Did we really need a spot-on parody of the 1993 D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus political documentary The War Room? It might not have seemed so at first, but in the hands of Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the answer is definitely yes.
The filmmaking duo are the creators, producers, and directors behind IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now! starring comedians and fellow SNL alums Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. In the last two years, they have honed their skills at satirizing recognizable pop culture favorites (you might remember Thomas and Buono’s previous work from the now-classic SNL Wes Anderson horror movie spoof “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders”). And the IFC series, now heading into its second season, continues to tackle esoteric subject matter while still being ridiculously funny.
The Season 2 premiere episode, “The Bunker, perfectly lampoons Pennebaker and Hegedus’s doc, which chronicled political mavericks and strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. In “The Bunker,” Hader resurrects his ragin’ cajun impression of Carville to play the similarly disgruntled “Mississippi Machiavelli,” Teddy Redbones, while Armisen tackles Stephanopoulos’s suave adolescent awkwardness as Alvin “Boy Hunk of the Beltway” Panagoulious.
Inverse spoke to Thomas and Buono about going beyond being a mere mockumentary, making you forget the real documentaries even exist, and whether you even need to see the original documentaries to think the show is funny.
What do you look for in documentaries you want to satirize?
Rhys Thomas: Initially all documentaries were fair game, but the ones that came into focus had strong central characters who would lend themselves to Bill and Fred. We’ve discovered taking on crazy or funny documentaries are harder for us to do. It’s easier to make serious subject matter funny.
Are there any episode ideas you wanted to do that fell through or didn’t work out because of that?
Alex Buono: When you’re sitting around a table with guys like Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and John Mulaney, it always goes back to having fun with character moments. There was nothing that we could grab onto with the broader documentaries.
RT: We tried taking on bigger stuff like The Staircase that requires many layers of storytelling, but found we couldn’t tell it within the confines of 20-minute episodes. All of the elements that make that documentary interesting are already crazy.
The episodes try to recreate the style of particular documentaries by imitating the editing, using the same film stock or lenses that were used in the originals. What does that layer of specificity add to the show?
RT: We try to treat each episode as if there were specific filmmakers behind that film. If an element of artifice creeps in, it suddenly becomes clear that we’re just servicing a joke rather than a story. Our goal is to be immersive and have everything feel natural. Part of the fun of the comedy is believing the movies and the characters Bill and Fred play actually exist.
Do you always want to keep the actual documentaries like The War Room in mind for reference?
AB: We certainly watched The War Room a lot of times, but when we’re on-set we don’t really say, “Let’s watch this and recreate that scene.”
At some point our own little films depart from the homage so that it’s not parody. It’s more our own versions of those movies if you pretend those movies don’t exist.
What were some of the details you knew you needed to parody from The War Room for “The Bunker”?
RT: Specific references come in when we talk to production designers or costume designers or what have you because we want to build the environment in a complete way.
AB: We looked for so many different offices around Los Angeles for something that looked like the right scale of the war room from the movie that we ended up finding a big office space, and we had to build a wall so that it’d approximate the feeling from the documentary.
Our production designer actually found the same soda machine that was in The War Room, which we used. There’s a fine line between being obsessive compulsive versus the strategy we’re using to get to that reality. It’s not so much about copying it perfectly, but it’s just a way to approximate a time period. If that was there, then it’s accurate and nothing reminds you that what you’re watching in “The Bunker” is fake.
How difficult is it to be “real” but be exaggerated and funny too?*
AB: The War Room was probably the grandfather of the workplace verite-style of shows that became The Office and Parks and Recreation. As we were shooting “The Bunker,” there was a very fine line between what feels like The War Room and what feels like The Office. If a zoom became too snappy and too self aware, or if the camera panned to somebody in a cheeky way, it suddenly became obvious we were doing The Office.
We’re trained in that new style of verite comedy where you can slip into a moment and get a shot, but we had to remind ourselves that’s not what we’re doing and there’s subtle differences that have to separate them. The people in The War Room didn’t know what to expect, and the filmmakers didn’t know who was going to deliver a punchline in a moment.
Do you worry that viewers might not have seen the documentaries you’re trying to parody?
RT: Our ideal goal was to make something that would take you awhile to figure out that it wasn’t a real thing. The story should stand alone, and the suspension of disbelief is what takes you to it. But there’s also a richer experience if viewers know what we’re referencing. We enjoy the idea that people feel great if they catch something like the soda machine from The War Room.
AB: There’s a much larger segment who’s never even heard of any of these documentaries, and nothing would make us happier than if they watched our show and then watched Grey Gardens or The Thin Blue Line after that and think it’s a pretty good movie.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.