American Dreamer And The Art Of The Behind-The-Scenes Movie

Christina Newland

Occasionally, a film comes along that’s so bloated in its production, so hectic and theatrical — with its key personnel catching tropical maladies, waving firearms around, or otherwise behaving like maniacs — that a film could be made purely about the production process. Whether they be documentary or a feature, these films are always a movie lover’s dream; they’re a peek behind the curtain, after all.

American Dreamer is one such undertaking, following the antics of a post-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper as he works on his passion project The Last Movie. It’s a self-reflexive anti-Colonial western shot in the Peruvian jungle, commercially doomed by its avant-garde stylings and exponentially-increasing budget. The 1971 doc, focusing on Hopper on the cusp of the film’s release and subsequent failure, is a real counterculture relic. Thankfully, a restored DVD from Etiquette Pictures was made widely available as of earlier this month.

Ultimately, The Last Movie’s box-office failure resulted in Hopper’s expulsion from Columbia Studios and a decade-long battle to get back in the director’s chair.  Offering a unique look into the filmmaker’s perspective — even when it sinks into outright lunacy — here are a handful of great ‘behind the scenes’ films: 

Francis Ford Coppola joked that Apocalyse Now ‘wasn’t just about Vietnam, it was Vietnam’.

Hearts of Darkness (1991, dir. Eleanor Coppola)

This compelling watch follows the making of one of the most notorious and decadent film shoots of all time: Apocalypse Now. The hallucinatory, sweat-streaked descent into war-torn madness had a production story to match — prompting Francis Ford Coppola to joke that the film ‘wasn’t just about Vietnam, it was Vietnam’.

There were so many issues to contend with, as recorded for posterity by Coppola’s beleaguered wife. Beset by a typhoon, Brando’s eccentric behaviour, Martin Sheen’s massive heartattack, and Coppola hoovering up seemingly endless supplies of cocaine, it seems a miracle that a cohesive version of the film even exists. But scenes of the director’s on-set rambling is tempered by retrospective commentary — and it all seems excusable in light of the masterpiece created.

Refn’s anguished, nervous silences weigh heavily on his wife and young children.

My Life, Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014, dir. Liv Corfixen)

It’s telling, maybe, that many of these movies are directed by a famous director’s spouse or children; they all contain a level of personal insight that might otherwise have been impossible. It’s also invariably true that these artists’ decisions have huge effects on the lives of their families; Refn’s anguished, nervous silences weigh heavily on his wife and young children. They’ve relocated to far-flung Bangkok, and Refn is a ball of nerves. He’s convinced that his production of Only God Forgives is an impending disaster, admitting that his whole project is under-developed. If there’s anything more dangerous than a filmmaker with god-like hubris, it must be one full of crippling self-doubt. The film turns out to be a likable, funny portrait of artistic fallibility and fear — and the risks one takes to adhere to a fiercely personal vision. 

Baadasssss! (2003, dir. Mario van Peebles)

Mario Van Peebles — son of pioneering independent director Melvin — made a feature film recreating his father’s gargantuan undertaking: Sweet Sweetbacks Baadassss Song! The rough and tumble production featured all manner of real-life pimps, prostitutes, and street-dwellers, and Van Peebles was mercenary at times in fulfilling his vision on a limited budget. This included writing bad checks and even allowing his eleven year-old son to do sex scenes onscreen. As a grown up, Mario not only directs but stars as his father; the result of their struggle was a radical, revolutionary film, almost single-handedly responsible for kicking off the Blaxploitation craze.

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