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Published on January 14th, 2014 | by Padraic Coffey

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Five Great Documentaries about Filmmaking

This article was originally published on Volta.ie on 15th January 2014.

In Interior.Leather Bar, James Franco and Travis Mathews trawl through lost footage from William Friedkin’s Cruising to create a unique film about filmmaking. Here are some of the best of that sub-genre.

1. Interior. Leather Bar

For William Friedkin and Al Pacino, the 1970s could scarcely have gone any better. Pacino may not have won an Academy Award (such an accolade would await him for 1993’s Scent of a Woman), but his performances in a string of highly-acclaimed films (The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) cemented his reputation as one of America’s finest actors. Friedkin, meanwhile, broke box office records with his controversial chiller The Exorcist in 1973, having scooped both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for 1971’s The French Connection.

The two’s first and only collaboration, however, was not the roaring success some may have expected. Cruising, released in 1980, details an undercover policeman’s attempt to immerse himself in the gay scene of New York City, in order to track down a seemingly homophobic serial killer. The film was subject to many disruptive protests from the LGBT community during filming, and ordered by the notoriously inflexible MPAA to have 40 minutes of its running length trimmed.

With Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco and documentarian Trevor Mathews investigate this missing footage, believed to have been destroyed by United Artists, the original distributors of Cruising. Franco himself has made no secret of his disdain for past cinematic representations of gay nightclubs (he alluded to films such as Cruising in his inflammatory review for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, recalling McQueen’s sophomore effort Shame). Interior. Leather Bar is a short, sharp and highly experimental approach to the behind-the-scenes genre of cinema, which garnered superlative praise from LGBT filmmakers such as John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Andrew Haigh (Weekend).

2. Burden of Dreams

Few cinematic partnerships were either as fruitful or as volatile as Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog’s. The two worked together on a number of accepted classics: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo, in particular, is a work that has reverberated throughout popular culture (Irish band The Frames named arguably their finest album after it). It tells the story of a enterprising Irishman (the title is derived from the phonetic South American pronunciation of ‘Fitzgerald’) who attempts to haul a hefty steamship over a hill in the Peruvian Jungle.

Offstage, the film’s shoot proved considerably difficult, with Kinsksi frequently attacking Herzog, the crew and anyone around him. Such outbursts were captured in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a feature length film which won Best Documentary at the BAFTAs in 1982. Blank’s work is often described as cinema verité, though he himself repudiated such claims, opting to use more conventional cinematic approaches in order to create the most accessible, accomplished films possible. A notable monologue from Herzog on the destructiveness of nature – a recurring motif in Herzog’s own work, as seen in 2005’s Grizzly Man – was actually the result of Blank restaging a conversation with Herzog which had occurred off camera.

3. Lost in La Mancha

When it comes to behind-the-scenes difficulties, Terry Gilliam could write the book (failing that, Jack Mathews’ acclaimed ‘The Battle for Brazil’ is a worthy alternative). Not only did Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil suffer from major studio interference, its follow up The Adventures of Baron Munchausen met with roadblocks when its initial financier David Puttnam lost his job as CEO of Columbia. Both experiences pale in comparison with what befall Gilliam and Johnny Depp when they set out to adapt Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote in 2000.

Gilliam was not the first to attempt an adaptation of Saavedra’s epic tome; Orson Welles worked on a proposed screen version from 1957 to his death in 1985. Gilliam’s shoot was plagued with flash floods, noise pollution and a debilitating injury from lead actor Jean Rochefort, which brought proceedings to a curtailed end. Nonetheless, footage of the cast and crew from pre-production to the final abortive stages was pieced together to produce Lost in La Mancha, a directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe.

Held up by esteemed US film critic Leonard Maltin as “an amazing, one of a kind documentary”, Lost in La Mancha is a sometimes gruelling watch. However, setbacks or not, Gilliam still intends on finishing his project, posting on Facebook in January 2014 that “Dreams of Don Quixote have begun again” alongside some sketched illustrations.

4. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

The standard by which all behind-the-scenes documentaries are measured, Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse tells the story of her husband Francis’ 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now, the definitive Vietnam War film, which, much like its overpaid and barely present box office draw Marlon Brando, arrived bloated, with a budget far surpassing that originally intentioned. Being the spouse of one of the Seventies’ best filmmakers, Eleanor Coppola is given unprecedented access to goings on, surreptitiously recording her husband’s many confessions – “I tell you from the bottom of my heart I am making a bad film”, he laments, at one point.

Amidst star Martin Sheen’s near-fatal heart attack, sets destroyed by typhoons and Brando’s aforementioned lack of preparedness, both Coppolas produced majors works which demand and reward repeat viewings. More than just an accompaniment to Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness is a tremendous film in its own right, which stormed the Cannes Film Festival more than a decade after Apocalypse Now won the Palme d’Or in 1979.

Incidentally, Apocalypse Now began life as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, after Orson Welles’ proposed version failed to see the light of day. What is it about unfinished Orson Welles’ projects which prove so arduous to all who inherit the reins?

5. Best Worst Movie

Not every great behind-the-scenes documentary charts the making of a great film. Troll 2, directed by Italian schlock maestro Claudio Fragrasso, has topped the IMDb’s chart of the worst films ever made, and has yet to receive a single positive critique on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Nonetheless, it holds a cult following – not unlike other ‘Worst Movies’ such as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space – which has led to sold-out midnight screenings culling fans from around the globe.

Directed by Michael Stephenson, the twelve-year-old star of the original film, Best Worst Movie reunites the cast, among them a dentist who had forgone any association with the film, with Fragrosso, whose poor English led all on set of Troll 2 to question his intentions, or the tone of the film with which they were involved. Best Worst Movie charts the highs and lows of cult filmmaking – some cast and crew panels draw standing ovations, others barely a whimper.

So popular has Troll 2 become in recent years, its fans have been polled on titles for a potential sequel. Their response? The brazenly absurd Troll 2: Part II.

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About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.



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