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CULTUREARTICLE

Neil Berkeley Tells Us Why ‘Harmontown’ Is A Movie, Not A Film

We talk to the documentarian about working with Dan Harmon, life on the road, and why podcasts are vital to our culture.

Whether or not you have ever seen Community or know who Dan Harmon is, we guarantee you will love Harmontown, the new documentary from the director of Beauty Is Embarrassing, Neil Berkeley. Berkeley chronicles the life of writer/director Dan Harmon after he is fired from Community, the show he created for NBC. To keep creative and connected, Harmon and friends started a podcast called ‘Harmontown’ (which soon achieved cult status) and took the show on the road to the delight of its devoted fanbase. Berkeley and his crew were there every step of the way—to capture the action both on and off stage.

We got the opportunity to talk with Berkeley about Dan Harmon as an untraditional hero, shooting on VHS, and why there is no class system in Harmontown

Tribeca: Both documentaries you’ve made—Harmontown and Beauty is Embarrassing—chronicle a time in the life of a complicated genius. What draws you to creative people as subjects?

Neil Berkeley: I don’t know if it’s necessarily creative people. I am drawn to people who have a voice that they want the world to hear. Dan and Wayne are singularly focused on what they feel like they’re supposed to do with their gift. Whether they are rich or poor, successes or failures, famous or nobodies, Dan and Wayne are always going to keep doing that.

Most people don’t do that. Most people don’t wake up every day with this desire to put their passions before the world. I’m endlessly fascinated by that. I was obsessed with LBJ for a long time for that very reason, He’s not necessarily a good person, but I’m so interested by this guy who lived every day to achieve a singular goal. I don’t think what he eventually achieved made him happy, but that’s beside the point. It’s not art or creativity that drew me to Dan and Wayne; it’s their motors that I’m interested in.  

Tribeca: Can you talk about your first interaction with Dan Harmon and his team with Harmontown? When did you first know there was a documentary there?

NB: The first time I met Dan was a month before he called me about doing the movie. I went to a Channel 101 screening and Rob Straub introduced us. That was the first time I actually talked to him. I didn’t know a lot about him—I hadn’t listened to his podcasts, and I had only seen Community a couple of times. He reached out over Thanksgiving about a month later and asked if I would be interested in working on the movie he wanted to put together.

So I watched the show, but I think when I knew there was something special was when I spent a weekend listening to every podcast. I realized that here’s this guy—he’s brutally honest, he’s rich and famous—but he wasn’t afraid to talk about these damaged and rough parts of himself. I thought, “this is really great but it probably turns a lot of people off.”

When I first went to a taping of the Harmontown podcast, there were only about 40-50 people going to the show. I realized these people are just like Dan, but they’re not able to be as open and outward as he is. They’ve been told their whole lives to shut up, stay quiet and hide their games, loves, and fetishes. Here’s this guy who’s rich and famous and getting up on stage and talking about it into a microphone. So I thought, “that’s a story worth telling.” I wanted to explain who he is and why his fans love him so much. That’s interesting to me.

That’s the beauty of Harmontown—no one’s famous, no one’s rich, no one’s terrible, no one’s anything. We’re all these human beings in a room, so let’s all talk about what makes us who we are

Tribeca: What is it about podcasts like Harmontown that draw such passionate audiences?

NB: I think podcasts are vital to our culture. They’re the one venue in which you can do anything. You can say and do anything you want. There might be repercussions for that later on down the line; however, podcasts allow people to embrace the thing they are in love with and find other people who can talk about that subject for one or two hours and get that discourse directly pumped into their brain.

I love the idea of podcasts. I used to be a big fan of radio. I love this idea of people sitting in a room, just talking. I think podcasts are so important. I didn’t realize this, but people have been saying that Harmontown is the first movie about podcasting. I guess that’s true, so I’m giving you that exclusive.

Tribeca: In Tusk, Justin Long’s character is a podcaster.

NB: I beat those guys [laughs]! Harmontown is an actual documentary that tracks a podcast and its evolution, from being in a show, to being broadcast, to the reasons that it is broadcast and that it is successful. That wasn’t my goal when we started this, but I’m proud that’s the case. I listen to a dozen different podcasts. I listen to them religiously. I’m endlessly fascinated by the form. Eventually, I believe podcasts are going to be filmed for TV. Though, I am nervous because that will mean that people will start editing themselves in a way they wouldn’t do it if they just had a microphone.

Tribeca: It’s obvious that Dan Harmon had a very active role in the production process. What was it like working with him as a collaborator and a subject?

NB: I always point people to a scene in the documentary where Dan is talking to a network. In that scene, he’s very open and rigorous and available for notes and ideas. That’s how he was with me. I think it was tough for him because I had final cut, so he wasn’t holding the reigns. As it is with all documentaries, the movie went through a roller coaster ride to get to the finish. There were ups and downs, and there were good cuts and bad cuts. He’d make notes, but they were more like suggestions. It was never about his character or being a good or bad person. It was a great collaboration.

Tribeca: How did you maintain the line between documentarian and subject? Did it really exist in this process?

NB: The line did exist. I focused on it probably more than I should. Dan was really able to separate himself from the guy in the movie. There’s Producer Dan and Subject Dan— he was able to look at both sides objectively. We didn’t hang out socially; we’re probably more socially close now than we were back then. To me as a filmmaker, you just have to stick to business.

Tribeca: At the same time, this would be an incredibly fun movie to make. Can you describe a typical day on the road before a show with the Harmontown team?

NB: Well, shooting the doc was fun; the editing process had its ups and downs [laughs]. We slept on the bus, travelling 500 miles each night only to wake up in some random city. After we got there, we’d go to the hotel, take a shower, have lunch and then go to the club and walk in like a rock band. Everyone had their gear and cameras, and we’d just roll into town. I had two shooters with me and they had their jobs to do. I would go backstage with Dan and my camera, and I would talk to him about the show or where we were in the story.

After that, we’d shoot the show and I would go back to talk to him afterwards. Dan probably signed autographs for a couple hours after each show. He’d take every photo and just spend some time with all his fans. We’d hit the road after that, hang out for a few hours, and then go to sleep. The next morning, we’d wake up in a new city and do it all over again.

If I’m going to ask someone to sit in a chair for an hour and a half, I’m going to entertain them.

Tribeca: How many hours of footage did you end up with?

NB: My editor gave me an estimate of close to 500 hours. Though, keep in mind, we were rolling on 3 cameras. Plenty of that was footage of the same thing from a different angle, all totaled up.

Tribeca: I heard you used a wide variety of cameras to film Harmontown, including iPhones, GoPros, C-100s and VHS. Can you talk about your aesthetic process? Which camera was your favorite?

NB: I knew the c100 was a beautiful camera that takes beautiful pictures. Luckily, our DP Ryan Carmody was a master. I also love cutting beautiful footage in with funky footage. Not GoPros, but like VHS, iPhone footage, look-see cameras hung on their ears. That juxtaposition is really amazing to me. I love adding that texture to a beautiful scene.

VHS was fun. That was us entertaining ourselves. Since I’m of the VHS generation, to me, that footage looks like a memory. It looks like my childhood. So I love seeing those shots intercut with beautiful c100 footage. The look-sees cameras, that was just an attempt to get them involved with the narratives. Dan’s very meta, so it made sense to have him shoot himself. Eventually, it became a very important part of the storyline.

Tribeca: Your “talking heads” interviews were very striking and included big names like Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman. Why did you decide to forgo lower thirds and have your interviewees address the camera directly?

NB: When I was talking to Dan and his fans, I noticed that eye contact isn’t something that comes easily for a lot of people. His fans, and I mean no disrespect, are a little socially awkward. They look at their shoes a lot. I thought it was important to treat the lens like a person and to let viewers, who might not be familiar with this kind of person or this show, get a feel for what that’s like. I wanted audiences to see what it’s like to talk to people who relate to Dan. I wanted it to feel conversational. It’s an Errol Morris thing. That’s why he does it, because it’s more intimate. I just wanted to look at these people and not have them look off camera where we can’t see 2/3rds of their face. I wanted to see who they are and how they talk to people. I also wanted to level the playing field.

That’s the beauty of Harmontown—no one’s famous, no one’s rich, no one’s terrible, no one’s anything. We’re all these human beings in a room, so let’s all talk about what makes us who we are. So it was important not to make Ben Stiller more important than some kid from Phoenix. That was the goal. If you walk into a Harmontown show, there is no status. No one’s more important, there’s no class system in there.

We go through life and we are who we are. We make adjustments and push the rudder to the side every now and then, but we’re not revamping ourselves, especially once we hit 40. 

Tribeca: Is there anything you want audiences to take away from Harmontown?

NB: Some people say the movie niche thing for Dan’s fans, but I think it’s broader than that. If you’re in a relationship or you’re ashamed, or scared, or proud of something but too humble to talk about it, I think if you watch this movie you realize you can say whatever you want, and do whatever you want. The police aren’t going come get you because you talked about something on a podcast.

That’s Dan’s appeal, and I like that. Also, Dan doesn’t change. In that way, he’s not a very good movie hero. That’s the reality. If there’s a big change within a movie, it has to be manufactured because people really don’t change. We go through life and we are who we are. We make adjustments and push the rudder to the side every now and then, but we’re not revamping ourselves, especially once we hit 40. That’s ok. We might shift who we are as far as a character in a movie goes, and we might go from being the hero to the mentor—which is what I think Dan does—and that’s ok too.

Tribeca: Is there any trend in the documentary film world that you’re eager to see go away?

NB: I’m not a political person. Well, I am, but I won’t shout my opinions from the rooftops or force my politics on you. I think there is room for entertaining, fun, funny movies that also have a message and also cause change. I don’t like the word “film,” I like the word “movie.” If I’m going to ask someone to sit in a chair for an hour and a half, I’m going to entertain them. I’ve said it to so many people, “I don’t want to call it a ‘film;’ there’s not any ‘film’ involved!” They are moving pictures though, so let’s call them movies and not be so precious about it.

In documentaries, I think people feel this obligation to be political and social, which translates to being serious and dire. Also they seem to be telling the audience, “if you don’t pay attention to this thing, you’re a bad person.” I hope that trend goes away and we can have a whole wave of documentary movies that both inform and entertain. I’ll never make a political documentary because it’s not in my bill. I’m not made that way. Michael Moore had a really great list—New Rules for Documentaries— and I love it. I hope everyone reads it and pays attention to it.    

Rent Harmontown on iTunes today

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