A few weeks ago, I almost died. I don’t think I’m being needlessly dramatic when I say that. I’d been in Edinburgh with my crew filming an interview for the new documentary (which I can’t tell you about for a while) Having completed a great interview with a chap of no small pop-culture significance, Hank and I set off home. As we reached the Lake District, the road suddenly turned white and a freak sleet storm threw the entire motorway into chaos. We skidded, then got clipped by another skidding car and started spiralling across the middle and fast lanes of the motorway, we did three complete spins and then crashed into the central reservation, facing the oncoming traffic in the fast lane. We were lucky at every point. We weren’t hurt, nothing else hit us, the car – although written off – didn’t blow up like it seemed to be threatening to do as we staggered out of it. We were also lucky that all of the film equipment was undamaged and the hard drives containing the footage were intact too.
A few days before the crash, we heard that one of the interviewees we had been chatting to and had agreed to be filmed had suddenly died. Slightly less dramatically, one of the interviewees we’d been trying to track down also showed up dead, but not quite as recently. Having grown up hearing of cursed film productions – notably Poltergeist which was legendarily shadowed by the young deaths of several of its cast – it got me a little antsy. But we’re fine, as was everyone else. I heard 14 cars came off the road in that storm and nobody was hurt at all.
It did make me think about how what happens when a film is being made is often every bit as interesting as what happens in front of the camera. We’ve not been documenting the documentary (it’s just too meta a thing to do) but it did put me in a place where I felt like I needed to watch some documentaries about behind-the-scenes strife in films more notable than ours to put myself straight again.
Just a few to look at today – and I’ve focused on actual standalone documentaries, not DVD special features of which, obviously, there are legion (the Alien box set being the best!). Also not covered is the most prominent of the genre Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles the making of Apocalypse Now… I’ve apparently lent my copy to somebody so wasn’t able to rewatch it. It’s worth hunting out, though.
Overnight is a tough film to watch on many levels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film but it’s a pummeling experience. Remember that golden period in the 90s when Miramax was just ruling the roost in Hollywood? Finding incredible untapped talented filmmakers and launching them into the stratosphere? Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith were the most famous beneficiaries of the Miramax magic wand but the shake-up was industry-wide. Overnight is the story of the almost-ran at the Miramax stable. Life seems good when we meet Troy Duffy, a barman who wrote his first ever script and sold it to the studio for $300k in a deal that promised him a further $150k to direct and a budget of $15,000,000. He has hired his friends to document his meteoric rise and is enjoying the media attention and all of the Hollywood stars who suddenly want to be his friend. Swayze, Wahlberg and a bunch of others all want to be part of the new big thing but drift away as the story quickly sours. Although undoubtedly a victim of selective editing, there is no way of denying that Duffy is a blowhard asshole. Ego barely covers his condition and there are many excruciating scenes of horrible, horrible self-importance. The filmmaking brilliance is not just in how the makers capture this but more how they capture it through the subtle expressions of everyone else in Duffy’s life. The unspoken awareness in the eyes of his friends and family that he has become a total monster.
Quickly, he moves his focus away from his friends and subordinates and on to his employers, superiors and betters. He needlessly creates a power struggle and is forced to confront the reality of a Miramax blacklisting. It’s compulsive viewing, Duffy is a larger than life character, a caricature, but you’re also aware that such behaviour is born out of serious, damaged insecurity and it’s hard to turn a blind eye to the fact that the man is clearly a long-term alcoholic. This makes it less fun that the trailer might suggest and the very definition of ‘car crash’ entertainment.
LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)
Anyone who has ever made a film will feel the pain of this film with the intense empathic familiarity that every man on the face of the planet experiences when he sees another man get hit in the balls. You feel it welling in your soul. Lost in La Mancha is, essentially, the making-of Terry Gilliam’s epic Don Quixote film. “But.. I didn’t know Gilliam made a Don Quixote film!” I hear you mutter as you scramble for IMDB. You won’t find it there. And Lost in La Mancha tells you why. Never has a film been more beset by curse and never has a documentary crew been so lucky and sharp as to capture it in such devastating detail. On paper, it all looked great: a decent budget, Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, esteemed French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote… but as soon as Gilliam arrives in Spain to commence production, the cracks start to appear. Contracts aren’t really nailed down. Scheduling is looking a little tight with contingency fast evaporating. The studio that has been hired is useless for sound. None of the actors are even in the country. Gilliam’s nervousness is clearly on the rise but they muddle forward regardless and busy themselves. In time, things start to fall into place, Rochefort arrives and is clearly the man for the part, Depp arrives in a motivating blaze of creativity and filming begins with gusto.
Then it gets horrible. It’s not so much the cracks getting worse as completely unexpected forces suddenly decimate the production – the desert they’re filming in experiences a storm which destroys the sets and washes away all of the film equipment. Rochefort develops a prostate infection rendering him in agony and unable to sit on a horse, which is really the bare minimum of what his part demands. Insurance issues arise and the production quickly goes to shit.
It’s a delicately filmed piece, a fantastic work in character study and actually it shows Gilliam in a great light. He has always been unfairly tarnished as a maverick filmmaker after his battles with the studio over Brazil and vastly over-reported problems during the filming of Baron Munchausen. Here we see a man of great vision and spirit rendered dumb by sheer bad luck. It’s an incredible watch.
EVERYTHING OR NOTHING (2002)
Here is the perfect example of a trailer missing the point of a film. I’d imagine something more honest might have been a harder sell but although, yes, this film is the story of the Bond cinema franchise, really it’s the story of two men. This is not to dismiss the fantastically candid interviews with past Bond actors – Brosnan and Lazenby being particularly unguarded and hilarious and Connery conspicuous in his absence as we find out just how difficult he was. The meat of this story, though is the previously barely-explored relationship between the producers – Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli. It’s a dramatic, epic journey through decades of ups and downs where we get to learn who these incredible characters were and what inspired them to make the choices they made. The ups and downs of their own relationship had me welling up. It evokes a time in film history long gone where impressarios and dreamers ruled the roost rather than money men and hacks. It also brought home to me how anything behind the scenes about film very very rarely actually explains who a producer is and what they do. The director still gets all the kudos, the actors still got all of the attention but, quite simply, without a producer there is no film. Each producer, each production, differs from the next – some are creatively hands on, some are economically forceful. Some control, some support. Some hinder, some help. It surprises me that so little focus is ever put on their role.
Anyway, my producer is amazing. Hank Starrs. If it hadn’t been for his quick instincts in how he dealt with the car skidding, it could have all ended up a lot worse for a lot of people. The true heroes are rarely the ones in front of the camera and the best drama is what’s happening off-screen.