“I Wanted to Do for Adam What Demme Did for David Byrne [in Stop Making Sense]”: Steven Brill Talks About Directing Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh
Adam Sandler may have chosen to title his Netflix stand-up special Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh as an impudent jab at the critics who consistently trash his comedies, but it’s garnering the actor some of the best reviews of his career. (As I write this, it’s not quite 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — just an impressive 92%.) That’s deservedly so, given that the special contains Sandler’s funniest and most wide-ranging material in years. The act, written by Sandler with an assist from Paul Sado and Dan Bulla, veers back and forth between razor-sharp observational material, unapologetically juvenile (and hilarious) obscenity, and downright surreal performance art and musical parody, all of which the performer juggles with expert pacing and precision. The content is consistently inventive and funny (and ultimately surprisingly touching), but what really places 100% Fresh a cut above the usual TV performance special is the way in which that content is presented by director Steve Brill, a frequent Sandler collaborator who takes advantage of his familiarity with the actor’s physicality to build a uniquely cinematic experience around him. This is no mere recording of a performance, but a film in which the performer and camera interact in a kind of perfectly choreographed dance. (It’s appropriate that Brill counts Bob Fosse among his influences.) The rhythms are expanded and deepened by editing that jumps between venues, formats and even aspect ratios. Yet somehow it retains a tonal consistency.
Filmmaker spoke with Brill a few weeks after the special’s premiere to ask about his audacious approach, what he hoped to accomplish and how he got Paul Thomas Anderson to serve as his director of photography for a night.
Filmmaker: One of the things I liked about 100% Fresh is that it was a real movie, the way Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and Swimming to Cambodia were real movies. When did you and Sandler first talk about doing it, and what kinds of conversations did you have about what you wanted it to be?
Steve Brill: Adam had started to do stand-up again after 20 years and he was getting his act together in the clubs. He has this deal with Netflix and knew they would want a special, but he wasn’t in a huge rush to do it because he had to get comfortable with the act. After about seven months of working on the act on his own, we started talking about what a special could be. I think it was about a year ago, because there were fires then, too; we both evacuated down to Laguna Beach. We stayed in a hotel room there, and that’s where we started discussing the special: what it could be, how it had to be different, how it had to be ours, how it had to be rock ’n’ roll. In my mind, it had to live up to be what I consider Adam’s talent and personality; I wanted to do something that framed him properly, because I’ve been a fan of his for 30 years. I always thought he was one of the best stand-ups I ever saw, even when he was a kid.
So when you mention Stop Making Sense, I wanted to do for Adam what Demme did for David Byrne in that movie. When that came out in 1984, I was already a fan of rock ’n’ roll documentaries like The Song Remains the Same and The Last Waltz, which I saw as midnight movies. I might have seen those 25 times each and really appreciated what they were as great visions of the performers, with cultural elements around them and a strong point of view. Then when I saw Stop Making Sense, I thought it was the greatest movie I had ever seen as far as capturing a performance. There’s this ineffable sort of quality that you get when you connect the right filmmaker with the right material; it’s the passion, the care, the consideration. That’s what happened in Stop Making Sense. There’s a subtle build as Demme shows you who David Byrne is — his personality, his quirks, his material. He comes out alone, and then the band comes in, and the material builds, and it ends up as something joyful and emotional and everything you could want. Like me, Adam loved Stop Making Sense growing up, so we talked about it a lot, the way David Byrne moves and controls the stage. It was really instructive and beautiful to watch, and I think Adam was inspired by watching David Byrne and I was inspired by watching Jonathan Demme.
Filmmaker: That idea of emotional build is one of the things that surprised me about 100% Fresh. It’s so elegantly structured and ends up being surprisingly touching when you get to the songs about Chris Farley and Sandler’s relationship with his wife. How much of that structure was planned in the shooting and in Sandler’s performance, and how much did you find in editing?
Brill: The sequencing was, with boundaries, pretty wide open, but there was a general super structure that came from narrowing Adam’s act. We went on the road and worked on the act first. In fact, we went on a whole ten-city mini-tour and I filmed it all, but we didn’t use any of it — it turned out to be just practice. That was incredibly helpful. We went out with five REDs and a cinematographer named Giles Dunning, who’s really great and [has] done a lot of rock ’n’ roll. I got to figure out where I liked the camera, and where Adam liked the camera, and which moves are just too stock; you shoot them and you look at them and ask, “What is this jib arm move that goes over the audience at the guy on stage?” It’s a weird, totally inorganic move that feels like a transition to a commercial, and there are certain traps like that in specials that make them feel similar. I was able to weed those out and not put energy toward things I didn’t like. I figured out what focal lengths worked; I wanted to be farther back than other specials, because you get that texture, you get more drop off, you get that area between the lights and the background. And the lenses were pretty long because I didn’t want to crash Adam that much. I’d rather give him his space. I always had a Steadicam, though, and a RailCam, which is subtle and awesome and I highly recommend it for anyone who can afford it. Get a RailCam system; it’s essentially a dolly right at the foot of the stage that goes the whole length but can also boom and swivel back at the audience, and it’s silent.
In terms of the structure, the act happened to be a two-hour presentation of the material, but we knew the special was going to be one hour, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. We were never going to release a two-hour concert movie. We knew where it began, and where it ended, with “Farley,” and “Grow Old With You.” We knew we wanted to get a mix of Adam’s different types of standup and his music, and we instinctively felt that some of his more surreal jokes played well in intimate spaces like Largo here in L.A., so that led to the idea of building the special from small to medium to big, both visually and in terms of the material. His act contained intimate emotional stories as well as big sing-along type songs and anthems, so we thought we would follow that progression from the small clubs to the arenas, in the back of our minds thinking that if we could cut back once in a while, that would be cool. Then the editing room is where we found a lot of leeway as far as what we can actually call back to and build, and we intercut more than I originally thought we would. Because the audience is along with Adam, and Adam is consistent in his performance.
Filmmaker: It’s a really great blend of rock ’n’ roll spontaneity and total precision, which is where I think the movie earns its place alongside those other concert films you mentioned. Did you have any, for lack of a better word, rules or guiding principles about how to organize and shape the material?
Brill: I certainly felt that the intercutting should slow down by the end, that by the time you get to “Farley” you want to land with him a little more. My first thought was, we’re never going to intercut a joke. I didn’t want to cut line by line and leave a venue in the middle of a joke. And there were chunks of material, like when Adam was talking about his dad, where I felt like we want to stay in the venue. Then when we started putting it together I found that we could be a lot more open to cutting, and that it helped me with what I wanted to achieve in terms of capturing Adam’s connection with the audience. Moving from venue to venue wasn’t distracting, it was elevating, because it confirmed the connection Adam had with audiences everywhere he performed. At home you feel like you’re going to all these different places with him and sharing the same experience with all of those audiences, who love him.
Filmmaker: The editing really connects the viewer at home, not only to Sandler but to his audience. What about the actual shooting, what was your philosophy about the visual language there?
Brill: It’s tough, because you’re certainly not reinventing the wheel. As much as you can go out and say, “I’m gonna shoot a concert like no one’s ever done it before,” there are only so many places to put the camera, and everyone’s [already] shot in those places. It’s not about that. You’re not going to discover a new visual narrative, except possibly in the editing, which I think we were able to do. I looked at it the way I look at a dramatic film, like I’m capturing an actor doing a monologue. I know Adam’s face and the way his body moves from working with him on so many movies, and I want to present that as fully as possible. It’s why I use a lot of head-to-toe shots instead of just cutting him off at the knees the way a lot of directors might. I was very influenced by Bob Fosse, since his movies are all about theater and theatrical performance. That’s why the lights behind Adam are kind of throwback showbiz lights. I wanted that Fosse style of presentation that I loved growing up watching his movies.
Filmmaker: How did you choose Andrew Wehde as your cinematographer?
Brill: I was thinking about concert movies I had liked recently, and both Bo Burnham and Chris Rock’s had Drew’s name on them. I loved Bo’s specials in particular, the way they were theatrical but very intimate with a lot of really thought-out design elements. So I just called Drew up, and we got his lighting designer Marc Janowitz over to design the look for the tour. We did a whole tech tour without performing, just scouting every location and building different looks for different venues, and creating a set that could be carried from place-to-place. And then sometimes we abandoned the set. There was one theater in Cincinnati that I just fell in love with, because it has these beautiful bones. I saw it and said, “We’ve got to do Stop Making Sense here” — expose the back, put practical stuff around and look up into the joists and rafters…we got these gorgeous warm tobacco tones out of it.
Filmmaker: And then you had Paul Thomas Anderson as your director of photography for one of the L.A. nights, right? How did that come about?
Brill: I met Paul back when we were shooting Little Nicky in … what was it, 1999? We were shooting at Paramount and Adam said, “Oh, that guy who did Boogie Nights is coming over. He wants to talk to me about some movie, and he’s a big fan of yours.” I’m like, “What?! The guy who did Boogie Nights is a fan of mine? From what, Heavyweights?” And Adam says, “Yeah, Heavyweights.” I thought, “Okay, whatever,” but then Paul shows up and says, “Man, I loved Heavyweights,” and I was like, “Oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever.” Because even then, when he had only done Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, everyone knew this was the guy. Great filmmaker. He showed up at Little Nicky and hung out, and he and Adam became friends and did Punch-Drunk Love and stayed friends.
Paul loves comedy and he loves music, and he’s sneakily shooting little music things all the time. When we started working on the special, Phantom Thread came out, and there is nothing more exciting to me than a new PTA movie. Even though I know him and am friends with him, I’m still in awe of him, I’m still more a fan than anything else. With Phantom Thread I felt like he had taken it to a whole other level, and the fact that he was his own director of photography got me thinking maybe I could get him to shoot for me. Not the whole special, I knew he wouldn’t do that, but maybe a night at Largo. He showed up there one night when Sandler was performing and I just threw it out there: “Hey Paul, how would you like to shoot a night?” His eyes sort of lit up, which was the first good sign. Then he goes, “Film?” And I go, “Yeah, film.” I joked, “Think about it, we could get you a good day rate out of this,” and he laughed and thought about it. And then I just kept pressuring him. We went out on tour, we came back. I told him we had these nights at Largo, though ultimately that didn’t work out because of the fire marshals — it’s a boxy theater without enough exits and stuff. But I thought, maybe if we find another place I can get him involved. I would email him places in the Valley that I knew he knew as a kid, then finally I just said, “How about we find a rock and roll place in Hollywood, like the Troubadour, and just make it look as cool as we can?”
We came upon the El Rey, which is a rock club but it’s also an old theater, an old movie house. It had everything we needed for shooting, and Paul finally said yes and we got every person who could load film that was available — we had six film crews around each camera, loading ten-minute mags. We didn’t stop, we just staggered the cameras and shot 80,000 feet of film. We had a day of prep and a day of shooting, and it was an absolute blast. It was the only night we shot on film and it cost more than the rest of the special, but it was worth it. It was an indulgence, I guess, but it looked gorgeous and we got some of those Paul Thomas Anderson wide-angle straight-in moves. He wanted to push in on Adam from the center of the theatre, which normally you can’t do because there’s no aisle directly in the middle of any venue. But in this place we were able to create the pit and the aisle and put a dolly in there. We did a tech rehearsal day with Adam that’s actually in the movie; it’s the first thing we open on, a camera test with Paul operating the dolly.
Filmmaker: Was six cameras standard for the other nights?
Brill: No, no. At the beginning when we were doing clubs, there were maybe five cameras in each one because it’s all they would take, plus maybe a GoPro or something backstage, or mounted. But when we went to the medium theaters, it went up to about ten cameras. Then the arenas were up to 16 cameras and two cranes. We used Red Heliums for the meat of the special, but we had supplemental cameras: Sony F55s, A7s, DSLRs, [plus] we had an iPhone in the subway. The PTA stuff was Panavision bodies and lenses. It was great but crazy when we got to editing, because every night we shot was the equivalent of a feature film — 16 cameras shooting two hours. We were beyond terabytes into words I had never even heard before. It was a lot of footage, and we had to be very aggressive about laying it down and finding the movie. We couldn’t just casually go through everything. We set up three editing rooms immediately and started making hard choices. There were 15 people in three rooms ready to go, and I said, “We just have to follow our tastes and our instincts and start putting things together. Maybe it won’t even work at all, we’ve just gotta go for it.” It was a mad, mad dash, because we had to get the movie cut in a couple months before Adam went off to shoot a movie in Europe. I’m amazed it came together in the amount of time it did, but it turned out great.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.