SXSW 2011: ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ is hard for him to watch

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When Conan O’Brien quit ‘The Tonight Show’ after NBC changed his time slot in January 2010, the comedian suddenly found himself without one of his life necessities — an audience.

But within days, documentary filmmaker Rodman Flender gave him one, when he started shooting “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a film that premiered Sunday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and will be released across the U.S. in a multi-platform deal distribution plan involving AT&T.

The documentary follows O’Brien on his first days after leaving NBC and as he plans and performs his 32-city “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour. With writing room, backstage, tour bus and airplane footage, the documentary reveals aspects of the comic most fans have never seen — he’s at times bitter, manic, aggressive, exhausted and fragile, but all the while brutally funny.

“This was a very difficult time for him, an improvisational time, and he didn’t know what was going to happen,” Flender said over coffee at Austin’s Driskill Hotel the morning after the film’s premiere at the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater. “What artist would want their creative process captured? What painter would want to be photographed trying to come up with a design or a sketch? Most smart artists don’t want to reveal that.”

The 88-minute film reveals that O’Brien’s backstage process involves some aggressive collaborating with his writers — he literally hits them. The comic has a remarkable ability to be narcissistic and self-mocking at the same time -- at one point he likens his staff’s failure to appreciate one of his jokes to “throwing the ‘Mona Lisa’ out of the Louvre” and another time, exhausted by a gig and told it will be over soon, he says: ‘That’s what they said to Anne Frank.’


O’Brien applies his own under-eye concealer and blush before shows, out-dances his backup dancers and both berates and leans on his personal assistant and manager. During the tour, he lost a great deal of weight and seemed unable to turn off his compulsion to perform, using his day off to appear in his Harvard University reunion talent show.

“It’s really hard for me to look at now,” O’Brien told the audience at the premiere of the film. “This is who I am for better or worse and this is how I work through things.”

Flender had met O’Brien on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon when they were undergraduates there more than 25 years ago, and he slept on the comic’s couch when visiting L.A. in the 1980s to interview for a job with low-budget movie producer Roger Corman. The two stayed in touch through the years, as they both continued to work in show business, O’Brien as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” and the host of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and eventually “The Tonight Show,” and Flender as Corman’s head of production and a director in TV and maker of a documentary about a rock band called “Let Them Eat Rock.”

When O’Brien left NBC, Flender approached him about a film. “I went to his house and I pitched the idea to him,” Flender said. “Nothing more was said; he kind of thought about it and I left. And then he called me with an idea to document him on his tour. And I said, ‘That’s a good idea of yours.’ So he’ll claim it was his idea. I know it was my idea.”

Flender had no crew — just hiring an occasional extra camera operator in certain cities to capture the live performances from different angles. He shot some 149 hours of footage for the film, eventually coming up with a 90-minute cut to show O’Brien.

“It was tense for me to show it to him,” Flender said. “He was putting off seeing it for the longest time and my editing process was such that I wanted to get the bones of the doc down before I wove in the concert footage. So he had to watch 90 minutes of himself yelling at people without any performance stuff.”

By that time, the comic had begun his new show on TBS, a cable network whose offer he openly mocks in the documentary, wondering if he should instead be on Animal Planet. “Things were and are going better,” said Flender. “He’s in a rhythm and, bang, he is hit with this memory, this very vivid depiction of a difficult time.”

In the film’s unique distribution deal, AT&T will participate in the film’s distribution and marketing, and will sneak preview the film for its AT&T U-verse® TV subscribers on the eve of its theatrical release. Abramorama, headed by Richard Abramowitz, who handled the theatrical campaign for the Oscar-nominated Banksy documentary ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ has come onboard to handle theatrical distribution of the film. Magnolia Home Entertainment has acquired the remaining video-on-demand and home entertainment rights.

The deal was negotiated by Liesl Copland at WME Global on behalf of the filmmakers.

In Austin, O’Brien described the months captured on the documentary as a discrete moment in his life.

“By the end of the tour I was done and I was ready to move on,” O’Brien said.

-- Rebecca Keegan in Austin, Texas