10 Great Documentaries About Famous Films


One of our most anticipated titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (oh, yeah, did we mention we’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival? Because we totes will) is Room 237, a new documentary by Rodney Ascher about the obsessive fans of The Shining. According to Entertainment Weekly, one of them posits an intriguing two-part conspiracy theory. First, he holds that Kubrick “directed” the faked Apollo moon landings while shooting 2001 — itself a mere cover for his bigger job. (This one’s been floating around for years — hell, it inspired its own “mockumentary,” Dark Side of the Moon.) But here’s the kicker: the fan also contends that, since Kubrick would have faced dire consequences if he ever revealed his involvement in the moon landing, he instead smuggled clues into The Shining, using his Stephen King adaptation as a giant coded message to tell the world about the ruse.

“It’s a film-nerd love-fest,” according to Sundance programmer Trevor Groth. “These obsessive people dissect The Shining, and they’ve watched it thousands of times, all finding their own coded meaning and language in it.” Reading about Room 237, and salivating for it, got us thinking about some of our other favorite “film-nerd love-fests”; after the jump, we’ve compiled ten of our favorite documentaries about famous films.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

No less an authority than Gene Siskel picked Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s Hearts of Darkness as the best film of 1991 — not the best documentary, mind you, but the best film of the year, period. He may very well be right; this warts-and-all account of the famously contentious production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is riveting viewing, detailing how the film’s shooting schedule and budget (to say nothing of the sanity of all involved) were demolished by a steady stream of bad weather, health woes, cast changes, and general malaise. It’s a gloriously gripping descent into moviemaking madness — oh, and it inspired an episode of Community, so bonus points for that.

Burden of Dreams

One of the few productions that proved problematic enough to give Apocalypse Now a run for its money was Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 drama, shot in the jungles of South America with a particularly venomous Klaus Kinski in the leading role. He hadn’t been Herzog’s first choice; Jason Robards had been cast in the title role, but become deathly ill with dysentery and was forced by his doctors to leave the film. About forty percent of the film had been shot with Robards in the lead and Mick Jagger as his assistant; Jagger was unable to continue, so Herzog basically had to start over with Kinski (he wrote Jagger’s character out). Kinski proved — unsurprisingly — a contentious leading man, his rows with Herzog growing so severe that, according to the director, one of the native chiefs offered to kill Herzog’s leading man for him. (The filmmaker declined, he says, because this would have required him to restart the shoot again.) Also, Herzog decided to do the centerpiece sequence — moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill — without any special effects. Filmmaker Les Blank captured all of this and more in Burden of Dreams, using a fly-on-the-wall approach to fully document the querulous shoot.

The Godfather Family: A Look Inside

Coppola’s troubles in making the Godfather trilogy weren’t nearly as dramatic as he’d later encounter, but he certainly waged some battles (at least on the first one), butting heads with Paramount over his oddball casting choices, insistence on shooting it in period (the studio wanted to update it to a contemporary setting, to stage money), and his on-set style (he says the studio had a replacement director all lined up). Jeff Werner’s documentary account of the films’ productions originally aired on HBO in advance of Godfather III’s release, so it has rather a more optimistic, positive view of that picture than we do now, but it’s still a lot of fun for fans of the films — particularly in the section of screen tests, which give us a look Martin Sheen’s Michael and Robert DeNiro’s electrifying Sonny.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane

Documentarians Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon’s 1996 look at Orson Welles’ masterpiece was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (not always an easy feat, that), and serves not only as an essential look at how Kane was made, but provides valuable context into the backgrounds of Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate upon whom Charles Foster Kane was loosely based. The argument that Welles and Hearst were, in fact, quite a bit alike is rather a specious one, but framing their film as not only a behind-the-scenes report but a double-biography, they manage to get at some interesting ideas about why Hearst worked so very hard to bury the film and its creator.

It’s All True

The rise and fall of Mr. Welles has produced reams of paper and yards of film, but this 1993 documentary is one of the most fascinating. It shares its title with that of its subject, an unfinished film that Welles started immediately after finishing his Kane follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons. A four-part anthology meant to serve as a cinematic goodwill ambassador between the US and Latin America, Welles was on location in Brazil when management changed at RKO. In his absence, the studio re-cut Ambersons (and reshot much of its third act); they then terminated not only the It’s All True project, but Welles’ contract. He never found another backer for the project, and the footage from the aborted shoot languished in the RKO vaults until 1985, when filmmakers Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson began working to assemble the surviving film into a documentary account of the first (of many) of Welles’ “lost films.”

Inside Deep Throat

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 1995 documentary is a penetrating (har har) examination of the notorious 1972 porn film: its production, its profitability, its legal battles, and its legacy. But most valuably, Bailey and Barbato use Deep Throat’s success as a window into bigger sociological questions: the aftershocks of the sexual revolution, the mainstreaming of pornography, and the First Amendment itself. It’s fast, funny, and (of course) filthy; copious clips from the original film may make it NSFW (and not safe for family consumption), but it is still well worth your time.

Full Tilt Boogie

When his old script for the gangster/vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn was resurrected (man, I am on a roll today) in 1995, Quentin Tarantino was enjoying his full-on rock-star moment, basking in the afterglow of Pulp Fiction’s critical and financial success. QT would co-star but not direct; those reins were handed over to his new film-fest friend Robert Rodriguez, while rising ER heartthrob George Clooney was engaged for the leading role. Filmmaker Sarah Kelly brought her documentary crew along to capture the production, and ended up with a compelling look at what happens when all of a movie geek’s dreams come true.

Lost in La Mancha

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is one of the most famous of recent incomplete films; Gilliam made it less than a week into the shoot before he was forced to abandon the $32 million project due to Apocalypse Now-style bad weather and an injured leading man. Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were on the set to shoot a DVD supplement feature (as they’d done for 12 Monkeys); instead, they captured the total unraveling of Gilliam’s longtime dream project. Unlike Coppola, who in many ways let his ambitions get the best of him, poor Gilliam is mostly the victim of rotten luck — luck that has continued through the decade he’s spent attempting to remount the film. Ultimately, this absorbing documentary may be the most we get to see of Gilliam’s Quixote.

Buster Keaton Rides Again

The Railrodder may stretch your definition of a “famous” film; that 24-minute 1965 pic was basically a tourism movie for the National Film Board of Canada. But it did feature a 70-year-old Buster Keaton riding the rails of the Great White North on a handcar (shades of The General ), and the Canadian film board had the good sense to also engage documentarian John Spotton to shoot a black-and-white behind-the-scenes feature. The result, Buster Keaton Rides Again, is an engrossing peek at a comic genius in his twilight years — older, yes, but still sharp as a tack and fighting hard to defend his comic instincts and integrity. The legendary comedian and filmmaker died the following year; Buster Keaton Rides Again is a wonderful look at one of his final projects.

Best Worst Movie

The low-budget horror film was shot in Utah in 1989, under the title of Goblins. But it was retitled to pass as a sequel to the 1986 movie Troll, even though it bore no connection whatsoever to the previous film and, in fact, contained no trolls. It went straight to video and pay cable, but in the years that followed, slowly but surely, Troll 2 gained a cult audience that was wowed by its awesome awfulness. The story of its long, strange trip from VHS doldrums to cult phenomenon is told in Best Worst Movie by writer/director Michael Stephenson, who appeared in Troll 2 as a child actor and here sets about reassembling the cast and crew. It’s an affectionate, enjoyable documentary, and it’s about more than just this awful movie; it’s about shared experiences, between the oddballs who made the movie, and the fans who have embraced it.