Top 8 Movie Documentaries About Filmmaking

While many casual movie fans may only be interested in seeing the finished product, sometimes the process behind a film’s creation can be just as fascinating as the movie itself. Fortunately, for people that are interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a movie, many of today’s films are eventually released with featurettes that offer a glimpse of the filmmaking process.

However, for film buffs that want an in-depth look at the moviemaking process, there are several lengthier documentaries that cover everything from the pre-production stage, to the final editing work. Here are eight engaging documentaries that offer a fascinating insider’s look at the world of filmmaking. While the documentaries included on this list were chosen on basis of personal taste, the selections are ordered according to the critical or audience rankings provided by Rotten Tomatoes.

8. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2015)

Directed by Liv Corfixen, this recently released documentary is about the production of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s controversial 2013 film Only God Forgives. Much like the film it documents, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn seems to have divided the critics. While The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck noted that it “offers some provocative moments,” Variety’s Peter Debruge wrote that “this 59-minute doodle barely rises above homemovie status.”

The 53% approval rating that My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn currently has from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes reflects the wide range of reviews given to the film. Although it has a relatively low approval rating, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn still managed to achieve a higher critical rating from Rotten Tomatoes than the film it documents the making of. Only God Forgives currently has a 40% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, despite garnering a nomination for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and praise from some critics.

Besides giving viewers the usual behind-the-scenes look at a filmmaker’s struggles, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn provides a uniquely personal perspective on the moviemaking process since Corfixen is also Refn’s wife. This has led many critics to compare the film (usually unfavorably) with Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary that also used footage shot by a director’s spouse.

7. Who Is Alan Smithee? aka Directed By Alan Smithee (2002)

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

While most of the documentaries on this list are about directors’ efforts to bring their stories to life on the big screen, the film Who Is Alan Smithee? is about directors who are trying to distance themselves from projects that went awry. For many years, Alan Smithee was a pseudonym used by Hollywood directors for films that — for various reasons — they did not want to be credited for.

Who Is Alan Smithee? traces the history of this pseudonym from its origins with 1969’s Death of a Gunfighter, to the end of its usage in the early 2000s. The documentary also takes a look at several instances when directors were unsuccessful in convincing the Directors Guild of America (DGA) to replace their names with this pseudonym, including Tony Kaye’s failed attempt to get his name taken off American History X. Kaye, like many of the directors who sought to use the Alan Smithee pseudonym, did so for artistic reasons.

So besides revealing the production stories behind several well-known films, this documentary also provides a fascinating glimpse into inner workings of the business side of moviemaking, where a studio’s pragmatic demands often take precedence over a director’s artistic vision. Although Who Is Alan Smithee? currently has no reviews from critics at Rotten Tomatoes, it does have a 50% audience score.

6. Wrath of Gods (2006)

Directed by Jon Gustafsson, this film documents the troublesome production of Beowulf and Grendel. In 2004, Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson traveled to Iceland to begin production of a film that is loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf.”  Unfortunately, the production is almost immediately beset with multiple problems, including foul weather, lost equipment, and a car crash involving members of the crew.

Although Gunnarsson still manages to complete the film, Wrath of Gods serves as a sobering reminder of just how difficult and unpredictable the moviemaking process can be. Wrath of Gods currently has no reviews from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, but has earned a respectable 91% audience score.

5. Lost in La Mancha (2003)

Like Wrath of Gods, Lost in La Mancha is a documentary about a film production where everything seems to go wrong. Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, this documentary tells the story of Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make the movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2000. The seemingly cursed production was thwarted by a series of disasters that culminated with the one of the lead actors having to withdraw from the film due to a back injury.

Although the production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ended without the film being completed, the documentary about the process was hailed by the critics. Lost in La Mancha currently has a stellar 94% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes who called it “an incisive, entertaining document of the difficulties inherent in the moviemaking process.”

It should also be noted that Gilliam has not given up on his dream of bringing Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote to the big screen. In November 2014, Variety reported that Gilliam is making his seventh attempt to complete the film with Jack O’Connell and John Hurt in the lead roles.

4. American Movie (1999)

While most of the moviemaking documentaries on this list are about big-budget films, American Movie shows the process behind a small independent production. Directed by Chris Smith, American Movie documents independent filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s efforts to complete a low-budget horror film titled Coven. Borchardt’s ultimate plan is to use the money he makes from Coven to finance Northwestern, a feature-length film he has long dreamed of completing. However, the production faces numerous obstacles, including clueless crew members, tenuous financing, and Borchardt’s resurfacing alcoholism.

Funny, poignant, and uplifting, American Movie stands as a testament to one filmmaker’s perseverance in the face of immense difficulties.  The film won the Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 and currently has a 94% Certified Fresh rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

Can an unfinished film still be a success? Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating look at the pre-production of a major motion picture that was never made. In 1975, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky began an ambitious attempt to make a movie based on Frank Herbert’s best-selling science fiction novel Dune. Jodorowsky assembled an amazing group of collaborators that included Pink Floyd for music; Dan O’Bannon for special effects; and H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius) for set and character design. He also assembled an impressive cast that included Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Salvador Dalí as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, David Carradine as Duke Leto Atreides, Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, and Udo Kier as Piter de Vries.

Unfortunately, the project eventually fell apart after it failed to acquire enough financial backing. Although Jodorowsky’s version of Dune never moved beyond the pre-production stage, documentary director Frank Pavich makes the compelling argument that the aborted project’s influence can be seen in many other groundbreaking science fiction films, including Alien, Star Wars, and Terminator. In any case, Jodorowsky’s Dune shows the meticulous work that goes into even the pre-production stage of the moviemaking process. Jodorowsky’s Dune currently has a 98% Certified Fresh approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

2. Burden of Dreams (1982)

Directed by Les Blank, Burden of Dreams documents the making of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, which is about a South American rubber baron’s attempt to transport a steamship over a small mountain in order to gain access to rubber trees. Blank’s film shows Herzog’s obsession with recreating this feat in Fitzcarraldo, as well as numerous other complications during the production.

After shooting nearly half the film with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger in the leading roles, both actors were forced to quit the production due to health and scheduling issues, respectively. This setback leads Herzog to cast controversial German actor Klaus Kinski in the title role, a decision that ultimately creates even more chaos for the production. Along with the more famous moviemaking documentary Hearts of Darkness, Burden of Dreams shows just how difficult it is to make a film in a remote jungle location, especially when your leading actor is as emotionally unstable as Kinski. Burden of Dreams currently has a 100% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

1. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

Widely considered by many critics to be the greatest documentary ever made about moviemaking, Hearts of Darkness tells the story of the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 feature film Apocalypse Now. Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Coppola’s wife Eleanor, Hearts of Darkness documents a film production plagued by a series of seemingly insurmountable disasters. As the production’s budget and shooting schedule goes off the rails, Coppola must contend with multiple problems with his cast, including Martin Sheen’s heart attack, Dennis Hopper’s drug-induced lunacy, and Marlon Brando’s corpulence.

Consisting of footage shot on the movie set location in the Philippines as well as interviews with the cast and crew, Hearts of Darkness shows how the moviemaking process has the potential to literally destroy a person, both physically and mentally. Fortunately, the Herculean efforts documented in Hearts of Darkness resulted in what many critics consider to be the greatest war movie ever made. Apocalypse Now went on to win the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and two Oscars at the 1980 Academy Awards. Hearts of Darkness currently has a 100% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

All movie cast, crew, and awards information courtesy of IMDb.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

More from Entertainment Cheat Sheet: