When I was a kid I followed the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a level of interest that could only be described as obsessive. Part of this was mere fanboying; I was (and remain) a huge fan of the books and the idea of them being adapted to film caused me to freak right the hell out. But part of it was also because I was, even then, that I was extremely interested in getting into making movies and I wanted to learn about how they were made. And following the production of Lord of the Rings taught me something revolutionary: Making movies is HARD.
Obviously those film of savvy of you in the audience will be think “Duh,” but one thing I learned as I got older is that knowledge is not universal. There’s a quote from Sunset Blvd that I’m very fond of: “People don’t think someone sits down to write a movie. They think the actors just make it up as they go along.” And I’ve found that the same holds true for production; People don’t think about the work and time and money that goes into making a movie. They just think someone presses a button and out pops a movie.
And since I still don’t have a ton of stuff to write about (The Grand Budapest Hotel is currently only showing in NYC and LA, because God hates me personally) I’ve decided to give all of you an opportunity to learn more about film production, with 2 books specifically about the making of famous, or perhaps infamous, movies.
The Disaster Artist
Well it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t dance with the girl who brought me, so I might as well start with the work that inspired this list. I’ve mentioned in the past my love for infamous so-bad-it’s-good cult classic The Room. It is, in a lot of ways, the perfect bad movie; It’s written by someone with an at best loose understanding of the English language, none of the characters ever act like human beings, the plot is aimless and incomprehensible, the directing and acting wouldn’t pass muster in a grade school fan film, etc. And I, being a particularly insane human being, wanted to know more about how it got made, and about the extremely odd human being at its center Tommy Wiseau (pictured above, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in it).
Well Greg Sestero, who played the secondary lead, answered my prayers and wrote a book, not just about the production of The Room but about his friendship with Wiseau. And I want to be clear here; No, you don’t need to be ‘into’ film to enjoy this book. Sure you might get the sequences about Sestero and Wiseau’s repeated attempts to make it in Hollywood more or understand in more detail the stories from the insane production. But even without any film knowledge The Disaster Artist is equal parts fascinating, hilarious, disconcerting and yet, oddly endearing.
Sequences, such as Wiseau’s repeatedly failing to get a shot in which he has to say less than 20 words (less than 20 words that he wrote) are hilarious in their own right, but when you know the scene in question they become even funnier. There are darker moments too, such as reading about the mentality of Wiseau while writing the script or when he refuses to provide basic things for his crew and then lies about. And yet, through an odd balancing act of Wiseau’s own tragic backstory and his sincere desire to become a filmmaker despite negative amounts of talent make the story as a whole triumphant. He, in his own bizzaro way, succeeded and I’ll be damned if that isn’t kind of heartwarming. I mean no exaggeration when I say that The Disaster Artist is our generation’s Ed Wood. And given that Ed Wood not only the best movie Tim Burton has ever made but also, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made, there can be no higher praise.
Heaven’s Gate is a movie I think more people have heard of than actually seen. Hell, I’ve not seen it, but I have a good friend and fellow reviewer The Guy in the Third Row who’s seen it, and who described it to me as “Equal parts ambitious and flawed.” But the specter of it, or more importantly its disasterous failure at the box office, looms large over the industry even to this day. It destroyed the company that made it, United Artists, gave the studios a reason to abandon New Hollywood (look it up), was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Western, solidified the Humane Society’s role in watching film productions and annihilated the then-promising career of its director, Michael Cimino. And Steven Bach’s book Final Cut chronicles the completely out of control production from pitch to hilariously awful premier.
That’s actually selling the book somewhat short, as the first few chapters are actually devoted to an alarmingly in-depth history of United Artists, from its founding by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (if all those names aren’t familiar to you, you have failed all of your film history classes) to their eventual fall. But you’re here for the insanity that was the actual production and you honestly couldn’t hope to get more involved without it being by the director himself.
I will say that, even with the difference in writing style taken into account, Final Cut is a much meatier read than The Disaster Artist. The writing style is not only more detailed and history focused, but the story and movie involved are less enjoyable to read about. The story is still extremely engaging, including anecdotes like Cimino demanding a street be torn down and rebuilt six feet closer together because it didn’t ‘look right’ or stopping production for hours to wait for a cloud he liked to come into frame, but the ending is less triumphant, even if The Room is probably an objectively worse product. It’s fitting that Cimino’s first pitch after The Deer Hunter was an adaption of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, because the story of Heaven’s Gate reads like a more self-aware version of The Fountainhead, a story of artistic ambition gone mad. It’s a fascinating look into a movie that shook the industry and into said industry as a whole, and if you are at all a student of cinema, you need to read it. And even if you’re not, it’s worth a read.