Dreams and Madness: 6 Great Documentaries about Making Film

Burden of Dreams (1982 Les Blank)

‘If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that’ – Werner Herzog

I did speak at length about Herzog and his films last week but regardless, a list of documentaries concerning the making of films could not conscientiously exclude Burden of Dreams – the remarkable behind-the-scenes exploration of the filmmaker’s troubled attempts to bring a story about an Irish rubber baron to the screen. The film was Fitzcarraldo and this was the early 1980s. The motives of Herzog, it appeared, closely resembled that of his protagonist in the film (played by Klaus Kinski), a man who is so intent on bringing opera to the Amazon jungles that he has his steamship hauled over a mountain in a quest to harvest rubber plants to fund his endeavor. Blank’s documentary exposes the stubborn persistence of Herzog in aiming to make his hugely ambitious project a reality and, even more, a success. The film was unsurprisingly beset with issues, not only with having a pivotal number of extras played by Indigenous people who were clearly besotted by the spectacle but also with the scope of filming the story exactly as it says – ‘set in the deep Amazon where a giant boat has to be pulled across a mountain’. The other mad thing was that the filming began with Jason Robards in the lead role and his ‘sidekick’ as Mick Jagger. This went up in the air fairly quickly with the jungle proving too much for both of them (Robards literally got the shits and Jagger had to get back on tour), but if Herzog thought things would go smoother by re-casting the lead with an absolutely unhinged lunatic in Kinski, he was being a bit silly, wasn’t he? With reports that Herzog and Kinski were at each others throats constantly throughout the filming, it was no surprise to see the director, despairing about nature and life in general in this now legendary interview from the documentary:

Room 237 (2012 Rodney Ascher)

The ‘science’ behind making a film can be an elusive subject, particularly when the storyline is layered with a series of sub-texts and other such complexities which the director never clarified. Room 237 is one such film that attempts to explore the ‘science’ behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining but not in a way you would expect. Instead of seeking expert advice, Rodney Ascher calls upon a number of overthinking fans to offer their wildly speculative theories about the films’ many layers and potential meanings, from Native American burial grounds to the Holocaust. Now, you could argue that the documentary does touch on the subject of mental health more than the ‘science’ behind the making of The Shining, but there are moments of true fascination here. Disregarding the preposterous notion, held by many mind you, that Kubrick was secretly letting the world know (!) that he did in fact film the moon landings in 1969 on a Hollywood set, you can, however, find some credence in the thoughts surrounding Kubrick’s outstanding attention to detail on-screen. The ominous setting of the Outlook Hotel and the pervading sense of menace that is enlivened by Nicholson’s tour-de-force in madness is something that allows The Shining to stand out as a classic horror. Indeed, Kubrick was a master at directing and he was handed a lot of time and money from the studios to create his projects. This is something that manages to slip from the minds of the analysts in this documentary but it is nevertheless incredibly interesting seeing a film of this stature deconstructed in such a way. It is slightly unrelated but I am sharing the end title tune from the documentary, just because it is awesome!

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

‘We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane’ – Francis Ford Coppola

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Yep, that’s Francis Ford Coppola with Dennis Hopper there. I imagine they are both arguing over who is the craziest fuck out of the two of them. My verdict – probably a stalemate but Hopper was equally dangerous as he was crazy (he was a woman beater). Coppola, on the other hand, was the king megalomaniac of the movie world in the 1970s. Thankfully (or disappointingly, most would say) he has become more subdued since then, making less high profile films and keeping out of the limelight. The making of Apocalypse Now between 1975 and 1978 was certainly the heady days of directors functioning beyond their means, and it is all here in this brilliant documentary about the film’s making and background. A class touch here is that Coppola’s long suffering wife, Eleanor, co-directed and narrated the documentary, providing a truly human feel to the cataclysmic hardships that befell the production. It appears that she literally went through hell while her husband for years selfishly pursued his unattainable dream of making an even better film than his early 70s masterpieces, The Godfather Parts 1 and 2. Amazingly she stuck with him – they are still married. The film certainly came to earn its status as a piece of unforgettable cinema but I imagine many of the people behind its creation, specifically Coppola, would look back on that time with cringe and embarrassment:

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014 David Gregory)

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Apocalypse Now may have been lucky enough to have had the right ingredients to come out at the end of all the turmoil as an excellent film, but the same cannot be said of The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1995. I remember the film in my teens and I remember thinking, even then, that it was a piece of shite but I had no idea of all the mayhem that had gone on behind the scenes. Re-enter Richard Stanley (pictured at top), the original director, to tell us all about its almighty, and let’s be honest, incredibly entertaining downfall. No doubt a fringe weirdo and a holy eccentric, Stanley does come across as a very engaging and creative bloke with a lot of interesting things to say. Granted his ideas for adapting H.G. Wells’ 19th Century novel were a tad over-the-top and sensationalist (see drawing above) and indeed filming out in the rainforests of Queensland, Australia was always going to be a sanity test, but the man had a vision and he was extremely passionate about it. If anything, this documentary displays all the ugliness prevalent in the US movie industry – the studios side with the big name stars and guarantee their big pay packets (Kilmer and Brando), while simultaneously throwing the small fry out to the wolves (or crocodiles, as was literally the case with Stanley). I suppose though, the fact that the movie was still a flop, even after big-name John Frankenheimer was brought on board to replace Stanley, justifies the lack of foresight on the part of the studios and producers. Stanley too had the last laugh, not only by appearing in this documentary, but also by having smuggled himself back onto the set in the later stages of the film’s production as an extra dressed up as a dog man. Fucking legend!

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013 Mami Sunada)

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‘Today, all of humanity’s dreams are cursed somehow’ – Hayou Miyazaki

The kingdom which the title here refers to is Studio Ghibli in Tokyo, the production company usually referred to by ignorant people as ‘Japanese Disney’ but more appropriately known as the place that created such anime masterpieces as My Neighbour Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The three directors/producers/animators you see in the picture above are Hayou Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki and these men provide the main focus of Sunada’s illuminating inside piece about the studio. What stands out for me here is the lack of grandeur and bluster associated with the studio and it’s employees. The offices are ordinary-looking and the people who work there are as down to earth as you would expect of any Japanese person, if you so have had the privilege.The huge box office earnings that the studio has generated over the years does not exactly jump out at the viewer and I suppose this is an indication of the continuing success of the place over a long period. This is what I like about the documentary – it does not have to be gregariously presented as one would potentially witness in a equivalent documentary about Marvel for example. Miyazaki and Takahata’s genius is not enforced upon you through their interviews. Rather they come across as perfectly relatable people who just happen to be incredibly grounded in what they do – tell stories through a medium of detailed drawings. Also, despite the announcement made in this documentary of Miyazaki’s retirement, it was with unbridled glee that I welcomed his recent change of heart saying that he would make one more production. Yay!

American Movie (1999 Chris Smith)

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‘He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not’ – Mark Borchardt’s mother

In contrast to the big productions alluded to above, American Movie focuses on the desperate and sometimes priceless attempts of an independent filmmaker to bring his low-grade, no-budget horror film to the screen – any screen for that matter. It is the most endearing and authentic piece of work about enterprise and real-life drama you can imagine. There is no doubt that, from the scenes shown in this documentary, Mark Borchardt’s film, Coven, is a nasty piece of nonsense but this never diminishes the fact that he and his comically odd, best friend and associate, Mike Schank, are essentially like us all: dreamers, persistently trying to see something through to the end in order to achieve that warm feeling of triumph and fulfillment. Borchardt rambles on about his creation with admirable, but incoherent, depth while at the same time colossally struggling with his personal and social, circumstances in life. He is a young man with three children whose mother is trying to gain full custody of. He lives with his parents in a small, cold suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And, along with his buddy, he struggles with alcohol and gambling. But having said all that, he  remains focused and upbeat about his film work. His interactions with his Veteran Uncle, who is a senile bachelor living in filth despite having a substantial bit of dough in the bank, are somehow tender, joyous and frankly hilarious to watch:

The aging man actually provides the notable heart to the conclusion of the documentary – his simple yet beautiful advice: forget about the money, just bring happiness in people’s hearts. And I’ll end on that note.

 

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