Funny Business: James Franco Explores Secrets Behind 'SNL'

Actor/director opens up about his unprecedented access to 'Saturday Night Live'

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As Saturday Night Live broadcast its December 6, 2008 episode, actor-turned-director James Franco was backstage, posing an uncomfortable question to the host. "I had to ask John Malkovich, 'Can I get you changing during the show?' and he said, 'Whatever you like,' " Franco says. "He's the nicest guy."

Franco went from starring in Spider-Man to nabbing footage of half-naked thespians for Saturday Night, a documentary about SNL that started out as one of his student projects for NYU's Tisch program — a seven-minute short about cast member Bill Hader. When Franco approached SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels for permission to shoot behind the scenes, he realized he had a rare opportunity: "Lorne told me that D.A. Pennebaker actually asked once to do a documentary, back in the '70s, and he said no. So I was very fortunate he said yes."

Franco's full-length film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, takes viewers through a full week of SNL madness: Monday's pitch meeting, Tuesday's writing sessions, Wednesday's table read, Thursday's rewrites by committee, Friday's rehearsals and Saturday's dress rehearsal. It's a harrowing process that cast members and writers have learned to navigate via trial and error. "If you give away your joke at the pitch, it's not going to get the response at the table read," Will Forte says. "It's all about the table read."

"We didn't know what would make it or not," Franco says of trying to select sketches to follow in his doc. A bit about a reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons on Broadway (and in a hot tub) called "J'accuzi" seems to make the cut because head writer Seth Meyers lobbies Michaels outside of the usual meetings. Though the finished product of "Jizz in My Pants" is seen in the film, the making-of is not because digital shorts aren't conceived of and created in the space of one week.

"Maybe it'll be one of the extras on the DVD," Franco says, "but there is a scene where legal was trying to clear the word 'jizz' to be on air, and they were thinking 'blank in my pants' could be confused for 'shit in my pants,' so they got it."

Saturday Night, which Franco is shopping around and hopes to release theatrically, doesn't include every backstage moment — Kenan Thompson admits that he was hiding from the cameras, and Kristen Wiig was moving that week and not on-set often. But in all, Saturday Night captures what it feels like to be on the show, Franco says.

"That's the energy of a real week," he says. "These are people that put up a show in one week, and every week, they're coming up with jokes. Who else is doing that? I mean, with this consistency. Of course some casts are better than others, some weeks are better than others, but it's a pretty well run machine, and it seems to me that it's a kind of meritocracy — you come up with funny stuff, and it'll get on the air. So who am I to say how to improve the process?"