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Q&A: James Franco's Saturday Night

Saturday Night director James Franco and SNL cast members Kenan Thompson, Jenny Slate, and Will Forte talked to a Tribeca audience and press about this backstage pass to the famous TV show.

James Franco
at the screening for Saturday Night at the Tribeca Film Festival
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festiv


Festival-goers and hardcore Saturday Night Live fans alike lined up and down 57th Street to see James Franco's behind-the-scenes doc about a week in the life of the famed sketch comedy show. The film, which started as an assignment for a class at NYU to do a 7-minute film on a person, turned into this feature-length documentary that shows everything from the pitch meetings to the all-night writing sessions, from the inner sanctum of Lorne Michaels' office to clips of the final product, the John Malkovich episode from December 2008.


During an audience Q&A after the screening, moderated by Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger, Franco and cast-members Will Forte, Kenan Thompson, and Jenny Slate talked frankly about the making of the documentary, including one arc of the film that showed former cast-member Casey Wilson performing a sketch during a table read that tanks. Afterwards, Wilson spoke honestly to the camera about the pressures of being on the show, to which the entire cast can relate. "I want to give Casey a ton of credit," the young actor/director/writer Franco said. "It was just a weird turn of events that Casey was no longer on the show.... And I showed it to her, and she really likes the doc, and she said, 'I cherish it because it really shows what my life was like on that show,' so I think she appreciated it for that." Forte added, "Her journey for that week—everybody's had that week, so they just happened to catch her week."


Naturally, the conversation turned to the Betty White episode that the cast will be working on this week, which will air Saturday, May 8. While they naturally wouldn't tell us about the sketches they were hoping to pitch to the hottest octogenarian on the block, Slate did reveal, "I have fantasies that Betty White thinks I'm her best friend and we get a condo. I picked out my outfit for tomorrow already, yeah, because I'm just so excited. I'm really, really excited. I've done that a few times this year. I also picked out like a special fancypants outfit for Sigourney Weaver."


After the audience Q&A, reporters got a chance to ask the panel more specific questions about the nuts and bolts of doing SNL.


James Franco, Will Forte, Kenan Thompson, and Jenny Slate
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival


It's amazing to see how long you guys stay up writing this stuff. Do you find it hard to determine what's actually funny and what's just sleep-deprivation?

Forte: I think you never really know what's actually funny, but you can trick yourself into thinking that you do. But sometimes the sleep deprivation really helps the comedy, because it goes to way crazier places that you would ever go with a more sane mind. So you never know—you always go in, you're loving this one, you're like, "This is the one! This is gonna be great!" And this other one that I turned in, eh, whatever, and it's always that one that gets a good response.


Slate: Sometimes it's like, this sketch, oh, this is definitely the one. It's like a person that you had a super fun wild night with, and then the next day, you have to look at them, and it's like, "Oh God…." Sometimes I'll think, "This is great! This is so exciting!" and then you'll come in and you'll be like, "Oh, wow, this is definitely five in the morning work."


I'm curious how rigid the week's process is, and it surprises me that writing is just one day. I wonder if you guys ever doubt the process, if maybe Tuesday night at four AM, you doubt the process.


I don't necessarily doubt the process. I doubt, "Should I have come in earlier that day?" You know what I mean, because when it gets to be four in the morning and you're on an idea that you've been on since 9:00, it kind of sucks because you're like, maybe if I would have started earlier, I would have started thinking different things and I would have hit this wall sooner as opposed to, like, now it's 4:00 and I either have to push through or start something else at four in the morning, which is a hard, terrible decision to have to make, but it happens.


Nobody tells you you have to go in at four in the afternoon and stay up all night. It's just kind of the way it is. All the time, I'll still be up at 11 in the morning Wednesday and think, "Why didn't I come in at 10 Tuesday morning? Then I could have gone to bed at eight in the morning!"


What's the physical and emotional toll of working at this breakneck speed all the time?


I don't know if speed has anything to do with the emotion. I think it's just presenting yourself and opening yourself that way… It's an emotional thing, because it has such a history to it, too. Like, if these were just ideas from scratch that you didn't have to compare to iconic performers that are out there now, I don't know if it would sting as hard every time you get rejected. It's just an idea, it's not that big of a deal, but the platform is so large, everything counts.


It's really emotional. It's terrifying when you think have a funny idea, because now you probably should write it, which is another scary thing, and then you've got to perform it and then you've got to convince your friends that this is funny to try and help you perform it, so it's all very personal to you once you're writing a sketch…


But the physical toll it takes on you is probably just the sleep thing, and the fact that you're sucked into this 30 Rock vacuum where you spend so much time there, so much awkward time there, so whenever people are going to see plays, we're usually in rehearsal. Or like, basketball games or baseball games, those things fall into the times where we have to work, so [when] the 9 to 5 people are getting off, we're probably just going in or have been for just a couple hours and we work late into the night. By the time people want to go to the clubs and stuff like that, it just doesn't happen for us, so that's a weird thing. It can take a toll on family life. I'm sure it's harder for Darrell Hammond, who has kids and a wife, to have such a crazy schedule.


It's so grueling that it's kind of like an addiction, a little bit. Like, you cannot wait for the break, especially the summer break, and then you go through a couple weeks of not being in the show and you can't get wait to get back.


I hate it.


I'm afraid for the break in the summer. I think I'll miss it. I miss everyone a lot when we are [off]... I'm like, what am I going to do this summer? Stare at my dog?


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