An Academy Award-winning screenwriter couldn’t have written a better drama. Back in January of last year, beloved late night talk show personality Conan O’Brien, currently the face of Conan on TBS, had his dream job: host of NBC’s legendary The Tonight Show, which put him in the same class as greats such as Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. But then there was also Jay Leno, the 57-year-old program’s previous host who opted out of short retirement to run his own, prefacing-The-Tonight-Show talkie, The Jay Leno Show. Just as O’Brien was living his life’s goal out, Leno and the powers that be at NBC swooped in and muscled him out of the gig, offering to move The Tonight Show from 11:35 pm to 12:05 a.m., a plan that O’Brien admirably refused.
As his ardent fan-base, dubbed “Team Coco,” rallied behind him, O’Brien made a deal with NBC that allowed him out of his contract as long as he stayed away from late-night TV for seven months, starting after his final Tonight Show taping on January 22nd. Though the public didn’t get to see much of O’Brien in the months hence, he bottled up his anger, fell back from the limelight, and strategized a 30-city live tour, cleverly billed as The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour. Tickets sold out almost immediately—Team Coco made sure that O’Brien, an entertainer who thrives off of a crowd’s energy, remained “the man.”
Rodman Flender, a longtime friend of O’Brien’s, as well as a filmmaker, saw the potential in the post-NBC-fallout dawn and pitched the idea of an all-access documentary to Sir Coco. His proposal: a flick that’d give both fans and casual viewers the chance to see how one of pop culture’s biggest “victims” in recent years bounced back from a massive letdown through a tireless string of on-stage performances and baby-kissing. The result is Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (in theaters today, via limited release), a funny, intimate, energetic, and at times painfully honest look at the late-night stalwart’s resurgence from April through June of 2010.
Complex recently spoke with Flender about Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the difficulties of shooting with a one-man crew, how his mega-famous friend isn’t always all smiles, and why the movie isn’t a piece of Team Coco propaganda.
Complex: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop really does a great job at showing sides of Conan that his beloved Team Coco has yet to see. The film was initially your idea, not his—was he responsive to the concept right away, or was there some hesitation on his part?
Rodman Flender: He took a little bit of time to sit with it. He took as much time as he needed to let it percolate, and for him to get comfortable with just how personal the film would be. And then he took a little bit more time until he convinced himself that it was his own idea. [Laughs.] So then one day he calls me and says, “Hey, I have an idea—I want to do a documentary of my tour,” and I said, “Of course you have this idea!” It took him as long as it takes for him to make himself think the idea was his own, when it wasn’t. [Laughs.]
And you loved that, I’m sure. You two have a pretty long history together, correct?
Yeah, we went to college together, and we’ve kept in contact ever since. At times, we were in more contact than others. It was always hard when he was in New York and I was in Los Angeles, but he’s always remained a friend of mine.
Prior to the NBC drama and Conan’s live tour, had you ever thought about making a movie about his life?
Not really. There was something very unique to this time period that really brought the idea to mind. This time period was really unlike any other for him, when his Tonight Show blew up. And that’s what interested me, the fact that it was such a unique time period.
He’d worked so hard, and had this dream for so long, and then to have the rug pulled out from under him so quickly, with the Tonight Show being taken away from ever seven months—that’s what was so interesting thing to me. What was he going to do? How was he going to process this experience? How was he going to use his comedy and his art to express himself and to work through these feelings? That really was a time like no other. For a documentary filmmaker, it seemed like something special. It was a horrible, horrible time for him, but for me it was a gift from the gods. [Laughs.]
Did you present the idea to him prior to the tour’s conception, as a more personal and intimate documentary, one without a concert feel?
No, this all came after that. It really was the live show and the tour experience that made this all click in my mind, and drove home to me that this was a very interesting subject for a film. For me to just follow someone around after they’d been dealt this huge disappointment, that would’ve been incredibly grim. [Laughs.] Here, he was putting something together; he was working on something, and there was a process going on, putting up a show.
So, at the very least, we would see that process. We’d see how that happens. And I knew the tour had an end, that it’d start in April, in Eugene, Oregon, and end in June in Atlanta, so I knew there’d be a natural end to the film.
It’s cool that you caught him at that exact time, because, in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, it seems like he was recharged at that time, in a lot of ways.
It really was, yeah. Just recently, he gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth, and he talked a lot about that. Addressing the undergraduates, he talked about how they have this dream that they’re going to be something specific, and that there are all these challenges that could prevent them from being that, and how that will make them who they are. That’s kind of what happened with him and the experience with NBC, how he was given this opportunity and then quickly given a huge disappointment. That really changed him and informed the person you see today, on his new show.
Even from the beginning, when I discussed the idea with Conan, I didn’t want to misrepresent what my interests were; if he wanted to do a Conan O’Brien product, or if he wanted a venue to show how he’d been wronged in one way or another, that wasn’t what I was interested in doing, and I just wanted him to know that upfront. I also wanted him to know that I wasn’t out to get him or expose him in any way—I wasn’t out to do a character assassination.
I had no agenda. I didn’t want to do a puff piece, I didn’t want to do a Valentine to him, and I didn’t want to make him a martyr. I wasn’t out to make him look bad, either; I just wanted to capture his process and his experience. If there were some great moments and hilarious moments, I’d get those, and if there were moments that weren’t so pretty, I was interested in those, as well, and he knew that. I was very clear about that from the very beginning. Hopefully that’s what we wound up with.
In the film, you do a really good job of addressing the Jay Leno/NBC fallout without calling too much attention on it, which would’ve derailed the overall feel. There are a few memorable shots fired at them, such as the really funny scene in which Conan reads a fake letter from Leno and ends it with, “How does it feel to have a soul?” The film touches upon that anger, but it doesn’t harp on it.
And I think that’s an accurate reflection. You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t think about that stuff at all, but, on the other hand, he had other things to think about. He was moving forward; as the title says, he can’t stop. He’s always kind of moving forward. He’s putting a new show together, and he’s not one to completely dwell on the past.
In the press notes, it’s mentioned that, for most of the film, you were a one-man crew, filming everything without any backup help. How difficult was that? Because, as seen in the movie, Conan doesn’t sit still very often. He’s always on the move.
That was the biggest challenge of shooting this: just trying to keep up with him. Because, as you said very well, he is always on the move. He’s in a bus that’s stopped and he has to get off the bus, as you see in the movie, so that was very difficult. But, on the other hand, if I had a whole crew, with a soundman and a boom operator and camera assistants, that would’ve made it even more difficult to keep up.
So, on one hand, I completely destroyed my back carrying all of the equipment. [Laughs.] But the fact that it was just me sort of allowed me to have a certain kind of access that would’ve been difficult to achieve if I had an entire crew. Plus, shooting by myself lent a much more intimate feel, I think; it was often just me and Conan, and I think that put him in a comfortable space and allowed him to be as real as possible.
The most interesting stuff in the film involves his bitterness and mounting frustration towards the constant attention he receives, from autograph signings to photo ops backstage. You can see how fed up he gets with all of the endless hand-shaking, yet he never turns a fan down and shakes every hand while smiling and being his expectedly funny self. That being said, were there ever any times where you sensed that he was getting tired of constantly having your camera in his face?
Absolutely. Nothing in particular was off limits, but he would definitely get tired of having the camera in his face. He would ask me to stop shooting, and those were the times that I knew I had to put a new battery in the camera and keep going. [Laughs.] That’s when I would get him at his rawest.
One of the main things people will learn about Conan O’Brien from this film is that he’s unable to resist the spotlight—he seems to thrive on audience energy and attention. In the movie, he spends his rare “days off” performing secret shows with Jack White, or performing at his Harvard class reunion. Is that something that you learned about him while making Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop? The title seems to imply that.
Well, he says very early on in the film, “I’m like Tinkerbell—without a buzz, I die.” Then, we get to see that. I think that’s true of a lot of performers; that’s part of the DNA in many performers. They need that feedback; they need that applause and laughter. Why that is? I’m not sure. It’d take a team of psychiatrists to study that, take a look at that, and figure it out. But, yeah, that did interest me, and it was one of the biggest things I was interested in capturing. And it was one of the things I edited towards when I was putting the film together.
You must have shot so much material. Was this a tough film to edit?
It was, yeah. There was a lot of material, a great deal of really funny material, some of which didn’t make it into the movie and will provide some great DVD extras. I had to edit it quickly, though, because I knew that I wanted to get the film out while this whole experience was still fresh in people’s minds. I hope this is a movie without an expiration date; I hope that, five or ten years from now, people will still find some things of interest within the movie.
It’s a movie about celebrity, and using comedy to work through feelings. I made it to show how someone who’s in the public eye battles through an incredibly disappointing experience, one that the entire world saw happen. And how his celebrity status and the attention and admiration that come with that helped him work through that experience by providing him with an outlet to do what he loves to do, what he lives to do: perform. Hopefully that’s a universal theme that will give the movie some lasting power.