It might not always look like it, but every movie you’ve ever seen was pretty hard to make. That’s why Transformers had over 1,700 people in its credits.
Still, sometimes it’s the small, scrappy productions that go above and beyond, often putting their own asses on the line. Let’s take a moment to celebrate the projects that only got made because the filmmakers didn’t give a fuck.
5. The Cove Filmmakers Hired A Team Of Covert Specialists To Infiltrate Japan
You’re probably already familiar with the notorious Japanese whale trade, but what you might not have heard is that the Japanese government is also complicit in the wholesale massacre of dolphins, because apparently they hate the shit out of cetaceans.
In 2009, filmmakers Louie Psihoyos and Jim Clark set out to expose the horrific tragedies of the annual dolphin harvest in the town of Taiji. But it was proving to be a difficult task, because it turns out that the Japanese government isn’t super jazzed about releasing details on the dolphin harvest, possibly because there is no way to put a positive spin on the phrase “dolphin harvest.”
Access to Taiji Cove is restricted during the hunting season. It’s blocked by wire fences and regularly patrolled by guards. In order to put together his documentary The Cove, Psihoyos had to make like Nick Fury and assemble a team of conservationist Avengers. Among the recruits were Ric O’Barry (the guy who trained Flipper), “Clandestine Operations” specialist and real-life treasure hunter Charles Hambleton, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack (two of the top free divers in the world), and former Canadian Air Force avionics specialist Simon Hutchins. The only thing they were missing was a guy who mutates into a giant dolphin when he gets angry.
The filmmakers found themselves monitored by police, harassed by journalists, and bombarded with anonymous death threats, so the making of the documentary required some legitimate covert operations. With the help of Cruickshank and Krack, they infiltrated the cove with hidden cameras disguised as rocks, using camouflage so sophisticated that they later had trouble figuring out where the hell the cameras were. The technology they were using was so advanced that, after retrieving the footage, they needed to wait for Sony to develop the goddamn software required to watch it so that they could put the film together.
In the end, the operation paid off. The Cove won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010, and even resulted in fewer dolphins being killed that year. Which is not as good as “zero,” but better than “more.”
4. Escape From Tomorrow Was Secretly Filmed At Disney World
What’s scarier than pissing off a horde of cold-hearted dolphin murderers? An army of fucking Disney lawyers, that’s what. We’re pretty sure they’ve sued children merely for having unlicensed thoughts about their intellectual property.
Yet in 2012, completely without permission, filmmaker Randy Moore shot Escape From Tomorrow, a horror movie set and filmed in Walt Disney World. It’s the story of a man who takes his family on vacation to a theme park and, over the course of a day, winds up going crazy after slowly discovering that the park is part of a psychological experiment run by an organization of people who may or may not be supernatural beings. Also, it might all be in his head. It’s … really kind of hard to explain.
So Moore had a really solid idea for what he wanted his movie to be about, but there was one problem, which you’ve already guessed: Disney doesn’t allow filming within its theme parks. And they weren’t about to make an exception for some guy making a violent horror movie about how Disney World is actually run by evil ghosts. Also, the Disney princesses work as high-class prostitutes and Mickey tries to crush a child to death. So yeah, not exactly the themes Disney wants to project as fun for the whole family.
But Moore wasn’t about to let that get in the way of his vision. He simply filmed the entire movie in secret. That was obviously much tougher than pretending to be a group of tourists with a camcorder. The cast and crew had to smuggle a full catalog of professional film equipment on site and set it up under the noses of every security guard and chump in a Goofy suit, all of whom are trained to smack down anyone doing exactly that. What resulted was a success story of guerrilla filmmaking that even the filmmakers didn’t realistically expect to be able to pull off.
The risks didn’t end when they left the park. The threat of having the project shut down by Disney was so great that Moore traveled to South Korea to do the post-production and editing, although it is admittedly foolish to believe that there is anywhere on the planet where Disney cannot find you.
Despite the fact that everybody involved in the project thought they’d be lucky to even see the movie finished before drowning in cease-and-desist letters, they succeeded, due to the fact that Disney took the most unexpected response of all: bone-chilling silence. The company won’t even acknowledge the film’s existence, let alone rally their lawyers. Most people assume they don’t want to give it any more exposure, but it is entirely possible that the company doesn’t want to tip us off to the idea that their theme park really is a demonic cathedral of surrealistic horrors.
3. A Director Tricked The French Military Into Helping Him Film An Anti-War Movie
During World War I, French director Abel Gance held the unpopular view that war was bad, and wanted to make a film that reflected this opinion. Unfortunately, the government disagreed, so in order to be allowed to make his movie (a fictional story that would incorporate real combat footage) Gance had to lie and pretend that he was totally on board with it.
Studio Harcourt“I’ve warred plenty of times … Over in Quebec. You wouldn’t have heard of them.”
After convincing the government that his film was going to be about what an awesome idea World War I was, Gance was allowed access to the front lines in order to capture plenty of footage of soldiers in real battle situations, getting blasted apart by real bullets. You may wonder how any version of this could come across as being pro-war, but luckily for Gance, the French government did not.
Amazingly, he was able to avoid any real questioning of his true motives, even as he set up the final scene of the film, which involved a field full of dead soldiers rising up to take revenge against those fallacious governments of men who had sent them to their deaths. He presumably told everyone that the soldiers were coming back to life to kill more Germans.
After Gance set up a scene in which the soldiers use their bodies to form the title of the movie, “J’Accuse” (which translates to “I accuse” and had been used as an anti-government statement), the French government finally became suspicious that the film might not be the patriotic call to arms he’d suggested it was. By that time, however, the war was almost over, and public opinion had started to turn toward Gance’s side of the issue. (Which was the least they could do, given that a large number of the soldiers who appeared in the film had since been killed in battle.)J’Accuse went on to become a European film classic, and right now there’s probably some random dude watching it and complaining about how fake the battle scenes look.
2. Leviathan‘s Directors Lost Their Equipment In The Ocean And Wound Up Making A Much Better Film
In 2012, filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verene Paravel set out to make a documentary aboard a New England commercial fishing ship. It seems neither of them had ever sat down to watch an episode of Deadliest Catch or the middle section of Forrest Gump, because soon after they boarded the ship, the bulk of their equipment was swept overboard.
Threatened with the prospect of having nothing to do for the rest of their time at sea, the filmmakers made use of what little they had left — mostly GoPro camcorders — to try to salvage their project. Instead of the more traditional documentary they had planned to put together, they wound up strapping the GoPros to everything, including the fishermen, their fishing equipment, and actual fish, recording the entire process of stripping the sea clean in nauseating, first-person perspective.
The unfortunate tradeoff in this solution was that the filmmakers couldn’t even see what the cameras were recording. Once they arrived on land, they could have easily found themselves sitting on hours of blurry close-up footage of fish guts, and nobody but industrial metal bands would want to watch that. But both Paravel and Castaing-Taylor stuck it out, coming closer to death during the production than anyone making a documentary about fishing should ever hope or intend to. They battled violent seasickness, had several close calls with the swinging equipment and loose machinery, and Paravel had to be hospitalized after suffering a back injury.
In the end, what was intended to be a niche documentary about life on a fishing vessel becameLeviathan, a critically acclaimed art film the likes of which nobody had seen before. Not in spite of the fact that they were forced to abandon traditional filmmaking techniques in favor of slapped-together GoPro footage, but because of that. It is easily the second-most-incredible GoPro film ever produced, coming in right behind the seminal classic “Shia LaBeouf Staring At Me In Burbank.”
1. Shoah Contains Hours Of Nazi Interviews (Filmed Without Their Permission)
One of the most critically acclaimed films of 1985 was Shoah, a documentary that clocks in at nine and a half hours, or roughly three Transformers movies. Composed almost entirely of interviews that filmmaker Claude Lanzmann conducted with both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, Shoah is easily the most efficient way to destroy any faith you may have left for the human race.
Of course, the greatest problem with the idea of assembling a team of history’s most despicable people in order to talk about how evil they are for longer than a Lord Of The Ringsmarathon was that most of the Nazis the filmmakers contacted weren’t exactly on board with the idea. Lanzmann got around this by smuggling cameras into the interviews and filming his subjects in secret.
Ordinarily, this would be regarded a gross violation of every ethic in the journalistic rulebook. But these guys were all literal Nazis. So, you know, fuck them.
New Yorker FilmsOf all the things you can do with a sketchy van, “fighting Nazis” is hardly the worst.
Lanzmann conducted many of his deceitful interviews by smuggling a camera inside a canvas bag, which transmitted the video and audio to a not-at-all suspicious van that his crew had parked outside. We can only imagine how many times Lanzmann had to try to reasonably explain to his interview subjects why he needed to set his gigantic bag down at a very specific angle during their conversations.
He didn’t always get away with it. During one session, the subject he was interviewing figured out what he was doing and uncorked an explosion of Nazi rage on his ass, beating Lanzmann so badly that he had to go to the hospital.
Sylvia Plachy“It turned out these ‘Nazis’ had a dark side …”
Despite the fact that it wound up being both one of the longest films in history, and certainly one of the most depressing, Shoah was a smash hit. And if nine hours seems long, keep in mind that Lanzmann recorded a total of 350 hours of interview footage over the course of six years. That’s two weeks of haunting testimony that this guy had to sit down and listen to over and over and over again during the editing process … which took five more years.
The result was lauded as a masterpiece, though we’re assuming Lanzmann responded to the accolades by staring silently into the distance for the rest of his life.