The mundane business of conceiving, shooting, assembling and releasing a feature film can sometimes be a fascinating, almost magical sequence of alchemic creation.
The best documentaries on filmmakers at work are often the most spontaneous, which leads to an explanation of the parameters of this Top Ten. For the most part, the following list is of films conceived as stand-alone theatrical productions first, and avoids behind-the-scenes DVD extras. Rather, these are films that do not idealise or worship their filmmaker subjects and instead, organically testify to, and honour, that elusive, coveted process.
10. American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (USA, 1999)
Francis Ford Coppola famously announced “one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder.” Wisconsin native Mark Borchardt is no Mozart, and his DIY horror film Coven is a far cry from Eine kleine Nachtmusic, but director Chris Smith’s affectionate and influential documentary following Borchardt’s troubled production and even more turbulent private life is a ringing testament to the power of film and the moral imperative of dedication. How influential, you ask? American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, has been named amongst the top 20 docos of all time by the IDA and is numbered in the thousand greatest movies ever made by The New York Times.
See also: Overnight, the 2003 cautionary tale of a young independent filmmaker with more ambition than social skills; Gambler, the 2006 saga of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s attempt to stave off pre-fame bankruptcy; and The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man, director Richard Rush’s mischievously surrealistic document of one filmmaker’s long and arduous journey.
9. The Cinema According to Bertolucci (Italy, 1976)
The first of two films on this list screening as part of the 2012 Sydney Film Festival, The Cinema According to Bertolucci is so rarely shown and elusive that online searches yield no clips from it. (ACMI showed it as part of a Bertolucci retrospective last October.) Based on memories of a screening more than three decades ago, director Gianni Amelio interviews Bertolucci between takes of his 1976 epic, 1900. Additionally, Amelio films some of Bertolucci’s shots from different setups, offering fascinating angles on the work of stars Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda and Donald Sutherland.
8. This Is Not a Film (Iran, 2011)
“You call this a film?” Iranian director Jafar Panahi asks his cohort Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and under the circumstances it is an eminently reasonable question. Under house arrest in his large, luxurious and impeccably tidy Tehran flat, apparently as bored out of his mind as he is apprehensive about his possible future behind bars, Panahi runs DVD clips from some of his films and blocks out his latest rejected script on his lounge room carpet. “If we could tell a film then why make a film?” he ponders at one point with an apparent mixture of anguish and wonder. Panahi’s unflinching personal analysis and unyielding artistic bravery renders This Is Not a Film a making-of that becomes the very film itself.
See also: Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), which uses the same gambit of minimalist sets delineated by lines on the floor; and Sophie Fienne’s wildly inventive 2006 non-fiction epic The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, in which Slovenian philosopher and cultural maven Slavoj Žižek waxes psychoanalytic about such films as The Birds, Blue Velvet and The Matrix from within lovingly reconstructed sets of those and some two dozen other films (including Dogville).
7. The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (USA, 1996)
Is there a living filmmaker with the same combustible blend of dogged determination and sheer bad luck as Terry Gilliam? Heath Ledger died late in the production of Doctor Parnassus in 2009, while floods destroyed the sets of his never-realised 1999 film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Though the 2002 documentary on that disaster, Lost in La Mancha, is fascinating in its own right, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys wins a spot here for a couple of reasons: first, 12 Monkeys was not only finished and released but stands today as one of Gilliam’s most successful efforts. And second, the doco reveals Gilliam at the height of his powers, an unstoppable force of nature who suffers the necessary fools, slings and arrows to realise his vision. That the finished product offers a rare happy ending in the Gilliam canon is but icing on the cake.
See also: Lost in La Mancha, as well as Lars von Trier’s 2003 non-fiction oddity The Five Obstructions, in which the director challenges his mentor, the great Jørgen Leth, to remake the latter’s 1967 film The Perfect Human—with the imposition of five restrictions of such escalating absurdity they make Dogme look like a Filmmaking 101 class.
6. Woody Allen: A Documentary (USA, 2011)
A rare case of less is more—well, at least equal—the 113-minute version of Woody Allen: A Documentary that will screen at the 2012 Sydney Film Festival preserves most of the sequences of the writer-director looking miserable on various sets over the years but trims away much of the interview footage with various colleagues and collaborators that fills out the 192 minutes of the “Director’s Theatrical Cut” shown on American television and available on DVD. Allen’s process is well-known: he writes every day, makes a movie a year, and is happiest either creating the script or sculpting footage in the editing bay. And with the career-best financial and critical success of Midnight in Paris, Allen has come full circle to the beloved early, funny films that serve as a running gag on his increasingly ambitious artistic vision.
5. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (France, 2009)
In 1970, French director and festival programmer Serge Bromberg found himself trapped in a stuck lift with the widow of Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques, The Wages of Fear), known as France’s Alfred Hitchcock. Discovering she possessed 185 cans of tests and on-set footage from Clouzot’s disastrous, aborted and largely forgotten 1964 psychological thriller Inferno, Bromberg persuaded her to allow him access to it. The massive, 300 page script followed the descent into madness of a pathologically jealous husband suspicious of his beautiful wife. Working with an unlimited budget, Clouzot began elaborate, time-consuming experiments with hallucinogenic camera and colour effects embracing the fashion and Op Art of the day. After a few weeks of location shooting with three separate crews, the production collapsed under its own weight. Explaining in cringe-worthy detail what went awry, Bromberg reveals an obscure French Heaven’s Gate from a gifted yet profoundly flawed filmmaker, a production seemingly doomed from the start by hubris, ambition and Clouzot’s abrasive genius.
See also: the 1999 reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim’s monumental 1924 silent drama Greed, painstakingly reassembled from existing footage and extant production stills by preservationist and silent film scholar Rich Schmidlin. Mysteriously, the expanded version was released on VHS tape but has never been transferred to DVD.
4) Burden of Dreams (USA, 1982)
In Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, an aspiring rubber baron and opera lover in early 20th century Peru hatches a scheme to harvest an inaccessible parcel of land by hauling a massive freighter over a mountain by hand. The ambitious writer-director figured to do the same, and under the watchful gaze of documentarian Les Blank. Yet, Herzog being Herzog, there’s a lot more to Burden of Dreams than the jaw-dropping sight of a 32-ton, three-story boat being pulled over a mountain by natives. The film also explores the equally arduous task of casting, with Jason Robards being replaced a month into filming by Klaus Kinski, and Mick Jagger’s part being written out all together after he left to tour with The Rolling Stones. Burden of Dreams is a testament to that rarefied level of dedicated filmmaker for whom no obstacle can stand in the way of realising their vision.
See also: My Best Fiend, Herzog’s 1999 documentary charting his relationship with Kinski and the sometimes violent confrontations between the men on various film sets; Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
3) Making The Shining (UK, 1980)
Making The Shining is, even at 33 minutes, amongst the most revealing making-of films ever assembled. Stanley Kubrick’s then 17-year-old daughter Vivian was offered unfettered and intimate access to both hot sets and unguarded moments. Thus has been documented Kubrick’s testy relationship with co-star Shelley Duvall during the filming of the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” sequence, as well as an affable and mischievous Nicholson brushing his teeth to spare his co-stars the scent of the lamb cutlets he had for dinner. The film also provides a glimpse of the massive Overlook Hotel set, built at England’s EMI Elstree Studios. Garrett Brown and his then-new Steadicam rig are also seen, trailing that Big Wheel tricycle through the Overlook’s corridors and an ax-wielding Nicholson through the fake snow-shrouded hedge maze at the film’s climax.
2) Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (USA, 1991)
This is the film in which Coppola makes his famous “fat girl from Ohio” pronouncement (see #10, above), as well as one of the most revealing remembrances of on-set disasters and inspirations ever filmed. Coppola drove himself to the edge of madness to make the 1979 Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now: “there were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.” His wife Eleanor and their three children (including future filmmaker Sofia) were along for the ride, with much of his wife’s diary entries and surreptitious audio recordings of her husband’s anguished meltdowns providing jarringly blunt assessments of the filmmaker’s precarious state of mind. Available for years exclusively on VHS tape due to legal wranglings between the Coppolas and co-directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, the film is now available on DVD.
See also: Eleanor Coppola’s Coda: Thirty Years Later; filmmaker, George Lucas’ 1968 documentary on the making of Coppola’s early feature The Rain People.
1) Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (Sweden, 1963)
Ingmar Bergman has famously called 1963’s Winter Light – in which a consumptive Lutheran pastor at a sparsely populated church in rural Sweden confronts his own shortcomings and mortality – his favourite of his own films. The middle part of the “Trilogy of Faith,” bookended by Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, the making of Winter Light is the subject of Vilgot Sjöman’s meticulous and deliberate five-part Swedish television series, plainly titled Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. Moving from script to filming to post-production and premiere, the film finds Bergman in a reflective and largely affable mood. What’s fascinating about the documentary is not only the scrupulous attention to process, but Sjöman’s layman-like approach to explaining such then-arcane filmmaking concepts as blocking and set construction. In this day and age, when visual literacy seems to dampen the initial creative spark, the deeply felt emotions and practical realities involved in the realisation of the great Winter Light make for absorbing, transcendent viewing.
See also: The Making of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s own 1986 behind-the-scenes look at what many feel to be his crowning achievement.
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