Movies about movies have been a regular part of the entertainment industry since the invention of filmmaking itself. It’s like the old motivational placard says: write what you know. And for a huge subset of battle-scarred indie auteurs and stressed-out Hollywood lifers, what they know is what it’s like to hang out on a film set.
As we saw firsthand in our Must-List about the most essential behind-the-scenes docs, shooting a movie can often be as fraught and dramatic a situation as any other into which otherwise sane-minded human beings might willingly insert themselves.
This week on the Must-List we asked our cinema-obsessed Film Independent staff to pick their favorite fictional flicks about life, love and lunacy behind the camera.
The Player (1992, dir. Robert Altman)
“I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.” That’s Tim Robbins, waxing psychotic as morally bankrupt movie producer Griffin Mill in Robert Altman’s vicious Hollywood satire, The Player. You should also know that when Griffin makes this statement (in a production meeting, no less) he’s actually just murdered Vincent D’Onofrio’s hapless screenwriter David Kahane, who he mistakenly believes has been sending him a series of threatening postcards. Altman’s film relishes the ragged line between art and commerce, and crucifies the studio system for leaving creativity behind in the blatant pursuit of $$$. Given the rise of tentpole films throughout the 1980s and the high-octane action bloodbaths that were becoming the norm when the film was released in 1992, The Player is not only a testament to every artist to have ever been railroaded by the studio machine, but also a pitch-perfect black comedy that only gets more prophetic with each passing year.
-Evan Ward-Henninger, Associate Membership Director
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
Like most people, I can be very, very picky when it comes to musicals. But it’s hard to deny the utterly charming kitsch of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 classic, Singin’ in the Rain. The film follows the journey of a production company in the late 1920s as it transitions out of the silent film era and takes its first troublesome jab at making pictures with sound—aka “the Talkies.” Starring the always-charismatic Gene Kelly, the hilarious Donald O’Connor and the lovely Debbie Reynolds, the leads truly exemplify what it means to be a “triple threat” as they act, dance and sing their way through the film’s very creative production design. The world of the film is elegant, vibrant and only a little bit soggy.
-Kaia Placa, Institutional Giving Coordinator
Adaptation (2002, dir. Spike Jonze)
My favorite film about filmmaking is Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and written by the great Charlie Kaufman. I find all of Kaufman’s films to be extremely profound and surprisingly moving, plus the “movie-within-the-movie” genre is one of my favorite tropes. Nicolas Cage’s character (named “Charlie Kaufman”) is trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a movie, but ends up getting into all kinds of crazy drama when he becomes involved with both Orlean and her crazy orchid-grower boyfriend. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage also plays Donald—Charlie’s twin brother. Donald is the exact opposite of Charlie’s neurotic writer in every way: he’s outgoing and friendly, and starts (out of the blue) to have the amazing screenwriting career that Charlie himself dreams of. How did Donald achieve this amazing feat? Easy—by taking one class with noted screenwriting guru Robert McKee, of course! This is a great movie about the paralyzing self-doubt of writers’ block, with an incredible dual performance by Nicolas Cage. My favorite scene is near the end when Charlie and Donald are hiding in a swamp having a profound conversation about life. Charlie says, “I spent my whole life paralyzed by what other people think of me. And you—you’re just oblivious.” In response, Donald simply says, “You are what you love. Not what loves you.”
-Jenn Wilson, LA Film Festival Senior Programmer
The State of Things (1982, dir. Wim Wenders)
A fantastic but relatively little seen film about filmmaking is Wim Wenders’ 1982 film, The State of Things. The movie follows an unlucky film crew who get stuck in Portugal when their money runs out and they have no more film stock. Gorgeously shot in black and white by Henri Alekan—who also shot Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, among others—The State of Things captures the bizarre fugue state that descends upon a movie set when the money is suddenly gone and people can neither leave nor continue working. In addition to the great Patrick Bauchau in the lead role of the film’s director, The State of Things includes amazing performances from Sam Fuller (as Joe the Cameraman) and a cameo from Roger Corman as a lawyer. In one scene, Fuller’s character memorably tells the young director: “Do you have any knee pads? Well you get the goddamned kneepads and you put ’em on your knees! Get your ass out here and start to pray. If you’re a good boy we’ll finish the picture.” After a pause, he adds: “If I were you, I’d get a job in a gas station!” It’s a must-watch for anyone who loves film—and definitely for anyone who’s actually made one. Fun fact: Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise was shot on leftover film stock from The State of Things, given to him by Wenders—ironic, since the fictional film being shot in The State of Things is itself being shot on short ends (at least until they run out!)
-Josh Welsh, Film Independent President
Super 8 (2011, dir. J.J. Abrams)
For those of us who spent our entire childhoods filming silly, stupid and (looking back on them now) awful movies with friends, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is everything you could want in a movie about movies. The plot follows a group of normal, everyday kids who spend their free time coming up with wild stories to film with their trusty Super 8 camera. But soon an adventure larger than any kid’s imagination ensues, throwing the characters into a situation eerily similar to the outlandish stories they’ve long been making for the camera. Leaving the theater, my film school buddies and I spent hours re-living all our childhood filmmaking mishaps and marveling at the freedom we felt making up stories with our wonderful, kid-sized imaginations.
-Hannah Brown, Event Producer
Day for Night (1973, dir. François Truffaut)
There’s a scene in François Truffaut’s Day for Night in which the entire crew of the film within the film waits for a kitten to walk up to a saucer of milk and take a drink. But the cat won’t do it. One take he doesn’t enter the shot; the next, he runs right through it. “Somebody find me a cat that can act!” yells the director, Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself). Eventually, the ever-resourceful script girl hunts down the studio cat, who—of course—nails it on the first try. As the crew looks breathlessly on, the cat laps up the milk and all of movie-making is summed up in this moment. Shooting a film is like trying to stage a miracle. Day for Night is a movie filled with them.
-Tom Sveen, LA Film Festival Marketing Coordinator
The Stunt Man (1980, dir. Richard Rush)
Generally speaking, any movie about the actual process of making movies is going to contain its fair share of insanity. But few films about on-set life are as genuinely disorienting and darkly bonkers as director Richard Rush’s sadly underrated 1980 masterpiece, The Stunt Man. The story follows Cameron (Steve Raisback), a young fugitive who bumbles onto the problem-plagued set of a WWI epic being directed by the unhinged English director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), who will do anything—anything—to get the footage he needs. Cameron soon lands a job as a stuntman on the picture, which sounds like a pretty good gig—except for the part where the film’s previous stunt man has died under some pretty mysterious circumstances. It doesn’t help that Cameron also strikes up a romance with the film’s leading lady (Barbara Hershey), who Cross also loves. Rush’s film is deeply weird, bending and folding the layers of meta-reality on top of each other so subtly and so gradually that by the time of the film’s climax the viewer is just as mixed-up and paranoid as Cameron. Add to that a wonderfully hambone (and Oscar-nominated!) performance by O’Toole as an ambulatory, Shakespeare-spouting cartoon-plumb caricature of nightmare film director pretentions, and you have a lunatic Hollywood satire for the ages.
-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
Living in Oblivion (1995, dir. Tom DiCillo)
In Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion the film set acts as more than just the setting for yet another “movie-within-movie”—the film set is itself the story’s main character. While the cast and crew’s antics are the source of much of the craziness, so too does the inherent lunacy of set life in general inspire both madness and conflict for everyone else. In much the same way that sitcoms have us rooting for characters to succeed while loving to watch them fail, we root for the production’s success almost more than the characters themselves do, all while enjoying the hilariously unrelenting conflict that makes movies like this so much fun to watch.
-Amelia Cyze, Development Intern
Hopefully you enjoy these picks, but just in case the sheer weight of so much behind-the-scenes bickering, hardship and humiliation is too much for you, don’t worry. It’s actually way, way worse in real life.