It says something about the enduring popularity of late comedian and Saturday Night Live idol Chris Farley when a documentary bearing his name breaks records. I Am Chris Farley became the most viewed documentary in American network Spike TV’s history when it aired on Aug. 10, gathering 1.5 million viewers. But the documentary’s wholly American tale of a meteoric rise to stardom and a tragic fall from grace couldn’t have been more Canadian, co-produced and co-directed by two Vancouver filmmakers, Derik Murray and Brent Hodge.
Murray is known for directing the Academy Award-shortlisted Facing Ali and Spike TV’s I Am Bruce Lee, which held the network’s previous documentary viewership record. Hodge is known for his critically acclaimed documentary A Brony Tale, which explored the subculture of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fans.
Produced by Murray’s Network Entertainment, in partnership with Vancouver’s Thunderbird Films, Bell Media and Corus Entertainment, I Am Chris Farley garners the Farley family — including brother and comedian Kevin Farley, who co-produced — and a host of actors and comedians who knew Chris Farley best, including David Spade, Bob Saget, Bob Odenkirk, SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels, among others. In vivid testimonies, they recall Farley’s life and career, cut short on Dec. 18, 1997, at the age of 33 due to drugs and alcohol.
“I knew it was going to be a respectful film, there was going to be family involved,” Hodge said in a phone interview. “I knew this wasn’t a tabloid film.”
The process to filming the documentary, which had a budget of roughly $1.2 million US, began with meeting Farley’s family in his hometown of Madison, Wis.
“When we were looking at some of the different icons that we were interested in and we looked at the comedy world, Farley was right at the very top of that mountain,” Murray said. “Brent was the first person I shared my thoughts with. He’d been a Farley fan since he was a young lad.”
“I didn’t think it was real,” Hodge said. “When we went to Madison, all hell broke loose.”
“It was important for these icons to know where we were going with the film,” Murray added. “It was truly a story about Chris’s life. We were celebrating his life and his comic genius. And they were happy to know the family was involved.”
Murray and Hodge echoed much of the sentiment witnessed in the film: That Farley was a people pleaser and a consummate entertainer who couldn’t bear to disappoint anyone — most of all himself.
This lead to a self-destructive cycle involving alcohol and drug abuse, a cycle not unlike the one that took the life of his childhood hero John Belushi.
Through archival clips and carefully edited interviews with an all-star cast, Farley’s life is explored from his childhood years, to his early days at Second City in Chicago, to his explosive performances on Saturday Night Live (especially as motivational speaker Matt Foley), and finally to the disappointing reception his movies Tommy Boy, Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja garnered, which eventually made him spiral to an untimely end.
“It’s his characters that made him timeless,” Hodge said. “These Midwest guys — those are characters people can relate to. That’s why Tommy Boy, as Lorne Michaels says in the film — for a film that was so savaged, it’s funny how it stuck around and it’s on Time magazine’s top 10 comedies of all time. And Matt Foley is the top SNL skit of all time.
“It’s almost the more years we go without Chris Farley we forget how incredible he was. You don’t see physicality like that any more, really.”
I Am Chris Farley will make its Canadian television debut via Movie Central on Sept. 3 at 9:30PM
The film, which toured 30 cities in the U.S. before its Spike TV air date, will screen at Vancouver’s Rio Theatre on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday and Sept. 1. Kevin Farley will be in attendance on Friday and Saturday.
I Am Chris Farley is also available via video-on-demand services and iTunes.