Filmmaking creates a world of fantasy. This illusory world refers to more than just a self-contained, multi-hour piece of entertainment -- the resulting movie. The process itself is steeped in a unique mystique of creativity. The concept of a film production is a forum for imaginative people to meet and share their ideas with the world. During the making of a movie, business interests, skilled labor, and ideas collide to temporarily generate a pocket of fantasy where everything is as real as what is captured by a camera. This pocket of creativity dissolves when the film is released. The film serves as a memorial record of the confluence of creativity. At least, this progression is the ideal (or what the myth surrounding Hollywood purports).
Films about fictional filmmakers, those who make films in film, explore this domain of imagination surrounding a production, particularly when passion becomes an obsession. For a creative character making a fictional film, the production on its own is the goal. The actual act of realizing one's ideas is bliss. Creativity exists for creativity's sake rather than as a means to an end. The problem for such a character is that their story must finish. A film production has a finite duration. It is a project, and projects have terminal purposes.
Some films about films in film admit that filmmaking is seductive and show what happens when a creative character decides to continue the fantasy. They refuse to transition back to reality and want to live in their creative paradise. Fantasy transforms into delusion. These characters abandon all other goals and byproducts of filmmaking (fame, product endorsements, stealing costumes and props, and actually making a good movie) to stay in their world. They delay the end by flaunting perfection and fleeing rejection.
In fewer words, some movie making movie characters go crazy during the process of making a film -- some crazier than others.
Howard Hughes, the character from the 2004 film The Aviator, struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and is entangled in this manic world of movie making. Hughes inherits a large fortune when he is young and decides to live out his fantasies. The two dreams he chooses to are the burgeoning fields of aircraft and Hollywood. Filmmaking, with its emphasis on bringing dreams to life, feeds his compulsions and drives his obsessions. He desires control and perfection along with his creativity. All three of these items are afforded to the director on a film production, if there is enough money.
Starting in 1927, Howard Hughes films the World War I aerial combat romance Hell's Angels. Hughes spends large sums of money to realize his vision. In the fantasy world of his movie, Hughes wants realism. He wants the details of the movie to be perfect despite not knowing quite what he wants. Hughes buys vintage planes and costumes. He issues specific orders on how air combat is to be filmed and how actors are to perform. Shots are repeated over and over with Hughes never being fully satisfied. When new movie technology is developed in the third year of production, Hughes reshoots large parts of the film with better cameras and sound recording. Hughes requires perfection, an amorphous abstraction. The elusiveness of perfection frustrates him.
On a typical production, Hughes' demands are considered bizarre at best and dictatorial at worst. However, Hughes controls the money for the film. Most employees prefer to be paid and do not overtly object to the man signing paychecks. Employees do not object to being ordered to spend $1.7 Million overnight or editing 25 miles of film. Hughes is afforded a lot of freedom by his fortune. On a movie production, this freedom means he is a god (or at least a high ranking votive figure, perhaps some kind of movie archbishop). His money insulates him inside the world of movie making and enables his obsession. Hughes can chase the impossible because he can afford the multimillion dollar production budget. Perfection costs a fortune.
For Hughes, perfection is an anchor and excuse for staying in the world he has created around the production. Hughes' obsessions are manifest on his movie sets. Actually finishing the film means the production ends and his fantasy world evaporates. Hughes tries to hold on to the film as long as possible and obsessively as possible. Any problems endanger the stability of his fantasy.
On another production, Hughes runs afoul of the Hollywood Censors of the MPAA's Breen Office. They intend to block the release of Hughes' 1943 film The Outlaw. Specifically, they object to the prominence of actress Jane Russell's bosom (for which Hughes aerodynamically designed a bra). The censors are a threat to Hughes' world, and he confronts them. A scene in The Aviator portrays Hughes fighting vehemently to maintain the integrity of his movie fantasy. He does so by demonstrating the ubiquity of breasts on film. With large visual aids. And calipers. He wins the challenge, and the film is released.
This encounter demonstrates how Hughes' fantasy in film bleeds into reality. Hughes is a dominating character and has the ability to draw other characters into his world: be it film, finance, or flight. Movie starlets, business executives, and government officials succumb to Hughes' way of thinking. Katharine Hepburn is the only personality with enough temerity to match Hughes and help him with his obsessions. She leaves when Hughes begins to lose contact with reality. What starts as Howard Hughes living in fantasy, trying to perfect a film, expands to a global scale. Film fantasies are seductive, pervasive, and destructive.
In the 1966 Peter Sellers film After the Fox, master criminal Aldo Vanucci (Sellers) also has a problem distinguishing reality from movie fantasy. Vanucci plans to smuggle stolen gold from Cairo to Italy using a film production as cover. The plot of his fictional film is somewhat blatant. It is about smuggling gold from Cairo to Italy. To accomplish his goal, Vanucci and his crew set out to deceive a small Italian town. Vanucci crafts his elaborate con by pretending to be a movie producer and director. The eminence of a film production and presence of cameras quickly seduces the town into unwittingly participating in Vanucci's crime.
Similar to Howard Hughes, Vanucci is a perfectionist. He wants his deception to be detailed and realistic. Like Sellers himself, Vanucci loses himself in his character and carefully crafts his fantasy. Vanucci attracts an aging American star named Tony Powell (Victor Mature) to lend gravitas to his fake film. Vanucci even convinces the local constabulary to participate in the film by promising him a line in the picture. The constable repeats this line over and over to practice it, frequently flubbing his line. The entire town is enthralled by Vanucci and his film. Filmmaking is an alluring process, and everyone comes out to watch the film crew shoot and be part of the fantasy.
Vanucci's fantasy world of filmmaking is so incredibly detailed and immediate that it deceives even himself. The magic of filmmaking sweeps up Vanucci, and he forgets that he is a criminal. His perfectionist personality drives him to make his fake movie as perfect as possible. He rehearses scenes, plans shots, and worries about the artistic value of his vision. He even continues filming after the gold is successfully smuggled. A major mistake he and his crew make is using real film in their cameras. They want to shoot an actual film and are largely successful. The problem with filming a crime in progress for a movie is that it is evidence that can be used during a trial. When Vanucci is caught, his perfectly realized fake film is used to convict him.
After the Fox shows again that filmmaking is seductive, pervasive, and destructive. Both Hughes and Vanucci lose touch with reality and wrap themselves in the fantasy of filmmaking. Hughes' fictional film fantasy has a global reach while Vanucci impacts a small town. The act of making a film drives filmmakers to mild insanity through obsession. Creativity lacks a metric for completion and perfection becomes a frustrating goal that causes difficulties whether making an actual film or trying to steal gold.
Obsession and fantasy are key themes in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film stars Gloria Swanson, a then washed-up actress that sucessfully reinvigorates her career. She plays Norma Desmond, a character who is a washed-up actress that fails to reinvigorate her career. Desmond lives in her own fantasy world where she is still famous and her next movie role is only a phone call away. She lives to make movies, and, in her mind, she does. Desmond is obsessed with being in front of cameras. To assert the level of her obsession, the film opens with the male lead floating face down in a swimming pool with a gunshot wound. The film is him narrating how film fantasies are seductive, pervasive, and destructive.
Feeding her fantasy are her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) and a struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden). Max writes Desmond fake fan letters and edits news about her. Joe is at first hesitant to cooperate with Desmond, but her trappings of Hollywood (and other forms of seduction) convince him. Joe thinks that Desmond can help him break into Hollywod. In turn, he gives Desmond hope by working on a screenplay with her that would ostensibly reignite her career, should it be produced. They particularly hope to attract the attention of famed director Cecil B. DeMille (played by himself). Desmond feels that Joe is her last chance at reviving her career. She is long past making one movie while being in the nascence of another.
Where Hughes and Vanucci are actively making movies, Norma Desmond shows what happens when the pocket of creativity surrounding a film collapses. As a creative character, Desmond needs to prove she is creatively relevant. She desires the atmosphere of a film production where she is the center of attention. She fights to get this feeling back as if movie production is a drug. She is in withdrawal and will do almost anything to score another movie. This addiction is similar to Bela Lugosi's drug addiction and dependence in Ed Wood, only less literal.
She teeters on the edge of sanity by trying to maintain her fantasy while trying to escape it. She barely even realizes her life is a lie. She compels Joe into writing a script she believes will save her. This script fails, but everyone keeps this information from her. Rejection is crushing. She later discovers that Joe is dating a younger woman. Desmond feels betrayed and abandoned. She loses her last hope of ever making a movie again.
Desmond despairs and completely loses touch with reality. The mystique of filmmaking absorbs her as she tries to defend her fantasy from Joe's betrayal. Desmond owns a gun, and insanity paired with gun ownership leads to the opening scene of the movie. Desmond pointing a gun at Joe is comparable to Howard Hughes pointing breasts at the MPAA. They both attempt to defend their fantasy world, one slightly more lethally than the other. Following these events, the police and press arrive with bright lights and cameras. Norma Desmond speaks the eternal line: "All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close up." It is a simple expression of filmmaking: delusional fantasy.
These three films explore the boundary between passion and obsession in filmmaking. This aspect of production is negative as films in film are shown as being coercive and detrimental in their creation. The process of making a film is shown as being manipulative and injurious by itself, not the Hollywood system or even a person. Creativity as a form is taken to its extreme and becomes dangerous.
There are several possible reasons why filmmakers make these films about how films make filmmakers crazy (and other tongue twisters). Among others, filmmakers can use their film to explain their experiences in the fantasy netherworld of movie production. The film is therapy. Another possibility is cynically confessing that Hollywood is crazy and attempting to create difference through recognition. One cannot be crazy if one admits they are crazy, right? Still, there is the commercial reason for making movies about movie making crazies: Schadenfreude. Misfortune is entertaining, and train wrecks are fun to watch. It is depressing but true.