"I Am Chris Farley" director on the "SNL" star’s legacy and choosing not to dwell on the darkness: "If people want to dig in and do the autopsy of Chris Farley, it’s there. It’s on the Internet"

Co-director Derik Murray spoke to Salon about his love letter to the late great comedy star

Published August 11, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Richard Drew)
(AP/Richard Drew)

In Derik Murray and Brent Hodge’s tear-jerking new Spike documentary “I Am Chris Farley," a slew of famous faces are on hand to pay homage to the late “Saturday Night Live” star, from “SNL” head honcho Lorne Michaels to Farley's comedic peers and mentors Bob Odenkirk, Mike Myers, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Bob Saget, Dan Aykroyd and Adam Sandler. The film is a touching tribute to a man widely remembered as a genius of physical comedy and as a loving, generous, pure spirit, one who is recalled by his peers in almost hagiographic terms. As Michaels put it, praising Farley's innocence and generosity of spirit as a performer, "I used to say that he was the child that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi didn’t have. There was just a joy in everything he was doing."

The film also focuses intently on Farley’s pre-fame life: His idyllic upbringing as a rambunctious, attention-seeking child in Madison, Wisconsin, and his shenanigans at Marquette University as the rugby team's resident hard-drinking party animal and a virtuosic theatrical performer just beginning to come into his own. What emerges is a picture of a man whose comedy was not separate from who he was as a person; rather, Farley was a born entertainer, a larger-than-life personality and a natural team player who sought to spread joy and laughter with everything he did, from getting expelled from school for exposing his penis on a dare to his fearless physical stunts as he rose rapidly through the ranks of Chicago's Second City.

Yet of course, that is only half of Farley’s story. As Odenkirk says in one of the film’s rawest moments, “With Chris, there’s a limit to how wonderful it is to me. And that limit is when you kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. That’s when it stops being so fucking magical.” While the film works as a love letter and an intimate look at Farley's childhood, it is less successful at delving into the darker side of Farley’s nature that ultimately led him to 17 rehab stints and drove him to die of an overdose at age 33, or at interrogating the self-destructive tendencies that were the flip side of the insecurity and self-flagellation that informed much of his comedy. Unlike Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain documentary "Montage of Heck" or Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary "Amy" -- both of which similarly depict self-destructive stars struck down in their prime -- Murray and Hodge paint their subject in a much more positive light, choosing to focus more on the joy he gave to the world and on his enduring legacy than on his dark and troubled inner life.

In a quest to find out more, we spoke to co-director Murray on how the project came to be, his collaboration with Farley's family, and the decision not to dwell on Farley's darkness. As he put it, "That’s not my disposition or interest or purpose on this planet nor is it my co-director Brent Hodge’s .... That other notion of digging dark into that would be someone else’s film."

How did the project come to be?

The thing about Chris Farley was that he was this incredible comic storm on “SNL,” but myself and so many people in my world didn’t know much about him. Yes, he came from Madison and had Second City roots, but beyond that, who was he?

I reached out to the family and actually met [his brother] Kevin Farley in Los Angeles. I met with him a couple of times and they weren’t searching or looking to do a film on Chris. Frankly, the many ways tabloids talked about Chris before and after he passed, his family didn’t feel this was something they were interested in. I had a couple of chats with them, started to build some trust and comfort, and we realized we wanted to make a film on Chris’s life and his comedy. We certainly weren’t going to run away from his addictions, but we wanted to celebrate who Chris Farley was.

Once that was in place it was really wide open in a very Farley style. They embraced us and provided everything from home movies to scrapbooks to lengthy interviews, to Chris’ friends, camp counselors, what have you. They didn’t feel the need to get involved in the creative decisions or take a look at the movie in any particular stage. If we needed something, we’d reach out and if they could help they let us know.

Flash forward, I put the final cut [of the documentary] on Kevin’s desk to watch and I heard silence. That’s always interesting. He finally called me and said, “I watched the film. It took me four hours to recover. I love it.” I was like OK, we are good.

There’s obviously been so much coverage of Farley’s work and his comedic legacy. Was it important to you to show that more personal, familial side?

Absolutely. Particularly when we started to see and understand the story. Going into it, that was a very big part of our mission. But you never know until you dive deep. You don’t know how the story is going to pan out, what access you’re going to get. But as we got deeper into it and the family embraced us, we started to really understand where Chris came from, his roots, what he was like as a kid and teenager.

We spent a lot of time with the family. You get to hear stories about Chris as an elementary school kid taking his shirt off and leading an entire bus in song. It was like are you kidding me? Then you go into high school and he’s typing with his penis.

It all became clear that Chris Farley was born Chris Farley. It wasn’t a career choice. This kid was on fire from day one.

There was a quote in the film from Jon Lovitz saying that not all comedians, in fact most comedians, aren’t necessarily funny when they’re not doing comedy, but everyone in the film seems to agree that Chris was really funny on a very personal level. What do you think it is that made him so instantly endearing to everyone that he met?

I think his childlike innocence. I think his absolute respect for everybody that he met and his absolute embracing — and the way he looked up to people, people who were moderately accomplished or moving ahead in their career or had reached that pinnacle in their career, Chris was in awe. He didn’t ever recognize that he was the guy that people were in awe of.

Lorne says it best on our show: “‘The Chris Farley show,’ that’s Chris Farley.” That’s the guy. You hear Adam Sandler, David Spade talk behind the scenes and they’re all like, Hey, I watch this show because of you, and he’s nervous and happy to meet incredible people.

Here is what it is too. He was the middle child of five kids in Madison, Wisconsin, in a household where the boys were in competition with one another, they were all into comedy, they were all watching the various movies that were coming out in the '70s, they were into Jackie Gleason, they were basically competitive the entire time. And Chris, I think in our film you will see, forged his position there. And his position was I’m going to be the funniest. I’m going to be the most competitive. I’m going to win. That just carried forward.

There are two schools of thought on Farley — there are a lot of people who didn’t like his work because they thought it was just slapstick and sort of of dumbed-down physical humor. Yet your film was very concerned with showing there was true genius and a real intent and skill behind the physical comedy that he was known for.

Oh yes. That’s exactly right. You hear comedy people like Dan Aykroyd talking about his physicality and his sensitivity and his skill level as an actor. If you watch some of these skits — of course we watched many of these skits over and over and beyond what’s in the movie — you see the guy can act. He could really act.

Once you managed to figure out the matrix of how to get people in front of [our] cameras, because, of course, these guys are extremely busy and running around doing movies and TV shows, but once they’re in front of the cameras — that’s what we wanted to see, Chris Farley through their eyes, their experiences, their perception, from everything from him as a friend, him as a fellow actor, a fellow comedian. And we just rolled cameras. I think, to a man, the amount of talent Chris had was respected by some of the most talented people in the world.

Can you talk a little bit about how you got access to all the film’s participants? I know that Lorne, for one, is quite difficult to get his hands on.

What was important to the talent was that [our] intent was to celebrate Chris Farley’s genius and basically bring more of the comedy than the tragedy forward. They understood we were going to go there, but they wanted to make sure our intent was for the best. They wanted to know [that his] family was on board. Once we shared that yes, the family was on board, and here’s the past work we’ve done with icons in a respectful fashion, then the doors started to open.

They were so incredibly accommodating considering their crazy schedules. Lorne, as you can imagine, I interviewed Lorne on a Saturday night in his office an hour before the dress rehearsal. That was the moment he was available and we were ready and we set up and he walked in and we did the interview. And you saw behind him, that’s actually the road map for “SNL” for the season.

He was very forthcoming and surprisingly candid. I don’t know if it’s because Farley was, as the film suggested, somewhat of a son figure to him, someone very dear to his heart.

I think Chris Farley was absolutely somebody that Lorne loved. Dan Aykroyd says it well, Chris’ creativity was never a question for Lorne. It was his lifestyle that Lorne was concerned about.

We asked those kind of questions. We wanted to know what Lorne was concerned about. We wanted Lorne to talk about when Chris had to be sent to Alabama to recover for a period of time. We wanted to know what motivated Lorne to bring Chris back when he was in such rough shape.

You know, everyone talks about "Tommy Boy," such an incredible Time magazine top 10 movie, but the reality is when the reviews came out, they panned it. And what was that like for Chris? [Lorne] was incredibly candid. I thought that Lorne was an instrumental part of this movie, and he was candid about his concerns [about] some of the things that transpired, and that’s, to your point, to some degree refreshing. In my opinion, it’s because of the love he has for Chris, but also the life lessons that all of us can learn in that situation.

At the end of the day, addictions are something that many people fight with and your demise can be such that it doesn’t matter if you’re talented, it doesn’t matter if you’re a comic genius or a rock ‘n' roll singer or a well-to-do businessman — addictions, drugs and alcohol, will kill you.

Obviously Farley was a very complicated person and I got the sense that his need for approval, his low self-esteem and the need to suffer for his comedy — which were all things that made him great — are also what led him to down this self-destructive path.

I think you said it. It’s confidence. It’s like Bob Odenkirk says, “We think you’re incredibly funny. We think you’re a great guy. You’re super-talented,” and Chris would go, “No, I’m not.” I think you’ll see that come up in the film time and time again. He did not believe that the next day he could wake up and do it again.

We’re by no means qualified to dig into addiction, and what happens to people, and why it happens, but I’m an observer and I’m also somebody that can bring forth the stories of those who were there. The one thing I found interesting was that you really get a sense all the way through [the film] that Chris is a team guy. He loved playing football in high school. He loved being part of a team. He loved to do rugby at university. The whole idea of improv was team play — you’re making everybody else great. If you made them great you were great and that’s how the team won.

[The] moment in time where Chris started to go on that path where he really was in danger was when Hollywood said it’s not about the team anymore, it’s all about him. Every director, every studio wanted to give him 6 million, 8 million to do this, to do that. And he’s not part of a team. It’s completely now on his shoulders.

I think that’s where we really start to hear people talk about that weight and how quickly it spiraled. If you really think about it, Chris is on “SNL” from ‘90 to ‘95. That’s five years. ‘95 to ’97 he was leaving “SNL” [and making] “Tommy Boy,” “Black Sheep,” “Beverly Hills Ninja.” That was a two-year period between leaving “SNL” and dying, with a landslide of movies in between.

He was, as we said in the film, at that point in time, struggling through 17 rehabs in two years — and half a dozen movie projects. The math starts to come together pretty quickly.

The film very much felt like a love letter to Farley, but did you ever have any impulses to show more of Farley’s darker side? I expected to see more of his downward spiral, and the film was pretty light on that. How did you make the decision not to delve into that territory?

For us the attempt was to celebrate the life of a comedy genius. I think for us it was about comedy.

If people want to dig in and do the autopsy of Chris Farley, it’s there. It’s on the Internet. He had a tragic ending and he was an addict. We said it loud and clear. Tom Arnold in the movie says, “I said to him, you can’t be a drug addict, an alcoholic, and be fat. Pick one.”

If you go to our movie you’re going to laugh — and, judging by the screenings we’ve done all over North America, you’re going to cry — and you’re going to know the reason behind his death. You’re going to hear it from those who were closest to him. You’re going to feel their pain. And there it is.

We just felt that the details of one night, or this type of detail, in many ways diminished the overall effect. We felt that it was becoming something that was contrasting toward the comedic spirit of Chris and his innocence and those around him.

As a filmmaker you’re always torn. Am I going to go there? Am I going to push this wall? Where am I going to go with it? I think we worked in a way that we wanted the emotional sensibility to come forth in terms of the loss and the circumstance, but not necessarily getting into the autopsy.

I understand the impulse not to be cheap or exploitative. But there are some moments  like the Chippendales sketch, which was celebrated in the film as a high watermark for Farley’s career. In the past some of Farley’s costars, like Chris Rock, have said that that sketch was a dangerous turning point and “one of the things that killed him” because it kicked off this trend of exploiting his weight and his body for laughs. Was there any impulse to explore that more negative side of that performance?

Chris was an incredibly physical presence. That physicality was his strong suit. The fact that he took his shirt off on national television is really the issue. Not the physicality, because he had been doing that his entire career. I guess from the perspective of the folks we interviewed, whether it was Mike Myers or Dan Aykroyd, or Will Sasso who talks about it, that sort of dark side, the idea that that was the demise, that’s where it all began, it never came forward.

Chris, as you hear in the film, from a young age was quite happy to take his shirt off on a school bus, was quite happy to take his penis out in a typing class, quite happy to be naked. This was a pattern.

I think it only really came into question dancing next to Patrick Swayze on national TV, but the reality was it was who he was. It’s not necessarily my favorite sketch. I’m quite partial to Matt Foley. But my god, it’s the sketch that is [part] of the history of comedy, and at the top of the list for many, many people. He had to be brave, there’s no question about it, but it took an incredible amount of skill. You watch that skit and he’s a better dancer than Patrick Swayze, for god’s sake.

Do you think that the intensive physical comedy he was pushed toward in any way contributed to his downward spiral? Do you think his downward spiral was inevitable?

I don’t think the physical comedy pushed him in that direction. I think the demons Chris was carrying with him started at an early age.

He was a great athlete. Chris growing up played football, and in high school he was a varsity football player. When he went to university they didn’t have a football team, so he played rugby at the highest level. Imagine this, you’re going onto David Letterman and you do cartwheels onstage. You’re this giant bear of a man doing cartwheels. And Dave Letterman’s going, "I’ve never seen anything like that in 10 years." So was it taxing on his body? I’m sure it was.

Lorne Michaels and David Spade tell you in the film that Chris didn’t break his fall. He was completely committed. He just went for it. I’m sure over time — we all age — those kinds of thing aren’t particularly good for you, but I did not get the sense from our cast that the physicality of his comedy was something that was preying on him.

I think people in the industry were recognizing that there was so much more to his talent. The fact that the directors and movie roles were coming in were not about "fatty falls down." They were actually more complex and relied on the talent and the genius that he had.

There was a lot of talk in the film about his father being a larger-than-life presence in Chris’ life and his constant desire to please his father. There has been some talk in the past about his father being somewhat of an enabler to him and not freezing his accounts when he should have, and not encouraging him enough to curb his habits. Was that something you heard at all in your research, or something you chose not to include?

Unfortunately his father passed away very shortly after Chris died. There was obviously no access to interviewing the dad. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Midwest, you hear about it, if you’re working at the asphalt company, whether you’re the dad or whether you’re Chris, you would take the boys out for beers and celebrate whatever you were watching, the football game or whatever’s on the tube. There’s that camaraderie. And alcohol does play a part of that, and of course it played a part in university life.

We did not hear direct stories about family members enabling, but we certainly understood and it was clear that the culture that Chris lived in, as did millions of other people, was such that exposure and access to alcohol, and also to just that sensibility of have another drink was where he came from.

It’s a tough one, because people look deep into the reasons, the blame, why it happened. I don’t know. I’m not an expert, but I have had people in my life that were subject to demons and had addictions and I haven’t figured it out. I don’t know anybody in my family who figured it out. Sometimes you feel hopeless and you look for answers. From my experience, they are rarely there. I think he was a comedic genius. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think that he suffered from low self-esteem. I think the spotlight that was put on him very few people on the planet ever had. Very few of us do. I think that’s a triple threat.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Amy Winehouse film that recently came out [Asif Kapadia’s "Amy"]. I was struck by — obviously they are from different generations and different industries and different backgrounds — how there were so many similarities in their stories. They were at similar points in their careers, and they seemed like very sweet people who just couldn’t handle the fame and the pressure of all of these expectations on them. Were you thinking about any other similar stories as you were putting the film together?

The one thing that’s interesting is, when you talk about Amy and Chris, is that they had such a quick rise. They were front and center in their profession. Everything becomes, in a way, a [set of] super-, super-high expectations, but pretty much anything and everything you want is right in front of you. It’s almost sort of handed over to you. I think that very few people are prepared for that.

He had the heart and innocence of a child. He came from a small town, came from a loving, big family, he stepped onto the comedy world in Second City and rose quickly. Rather than going through [the typical] 5- to 7-year period to get to the main stage, this kid did it in a matter of months. Then all of a sudden he’s on “SNL” in New York City. Then five episodes into “SNL” there’s "Chippendales." Boom. The trajectory was out of sight.

Look at the cast he was with. Look at the writers who were in that room. If you have any kind of insecurity — yes you made it, but now that you made it, look at the competition, look at the people in this room. You better be on your game every second of every day. The pressure has to be astronomical.

Had you not had the family working with you, would you have attempted to delve a little bit more into the darker aspects of Chris’ family? Did you ever feel constricted?

No. I never felt constricted at all. Honestly, this wouldn’t be the film without the family. We just wouldn’t have gotten to know Chris. Therefore the motivation would have been, OK, we’re going to show him as a star through the people who worked with him and then dive to the dark side — that’s not my disposition or interest or purpose on this planet nor is it my co-director Brent Hodge’s. We really wanted this story to share about Chris Farley. That other notion of digging [into the] dark, that would be someone else’s film.

By Anna Silman

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