The organized chaos that made 'nirvanna the band the show' a cult favourite

Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol have gotten away with all kinds of filming tomfoolery since their show's early days as a free web series.

The series is having a special preview at this year's Toronto International Film Festival

nirvanna the band the show (TIFF)

To understand the comedic brilliance of nirvanna the band the show, one must go back in time to 2007, when BFFs Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol wanted to make a short film together — something that captured their unique comedic dynamic. But Johnson and McCarrol quickly realized the "short film" format was not for them. "The way my friends were making short films out of film school was regimented," says Johnson. "What's exciting for us are performances and people's behaviours. It always seemed like the interests for our peers were camerawork and lighting — getting things to technically look right."

The "mockumentary" format, on the other hand, seemed like an obvious choice for the two, who were more interested in capturing spontaneous reactions and situations. "Things like The Office and Arrested Development and that camera style were something we were into," says McCarrol.

Shrugging off the usual necessity of production values, Johnson and McCarrol decided to give away their series for free online, quickly building a cult reputation among hip Torontonians who recognized the many streets and establishments covertly filmed on the show. The web series format gave the duo a certain creative freedom to film whatever and wherever they wanted, even if their shooting of people and places — as well as their pop-culture references — ran into illegal territory. The premise of the show is simple, but also a bit of a MacGuffin: each episode consists of the musical duo trying ceaselessly, hilariously and pathetically to book themselves a show at The Rivoli, a cornerstone for music and comedy performance in Toronto. The ensuing comedy is largely built in the production room as everyone's spontaneous reactions to Johnson and McCarrol's whimsical dynamic are edited together.

"That dynamic is just the way we are in person," says Johnson. "We're not comfortable reading a script. There is no pleasure in that. We'll sabotage our own stories for the benefit of the show, because the behaviour you get is so much more interesting."

Since the show's conclusion in 2008, the duo have established their own respective careers — McCarrol as a musician and Johnson as a filmmaker. Johnson refined the same aesthetic in The Dirties, a microbudget high school comedy shot at a real high school, and Operation Avalanche, a moon-landing conspiracy flick that was covertly filmed at NASA's headquarters. He's also developed a strong creative and legal team so that he can pursue these kinds of projects.

"Matt took that form and took it to the next level, twice," says McCarrol, referencing Johnson's films. "I get to return to make nirvanna the band and it's the exact same show and all we're going to do is take it up a notch."

We're not comfortable reading a script. There is no pleasure in that. We'll sabotage our own stories for the benefit of the show, because the behaviour you get is so much more interesting.- Matt Johnson

Finding the right distributor was key to keeping the essence of the series intact, and it took a few attempts — including a pilot with FX — before they found the right home: Viceland, which sought out Johnson for a new project. With other producers, "we always had to water something down or cater to some producer's needs," says McCarrol. "[Viceland] seemed like a good opportunity to make nirvanna the band as is without changing anything."

In the revamped series, Johnson and McCarrol have had the opportunity to become more ambitious with their escapades. The day of our conversation followed their covert adventure at Canada's Wonderland.

"It was very challenging," says Johnson. "We got caught at the last second and ran! But we shot there all day."

Johnson sounds a little tired over the phone, but also very pleased with himself — as he should be. His team has gotten away with all kinds of filming tomfoolery since starting the new web series. Other locations they've "scouted" thus far have included the Sundance Film Festival, the offices of NOW Magazine, a screening of Star Wars and a Santa Claus parade. Knowing this information, of course, hardly counts as a spoiler — because right now, hungry nirvanna the band fans can only imagine and anticipate the hilarious context for such random locations. Consider it a trifling amuse bouche to whet the appetite. For now, enjoy the three-episode hors d'oeuvres at TIFF until we can feast on the full-course meal on Viceland in 2017.

nirvanna the band the show plays at TIFF 2016 as part of the festival's Primetime programme.

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