How Paul Thomas Anderson Ended Up in 'Documentary Now!'

The famed director can be heard in the 'Stop Making Sense' send-up, "Final Transmission".


The stars of IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now! are and have always been Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. But the series, now in its second season, always gets a little kick of energy when an distinguished contributor pops up on the show. Oscar-winner Helen Mirren adds gravitas by introducing every episode, and filmmaker Cameron Crowe popped up in last season’s finale “The Blue Jean Committee” to sell the reality of the faux-documentary joke that much more. This week’s episode, “Final Transmission,” an incredibly earnest send-up of Stop Making Sense, filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film starring the band Talking Heads, adds an even more intriguing name to the series: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Now, don’t expect to actually see the acclaimed Boogie Nights filmmaker hanging out with Armisen (doing a spot-on David Byrne impression) or Maya Rudolph (as a Tina Weymouth stand-in for their fake band called Test Pattern). Instead, Anderson plays Harrison Renzi, the faux-director of “Final Transmission,” and can be heard asking questions to the intentionally out-of-touch band, which also included Hader as the lowly bass player, from off-camera.

Inverse asked series co-director Alex Buono about how they managed to get Anderson to contribute to the episode, and what it was like directing one of the most well-loved filmmakers in the world.

Why did you want to get P.T. Anderson to be the fictitious director in this episode?

It was an idea we came up with in post-production about who would be this off-camera voice. We imagined this episode, as well as Parker Gail: Location is Everything, being directed by our fictitious version of Jonathan Demme, a guy called Harrison Renzi. Rhys Thomas, my directing partner who has a great Mid-Atlantic BBC voice, was the voice of the off-camera director for a few episodes. But with this one we felt Harrison Renzi isn’t a Brit, he’s really Demme.

It was P.T. Anderson’s familiarity and his personal admiration for Demme that made us think of him. I’d seen a couple of interviews between the two of them and he’s such a superfan of Demme’s work that we thought it would be fun but appropriate for him to do it. It was sort of a pipe dream, and then it was like hold on a second he’s married to Maya so he might do it.

So did you just ask Maya Rudolph, his wife, to see if he’d be up for it?

We asked Fred Armisen, who is close friends with Maya and Paul, if he would reach out to them to see if Paul would do it, and it turns out he was quite happy to do it. Paul’s actual first take was asking why we didn’t just get Jonathan Demme to do it, and we would’ve loved that. We actually reached out to Jonathan Demme a few times in pre-production and didn’t have any luck getting in touch with him. He was busy doing the Justin Timberlake Netflix concert movie, which, ironically, is supposed to be like Stop Making Sense. He’s now certainly aware of the episode.

Did you expect anybody to catch the little detail of P.T. Anderson’s appearance in the episode?

We loved that it was something that wasn’t announced. There was no press release of Paul Thomas Anderson being in it or anything like that. We just love it as a very subtle easter egg, a fun bonus idea, not an up-front advertisement.

Did he record his performance in post-production?

He just recorded his voice asking the questions and sent them to us. We thought we were going to do it in a studio with him, but he asked if he could just record the lines into his phone as a test and if it didn’t work out we could try something else. He did that, and the first pass sounded a little too close to the mic. The second pass he stood farther away from it and it was perfect.

 Director Paul Thomas Anderson (R) and actress Maya Rudolph.

Getty Images / Bryan Bedder

Was there any improv or did he stick to the script?

His part was added after we edited the episode so it was pretty close to the exact lines. But his performance definitely added something to it that our temp performance didn’t have. He did a great job of channelling Jonathan Demme and that kind of filmmaker. “Final Transmission” wasn’t supposed to be a hard-hitting documentary. It was clearly supposed to be made by a huge admirer of Test Pattern, someone who has spent a lot of time with them and who was softly asking questions and genuinely curious. He gave an in-the-moment kind of feel to it.

Was it intimidating directing such a revered filmmaker?

It was very easy, actually. The only note that we gave him at all was about standing farther away from the recording device he used. It had to sound like he was in a room and not being mic’d to fit into the documentary. That was the only real direction he needed or that we gave him. I certainly can’t take any credit for the performance. That’s 100 percent original PTA right there.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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