A Dean-scent in the Darkness at the Hearts of Dreamers

 The Narrator Returns' extra feature to Intermittent Hairdresser's review of Documentary Filmmkaing: Redux

A dean-scent in the darkness at the hearts of dreamers

(The following essay/diatribe is brought to you by Greendale Community College: You can now register by fax!)

"Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment; and little by little we went insane." -Francis Ford Coppola, regarding Apocalypse Now at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

As you can see above (for obvious reasons, I cannot read the review at this time, but I’m sure Hairdresser did a great job), episode 3×08, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” is a great episode of television. It justifies the documentary framing (unlike, say, a later documentary episode), it goes further into the characters of both the Dean and Abed, and, best of all, it was good enough. But what inspired it?

The making-of documentary is a dime a dozen. On just about any studio DVD or Blu-Ray, you’ll find a few featurettes about what a joy it was to shoot, and how the actors got along so well, and what a genius the director was. Occasionally, they’ll dig deeper (see Charles de Lauzirika’s work for Ridley Scott’s films, especially Prometheus), but most of the time, they follow that format. But we’re talking about a more specific brand of documentary here; the “unmaking of” documentary. This is where the inspiration for Dean Pelton’s ballooning Greendale commercial comes from. Now, we will look at three documentaries about films on the verge of collapse. We’ll examine the dreamers and points-of-view behind these films and how they compare to DF:R.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

The Film: Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s gonzo look at the Vietnam War, through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness.

What Happened?: Well, Heart of Darkness hadn’t had a great adaptation track record before Coppola tackled it. It was originally meant to be Orson Welles’ first film for RKO Pictures, but the idea was dropped after RKO executives didn’t like the excessive budget. He made Citizen Kane instead. The idea for Apocalypse Now was first created in 1969, when John Milius wrote the screenplay after encouragement from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Lucas was going to direct the film as a black comedy (keep in mind that he had only made THX-1138 at this point), but due to safety concerns and Lucas working on other projects, it was shelved. Lucas made American Graffiti and Star Wars instead.

In 1974, Coppola took interest in the idea, and decided to make it himself. The Philippines were chosen as a filming location, despite the ongoing revolution occurring at the time. They got permission from the government to use military equipment, and they started shooting in 1976. The first trouble occurred when the lead actor had to be replaced. Harvey Keitel was cast as the main character, Willard, and after Coppola viewed early footage, Keitel was replaced with Coppola’s first choice, Martin Sheen. The Filipino government regularly took their helicopters away to fight the rebels at the other side of the country. Marlon Brando showed up on set overweight, and then regularly improvised his lines. A typhoon sent production back months. Martin Sheen had a heart attack during shooting, once again stopping the production for a month. Coppola had to improvise the film’s ending while he was still shooting footage (in one section of the film, Coppola is said to have had a dream about how to end the film, but when he woke up, he realized it was no good). And to add to that, the production was regularly lampooned in the press. It’s a miracle it got released at all, let alone that it went on to win acclaim (it tied with The Tin Drum for the Palme d’Or at Cannes).

The Dreamer: Francis Ford Coppola is a man who needs to make his vision, or no vision at all. He follows commercial projects with his own weird experiments (he calls Rumble Fish “my carrot for what I promised myself when I finished The Outsiders”), and he’s been making nothing but weird, noncommercial indie experiments since 2007. So, naturally, he wanted Apocalypse Now to be a crazy obsessive and ambitious look into his psyche. For example, while filming the “French plantation” scene (cut out of the theatrical version for good reasons, but included in the “Redux” cut), he wanted the scene to be so good that the French wouldn’t know how they did it. He wanted the wine at a certain temperature and the food to be the kind that would actually be served by the French. It’s only after doing this that he realized that the scene did not work. The Dean in DF:R shares a lot with him. Dean wants to make the best commercial possible for the school, even if it means reshooting the entire thing after Luis Guzman joins in, replacing the main actor with a Chinese man in a bald cap, and threatening the actors with segregating the school. And also doing unspeakable things to the ice cream machine.

The Point-of-View: Unlike in the other two films, the point-of-view in this film comes from a family member; in this case, Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. This gives the film personal stakes. She not only talks about the production, she discusses its effects on her home life. But one line in particular is notable, for its connection with Abed’s arc in DF:R. She talks about how at first, she thought she was merely observing the events of the production. It’s only later that she realizes that she was a part of them as well. A precursor to Abed’s line about how “some flies are too awesome for the wall”.

Other Connections: Jeff here is meant to clearly parallel Harvey Keitel, being replaced after shooting began. Pierce can be seen as a Marlon Brando character, difficult and refusing to leave a trailer until he gets his own trailer.

Burden of Dreams

The Film: Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. The story of a European who dreams of building an opera house in Peru.

What Happened?: Of course, any production with Klaus Kinski involved is bound to have at least a little bit of trouble. But this production’s troubles went beyond that. Herzog’s first choice for the lead, Jason Robards, fell ill after production began, and Mick Jagger, playing his sidekick, had to go back to the Rolling Stones while the production was delayed. Knowing that Jagger would be his only choice for the character, Herzog cut out Jagger’s character altogether, and reshot from the beginning with his regular collaborator Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu, Aguirre: The Wrath of God) in the lead. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they had to leave their original location because the natives were spreading rumors that Herzog and his crew were going to murder the men and rape their wives. They had to film quickly at their new location, or else the scenery would change dramatically. And then there’s the matter of Kinski, who, as should be expected from him, was difficult. The natives who were working as extras were upset by his angry outbursts. One even offered to kill Kinski for Herzog (Herzog refused because he needed Kinski to finish the film). And for the big climax, where a steam ship is carried across a hill, Herzog actually had the natives carry the ship over an actual hill.

The Dreamer: Werner Herzog is a madman. That’s not a bad thing. His mad spirit enlivens all of his films, even his more mainstream efforts (like Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). It’s only fitting that this documentary would capture the madness involved with making one of his greatest films. The film also turns Herzog into a prototypical Herzog character; a dreamer fighting for his vision against all real-world implications and logic. Not to mention he’s not a fan of nature.

The Point-of-View: The recently-deceased documentarian Les Blank first worked with Herzog on the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (which can be seen here). There, Herzog holds up his end of a deal he made with Errol Morris. He said that if Morris completed his first film, Gates of Heaven, he would eat his shoe. As should be expected from the title, he does in fact eat his shoe. He directs the film as a strict fly-on-the-wall documentary, interesting because Herzog would take the exact opposite approach in his documentaries.

Other Connections: Burden of Dreams has the closest similarities in its structure to DF:R. All of the interviews for the film (and the episode) are done at the time of shooting, leaving no room for reflection.

Lost in La Mancha

The Film: The Man who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s reimagining of Man of La Mancha.

What Happened?: A lot. None of it good. First, the film got off on a bad start by having far too low of a budget (all of it compiled from European sources). Then, things got worse when they got to the shooting location, which turned out to be right nearby a NATO target practice area, rendering much of the audio unusable due to the noise of planes. The next day, an almost-biblical flood hit the film’s locations, completely altering them from the last day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film’s Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort (who learned English for the film), suffered a herniated disc, and couldn’t return to the film in the near future. Gilliam and his crew marched on for a little bit, filming some individual scenes with Johnny Depp, before pulling the plug on the film.

The Dreamer: Terry Gilliam has never had an easy moment in his filmmaking career. Even his triumphs (some might say “especially his triumphs”) have been fraught with difficulty. Executives at Universal fought with Gilliam over possible cuts to make Brazilmore accessible to audiences (Gilliam won in the end). Adventures of Baron Munchausenwent way overbudget, soured a lot of actors on Gilliam, and bombed at the box office. Gilliam had to fight to get him and writing partner Tony Grisoni writing credits on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam had to deal with the Weinsteins, not known for their welcoming attitudes towards auteurs, during the filming of The Brothers Grimm. Tidelandwas mostly met with contempt at the time of its release. And as a final insult, the lead actor of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus died before he could film all of his scenes. But he keeps on going. He only admitted recently that he might finally give on trying to make Don Quixote. Dean probably shares the most with him, in that no matter how bizarre his idea is, he will make sure it is accomplished. There’s no room for someone who isn’t making full use of the motion-capture technology.

The Point-of-View: The film’s directors, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, had previously directed The Hamster Factor, a superb documentary about the making of 12 Monkeys (if you want to watch it, it’s available on both the DVD and Blu-Ray of Monkeys). And this film is narrated by none other than Jeff Bridges, whose narration really ties the documentary (and the room) together.

Other Connections: In one scene, Jeff (as the Dean) stands in front of a windmill which is labeled “knowledge”, perhaps suggesting that knowledge is an unachievable dream. Pretty uncompromising stuff for an ad promoting a community college.

Thank you all for reading! I’m surprised you made it this far, because this wasn’t something that the Dean created. (All of the films mentioned above are available on DVD. Hearts of Darkness is available separately, on DVD from Paramount, and as a part of the Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure Blu-Ray set from Lionsgate. Burden of Dreams is available on DVD from Criterion. Lost in La Mancha can be found in a two-DVD set from New Video.)


08/26/2013 – 4:23PM – 14 LIKES

On the AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/advanced-introduction-to-finality,97134/#comment-1018372405 (page 185)