Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Movies About Making Movies

It is easy to forget how much can go into the process of making a movie. Typically, the cast and crew are fairly large, you have to assemble sets, keep people organized, acquire costumes, deal with any problems experienced by the cast or crew, and figure out how to solve that one frustrating obstacle that you never saw coming.

I say this from experience, just making a movie with just five actors and myself doing the camerawork in highschool was difficult enough, with the cast constantly failing to show up no matter how clearly I told them when we were working, to problems with the costumes, the one guy who brought in all this great stuff but couldn't keep it as school and kept forgetting to bring it in when I actually needed it, the guy who caused so much trouble on set he was "fired" and later actively tried to sabotage the production to the point where it took the presence of the Vice Principal to keep him off the set.

Long story short, a five-minute short film that was supposed to be shot in a week ended up taking something closer to two or three months. This was in high school, with a budget of $0.00, a very small cast, and no other crew besides myself. Now imagine having to manage a dozen crew members with different jobs, plus the actors who all have their personal lives as well combined with any number of problems that occur on set that cause shooting a crucial scene to get delayed. Naturally, when one of my film studies classes started with Living in Oblivion, I didn't have too much trouble sympathizing with Steve Buscemi's role of the hapless director.

Indeed, there is something interesting to be found in this area. Movies are great to watch, but it is interesting once in a while to see a well-executed movie that draws attention to the process of... well... making a movie which in itself can be a good set-up for comedy or drama. Living in Oblivion is probably one of the most straight forward examples. I have also discussed the more surreal approaches explored with David Lynch's Inland Empire and Federico Fellini's  (dang it, why did Fellini give his movies titles that were really annoying to type?). Lynch's thriller Mulholland Dr. does not actually center around the production of a specific movie, but it does use the Hollywood filmmaking scene as a backdrop and certainly has plenty of scenes taking place on film sets.

It is curious to see how many different films approach this topic. Living in Oblivion deals with the subject of filmmaking head-on with a decent balance of comedy and drama. Compare that to a more obviously comedic approach, such as an underrated masterpiece by Mel Brooks. Before there was Epic Movie, Scary Movie, and Disaster Movie, there was the great cinematic genius that was... Silent Movie.

In Silent Movie, Mel Brooks takes on a more over-the-top slapstick adventure presented entirely as a silent movie (with only one word of spoken dialogue from a very unlikely source). In this film, Brooks himself takes on the role of a washed-up director who tries to save "Big Picture Studios" from being bought out by the evil conglomerate known as "Engulf and Devour" with his latest project... a silent movie.

Brooks' film centers entirely around the production of this movie (which is made all the more hilarious by the fact that we find out absolutely nothing about the film itself beyond the fact that its a silent movie and apparently a really good one), but instead opts to focus on a slightly different aspect from many such films. Living in Oblivion, Inland Empire, and all deal with movies during their production phase (the phase in which you actually get out the cameras and start shooting it). Silent Movie opts for something slightly different by focusing more on pre-production (basically the phase in which you have to get everything ready before you can start shooting).

In particular, we do get a really bizarre look at two particular aspects of pre-production: money and casting. The "Studio Chief" played by Sid Ceasar is initially skeptical of a silent movie saving his studio, claiming that "slapstick is DEAD!" (though he is proven wrong within seconds of saying that when he falls backward in his chair, slides through his desk, and crashes into the wall for no apparent reason). As funny as it is, one of the first steps to making a movie is simply getting money by convincing an executive you've got something that will sell, which Mel Brooks eventually does by offering to try and get the biggest names in Hollywood to sign on. Much of the rest of the movie centers around the comedic antics Brooks and his partners inevitably get up to when they try to approach various movie stars.

Want a surefire way to get an Oscar-winning actress to star in your movie? Dress up in suits of armor and then approach her in a public cafeteria. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Mulholland Dr. focuses less on the production of a specific movie and more on the idea of breaking into the business. We see this in the character of Betty, an aspiring and extremely idealistic actress trying to make her big break. We even get some scenes of her auditioning, and in the final act, we see her alternate persona  of "Diane" (I've discussed the relationship between both in a previous article) recounting how she met Camilla because they were both auditioning for a part. The problem of course, is that Camilla may have been using some questionable methods of getting to the top (namely having sex with the director), while Diane is trying to do so more honestly and is having much more trouble, something I realized after corresponding with some fellow fans of the movie on the IMDB boards with regards to my previous discussion of its meaning.

That said, even the ones that deal with production can go in very different directions. As I've discussed previously, Inland Empire and both depict in a surreal manner the psychological experiences of an individual's struggle to make a film, but one deals with a director taking on what is implied to be an extremely ambitious project, and the other centers on the stress experienced by an actress trying to cope with a demanding role. 

In addition to all that, we can occasionally get movies that focus on post-production (the final phase of making a movie, where the footage recorded in the production phase is edited), a good example being Singin' in the Rain. Technically this movie touches on both production and post-production, seeing as it deals with the struggles faced by studios during the transition from the end of the silent era into the first "talking pictures". However, a lot of the movie centers around the editing phase as well, when the studio decides to save their latest disaster by re-editing it into a musical, which is interesting given the movie itself is played as a musical. 

There are many different approaches one can take when emphasizing the filmmaking process. In this article alone I have discussed only one film that addresses the issue straight on, with three others that provide a more surreal approach, one that provides a comedic slapstick take on Hollywood, and another structured as a musical comedy. There are tons of others that all deal with this idea in their own unique way.

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