opportunity to not capture. I wasn’t interested in doing a career retrospective nor was I interested in doing a commercial product. A lot of celebrity documentaries are tied in as a marketing tool of some kind, to an album release or something. From the very beginning I said that “Look, I want to capture this process, I want to capture what you’re going through.” And he was okay with that. This isn’t his product. He’s not advertising in this film. And I think it’s very brave of him to let people in on this process. No artist ever reveals their process. And comedy in particular, and writing in particular! It’s magic.
When Conan first saw the movie, were there any moments he wanted back? Like, for instance, the backstage scene when he won’t let up on a wounded-looking Jack McBrayer about what a hick the poor guy is.
After he saw the first cut of the movie he said, “I feel like an alcoholic who now has to go apologize to people.” But everyone around him is in on the joke. Everyone around him knows that’s who he is and knows that’s part of his process and knows that he plays the role of the worst, most abusive boss ever. This is a gag. No one in their right mind would say the kinds of things he says to Jack McBrayer. But I hope it’s evident that as soon as he starts playing ‘Dueling Banjos’ and Jack starts doing a jig that Jack McBrayer is in on the joke.
I found him sympathetic throughout the film, but I’ve talked to some people, real Conan fans, who were left with an uncomfortable taste in their mouths.
Conan is a complex guy — he’s a brilliant guy and a very complicated guy. And I’ve heard that too. I’ve heard some people talk about “Mean Conan” and I’ve heard other people say, “What are you talking about? He works really hard! He teases his staff like a brother teases his sister but ultimately he’s very good to them and they’re very loyal to him.” It’s genuine, affectionate teasing. It’s biting. And because he’s so good at it, it’s fast and biting, but it is affectionate. And someone else will say, “What are you talking about, he’s just being a dick!” The fact that an argument can be had about that I take as a compliment towards the film because he is a complex guy.
To be the subject of such an argument could be a very uncomfortable thing. Do you think he cares what the film’s audiences will say about him?
He is — to use a hippie dippie term — he’s one of the most self-realized people I know. He has a real sense of himself and he knows his mishegas and he knows his craziness and he knows his eccentricities. He knows just how crazy he is. I think he’s going to continue to be that crazy, but because he’s aware of that, it doesn’t make what you’re talking about as difficult as it would be for someone who has no idea, who’s completely out of touch and is shocked by people’s reactions.