Documentary Now! co-creators Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas are obsessed with details, and boy does it show. In the latest season (made for IFC, now streaming on Netflix) they enlisted Cate Blanchett to play a performance artist, based on the 2012 Matthew Akers film Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (in this version she’s named Izabella Barta.) Thomas says,
“The way she threw herself into it was unforeseen. We knew she’d be good, but you don’t know until they walk up on set whether that they understanding the tone and the level of commitment, you know? But once she was on board, she was doing all this research. She had teeth made to shift her jawline. She had 15 wigs or something that she worked on with her longtime hair or makeup people. Her commitment to the detais matched our detail-oriented thinking.”
Over 17 episodes so far, the series has taken the most iconic documentary films and made comedies with so must crazy detail they are almost a closed, private filmmaking joke. For this episode, it was even moreso. Thomas says,
“We basically created the body of work of her entire career. We had one day to do that because we needed to get all that footage and put together to projections and photos and stuff for the actual exhibit that we did at the end. We prepped like nuts. We were in Budapest about two weeks before we did it. Just seven days of 20-something-hour days, really trying to get it dialed in.”
One of the fake performance art pieces called for a prop toilet stall. The people in charge of the venues repeatedly balked at having something bathroom-related in a public space.
‘We said, ‘OK, we’re going to put a toilet stall right here.’ The Hungarians were just like, ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean a toilet stall? This is offensive that you would even suggest that.’ They wouldn’t budge.”
Eventually, they obtained clearance to film the scene in the Budapest Opera House. Buono said.
“You’re moving so fast that unlike other shows, you don’t have trailers. Because the talent is never gonna go back to the trailers. It’s just, ‘No, no, no, stay with us. You’re gonna be shooting again in five minutes.’
So many of us that make the show came from ‘Saturday Night Live’ and had been there for a very long time. I think a lot of our crew would rather not be that way, but we all respond really well to quick [turnarounds].”
Vulture assesses this episode and the series astutely,
“The triumph of ‘Waiting on the Artist’ is the triumph of Documentary Now! as a whole: It’s a display of pure artifice that somehow manages to find a core of authenticity, and makes us care for people that we would dismiss as jokes if their emotions didn’t feel real.”
Documentary Now! is on Netflix now.
(Photos, Rhys Thomas/IFC, screen grabs; via Indie Wire)