Legal download: Filmmaking documentaries on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, we budget time to watch some documentaries about the art of filmmaking.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Filmmaking Documentaries

People love movies — but they’re fascinated by them too: how they’re made, who makes them, and why. Films about films have existed almost as long as the medium itself, and many of the best are documentaries, probably because as inventive as screenwriters are, they can never top the true-life stories of madness and mad creativity that take place on a film set. These five films, all available for legal download or streaming, give you a taste of the world of cinema: the crazy dreamers and the crazier moguls. And remember, dear readers: these people are professionals. Do try this at home.

On SundanceNow
Directed by Barry Avrich
$6.99 to rent or stream

This documentary presents an (duh) unauthorized look at the life of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax and later the (duh again) Weinstein Company. Featuring interviews with Martin Scorsese, George Hickenlooper, John Irving, James Ivory, and more, UNAUTHORIZED charts Weinstein’s ascendance through the world of independent film, from upstate New York concert promoter to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. It was directed by Barry Avrich, who also made the filmmaking documentary THE LAST MOGUL about MCA agent and Universal Pictures executive Lew Wasserman. Avrich cheekily refers to this project as “The Last Bully” — just don’t let Harvey catch you calling it that.

On Netflix
Directed by Robert B. Weide
Free for streaming plan members

Woody Allen is not prone to excessive self-reflection. He grants the occasional interview, but you’ll never catch him taking part in any sort of DVD supplemental materials or commentary tracks — which makes this 2-part documentary, which originally aired last year as a mini-series on PBS’ American Masters, so valuable. In this rare behind-the-scenes glimpse, Allen invites director Robert B. Weide — best known as a producer and director of Curb Your Enthusiasm — into his world, showing him the typewriter where he’s written every single one of his dozens of screenplays and giving him a peek at the dresser drawer where he keeps all of his ideas in a towering pile of paper scraps. Interviews with Allen, his colleagues, and his admirers also bring us on a journey through his career, from joke writer to stand-up comic to one of the defining filmmakers of his generation. This is an essential watch for Woodman fans.

On Amazon Instant View
Directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen
Free for Amazon Prime members.

Published in 1994, the autobiography of legendary Paramount producer and Hollywood player Robert Evans quickly became a cult favorite, thanks to an audiobook version read by Evans himself in his buttery, seductive voice. In adapting Evans’ THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE to the big screen, directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen made the brilliant decision to make Evans’ unforgettable style of self-aggradizement an integral part of the film’s aesthetic: Evans narrates his own story, told through a non-stop barrage of photographs and animation, describing the action and even commenting on it (and his fabulist tendencies). Along the way we learn behind the scenes production details of Evans classics like LOVE STORY, ROSEMARY’S BABY, CHINATOWN, and THE GODFATHER — as well as the ups and downs of Evans’ legendary love life. Through the triumphs and heartache, Evans’ voice does indeed stay in the picture.

On Hulu
Directed by Les Blank
Free for streaming plan members

After paying off a bet that documentarian Errol Morris wouldn’t complete his film GATES OF HEAVEN in Les Blank’s evocatively titled WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE, the indomitable Herzog invited Blank to join him for the production of his upcoming film FITZCARRALDO, and to make a documentary about the shoot. Even with Herzog’s notorious reputation as a crazed perfectionist, Blank couldn’t have known that he would witness one of the most infamous productions in cinema history. Original star Jason Robards got ill and had to leave the film; his original sidekick Mick Jagger couldn’t afford to wait through a delay, and went back to rolling with the Stones. Then Klaus Kinski showed up as Robards’ replacement and things got really crazy, especially when Herzog decided to film Kinski’s character’s mad quest — hauling a steamship over a mountain — practically, with a real ship and a real mountain. Blank’s film provides an interesting echo to Herzog’s, by chronicling not only the burden of dreams, but their incredible power.

On iTunes
Directed by Chris Smith
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

Mark Borchardt is man who understands the burden of dreams. Living in Wisconsin, Bordchardt was about as far from a Hollywood player as he could get. Nevertheless, he had unstoppable drive to be a filmmaker. He wanted to make an epic tale of America called NORTHWESTERN — but he didn’t have the knowledge or resources (read: money) to make it happen, so he decided to finance his dream project by making a horror movie called COVEN (which, he is quick to assert, does not rhyme with “oven”). His plan: shoot it on the cheap, sell a couple thousand VHS tapes to regional video stores, and funnel the profits into NORTHWESTERN. Unfortunately for Bordchardt, the COVEN shoot is so troubled it might as well have been cursed by witches. Chris Smith’s AMERICAN MOVIE, which follows Borchardt from NORTHWESTERN to COVEN and back, is a remarkable testament to the magic of movies — and to the artists who make them regardless of the obstacles in their path.