The world of filmmaking is a fascinating one. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Tales of sordid affairs, rampant drug use and extreme close-ups on the sets of various films have been magazine fodder for years. Sometimes, Hollywood shines on mirror onto itself and certain films are made that actually explore the art of filmmaking. Sometimes, these movies are love letters to an art form that sometimes doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Often times, however, these films show the unsavory side of movie-making. Directors are arrogant, actors are dramatic and craft services only offer Jimmy Johns. There have been a wide variety of “movies about movies,” but we want to focus on a handful of them that really show the various aspects of making movies.
5) Tropic Thunder- 2008
This Ben Stiller-led comedy could almost be seen as a mockumentary. It could also be seen as a love letter to some of the sets that Stiller himself has probably worked on. While shooting a war film, the director of said film unknowingly drops his cast into a real jungle that is in the midst of a real war. Hilarious, right? Surprisingly, it is. Much of this is due to the cast.
Stiller shines, as does Jack Black, Danny McBride, and an offensive-but-in-a-funny-way-black-faced Robert Downey Jr. This film was written to be a satire on how films, especially those in the action genre, are made. If real life is anything like the movies, we’re perfectly content just watching films without being a part of them.
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4) Wes Craven’s New Nightmare- 1994
Who knew that the 7th entry in a struggling franchise would be such a perfect glimpse into the world of filmmaking and, more importantly, into the power that we give movies. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare focuses on the “real life” actors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. As the film series is coming to a close, a “real” demon has taken the form of Freddy Krueger, who is now tormenting Heather Langenkamp, the original film’s star. It has plenty of shocks and scares that one would expect from a horror movie, but the most fascinating parts of the film were the glimpses behind the curtain.
It’s all very “meta,” with Wes Craven himself delivering a monologue that we then see has been written into a script. This is not a movie to watch while high. It is a movie for fans of the franchise, though. It’s also a movie for those who are curious about how movies affect the actors. While Freddy Krueger is not actually real (at least, we hope so), actors and actresses are accosted by fans who take the movies too seriously. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is about the power we give to movies, to characters and to actors themselves and it challenges us to take the power back before it gets to be too strong.
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3) Adaptation- 2002
Perhaps the only people that take movies more seriously than the actors and directors are, gasp, the writers. Writers are a sensitive lot, you see. They are convinced that every word they write is art and we, I mean they, get very invested in the characters and stories of which they create.
Adaptation focuses on this aspect of filmmaking better than any other. It follows Charlie Kaufman (played with increasing eccentricity from Nicolas Cage), an L.A. screenwriter trying to adapt (get it?) a novel called “The Orchid Thief.” This is a surreal look into the even-more-surreal world of screenwriting. We’re still not quite sure we understand it, but anytime we get the dream to go to Hollywood and write movies, we watch this film and resign ourselves to just writing articles about movies. This is a good article though, right? It’s well-written, yeah? Are you mad at us?
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2) Ed Wood- 1994
Ed Wood was, arguably, the most interesting director in 1950’s Hollywood. Wood was a dreamer, that’s for sure. He just didn’t quite have the talent to match his heart. Ed Wood made a film that many critics have deemed “the worst movie ever,” yet it has a cult-following and actually isn’t that bad. Okay, it’s bad. But the movie about the making of that movie is awesome.
Tim Burton directed Ed Wood in 1994, with Johnny Depp playing the titular character. Ed Wood shows us the frustration of making movies, as well as the frustration of having dreams and being doubted. Depp does a phenomenal job portraying Ed Wood. In fact, Depp and Burton are probably directly related to the popularity of Plan 9 from Outer Space, the “worst” film made. They portray Wood as an underdog, a dreamer who is intent on making those dreams come true, no matter the cost. We, the audience, start to feel for Wood. We want him to succeed, even though we know he won’t. It’s a fascinating take on the decidedly un-glorious world of filmmaking. Ed Wood never got the respect he deserved in life, but in death, he has gained a legion of fans and we like to think that somewhere, maybe in outer space, he’s smiling.
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1) American Movie- 1999
As the only “real” movie about making movies, American Movie sits at the top of our list because, as previously alluded to, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. American Movie is a documentary from director Chris Smith, that follows Mark Borchardt, an aspiring independent filmmaker with a sailor’s mouth, an alcohol problem and a dream. Borchardt is intent on finishing his low-budget horror film, Coven and nothing will get in his way- not the weather, not unreliable actors, not a lack of funds. With his best friend Mike and his Uncle Bill by his side, Mark is going to get his movie finished, no matter what.
We feel it bears repeating that this film is, indeed, real. After watching you, you might find that hard to believe because of the zany cast of characters but it is true, so help us, God. This is the movie to watch if you want to see the process of making a movie that doesn’t have the Hollywood machine behind it. It’s a love letter to independent filmmakers, many of whom probably find themselves nodding throughout the films’ duration. It is a classic documentary and it is, for our money, the best movie about making a movie.
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