Alex Buono, cinematographer and director of Documentary Now!, reveals the logistics behind the Emmy®-nominated episode “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken.”
One of the standout episodes of the second season of IFC’s Documentary Now! is “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” which parodies David Gelb’s modern classic Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It follows the story of 83-year-old Juan (Hector Elias) who runs a restaurant that only serves chicken and rice (and sometimes, not even chicken!).
“That’s my favorite episode of the season,” says Alex Buono, director and cinematographer on the show. “We had this great adventure in Colombia making it.”
Remaking a Documentary Feels like a Documentary
Aside from the usual suspects of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, the crew also worked with a lot of local actors in the episode, including “Juan” himself.
“Hector [Elias] is such an incredible guy. We cast him based on his look and audition, and then found out later that he actually had been trained as a chef so he could do all of that nice work himself. He was very familiar with all of the food prep. He also had trained himself in calligraphy so he could do all of the writing of the menus. Our art department asked him to create the backup menus, he was so good at it. He just seemed like that guy [he was playing]. There was a weird moment, where you’re like, ‘You are Juan.’ ”
In the episode, Juan’s chicken-and-rice restaurant resides in a magical location that requires hard-core Yelpers to trek down a dirt road for 40 minutes just to get to it. To acquire that whimsy took a lot of work and preparation with one of the biggest challenges being where to shoot.
“For us, going abroad already is super exciting and fun, which makes it more like we’re participating in a documentary. Part of what makes Documentary Now! work is that everybody involved takes on the mentality that we really are making a documentary. This is a real film. This is not fake.”
Plus, there’s also an element of deference when parodying classic documentaries with consultation with the original filmmakers to glean any advice or insight.
“Everyone on the show is an insane docu-cinephile. Everyone is coming from this place of loving these documentaries and respecting them. The guy who is most sensitive and respectful that we’re not coming from a mean-spirited place is Fred [Armisen]. His nature is so positive. He doesn’t want to come off like we’re making fun of someone. Everyone has that feeling, but he’s sort of the ringleader of that sentiment.”
From Cuba to Colombia
In “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken,” Armisen plays Juan’s son, Arturo, who struggles to live up to his father’s legacy. Much of the dialogue plays out in English subtitles with Spanish prominently spoken throughout (Armisen speaks Spanish). Buono cited that they were excited to be able to get away with an almost fully foreign language episode. But one thing they couldn’t get away with was their original shooting location. They had one particular island in mind for an authentic South American jungle, but unfortunately, plans fell through (thanks, Obama).
“We were all set to go to Cuba, but then Obama announced he was going to Cuba during that exact same time period and all of the film permits were pulled, and nobody else could go to Cuba because the entire Secret Service was going to Cuba. Suddenly we were scrambling. We were a few weeks into shooting and had no location. And this was also the time when the Zika outbreak was happening, and all of these jungle environments were off limits. It ruled out a lot of the other options. It just so happened that Bogotá is above the mosquito line. Interestingly, Colombia was always our second choice.”
When the Documentary Now! crew finally got to Colombia, finding the perfect magical spot for Juan’s restaurant also proved to be challenging.
“We just couldn’t find any restaurant that was remote enough and felt magical enough, so we built that whole place. We basically built it on this mountaintop in Bogotá.”
IFC)They found what they wanted in terms of a secluded spot (perfect for shooting chicken against walls, as Arturo demonstrates). However, it was below the mosquito line, making the crew more vulnerable to Zika. Thankfully, no one came down with the virus, but crew members did endure other elements like scorpions and bees that caused baseball-sized welts.
“It felt like a real adventure. When you’re looking at the footage from an air-conditioned room at home, you’re like, ‘Oh, what a great time that was!’ ”
Even if co-star Bill Hader, who plays the food critic in the episode, wasn’t able to be a part of it.
“We talked about finding a real Colombian food critic and shooting him down there. A couple of things transpired. One, we didn’t have the time to shoot it, but I think more than that, Bill just wanted to be in the episode. He couldn’t come to Colombia with us. Sorting out the puzzle of their schedules is always one of the hardest things about making the show. He still really, really wanted to be in the episode.”
Buono described Hader and Armisen’s rapport as like an elite tennis match.
“The most fun part about working with them is that they genuinely are two of the nicest guys you’ve ever met and they just amuse the hell out of each other.”
Juan’s Emmy Chances
For the second year in a row, IFC’s Documentary Now! received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. Since last year’s winner Key & Peele is off the air, this could be the year they take home gold, even if Buono looks to another competitor to win.
“If SNL hadn’t had such an incredible year, I’d feel more confident. Our friends at 30 Rock just killed it this season.”
But even if Documentary Now! doesn’t win, Buono remains immensely proud of this episode.
“The making of it was really great, but I think what I loved most about it was the emotional payoff. It’s funny and totally absurd, but it has such an emotionally satisfying ending that I don’t think you always expect from a straight half-hour comedy.”