The instincts of the average person, when faced with an occupational dismissal, might be to retreat and lick one’s wounds for a while, or at least enjoy the sort of deep exhalation and no-strings-attached vacation that adulthood rarely affords. When the firing is very public, one would assume some measure of privacy would be additionally important, or desirable. Of course, celebrity entertainers are not always your average folks, even when they really are. So Conan O’Brien, on the heels of being let go by NBC so that they could re-hire Jay Leno to front ‘The Tonight Show’, threw himself into a sprawling, live musical-comedy tour, and agreed to let director Rodman Flender come along for the ride, and document the entire experience. The result is ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’, an engaging, behind-the-scenes travelogue that also showcases the sort of on-the-fly creativity involved in undertaking such a high-wire endeavor. We had a chance to speak with Flender one-on-one recently, and the conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: How, if at all, do you think the Conan an audience sees in your film is different than the Conan they’ve seen for years on television?
Rodman Flender: I’ve known Conan for a long time. We went to college together, so I’ve known him before he became a talk show host. To me, the guy you see in the movie is the guy that I’ve known for 20-plus years. And the TV show… is a projection, but I think it’s geniune, I think it is who he is. People have asked me is this the “real” Conan, and it’s just a different Conan. The guy you see on TV, that comes into your bedroom every night, that’s the real Conan too, doing his job. But he’s real and honest, and I think that’s what his fans connect to. That is why his fans in particular are so loyal — they can pick up on that honesty. And the Conan I filmed is a guy putting a show together, and processing a very difficult time in his life.
ShockYa: How uneasy was Conan talking about his off-screen, real-life feelings, if at all?
RF: I don’t think he was reticent to share those feelings at all. I didn’t have to pry any information out of him, it was very honest. When I pitched him the idea of this film, I said, “I want to capture this process. It’s interesting that you’re legally prohibited from going on television and you’re choosing to do a show. That interests me, and I want to capture the process of putting this show together. I don’t want to do a quote-unquote Conan O’Brien product or something just for the fans, but I also have no agenda. I’m not doing a character-assassination piece, I’m not out to prove anything, I don’t have an axe to grind. I’m not Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, I just want to capture what happens.” So he said OK, and there were no rules, that was it. I was very upfront about what I wanted to do, and he accepted that.
ShockYa: Conan submits to show direct interviews early on, but there aren’t really a lot of chats with his colleagues and peers. Did you ever feel like those could have been used to flesh out his motivations and personality even a bit more?
RF: Well, I was interested in his process, and how he used his art and used comedy to work through a weird and difficult time. I was interested in how an artist improvises at a very unexpected crossroads in their career. That’s what I focused on, so I just stayed with him.
ShockYa: As to the editing, I imagine you had an abudance of material. How difficult was it shaping it, and how did it perhaps differ from other projects in the past?
RF: It was a challenge. But I knew I had to get this together quickly, because even though I hope I have a movie that can still be of interest five or 10 years from now, I knew I wanted to get it out while people still knew and cared about what happened to him with ‘The Tonight Show’, and while the tour was still fresh in people’s minds. So I did have to edit very quickly, to make sure that what was going on was still fresh. But I hope that this isn’t a movie with an expiration date. I hope that I address other themes as well, themes of improvisation and celebrity, that will still be of interest 10 years from now.
ShockYa: At one point in the film, fans send Conan a pizza decorated to look like a masturbating panda. What were some of the most unusual fan encounters you witnessed?
RF: Well, that was one of them. That was unexpected. And Bonaroo was pretty crazy, because of the heat, and also seeing how loyal his fans were — that they waited outside that tent in 95% humidity and 90-whatever-degree heat… that show was very interesting, and unique. Everyone was drenched in muck and sweat. That was different.
ShockYa: The tour stretched out for well over a month. Did you travel with them the entire time?
RF: I dropped in and out. I was there for all the rehearsals, and putting it together. And then I was with him for the first leg of the tour, which was on the West Coast. Then I missed a bit of the midwest, as I went back to the editing room and started editing what I had sh0t, to see what I had, and also raise the funds to finish it. I joined up with him again when he hit the East Coast — Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, those cities, and Atlanta, which was the last city on the tour.
ShockYa: How did the tour take shape differently from perhaps what expectations you had going in?
RF: I didn’t know what the show was going to be. Certain elements were wholly formed in Conan’s mind almost immediately, like “Poke Salad Annie,” and the first big musical number of the show and how he was going to change those lyrics. Conan and I are both big Elvis fans, and I don’t know if you saw the documentary film ‘Elvis: That’s the Way It Is’, but that [song] was a big part of his show in that. So as a documentary filmmaker it was great to capture that, and reference that other [work] in a way. But I didn’t know what Conan’s show was going to be, and that was kind of why I made the movie — to see how it was going to come together.
ShockYa: You mentioned not having an axe to grind, which obviously wouldn’t suit this film well. But were documentaries always something you were interested in, occupationally?
RF: No, not necessarly. When I was first growing up, documentary films were like medicine — they were all about some historical tragedy, or about pandas or nature. Then I was exposed to movies like ‘Don’t Look Back’ or ‘Demon Lover Diary’, and I [discovered] that documentaries could be much more than that.