Remembering the Late, Great Chris Farley

By Dorri Olds 08/14/15

A new documentary on SNL's Chris Farley is just out. The Fix Q&A with the documentary's directors.

I am Chris Farley
in a van, down by the river . . .

It has been 18 years since the world lost Saturday Night Live (SNL) funnyman Chris Farley. Now, there’s a movie about him. The documentary, I Am Chris Farley, directed by Derik Murray and Brent Hodge, is a celebration of Farley’s talent.

The film is packed with SNL powerhouses including creator Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Adam Sandler and Jon Lovitz. The cast also includes Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Christina Applegate, Bo Derek, Bob Saget, and Farley’s brothers Kevin, John, Tom, and sister Barbara.

It is eerie that he idolized SNL’s John Belushi and they both died at age 33 from a cocaine-fueled binge. Farley died from mixing in morphine; for Belushi, it was heroin. And both struggled with weight issues. But the main thing they have in common is how much they are missed.

The movie is a love fest filled with madcap stories and bittersweet remembrances. It spends little time on the complexities of Farley’s mind and crippling addictions—alcohol, food, drugs, hookers. The filmmakers and family wanted it that way.

The family was not even looking to make a film about Chris when Murray and Hodge approached them. The filmmaking duo’s previous documentary subjects include Evel Knievel, Bruce Lee, and Steve McQueen. They are currently filming American Rebel: Johnny Cash.

The Fix caught up with the talented directors to talk about Farley and their doc.

How did this film come about?

Derik Murray: Our company, Network Entertainment, works with families and estates. We focus on creating iconic films about iconic people. We reached out through David Reader who works with Kevin [Farley] and David Spade. David set up a meeting with Kevin so we could discuss the possibility of creating a legacy documentary about Chris Farley.

The Farley family wasn’t in the marketplace to do a film or even thinking that a film must be made. It was really a scenario where Brent and I expressed our excitement about Chris. He had been gone for 18 years and there had never been a film that celebrated his genius. We felt that time was now. Over a couple of meetings with Kevin, we built up trust and finally Kevin said, “Ok, boys, come on out to Madison [Wis.].” So Brent and I made the pilgrimage to Madison and spent time with the Farley family and Chris’ friends and started rolling the camera about a year ago.

Did the Farley family say, “We don’t want you to focus on Chris’ drug use?”

DM: That conversation certainly came up. Chris is their beloved brother and son so what I said to Kevin was, “We’re not going to run away with the fact that Chris had these demons and that he was fighting them; battling them. That’s not our storyline.” The story was that Chris was a comic genius and we wanted to tell where he came from and how he created this incredible storm of comedy. 

We asked, “Where were the roots and who was Chris Farley?” Telling Kevin about that focus gave him comfort. He understood we weren’t running away from discussing Chris’ addictions but that we were much more interested in celebrating who Chris Farley was. That’s the path we went on and that’s the film we produced.

Did you ever feel moved to tears during these interviews?

Brent Hodge: Oh, yeah, I cried every interview. As they told these stories after 18 years, they’d start to relive it again. Then they’d come back to the present, realize we’re not back in the ’90s and Chris isn’t with us anymore, which was really hard for everyone. It would kind of hit them again that Chris wasn’t going to hear any of this. It was extremely difficult and emotional for every single person we interviewed.

DM: People who spent time with us needed to feel trust. In those interviews there was an opportunity for Chris’ family and friends to share their thoughts about Chris as an incredible friend. They also talked about his comedy and the tragedy of the tremendous loss when he died. Most times there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even our crew got emotional.

Now, flashing forward from the production process till today, we have lived with the story, told the story, filmed the story, edited it for months. It is still extremely difficult. I had to walk out of the movie for the last eight minutes whenever I was with a crowd of people and had to pull myself together for the Q&As following film screenings. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to speak. The story of Chris just grabs a hold of me and I have to walk out. Brent and Kevin feel the same way.

How did it feel to interview so many gifted entertainers? Did you think, “Pinch me, I must be dreaming?”

DM: Oh yeah. We were overwhelmed by the magnificence of the cast. The magic element of this film and the thing people will enjoy the most are Chris’ friends. I mean, we’re talking about Lorne Michaels and David Spade, Dan Aykroyd, Molly Shannon, Mike Myers. Crazy, right? We are so blessed to have that cast.

What was it like interviewing Lorne Michaels?

BH: [Laughs] It was amazing! We were in Lorne’s office at NBC at Saturday Night Live and all on a Saturday night before the final dress rehearsal. So, yeah, that was definitely a pinchable moment.

This year’s documentaries Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck were equal parts, if not more, about struggles with addiction. 

DM: With Amy, she really had a short career. That movie was about the time she produced her two albums and a lot of the sensibility of that film was that short period of time and the struggles that she had. In Kurt’s case, it was a film that focused on Kurt’s story but he was much more of a loner. There weren’t a lot of folks in his life that were part of that movie; it wasn’t about his friends or band members.

In our case, we went back to Madison. We really wanted to be where Chris was when he was in the backyard playing with his brothers. We take you to the summer camp he went to, the high school, the university he went to, Second City where he did standup. We told those 33 years of Chris’ life. In that sense we told a much bigger, broader story. Our story is about a comedic genius and that, too, is the defining difference. Our film shows who Chris was, this incredible guy you would love to have as a friend. A guy that would love you to death, bearhug you.

BH: Going through Chris’ life answered a lot of questions for us. When somebody dies from a drug overdose you want to know why. You want to know where did that addiction come from? Did he have trouble with his family? Where were the difficulties? But as we looked through his life we saw he had a very loving, supportive family who said, “Acting? Fine.” “Comedy? Fine.” This guy had a lot of support. 

Can you talk about Matt Foley, the real guy that inspired Chris’ SNL motivational speaker character?

BH: It’s so funny how Chris got his characters from the people around him. The physicality of that character came from impersonating his dad and his rugby coach. When he first started to perform this motivational guy that he wrote with Bob Odenkirk at Second City, he saw his friend in the crowd, his rugby buddy, Matt Foley. Chris said, “I’m going to call him Matt Foley,” to give a shoutout to his friend. He did that a lot. He liked to pay tribute to his friends—people he shared Catholicism with, and people he met at detoxes. 

Was he in conflict with Catholicism? Did he consider his addiction to food, drugs, and alcohol as sins?

BH: Oh sure. Yeah. There were two sides to Chris. And he wrestled with addictions. I’ve known two people in my life who went to rehab. They went to one or maybe two. Chris went to 17 rehabs over the course of five years. Think about that struggle. He fought so hard. It was, of course, very difficult for everyone around him.

Were there scenes you had to cut even though they were great?

DM: Dozens and dozens of scenes. We could’ve made three movies. The editing process was painful. There are moments during interviews where you’re like, “That is so strong and that’s definitely going to be in the film,” but that doesn’t always happen. As you pull together all of the rest of the content, you realize you’re going to have to let some of your babies go. 

Are there extras on the DVD?

DM: Yes, we focused on the family and included a wonderful section called, “The Farley Brothers and Sister.” We compiled many of the stories they told us that were not in the film. That way, fans of Chris Farley can go deeper into his life. 

BH: There’s at least one naked story for every single person. Either Chris took his shirt off or pants off, or got naked. All these details and bits. 

There was a great story Tom Farley shared with us. Tom was living in New York and Chris arrived for the first time. They were driving around in a town car. Chris opened the window and yelled out of the car, “I’m in New York City!” And he was waving at everybody. He didn’t have a debit card yet so Tom took $500 out for him. He was walking around the streets and he saw guys doing the three dice game where they hide the dice and it’s all rigged. In the first round, Chris put the $500 on it and lost it all. That’s such a great expression of his character. This young kid from Wisconsin coming to the big city. 

And about his comedy, Chris’ physicality trumps other comics. This guy did flat falls onto tables, off of tables, onto the floor and he wasn’t blocking his falls. He was, as Lorne Michaels said in the film, “completely total.” He wouldn’t put his hands down. He attacked the stage.

He left so many friends behind. Did any of them feel like they should’ve helped him or did everybody understand that there wasn’t much they could do?

They all tried. It was a shock when he died. It was so sad for everybody. He left too early from this earth. I think everybody was willing to tell their stories because they wanted to be sure his legacy lives. We hope that after people watch the movie they can feel they had an opportunity to say, “Goodbye.”

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about Bob Zappa as well as Bill Cosby.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.