Filmmaking Lessons From Documentaries and Movies about Movies
Making a movie takes a lot of blood sweat and tears. The best documentaries and movies about making movies can teach us how to survive the process and how to live our lives.
We're always supposed to learn from our mistakes, so let's try learning from the mistakes of others. Documentaries about movies cover these mistakes in great detail.
So do movies about movies!
There are hidden lessons in both, and some not so hidden, that can help inspire and teach us all. Whatever content it is we're trying to create.
There are a LOT of movies about movies. Which shouldn't come as a surprise.
What does Hollywood love more than itself?
Luckily we have gone through all the prior rankings of movies about movies and documentaries about filmmaking and we've curated a new list for you. These movies have some great movie making and life lessons to offer.
Honestly, this is a lot of fun because the lessons and experience that come out of these choices truly are inspiring even if you're not creating content and you're just facing the day.
So let's roll!
Learning From Documentaries About Filmmaking
The hardest thing about making movies is...
Complete that sentence. Anything you say is right.
Because the hardest thing about making movies is everything.
It's whatever goes wrong that day. That minute.
And the best movies and documentaries about making movies ALWAYS depict that murphy's law is everywhere on a film set.
Sure sometimes it's for comedic effect, sometimes tragicomic. But mostly it's just the way things go. And it leaves us asking why we bothered in the first place...
You said it, Werner.
Really there is no better place to start when it comes to documentaries about filmmaking than with the big kahuna itself...
Burden Of Dreams
Burden of Dreams is one of the most potent and well-liked documentaries about filmmaking. Mainly because it's about Werner Herzog's filmmaking endeavor, and Herzog is as fascinating a figure on camera as he is behind one.
"If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that." - Werner Herzog
Herzog is chock full of poetically hysterical quotes as he struggles to do something genuinely ridiculous on camera. For his epic Fitzcarraldo, Herzog needed to get a steamship over a mountain. It happens in the movie, so he tried to make it also happen in real life.
It is LITERALLY a Sisyphean task, and thus quickly becomes the perfect metaphor for trying to make a movie.
What goes wrong while trying to pull a steamship over a mountain?
Natural disaster. Disease. ACTUAL civil war. Diva-like stars. Plane Crashes. Snakes. Malaria. Dysentery.
It's the oregon trail on steroids. Herzog has a lot of wisdom to espouse throughout it all though. His main points being that a) he hates the jungle b) he has dreams that he must see through and c) he hates the jungle.
The movie is called Burden of Dreams but the message is that your dreams are your guiding light, and saving grace. This is a theme in movies about movies, because without dreams why would anyone suffer this much?
"I shouldn't make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum right away" - Werner Herzog
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse
Hearts of Darkness tells the story of the making of Apocalypse Now. And boy... what a story it is.
In some ways, Apocalypse Now is more known as a result of this documentary about filmmaking than it is on its own merits.
The doc, named after the Joseph Conrad source material Francis Ford Coppola based his Vietnam epic on, is another excellent example of everything going wrong.
We're back in the jungle, Martin Sheen has a heart attack, Coppola considers suicide, and star Marlon Brando is... well... Marlon Brando.
Favorite movie making villain rain rears it's head and keeps the crew from making good time. The project goes way over budget and over schedule, and it becomes a story of people being miserable.
If you can learn to hang on to your dreams, or at least let them carry you through, in Burden of Dreams, you can take this lesson right from Copolla himself:
"We were in the jungle, there were too many of us and we had access to too much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane." - Francis Ford Copolla
Too much money and creative control can be a bad thing. This isn't a problem many of us will face, but it still makes for a great story.
Unlike these other documentaries about large-scale productions and filmmakers with prior success, American Movie focuses in on the other end of the spectrum.
The result may be the most humanizing and honest portrayal of filmmaking put to screen.
American Movie is the story of Mark Borchardt, a guy from Milwaukee, who wants to make movies.
At one time or another we were all Mark Borchardt. Gathering friends and family to put together our project. Even Steven Speilberg was Mark Borchardt once with a little short called Amblin'.
Mark's story is one of struggle. Lack of funds, alcoholism, a host of family issues, multiple jobs, and his self doubt stand in the way.
"He wants to be somewhere he's not. But then, don't most people want to be somewhere where they're not?"
There is a heroic element at work as Mark rallies his rag-tag band of misfits to the cause. He tries to get his "rich" Uncle Bill to help chip in. He maxes out a credit card... but for the most part, Mark and his team just can't realize Mark's vision...
Mark Borchardt is in his own way. The story is sad, funny, and poignant. It's one thing to fight for your dreams with too much money in the jungle...
It's quite another to fight for them in your mom's basement in Milwaukee. Mark Borchardt is the American hero we deserve.
Kick-fucking-ass, I got a Master Card. I don't believe it, man. Life is kinda cool sometimes.
Movies About Making Movies
One of the big takeaways from our three must-watch documentaries about filmmaking is that it's gonna get rough, so hang on tight to your dreams. Because you won't even have your sanity.
What about the fictional side of things?
There are a lot of great movies about moviemaking, and since the people who MAKE the movies about movies also make movies...
They are something of an authority on making movies!
There are a LOT of movies about making movies because, as I mentioned before, Hollywood is genuinely in love with itself.
But there can be a tenderness to that love, and valuable lessons to boot.
This might be one you're less familiar with. It's about a director who is tired of making what he considers "low brow" comedies, and so he hits the road in an effort to learn about REAL Americans. He wants to make an epic drama called Oh Brother Where Art Though.
Yep. The Coen Brothers were referencing this. Partly because it's also "depression-era".
What happens in this filmmakers long journey... or... travels...?
He finds love. He sees the real America. He goes to jail. He lives a harsher life.
But what he learns is that the 'real America' loves his silly comedies. They get a little escape out of them. They get to laugh and forget whatever 'realness' they are dealing with.
This was a strong message at the time. It still is to this day. Because while the denizens of the Mount Olympus of Hollywood sometimes want to address the gritty reality of life, many of their audiences are just looking for a little fun.
A couple hours away from it all.
Sullivans Travels is an early and honest look at how Hollywood forgets itself, but also at the same time finds a way to congratulate itself for everything it does. Super meta.
Robert Altman's satire is about a powerful studio executive who murders a screenwriter.
Something that happens every day.
Kidding! The story is just barely a metaphor, however. Our executive hears tons of pitches all the time, he rejects almost all of them. He thinks he's being threatened by a writer whose project he rejected and he ends up killing said writer.
The story follows the exec as he gets away with murder, defeats a rival exec, becomes head of the studio, impregnants the slain writer's girlfriend, and greenlights a movie about an executive getting away with murder.
It FEELS like some people are blowing off a little steam with this one.
But as far as movies that tell the story of how the sausage is made, and how that makes artists feel... this one sticks the landing. Movies about the hard work on set present specific obvious challenges and struggles, some of which are fairly scary.
Movies about the hard work in the studio offices... those struggles can be downright terrifying. But The Player has fun with it, and if anything is a lesson in how not to take any of it, or yourself, too seriously.
Ed Wood is the man famously known for making the worst movie of all time: Plan 9 From Outer Space. Of course, that was before The Room, which has perhaps taken that distinction from Plan 9.
In any case, Ed Wood is the movie that looks at the man behind that particular celluloid train wreck as well as others. Ed certainly had his own quirks, and that's a focus of the film as well. But underneath it all its a movie about how Ed is an outcast, teaming up with others like him, and he simply wants to make movies.
Ed befriends fading drug-addled star Bela Lugosi, a legend in Ed's eyes. Together they attempt to make a few more final films. None of which are very good. But the whole process of which is funny.
What you get a glimpse at in all this is a dedication to the process. It's one thing to study the process behind the great stars and directors. It's another to get a look at those who try, fail and try again.
Ed Wood ends with Ed happily driving off in the rain with the top down and woman who accepts him for who he is at his side. It begs the question: does what people think of the movies you make ultimately matter very much at all?
After early screenings of Sunset Boulevard executives and studio heads were angry. Billy Wilder had, in their words "bit the hand that feeds him."
What Wilder dared to do was be honest about the industry around him. And he did it so well he created one of the all-time classic movies. Not just one of the best movies about movies, but one of the enduring greats.
Wilder was known for his ability to slip in and out of genres. He had a deft hand with comedy, practically defined the romcom along with mentor Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder made some of the prototypical noirs, he even made war movies and a heavy drama about an alcoholic. He did it all, and he did it all well.
In Sunset Boulevard he mixed genres and tones and created another masterpiece. Funny, depressing, dark, fantastical, and real. Sunset Boulevard broke the mold.
The story is simple enough. A writer is struggling to find work and make ends meet. He happens upon a house belonging to a long forgotten star of silents who along with her starring roles has also lost her mind.
She tries to use him for her comeback. It doesn't work. It's an honest story about how cruel this town can be, and what happens to the people on the bottom, the top, and in the middle. None of it is good.
Spoiler alert: another screenwriter ends up dead. If you're a writer now would be a good time to check out this post on staying happy.
Not a movie about making movies, but a movie about making porn. The creatives in this industry, however, dream just as big.
Paul Thomas Anderson's darkly funny love letter to the 1970's and early 1980's San Fernando Valley porn industry is a must for anyone who loves movies about making movies. Or loves to laugh.
The characters in this story are a lot like Ed Wood or Mark Borchardt. They aren't at the top of the movie-maker pyramid. But they have their goals, their aspirations, and their struggles.
And in the end, they find their salvation in one another. Where the creative path can leave people alone and fame can often leave lives destroyed, this is a story about finding people to count on through thick and thin... and skin. Sorry. Had to.
The porn industry in Boogie Nights is a mirror held up to it's larger and (slightly) less seedy cousin of Hollywood. Ego gets in the way, and success spoils. Technology changes and people turn on one another.
But of all our documentaries and movies about movies, Boogie Nights may have the rosiest outlook at the end. If you can find a niche, a way to do what you love (and love who you do)... well what else can you ask for?
I mean, sure you can still ask to be a great big shining star. Nobody is gonna hold that one against you. It's all about having fun, right?
Wrapping Up Documentaries and Movies About Movies
Look at documentaries and movies about making movies to see how it all works (and doesn't work). To see how people survive the ups and downs.
But most of all to remember what really matters. Are you enjoying the process? Can you find a way to focus on the work and the people around you and not the results?
Because as we've seen in many of these stories, fiction and fact, if you can't do those things it can be a long harsh road.