Whenever I see an amazing film, it makes me want to write a great film script myself. It reminds me of why I got interested in writing for film in the first place. It makes me want to be a better writer. I doubt if a single screenwriter has not had this experience.
Filmmakers and screenwriters often find inspiration in their heroes’ best work. I’ve found that watching films about the filmmaking process can be inspiring, too. If you get tired of writing and find yourself procrastinating, watch one of these films:
Hearts of Darkness
One of the greatest films of the 20th century was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which won the Palm De’Or at Cannes. Watching the movie again on DVD can be truly inspiring. For similar reasons, watching the movie about how that film was made can motivate you to write your best.
Hearts of Darkness is widely considered the best documentary ever made about filmmaking. Written and directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, the film won the Academy Award for best documentary filmmaking in 1991.
The film paints a harrowing picture of the journey through chaos and hell that that Coppola faced in making Apocalypse Now! Watching Coppola wrangling the actors is an unbelievable sight.
Dennis Hopper appears to be stoned throughout the film. He’s seen mumbling incoherently at times, throughout the scenes.
Marlon Brando seemed completely disinterested in the movie at times. It’s clear in the documentary that he couldn’t remember his lines at this point in his career. They were written out on cards so he could read them during his scenes. At times, he’d lose it, and wander off, talking to himself about how he just couldn’t think of any more dialogue.
And then, of course, Martin Sheen had a heart attack. To top everything else, they went so over budget that Coppola had to mortgage his house and his vineyard to afford to finish filming. Amazingly, Apocalypse Now turned out to be one of Coppola’s best.
Hearts of Darkness is widely considered the best documentary ever made about filmmaking. Written and directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, the film won the Academy Award for best documentary filmmaking in 1991. Watch this film and see if you don’t feel inspired.
In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote a brilliant and imaginative film about an awkward neurotic screenwriter, (played by Nichoas Cage), who struggles to adapt the Susan Orlean novel, The Orchid Thief, which doesn’t lend itself to adaptation easily, if at all.
Kaufman’s main character is himself, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who encounters writer’s block when recruited to adapt the Orlean novel.
While initially trying to stay true to the novel, fictional Charlie eventually writes a script in which the novelist (played by Meryl Strep) tries to kill him at one point out in the swamps where the orchid grows.
Fictional Charlie’s story takes huge liberties with the material. In the process, the film captures the two AM panic that sets in as the screenwriter realizes he has no way out of his story.
His moods swing to depths of depression, when finishing the project seems impossible. It gets inside the writer’s head in those moments of doubt, when he thinks that this will never work out and he may never write anything worthwhile again in his life.
The film within the film takes off in a preposterous direction. The real film is imaginative, and anything but cliché. It’s inspiring to watch a film so original, and yet so evocative of the Hollywood writing process. Watching it as a screenwriter, one feels inspired to write something so original, and at the same time, entertaining.
Burden of Dreams
In Werner Herzog’s masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo, a wealthy rubber barron dreams of building an opera house in the Peruvian jungles. He hires natives to help him get through the jungle. At the center of the film’s action, he commands the natives drag the three-story, 320-ton steamer over a huge, muddy hillside. It’s a portrait of a man obsessed.
Burden of Dreams is the 1982 “making of documentary, directed by Les Blank, shot during and about Herzog’s ambitious production of Fitzcarraldo.
Hezog’s obstacles are many. He starts filming with Jason Robards in the title role, with Mick Jagger as his unhinged sidekick. Filming drags on and Robards takes ill. While they reach out to replace him, Jagger loses interest and returns to record with the Rolling Stones.
The documentary focuses on Herzog’s second attempt to make the movie. Rather than shooting at location easy to access, he finds a remote location 1,500 miles from civilization.
He insisted on dragging the entire steamship over the hill with absolutely no special effects.
Unfortunately, several natives Herzog hired lost their lives during the filming. The crew’s camp was raided by hostiles, and one of them took an arrow through his throat. The director persevered against incredible odds, and in spite of casualties and setbacks.
Les Blank’s film gives us a look inside the director’s borderline-insane quest to create a film about Fitzcarraldo’s own obsession. Like Coppola, in Hearts of Darkness, the filmmaker must overcome great obstacles to finish his film. While he comes off at times as a madman, his passion is inspiring.
In 1982 Werner Herzog won Best Director at Cannes for Fitzcarraldo. A year later, Burden of Dreams won the British Academy Award for Best Documentary. Both films are remarkable. Herzog has rightly earned the reputation as a filmmaker who will do anything to realize his vision.
Day For Night
Truffaut’s Day For Night, shows us the behind the scenes reality of the writing, rewriting and improvisation, and set-backs that make it seem impossible for any film to get made, on budget, on deadline.
His story focuses on the relationships between the crew, the designers, stylists, actors, the director, the writer and producer. The film itself is a love-letter to everyone involved in the process of bringing a film to market.
Truffaut plays the fictional writer-director of a movie within a movie called “Meet Pamela.” As problems continue to unfold on set, constantly, budget problems force the group to improvise, to put out the fires that break out almost every day during the filming process.
What’s inspiring is how Truffaut, the director stays calm and finds a way to realize his vision despite the challenges. They veer off schedule; so for example, a night scene can’t possibly be shot at night.
The director tells the camera people to shoot “day for night.” By hanges out certain lenses, they can create a night shoot in broad daylight. It is literally “magic” that allows him to create night where there is only day.
Everything appears it will collapse and the film will have to be scrapped when the actress playing Pamela (a married woman) has an on set affair with her irresponsible younger co-star.
She is filled with guilt and can’t leave her trailer to finish the film. How the director overcomes this and other challenges is where this film becomes truly inspirational.
The film won the Best Foreign Film Award here in America, and awards all over the world. It is probably the most inspiring film about filmmaking ever. Watch it and you will fall in love with making movies all over again.
Other inspiring films about filmmaking: 8 ½ written and directed by Federico Fellini (1963). Stardust Memories, written and directed by Woody Allen (1980). Ed Wood written and directed by Tim Burton (1994). La La Land written and directed by Damien Chazelle (2016).
When you feel like you can’t write another word, take a break. Watch one of these films. Get back in touch with why you started writing in the first place. Then go back to your script.