Popatopolis (2009)

Jul 13th, 2010

It takes about three months to make a movie — a Hollywood movie — excluding post and preproduction.  Some take longer.  Nightmarish production on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” took 238 days.  Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate masterpiece, “Eyes Wide Shut,” took more than 15 months.


Jim Wynorski, the most prolific filmmaker you’ve never heard of, can shoot a full-length feature film in only three days. That’s like if Michaelangelo had completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a couple of months.  His actors cook their own food, do their own makeup and drive themselves to the set.  And what of the massive crew of grips, gaffers, script supervisors, stand-ins, technical and historical advisors and assistants essential to producing a professional, polished movie?


Try a cameraman, boom operator and two lights.  That’s how Wynorski, one of the most celebrated and infamous B-movie directors in the industry works.  And the hilarious documentary, “Popatopolis” from Clay Westervelt, captures the entire process on film for our endless amazement and entertainment.

The film, which takes its name from one of Wynorskis many pseudonyms — describing his affinity for casting busty women willing to shed their tops — follows the idiosyncratic director on his quest to make a movie in three days.  If watching a curmudgeonly (on the set) B-movie auteur berate his often topless cast for asking for another take to improve a scene sounds entertaining, that’s because it is.

“Popatoplis” is funny, absurd and never boring, but its real success lies in its more tender and surprisingly humanistic moments wherein a multi-dimensional sympathetic person is revealed behind an impenetrable monolithic persona.  The interviews with Wynorski’s chaste, salt of the earth mother are particularly illuminating in that regard.  To learn about the insecurities, unfulfilled dreams and complex personal relationships essential to the director of classics like “Chopping Mall” (1986), “The Return of the Swamp Thing” (1989) and “976-Evil 2: The Astral Factor” (1991), is utterly fascinating.  Documentaries are only as good as their subjects, and “Popatopolis” is a very good documentary.

Westervelt’s portrait of the exploitation hero also doubles as a tribute to the dying industry of widely released B-movies.  In the early days of film, B-movies were a sort of minor leagues where aspiring stars paid their dues before being called up to the big leagues.  Early B-movies had respectable budgets and were often packaged with more serious star vehicles as the lesser half of a double bill, which is how they got their name.  A distinct melancholia as a result of the diminishing prominence of such films in mainstream film culture pervades the film’s subtext, adding nuance and intrigue to an otherwise comedy-laden picture.

Finally, running through the film is a strong and absorbing procedural element quietly detailing the process of making a movie.  Things go wrong, there are disagreements, makeshift props have to be quickly assembled, actors forget their lines and we even learn how important a modified tube sock is in the quest for a successful sex scene.

“Popatopolis” is a must see for anyone with even a casual interest in film and the filmmaking process.

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