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Film Freaks and Geeks documentary chronicles one of TV’s most infamous cases of ‘cancelled-too-soon’

In a new documentary, the creators and actors of the TV show Freaks and Geeks share their untold stories and pivotal moments from the making of the series that only aired for one season.

Magda Zofia

Way ahead of its time, hugely influential and unjustly short-lived, Freaks and Geeks was a cult favourite that broke traditional TV rules, gained a committed cult following and kick-started many careers – including Seth Rogen’s and James Franco’s. But it had a lousy time slot – 8 p.m. on Saturdays, to start – and did not enjoy the support of its network; NBC cancelled the show after a single season, prompting devoted fans to pool their money for an advertisement, begging the network to reconsider. To no avail.

But VHS tapes and, later, DVDs made the rounds. More recently, the show got picked up by Netflix.

And now, a documentary about the series, with amazing behind-the-scenes footage – including screen tests – is set to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, directed by a Canadian.

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“It’s an 18-episode show that got no love but continues on,” says Brent Hodge (I Am Chris Farley, A Brony Tale), who was living in St. Albert, outside of Edmonton, in 1999, when Freaks and Geeks premiered on TV, but did not see it until years later. “I don’t think anyone caught it in 1999; I don’t think even the cast caught it.”

Seth Rogen.

Magda Zofia

The show, set in 1979-80, centres on siblings Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and little brother Sam (John Francis Daley). When Lindsay has a spiritual crisis, she drifts from her brainiac mathlete life to hang out with the high-school burnouts – the freaks, including Daniel (Franco), Ken (Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel) and mean girl Kim (Busy Philipps). Elsewhere in the suburban family home, geeky Sam hangs out with best pals Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr).

Contemporary audiences binge-watching Freaks and Geeks on Netflix will recognize not just a whole bunch of future stars, but also a style of TV-making that has become ubiquitous and standard: a (broadcast) hour-long single-camera dramedy, minus the laugh tracks and three-jokes-a-page sitcom formula.

Created by Paul Feig, the show was championed by a young Apatow at Dreamworks and a couple of NBC executives, one of whom said she would quit the TV business if the show didn’t get made. It did, but incoming NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier was famously not a fan.

The documentary (which will screen at a number of upcoming film festivals in Canada and later air on A&E as part of its Culture Shock series) includes present-day interviews with all of the above – including Ancier, who addresses his controversial decision.

James Franco.

Magda Zofia

“Judd said you won’t get him, no way, he’s never talked about this. So I was really excited once we got him,” Hodge says.

There are also interviews with Feig and a long list of cast members.

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But the behind-the-scenes footage – unearthed in the L.A. garage of Gabe Sachs, one of the show’s writers – is the real treasure. “There was probably 200 hours of footage,” says Hodge, who now divides his time between New York and Vancouver.

The archival footage includes on-set exchanges, table reads, the bittersweet wrap party, and screen tests.

“There’s a really amazing Canadian story: Seth Rogen – it was his first or second audition … and they found him out of Vancouver,” Hodge says. “He’s a 16-year-old kid and they scooped him up and brought him to Hollywood. It’s a beautiful, beautiful story.”

The creators and casting director wanted actors who looked awkward and weird, like real high-school students; not dressed-down Hollywood types. (Feig and Apatow were apparently disappointed to learn that women found Franco handsome; “we just thought he was a weird-looking dude,” Apatow says in the film.)

Judd Apatow.

MAGDA ZOFIA

The documentary shows Franco and Segel performing the same scene for their auditions; turns out they were in the waiting room together, and found out at the same time that they had both been cast. Franco was apparently self-conscious about that audition tape, but gave Hodge the green light to use it.

“He was like, ‘Ah, it’s been 20 years, go for it.’”

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One issue the documentary – which was finished last July – does not address are the allegations of sexual impropriety against Franco, which have surfaced since then (and did not involve his time on the show).

“They’ve come up in conversation, that’s for sure ... There was talk of not having him in,” says Hodge, who opted not to deal with the issue or cut Franco. “It’s the story about Freaks and Geeks from 1999. James Franco was one of the principal actors in it; I think it was fair to keep him in. He’s a character in this film and he’s a character in the story that’s important. And I just wanted to tell the story of Freaks and Geeks versus the story of Franco and what he’s done since.”

The documentary – which opens with a gorgeous rendition of Bad Reputation by Canadian singer Hannah Georgas – also charts the impact of the series; the creative partnerships that emerged from the experience and the shows they collaborated on.

“Part of me thinks the only reason I was in Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin is so Judd can, like, prove some NBC executive wrong, which is totally okay with me,” Rogen says in the documentary. “It doesn’t diminish it in my eye. I’m totally okay to have a career that’s based on vengeance and rage.”

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary has its world premiere at Tribeca April 21 and its international premiere April 22 at the Calgary Underground Film Festival, followed by screenings at Edmonton’s North West Fest May 5, DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver May 11 and 13, and at the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto May 31.

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