Reel To Reel: Docos About Movies

February 8, 2018
In this special feature, we call “Action” on a diverse selection of superb documentaries which look at films, filmmakers, film actors, and the film industry itself.

FINAL CUT: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF HEAVEN’S GATE (2004) After delivering the poetic 1978 Vietnam War epic, The Deer Hunter, young writer/director, Michael Cimino, had Hollywood on its knees, and its studio executives were ready to give him whatever he wanted. The Deer Hunter was a rarity – a success with the critics, the audience, and at the Oscars – and Cimino rode it for all it was worth. Given carte blanche by backing studio, United Artists, he spent millions of dollars, and months on end, on his dream project, Heaven’s Gate – a strange, against-the-grain 1980 western about the range wars between immigrant settlers and the wealthy ranchers who wanted them blasted off the land. The film crashed and burned at the box office, ultimately setting a fuse to the collapse of United Artists, and destroying Cimino’s reputation. “It was a great trauma, as everyone knows,” Cimino told People Magazine in 1996. “Since then, I’ve been unable to make any movie that I’ve wanted to make. I’ve been making the best of what is available.” The sad, sorry tale of Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate was covered in fine detail by author, Steven Bach, in his book, Final Cut: Art, Money, And Ego In The Making Of Heaven’s Gate, The Film That Sank United Artists, which in turn formed the basis for Michael Epstein’s compelling 2004 documentary, Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate, which features candid, revealing interviews with many of the players involved with the film. Though Cimino (who sadly passed away in 2016) is markedly and disappointingly absent, the picture of his film’s failure remains fully rounded, with a host of people ultimately to blame for this notorious cinematic debacle.

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008) “I don’t think we’re ashamed of these films…we don’t bother to talk about them at all,” writer/director, Mark Hartley, told FilmInk in 2008. “These films are totally dismissed. There was a whole hidden history of stories that had never really been documented. They were pretty much just dismissed.” The films that Mark Hartley details in his wildly entertaining doco, Not Quite Hollywood, are the garish, full-tilt exploitation movies that were churned out by Australian filmmakers in the seventies and eighties. Though it was the white lace and dreamy brilliance of Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock that got all the awards, and the restrained feminist kick of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career that got the critics all hot and bothered, there was a whole other type of film being made in Australia at the time. Gory horror films, tawdry sex documentaries, bone crunching action flicks, softcore porn, and broad, ugly comedies splattered across the screens of our drive-ins and cinemas. These lurid extravaganzas were made by con artists, up-and-comers, sleazebags, and the occasional honest-to-god genuine talent. Now cheekily dubbed “Ozploitation” flicks, they’re the movies that have heretofore been stashed in Australia’s cinematic closet for the past twenty or thirty years. It’s rare that we re-evaluate our cinematic history on screen, and Hartley’s film not only does that, it explores a chapter in Australian film that most people had forgotten. As entertaining as it is culturally relevant, Not Quite Hollywood is a stellar work that should be compulsory viewing for anyone with an interest in Australian film or, damn it, an interest in Australia in general.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995) When it comes to documentary filmmakers, Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk, Common Threads, Paragraph 175) stands alone. While gay culture has been ignored in Hollywood, Epstein – usually in partnership with co-director, Jeffrey Friedman – has made it his life’s work, covering many and varied aspects of “queer” history and lifestyle, all with a keen intelligence and deep sense of humanism. Epstein is a filmmaker personally tied to his material, and it shows in his quietly powerful films, which are wholly accessible to all audiences, and not just those in the gay community. While much of his output is heartbreaking, Epstein’s 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet (again co-directed by Jeffrey Friedman), is a far more upbeat – though no less serious – affair. Adapted from Vito Russo’s book, this warm, affectionate, but fiercely topical documentary looks at Hollywood’s decidedly suspect depiction (and lack of depiction) of homosexuality. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, packed with fascinating talking head interviews, and fit-to-burst with clips from classic films, The Celluloid Closet is a milestone Hollywood doco, but it almost didn’t get made, only limping across the line thanks to a direct-mail fund raising campaign, which played out like an embryonic form of internet crowd-funding. “We sent a letter signed by Lily Tomlin about the project, and 4,000 people answered,” Epstein said at the film’s premiere at The New York Film Festival. “The budget evolved, because we didn’t know how many clips we’d be able to get. The final budget was $1.5 million. We could have done it as a ‘guerrilla’ film, but we felt that it should be a big screen movie.”

Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (2004) Long before the internet, DVD and streaming services, there was a local cable station in Los Angeles that changed the way that people looked at films. Run on a shoestring, The Z Channel was a 24-hour feast of film. Directors’ cuts, festivals, and movies you couldn’t see anywhere else – The Z Channel had it all. Amongst the channel’s fans were the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne and Robert Altman (all interviewed for this doco, along with many others), who got an instant education in cinema. But behind this story is a much darker one. The Z Channel was largely the work of one man – the obsessive, deeply troubled Gerry Harvey, an iconoclast and film lover who drove the channel with his demented genius. But with the channel beset by outside influence and his personal life on the rails, Harvey would ultimately crash in a fit of mental illness, murder, and suicide. Director, Xan Cassavetes (daughter of film pioneer, John Cassavetes), ties together these two strands of the film beautifully, finding the joy in The Z Channel, but also the deep sadness in the man who made it all happen. The result is a truly unforgettable documentary. “I was obsessed with Z Channel when I was younger,” Cassavetes told Index Magazine. “I spent a lot of time in my room chain-smoking and watching Z Channel. They played almost any film that you would ever want to talk about – a Hollywood film followed by a silent film followed by a foreign film. This documentary was a great gift. I felt the freedom to just do it as a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

MY DATE WITH DREW (2004) When does one’s love of a movie star cross over into stalking? This low budget doco comes pretty close to skipping the line, though its heart is always in the right place. At its centre is Brian Herzlinger, a film industry fringe dweller who’s carried a torch for Drew Barrymore since he first saw her in E.T. Desperate to meet his big screen crush, Herzlinger sets himself a task: with a budget of $1,100 (which he won on a TV game show) and only thirty days, he has to score a date with Drew Barrymore, while capturing his efforts for a doco. Along the way, he gets advice from the likes of actor, Eric Roberts (who flexes a massive bicep and tells the nerdy Herzlinger to start working out), and current media sensation, Corey Feldman. Does Brian get the date? It’s no spoiler to say that he does, and if Drew Barrymore isn’t an honest-to-god sweetheart, then she’s the best actress ever. When it all happens, you might find a lump in your throat, but you’ll cringe too. Sure, Herzlinger is a nice guy, but he takes the art of star-fucking (but not literally – Drew was dating Strokes drummer, Fab Moretti, at the time of filming) to embarrassing lows. That aside, My Date With Drew is a sunny and entertaining look at the power of movie stars to captivate and hypnotise. “People identify with the quest because it’s a universal theme,” Herzlinger told Movies About. “Everybody’s had a crush on somebody unattainable, that somebody that was on the poster on your bedroom wall growing up that you dreamed about meeting.”

INSIDE DEEP THROAT (2005) Back in the seventies, one film changed everything…and we’re not talking about Star Wars or The Godfather. Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat – about a woman who can only gain sexual pleasure by blowing well-hung men – seemingly sent the porn industry mainstream, with hip audiences in attendance, and media coverage at blow-out levels. It became the most successful independent film of all time, and paved the way for a classier brand of porn exemplified by the likes of Behind The Green Door and The Devil In Miss Jones. But behind all the glitz, Deep Throat was a perfect picture of sleaze, with involvement from The Mob and a lead actress who later claimed that she’d been forced to do the film at gunpoint. Deep Throat became a cause celebre, sending the conservative right into a tailspin, and its leading man into court on obscenity charges. This whole fiasco is captured with energetic flair by documentary filmmakers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster), who parcel together stock footage and interviews with all of the players, as well as various media pundits, to startling effect. The result is informative, richly entertaining, and occasionally heartbreaking. “What was it about this film that thirty years later didn’t look so good, but at the time really connected with people?” co-director, Fenton Bailey, said to FilmInk in 2005. “We wanted to understand that. Here was this mystery that was only thirty years old, and yet had this distance that in its own way was like The Curse Of Tutankhamen. Everyone connected with it appeared to have these bad things happen to them.”

SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER (2002) “Movie executives treat ageing like cancer, like a disease,” actress, Rosanna Arquette, told People Magazine in 2003. “It’s so painful.” It was sad Hollywood dictums like this that prompted the star of cult classics such as Pulp Fiction, After Hours and Buffalo ’66 to put together the fascinating 2002 documentary, Searching For Debra Winger. Interviewing a stellar collection of actresses (Jane Fonda, Laura Dern, Sharon Stone, Vanessa Redgrave, Charlotte Rampling, Meg Ryan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Frances McDormand, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Salma Hayek, and many, many more), Arquette runs the gamut of issues faced by women in the movie business, from the pressure to look young and maintain their “sexy” currency and the paucity of decent roles for “women of a certain age” to the rampant sexism of many industry power players. Arquette easily pries free a number of amusing, insightful, entertaining, and upsetting anecdotes and admissions from her stunning cast in “an open dialogue about subjects that used to be taboo.” Named for the semi-retirement undertaken by the infamously “difficult” eponymous actress (who is also interviewed), Searching For Debra Winger is a compelling discussion on the troubling issues that float right on the surface of the torrid sea that is Hollywood, and is obviously even more pertinent in today’s post-Harvey Weinstein world. “This documentary is really about balance, and how you’re expected to be superwomen,” Arquette told Philly. “People that I’ve shown this to who aren’t actors relate in a very big way, because women today have to do so much. They’re expected to run the home, take care of the kids, be in the workforce, and go home and have a relationship. That’s a lot to ask.”

CORMAN’S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011) A true titan of modern cinema, producer, director, writer, and distributor, Roger Corman, makes no apologies for the types of films that he has made, and is the first to admit that he never set out to make great films, or even particularly good ones. More businessman than high falutin’ auteur, Corman wanted to make low budget flicks that could be made quickly, and that could be guaranteed to turn an easy profit. “People came to my pictures looking for camp, and that’s what I gave them,” he told FilmInk in 2011. Starting out as a script reader at 20th Century Fox, Corman quickly became disillusioned with the studio system when they didn’t give him a screen credit for key contributions that he made to the 1950 western, The Gunfighter. Corman left the studio to set up shop on his own, and soon forged a name for himself as an exploitation master. “The advantage of making low to medium budget pictures is that nobody can tell me no,” he told FilmInk. “To make the bigger budget films, you have to go for outside financing, and I’ve never really been good at getting outside financing because somebody is always telling you no.” Corman’s wild spirit and sense of cinematic daring are vividly captured in Alex Stapleton’s rollicking doco, Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel, which features often hilarious but always heartfelt testimony from the massive array of screen legends (Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Bruce Dern, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda and many more) that the profit-savvy producer provided with their first breaks into the industry.

CHAMPION (2005) There’s a moment toward the end of Champion when character actor and cult hero, Danny Trejo, says, “I’m the best Danny that I can be today, tomorrow I’m going to be a better Danny, and by the time that you see this video, I’ll be great.” The intimidating actor – most famous for starring in Robert Rodriguez’ grindhouse action belter, Machete, and its sequel, Machete Kills, as well as a fistful of exploitation thrillers – throws in a self-deprecating laugh, but he’s being absolutely genuine. While Trejo’s journey from prison thug to movie star and drug counsellor is well known now, hearing him personally recount the often painful events of his past in Joe Eckardt’s documentary packs a hefty emotional punch. Urgent and immediate, Champion tells Trejo’s story largely through a series of raw interviews, including one in which he revisits his old cell at San Quentin. What comes across so powerfully in Trejo’s recollections is the sense that he owns every bit of his past – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s also insight – sometimes funny and always revealing – from a handful of the stars that he’s worked with, including Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, and Steve Buscemi. “We’ve screened the film in over thirty film festivals worldwide,” the film’s director, Joe Eckardt, told FilmInk. “In every audience, we saw people of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities relate to what Danny went through. The film screens in a few prisons throughout California and New Mexico to the new inmates. The hope is that one kid will be able to learn from Danny and walk the straight and narrow.”

OVERNIGHT (2003) Hollywood is littered with tales of broken dreams, and of naïve individuals crushed by the cruelty of a movie business that puts the bottom line before everything else. The bracing documentary, Overnight, however, tells a very different type of Hollywood story. In this sad but very funny tale, it’s the artist who engineers his own downfall, mainly because he’s just, well, a complete arsehole. Meet Troy Duffy – bar bouncer, rock musician, writer, and director. When the one and only Harvey Weinstein sniffed out his script for the violent thriller, Boondock Saints, Duffy’s seemingly had it made. He’s anointed Hollywood’s Next Big Thing, the money is rolling in, and the film is set to go. But Duffy’s massive ego (his non-stop trumpeting of his bad boy, working class roots is nauseating) soon starts to push his dream project off the rails. His tirades of abuse (all witnessed by his crew of pals, a bunch of sniveling sycophants to rival Elvis’s Memphis Mafia) push Miramax away, leaving Duffy to independently finance The Boondock Saints. Though the film (which is actually very good) ultimately became a cult hit, it took Duffy ten years to finally mount his follow-up project, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day. As an expose on Hollywood, Overnight is endlessly fascinating, but as a scathing portrait of a truly awful individual, it radiates with repugnant genius. “What ended up on the cutting room floor was much worse than what got into the movie,” co-director, Mark Brian Smith, told Movie City News. “Troy’s tirades would have taken over the entire movie, and audiences would have walked away.”

SIDE BY SIDE (2012) After a rich and varied career as an actor that has taken in blockbusters (Speed, The Matrix), arthouse favourites (My Own Private Idaho), and genuine oddities (Thumbsucker), Keanu Reeves took a characteristically unpredictable detour in his first official film as producer. Directed by Christopher Kenneally, 2012’s Side By Side is an absorbing documentary about a subject high up on the interest list of anybody in the movie business. Studying the history and process of both digital and photochemical film, Side By Side examines the merits of both just at the point when digital was beginning to eclipse celluloid. “This experience was based upon interest,” Reeves told FilmInk in 2012. The idea began to bubble up during his time working on the 2010 thriller, Henry’s Crime. “The cinematographer, Paul Cameron, was showing me these images on his 5-D digital camera, and we were looking at the digital image and the photochemical image side by side. I was like, ‘Film is going away. Whoa? What’s happening? Is this the end of film? What’s going on here?’” Doing double duty as the documentary’s on-camera interviewer, the probing and intelligent Reeves draws forth fascinating opinions on the topic of digital-versus-film from the likes of James Cameron, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, The Wachowski Siblings, and many more, resulting in an entertaining and insightful look into the future of cinema, and the ever changing nature of the moving image. “Sometimes, I’d be like, ‘We just interviewed George Lucas!’” Reeves laughed to FilmInk. “He hung out with us, and told us the deal. The real deal!”

INTO THE SHADOWS (2009) “My grandfather ran Electric Shadows in Canberra, which was a little independent cinema,” Australian director, Andrew Scarano, told FilmInk in 2009 of the genesis of his debut documentary, Into The Shadows. “I thought that I’d do a doco on the cinema, and how it was shutting down. Initially, that’s all that I thought this would be. I grew up with Electric Shadows; in the eighties and nineties, it meant a lot to me, and to others in the community too.” As Scarano began interviewing cinema patrons who were mourning the loss of the cinema, a broader trend came to the burgeoning filmmaker’s attention. Electric Shadows was just one of many small cinemas switching off their projectors for the last time after years of showing films. “I realised that there was a lot more to it than first met the eye. This was happening on a national level. The famous Valhalla had shut down in Sydney, and of course, The Chauvel was fighting for survival too. There was actually a significant list of indie cinemas closing – Electric Shadows was just one of many.” Talking to the likes of Phil Adams, Bob Connolly, Andrew Denton, Brendan Cowell, Dr. George Miller, Rolf De Heer and Scott Hicks, Scarano and his producer, Phil Hignett, craft a thought-provoking, elegiac, but never forlorn discussion about the changing face of cinemas in Australia. “How many times can cinema die?” Scarano laughed to FilmInk. “First TV killed it, then the VCR, then DVD, and now apparently video-on-demand will kill it again. The reality is that people still want to get out of the house!”

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