Free Film School #75: Hot Film-on-Film Action

Professor Witney Seibold examines the often inaccurate way movies portray themselves in movies.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Surely you’ve been frustrated by this movie moment as well: you’ll be watching a wonderful, fantastical sequence, usually involving monsters or murder, usually right at the beginning of a movie, and you’ll be loving it. There will be a robot or something, a lot of dramatic music, and a lot of blood and terror. Then, without warning, the robot will, perhaps, malfunction, and the scene will then pull back to reveal that the awesome sequence you’ve just been watching has been, in fact, a film shoot this whole time. Think of the beginning (as I so often do) of FX2: The Deadly Art of Illusion. A giant transvestite robot that bleeds glowing purple ooze fires a rocket at a cop car. Any film to feature that scene is automatically better in my book. How disappointed I was to learn that the robot was from a film with the film, and all the dramatic music was put in place to fool us. How horrible.

Or how about the beginning of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which shows the opening scene of an imaginary Freddy Krueger movie with a new kind of silver Freddy claw? It turns out that was just a film shoot as well. Although in that film, the film-shoot-within-the-film proved to be a clever double-twist, as it was also a dream sequence.

Welcome, my dear students, to yet another edition of CraveOnline’s Free Film School, possibly the only film school in the entire world to make more than one allusion to 1991’s FX2: The Deadly Art of Illusion. In this week’s lecture, we’ll be exploring the tidy and ouroboros-like phenomenon of movies about the making of movies. Most people (and I refer to those not enrolled in the Free Film School) only get their information about the actual making of movies from the movies themselves. The old saying goes: Make What You Know, and Hollywood knows making movies. As such, you can likely name a good deal of feature films that are directly about the movie-making industry. There are many films wherein actors play actors, and some where they actually play renditions of themselves.

Movies, after all, are an important and visible and well-moneyed staple of American popular culture. When we’re not watching movies, we’re looking up information about them. Perhaps we’re watching TV programs about celebrity gossip. Geek culture is intimately connected to the upcoming effects-heavy blockbuster releases and superhero-themed flicks. In a culture where we’re obsessed with movies, it only makes sense that new films feature that obsession. Many films, then, feature dialogue from characters who have actually seen movies, and actually discuss popular culture in an intelligent and salient fashion. I think the trend of talking about movies within movies began with Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age tale largely about attending movies in a small dying town in Texas. Sure there were films before this that featured people attending movies, and indeed there were many about the making of movies, but this was the first, I think, to show how people go to movies, and how important it is to them.

In 1991, indie filmmaker Richard Linklater exploded onto the scene with his feature debut Slacker, a free form conversation film about several people having varied discussions throughout a single day in Texas. Slacker, I feel, was the first film that really brought the self-aware movie talk with movies to a head. By the time Kevin Smith made Clerks in 1994, the trend was codified, and when Wes Craven (there he is again) made Scream in 1996, it was a clear indicator that the culture had shifted toward a self-aware entertainment. Watch those four all in one sitting, and you can watch self-aware American youth culture passing the torch from one generation to the next.

Consider the cool climax to Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film Inglourious Basterds. In that picture, a movie theater owner uses the actual strips of flammable celluloid to start a fire that would kill a group of Nazis. Talk about the transcendent quality of film. Not just the movie, but the actual mechanical piece of the film-projection process is transformed into a tool of destruction. How clever is that?

But that’s just the way movie-viewers are portrayed in film. How about the way movies are made?

I don’t know the actual statistic on this, but I’m willing to bet that one of the first things that was ever filmed (besides a nude woman) was, onanistically, another film camera. In an odd way, cameras are fascinated by themselves. It’s like trying to look at your own eyes in a mirror. You’re just fascinated by the look of your lookers. It should be no wonder that films about movie-making should be so common, then. Film, as I have addressed in the past, turns the viewer into a voyeur, and any movie that sort of calls that notion of voyeurism into its story or theme, is cleverly commenting on itself as a film.

Some great moments of voyeurism in movies:

There is a scene in Psycho, which I wrote about at length last week, where we see Norman Bates spying on Marion Crane through a hole in the wall. In addition to spying on Norman, the audience is also titillated by the nudity of actress Janet Leigh. We are being spies and being called spies all at once. This was something Hitchcock liked to play with a lot, this notion of voyeurism, and peeping in on people was something seen in many of his films. Heck, look at Rear Window. The same year as Psycho, Michael Powell directed a similar horror film called Peeping Tom, about a serial killer who liked to film his victims as he killed them with his camera’s tripod. This means we’re watching two films at once. One where a woman is getting killed, and one where an actress is simulating getting killed. Only they are the same. These are films that dissect the motion of film with the film itself. It could be (and has been) argued that the best movies are the ones that bother to do something original and daring and self-aware with the film form itself. These two certainly qualify as great movies.

My favorite self-aware film moments come (perhaps predictably) from more abstract sources. Dziga Vertov’s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera was recently voted as one of the ten-best movies of all time by the famous every-decade Sight & Sound poll, and that film very much calls attention to the Platonic notion of film-in-itself. We’re watching two things at once with every frame of Man with a Movie Camera. We’re watching a documentary of unconnected scenes taken throughout Russia, but we’re also watching a meditative and creative process in the mind of the filmmaker. Intellectually, Man with a Movie Camera is utterly brilliant, although many film neophytes may find the free-form notions presented in the film to be frustrating and, at worst, pointless. Better, perhaps, to watch Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic Persona, still one of my favorites. That film opens with a shot of a projector bulb firing up, and film flapping through a camera. We are watching the very process getting dissected. Near the end of Persona, a weird self-aware odyssey in itself (which I will, here, leave for you to discover), we see Bergman on screen with his famous photographer Sven Nyqvist, shooting the movie we are currently watching. Film, Bergman seems to be arguing, is a mirror of itself, and all the characters are, by extension, pieces of us. Film as philosophy.

The most broadly entertaining forms of film-as-itself, however, usually have to do with the making of movies, and all the actors, directors, writers, cameramen, and craft services guys that the business requires. The actual practical filmmaking process, you’ll find, is much different than what you’ll see in fictional feature films about filmmaking. Even some of the better movies about movie-making tend to fudge the actual hard work and arduous process of making movies. It’s rare, for instance, that a movie-within-a-movie will feature several takes of a single scene. You’ll see an actor steaming through a scene, and the director will yell “Cut! Print it!” and that will be that. Aside from perhaps Ed Wood, I don’t think many directors operated like that. A more accurate portrayal of the way actors work might come from Tom DiCillo’s 1995 film Living in Oblivion. In that film, a frustrated director (Steve Buscemi) has to deal with the actual hardships of working with semi-professional actors, and the trials of non-budget filmmaking. Much of the film is devoted to dealing with the actors themselves. One pair of actresses are having trouble nailing a scene, and can only manage to find a way to play it correctly when they’re not being filmed. Another scene very accurately depicts how a shot must be lit in order to work well. His production, you see, only has a few lights to illuminate a certain scene, so he’s requested one of his actors deliver his lines from a few key locations from within the set. The actor, perhaps kind of a dingbat, begins wandering out of the lighting. When the crew resets the lights to accommodate the actor’s new invented blocking, the actor changes the blocking again. The actor then storms off the set, whining that his creativity as a performer is being stifled. That’s an unprofessional way to behave, and I imagine it happens all the time.

Many movies about movies also tend to fudge the chronology of filmmaking. The filmmaking process, you’ll find, is a years-long process of writing, scouring up money, making deals, and, longest of all, editing. Movies about movies often tend to be about the actual shoot, which is, usually, only about a third of the filmmaking process. But it’s also the part that involves sets, makeup, actors, and out-loud reading of the script, so it’s the part we usually focus on. So the movies within movies are constructed almost wholly of shooting, and usually aren’t about the editing process or anything else. When shooting, you’ll find that a lot of films within films are shot in chronological order; that is: the opening scene is the one the filmmakers will shoot first, and the last will be the film’s final shot. This is hardly ever done in Hollywood. Oh, it’s done sometimes; Ron Howard famously like to shoot his films chronologically, making for a more organic timeframe, and, one would hope, more natural performances from the actors. But, for the most part, a film will be shot in whatever order is convenient. If you have a set all ready, you will shoot all the scenes that take place in that location, period. If you have a small role for a particular actor, you’ll shoot their scenes whenever they are available.

Indeed, even within a scene, certain shots are filmed out-of-order. Close-ups are usually filmed after long shots, as the cameraman usually has to reset the camera (yes, even with tiny digital cameras that only weigh as much as a small squirrel). Then there are special effects shots that need to be filmed separately. You can’t shoot these in order. It’s just not feasible. You have to plan out your shots in advance, shoot them in the order that is most convenient, and then assemble them in the correct order when editing. This sort of process is not very glamorous, so it’s not usually part of movies within movies.

Something that’s always kind of bugged me about movie-within-movie sequences is the use of music. The movie-within-a-movie, before we pull out revealing that’s what it is, will look complete to us, the audience. This means the scene will already be edited, and the music will already be in place. But we cut away from the scene while it’s still being filmed. No editing has yet been done, and the music had not have been composed yet. But then, eliminating the edits and musical cues, the filmmakers would not be able to pull the cutesy reveal.

Another accurate film about filmmaking may be The Coen Bros. Barton Fink, which is about a novelist who is trying to become a screenwriter, but is suffering from crippling writers’ block. When he goes to the set of a film for inspiration, the screenwriter only manages to see an actor read the line “I will tear you apart!” over and over and over and over again. This is more like what a film set is actually like. People reading lines over and over until all the tech issues are solved and the “right” read has been discovered. A professional film actor should have the attitude of “I can always do one more” in their minds. True, the actor is ultimately what the audience is going to be looking at (Bette Davis once complained that bad dialogue would reflect poorly on her, and not on the screenwriter), so it’s important that the actor be master of their craft, but they also need to be patient cogs in a larger machine.

The best film about the filmmaking process is easily François Truffaut’s 1973 classic Day for Night. Practically a documentary, Day for Night explores the hardships of a film director (Truffaut playing himself) as he struggles to find new solutions to save his occasionally doomed film. He is having his own crises, but he is surrounded by a myriad of crewmembers and actors who are also having their own crises. The reason Day for Night works so well is that it doesn’t romanticize or even make dramatic the filmmaking process. It is not seen as a series of breakthroughs and catharses, but rather a rather unusually usual workplace, which just happens to involve famous actors and millions of dollars. Film, after all, occupies a bizarre place in the arts, in that it’s unusually expensive. Many film critics liken film to architecture; it’s expensive, it takes a long time, and it must, by necessity, involve many people. True, a low-budget film can be made with few resources, but the mainstream films you see in your local multiplex cannot. Day for Night explores that big-budget process, and how the violent clash of money, time, and creativity is just a natural part of shooting. Eventually there is a catharsis, but it’s a gentle kind of catharsis that comes from doing a job well, and continuing to do it to the best of your abilities. If you are even the slightest bit interested in making movies, you must watch Day for Night.

(The title, but the way, refers to the filmmaking process of shooting a scene during the day, but using shadows, lighting, and special photography to make it look like night. It’s essentially a reference to pulling back the curtain)

There’s another curious thing about movies-within-movies: Even though they seek to dissect the filmmaking process, and perhaps demystify an industry that is often seen as magical and glamorous, they will inevitably always fail. The process itself may be fascinating (and it is), but no matter how much we know about the process (and some of us know a lot), it’s not going to be why we, the audience, go to the movies. We’re going to go for the grand illusions that film provides. We may know how certain shots are captured, and, indeed living in L.A., many audience members may work in the industry, but we’re going to movies to be movies, to be entertained, to be provoked into thought. Ultimately, the content of film will outstrip its form. And oddly enough, it’s the form that does it.

Film is, then, a formless form. A highly structured industry that will ultimately be seen, in the best of circumstances, as art. That film can comment on itself in this way assures that it has a unique power.

Homework for the Week:

Seriously, watch Day for Night. Do you think it is an accurate depiction of the way films are made? From a viewer’s perspective, do you think it’s important to know how movies are made, or does knowledge of the process ruin your film experience? What is your favorite movie about movie-making? I recommend 1995’s Get Shorty and 1992’s The Player. Seeing as how film is so physical and technical, where does the art come in? Who decides at what point that a film can be a great piece of work? How often do films succeed? How often do they fail? Can everything in a film’s shoot be planned, or can great moments be thought up on the fly under unpredictable circumstances? 


"Professor" Witney Seibold is a featured contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, writes the weekly series B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and co-hosts The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold