Lights, camera, madness: 7 movies about the craziness of making movies

On the set or at a typewriter, the creative impulse takes these fictional filmmakers into some weird places.

(courtesy MGM) Gene Kelly plays a Hollywood actor enjoying a California downpour in the 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain."

If there’s one subject moviemakers like the most, it’s themselves — particularly the specific insanity that grows around the making of a movie.

Some of the greats have made movies about making movies: Billy Wilder with “Sunset Blvd.,” François Truffaut with “Day for Night,” the Coen brothers with “Barton Fink,” Clint Eastwood with “White Hunter Black Heart,” Robert Altman with “The Player,” Tim Burton with “Ed Wood” and many others.

With James Franco directing and starring in “The Disaster Artist” — a wild look behind-the-scenes at the making of “The Room,” arguably the worst movie of the 21st century — opening Friday in Salt Lake City theaters, it’s worth a look at seven more movies about moviemaking at its craziest and most exuberant.

1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Hollywood goes into a panic with the advent of the talkies, and matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) enlists his best pal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and ingenue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to transform a stiff silent romance into a musical extravaganza — without the shrill-voiced leading lady, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), finding out. Kelly and Stanley Donen co-directed this love letter to old Hollywood, featuring some of the best-loved song-and-dance numbers ever put on film.

2. 8 1/2 (1963)

In Federico Fellini’s surreal memory play, a filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) comes down with “director’s block” as he’s about to start work on a science-fiction extravaganza. As he gropes for something meaningful to say in his film, he has encounters — real and imagined — with the many women in his life. Fellini’s fantastical visions come together for a thought-provoking and lyrically beautiful look at the inner workings of a creative mind.

3. Living in Oblivion (1995)

Three interlocking set pieces capture the insanity of an independent-film shoot, as an eager director (Steve Buscemi) tries to shepherd his nervous leading lady (Catherine Keener), rein in his pretentious cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney) and massage the ego of a slumming movie star (James LeGros). Writer-director Tom DiCillo’s raucous comedy captures the seat-of-the-pants world of indie film and draws great performances from his cast that’s capped by a scene-stealing turn by a first-timer, Peter Dinklage.

4. Irma Vep (1996)

A director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) ambitiously tries to make a modern version of a silent French classic “Les Vampires” and shocks the Paris press by casting Chinese star Maggie Cheung (playing a fictionalized version of herself) to play the lead, the mysterious catsuit-clad criminal Irma Vep. Maggie, for her part, is plunged in the deep end of on-set intrigue, including behind-the-scenes hookups and learning which crew member is also the production’s unofficial drug dealer. The result is both a sharp commentary on the French film industry and a wild ride into artistic madness.

5. American Movie (1999)

The home-video boom and the indie movement popularized the idea that anyone can make a movie — so why not Mark Borchardt, a blue-collar guy from Wisconsin? Borchardt’s quest to make an epic drama, and to finance that epic by making a cheap-but-hopefully-profitable horror movie, is captured in great detail by documentarian Chris Smith. Borchardt’s clunky filmmaking efforts and his troubled relationship with his best friend, Mike Schank, form the backbone of this intimate, intense story of a regular guy with a big and possibly unattainable dream.

6. Adaptation. (2002)

Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), hitting walls as he tries to adapt “The Orchid Thief” to the screen. Charlie encounters the book’s author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and her book’s subject, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), and contends with his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), who pitches dumb action movies that Hollywood loves. Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (reteaming after “Being John Malkovich”) create a biting, offbeat story of writer’s block taken to extremes.

7. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)

Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” is considered one of the greatest works in literature, but also impossible to put on film — in part because it’s nine volumes, and Sterne’s writing style is so meta that Tristram’s birth isn’t mentioned until Volume III. So director Michael Winterbottom doesn’t even try, instead following the meta route to construct a wicked comedy about a film crew — including comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing egomaniacal variations of themselves — discovering how hard it is to adapt Sterne’s book.