April 13, 2008

Six movies about movies that all (aspiring) filmmakers should see

This isn’t one of those things where I berate film lovers for not having seen certain movies, as in “How can you call yourself an aspiring filmmaker and never have seen Citizen Kane? You are a disgrace to humanity.” That is beyond annoying, and there are certainly plenty of people who already do it. Rather, I’ve compiled a list of movies that offer valuable lessons about the craft of filmmaking itself. They are by no means how-to guides, but offer insights that you might not get from Film 101.

1. Overnight (2003)
This is a documentary chronicling the creation of the film Boondock Saints. What was probably intended as a behind-the-scenes featurette, however, evolved into a portrait of a man turned monster. Troy Duffy is blue-collar bartender from Boston whose script is purchased for an unprecedented sum, with the chance for him to direct. He then proceeds to bite every hand that feeds him, and hasn’t found work since. He fucked up the biggest opportunity of his life not via creative shortcomings, but just for being a total douchebag. The problem is, you have to earn the right to be an asshole, by kissing the feet of all the other assholes. One of my film professors (who is also a professional filmmaker) says he watches this every year just to keep him in check.

2. Ed Wood (1994)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the story of Ed Wood, who had all the earnestness and resourcefulness in the world, but none of the opportunity. So he made his own. He proved that if you want to get a movie made, you can, whether it’s financed by a Baptist church or a terrible actress who places herself in the lead. The scene where his film crew steals a mechanical octopus for a pivotal shot but forget to take the motor as well is a perfect summary of what life on set is like. Ed just shrugs and tells the actor to wrestle with it convincingly. Even though Wood was not taken seriously during his lifetime and given the title of “The World’s Worst Director” after his death, his films sparkle with a sheen of do-it-yourself enthusiasm and gusto. I think I’ll probably make a habit out of watching this before shoots…there’s always a way!

3. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2005)
While some viewers criticized this film for being too exploitative and sensationalist, it’s still a disturbing and well-needed insight into the corrupt world of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). In addition to being raucously entertaining, it’s also an unsettling primer for filmmakers on how audiences will ultimately see their work (if at all). Interviews with directors and actors are particularly revealing, such as a candid discussion with Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce. She explains that the MPAA had no problem with a scene of a character getting her brains blown out, but objected to a shot of Chloe Sevigny’s face during an orgasm. The Puritan bias against sex (and the blind eye they turn to violence) is frustrating, but important to know about.

4. 8 ½ (1963) and Adaptation. (2002)
The reason I grouped these together is that despite their obvious differences, they both address a similar theme: the fine line between one’s creative work and personal life. Too often filmmakers fight to keep their own lives out of their work, which is a grave mistake. Some directors, like documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, have careers that are solely autobiographical. Ideally, an artist can embrace his or her personal struggles and incorporate them into creative output, whether they concern women like in 8 ½ or writer’s block like in Adaptation.

5. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Besides being a ridiculously entertaining musical and a primer on cinema’s transition to “talkies,” this film drives home an crucial message to filmmakers: SOUND IS IMPORTANT! While you may roll your eyes at this and find it to be obvious, you’d be surprised at how many obnoxious film school students have not grasped this concept. My aforementioned film professor always reminded us that “sound is half your picture,” and there is no greater indicator of a shitty student film than shitty audio. The addition of sound also means that your script has to be solid, which distresses Gene Kelly’s character immensely when the movie he is working on becomes a sound picture (to which he protests and asks if he can just say the same silly things he always says). So many people I know get hung up on making their shot look pretty, and forget about its content. At the core of this movie is a look at what makes a movie work or not work, and how that changes over time.

Any (aspiring) filmmakers out there who have titles to contribute?