Hot Docs 2014: Interview – Neil Berkeley

Harmontown Interview

Much like the subject of his second feature documentary, Neil Berkeley is on the road around midday in Southern California. I can occasionally hear road noise and his blinker in the background as he talks on his hands free connection while I’m on the other end in Toronto. It’s oddly fitting and leads to a very casual, candid and intriguing chat about his latest film that featuring an astoundingly casual, candid, and sometimes divisive entertainment figure.

Berkeley, who previously played Hot Docs with his look at award winning visual artist, humorist, and craftsman Wayne White, Beauty is Embarrassing, returns to the festival this week with Harmontown (although he won’t actually be available to pop into the city until May 1st, a few days after the premiere of his film at the festival, but in time for a special free, outdoor screening of the film).

For those who aren’t hip or in the know, Harmontown is the podcast brainchild of Community creator Dan Harmon. Founded shortly before Harmon was fired from the show he helped to create and nurture every step of the way (and following a now notorious airing of grievances with one of the show’s former stars, Chevy Chase), Harmontown became a way for the sometimes difficult to work with writer to give back to his fans and the community that supported him even in joblessness. For the film, Berkeley accompanied Harmon and co-host Jeff Davis, Dan’s girlfriend, and their Dungeon Master Spencer (who joined to tour simply so they could all play Dungeons and Dragons on stage) as they crossed the country to do live shows outside of their home base of California. Along the way, Dan (and the audience) learns a lot about his shortcomings as he tries to find new work as a writer producing shows fans will like (both on stage and with two pilots in the works for rival networks) while trying to keep his drinking and his temper in check.

We talked to Berkeley about how he hooked up with Dan Harmon, what other people had to say about working so closely with Harmon and why many people’s fears were unfounded, the people who declined to be in the film, witnessing his subject drunk on moonshine, and why Spencer might be the real star and hero of the film instead of Harmon.

Dork Shelf: So how did you get hooked up with Dan Harmon to follow him around on this tour of his?

Harmontown Interview - Neil Berkeley - F2Neil Berkeley: It happened purely by chance, as luck would have it. I knew Dan via a common friend of ours named Rob Schrab, who’s in the movie and who used to be Dan’s old writing partner and a partner in Channel 101. Rob has been a friend of mine of years, and he introduced the two of us to one another at Channel 101 one night.

Dan had actually seen my other documentary, called Beauty is Embarrassing, and it wasn’t that he was a huge fan of mine or anything, but sort of on a whim he shot me an email later and told me he was putting this project together and he wanted to talk to me about  shooting it. It happened as organically as that. We were having drinks a week later. This happened in November of 2012, and several meetings and several drinks later it all came together. We started shooting on December 3rd, so it all happened really quickly.

It really had to be quick, though, because we were going to hit the road on January 9th, so there was no down time. Once we met, talked, and worked out a deal , we got going.

DS: There is kind of a connection between this film and your previous film, which we talked about with Wayne there the last time you were at Hot Docs, because the arcs of Wayne and Dan are pretty similar.

NB: Yeah! They both have beards! They both live about half a mile from each other, too. (laughs) It turns out, and I just starting to realize it as its coming to the forefront, that even though this is my second movie and my voice and my style are still being crafted, I realize that I do have this fascination with people who really carve their own path. They get up every day and tell the world what’s on their mind through their art. Whether it’s painting in Wayne’s case or writing in Dan’s case, but no matter what they do this thing that their minds and bodies are built to do whether it makes them rich or poor or successful or a failure. They just have to get it out to the world. I’m fascinated by that fearless drive to communicate through your chosen art form. It’s obviously very strong with Wayne and very strong with Dan, so they’re very similar in that respect.

They also have a lot of the same anxieties. They’re both very blue collar kinds of guys who treat work like work. They clock in, they dig their ditch, they do what they’re supposed to do, and they both have anxieties about the fame, success, wealth, and failure. They have a lot of the same fears, so they’re very much in step with one another in that respect.

DS: When you got to work with Wayne, however, you caught him at a point in his life where he had already gone through his very self-destructive phase and he was really reflective about it. When you’re with Dan, you’re now with someone who is very much in the thick of that self-destructive phase.

NB: Yeah, and it’s really interesting because that all comes back to how this movie here came to be in the first place. I never went into this thinking that I’m going to do this deeply introspective Dan Harmon doc. He doesn’t have the resume yet to support a complete, straight up bio. He isn’t finished with his work, and I’m sure he has a lot of great work still ahead of him. But really, it was going to be more of a portrait. It could have been an expose of him, which I’m sure someone could have done. It wasn’t supposed to be a bio, but a look at who he is and where he is in his life at the moment.

We do talk about his bio and what happened on the road, but it’s mostly about these very personal demons and personalities traits and struggles – and successes, obviously – that this guy goes through. That was the point, really. It wasn’t to expose Dan or to try and make you love or hate him. It was to explain who he is and why anyone could be in a room with him and be a fan of his, because he does have a lot of really dedicated, loving fans. I tried to explain why those people are there and why they gravitate to him. They do and in a really incredible way.

DS: It’s interesting how you draw that distinction between the prickly demeanor that Dan has where he could just piss off a whole room of people who he thinks did him wrong and that deep, deep sense of loyalty. He gives back just as much as he puts in.

NB: That’s the thing about Dan, though. He gets such an almost insurmountable reputation around him, and I’m glad that the movie addresses this. He gets this reputation for being hard to work with, and I think Sarah Silverman does the best job in the film of talking about that. In Harmontown, we actually see him working. We see him getting notes and how he’s trying to be good at his job. He’s really late and he often procrastinates, but we always see him trying. That was totally my experience with him.

Loyal is the perfect word. He’s intensely loyal to the people who are honest to him and he works very hard to keep those people happy. Even above talent, I think effort and hard work go a long, long way with Dan, and I think that goes back to his Midwestern upbringing. He’s very loyal and if you do right by him and stick by him, he’ll let you know his opinions and let you know how he feels about you. I’m sure he can make you feel like shit at times, but at least he’s being honest. I’m really glad that the movie shows that side of him. If you’re good to him, he’s good to you. That’s a fact.

DS: It’s interesting that this came to you via Rob because he is one of those people in the film who is openly talking about how hard Dan can be to deal with, so when Rob comes to you and he knows what you’re about to embark on, what did he – or anyone else, for that matter – tell you to expect from working so closely with Dan?

NB: The biggest thing with that wasn’t so much that it was personality stuff, but the most widely mentioned thing that I heard from people was “Someday he’s going to blow up on you. Get ready.” And it never happened. I was told that even by Dan. A few people said that at some point the drinking might get in the way of what I need. He’ll be late or he won’t show up or he won’t give you what you need. I was warned about that from a few people, and again I didn’t see that. Rob didn’t really give me any warning. He was really supportive of the project the entire time. Rob was also in touch with us and giving us notes on early cuts and where we should go. Dan didn’t have much of a bio outside of Community and we shot this before Dan got his job back. After he went back to it, Community actually became a much bigger part of the final film and the story. Rob was one of the people who helped to fill in the gaps.

The one time that really came out was kind of at the midpoint of the movie where Dan talks about how abusive he can be in a relationship. We never captured the fight or how Dan acts in a way that I’m told he can become. As he describes it in the film, he says he can turn into a sociopath like Kevin Spacey in Seven. I was only told what that works like. We never did see that actually happen.

And it’s a strange because even Dan says he kind of regrets never even capturing it with the camera that we gave him that he could go around with. That was really the only thing that happened off camera that we didn’t see. Dan was actually very open and allowed me to shoot whatever we wanted.

DS: Was there anyone you wanted to get for the film but you couldn’t that didn’t want to talk about dealing with Dan? You don’t have to name names, but were some people apprehensive of talking about Dan with you?

NB: (laughs) OH NO. I WILL NAME NAMES. (laughs) Only one person – and I am glad you are asking because I have been waiting to clear this up – and that was Chevy Chase. He was the only person we didn’t get, but that’s not because he said no or yes. It’s just not his style to do things like this. Dan and Chevy are pretty good friends who text and call each other all the time. And people always say “Oh, you didn’t get Chevy so he must be an asshole,” and that’s really not the case at all. He never said no or yes. He just doesn’t do this. It’s not on his radar at all.

Everyone else we asked – Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman – we got everyone we want… Wait. I take that back. Every network executive said no. (laughs) I’ll tell you that, and I’m fine with that. The reason the story of Dan Harmon is so one sided here is because every network executive that we asked to be in this emphatically said no. Hands down, no questions.

DS: And that really goes back to how Dan is really more of a person who likes to bring his ideas directly to the people and not to authority figures.

NB: That makes sense. They don’t want to be dragged into anything Dan is into. They just don’t care.

DS: You have Dan on camera and you capture him at some weird moments, especially that performance where he’s fucked up on moonshine. What’s was it like capturing that? Is it exhilarating because you can think of how the movie looks around that or is it frightening to think that you might not be able to finish the film?

NB: (laughs) You know, that scene really didn’t come together until the next day when he was editing down his own podcast. In the moment, everyone seemed to be having a really good time that night, but Dan just happened to get really blackout drunk. Everyone still had a good time, and his show really is about “whatever happens, happens.” When we were shooting him editing the podcast the next day, though, when he expressed so much shame and regret about it, that was the first scene we ended up cutting. His reactions to seeing how he acted on stage and the things he said, that was when I thought, “This could be a really good movie.” He’s going to admit shame. He’s going to admit embarrassment. That’s something that most performers would never in a million years do. Most performers would say “I had an off night. I’ll fix it tomorrow.” He said, “No. I failed those people. I have to make it up to those people and I have to apologize.”

Then later on after he gets into that fight we were talking about with Erin, he talks about how he can be in a relationship on stage, but he’s also talking to me backstage in a very open, candid, honest way backstage where he’s telling me about how he was abused as a child, how it affected his relationship with women, and how he now likes “delicious tears.” The weight of that makes me feel, “Holy shit. This is going to be a really tough movie to put together, but at least I have a subject who will do and say anything to make the movie as honest as possible.” That’s a godsend. You can’t ask for anything better than that. Especially of a subject that’s also a producer.

This was supposed to be a fun tour doc that turned into something very real and tangible, but as a producer of his own movie, he let us do whatever he wanted. He gave us final cut, when most people in his position would say, “You can’t ever show that.” He never said that once.

DS: One of the coolest things about the movie, and it’s something that Dan points out, which is that Spencer is kind of the silent hero of the movie and in many ways of Dan’s life, and he kind of typifies what Dan has been trying to do. At what point did you realize that Spencer was going to be such a huge part of what the heart of the film was?

NB: I always had an idea with Spencer that there was something deeper with him, because you’re right, he does kind of represent the fans and the heart of that community. He’s the embodiment of why they’re all there. I shot this interview at his parents’ house and I got the sense that he was about to go on a real journey. I had no idea how he would react to going on the road and to being on tour, and I was always keeping a journal. I would always be sending notes back to the editors when I sent to footage in every day. Around the third or fourth show I sent a note back to the editors that says “Hey, expect more footage with this guy Spencer. Something’s going on with him. He’s going through something.” We started shooting him all the time.

There’s a moment that you see in the film where Dan is having a real mentorly moment where he says “I think you’re lonely. I think you’re scared.” He gives him this lovely pep talk about how it’s okay to be lonely and it’s okay to be scared as long as you’re honest about it. I didn’t know at the time, but I knew there was going to be this hero/mentor relationship between Spence and Dan where it was like he was talking to a younger version of himself. “I’ve been down this road. Here’s what it’s like. It will be okay.” It was on the road and about three quarters through the tour when I realized that Spencer was going to be the heart, if not the actual backbone, of the movie.