This story about “John Mulaney: Baby J” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
One man. By himself. On a stage. Talking.
That’s what director Alex Timbers had to work with on “John Mulaney: Baby J,” a Netflix standup comedy special in which actor and comic John Mulaney spends 80 minutes telling a Boston audience about his harrowing trip through drug addiction and into rehab. The elements were simpler than what Timbers had to work with when he directed “Beetlejuice” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” on Broadway or served as production consultant on David Byrne’s “American Utopia” or cocreator on the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle,” but it wasn’t unfamiliar territory to the director who had also filmed Mulaney’s 2018 standup special, “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous” at Radio City.
“You’re trying to fundamentally create the fidelity of what it was like to be in that room and witness the performance,” he said. “That underlies your whole creative process. Second, you try to foster intimacy, particularly in a performance like this. How do you get as close to John as you can, how do you make people feel like they’re there with a friend as he’s telling them a story? And then the third thing is, how do you make it dynamic?”
The special was shot at Symphony Hall in Boston, a smaller venue than Mulaney had been playing on the tour that found him delving deep into the most unsavory moments of his life. (Its 2,600 seats are less than half the capacity of Radio City Music Hall, where he filmed his previous special, and an even smaller fraction of some of the large arenas he’d been playing on tour.)
But the Symphony Hall stage is enormous, and Timbers and his crew made use of the scale even as they created a set to shrink the proscenium and control the lighting.
“John wanted to foster intimacy, which was perfectly appropriate for this story,” Timbers said. “We built this set that brings the sides in and allows for the cameras to get closer to him and also allows the whole thing to light up in interesting ways. We wanted to chart a journey almost as if it’s a one-man show instead of a standup set.”
They coordinated the colors of the set to work with the red suit Mulaney wore onstage and worked out a lighting plan that would change as his narrative grew darker. Of course, not everything could be meticulously planned: During one of the three Symphony Hall shows that were filmed for the special, Mulaney spotted an 11-year-old boy named Henry in the balcony, and made his presence a running part of the show. It’s something he often does at his shows if he spots a kid near the stage, but he’d promised the film crew that there wouldn’t be any audience interaction at the Boston shows.
“We were desperate,” Timbers said. “We were in the control room in the basement saying, ‘Where is that kid? The audience isn’t lit, right?’ Luckily the sound designer had something like 100 audience mics scattered throughout the space, so in post, we were able to boost the kid’s voice and find him and boost him in the color grade.”
But a bigger problem had to do with the 123-year-old hall itself. “It’s a beautiful hall, but it’s not newly refurbished in any way,” he said. “At the first performance, the cameras were shaking, and we were like, ‘What’s going on?’ We talked to one of the producers, and they said, ‘There’s this woman in the back, and she keeps getting up and going to the bathroom.’”
He laughed. “We were like, ‘Well, that’s very strange, but OK.’ But then it happened again the next night, and we realized it was people laughing. The floor was shaking and the cameras were moving up and down. So we spent a ton of time in post doing image stabilization. It was for the best reason, which is that people were having a genuinely amazing time, but it was a nightmare.”