In their lowest form, documentaries about making movies can be little more than glorified EPK packages—just another bland, uncritical promo tool for suckering consumers and separating them from their hard-fought entertainment dollar.
But at their best, docs about filmmakers and filmmaking can become invaluable historical documents that contextualize and explain just how, exactly, the flicks we love (or love to hate) get to be that way—or in some cases, don’t get made at all.
Done right, behind-the-scenes docs can become as indispensible, iconic and canonical as the films whose (inevitably rocky) birth they help immortalize—full of high stakes, ticking clocks and outsized characters with fragile egos and hair-trigger tempers. Just think: all the building blocks of great drama are already sitting there right behind the camera, waiting to be captured.
BTS features are a core part of any dedicated film fan’s diet. Luckily, the genre only gets more and more robust with each passing year, as Hollywood’s veil of secrecy and image-management continues to erode in the face of our new media economy.
So whether driven by schadenfreude, geek fandom or pure academic interest, the fine art of pointing a camera under Hollywood’s kimono is here to stay.
This week on The Must-List we asked our Film Independent staffers to grab a bucket of gluten-free popcorn and recommend five behind-the-scenes docs that lay bare the glorious, insane process of putting entertainment up on the big screen.
Lost in La Mancha (2003, dir. Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe)
Lost In La Mancha follows Director Terry Gilliam as he tries to get his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote through pre-production. Although it sets out to be an epic $32 million project starring Johnny Depp as Sancho Panza, the project quickly descends into chaos with flash floods, an ailing Quixote and an outdoor filming location that turns out to be next to a NATO bombing range. Through it all Gilliam struggles onward as things fall apart around him and the film’s investors begin to pull out. Although Gilliam’s painful process of trying to get a film off the ground resulted in the demise of his own project, a great film did still rise from the ashes in the form of Lost in La Mancha. And—an interesting Film Independent fact—the team behind Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, are still working together. Their newest documentary project The Bad Kids was selected to participate in Film Independent’s Fast Track program in 2015, and premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Competition.
-Kate Walker D’Angelo, Director of Institutional Giving
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (2014, dir. David Gregory)
No other entry in this odd microgenre comes close to matching the pig-faced glory of David Gregory’s lengthily-titled Netflix juggernaut, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which traces the trajectory of the ill-fated 1996 H.G. Wells adaptation from ambitious genre fare to much-derided bad-movie boondoggle. Everyone involved with Moreau still seems in shock at just how badly this venture went off the rails—none more than original director Richard Stanley, who was bullied off the project into backwoods bathtub exile (for real). In interviews, Stanley still seems traumatized by the ordeal: a broken Brit in a stupid hat consigned to a French shack full of occult baubles, recalling with black humor the time he almost got to direct the movie of his dreams before the twin tornados of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer swept in and ruined his life. It’s fascinating, funny stuff, and as instructive about the entropic forces working against art as any piece of storytelling I can recall.
-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
Becoming Bulletproof (2014, dir. Michael Barnett)
Jeremy is 28 years old and has Williams Syndrome. A.J. is from Atlanta and Judi is a receptionist from Connecticut—both have cerebral palsy. Together, the three of them—along with several of their peers, all suffering from similar physical health conditions—have made their dream of appearing on the big screen a reality by acting in an innovative western called Bulletproof. Becoming Bulletproof follows their often-arduous (but consistently joyful) journey to create the film, produced in collaboration with a non-profit called Zeno Mountain Farm. The behind-the-scenes drama is captured by documentarian Michael Barnett’s camera. This insightful, inspirational doc proves that making any movie is difficult, but Barnett gracefully puts these everyday challenges into perspective.
-Chloe Simmons, Institutional Giving Coordinator
Hearts of Darkness (1991, dir. Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper & Fax Bahr)
Arguably the granddaddy of all behind-the-scenes documentaries, no list of this sort would be complete without Hearts of Darkness, compiled from hundreds of hours of home movies shot during the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—one of the most famously difficult film shoots in Hollywood history. The film is full of amazingly candid footage which elucidates each and every disaster to befall Now’s production, from early casting troubles, to star Martin Sheen’s heart attack, to biblical monsoons which destroyed both locations and equipment. But perhaps the biggest struggle faced by Coppola and his crew was wrangling the performance of Marlon Brando (making his second appearance on this list), who showed up to the film grossly overweight and unprepared. Coppola famously said of Apocalypse Now, “My film isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam,” and while the veracity of that statement is debatable, it’s not difficult to see why he thought so after witnessing the horror (the horror…) of Hearts of Darkness. (Matt Warren)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013, dir. Frank Pavich)
Sometimes the best movies are the ones that exist only in the mind. That seems to be the thesis of Frank Pavich’s ultra-watchable 2013 doc Jodorowsky’s Dune, which chronicles the frenzied (coke-fueled?) idea-a-minute brainstorming phase of cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famously unwieldy sci-fi classic. Ultimately Jodorowsky’s film was a non-starter, full of eccentric dream casting (Orson Welles! Salvador Dali!) and grotesque fantasy imagery. But it sure made for one hell of a proof-of-concept book, which Pavich excerpts from liberally, goosing the still images with motion graphics to create a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been. Once the project inevitably fell apart, the creative team dispersed and took their ideas to films such as Alien and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Would Jodorowsky’s film have actually been as good as the film seems to insist? Who knows?! But that’s not really the point. The point is: even failed ideas ripple out. (Matt Warren)
There you go. Have fun loading up that Netflix queue, and don’t be discouraged if these documentaries make filmmaking look like the traumatic ordeal it—let’s be honest—so frequently is. The message here is that art is worth it… sometimes.