Review: ‘They Shoot Movies, Don’t They?’

When a documentary crew covers the soon-to-be, first-time success of an aspiring, can’t-lose filmmaker $80,000 from finishing his first independent feature, they (and the audience) get more than they bargained for as Hollywood shows just how cold it can be.

Tom Paulson had everything going for him in school, including invitations directly into major league baseball. When a injury ended his potential sports career, he picked himself up and completed a senior film project that was sent to one film festival… and won. With a paid stand-by directorial career waiting in the wings of a major studio, three years proved to be too much for Paulson, causing him to quit the deal of a lifetime and complete his first feature on his own and out of pocket. Unfortunately, the last bit of missing funding and an unforgiving system show that the pressure of winning can take its toll, even on a winner like Paulson.

First of all, I have to admit how much I was affected by this film. With little or no personal training in journalism and only my own self-taught skills in writing, I’ve been writing film reviews telling people I’ve never met (and regardless of how hard they’ve worked) for almost ten years that their work could be “better.” Actually, I’ve come right out and said I’ve hated some filmmaker’s pet projects and even so far as to suggest they never be allowed behind the camera again. But after seeing a film like this one, after watching what the process could do to someone with real vision that refuses to be compromised by non-storytellers, it makes me wonder if I really enjoy tearing down someone else’s life and livelihood. Who am I to make these kinds of judgements about the films I watch, the movies I buy, or the ones I tell people to avoid lest they have to claw their own eyes out?

And then I think, “Oh yeah… because I’m a critic, dammit.”

From the opening shot of a baseball diamond (and the mandatory Field of Dreams reference) to intercut newspaper clippings, it’s easy to settle down into the life of Tom Paulson. After all, he’s completed principle photography in record time, is only a little over budget, and already has a distribution deal in place; all he needs is to finish editing it all together. With the documentarians always close by, Paulson never gives up hope or stops smiling, even when it starts to become clear that there will be no easy way out for him. Is he blind, or just not all that business savvy?

As his world breaks down, the cameras are there, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a person’s life falling apart when they were supposed to be looking forward to being the toast of the town. His actress girlfriend, his friend in finance, the editor working for scraps, when everyone is telling you that it isn’t going to work, you’ll believe that Paulson keeps it all moving forward by sheer will alone even as his own resolve is shaken.

At some point toward the end, the film becomes difficult to watch as the impending tragedy of it becomes obvious, but it’s like trying to look away from a car wreck while secretly hoping to see actual blood or a severed limb. The ending briefly sums up the rest of the sad tale, specifically of what becomes of the scraps left behind, but it should be clear that Tom Paulson was ultimately done in by his fear of failure and success (and a clever script for the making of a film called Mirage.)

(a three skull recommendation out of four )

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