They Shoot Movies, Don't They?

We’ve heard the successful struggle stories time after time. From Kevin Smith sacrificing his comic book collection to fund Clerks to Barry Sonnenfelt putting time into the porn industry before becoming the comedic genius director he is today, people have to pay their dues in Hollywood. As much as we’d like to think of Hollywood as a glorious dream factory, the truth is the key word in “show business” is the “business” side of things. If you don’t have a reputation and you don’t have the money, you quickly become the slave to those who do. It’s something that’s been documented time after time, usually in success stories. They Shoot Movies, Don’t They? …The Making of Mirage attempts instead to document one of the failures. Mirage, the somewhat movie within a movie for They Shoot Movies... is a pet project for director Tom Paulson, a new director who found success in everything in life. He was a talented baseball player, a successful exec for Universal (who paid Paulson to pretty much just sit around for several years), and even successful at making the movie he wanted to make. They Shoot Movies... picks up Tom’s story as he attempts to secure funding for the completion of Mirage, including finding a distributor for the film. The problem is that since Tom hasn’t paid his dues, everyone with a bank account willing to support his film wants Tom to change it; to “hollywoodize” it, as the phrase we critics tend to toss around goes. The documentary follows Tom through new trials including an editor who doesn’t agree with Tom’s vision, family members who don’t want to support Tom’s movie, and a relationship that can survive the making of a movie but not the making of this documentary.

As a documentary, They Shoot Movies... attempts to expose the less glamorous truth of the dream factory. Tom finds failure in his attempts to finance his film, and we as an audience see that making movies isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. In between chapters of Tom’s story, the documentarians interview a stereotypical chain smoking executive who explains his side of the business (he actually hates seeing movies, so he’s only interested in making movies from an investment side) and a Hollywood writer who has learned how to play the game, thus avoiding Tom’s problems. Through it all, however, there’s nothing that anyone who would watch this independent film hasn’t heard about a million times. This financier likes the film but wants the ending changed. This friend will come up with half the money if the director can come up with the other half. The director sells his beloved possessions and ruins a relationship in his dedicated attempts to get the film made. It’s all so common and almost cliché, one wonders why Tom was picked to be the subject of a documentary. The answer is simple: it’s not real. Some people may feel I’m spoiling something by revealing that, but I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t feel it isn’t painfully obvious that They Shoot Movies... isn’t a documentary, it’s a mockumentary, and that all of the events appear familiar not because that’s how things really worked for the camera but because they are, for the most part, scripted, minus some improved parts where scenarios are scripted even if the words aren’t.

As a mockumentary, a film must do one of two things: it must either sell itself so completely that the audience is fooled into believing it or it must admit up front that it’s not real and embrace the mockery of its subject area. They Shoot Movies... never really does either of these things. It is far too serious a film to ever make fun of what it’s all about like Christopher Guest and his company might do, but it fails to connect with the audience and truly present itself as factual. Too many important pieces are either fuzzy or absent for this to be an effective documentary, immediately arousing the suspicions of the viewer that what they are seeing is fake. Offices don’t feel right or brief comments are made about Tom’s past but we don’t see the right people interviewed to support those comments (like his brother who appears in the film but isn’t interviewed separately), and other interviews just feel fake or out of place (like the aforementioned exec and writer, who really have nothing to do with Mirage for 99% of the film). Then there’s the complete and total absence of any sign of Mirage other than vague mentions of its story, which They Shoot Movies... cleverly attempts to show mirrors Tom’s real life story. I have yet to see a documentary about a filmmaker that didn’t include some piece of film in it, but They Shoot Movies... attempts to get by without including anything from the very film the documentary is supposed to be about.

Maybe my expectations were too high for They Shoot Movies, Don’t They?, which boasts “more viewer reaction than all 450 other films on the IFC channel – combined” (taken from the DVD back cover). Those reactions were no doubt one of two things as evidenced from the film’s website: confusion over the legitimacy of the documentary, or people who bought into the hype and were concerned over the ethics of the documentary crew. Either way, the comments are less reflective about the movie as a good or bad film and more about an aspect you don’t want people thinking about: is your movie true. The filmmakers of They Shoot Movies... try hard, but the mockumentary is a hard format to make work. Too many independent filmmakers try due to its cheaper costs, but it takes a real genius to truly sell something this fictional to an audience as real. Prolific filmmaker Werner Herzog wasn’t even able to accomplish it with Incident at Loch Ness, which also attempted to show the manipulative business side of Hollywood. They Shoot Movies... is an overall good attempt at trying to show that darker side of Hollywood but falls short in making Tom’s story real, and since most independent film watchers already know about Hollywood’s greed, in the end the film accomplishes very little. As I mentioned above, one of the advantages of the documentary format is cost. Documentaries allow use of just about any convenient setting for the film’s location without having to go to great expense, and are rarely captured on film. Unfortunately this works to They Shoot Movies… disadvantage for its DVD transfer, which is presented in a 4:3 ratio that suffers from a grainy picture through a lot of the movie, particularly in the darker scenes. In order to create that realistic documentary feel scenes aren’t lit for the camera, causing more video problems.

The DVD includes a trailer for the movie and two commentary tracks. Sadly, these commentaries are of the type that might have been better presented in a featurette, particularly the second “top secret” commentary track, but more on that in a second.

Both commentary tracks feature writer/director Frank Gallagher, co-writer/actor Tom Paul Wilson, and actress Adele Baughn as they talk about the making of the movie. The more interesting of the two is the standard commentary track. Through the track the trio talk about making They Shoot Movies… and the ideas behind the film. Originally the picture was conceived as being Tom going around and asking friends and family for money for a movie, which does appear in the final project. It’s interesting to see what was scripted, what was improvised, and where the ideas for different parts of the movie came from. The threesome also do a pretty good job of defending parts of the movie that made less sense, like the inclusion of the seemingly-useless exec and writer and the responses they’ve gotten from viewers.

The second commentary is labeled as a “top secret” commentary, although it’s clearly presented on the disc and not secret at all. What is secret is the contents of the commentary, where the three filmmakers explain the process they went through to distribute They Shoot Movies…, interrupting periodically to allow listeners to get a drink so the story will last for the whole film. This is the information that would probably have made a better featurette, although it’s also an interesting commentary. The reason the information is considered “top secret” is because none of the filmmakers had been able to find a real guide to distributing a film prior to making this film, so sharing their story is in some ways sharing a secret with future filmmakers.

I would have enjoyed seeing more than just two commentaries included on the disc. For one, it would have been interesting to see a “making of” on …The Making of Mirage - comments made from the friends and family members who were approached without knowing what was really being filmed here, particularly the friend who handed over a check for ten thousand dollars. Also some information on the film’s claim on responses from IFC watchers would have been a nice inclusion as well. Finally, if Mirage had been included in the documentary, here would have been a good place to show more on the movie within the movie. But, since that was never made, the opportunity is missed.