Documented: The Best Behind The Scenes Films

Andrew chronicles several documentaries that take audiences behind the scenes. 

With most documentaries surrounding the making of a film, viewers are given unprecedented access behind the curtain where movie magic happens. Typically intended for promotional featurettes or saved for later use in DVD/Blu-Ray special features, every now and again documentary crews assigned to a picture capture the unintentional derailment or unmaking of a motion picture.  Either due to production problems, clashing egos or unexpected circumstances beyond anyone’s control, The Movie Sleuth presents some of the best documentaries ever made about the blood, sweat and tears that drive the art of making movies.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991 – directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola)

Inarguably the granddaddy of cinema-verite documentaries on the making of a complex and daunting personal film, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola’s transposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from 19th century Africa to 20th century Vietnam warfare, Apocalypse Now remains the most infamously chaotic and ongoing film production in cinema history.   Intended to be a routine shoot, Apocalypse Now quickly ballooned into a 5 year project beset by seemingly endless production problems including but not limited to a typhoon destroying expensive set pieces, a war in the Philippines interfering with choreographed battle sequences, and physical as well as mental problems with Coppola’s cast that are both stranger than fiction and the stuff of legend.  Between Coppola’s leading man Martin Sheen’s drunken tirade used in the film, Marlon Brando’s overweight and unplanned ramblings and Dennis Hopper’s unhinged drug addicted madness, shooting Apocalypse Now could be compared to herding wild cats.  Frequently attacked in the tabloids for going overbudget with the contention Coppola’s Apocalypse was out of control, in confidence (as revealed by privately taped conversations with his wife Eleanor) Francis Ford Coppola began to believe the press clippings.  Hearing Francis say mid-production ‘This film is a $20 million disaster, why doesn’t anyone believe me?!  I’m thinking of shooting myself’ is about as naked in its honesty you will ever get to the heart of brilliant filmmaker in crisis.  As grand in its own way as Apocalypse Now itself, Hearts of Darkness sinks its teeth deep into one of the most tumultuous examples of the creative process in living memory and thus is a testament to one of cinema’s greatest directors working to the very edge of his inspirations and beyond.

Overnight (2003 – directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith)

Ever wonder what it looks like to see a director implode?  Look no further than the character assassination piece Overnight following the downfall of The Boondock Saints writer-director Troy Duffy.  Assembled by former colleagues of Duffy’s, Overnight chronicles the strange journey they took with Duffy when Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein caught wind of Duffy’s screenplay for The Boondock Saints.  Impressed with bartender and The Brood frontman Duffy, Weinstein offered Duffy the deal of a lifetime: $15 million to make the film, a record contract for his band and full purchase of the bar Duffy worked at.  Much like the title, Duffy found multimillion dollar success virtually overnight and soon was among the big players in Hollywood now, until he opened his mouth.  In scene after scene, Duffy proceeds with his conceited attitude, unprofessional alcoholism and generally nasty words towards some of Tinseltown’s most powerful veterans, to ruin the deal and alienate virtually all involved in the production.  After mouthing off to A-list actors and threatening to leave the William Morris Agency, Duffy is blacklisted in Hollywood, his record deal fizzles, and his Boondock Saints film is placed in turnaround, thus phasing out any further work in film.  While Duffy eventually did obtain independent financing, distributors refused to release The Boondock Saints due to the bad blood between Duffy and Weinstein.  While Duffy would ultimately refute the documentary’s validity regarding the situation, there are some things the power of editing can’t make up, notably almost every single thing Duffy says.  One of the few documentaries far more entertaining and endlessly fascinating than the film its subject was making. 
Burden of Dreams (1982 – directed by Les Blank)

Werner Herzog’s most ambitious and arduous production to date without a doubt is his 1982 historical drama, Fitzcarraldo.  Loosely based on the true story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzgerald, the film depicts an entrepreneur determined to move a 320 ton steamship across a mountaintop utilizing a pulley system manned by indigenous natives of the region.  A grandiose, near impossible task for its titular character (played by Herzog enfant terrible Klaus Kinski), the film’s original financier 20th Century Fox salivated at turning the premise into a tangible reality.  That is, until Herzog stressed instead of models and miniatures, the cast and crew were really going to perform the daunting task as written.  What would unfold would go down in history as one of the most taxing ordeals ever undertaken for the sake of making a film, one that would take its toll on both the film’s director and the documentary filmmaker, Les Blank, capturing all the mayhem on film.  Between enormous physical obstacles of actually carting a steamboat over a mountaintop and scenes of the boat crashing amid wild rapids, sending the film’s cinematographer through the air and splitting his hand in half down the seams of his digits, there was Klaus Kinski.  Manic, passionate and raging, Kinski proceeded to make everyone’s lives a living Hell, throwing vitriolic tantrums over trivial matters such as complaining about the quality of food.  At one point a native confided in Herzog his tribesmen would be happy to murder Kinski should Herzog so desire, to which Herzog replied he still needed Kinski to complete shooting.  Even the documentarian Mr. Blank found himself at wits end over what felt like an endless wallow in chaos and disorder.  While Fitzcarraldo, Herzog and Blank would uniformly triumph over the adversity of a nightmarish shoot, one can’t help but regard the entire enterprise as among the most draining experience the three have ever had the displeasure of undertaking.   

Gambler (2006 – directed by Phie Ambo)

After writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn attained mainstream success in Denmark with his gangster drama Pusher and his circle-of-friends follow up Bleeder, the young auteur set his sights on his first English language film, Fear X.  His most expensive production to date, around $6.6 million, Fear X tanked at the box office and bankrupted Refn’s production company, Jang Go Star.  Having recently sired his first child, Refn and wife Liv Corfixen found themselves buried over their heads in debt.  Trying to reel in the damage wrought by the failure of Fear X, Refn is forced to put his next project Billy’s People on hold in favor of making two sequels to Pusher, his most successful film up to that time.  One loses track of how many glasses of alka seltzer and water the nervous wreck of a director downs in between meetings with investors and potential cast members for his shoestring budgeted Pusher sequels.  Among Refn’s street casting of real criminals for authenticity and saving production costs is the immense upheaval taking place within his home, as entire living rooms are rearranged to make room for writing and assembly of the screenplay.  Working at breakneck speed in a state of emergency, Refn just barely manages to get his scenes on film, meanwhile dealing with tabloids eager to watch the young auteur fall and fending off creditors complaining about his overdrawn bank accounts.  At one point Refn breaks down in tears over the sheer magnitude of stress, trying to rebuild his company in between changing his newborn infant’s diapers.  While in the end Refn did reclaim his finances with the commercial success of his Pusher sequels before landing international work behind the director’s chair, you could cut the anxiety and tension built up in Gambler with a knife. 

Lost in La Mancha (2002 – directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe)

Most directors, notably great ones, have had a few passion pieces of theirs disintegrate and fall through the fingers.  Very few, however, manage to get the implosion of a director’s baby on film in the way Lost in La Mancha does.  Originally intended for inclusion in a making-of advertising campaign, filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe instead captured on film the unraveling of a film production.  In the case of Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, everything that could possibly go wrong inevitably does and then some.  Preproduction on Gilliam’s project goes smoothly at first, but within the first day of shooting Gilliam found himself living out a director’s worst nightmare.  Military fighter jets near Gilliam’s location whoosh by, ruining sound and flying into shots.  Extras show up unprepared for their scenes.  Then a flash flood washes away set pieces, camera equipment, and the scenic look of scenes already shot.  Worst of all, Gilliam’s leading man Jean Rochefort, who spent a year learning English to play the role of Don Quixote, develops a double herniated disc and withdraws from the production indefinitely.  As Gilliam troubleshoots getting whatever footage he’s able into the can, investors begin pulling out until Gilliam’s primary producer breaks the dreaded news he will not be able to make the film.  Seeing Gilliam’s disappointment spread across his face at the news of his hopes and dreams withering away is positively heartbreaking to watch.  You don’t have to be a Terry Gilliam fan to feel his dismay and grief.  While Gilliam resumed work in the film world and continues to strive towards one day making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a cinematic reality, it’s hard to forget the horrors that befell Gilliam’s first try at a film he once considered better left alone.   

Full Tilt Boogie

In between his filmmaking efforts, Quentin Tarantino began collaborating with numerous filmmakers throughout Hollywood by stepping down from the director’s chair and bringing forward potentially great material to be made by experienced, visionary artists.  Among them were Tony Scott for True Romance, Oliver Stone for Natural Born Killers, and most notably, his longtime colleague and friend Robert Rodriguez for the vampire road movie From Dusk Till Dawn.  Capturing the process of bringing his homage to B-horror of the late 1970s and early 80s is Tarantino’s production assistant Sarah Kelly’s documentary Full Tilt Boogie.  Often confused by fans as a companion piece or sequel of sorts to From Dusk Till Dawn based on the cover art and title, Full Tilt Boogie is as in-depth of a documentary on the creative process as you can get, covering all the ups and downs of the production.  Some viewers expecting elaborate interviews with Tarantino and Rodriguez will be somewhat disappointed as most of the screen time goes to producers and crew members, although there are some stellar highlights of the bumps in the road encountered mid-production.  Aside from sandstorms making the desert scenes difficult to shoot in and a pyrotechnical mishap that nearly destroyed an expensive film set, the kitten caboodle of Full Tilt Boogie surrounds a brief standoff between the filmmakers and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees for the filmmakers’ use of non-union employees.  For a moment, the film becomes an age old tale of the starving artist stacked against the towering conglomerate, including an attempted ambush of a union negotiator at a convention by Kelly and her own non-union documentary crew.  It’s an odd detour that sheds more light on the business end of filmmaking that’s typically swept under the rug, and reinforces director Terry Gilliam’s stance that filmmaking is not about cameras and lenses but rather about tangling with the suits.

Making ‘The Shining’ (1980 – directed by Vivian Kubrick)

Though only short documentary running approximately 35 minutes, the daughter of Stanley Kubrick turns her camera on her father’s work on the set of his 1980 horror classic The Shining, offering a unique behind-the-scenes look at a great cinema artist in motion. Up to the time of its inception, few people saw footage of Kubrick beyond still photos on the set and even fewer heard the man speak.  While Kubrick himself doesn’t address the camera beyond occasionally bumping into it, intently focused on directing his actors, we do get interviews from the actors conducted by Kubrick’s longtime personal assistant Leon Vital (who played Lord Bullington in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon).  Moreover, Making The Shining gives fans of the director a taste of what an endurance test working with him must have been.  Consider Kubrick’s treatment of actress Shelley Duvall, who looks weary and worn as the director continues to work her over, leaving her an emotional and physical wreck.  While eliciting a performance from Duvall that exemplified the ordeal of character Wendy Torrance, watching Kubrick systematically chip away at her defenses is both stressful and hard to take.  Most infamously is a brief moment where Kubrick loses his temper and accuses Duvall of ‘wasting everybody’s time’.  Duvall admitted years later the experience was both a stepping stool that taught her more about acting than any of the previous pictures she had done while also adding it was a Hell she wasn’t ready to visit again.

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-Andrew Kotwicki