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Conan O'Brien tour documentary premieres at SXSW Film

Dale Roe

At the end of his final appearance as host of "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien bid farewell to his studio audience and millions of fans watching at home.

"I've had more good fortune than anyone I know," he said, "and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we'll find a way to make it fun."

O'Brien's next gig, a 30-date nationwide concert spree he tagged as the "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour," played larger venues than convenience store parking lots (it landed at the Austin Music Hall in March 2010), and it was most definitely fun.

The tour was chronicled by 47-year-old filmmaker Rodman Flender, a steadily working television and feature film director and contemporary of O'Brien's. The result is the documentary "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," which is slated to have its world premiere March 13 during the South by Southwest Film Festival. Both Flender and festival representatives have said that O'Brien is planning to attend the premiere.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Flender about the film. Here is the text of our conversation:

American-Statesman: Were you a Conan fan before you made this film?

Rodman Flender:Yes, I was. I knew Conan before I made the movie, also.

You did? How did you know him?

We were at Harvard at the same time, and we were on the Harvard Lampoon at the same time.

Were you at all surprised when Conan got David Letterman's old job as host of "Late Night"?

No, I wasn't. Conan was always incredibly talented. I think I've always had a pretty good eye for seeing talent, and he was incredibly talented at college. He was incredibly talented on the Lampoon, and I always knew something like that would happen. It was just a matter of time.

Did you directing this documentary spring from your relationship with Conan?

When Conan started to get this tour together, I thought it was just too interesting a time and too interesting an experience to not capture somehow. So I kind of pitched the idea to him and then he thought about it. And then he called me — I was actually in New York working on another documentary — and he said, "You know, I have an idea about a documentary about the tour!" And I said, "Oh, that's a really good idea you have!" (He laughs.) So, it kind of all really came together at the same time.

Were you on the tour from the beginning?

I started shooting before the tour. I started shooting right when he was getting the idea together — right when he started having writers' meetings and rehearsals. And then I was with him for the first few stops ... and then I was off for a little while. I started to edit what I had and then I jumped back on and joined them again. When you see the movie, you'll see the various stops throughout the tour that I captured.

Austin?

I didn't make Austin, unfortunately. But I wanted to film Austin because I knew the venue and I knew it would be a great crowd. And I love Austin. It's actually my first time at South by Southwest, but I've been a big Austin fan for a long time.

Tell me about the film.

It's really about his experience. It's not a concert movie, and that was never something i wanted to make. I honestly wouldn't know how to make that if asked. I could probably figure it out. When Conan and I started talking about this and he said he wanted a documentary of the tour, I told him "Look — if you want a movie like ‘U2 Live at the Rose Bowl,' a real multicamera concert film, you've got the wrong guy. I'm not interested in that. I'm more interested in the process and what this will do to you and where you're at." And he said, "OK." And, hopefully, that's what we wound up with.

But there is some onstage footage.

Oh, absolutely. We did film several of the performances and kind of wove them into the movie. It is a journey, and I hope you'll see the difference between the opening night and the closing night in this journey across the continent that Conan experiences.

Was Conan's mindset during this tour different from other times you've spent with him?

I think that is why I made the movie. That was one of the interesting things about this point in time and this point in his career. He had never done a tour like this before. He had done live shows, but he never really did a whole tour from city to city. Hopefully the movie will be able to answer that question better than I can articulate it.

What's your favorite thing about the film?

There are many elements about the movie that interest me. One of them, as I have said, is Conan and where he himself is at. As he says in the movie, it's kind of an improvisational time in his life. So capturing him at that moment, I think, is very interesting. This tour was put together in, like, a month. It's amazing how quickly they got it together — that interests me, too, that whole kind of Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland "hey — let's put on a show!" element to it. It's inherently dramatic to see how they pull that off, and that's why I wanted to start shooting as early as I did.

I was impressed by Conan's mastery of social media and the tour and the methodical, creative steps he took to keep his name out there and to grow and fire up his fan base. It's hard to believe that elements of that were thrown together on short notice.

Well, I think, as you'll see in the movie, I think it was mutual. I think it was a two-way street. The fans fired him up as well. I think that show of support and that kind of grassroots show of support that did crop up on the Internet and the Facebook group — I think that really moved him as well, to see that. It went both ways.

Do you talk to any fans in the film?

Not really, no. I was more interested in Conan's journey. But having said that, I did speak to fans and they're a very great, supportive group of people.

Were any restrictions placed on your access?

No. I was in his dressing room. I was everywhere. So I really didn't feel restricted.

Well, hopefully we won't see too much from his dressing room.

Right. (He laughs.)

'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop'