This is the story of two videos: the one that was supposed to happen, and the one that did.
“Head southwest on Saugerties Manor toward Highway 32 north New York 212 West New York 32 North route 32 North state 32 North state highway 32 North state route 32 North.”
- Google Maps
Those were the instructions as we (Yvonne Leow, Sarah Glen and myself) arrived in Saugerties, NY, on a brief road trip from Manhattan. The little smartphone voice commanded it twice when all we were hoping for was “turn right.” Or maybe left? We laughed it off because we weren’t yet aware of Google’s abilities to give life lessons through metaphor; I think it’s still in beta. And through indecipherable and logically inverted geographic nonsensery, our apoplectic maps app omnisciently hinted at the twists and turns of the days to follow. And we guessed right, which turned out to be correct.
It seemed so simple
We entered into this project with the goal of exploring Jimmy Fallon’s roots, and we took advantage of the proximity of our Manhattan headquarters to Fallon’s hometown. We rented a car and drove upstate to talk to locals about his life before Late Night. But we wanted to do this in a more interesting way than usual. So we decided to forgo the standard interview style video and instead make a parody of Jimmy Fallon’s popular Late Night sketch, slow jam the news — with all appropriate historical interview info in place. Piece of cake, right?
The first problem: Less time than anticipated
Sarah pre-interviewed the teachers before we arrived, and we began incorporating their stories into a rough draft of the script the day before the shoot. But we didn’t have a chance to finish by the time we checked into the hotel, just before midnight. When we finally called it quits, at around 4 or 5 a.m., we still had some shooting logistics to figure out. We discovered earlier in the day that there was no way to get more than 40 minutes with the students. For a shoot that we would never budget less than four hours for, not including location scout and setup, we had the length of one high school class period to accomplish.
The second problem: Much larger cast than anticipated
We arrived about an hour early to get a look at our location, and to unload our equipment. But we couldn’t do much else, as there was a class in our room right before the shoot. On top of that, the 3-4 musicians from the high school band we were hoping for turned into about 50-60. You can imagine how this changed the scale of the composition of what was supposed to be a single shot done in one take. Not to mention our ability to actually hear our teachers talking. That’s a whole lot of high school band.
But these kids were excited. All 50+ of them turning around approval forms from their parents overnight. One of them even made Mr. Fallon a big sign that read “Jimmy Fallon you make us Smile.” You’ll recognize it as the happy face turned creepy face at the closing of the video. And our slow jammers, the two brave non-actor teachers tasked with the responsibility of getting through some lengthy cue cards at eight o’clock in the morning — they had very little time to “get in character.”
The first take (sort of)
After half of one take, we had to cut. It was impossible to hear the teachers through the band, our timing with the cue cards was way off, the planned camera moves and focus shifts were failing, and it was clear that we needed to talk through the material with our cast. We made the decision on the spot to record the band completely separately, and then have them mime their performance behind the teachers when we filmed their dialogue. While the students recorded the slow jam version of their high school song, we took the teachers aside and walked them through the finer points of the script. We coached them and gave them pointers, mostly line reads and explanations of the jokes that may have gone over their heads otherwise. We suggested points of emphasis and some basic stage direction and we returned to our shooting location with less than 10 minutes to finish.
The only full take
We did one complete take of the entire script. That’s all we had time for. Under ideal conditions we would’ve shot them many times, as many as possible, and would’ve gone in from the wide shot to grab doubles and singles to edit in if the one take idea wasn’t working. But we only got one chance before the bell rang and the period was over. Fortunately, our teachers didn’t have a class next period.
Yvonne, Sarah and myself stepped out into the hallway for a quick pow-wow. It was very evident that at that point we did not have what we needed to make a good video. And since we just lost our giant room full of kids, we didn’t have a lot to fall back on. But, maybe because the cafeteria coffee was starting to kick in, we continued to roll with the punches and decided to shoot close-ups of the teachers, even though the kids were gone. One advantage we had was the big smiley face that one of the students created. That smiley was being waved around in the background during the one take we shot. And it became the only movement and visual link to someone else in the room during our close-ups.
There wasn’t much else we could do after that. We got what we got. It was in the can. We spent the rest of the afternoon running around grabbing b-roll of the high school and town. As part of the parody, the idea was to make a cool, Tonight Show-like opening. Flashy shots of Main Street would whip into a busy school hallway and smash-zoom into Fallon’s yearbook photo — all to an upbeat soundtrack and covered with slick graphics. Easy enough.
We almost scrapped it
Comedy, as anyone who has ever attempted it knows, is one of the hardest things to pull off successfully. It’s very subjective. And with our rushed-script, non actors, and compromised production schedule, we were set up for failure. The first time I looked at the footage I decided to come up with a pseudonym for myself. There was no way my name was going on this. I reported back to Yvonne that it might be worse than we thought it was. But she encouraged me to try and string something together. To see if there’s anything good in there at all.
A different video emerges
The longer I stared at the footage, that long raw take, the more flaws I found. It was always the plan to intentionally shoot it in a sort of low budget, community TV-style — the idea being that we could never pull off Tonight Show-level production with our limited crew and equipment. So we embraced our shortcomings. And I started paying more attention to those little looks the teachers gave between cut and action in the close ups. That was the key. While the camera was still rolling between takes, it caught our kind subjects in moments of strict attention, dismissal, exasperation, laughter, frustration, boredom and whatever else could be interpreted via the license creative. Those reaction shots became something I could work with. The moments the teachers weren’t acting, quickly became some of my favorite moments.
I made the decision to take this train wreck and drag it back and forth across the tracks. If this was going to be bad, it was going to be real bad. Every edit from that point forth was made with the highly committed goal of mining humor where there otherwise was none, utilizing the formula: Bad = good. Finding the painfully awkward moments, and turning them into funny awkward moments. The band was recorded separately, and their track didn’t synch. Who cares! In the close up shots it was obvious that the students had vanished. Big deal! The written jokes weren’t landing, but the non-written moments in between were.
I laughed to myself often as I cut this. My team saw me, and I know it gave them some hope that maybe something good was coming. But I really wasn’t sure. I was in that zone somewhere between when you’re really tired and everything is funny, and that feeling of when all is lost and there’s nothing left to lose. So I couldn’t tell if what I was doing was actually funny, or just funny to me. But I kept trusting that initial impulse of bad = good. And that the weird little choices would be funny to at least some small, strange segment of humanity.
Once the slow jam part of the project was finished, there was no way I could build the slick and complex opening sequence we had planned. Our revised opening had to be as low rent as the rest of the piece, or it would stand out in the wrong way. It needed bad fonts, an off-putting Sears portait-style floating Fallon, and random jazz music to cap the absurdity.
The first few people watched and, surprisingly, they all laughed at the right places. They acknowledged that this was, in fact, odd, but laughing cannot be argued. Several people pointed out potential errors, like bad lip synch, inaccurate graphics, and typos – all of which were intentional. The quick answer to the question of “is it supposed to be like that” became: yes. Bad = good. So people got it … mostly. And they stood behind it. I didn’t use a pseudonym, and the piece went out like it was always supposed to be that way.
The final result
What we ended up with feels like a strangely authentic and sweet look at a public high school arts program paying homage to one of their own. Our experience through the project was an unexpected and meandering path of many wrong turns, much like our Google Maps welcome to Saugerties. But we did arrive, eventually, and Jimmy Fallon even Tweeted the video the next day. So yeah, the people of Saugerties High are Twitter-famous now.
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) February 11, 2014
And THAT is how we slow-jammed Jimmy Fallon.