There have been many films made about the making of a film. Two of my favorites: Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Robert Altman’s The Player. Both wicked sexy, witty, and ultra cynical. Both also made by monumentally celebrated filmmakers.
To really glimpse what it takes to make a movie, though, I suggest looking at two smaller films made by not-so-celebrated filmmakers. That is, of course, if you really want to glimpse the heartache, soul-searching, cat herding anxiety required to take a project from script to flat screen.
Tom DiCillo had an interesting run as an indie film writer-director. He now applies his talents to directing episodic television, but he did make a handful of quirky and earnest films. One stands out.
Living in Oblivion gives us Steve Buscemi as a low budget filmmaker on the set of his labor of love film. As is always the case in movies about making movies, this will be “the one.”
But as is also always the case in movies about making movies, the obstacles are many and the egos clash like beta fish in a bath tub.
To truly appreciate Living in Oblivion it helps to understand the backstory.
DiCillo struggled mightily to get his first film made. It was called Johnny Suede and it starred an unknown commodity named Brad Pitt. Suffice it to say, Pitt was not only not ready for prime time, he was all swagger and no chops, making the process of filmmaking torturous for the young filmmaker. DiCillo had been in the trenches as a cinematographer with indie Hall of Fame director Jim Jarmusch. One of Jarmusch’s secrets of success was his casting, usually relying on the same stable of actors to tell his unique small town stories.
DiCillo did not have that luxury on Johnny Suede.
But he turned those lemons into lemonade with Living in Oblivion, which is loosely based on the making of Johnny Suede.
This time around his casting rocks. The often under-appreciated Catherine Keener is phenomenal as his leading lady. Dermot Mulroney gives possibly his best career performance as the film’s super sensititive cinematographer, ‘Wolf.’ Game of Thrones’ star Peter Dinklage is hysterical as a tuxedo’d dream imp – at one point questioning the struggling director “Why are there always dwarves in dream sequences? Have you ever had a dwarf in your dreams?”
James LeGros gets the privilege of sending up Pitt. He plays ‘Chad Palomino,’ a star on the rise who wreaks havoc on the bargain basement set, flirting with all the gals, and challenging every decision.
But it is Buscemi who carries the freight in the picture as DiCillo’s alter ego. He plays the role with equal parts integrity and whore. One moment the dreamer, the next the realist. Duplicitous with his cast to get his shots, and perfectly dismissive of his crew when the pressure mounts. And all he wants to do is make his movie! Is that too much to ask????? His melt down is one for the ages.
Mistress is one of those rare star-studded films I can mention in any setting and be almost guaranteed to get blank stares from 100% of my audience.
And then I tell them the film’s set up and I know they are hooked.
Robert Wuhl plays a down and out filmmaker who watches silent films on his reel to reel by night, and directs instructional videos for a cable food channel by day. That is, until his phone rings one night – on the other end is a down and out producer, played brilliantly by Martin Landau. You immediately sense that he should not have answered the phone.
Landau, while sitting in his cluttered garage office thumbing through a stack of old scripts, has stumbled upon The Darkness and the Light, the film project that drove Wuhl into retirement when his lead actor (Christopher Walken) suddenly jumped from a high-rise roof top during filming.
But now Landau wants to resurrect the project and he has three investors lined up. The three investors are played by Robert DeNiro, Eli Wallach, and Danny Aiello.
The catch? All three investors insist on plum roles for their girlfriends. Hence, the film’s title.
Mistress is the only notable film made by character actor Barry Primus. And I’m being generous with the word “notable.”
But don’t let that fool you. If you want to know what it’s like to make a movie in Hollywood, please take a look at this film. It’s laugh out loud funny (LOL to you kids), with gut busting performances across the board from not only the heavy hitters, but Jean Smart, Jace Alexander, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Tuesday Knight.
There is a diner scene in the beginning of the third act when Wuhl finally asks Landau “Whatever happened to you, Jack? You used to be a big shot at Universal.” Alexander comes to his defense “It was Fritz Benoms, he screwed him.” “Bullshit! I screwed myself,” Landau fires back. In that moment of self-reflecting accountability the lesson is there for all. “I did it to myself. Now I look back, all those years have disappeared like a coin sinking in the sand.”
I’m not going to sit in my Lars Beckerman chair and pretend, my spectacularly insightful and generous readers, that I know what it takes to make a movie. I’ve tried a couple of times and come up short of the finish line. I like to give excuses, when asked, as to why. “Never found the right producer,” or “Just couldn’t get all the dots to connect with the money guys.” But as Martin Landau’s pathetic ‘Jack Roth’ said while picking up another lunch tab he could barely afford, “I screwed myself.”
Man, I could tell you some stories, though. But that’s for another post. Another day.
For now, trust that your old pal Lars B knows a good movie about making movies when he sees one. Rent these two gems and holler back at me with your take. You know I love your input.