Sometimes the best films to come out of a self-referential town like Hollywood are the ones that never get made.
18 May 2009 - 2:25 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

It's a Sean Penn we rarely see on the screen. Driven forward by a tense score, the Academy Award winning actor runs through an abandoned shipyard, hustling his female companion into a car lest she should be apprehended, they exchange finale words and a glance before parting and he keeps moving as a group of suited thugs draw ever closer…

This tense finale, filmed in bleak gunmetal grey tones, is from uncompromising English director Jeremy Brunell's new thriller, Fiercely. The catch is that Fiercely only exists as that sole scene, which is seen being tested before an uninterested audience at the opening of What Just Happened, Barry Levinson's fictionalised movie of veteran Hollywood producer Art Linson's tales from the trenches. Sean Penn plays himself, Michael Wincott plays the manic Jeremy Brunell and Robert De Niro is the Linson-esque Ben, who produced the troubled picture.

Nowadays the fake trailer as a satirical ploy is common, with 2008's Tropic Thunder giving us several to outline the comedy's fictional movie stars, most notably Robert Downey Jr's Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus alongside Tobey Maguire in the Brokeback Mountain-inspired Satan's Alley.

Often the invented trailer is more fun than the film housing it: the ludicrously commercial trailer for Mother Theresa: The Making of a Saint, which is to be the breakthrough role of Megan Fox's starlet, Sophie Maes, suggests a more entertaining movie than last year's How to Lose Friends & Alienate People actually was.

But what's really tantalising, or just deeply worrying, are the films that we actually partially see, either being screened or even being made, as part of the parent title. Out of genuine interest, or car crash fascination, here's a selection of films within films that would be almost worth the price of a ticket in their own right.

Habeas Corpus, from The Player (1991): What's pitched as a righteous death penalty drama by producer Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) and director Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) to studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) goes through the Hollywood system, including a disastrous test screening, and emerges as a ticking clock thriller, where Julia Roberts' innocent woman is saved in the nick of time by Bruce Willis' district attorney. Willis obviously likes spiking reality – he also plays an extremely disagreeable version of himself in What Just Happened.

Time Over Time, from America's Sweethearts (2001): This middling Hollywood satire has John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a now bitterly separated first couple of Hollywood, Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison. While they feud at a promotional weekend, oddball director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken) holds the print of their final blockbuster, Time Over Time, hostage. When he eventually screens what is supposed to be a World War II melodrama, it's revealed he's gone all Jean-Luc Godard, abandoning the story to secretly make a film about the peccadilloes of his famous cast.

Odyssey, from Contempt (1964): Speaking of Godard, in this stringent dissection of a failing marriage's dynamic, writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), is summoned to Rome's Cinecitta Studios by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), who wants a new screenplay for the adaptation of Homer's Odyssey that legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang is making for him. The egomaniacal Prokosch also decides that he wants Javal's wife, Camille (Bridget Bardot), but in the background the magisterial Lang, whose real credits spanned Metropolis to The Big Heat and beyond, linking German Expressionism to Film Noir, calmly shoots impressionistic scenes from his version of the epic poem, several of which are seen.

Good Will Hunting II: Hunting Season, from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001): How meta is Kevin Smith? In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, his comedy where the stoner version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get their own adventure, the fictional stars travel to Los Angeles to stop a film adaptation of a comic book based on their adventures (Bluntman & Chronic). Along they way they walk in on a studio shoot for a sequel to 1998's Good Will Hunting, a film that Smith helped get made. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck trade acting exercises (“bear face!”) before returning as a well armed Will and Chuckie, meanwhile director Gus Van Sant is to busy counting his money to even call “action”.

Je Vous Presente Pamela, from Day For Night (1973): Francois Truffaut's paean to the hermetic world that is a film crew at work captures the daily grind and minor intrigue required to shoot Meet Pamela. Although that film – featuring an ageing screen icon (Jean-Pierre Aumont's Alexandre), a young heartthrob (Jean-Pierre Leaud's Alphonse) and a beautiful English starlet (Jacqueline Bisset's Julie) – doesn't suggest greatness, the affection that Truffaut, who also plays its director Ferrand, bestows on the process of creating it makes you wonder what the fictional end product of Day For Night might have been like.

Tristram Shandy, from Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006): Laurence Sterne's vast 18th century novel is considered unfilmable, which is the kind of challenge the prolific Michael Winterbottom enjoys. His film about the shooting of an adaptation has the likes of Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and Gillian Anderson switching between playing themselves and characters from the book. The vanities of actors is a favoured topic, with Coogan and Brydon sniping beautifully between period Tristram Shandy takes, although the film within a film's fictional director, Mark (Jeremy Northam), appears so busy trying to keep his cast and crew in check that his movie appears to be something of a mess.

Chubby Rain
, from Bowfinger (1999): A possible successor to Ed Wood, Robert Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a no budget filmmaker who decides to cast Hollywood superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) in his alien invasion flick Chubby Rain without telling him. Bowfinger has his cast approach the increasingly paranoid actor and deliver their lines while surreptitiously filming the results. “Did you know that Tom Cruise didn't know he was in that vampire movie until three months later?” he reassures one doubting member of his down and out collective. Bowfinger is a charming comedy about Hollywood dreamers, but Chubby Rain still looks more fun than most Vin Diesel outings.