‘Dying To Do Letterman,’ Part I
Documentaries, more and more these days, involve a journey rather than a discussion. Even classic films like Frederick Wiseman’s “Juvenile Court” don’t involve a definable goal, and Errol Morris’s works often explore an idea from a sitting position. But these days, people going somewhere, trying to do something, and having definable success or failure is more and more the mode. Perhaps because audiences have become familiar with reality shows and their “see it happen” conceit.
Biagio Messina and Joke Fincioen, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team, are conversant in both sides of that realm. They have a reality show on IFC called “Commercial Kings,” and have worked for respected documentarian R.J. Cutler, who made “The September Issue.”
Their new film, “Dying To Do Letterman,” which was just selected for DocuWeeks 2011 after having been at several festivals including Cinequest, tells a story as it happens, but as it happens, the story is a defined, created, caper. Their friend Steve Mazan, a stand-up comedian, decides after learning he has cancer that he is going to try to figure out a way of appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
Biagio, who met Joke when they both had first arrived in Hollywood, first encountered Steve doing some video work for him.
We had been working in LA, and Steve had just moved down from San Francisco. He was doing whatever he could to break into the comedy scene. I cut his very first comedy reel – I remember it as $10 an hour, but he remembers it as $20 an hour – but I don’t think I made that much. We kept in touch after that.
Later, I think it was when Joke and I had done our very first television gig as producer/director on “Caesar’s 24/7,” and still living in the one-bedroom apartment at that point, that we got the email: “Hey, got to my website dyingtodoletterman.com, because I’m trying to get on Letterman.” He never said he was sick in the email. I was editing, and I remember hearing Joke from the other side of the room, gasping. She said, “Steve’s got cancer.”
She had read on Steve’s website that he was sick. He had about a dozen malignant growths in his liver. He had already decided on the premise of “Dying to do Letterman.” Not surprisingly, Steve had set a life goal on appearing on that showcase of comedic talent. But having been told he might have as little as five years to live, the goal had become something of a quest.
“He had this whole explanation of how he was launching this campaign to get on Letterman,” Biagio says. “We called him and asked if there was anything we could do to help, and he said “Look, I’ve been shooting a little bit of footage myself with my Handicam, and I really want to make a documentary on this. Would you guys be interested in doing it?”
The answer was not instantly positive.
Joke and I, we were almost in unison in saying, “Uh, we have to think about it.” We knew him as a friend first, and we were still just processing the fact that our friend was sick. So we talked about it a lot.
Joke and Biagio had two cameras, a Panasonic DVX100B, and a Canon GL2. “I gave him the GL2, and said, Just take it – you can have that. It’s better than what you have, so just shoot everything you can. We’ll figure out what our involvement will be as we go along.”
We called Steve back and said, “Here’s the thing – if we’re going to do this documentary with you, we have to do it right. And what that means is if we’re there, and things are bad, we’re not going to be able to put the camera down and give you a hug. We’re not going to be able to be your friends; we’ll be capturing the moment. There was this long pause, and then he said, “You just made my tumors hurt.” We sort of laughed and cried, because it was so strange that our friend was dealing with his impending death this way.
Steve had been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor in his liver, in 2005, and the work on the film began in 2006.
“Steve said, ‘I don’t consider myself a depressing guy,” Biagio says. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do this I want it to be funny. I want it to reflect the kind of guy that I am.’ He made us promise that even if he did die, we had to finish the movie and make sure it was funny.”
When I heard of this film, I couldn’t help but think of Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which deranged stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert DeNiro, plays out his obsession to appear on a Letterman-like show. While Steve is not that film’s talentless hack, but rather a working comic, and his desire to achieve the goal clearly relates to finding a way of taking on the cancer, the deeper themes of fame and immortality seem embedded in what is on its face a somewhat lighthearted gambit.
Biagio says, “We had Steve do diary cams – just setting up the camera and talking into it. I said, “I just want you to speak your mind. Sit down and talk for an hour straight if you want to – just talk. I think some of the most raw, emotional moments of the movie came from that.”
Beyond that, they followed him in his journey, Biagio says.
We ended up having around 300 hours of footage. The final cut is about 80 minutes. So obviously it was a lot to sort through. But I always wanted to lean on what was real.
When the movie was done and the shooting was done, I wanted come up with a narration style – something that was clearly narration after the fact, but something I wanted to feel a bit more unique. So we did this thing where we set him on a comedy-type stage, with a microphone. For three days straight, I had him just tell his story as he remembered it.
We shot that part on the RED. Our friend Adam Sampson, who’s one of the best undiscovered cinematographers out there, owns a RED and graciously offered his time. I didn’t want Steve to stop. He just went with it, and when he was tired he’d go home, then come back in the morning and we just continued.
The Fincioen-Messina team has done work that includes creating and producing VH1’s “Scream Queens,” but as documentarians did not maniplate the story. As part of the quest, Steve sought advice from top comics such as Ray Romano, and these were filmed. Biagio says,
And when we were in verite mode, we were in verite mode. We didn’t mess with the scenes, we didn’t mess with the order; we never wanted to go and shape a scene for the sake of shaping a scene. We did rely on a lot of classic storytelling structure. We knew there was a big turning point that happened early in his journey. It spun the story into a different direction, and that was for real. That set a lot of other things into motion. So the story is perfectly linear, but to get from 300 hours to 80 minutes, it was a lot of, “OK, this is a perfect second-act turning point…”
More to come in Part II