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Brent Hodge made a splash at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival with A Brony Tale, his documentary that explores the strange and close-knit world of the Bronies, men of all ages who love My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. His poignant and nonjudgmental love letter to this community caught the eye of Derik Murphy and Virgil Films, who offered him the opportunity to direct I Am Chris Farley, a documentary examining the life of the talented and beloved comedian.
Hodge, of course, agreed and immediately embarked on a whirlwind research and production schedule. Almost overnight, he went from interviewing Bronies to heartfelt conversations with the likes of Lorne Michaels, David Spade and Mike Myers, all of whom wanted to do one thing—remember their amazingly funny and kind friend, Chris. Eighteen years have passed since Farley’s tragic death at 33 due to a drug overdose, so a project of this kind was long overdue. With the complete cooperation of Farley’s family and friends, Hodge and his co-director Murphy set out to tell Chris’s story—from his early days as a small-town Wisconsin kid to the heady years of Hollywood stardom—in an intimate, honest and hilarious way, just as Chris would have wanted.
Tribeca: How did you initially get involved with the film?
Brent Hodge: Right after A Brony Tale, Network Entertainment/Virgil Films got in touch with me. They had previously made great documentaries like I Am Steve McQueen and I Am Bruce Lee, and they initially wanted to talk to me about an Evil Knievel project. I really don’t know anything about motorcycles. Then they mentioned that they were working on a Chris Farley film, and I knew that was a project that I wanted to be a part of. We started making the movie around this time last year when we went up to Wisconsin to meet Chris Farley’s family. Our second interview after the family was David Spade, and then we went on to talk to a bunch of other friends who just wanted to pay tribute to Chris, a great guy who just happened to be an amazing comedian.
Tribeca: What was it like working with Derik Murphy?
BH: It was great. He owns Network Entertainment and has made so many great documentaries. He was the producer, co-director and executive producer of this film—he wears a lot of different hats. I’m so honored he trusted me with this opportunity. He’s actually tone-deaf and I’m color blind, so together we made a perfect team. [Laughs.] We split up the interviews and spent as much time as we could in the edit room together. It was a pleasure to collaborate with him.
Tribeca: It’s a lot of responsibility to take on an icon like Chris Farley. Did you find yourself intimidated by the task?
BH: It was intimidating at the beginning. I had never interviewed celebrities before, only Bronies. I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, actually. You know that scene where he’s impersonating the doctor and all the nurses are looking at him, expecting him to start the surgery, and he’s just in the back pretending that he knows what he’s doing? That was basically my first day. [Laughs.] I quickly realized that making this film was no different from making any other film. People were ready to share their memories of Chris and find closure, so it wasn’t that hard to get them to open up. Enough time had passed; Chris has been gone for 18 years now, which is insane. All I had to do was to listen.
Tribeca: Which of Farley’s characters is your favorite?
BH: I love all his SNL stuff, of course. I could name 10 of the SNL characters he created that are iconic. He was so on and so fully committed. However, I think my favorite role of his has to be the bus driver in Billy Madison. It’s a small part, but I remember watching him in that film when I was a kid and knowing even then that he was special. He had 3 or 4 lines in the film, but he was the star in my eyes. My favorite scene is when he and Norm McDonald steal all of the school kids’ sandwiches and eat them while laughing. It could have been a throwaway scene, but Chris Farley is just so brilliant that it’s my favorite thing he ever did.
Tribeca: You include never-before-seen home movies of Chris that his family provided. Can you talk about working with the Farley family to complete this film?
BH: There were absolutely incredible. The family still lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Chris’ mother, Mary Anne, is still alive, and his three brothers-- Tom Jr., Kevin and John-- and his sister, Barbara, were all cooperative. While we were in Wisconsin, we even went to a comedy show of Kevin’s one night. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Wisconsin, but it’s a lot like Canada where I am from so we more than fit in. We were able to talk to some of Chris’s old high school friends and his rugby buddies and got photos and videos of him in action. Because of the Chris Farley Foundation, the family had this incredible box of Chris’s keepsakes. We went through every photo and journal and discovered, among other things, that Chris had dreams of being a sportscaster when he was little. His family and friends gave us full access to include what we wanted in the film.
We knew we also wanted to take note of the time Chris spent at Chicago’s Second City Theatre and at the Ark Improv Theatre in Madison, and we were able to get footage from both theaters. Ultimately, we had so much material that the challenge was narrowing everything down. Chris’s family made a ton of home videos—like all families did back then. I’m scared that people nowadays don’t do that enough. We take photos on our iPhones, but we don’t document things like we used to.
Tribeca: Have the Farleys seen the final product? What was their reaction?
BH: I know Kevin Farley saw the film. He took an hour to really soak it in and came back and told us he loved it. That was a great feeling. He just needed to reminisce about his time with Chris and consider what could have been. I would imagine that film is hard for the family to watch, but at the same time, comforting. Chris touched so many people in his short life. Tribeca: I can understand how tough it must be for the family to watch some of the footage knowing the tragic outcome.
However, they have a “Farley way” that they live by, which is, "You don’t put people down, you bring people up.” They are so warm. They love to hug and have a good time. [Laughs.] That’s how they deal with everything.
Tribeca: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Chris Farley?
BH: I think I went in hoping to find out why his life ended the way it did. We all know about his drug abuse. I thought he might have had a bad childhood or had something dramatic happened to him when he was younger, but I discovered absolutely nothing like that. Chris had a wonderful upbringing by a supremely supportive family. He had devoted friends who stood by him until the end. His story really makes you think about the power of addiction and the mystery surrounding its roots. We always want a Hollywood reason as to why people do things, and I learned that we don’t always find the answer in real life.
Tribeca: Out of all the people you interviewed, is there a particular story that stands out in your mind?
BH: Everyone was extremely open and ready to talk about Chris. You hear stories of celebrities being prickly, but that wasn’t the case here. We got to talk to everyone from Lorne Michaels to Adam Sandler, but as a young director and a Canadian, interviewing Mike Myers was the highlight of my career. First of all, he’s Mike Myers, and he’s just a small-town kid from Ontario. He moved to New York and made it big—but he’s still just this Canadian kid. [Laughs.]
Tribeca: He made a great documentary himself recently —Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, which premiered the same year at Tribeca as A Brony Tale.
BH: Yes! I think I might have even seen it for the first time at Tribeca. During our hour-long conversation, Mike and I even talked a little about documentary filmmaking. It was so unreal.
Tribeca: I’m really interested to hear what Lorne Michaels has to say about Chris.
BH: I remember his team told us, “Lorne wants and needs to be involved in this.” We would have waited forever to talk to Lorne, but he made time for us right away. He was phenomenal. Lorne’s such a great guy and really loved Chris. He saw him in Second City in 1989, watched his impact on the audience, and told him he was going to be on SNL. Chris didn’t even have to audition—he just went straight to the show. Chris Farley made the leap from the main stage of Second City to Saturday Night Live faster than anyone else. It only took him 18 months.
Tribeca: That’s incredible.
BH: His entire career moved with incredible speed. One of his first four episodes on SNL included the famed Chippendales sketch with Patrick Swayze, and things just skyrocketed from there.
Tribeca: "The Gap Girls" is, hands down, my favorite SNL sketch of all time.
BH: The thing about Chris Farley is that his comedy stands the test of time. I think that is because he is so physical and so vulnerable. He left it all out there. 'Gap Girls' is just as funny today as it was back in 1993. You still can watch Tommy Boy and just lose it. From what I learned in making this film, Chris Farley was exactly the same on and off camera—always hilarious and raw. Everyone had incredibly funny stories to share about Chris. For instance, one time he was at a bar and saw a kid drop his fork. Chris did a somersault over to the fork and picked it up and gave it back to the kid [laughs]. Everything was a bit! I would have loved to meet him.
Tribeca: What did you have to leave on the cutting room floor?
BH: I would have loved to have included more of his characters from SNL. We got "The Gap Girls" in there, but couldn’t fit sketches like “Lunch Lady Land.” We couldn’t really go into his later films, but those are still worth watching. There were so many really funny personal stories — one from when he was at Marquette University —that we had to leave out. The edit room was all about finding a balance. Derik put it best: “We want to make the audience laugh and cry, feel sad for him, but always celebrate the amazing legacy he left behind.” Plus, we couldn’t make a 10 hour movie. [Laughs.]
Tribeca: You get a sense of the power of the film from the trailer, which exploded online with over 4 million views in no time. Can you talk about that impact?
BH: You know, you make movies in an editing suite by yourself and sit in dark rooms for months and months. You expect 300 people to sit in a movie theater to watch it, but to have something like 4 million views and counting? That’s unreal. That’s like, the population of New Zealand. It’s staggering. To think that many people have watched something I’ve had a hand in and that we worked so hard on is unreal. Whoever invented the YouTube counter is the smartest person alive. [Laughs.] I just hope he or she is a millionaire by now.
Tribeca: I remember seeing GIFs of your trailer everywhere the day it was released. People are changing the way they consume media. Do you think now — as a filmmaker and an artist — you have to think in those “GIF-able” moments?
BH: We definitely thought about soundbites. The people we interviewed — both celebrities and Chris’s old friends and family —wanted to give us those great quotes and meaningful insights. It was interesting to see the internet’s reaction. People already did their own sort-of remixes of the trailer, which was really cool. GIFs are art in their own way. Pulling a photo and putting a great quote on it is art. Art inspires art and that’s kind of neat. Plus, the GIFs promote the film — never a bad thing. [Laughs.] We’re also releasing 10-15 seconds spots, and it was interesting to try and tease Chris’s story out of that amount of time.
Tribeca: How do you think Chris Farley would manage the world of social media?
BH: You know a lot of people put up a front, but that wasn’t Chris Farley’s way. He was like a big kid. I don’t think there would be one negative thought in his Twitter feed. It would all be positive and kind. His feed would have been something you would have wanted to look at and absorb. I don’t think you can say the same thing about everyone in this world.