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Action! - The Best Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries

Sometimes there's more drama behind the camera

by Steve Withers Sep 17, 2015 at 6:54 AM


  • Movies Article

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    Action! - The Best Behind-the-Scenes Documentaries
    The making of a movie is never an easy process, sometimes you succeed in your ambition and sometimes you fail. Sometimes the film never gets finished and sometimes it never even gets started.
    Quite often the story of what happens behind the camera can be just as interesting as what happens in front of it and sometimes documentaries about the making of a film can be more dramatic than the film itself. In fact, watching some documentaries it's a wonder that films ever get made at all, proving the creative art of filmmaking is fraught with temptations, hubris and disasters. The following ten choices are, in no particular order, our favourite behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of well-known films. They encompass all the problems that filmmakers have to overcome to get their vision on screen and even a couple of examples of films that never made it that far. However let's start with one of the craziest productions of all time, a monumental gamble that ultimately paid off and resulted in a genuine classic - Apocalypse Now.

    Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

    During the eighteen months that Apocalypse Now was being shot in the Philippines, Eleanor Coppola, the wife of writer/director Francis Ford Coppola filmed behind the scenes footage and even secretly recorded phone conversations. The result was an absolute goldmine of content for documentarians Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, who combined the footage with contemporary interviews to create one of the best films ever made about filmmaking. It's all here, the madness, the disasters, the drugs, the sex and the rock 'n' roll, as Coppola and his cast and crew spend four years and his entire fortune making a Vietnam version of Joseph Conrad's novella 'Heart of Darkness'. The film started out as a script by John Milius, that was originally going to be directed by George Lucas in Vietnam whilst the war was still raging. In one of the rare examples of common sense prevailing in the making of Apocalypse Now, that idea was dropped and eventually Coppola chose the script as his follow-up to the critically successful The Godfather Part II.

    Ignoring George Lucas's warning, Coppola descended into the jungles of the Philippines with a full film crew and chaos naturally ensued. As Coppola himself said at the film's Cannes premiere - "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." It's all here in Hearts of Darkness, the sacking of Harvey Keitel, Martin Sheen's breakdown and near fatal heart attack, a fourteen year old Larry Fishburn, copious amounts of drug-taking, Coppola remortgaging his own home to complete the film, crazy Dennis Hopper and a fat and balding Marlon Brando turning up on $1 million a week having not even bothered to read the original novella. The film faced natural disasters, constant rewrites and even the regular loss of President Marcos's helicopters as they fought rebels in the nearby hills, before a protracted post-production process that lasted two years. Despite all this the resulting film is a genuine classic, a successful adaptation of Conrad's novella and the best commentary yet on the madness of the Vietnam War; whilst Hearts of Darkness itself is unmissable.

    You can buy Apocalypse Now here
    "Little by little, we went insane" - Francis Coppola in Hearts of Darkness.

    Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner

    Of course Apocalypse Now isn't the only classic film to have a troubled production, the atmosphere was fairly unpleasant on the set of Blade Runner and things didn't get any better when it came to the theatrical release. After the critical and commercial success of Alien, Ridley Scott decided to make this film version of Philip K. Dick's novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'. The story was originally adapted by Hampton Fancher before being rewritten by David Peoples, and the screenplay would continue to be worked upon as Scott became more and more obsessed with the visuals. So began an expensive, complex and troubled production that is covered in detail in the documentary Dangerous Days. At over three hours in length, this retrospective covers just about every aspect of the production except, for some strange reason, Vangelis's wonderful score.

    However everyone else is interviewed at length, including Harrison Ford who had never liked the finished film and until this documentary had refused to even talk about Blade Runner. The full story is here, including Ford and co-star Sean Young's antagonistic relationship, Scott's obsession with the production design and his frequent clashes with Ford, the long night shoots, the film going wildly over budget, the creation of the effects, Scott's eventual firing by the producers, his re-hiring and the torturous editing and post-production process. We also find out the truth about the voice over, the tacked on happy ending, the five different versions of the film, the missing sixth replicant and whether or not Deckard himself is a 'skin job'. The documentary is an absolute treasure trove for fans of Blade Runner and once again proves that even the most difficult production can result in a classic.

    You can buy Blade Runner here


    Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3

    Whilst Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner might ultimately have been critical and commercial successes, that isn't always the case when it comes to troubled productions, as witnessed by Alien 3. In fact there was so such bad blood spilled during its making that it even effected the documentary made about its production. Wreckage and Rage was supposed to be included on the 'Alien Quadrilogy' DVD release but Twentieth Century Fox asked for certain scenes where director David Fincher is seen openly criticising the studio to be removed. The director of the documentary Charles de Lauzirika (who also made Dangerous Days) removed the title and his name from the truncated version included on the DVD set. Thankfully calmer heads ultimately prevailed and the full version was included on the 'Alien Anthology' Blu-ray release.

    Wreckage and Rage was certainly worth the wait, chronicling the incredibly long pre-production process, as Fox tried to come up with a viable story to follow on from James Cameron's Aliens. The documentary covers all the different ideas formulated, including Vincent Ward's original vision of a wooden planet populated by monks. The latter was initially the direction Fox was going in and they even started building sets before Ward left the production to be replaced by first time director David Fincher. He tries his best with the material he had but the constant rewrites and studio interference took their toll on the young director. After creating an initial rough cut, Fincher left the production and has since disowned the film; so aside from the on-set footage he is the one major absence from the excellent Wreckage and Rage.

    You can buy Alien 3 here


    Cleoptara: The Film that Changed Hollywood

    Poor old Twentieth Century Fox were at the centre of another troubled production back in 1960, when they made Cleopatra. That film is covered in the feature length documentary Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood. It would end up the most expensive film of all time when it was completed, an 'honour' it retained for years when adjusted for inflation; at least until production budgets spiralled out of all proportion in the last decade. Now Cleopatra's $40 million price tag would be considered a lower budget independent production. At the time it nearly sank Fox, who remained in financial trouble until a 'small science fiction film' saved them in 1977 but more on that later. Things got off to an expensive start when the studio paid Elizabeth Taylor a $1 million fee to play Cleopatra - a record for an actor at the time. Initially everything seemed to be going well when production started at Pinewood, just outside London, where massive sets were built to represent both Rome and Alexandria.

    However someone really should have looked at the weather forecast because in true British fashion it rained, ruining a lot of the sets and resulting in the always frail Taylor developing pneumonia and needing an emergency tracheotomy. The production was shut down whilst Taylor convalesced and new sets were built at Cinecitta in Rome. By the time Taylor returned to start filming (with a visible tracheotomy scar) the director had changed and so had her leading men - Rex Harrison replaced Peter Finch and, unfortunately for Taylor's husband Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton replaced Stephen Boyd. The news of Taylor's affair with Burton caused a storm of controversy, although from the studio's perspective it was all welcome publicity. What was more worrying were the production costs that had completely spiralled out of control, threatening to bankrupt the studio. Ultimately Cleopatra would be a reasonable success but the shock waves caused by its production were felt throughout Hollywood until the late seventies.

    You can buy Cleopatra here


    Jodorowsky's Dune

    There are films that have troubled productions and then there are films that have troubled pre-productions, sometimes never even making it in front of the cameras. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Alejandro Jodorowsky's legendary efforts to bring Frank Herbet's novel 'Dune' to the big screen, making it possibly the greatest film never made. The story of the Chilean director's decade long effort to adapt Herbet's sci-fi epic is told in Jodorowsky's Dune and what a film it would have been. Whilst his adaptation played fast and loose with Herbet's original story, there's no denying his vision would have been unique. At various points he had enlisted Salvador Dali (at great cost) to play the Emperor, Orson Wells (who he bribed with food) to play Baron Harkonnen and his own son, who spent years training to play Paul Atreides. The infamous auteur even enlisted various rock bands, including Pink Floyd, to score each of the different planets.

    Whilst the film never happened, Jodorowsky himself comes across as a jovial, if completely bonkers, character in the documentary and there's no denying that he had tapped into a change in attitudes towards science fiction and fantasy, one that Star Wars would successfully capitalise on a few years later. In addition the production design and special effects teams that he had assembled with the help of Dan O'Bannon would all go on to work on Ridley Scott's Alien. O'Bannon, who wrote Alien, brought on board Ron Cobb, Mobieus, Chris Foss and H. R. Giger to work on Scott's vision of a relentlessly lethal xenomorph. Dune would eventually be made into a film by David Lynch a decade later (Jodorowsky hates Lynch's version), primarily because of the success of Star Wars and Alien. It was as though the children of his failed attempt ultimately gave birth to Lynch's Dune - an irony that is almost certainly not lost on the crazy Chilean.

    You can buy Jodorowsky's Dune here
    "It was a bitch" - Harrison Ford in Dangerous Days.

    The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of the Twelve Monkeys

    Terry Gilliam is no stranger to troubled productions, with both Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen taking their toll and the latter being a classic example of how not to make a big budget independent film (see the excellent book 'Losing the Light'). Gilliam managed to regain Hollywood's trust with The Fisher King and had his biggest commercial success with Twelve Monkeys, his feature-length version of Chris Marker's short film La Jetee, based on a screenplay by Blade Runner scribe David Peoples. On hand to record the production were Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who together produced the excellent documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of the Twelve Monkeys. The film gives a fascinating insight into the filmmaking process, as we watch the obsessive Gilliam get a career best performance from Bruce Willis and prove that Brad Pitt is more than just a pretty face. In case you're wondering, the title of the documentary refers to a scene where Gilliam was determined to have a hamster running around in a wheel, even though you can barely see it in the finished film.

    You can buy 12 Monkeys here


    Lost in La Mancha

    After years of trying to raise the funding independently, the success of Twelve Monkeys allowed Terry Gilliam to make his dream project - The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - the story of an advertising executive who finds himself thrown back in time, where he meets the titular knight and becomes his faithful servant Sancho Panza. As pre-production ramped up, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were on board again to document what they thought would be another Gilliam triumph. How wrong they were. The production was a disaster but Gilliam's loss is our gain and the resulting documentary - Lost in La Mancha - stands as a cautionary tale about all the things that can go wrong when making a film. You'd think Gilliam would have learnt his lesson on Baron Munchausen but here he was once again at the mercy of fickle European financing and an ageing leading man whose health was failing. A torrential downpour destroyed the sets and one of the key locations was next to a live firing range used by NATO, which limited the amount of time they could film. Even the presence of star Johnny Depp can't stave off disaster and Don Quixote is abandoned with almost nothing in the can. However you can't keep a good director down and thirteen years later Gilliam is still trying to make his dream project.

    You can buy Lost in La Mancha here


    Empire of Dreams: The Making of the Star Wars Trilogy

    When the original Star Wars trilogy finally arrived on DVD in 2004, one of the undoubted highlights of the box set was the two and a half hour documentary Empire of Dreams that covered the production of all three original movies. There are interviews with all the main participants and although there's a degree of revisionism going on when it comes to some of the 'history', the documentary still covers much that is new and includes plenty of great behind-the-scenes footage. It's the first ninety minutes that's best, covering the genesis of Star Wars and the incredibly difficult production of the original film. You can visibly see the toll it takes on George Lucas's health as he struggles to get his vision on screen. You realise what a gamble Fox head Alan Ladd Jr. took and the level of trust and support that he gave the young filmmaker. Looking back now it's easy to think the film would be a success but when the studio's board saw the live action footage without any visual effects, sound effects or music, you can understand why they panicked.

    As the documentary progresses it covers how Lucas cleverly kept the sequel and merchandising rights, self-financing The Empire Strikes Back with his profits from Star Wars. However despite handing over the directing duties to Irvin Kerschner, Lucas still had to deal with a budget that ballooned to nearly three times that of Star Wars. As a result Lucas fell out with producer Gary Kurtz and kept the purse strings tight on Return of the Jedi, to the detriment of that film. There's a slightly sad tone to the documentary as you watch Lucas go from visionary young filmmaker to billionaire businessman because there was a time, before his life was completely taken over by Star Wars, when he was genuinely talented. However there are still plenty of laughs to be had in Empire of Dreams, including on set footage of Dave Prowse delivering Darth Vader's lines in his thick Bristol accent and Carrie Fisher saying that every time she looks in the mirror she "has to give George a couple of bucks".

    You can buy Star Wars here


    The Beginning: The Making of The Phantom Menace

    Towards the end of Empire of Dreams you begin to understand why the Star Wars prequels were so bad because you start to see the vast corporation that had grown up around the franchise. The story was no longer the main driving force, instead the decisions were being dictated by merchandising and technology. The fact that George Lucas hadn't directed a film in twenty years probably didn't help but as he started work on The Phantom Menace in 1995, there must have been a palpable sense of optimism at Lucasfilm. That's the only explanation for the surprisingly honest documentary The Beginning, which covers the making of The Phantom Menace and was originally included on the DVD release of that film. The documentary is composed entirely of onset footage and it goes from Lucas writing the initial draft right up to the moment the film is first screened to fans in 1999.

    In between we see Lucas operating within a corporate vacuum, surrounded by people too frightened to speak up when the boss starts to make mistakes. It falls to Lucas himself to point out that maybe casting Jake Lloyd wasn't ideal and that structurally the third act might not work. The post-mortem after the screening of the first rough cut is especially brutal, with everyone looking visibly depressed and thinking "how the hell did we get this so wrong?". That's not say there aren't lighter moments as well, watching producer Rick McCallum gradually morph into his boss is funny, as is Ewan McGregor's boyish delight at being chosen to play Obi Wan Kenobi. However the highlight has to be the moment that Lucas shows his old friend Steven Spielberg a life-size model of a battle droid and Spielberg promptly breaks it!

    You can buy The Phantom Menace here
    "For a split second I really thought I was a goner" - Ed Harris in Under Pressure.
    Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss

    The final documentary on this list covers the production of James Cameron's The Abyss, a film that is generally regarded as one of the toughest shoots in cinema history. Hot off the success of The Terminator and Aliens, Cameron convinced Twentieth Century Fox to fund his dream project about a group of deepsea divers who encounter benevolent aliens. Cameron was determined to shoot The Abyss as realistically as possible and Under Pressure charts the incredible lengths to which the director went to achieve his goals. Cameron actually built his main set in the unused containment vessel of an abandoned nuclear power station and then flooded it, shooting much of the film with the actors thirty feet below water. Whilst safety was always paramount, it's still difficult to spend hours under water in hard hat diving gear and much of the cast and crew had to decompress before ascending. Cameron always led from the front and never asked his cast and crew to do anything he wouldn't do himself but the production was fraught with difficulties.

    Much of what Cameron was attempting had never been done before and the production was a constant technological struggle. A tarpaulin was strung over the underwater set to simulate the darkness of the depths the film was supposed to be taking place at but when that broke, the filming moved to nights. The cast and crew had to deal with the cold and exhaustion, whilst in one infamous scene a live rat was immersed in a fluid that you can actually breathe. Although some of the cast enjoyed the challenges, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio hated it and refused to even be involved in the documentary. However the real trooper was Ed Harris who not only had to endure the same difficulties as everyone else but also had to wear the 'fluid breathing suit', which basically meant being underwater with a helmet full of water. It's no surprise to discover that at one point he nearly drowned, even if Harris makes light of it later. At the end of production, the cast and crew had T-shirts printed up that said "Life's abyss and then you dive".

    You can buy The Abyss here

    So there you have it, our ten favourite behind-the-scenes documentaries. Of course there are many others including the remarkable Burden of Dreams about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo but what are your favourites? Have we missed any obvious behind-the-scenes documentaries from our list? We'd love to hear what you think, so let us know in the discussion thread.

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