1. Beware of the Clueless
American Movie (1999)
This is a portrait of what it’s like to want to make a movie and be working class in the middle of the middle of nowhere (Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.) Its comic-tragic hero is Mark Borschhardt. He’s been making homemade pics since he was a kid. Horror stuff. When we meet him he’s a 33-year-old father of two who ekes out a living in dead-end jobs while trying to complete a short feature – something called The Coven (which Mark tells us ought to be pronounced in a way that doesn’t rhyme with ‘oven’). His brother believes Mark is suited best to factory work. Mark instead lives for his unfinished masterwork, leeching money off friends and family, and sticking doggedly to the belief that he has the requisite gifts essential to a life in film when all evidence points to the contrary. There’s much to learn from American Movie: it’s hard to make a movie, mostly because people don’t care about it like you do. It’s harder still to finish one. Borschhardt has one essential asset for the life: he won’t and can’t give up ‘till it’s done. The Coven lost money but it did play on a double bill with American Movie at Sundance.
Making Venus (2002)
Making Venus started as a behind-the-scenes doco about a bunch of young independent Australian filmmakers making their 35mm feature debut, a dramedy about the porn industry called The Venus Factory, budgeted at $200,000; optimistic in pre-digital 1997. Instead, this making-of is a kind of ‘disaster movie’, an epic tale of naivety and sheer bloody-mindedness where all plans seem destined to fail and there’s no happy ending. Focusing on Venus’ producers, twenty-something cousins Jason Godden and Julian Saagers, filmmaker Gary Doust portrays them as architects of their own doom. Trapped in a well of debt and personal guarantees, they cannot walk away from Venus since their unfinished movie is their only asset: a distributor sale their only hope for solvency and validation. They burn friends, family and colleagues. Two directors fall in the battle to complete the pic, neither of them willing to claim credit for the mutant result. After five years, the two J’s murder more than a million dollars and end up with no sale and admit that they learnt how not to make a movie. Saagers and Gooden took over the edit and released Venus as Moneyshot themselves in 2003. It played on a double bill with Making Venus, which won prizes and launched Doust’s career as a filmmaker. Meanwhile, Godden and Saagers have failed to emerge with a follow up.
2. Cloak All Egos at the Door
There are two deathless truisms about show business: it is full assholes, and success can be ruinous to all it touches. Overnight is a doco about a guy who was perhaps always an asshole; success only succeeded in giving this boorish brag and his natural impulse more oxygen. Set in 1997 in a post-Tarantino world when crime scripts were in vogue, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein – who knows something about assholes and hot air – is the chief enabler here. He offered West Hollywood bar tender Troy Duffy $US1million for his script called The Boondock Saints (“Pulp Fiction with soul”), plus a budget of $US15m to direct. Duffy has designs on rock and roll fame, too: Madonna’s label promised to sign his band The Brood. Both deals implode, which moves Duffy to declare that the execs that control the biz are afraid of him and his “deep cesspool of talent”. The Boondock Saints was eventually made. It found its natural home on video and has a dedicated cult. Overnight might be seen as a form of revenge, a demolition job by two of Duffy’s former bandmates. Weirdly, though, Duffy comes off as victim, his unhinged ego making him vulnerable to the worst predatory instincts of a biz in search of not talent per se, but the next big thing. Duffy made a sequel to BD in 2009. Estimates claim it made $US50m on an $US8m budget.
3. Try Not to Die
Under Pressure: Making the Abyss (1993)
With The Abyss, a sci-fi action adventure movie about nuclear brinkmanship and aquatic E.T’s, James Cameron wanted to do for the bottom of the ocean what Stanley Kubrick did for outer space in 2001. Sensibly, Kubrick elected to shoot his epic while earthbound. Cameron, however, had the urge to get ‘wet’. Since no-one quite knew how to meet Cameron’s vision head-on, the production became a test case in ingenuity, design, high ambition and endurance; 40 percent of the shoot would take place underwater. Artificial tanks were too small and the ocean too unpredictable. A main ‘set’ was found in a disused nuclear reactor and two tanks were built; one of them held 28,000 m3 litres. You can tell Cameron’s own company Lightstorm produced the doco Under Pressure: Making the Abyss since its narration boasts rather than regrets that its production was the “toughest in history”; the voiceover sounds like a close cousin of God attempting to challenge one of those know-it-all National Geographic guys. What it doesn’t faithfully record is that Cameron, an experienced diver, nearly drowned. Absorbed in his work, he ran out of air in 10 metres of water. An assistant had forgotten to remind the director to check his air tank. Cameron fired him and went back to work. Today, Cameron is worth $US900m and he’s still finding ways to spend it while submerged. He partially bankrolled an adventure to the bottom of the sea from which emerged the 3D IMAX doco Deepsea Challenge.
4. Make Sure the Money is in the Bank
Lost in La Mancha (2002)
The history of the cinema is the history of dreams. Every director has a passion project. Some live. Some, like Kubrick’s Napoleon, die as out-sized imaginings too grand to mobilise in a business where the show remains subordinate always to the business. Others, like Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, are stillborn. This was an epic, the biggest independent European film ever with a $US32m budget. It went into production in 2000 in Spain with Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort (The Hairdresser’s Husband), and elaborate sets and costumes all in service to Gilliam’s serio-comic style – but after six days of shooting, financiers pulled the plug. Bad weather, bad luck, and Rochefort’s bad back were amongst the culprits. But the true villain – if Fulton and Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha, is to be believed – was bad faith. Gilliam himself shares in the guilt, admitting from the start the money available was well short to realise his splendid grandiosity, but Lost points a finger at timid moneymen. It doesn’t help that all practical contingencies seem like afterthoughts: a sound studio that isn’t sound-proof, a key location nestled under a jet-fighter flight path. Symbolic of the madness and the priorities of the executives here is their desire for a fall guy. The producers elect to fire the only individual who is in the one role to manage the chaos into something like order, gifted first assistant director and Gilliam’s ally, Phil Patterson. As for Gilliam’s Don, well, the dream lives on. There are plans to shoot it some time soon.
5. Remember It's a Movie, Not an Adventure
Burden of Dreams (1982)
Filmmakers are often branded as mad or crazed. Perhaps that’s in recognition of the admittedly attractive megalomaniacal possibilities that come with the job. If you’re so inclined, you can get away with almost anything and always have an alibi. Consider the bizarre career of Werner Herzog, he of the delightfully self-serious Teutonic accent and quasi-poetic musings. Every film seems an adventure, a thought problem, and a journey into the distant regions of the psyche. On Heart of Glass, he hypnotised the cast to give their on-camera performances a weird feel... For Fitzcarraldo, which is about a man who hauls a ship over the mountains of the Amazon to bring opera to the bush, Herzog actually dragged a real ship over a mountain, declaring that: “Even a six-year-old knows how to recognise a special effect. I wanted people to trust their eyes again… so they could trust their dreams again.” Les Blank’s now legendary Burden of Dreams captures the Fitzcaraldo movie adventure in all its mania, with Herzog as its benign dictator – part priest of cinema, part wretched self-hater. Herzog was haunted for years over rumours that his stubborn desire to wrench a movie free of the jungle quagmire brought death and discomfort to all those he touched. “I am a professional man,” he said recently. “I want to get away with a film and no one was injured. Why is it that every time a filmmaker is on camera it is undignified?”
6. Work with a Finished Script
Arising from footage shot on location by Eleanor Coppola, Hearts of Darkness is now considered amongst the greatest of all making-of movies. It captures the charisma of cast of crew with candour and it figures as pitiless appraisal of a director at work. Much of what came to plague director Francis Ford Coppola whilst shooting his Vietnam epic of moral horror was beyond his control: a star’s heart attack, a typhoon, a guerilla war, the heat of the jungle. Still, in the aftermath he willingly took the necessary flak for going into the project with a flawed and incomplete screenplay, a decision that cost him millions and delayed production and increased his own insecurities (with the consequent fallout on cast and crew). Later, he was to say all this was part of a grand design. The specific circumstances – the jungle, the sheer excess of the production, the anything-can-happen-next feeling – would play a role in how the unfinished script would evolve. “I wanted to put us all,” he says in Hearts, “in a position which reflected what the movie was about...” Apocalypse is now considered a classic. But its making haunts crew members still, with many saying they cannot bring themselves to watch it. As for Coppola, friends say he was never the same after. Today, he still makes the occasional low budget art-film, like Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011), but has often said he prefers the gentility of making a fine Chablis – the fruit of his Napa Valley vineyard, a nice drop by all accounts.
7. Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune was to be, in the words of its director, “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. Coming from Jodorowsky, Chilean-born auteur of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, that is but a modest claim and about the sanest thing he utters in Frank Pavich’s mind-blowing doco about a sci-fi epic that never was. Frank Herbert’s bestseller of intergalactic war and metaphysical meanderings, first published in 1965, was a perfect cult item. After a friend told Jodorowsky about it, the director determined to make it into a movie in 1974… even though he never got around to actually reading it. He also changed the ending: “I raped Herbert,” he says, “but with love.” Jodorowsky wrangled Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali as co-stars. He convinced Pink Floyd to do the music and recruited a stellar design/effects team including Chris Foss, Moebius, Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger. The entire script in storyboard strip form was produced. It circulated amongst Hollywood’s creatives and powerbrokers, who marvelled at its beauty. Money people told a disbelieving Jodorowsky that to realise his four-hour blockbuster would be like financing a moon landing, and thus Jodorowsky’s Dune blew up on the launch pad. The poignant truth of Pavich’s fine film is that unrealised projects live on in hit movies. Or more cynically, when you steal, steal from the best. (And it helps if you’re stealing from yourself.) Look at Alien and Star Wars, check the credits and do the math. Of course, Jodorowsky’s story of reaching too far, too soon could morph into one of a lucky escape. David Lynch inherited Dune. It tanked and its making drove Lynch crazy. Jodorowsky later found success and a small fame in graphic novels. His latest film is Dance of Reality (2013).