Shirkers is, in many respects, a singular movie. Directed by novelist and filmmaker Sandi Tan, it debuted at Sundance earlier this year and it’s technically her feature debut. But it’s also about the feature debut that wasn’t: the film Tan made with her friends in her native Singapore one summer in 1992 but never finished — and not for a lack of trying.
Also called Shirkers, this earlier film would have starred Tan as a teenage serial killer who travels the roads of her small country. What we see of the original Shirkers in Tan’s documentary looks pretty remarkable, a young cinephile’s attempt to channel a lot of artistic impulses and punk energy into a bold statement in a country whose filmmaking, what there was of it, wasn’t exactly filled with bold statements.
Except, for reasons best left unspoiled, Tan never got the chance to bring it all together, and instead uses the film as an attempt to explore the mystery of what happened and how it’s haunted her and her friends ever since.
There’s nothing quite like Shirkers, thanks to the way Tan weaves together her own story and that of Georges Cardona, the enigmatic mentor who encouraged her work and helped with the production and then … again, that’s probably better left unspoiled. But in other respects, it’s also part of a long tradition of documentaries that depict filmmaking as a hellish process that always threatens to collapse on itself — and sometimes does. Tan’s story isn’t like anyone else’s but there’s not a shortage of behind-the-scenes docs about troubled, sometimes doomed productions that would make fine accompaniments to Shirkers.
A couple even get referenced tangentially in the film itself. At one point, Cardona promises to bring in a production manager who worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to assist with the shoot, but as anyone who’s seen the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse can attest, this might not have been that helpful. An eye-of-the-hurricane look at the making of Coppola’s troubled 1979 masterpiece directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Francis’s wife Eleanor Coppola (who also narrates), the film captures a shoot plagued by seemingly every possible adversity: bad weather, a star with health problems, and a director whose unwillingness to compromise seems to push him to the brink of madness. “My film is not about Vietnam,” Coppola declared when he brought Apocalypse Now to the Cannes Film Festival. “It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy … And little by little we went insane.” If that sounds pretentious, the film at least puts the statement in context.
Tan and Cardona shared an admiration for Werner Herzog’s similarly troubled 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, in which Klaus Kinski plays a man obsessed with building an opera house in early-20th century Peru, a drive that leads him to hire a team to push a boat over a mountain. Except Kinski didn’t always play the part, which once belonged to Jason Robards, who had to bow out due to illness, prompting Herzog to reach out to his frequent collaborator/hated enemy Kinski. That’s just one setback chronicled in Les Blank’s making-of doc Burden of Dreams, released the same year. It’s the rare behind-the-scenes look that’s just as thrilling as the film it’s covering, exploring the relationship between the outside crew and the natives that, in shades of the movie they were making, they hire to do the heavy lifting and watching as Herzog starts to become exhausted, frustrated, and darkly philosophical, leading to his famous monologue about the “obscenity” of nature.
At least Herzog and Coppola were struggling to create remarkable art. The thing about filmmaking is that even bad movies take a lot of work. In the 2009 film Best Worst Movie, director Michael Stephenson dives into the madness of the 1990 film Troll 2, a low-budget horror film in which he starred as a child. An in-name-only sequel to the 1986 film Troll, made by an Italian director and crew and a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors working in Utah, the movie’s a laughable, largely incoherent disaster — so much so that it started to pick up a cult following. With fondness and mortification, Best Worst Movie finds Stephenson tracking down those who co-starred with him to see if they can figure out what happened, and discovers for some their brush with fame has been bittersweet.
An even richer character study, Chris Smith’s 1999 doc American Movie shadows Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt and sidekick Mike Schank as they attempt to complete a short horror film called Coven. In the process they encounter problems common to all films and some of their own making, but it’s Smith’s sympathetic treatment of Schank and, especially, Borchardt that sets the film apart. Is Borchardt delusional or as talented as any aspiring filmmaker and only held back by geography, financial circumstances, dependency issues, and character flaws? For all its comic moments, the film leaves these questions unanswered.
Shirkers also belongs to a documentary subgenre about films that never were. In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques) began shooting L’Enfer, a drama about a jealousy-gripped hotelier. He hit snag after snag before suffering a heart attack, forcing him to leave the film in an unfinished state. Serge Bromberg’s 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno makes clear this was a major loss. Bromberg tries to recount what happened and brings in a new cast to re-create some unfilmed scenes, but the real reason to watch is the surviving footage, which, taking cues from Vertigo, is experimental and hallucinatory in ways Clouzot had never let himself be before. This could have been a leap forward rather than a dead end.
Twenty-six years later, Terry Gilliam attempted to film a new take on Don Quixote called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, only to watch as the shoot met with disaster after disaster, including the film-ending injury of star Jean Rochefort. In Lost in La Mancha, the 1992 documentary chronicling the process, co-directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, Gilliam seems to be channeling a career’s worth of frustration. It’s not the end of the story, though. Nearly two decades on, Gilliam finished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in time for the 2018 Cannes film festival — a process with potholes of its own that Fulton and Pepe plan to cover in a follow-up film. But at least, after all these years, he emerged with something to watch and more than a few stories to tell. As Shirkers similarly proves, sometimes time and fate make their own plans for movies.