Documentaries about film-making used to fall into one of two categories. Either they were studio-approved puff pieces, typically found among DVD extras, or stranger-than-fiction accounts (Hearts of Darkness, Burden of Dreams, Lost in La Mancha) of productions spinning out of control: more breaking of than making of.
Today there is a middle ground where fans take care of the celebratory side, and movies don’t need to have suffered a painful birth to be worthy of attention. This new crop has been made possible by cheaper technology, as well as crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The rise of streaming platforms and the decline of physical media, which is where such films previously found a natural home, hasn’t hurt, either.
Movies about which fan-made, feature-length documentaries have been made range from Back to the Future (Back in Time) and RoboCop (RoboDoc) to Fright Night (You’re So Cool, Brewster!) and even Troll 2 (Best Worst Movie, directed by the film’s former child star). Ghostbusters fans will by sated by Cleanin’ Up the Town, which runs a full 20 minutes longer than the 1984 comedy, while fans of fans of Ghostbusters have Ghostheads, about the enthusiasts who dress as the movie’s heroes. Scholars of the Police Academy series can look forward to What an Institution! And the 1990s are catching up, with Galaxy Quest (Never Surrender) and the original It (Pennywise) among recent beneficiaries of the fan’s-eye view.
Part of this explosion is Lisa Downs, whose film Life After Flash went behind the scenes of the 1980 Flash Gordon as well as catching up with its once-troubled star, Sam J Jones. Shortly after finishing that film in 2017, Downs began to think about parlaying the Life After format into a brand mixing nostalgia with human-interest stories. “There are several moving parts to a Life After documentary,” she explains. “It has to be a film I love, and the main figures need to be available, as Sam was. Nostalgia is big but we wanted a different USP, where we would follow someone’s life as well.”
She hit on the ideal subject in Flight of the Navigator, an endearing 1986 fantasy about a boy who goes walking in the woods, falls into a ravine, clambers out and heads back home, only to discover that he has been missing for eight years. (Long story short: he was snatched by aliens.) Despite a brief appearance by the young Sarah Jessica Parker, the film’s highlight is a heartbreaking lead performance by the 12-year-old Canadian actor Joey Cramer. He clearly had a promising future ahead of him. What happened?
An internet search reveals a familiar child-star trajectory: drugs, crime, prison, recidivism. Cramer was in his mid-40s and serving time for attempted bank robbery when Downs wrote to him. They struck up a friendship and, once he was released, she visited him for a series of candid interviews.
Cramer tells me why he agreed to take part in Life After the Navigator. “I was at a point where I wanted to share the positive moments from my life instead of focusing on the negative things,” he says. Not that he didn’t have reservations. “What would people think of me when they found out all the hard times I had been through and the horrible things I’d done? I was scared about what my friends or family, or even fans, would think. My hopes were that by sharing those dark moments, and showing that it is possible to overcome trauma and shame, it would inspire other people.
Flight of the Navigator is a particularly neat fit for the Life After treatment. The plot corresponds so poignantly to its star’s own life that it is impossible to watch the original movie without seeing it as metaphor or portent. Like his character, the young Cramer felt out of sync with the world around him. After shooting the film, he was teased and bullied. “When I tried to go back to school like normal, I was anything but normal,” he says in Life After the Navigator. “Before I knew it, my childhood was gone.”
Downs is currently making a film about The Neverending Story and its teenage star Noah Hathaway, but not everyone works so briskly. Claire and Anthony Bueno, a British brother-and-sister team, spent 12 years making Cleanin’ Up the Town. What took them so long? “We funded the film ourselves,” Claire tells me, “and everyone we needed to speak to was in the US. We didn’t have any holidays during that whole time so we could afford to keep flying over.” When they ran out of money, a Kickstarter campaign kicked in.
Didn’t they ever think of calling it quits? “Never,” says Anthony. “We’d interviewed all these people and we owed them something.” Several interviewees died before the film was completed, including the Ghostbusters star and co-writer Harold Ramis. “What got us through was that we had this stuff that we knew the fans would love. It was always, ‘It’ll be done next year. 18 months, tops.’” The long process hasn’t dulled their love for the movie: “It’s got stronger!” Claire insists. They’re now in post-production on a film about Ghostbusters II, which they promise will be ready before 2033.
Since working on Beware the Moon, a 2009 documentary about An American Werewolf in London, the Buenos have seen the genre proliferate around them. Anthony cites Room 237, the film about theories surrounding The Shining, as an inspiration. “It showed you can make a documentary about anything so long as you abide by the copyright rules of fair use.” For Claire, the Comic-Con phenomenon has helped crystallise demand. “Those conventions have exploded over the last decade. The actors turning up to sign things are the people we’re interested in, and they’re all there in one place.”
The nostalgia boom has been a curse rather than a blessing for one film mistakenly caught up in it. Elstree 1976, released six years ago, is a thoughtful, melancholy portrait of 10 actors who happen to have worked in a minor capacity on the original Star Wars – or, in the case of the late David Prowse, AKA Darth Vader, to have been hidden from view on screen. It is unmistakably a critique of fan worship, rather than an example of it.
“Elstree 1976 was never intended for Star Wars fans,” says its director, Jon Spira. “But it was marketed to them, wrongly, wherever it was released. They were excited about it, ‘Oh my God, Star Wars stories we haven’t heard!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Why do you care what the fifth Stormtrooper on the right had to say? When will you let this go?’ I was looking at the detrimental effect fanaticism has had on these actors’ lives. Fandom itself can be this endless abyss. Maybe as a society we want something that isn’t there.”
The picture was misunderstood by sales agents, distributors, bloggers (“They all used the same line: ‘This is not the film you’re looking for’”) and even, initially, by one of its own subjects. “Dave Prowse threatened to sue us,” Spira recalls. “There was a line in the trailer that said: ‘Ten disparate people … ’ He thought it was ‘desperate’. We were, like, ‘Dave! No! It’s a different word!’”
Quite apart from the travails of his own film, Spira is wary of the fan-made documentary. “If you are going to be a film-maker, you need to put being a fan on hold,” he says. “They’re different things. With anything creative, you’ve either got to be asking a question or making a statement. I find it frustrating that you don’t see things like Hearts of Darkness or Lost in La Mancha any more – films about film-making that have that level of intelligence. It’s all catering to a different market now. It’s content – and fans love content.”
Can film nostalgia thrive indefinitely? Anthony Bueno is doubtful. “We’re inundated with blockbusters. How will people feel nostalgic about Marvel films when there are so many of them? The thing about Ghostbusters and Back to the Future was that they were original concepts. By the early 2000s, everything was a comic book, a sequel or a remake.”
Downs agrees. “It felt like the 1980s was a real decade of storytelling. You didn’t have ET 7, and it wasn’t just about franchises.” That said, she is happy to see the Life After series run and run. “I’ve been trying to discover what happened to the Omen kid, but I can’t find him,” she muses, with a faraway look in her eye. “Life After the Omen would be good … ”