Reel Talk

The Peril of Showbiz

So this weekend I had a very strange double feature, that while I didn’t plan it this way, ended up being oddly similar films that really nailed home an interesting concept. Hollywood sucks. I’m a real sucker for Meta movies that are about filmmaking. And I’m not talking about metaphoric films like Inception (even though I do love that movie) I mean movies that are straight up just about what it’s like to make movies. It may be really self-referential and too inside-baseball, but I love it. And I feel like the thing that’s so funny and interesting about movies like this, is that they’re so critical and cynical about filmmaking. I really can’t think of a movie that’s about filmmaking that makes it seem like a worthwhile endeavor. Movies about movies generally are all about how much the Hollywood system sucks the life out of you. How it destroys everything great and makes it as difficult as possible to actually make anything good. The message from these movies is that it’s a miracle anything good gets released without being ruined from fifty different directions.


So the first movie I saw was the Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration. I love Christopher Guest and his weird mockumentary style. Movies like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind are among my favorite movies, and even though he didn’t direct it, This is Spinal Tap may be on my top ten. This was the last of his mockumentaries that I hadn’t seen yet, and I was thoroughly shocked to find out that this wasn’t a mockumentary. I guess I just assumed that. And it’s kind of strange to see this type of movie, with this cast, in a more traditionally narrative film. And it’s all about how easily the Hollywood machine can destroy a film. The movie is about the filming of a movie called Home For Purim, a dramatic period piece about a Jewish family in the 1940’s who are coming together for the first time in years for a Purim dinner. The mother is dying, the son is going off to war, and the daughter has come home from college to reveal that she’s a lesbian. It seemed like the type of overly-dramatic movie that gets tossed out in the small indie theaters around awards season, but never really make the smallest dent in the public conscious. None of the characters really seem to think that they’re making a quality movie, until someone finds a random article on the internet that hints of hypothetical Oscar buzz surrounding the movie. And things quickly fall apart from there. The actors, producers, writers, and financier start to grow crazy with the possibility that their little movie will be winning an Oscar and begin changing everything about it, and themselves, to be more marketable.

This movie really is an interesting commentary on how many different ways that a movie can be ruined, even by something as inconsequential as a blog post. The actors get plastic surgery to make themselves more likeable, they compromise their integrity by appearing on weird talk shows, and just generally play into the infotainment side of the industry. But none of that holds a candle to the fact that when met with the possibility of an Oscar nomination, the people behind the camera are willing to change everything about the movie to make it more loveable. They tone down the “Jewishness” and even change the movie to being called Home for Thanksgiving, completely removing the Purim plot. The actors themselves even start infighting, assuming that they’re all going to be competing with each other to get the nomination. And the ending of this movie is hilarious. None of the three main actors get nominated, and neither does the movie. The only person who does get nominated is the guy playing the son, and throughout the film he’s the only one who doesn’t even care about the awards. For all their primping and changing, the film still bombs, and they go back to obscurity. There’s nothing you can do to make people like something, even if you change absolutely everything about yourself, people still may hate you. I feel like we would be shocked if we learned about the amount of movies that imploded like Home for Purim. This movie was so delightfully jaded. These people who act so sanctimonious about their artistic integrity almost immediately sell out their film for the chance to get some arbitrary accolades. It’s a great movie.


The second movie that I watched oddly felt like a pretty apt companion piece to For Your Consideration, while being a very different type of film. It was another documentary about a movie that didn’t get made, but unlike the Superman Lives doc that I talked about the other day which was about a movie that imploded in on itself and never existed, this was about a movie that technically was released, just not in the form that it was originally intended. Lost Soul: the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is a documentary that’s half about director Richard Stanley’s attempt to get an adaptation of the HG Wells novel, the Island of Dr. Moreau off the ground and all of the problems that he ran into, and half about the disastrous movie that did get made from his ideas. It was a very strange documentary, but I found it to be very interesting. Now, before watching this documentary, I had never heard of Richard Stanley, nor seen any of his movies. And I’m not going to lie and say I have any interest in watching any of them now. He doesn’t seem like my type of filmmaker, but he was a very interesting guy. He came up in the Indie Boom of the 90’s as a director of two strange sci-fi/horror flicks that apparently have a pretty strong cult following. So New Line Cinema took a gamble on him, and let him start production on a new remake of the Island of Dr. Moreau. And pretty much straight from the beginning, things go wrong. It sounded like he essentially wrote the screenplay on spec, just writing a movie when no one asked him to, and somehow managed to convince people that what the world needed was a super weird, special effects laden version of the classic story. Things fell apart pretty quickly. Stanley was met with some pretty strange circumstances, including getting sidled with Val Kilmer as his lead actor, who decided during pre-production that he wanted to change characters, and essentially wrecked the movie. I don’t know if Richard Stanley’s version would have been good, and to be honest, I found the first half of the documentary that focused on his failed production the less interesting half. When everything goes wrong for the characters in For Your Consideration, it’s funny, but when it happens to a real guy, and we get to hear him be interviewed about having his creation completely destroyed, it’s just kind of sad. But then the doc started talking about the movie that did get made…and oh boy, that movie is nuts.


If you’ve never seen the 1996 version of the Island of Dr. Moreau, that ended up being filmed by John Frankenheimer, it’s absolutely bananas. It’s a big budget trainwreck, kind of like what I hoped Superman Lives would have been. Marlon Brando stars as the titular doctor, and he famously wanted nothing to do with the movie, and wore white paint of his face so that his stunt double could do most of the acting, he hated Val Kilmer and had all of their scenes taken out, and grew fond of a minor character played by the smallest man in the world, and got him made one of the most important characters in the film. Val Kilmer also didn’t want to be in the movie and basically just did his own thing, barely hiding his contempt for the film, and eventually his contempt for Brando when by the end of the movie he was speaking predominately in a bad Brando impression. Nothing makes sense, and it’s beautiful. And the documentary shows exactly why nothing made sense. Everybody hated each other behind set, especially Frankenheimer who apparently ran the set like a tyrant. The location that Stanley had picked with one of the rainiest places in the world and was almost impossible to film in, and after he was taken off the picture the rest of the crew and cast had to sit around in the middle of nowhere Australia for weeks, having nothing better to do than drink and do drugs until they all became burnouts with no interest in finishing the movie. It’s a weird story that just goes to show how easily a dream project can turn into a nightmare. Richard Stanley really wanted to make a good film adaptation of this story, and tried his best. Then the system crushed his dreams, kicked him off the project, and ended up tossing out one of the worst movies ever made. Poor Richard Stanley, I don’t think you movie would have been good, but it deserved better than what we got.

I just find it so interesting how easily movies can be ruined. Watching documentaries about failed films and movies that poke fun at the idea really make it seem like a miracle that good things come out. You really appreciate the good movies that get made in the Hollywood system when it really seems like the system is designed to churn out the blandest crap that appeals to the most demographics. But I think the main thing I learned was that it’s fun to watch a fictional account of a failed movie, and its super depressing to hear a true story about the same thing. Anyone who has creative impulses can see something like this, and feel a twinge of anxiety at the idea of someone else ruining your idea. And yet, it’s something that I find endlessly fascinating, and a topic that I love going back to time and again.

For Your Consideration  was written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy and was directed by Christopher Guest.

Lost Soul: the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau was directed by David Gregory.

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