Filmmaking 9-1-1

10 documentaries about fantastically failed or flawed attempts to make a movie

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Filmmaking isn’t for the fainthearted—just ask Martin Sheen, who suffered a massive coronary episode on the set of Apocalypse Now.

Yep, art is hard. This is no great revelation, of course, because millions of dollars back even the smallest “independent” features nowadays, and an entire international, billion-dollar business is behind the idea that one can’t go at this thing—this glamorous, artistically sought after thing—alone. This likely explains why the filmmakers around whom the greatest production stories evolve are those with egos and personalities as outsized as the films they struggle to make. Either that, or some artists are just doomed to be on the bad side of even worse luck.

Regardless, the stories behind these fabled films—both those that saw the dimmed lights of a theater and those that went unmade—are so ripe for exploration because they are the stories of artistic ambition made flesh. These are stories not only about the people who go to any lengths to satisfy their ineffable creative urges, but about the dirty backside of such idealistic goals. Every artist likes to say that he or she stands behind the tenet that “the ends justify the means,” but deep down, every one of us knows a line must be drawn between the purpose a piece of art serves and the sacrifices incurred in serving that purpose.

So, to accompany this year’s release of yet another “making of” documentary, Lost Soul, a film that tells the embattled narrative of making The Island of Dr. Moreau, we’ve collected a list of 10 films fraught with Phyrric victories, and the 10 documentaries that claim they may’ve been way more trouble than they’re worth.

1. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
Director: David Gregory

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If Val Kilmer’s Twitter account is any indication, the actor’s ego hasn’t deflated one bit since the filming of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau—it’s only grown so surreally that it now consumes more than one famous personality. (How else would we explain his one man show about Mark Twain?) Shining some light on the true price of hubris in Hollywood, David Gregory’s documentary chronicles the conception of Island and fast-forwards right to its sticky afterbirth: how it was a certifiable box-office disaster, and not only because of star Kilmer notoriously flexing his unpleasant selfdom all over the set, or Marlon Brando’s off-putting antics (marking the first of two films on this list which suffered under Brando’s hefty strangeness), but because original director Richard Stanley’s vision for the H.G. Wells novel was squashed in favor of more typical industry fare. As an account of Hollywood weirdness, cast and crew stories from the production delight, but as a condemnation of wasted creativity, the film reads like an obituary for originality.

2. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
Director: Frank Pavich

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Here’s a “what-if” documentary that, from the onset, like the sign over Dante’s depiction of Hell, tells you to abandon all hope. This it does in the swaggering anecdote of Nicholas Winding Refn, who claims that he is one of very few people on Earth to have ever “seen” Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-filmed version of the seminal Frank Herbert sci-fi tome. One drunken night after dinner at Jodorowsky’s abode, the Spanish auteur supposedly pulled out a bound coffee-table-sized book of the unmade film’s complete storyboard, proceeding to narrate the film to the hushed, tipsy Refn. Face it, both Refn and the documentary declare in that moment: Jodorowsky’s Dune will never happen. So just move on already.

This is how the bulk of Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary detailing the doomed adaptation, unfolds: we “watch” unmade Dune through Jodorowsky’s oral history, how he obsessively sublimated the hero’s journey at the heart of Herbert’s story into a quest he felt he was taking for the future of visual storytelling. Nothing less would suffice. And, yup, you read that right: his intensity was so unyielding, so complete, that among other batshit stunts, he forced his own son to undergo years of extensive physical and mental training, practically abusing the adolescent in order to get the boy “ready” to play the messianic Paul Atreides.

And from there we’re left with rich imaginings and even richer resentment, mostly because, if we’re supposed to take Jodorowsky’s word for it, we’ve been robbed of a truly life-changing cinematic experience. Instead, we got a stinking facsimile of what Jodorowsky had planned: David Lynch’s cult curio of an adaptation, a certain kind of failure in its own right.

Again, this is just one man’s hubris talking, and by now we should accept that such monumental films require equally monumental minds behind them. Yet, where the documentary succeeds most is in flipping that whole “what-if” scenario on its head. What if the world is better off because Jodorowsky’s Dune was never made? Not only did the fruits of Jodorowsky’s ultimate failure, we’re told, bear the seeds of actual films like Alien, Blade Runner, and, some would say, Star Wars, but the sheer magnificent absurdity of Jodorowsky’s vision may have meant a financial and creative disaster bound to have taken its whole braintrust down with it—not to mention psychologically scar Jodorowsky’s kid in the process.

3. Overnight (2003)
Directors: Tony Montana, Mark Brian Smith

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While Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of many examples that, through chronicling the artistic struggles of a director ahead of his or her time, throws into relief the dysfunction inherent to the Hollywood machine, Overnight claims that maybe Hollywood isn’t so bad after all.

Overnight follows writer/director Troy Duffy as he whines his way through the long uphill slog of making his first film, The Boondock Saints, a debut initially backed by Hollywood heavyweights but abandoned after Duffy revealed himself to be an impossibly uncooperative clown. Today, it’s no surprise that The Boondock Saints hasn’t aged well; in the 15 years since its release, the world seems less apt than ever to stomach its rampant homophobia, misogyny, and idiotic soundtrack—so much so that even its original cult apologists (this author included) have all but admitted it’s a bro’s wet dream best laundered from our collective consciousness.

Overnight does nothing to defend Boondock’s legacy, instead documenting Duffy’s rise to and fall from fame while he spent an inordinate of time, money, and family members’ patience attempting to get his debut through the system that shunned him. The documentary paints Duffy as exactly the kind of guy who you’d imagine would make a film like Boondock Saints: loud, vulgar, petulant, dumb, just … so dumb. There’s really nothing positive to say about him after witnessing his self-immolation, except maybe that he got what he deserved. And if what he deserved was to squander the goodwill of a surprisingly tolerant Hollywood, so much so that Harvey Weinstein notoriously “blacklisted” him, then Overnight is perfect proof that maybe dreams really do come true.

4. Kingdom Come (2011)
Directors: Paiman Kalayeh, John Lyons Murphy

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Daniel Gillies’ path toward making—and funding—debut Broken Kingdom is one well-trod by any aspiring filmmaker trying to beat out a name for him or herself in the dense jungles of an industry hopelessly loyal to Hollywood gentry and practically no one else. Kingdom Come, predictably then, can be merciless in its portrayal of Gillies’ repeated stumblings, but it’s when directors Paiman Kalayeh and John Lyons Murphy incorporate interviews with well-known names, people who, despite their successes, have faced similarly suffocating obstacles, that the documentary seems to paint an altogether hopeless picture of the once encouraging dreamscape of Hollywood. Though Gillies does live to see his film finished, whether it adheres to his original vision or not hardly matters: Kingdom Come considers its very existence a miracle for which Gillies should thank the heavens.

5. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola

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There’s no movie industry machine to fault for Francis Ford Coppola’s own personal brand of apocalypse, just the immensity of the production itself—self-financed by the director—and his relentless need to make Apocalypse Now his crowning artistic achievement. This means that Coppola’s surreal Vietnam odyssey, which reached a whopping 265 days of principal photography, was, somewhere in the director’s brilliant, anxiety-riddled mind, his definitive statement on what it took for any human being to make a massive piece of art like Apocalypse Now. The experience was, as he tells a crowd at the very beginning of the making-of doc Hearts of Darkness, not about the Vietnam War; it was the Vietnam War.

Far from an exaggeration, Hearts of Darkness spends 90 minutes defending that initial statement, and after millions of dollars, a heart attack, a number of psychological collapses, serious drug abuse, a rebellion in the Philippines, threats of suicide, and endless rewrites to John Milius’s almost-legendary script, the audience might be hard-pressed to disagree with Coppola’s assessment. In fact, one wonders—along with practically everyone involved—if Apocalypse Now was even worth the trouble, despite a respectable awards showing and suitable box-office returns. Because at the heart of all that turmoil was an impenetrable something that Coppola spent nearly a year trying to find. In the end, just like in the Joseph Conrad novel upon which the film was based, it’s hard to tell if Coppola ever found what he was looking for.

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