"American Storytellers" is a documentary that sits down for chats with four successful filmmakers. Most curious is the selected line-up; this is about as diverse a collection of directors as you could possibly get:
John McNaughton. Maverick who hates the term "maverick." Responsible for "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." "Wild Things." "Mad Dog and Glory." "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll."
Harold Ramis. Golden boy of blockbuster comedy. "Groundhog Day." "Caddyshack." "Analyze This." "Multiplicity." Also co-wrote, among others, "Animal House" and "Ghostbusters."
John Sayles. Indie god. "Eight Men Out." "Lone Star." "Return of the Secaucus 7." "Matewan." "The Brother From Another Planet." "Silver City." "Sunshine State." "Limbo."
Forest Whitaker. Jack of All Trades. "Waiting To Exhale." "First Daughter." "Hope Floats." "Strapped." Also: musician, painter, and very famous actor.
Aspiring actor/filmmaker Kevin Mukherji interviewed each of these talents individually - in homes, offices, and in Sayles' case, in a bookstore - asking them all the same questions: How did you get started? What was your first film like? What's your take on independent filmmaking? What advice can you give a beginner? That sort of thing. The footage has then been shuffled up by question, cutting between all four subjects.
As a film, "American Storytellers" is downright lousy. Mukherji tries to spice things up by editing in some silent, black-and-white footage of himself on the set of some action movie, or maybe some black-and-white goofy-angle footage of other parts of the same interview, giving things the cheap look of one of those suck-up celebrity interview shows starring Byron Allen. He's also too afraid to edit down these big wigs; all four ramble way, way, way off topic at some point (the biggest offender is Ramis, who gets sidetracked very easily), and Mukherji can't bring himself to chop this stuff out. Even at ninety minutes, this is too long a movie - an hour, tops, is all we really needed.
And then, there is one shot - a single, mysterious shot - of Mukherji looking back, apparently at Sayles (there's the bookstore backdrop), in what's supposed to be one of those cutaway shots of reporters nodding along to their interviewee. But it comes out of nowhere (Mukherji makes a point of being silent and unseen throughout the movie, letting the subjects do all the talking) and only happens once, leaving us all shouting at the screen a nice, loud "what the hell?"
(It does not help Mukherji's efforts that he shoots on very cheap digital video, often bumping the camera or, worse, deciding to zoom in, MTV-style, at seemingly random times.)
What rescues the film from total disaster is the fact that his four subjects are about as engaging as you could possibly want in such a project. All four filmmakers are eager to discuss their careers in a most casual way; watching this movie is like sitting down to dinner with these guys and hearing them tell their best anecdotes.
Their best stories, perhaps not surprisingly, are those recounting the early days of their careers. It's interesting to watch McNaughton discuss the struggles he endured following "Henry," being unable to find a satisfactory project as everybody wanted him to just make another horror flick - and then have that followed with Ramis' aw-shucks account of how he pretty much lucked into a lucrative career. (When your first screenplay is "Animal House," you can pretty much write your own ticket.)
And that, it seems, is the point of the film. When Mukherji asks for advice, Ramis sums it up best by saying there's really no advice to give; everyone sort of stumbles along on their own path, and no two success stories are the same. By listening to these filmmakers tell of how they made it, we understand that success comes on many levels and by many roads.
While intended as a primer of sorts for beginning filmmakers, "American Storytellers" has great appeal for anyone in love with the movies. The stories told within are delicious in their detail, gossipy nuggets of four personal histories of Hollywood that remain accessible to all. Your only concern, then, is getting through the weak presentation to get to them.
The package says "full screen," and that's close: the film is presented here in a flat (non-anamorphic) letterbox with an aspect ratio of what appears to be around 1.66:1. (Interestingly, the studio logos at the beginning are in 1.33:1 full screen.) The transfer makes the best of the iffy digital video source, but there's only so much you can do.
It's just guys talking for ninety minutes, so the mediocre Dolby stereo track gets us by.
The "deleted scenes" section is merely a two-minute compilation of footage of the filmmakers chatting with Mukherji in between official interview shots. Since they all come off as very nice chaps, it's a shame there's not more of this sort of thing, either in the film or as a bonus feature.
"American Pets" (9 min.) is Mukherji's plea for animal rights and a reminder to spay or neuter your pets. Mukherji opens and closes the piece himself, then fills in the rest with footage of the four interviewees being asked about animal rights - a subject by which they're clearly confused. Why ask John Sayles about pet issues? The filmmakers politely stumble through their answers, but it's obvious they'd rather go back to talking about movies.
"Magnum Stories" (20 min.) is an unwatchable, cheapjack effort hosted by Mukherji (whose audio is almost completely muffled by his jacket in one vital introductory scene). He suggests this to be part of a series, as he tells us how in "this episode" we'll be looking into the world of stuntmen and special effects… as seen in behind-the-scenes footage of one of Mukherji's other movies. (Shill alert!) Notable only for the stuntman who looks exactly like one of the mustachioed Beastie Boys in their "Sabotage" video, only this guy's not being ironic in his chosen look.
Finally, the trailer for "American Storytellers" is included, as well as those for "Emerald Cowboy," "The Girl Next Door," and "3 Walls." The disc starts up by playing trailers for "Carlos Castaneda: Enigma of a Sorcerer" and "Hybrid;" these trailers are not accessible through any menu.
With such a line-up of great talent, there truly is a lot of great stuff to hear in this film. But with such lousy filmmaking presenting it all, there's nothing inviting us to repeat viewings. Rent It, and be ready to scan past the clumsier bits.