Neil Berkeley Interview: Everybody Hurts in HARMONTOWN

Contributor; Toronto
Neil Berkeley Interview: Everybody Hurts in HARMONTOWN
Harmontown is far more than your run of the mill tour documentary. Whether or not you're a fan of Community, the show that finally made a name for writer Dan Harmon after years of pitching pilots and struggling to break into television, it's hard to imagine audiences leaving Harmontown with anything less than admiration for this authenticity-driven comedian and his heart of gold. Incapable of swallowing his opinions, as peers such as John Oliver, Ben Stiller, Sara Silverman, and more, attest to in the film, Harmon's stubborn behaviour resulted in on set altercations and uncompromising network disputes that eventually resulted in his being fired from his own show. But it's his self-destructive honesty which translates brilliantly into an off-the-cuff live show podcast that makes Harmon such a compelling figure. It's also what makes Harmontown extend far beyond the reach of preaching to the converted.

Not even director, Neil Berkeley - whose previous documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, earned him the responsibility of painting Harmon's portrait - considered himself a Harmon fan, prior to joining him on the road. But what began for Neil as an interesting-enough subject quickly came to evoke themes far richer than those that tend to arise from a comedy tour. Harmon's comedy comes from a place without emotional barriers, as exemplified by his on stage delving into extremely personal matters, like the shows that would see the evolution of a fight with his girlfriend.

Consequently, Harmontown is an utterly honest look at a man both unafraid to fail and unashamed of flaunting the folly of his humanity. Dan Harmon is not perfect. Nobody is. But in his unrelenting acknowledgment of this truth, Harmon is able to speak to legions of fans who love him for his ability to make them feel more comfortable with themselves. That Berkeley is able to convey this so effectively, makes Harmontown a special film. 

How did you come to document Dan Harmon?

I met him for the first time about a month before he emailed me about making this movie. I knew who he was but I hadn't met him. Rob Schrab introduced us at a Channel 101 screening. I'd seen Community a few times and I'd never listened to the podcast but he emailed me about a month later and said he's putting this project together and wanted to talk to me about working on it. I sort of knew who he was. I knew his name, I knew a little about him but I wasn't a super fan. 

He'd seen Beauty is Embarrassing about Wayne White. He really liked that movie and liked the way I portrayed and presented Wayne and the way I shot it, and so he thought I'd be a good guy to put this project together.

What attracted you to the project?

Initially, I thought, oh, this would be cool. This would be like a little fun romp around the country. I'll shoot a tour doc and I'll come back and put it together in a couple of months and it will be this fun little deal. The more I got to know Dan and listened to the podcasts and realized what his view is all about, I realized that it's going to become a much bigger, much deeper emotional thing. The challenge of that became interesting and it was a huge challenge to get that right. It took a lot longer than anyone thought it would. The idea of figuring out who that person is was really interesting to me.

How long did it take to establish a comfort zone with Dan?

I shot him taking a bath the first day of shooting, so maybe that qualifies. Honestly, I think is was more me acclimating to him than vice versa. Without overtly saying it, he was open for anything. He would do anything, talk about anything, let me shoot anything, and I had to learn that. I had to realize that anything goes. We would strap cameras to him. I talked to him constantly before and after shows. I guess it was more about me and a couple days into the tour, I realized, okay, this guy's up for anything; he's going to be an amazing documentary subject. I guess that's what it was.

Was there ever a point during the production where you might have had your doubts for whatever reason?

The biggest challenge and it's in the movie, but he looks in the camera and says, "I'm not going to change. I'm 40 years old. This is who I am." He learned some things. He collected some knowledge along the way but like most people in the world, he realizes that I'm 40, this is who I am, and I can try to become a little less abrasive but ... and a little better in relationships, but these flaws are going to be the flaws I have with me the rest of my life.

That's a huge challenge for a storyteller, for your main character to say, "Your third act is fucked." We definitely had to work around that. Thank god Spencer became the character he became.

Can you pinpoint a night where you thought, 'this is really far more than I'd anticipated, this has graduated to another level?'

Yeah, it's in the movie. It's when Dan and Erin get to fight on stage and then the next day, he and I have a very honest conversation about why he behaves in relationships the way he does. Dan will tell you that he's very comfortable at the head of a line but when he's one-on-one with a person in a room, it gets very difficult for him, especially if you love that person.

When he talks about his childhood, his relationship with his parents, and when he talks about the kind of person he can become when he really wants to get angry with someone. He talks about that Kevin Spacey sociopath that he turns into. I'm shooting that and I'm a foot and a half away from his face as he's talking to me about this, and that's when I realized that this movie's going to have some dark parts. The low point's not going to be Dan loses his voice. It's going to be something much more real.

Do you have a personal favourite moment from the shoot?

There's so many. I really had a good time, I really enjoyed it. As dark as the movie gets, we had a ball out there and I think that comes across. Brooklyn was definitely a high point because it was 500 people going nuts for two hours, so that was amazing, and there were a couple of little moments of us hanging out on the bus. The best moments were when we'd finish a show, shoot afterwards, and then get on the bus at 2:00 in the morning and go to the next city. Sometimes we'd go to hotels but we all really fell in love with just getting back on the bus and hanging out while we drove to some other place in the country. It was so fun.

Did you happen to have a favourite moment that didn't make the cut?

Yeah and we're going to put it out but there's this really great scene... We shot the creation, from the light bulb to the finished form of The Chicken Noodle Dick Song and it's a four-minute scene and I tried to put it into so many cuts but it always, from a storytelling standpoint, was a roadblock because you would be chugging along and all of a sudden, you would stop down for four minutes just to write this song and then you'd move on again and, as wonderful as it is, as funny as it is, it is one of those darlings that I had to kill, as they say. The world will get to see that; we're going to do an extended cut; we're going to put that out. You'll just have to wait.

Any other challenges in the post-production process? How much footage would you say you shot?

About 500 hours. The challenge is getting the story right. There were different versions. There were soft versions and dark versions and it was just getting it right, just making it good. There was a story of Dan and Spencer going along and then colliding and it was always there but for me; I kind of have to build all these versions and then you see where the dots connect.

Editing this guy who doesn't change, about this act where there's no script, there is no act... If you're making a list of things you need, before you do a tour documentary, there were a lot of blanks on that list, like scripts or acts or change or desire. There were a lot of things that were empty, so having to fill in those blanks was really, really hard.

Of all the cameos and the guest appearances, was any one person the most fun to interview or most exciting for you?

Oh yeah, easily John Oliver. He was that guy. I didn't even ask questions. I would throw out a topic and he would riff on and on. That guy is a delight to be around. His energy when he walks in a room is wonderful. He's such a positive, enjoyable person. He was one of the people that when you left, you were like, I'd like to hang out with that guy. He just seemed like a really great guy. He was a great interview. He was super honest and super candid about Dan and what he thinks Dan is. We used the best lines from his interview, in the movie. I would say, John Oliver was just amazing.
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Dan HarmonHarmontownJohn OliverNeil Berkeley

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