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The 15 Best Documentaries About Making a Film

Written by on February 25, 2015 


The blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating a film are not often publicized around its release, but for some features we eventually get a peek behind the curtain — or rather, the camera. This week sees the release of one such documentary, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, which we enjoyed at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Captured by Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen, during the production of Only God Forgives, it delves into the anxieties and frustrations the director had while making the film in Bangkok.

While there’s great films that cover a career (Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures), the history of the medium (The Story of Film: An Odyssey), or the process of filmmaking (Day For Night) for the occasion, we’re highlighting our favorite documentaries that depict the making of a single film. Ranging from certified classics to films that never saw the light of day, check out our fifteen favorites below, which also includes links to where to watch each feature.

American Movie


American Movie recognizes the filmmaking hustle as Darwinism, observing an underdog whose small-town/big dream efforts humble the writer/director breakout craze of the indie 90s. Focusing its camera on Wisconsin suburbanite Mark Borchardt (a mullet with a movie camera), director Chris Smith’s droll documentary about a guy he met in an editing room captures raw character and earnest motivation as Borchardt slowly creates his dream short film Coven (pronounced COE-ven). American Movie is a celebration of the filmmaker organism in its first stage, with filmic imaginations having their parallel excitement tested by the forces of nature/by how freaking hard it is to make a movie. No less relevant in the digital era, Smith’s loving comedy also pays tribute to the chores of moviemaking that are as nagging as they are overlooked (recording one line over and over again, making sure someone’s head can crash through a cabinet door, etc.). When Borchardt finally finishes his first feature, Scare Me, in the year TBD, it will be a hero’s victory for all of indie filmmaking. – Nick A. [Watch on Amazon]

The Battle Over Citizen Kane


When it comes to one of the most acclaimed films of all-time, with countless writings and interviews, it can feel like there’s little new to discover about the process and struggles which went into crafting it. Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s comprehensive PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane takes a different angle on the creation of Orson Welles‘ masterpiece, exploring the young director’s ambitious undertaking as it coincides with the life of the film’s inspiration, William Randolph Hearst. Detailing both of their back-and-forth battles with the studios and the intentional roadblocks of the film’s distribution, it also goes into more personal matters, such as Hearst’s longtime mistress Marion Davies and the influence she had on him. “It’s about 2% moviemaking and 98% hustling. It’s no way to spend a life,” Welles concludes in the final moments, revealing his life was perhaps more similar to Hearst than his 25-year-old-self would have predicted. – Jordan R. [Watch on YouTube]

Best Worst Movie


Best Worst Movie is less about the making of the infamously bad movie Troll 2 than it is about its rebirth as a cult favorite. Directed by the subject’s lead child actor, Michael Paul Stephenson, who, some 20 years later, decides to embrace his career mistake, the documentary revisits the people behind Troll 2 and its bizarre origins as an unrelated American sequel directed and written by two Italians who barely spoke English. With the help of his movie father, amateur actor/dentist George Hardy, Stephenson also travels to conventions and theaters to examine how the film went from an obscure horror disgrace to an oft-quoted work worshipped by throngs of adoring fans. – Amanda W. [Watch on Hulu]

Burden of Dreams


Being one who holds Fitzcarraldo as the prime example of more-satisfying-to-discuss-than-watch cinema, it’s unsurprising that I’d ultimately prefer a document of the legendary struggles Herzog endured during its production. Along with a lot of the stuff you’ve heard about — Kinski’s eccentricities, a filmmaker’s intense anxiety, the hell of getting that damn boat over the mountain — there are tidbits and insights that will shock the biggest fans of the director,. (There was an initial attempt with Mick Jagger and Jason Robards? And there’s footage of this?!) But these proceedings aren’t all doom and gloom. As its title might suggest, to see the team get through the worst of these challenges makes Les Blank’s film an uplifting piece of cinema, one of the few I’d consider a testament to the strength people are capable of when they work together. – Nick N. [Watch on Amazon]

Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner


When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner showed up in theaters, it worked same seductive sorcery as its director’s previous film, Alien, displaying a squalid, imposing future world that felt organic and fully-formed. The delightful and enduring quality of watching Blade Runner is that you can see how lovingly it was made at the same time that it doesn’t seem ‘made’ at all. How did human beings contrive, conceive and finally construct such a fever-dream? It helps that Ridley Scott himself seems like the biggest Blade Runner fan of all. Rarely has a director not named George Lucas been so obsessed and bewitched by his own creation. Dangerous Days isn’t a simple behind-the-scenes film or solely a document of a troubled, difficult production. With an unbelievable wealth of production information, interviews, extra-footage and directorial insight, Days is nothing short of the documentation of one director’s love-hate affair with one of his grandest films. – Nathan B. [Watch on Blu-ray]

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