Cinema is not created in a vacuum. Movies are the product of an often violent and tumultuous creative process. Artists devote themselves entirely to their vision and sometimes it comes to fruition. Other times it does not, and their dream dies a long and slow death, in boardrooms and financial documents, and the creator’s desire to create is met with the harsh reality that cinema as an art has been commodified to a near-impossible degree.
The documentaries below highlight the struggles of the filmmaking process, but most importantly, these nonfiction films never forget the positivity and magic that comes with the sheer act of cinematic creation.
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014)
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn is a documentary directed by Liv Corfixen, wife of titular filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, and it chronicles the production process of Refn’s 2013 thriller, Only God Forgives. This is a blunt and unflinching look at the burden that comes with a filmmaker having to make a follow-up to their first true holistic hit, as Refn struggles to create a movie that feels like a worthy successor to his 2011 effort, Drive, and he feels unsure about his new project as each day of production goes on.
By the end, Refn looks beat, and he states how he constantly feels like an imposter. He knows Only God Forgives is more than the sum of its parts but that the sum of its parts will not appeal to many. And he was right. Corfixen’s camera hangs on Refn throughout the release of the movie, and this is often challenging to watch. Yet, Refn made a movie that was his sole vision, and he got to spend time with his family along the way. There is warmth and solace in that.
The Making of ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1984)
The Making of Fanny and Alexander is concerned with the making of Ingmar Bergman’s colossal two-part film Fanny and Alexander. The documentary can be found on the Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray releases of the masterpiece. Bergman was quite public about the making of Fanny and Alexander, as he proclaimed it to be his last film, and he invited many journalists and documentarians to the set. Most importantly, he invited Arne Carlsson to film the production, and then he later himself compiled everyone’s footage into this making-of documentary. In doing so, it became an intimate, first-person look at one’s creative process. Bergman has many first-person intertitles throughout the documentary, and they accompany and imbue the footage with a sense of privacy, as if the viewer is let into the self-conscious mind of an auteur.
The doc showcases the struggles of making a film, but it also shows how personal and often warm Bergman was as a director — we see him direct his actors as if they are precious objects meant to be cherished. The most moving moment comes when Bergman is watching some of the footage he’s shot for Fanny and Alexander. He seems neither happy nor sad, but there is something in his demeanor that implies relief. He’s done it. His film is his.
The Shark is Still Working (2007)
The Shark is Still Working details the making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The documentary is a glimpse into how troubling a shoot the movie had and how its animatronic shark was a large thorn embedded deep in Spielberg’s side. That was the central problem of the movie’s production.
But as The Shark is Still Working goes on, the doc’s focus extends to the legacy of Jaws. With that movie, Spielberg perfected a genre, created the blockbuster, and inspired and struck fear into generations to come. Erik Hollander‘s doc is concerned with just how it did that and seeks to find the answer through various interviews while looking at how one fictional work can change so many lives. The movie even had an effect on nature, as seen with how people choose to view sharks in a post-Jaws world.
It is through The Shark Is Still Working’s interest in legacy that the brilliance of the filmmaking process is brought to light. Struggles were had, compromises were made, and it was through struggle that brilliance was born.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ (2014)
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ has to be seen to be believed. It is a powder keg of a film, unrestrained and always ready to blow with new and bewildering information about one of the most notorious film productions in modern Hollywood history. David Gregory directs and curates this film with a sense of desperate energy, of seeking the truth of what went wrong, in much the same way that Richard Stanley was desperate to make his film and to find his own version (or truth) in the story of Dr. Moreau. Creative decisions between Stanley, his actors, and the film’s producers are what eventually led to his termination from the project. Yet, tensions were high from the start of production. The filters are off as Stanley, members of the crew, and even some extras let loose and tell absolutely wild stories of what happened on set.
A lot of those stories are accompanied by stock footage of what was happening on set plus photos and some of Stanley’s inventive and genuinely interesting concept art for what he wanted his film to be. Sadly, that movie never came to be, and what is left is an abysmal feature where Marlon Brando gets eaten alive by dog people. The Island of Dr. Moreau is very bad, but this documentary is a very interesting look at just how wrong the filmmaking process can go. Plus, there is a funny anecdote about how Stanley, upon his termination from the project, retreated into the woods and returned to the set dressed as one of the dog people in the hopes of sabotaging the project. Yes, really.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky views the creation of cinema as an open, honest, and often brutal act, as seen through the man that was Andrei Tarkovsky and the making of his 1986 drama The Sacrifice. Arne Carlsson (once again) filmed about 50 hours of footage on the set of Tarkovsky’s movie, and The Sacrifice editor Michal Leszczylowski cut the footage together into this documentary he’s credited as directing. Leszczylowski also added scenes from prior Tarkovsky interviews as well spoken-word renditions of key quotes from Tarkovksy’s book Sculpting in Time. What comes through is a truthful and intimate look at a man who put his entire essence into each and every film he made. Tarkovsky was an emotional man, he bore his soul in his work, and it took a toll on him. For Tarkovsky, the world rested on his shoulders when he was behind the camera, and thus when things went wrong it struck him to his emotional core.
Where the doc finds its utmost honesty is in the moments during and after one of Tarkovsky’s cameras fails as the house from The Sacrifice is immolated in fire. He shouts, seems on the verge of tears, and paces about. Like the house burning, his dream seems to be destroyed before his very eyes. But it all comes together in the end, and therein lies the tenacity and poetic magic of cinema itself.
Dangerous Days: Making ‘Blade Runner’ (2007)
Dangerous Days: Making ‘Blade Runner’ is a tome of a film at nearly three-and-a-half hours in length. It is dense, poetic, pessimistic, and hopeful. The story behind Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece is a troubled one, as is evident in the various cuts of the film that have been released. The film itself, through new interviews and never-before-seen footage, is chronicled from the birth of an idea to the release of the ultimate finished product. It is exhaustive and, in many ways, seems to be made for the most devout of Blade Runner fans. But underneath it all, Dangerous Days is a testament to the tenacity that a filmmaker must have if they want their vision to be released undisturbed and not tampered with by studios or the like. A lot of the behind the scenes drama is captured and the footage is both entertaining and unsettling. The drama seems private, almost too human to be witnessed. In this, the viewer becomes a voyeur of confrontation, dissent, and disagreement. After watching this documentary, it is nothing short of a miracle that Blade Runner exists in any capacity.
Lost in La Mancha (2002)
Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha highlights the plight of Terry Gilliam during his failed attempt to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made. The film sympathizes with Gilliam and his desire to just have his own damn vision brought to screen, raw and untouched by any third parties. Yet, nothing goes as planned. What follows is an hour-and-a-half train wreck that the viewer can’t help but watch. It is funny, acidic, and overwhelmingly sad. But the humor bubbles to the top, and the doc itself is sparked with energy that harkens back to Gilliam’s Monty Python days, but still, the humor is just a coping mechanism. Trying to get this film made, in a way, breaks Gilliam, and all he and those around him seem to have left are jokes. The one last respite from the reality of their situation.
The relevance this film still has is that, after nearly 20 years, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally making its way into theaters as a finished product ready to be seen by audiences. Yes, Gilliam tried and failed to make his film over and over again. But he finally got it made! Lost in La Mancha is a celebration of a doomed vision — the cinematic equivalent to a funeral for a funny friend who never got their due. But, as Gilliam’s fate would have it, a version of his dream has finally gotten its due and is now a real thing that exists. No one can take that from him or those who view the finished film that is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Jodorowky’s Dune (2013)
Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is an intimate and often comedic look at what could have been with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious vision for a cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune. Pavich’s doc is a pleasurable and wholly enjoyable experience that is focused on the not-so-happy topic of a failed vision. Jodorowsky seems to have come to terms with what happened while trying to get his project off of the ground, and in this doc, he is in top form — comedic, energetic, nostalgic, and hopeful. He regales the viewer with tales of how he and his partners (his “spiritual warriors”) did all they could to get the film made, and what a film it would have been! Pavich paints an image of what might have been, and it seems quite revelatory.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film more excited about what could be than reality, itself. It is obsessed with Jodorowsky and his vision and those who wanted to help Jodorowsky’s vision become a reality. Yet, the film still finds time for reality and for the sadness of a lost dream. This comes by way of Jodorowksy’s son telling of how, if the film had been made, what his alternate life as a superstar would have been like. But like his father’s dream, it was only that — a dream.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an extraordinary and searing look into the human cost(s) of a wholly extraordinary situation. Francis Ford Coppola, after the success of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, was nigh-untouchable in Hollywood. He could make whatever he wanted, and he set his sight on a dark, expressionistic tale about humanity, inhumanity, and the Vietnam War. Little did he know that the making of Apocalypse Now would almost ruin his life and his filmmaking career. It is one of the most essential documentaries about creating cinema, as the film never shies away from Coppola throughout the entire tumultuous production of his war epic.
Budgets of every kind ballooned and then ballooned some more. Deadlines were extended and extended. Sets were flooded. Actors grew sick, angry, and bemused by the sheer chaos of what was happening on set. Coppola always seems one hair-pin away from suffocating under the pressure of it all, and somehow he pulls through. Tenacity and selfishness pull him across the finish line.
Throughout the film, Coppola is akin to a cornered animal, desperate and scared. He knows his life and his career are on the line, and it seems like the entire universe is against him. But he finishes. Few films have been as notorious in their creation as Apocalypse Now was, and few films are as genuinely incredible as Apocalypse Now. Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and the subject’s own wife, Eleanor Coppola, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an unflinching and necessary look at just how unhinged a production can become, but if in the right hands, victory can be reaped from defeat.
Burden of Dreams (1982)
Burden of Dreams, made by the legendary documentarian Les Blank, is the quintessential film about the woes and triumphs of the filmmaking process. In 1980, Werner Herzog ventured into the South American rainforest to create a film about a crazed man who wants to bring the opera to the native inhabitants along the banks of the Amazon River, and in order to do so, he would have to pull a steamship over a hill. Herzog being Herzog, he declared that he and his crew shoot should exclusively on location and actually pull a steamship over a hill. In this, Herzog became Fitzcarraldo, the subject of his fictional film Fitzcarraldo. What follows is genuinely harrowing and at times infuriating.
Blank’s camera remains forever objective as it takes in all that happens on the tumultuous set of Fitzcarraldo. Klaus Kinski, the ever-volatile actor, lashes out at Herzog and anyone within earshot. He threatens to leave more than once! Workers on set are attacked by natives, and one takes an arrow through the throat. It is during this gut-wrenching moment that Herzog (almost) realizes that his selfish vision and hubris might have gone too far—he looks like a child, regretful and scared. Yet, he pushes on. He suffers, as the entire cast and crew do. His voice and musings tie the film together, as the viewer both sees and hears Herzog slowly lose it in the depths of the jungle. But there is always an aura of triumph throughout the film. Everyone, except maybe Kinski, wants to see the film to completion and to get that damn ship over the hill. The ship is an embodiment of Herzog’s hubris. It is large, tenacious, somewhere it doesn’t belong, but somehow it will get over that hill.