Friday, February 1, 2008

Movies about Movies

I chatted this morning with a colleague about a plan to use additional audio tracks on a DVD we're working on about technology. The conversation turned to how that feature of DVDs has been used in funny ways on some Hollywood releases.

"Incident at Loch Ness," for example (20th Century Fox, 2004) is a very funny mockumentary about Werner Herzog's troubles in making a documentary about the Loch Ness monster. The movie is hilarious, especially to people who are into documentary filmmaking, even though it is flawed (according to some reviewers). Werner is a great sport about his reputation as a director and gives a terrific performance. The movie raises a lot of disturbing questions about how "real" documentary films are and pokes a lot of fun at the industry. The special features on the DVD, though, are to my mind the most outstanding thing about it. They include a joke commentary soundtrack by the director (Zak Penn) and Werner that is an extremely funny send up of director's commentaries.

If you haven't seen the 1985 movie "Blood Simple" (Universal Studios) by the Coen brothers (or even if you saw the original), you should get the new DVD version that was released in 2001 -- just for the mock introduction to the film in which the fictional Mortimer Young, pompous CEO of the equally fictitious "Forever Young Film Preservation," discusses how the company restored the film and removed the "boring bits" from the original release.

The DVD also features an optional audio commentary by the fictional artistic director of the movie. He offers several "facts" about how the movie was made: a scene with characters driving in the rain was acted out in reverse and upside down, he claims, in order to accurately synchronize the headlights passing the car with lines of dialog. (Because the actors were upside down they had to use a lot of hairspray to keep their hair from looking like it was standing on end.) He reveals that in scenes with both dialogue and music, the actors just mouthed the words and recorded them in post-production, so their voices wouldn't interfere with the music that was playing on the set; that a dog is really an animatronic robot; that the sweat on the actors is fake "movie sweat"; and that a fly buzzing about in one shot is not real, but was done in CGI. Etc., etc. It's a very clever take on the typical DVD "commentaries" that purport to reveal the secrets of filmmaking and which largely consist of directors and others patting themselves on the back -- along with everybody involved in the project.

Now as I think about these some other movies come to mind that ought to be interesting to filmmakers -- one in particular.

Probably one of the funniest films about screenwriting is director Spike Jonze's 2002 "Adaptation," starring Nicolas Cage in the double role of screenwriting brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Chris Cooper is particularly wonderful, as is Meryl Streep. The plot, about Kaufman's struggle to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief," takes a very weird turn or three, but the satire on screenwriting -- and Hollywood movie-making -- is a hoot. A screenwriting seminar "expert" advises, for example, "God help you if you use voice-over in your work... That's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character." Of course, much of the film is voice-over narration in which Cage relates his thoughts. It's brilliant, quirky, and original.