On Making Harmontown

Neil Berkeley's documentary Harmontown, about Community creator and show runner Dan Harmon, premieres tomorrow night at the SXSW Film Festival.

Halfway through shooting, the subject of my new movie turned to me and said, "Ya know, it occurred to me last night that I'm not changing. I've experienced some things but those are just accumulations. I'm 40 years old ... I'm not gonna change. So you don't have a story. What are you gonna do?" My first thought was, "you ass hole." I had met this guy a month earlier, agreed to shoot his tour for a documentary and here we are in a parking lot in Kansas City and he's telling me that he's not going on a journey. Beyond that, only minutes before, he announced to the world that not only is he not the hero but, in fact, he is the villain of this story. We had four more days of shooting left and I only had half a story.

I've quickly learned that that's the problem with telling a person's story right in the middle of them actually going through it. From what I can tell Dan has accepted calls, crossed thresholds, battled dragons and now he's gotten everything he's ever wanted in life and according to Joseph Campbell he's about to pay a heavy price. I'm not going to say that it's going to be bad ratings, heavy drinking or this movie that are going to finally send him into the low point of his journey but if story circles are real then he's about to find out that (point metaphor)...

But then again maybe not. Dan makes a very real, very honest point when he looks into the camera and admits to me that he's all changed out. Good or bad this is who he's going to be and as long as he's honest about that to his friends and fans we're all allowed to decide whether we want this person in our lives. You see, people's lives don't follow structure and we don't go on a journey. We don't cross thresholds, we don't meet goddesses and we don't return to our villages with elixir. We may occasionally be heroes and sometimes villains but mostly we're just people ... Truth is we're mostly extras.

So that's where I found myself six months into the editing process ... Lost in a non-story with a non-hero/villain trying to find an ending. Then Dan gave me video he had recorded during one of the final days of the tour.

Several days after our conversation in the parking lot Dan went to the bus by himself late at night to drink and get things off his chest. He sat alone in the bathroom with a cup of vodka and a lipstick camera hanging from his ear. I wish this movie could be three hours long because it's possibly 45 minutes of the most fascinating dialog I've ever heard. Dan dives deep below the surface of the bottom of the well and admits to every flaw, every false-hood and every fractured aspect of his role in the relationships with the people he loves the most. He looks himself in the eye and tells himself that he's not the hero, he's gotten everything he's ever wanted and the fans need to know that he's not who they think he is. Most importantly, he realizes that that's no way to live and he admits to wanting to want to change ... To grow up.

Harmontown is a portrait. It's not an expose or an exploration. Dan is incredibly aware of all his flaws so there's nothing he could see on screen that would cause a sea change. It's meant to show the world who this person is and what he does but most importantly its meant to show why anyone would pay attention. Dan does speak to a group of people that find his honesty and his openness refreshing. He gathers them into a community and empowers these people who aren't normally asked to be powerful. From the minute I met them at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood I have been fascinated by them, and telling that story has been my goal. Dan's ultimate message is for everyone to be honest with one another so any movie about him or anything he does that doesn't meet that expectation will have fallen short. I think Harmontown measures up to that expectation, and for me, it's an incredibly fun/sad, dark/humorous, non-story about a non-hero, maybe-villain worth telling.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and SXSW, in conjunction with their annual festival (March 7-16, 2014, in Austin, TX.). To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on SXSW Music, Film and Interactive, click here.