Movies about movies: Why have they been popping up so much recently?

What defines a movie about movies? They remind us of the beauty of film, the appeal of the cinematic world, and the reason we go to see them on a big screen. A lot of movies reference movie-making in some way, but that doesn’t mean they are about movies. For example, King Kong is about a group of explorers who travel to Skull Island to document its inhabitants on film, but that isn’t what the film is about. The film is about adventure into the unknown, and the misunderstood creature that is Kong. I wouldn’t even describe a film like La La Land as a movie about movies. Whilst it is set in Hollywood and one of its main characters is an aspiring actress, it is not about filmmaking specifically.

Movies about movies weave films and filmmaking into their central themes. They remind audiences of the joy of going to the cinema, and the complexity of the filmmaking process itself. A quintessential example of this is Sam Mendes’s recent film, Empire of Light. Centred around a cinema set in Margate, it follows cinema workers Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Micheal Ward) navigating the turbulent times of 1980s England as romance blossoms between them. The film integrates themes of racism, mental health and class, but to its core, it is about how film can bring people together. As Stephen so eloquently puts it to Hilary in one scene; ‘That beam of light, it’s an escape.’ Sam Mendes has himself stated it is based on his early experiences of going to the cinema, and many have regarded the film as his ‘love letter’ to cinema. Other quintessential examples of movies about movies are La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, and Stephen Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans, both of which have hit UK cinemas in the past few months. Babylon is an outrageous, lavish, 3-hour picture about the transition of silent to sound films in the late 1920s. It stars Margot Robbie as aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy, Brad Pitt as declining actor Jack Conrad, and Diego Calva as Manny Torres – an up-coming filmmaker and Nellie’s love interest. The core of the film is about these characters navigating the 1920s-film scene, depicted through various sequences of film productions and showing how hilariously gruelling they could be. The ending encapsulates how far cinema has come, as Manny sits in a cinema in the early 1950s and reflects upon his life and how much of an impact film has had on it. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, however, is quite the opposite of Babylon. It is a tender, heart-warming, coming-of-age story of aspiring filmmaker Sammy Fabelman and how films provide the vehicle for him to navigate his dysfunctional family life. Not only did the film garner critical acclaim, but was also nominated for over 100 awards, and won 23. What these films all have in common is (1) they were all released in UK cinemas in 2023; and (2) they illustrate how films play an integral role in the development and story of the lead characters.

This trend even extends to previous years, with films like 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and 2021’s Belfast reminding its audiences of the joy of filmmaking and going to the cinema. Unbearable Weight is effectively Nicholas Cage’s hilariously self-aware tribute to cinema, as he plays a fictionalised version of himself and pokes fun at his own career. Belfast meanwhile was Kenneth Branagh’s sleeper hit about a boy brought up during the political turmoil of Northern Ireland in 1969. As with Empire of Light and The Fabelmans, the film revolves around its central character navigating troubling times with a love for films presented as a hopeful escape. Even Ti West’s recent 2022 horrors X and Pearl, both starring Mia Goth, can be regarded as tributes to early and late 20th century cinema and what made it so special.

Whilst there have always been movies about movies, there has rarely been so many within a short space of time. In the past, movies with movies woven so centrally into their plots have come much more infrequently, with releases like The Player (1992), Adaption (2002), The Artist (2011), and The Disaster Artist (2017) only appearing every few years. Considering the movies previously discussed have been released in 2022 and 2023, it is reasonable to assume it has partly been due to filmmakers getting back on track in a post-COVID world. Considering the detrimental impact the pandemic had on filmmaking and cinemas, perhaps filmmakers are choosing to remind people how valuable the cinematic experience is, causing a ‘bump’ in releases of movies about movies. Many filmmakers have even commented on this. British director Philippa Lowthorpe once stated how saddened she was that the performance of her film Misbehaviour (2020) was affected by the pandemic. Combined with the rise of streaming, people are seemingly less inclined to travel to cinemas. A 2020 survey by Variety even found 70% of people would rather watch movies at home than go to the cinema. So, perhaps filmmakers are attempting to remind audiences through the craft of visual storytelling that watching a film in the cinema is one of the most encapsulating experiences you can have. Even Tarantino has recently announced that he has completed the script for his next and final film, The Movie Critic, which will be set in the 1970s and centred around movie critic Pauline Kael. It would be interesting to discuss with mainstream directors such as Tarantino and Spielberg whether their mind-sets have been influenced by the effect the pandemic and streaming has had on cinemas. For now though, as an avid movie-goer, I couldn’t be happier about filmmakers choosing to produce more movies about movies. Hopefully, reminding people of the magic of the silver screen and the whole cinematic experience will have audiences returning to cinemas.


From hot tea to hospital sets: My experience being a film extra in Sam Mendes’ new film, Empire of Light

May 4th is known to many as International Star Wars day (‘May the 4th be with you’). I could never have imagined that I would be spending Star Wars day reading an article about The Empire Strikes Back in a 1980s-hospital ward. On May 4th 2022, I lay in a hospital bed with an intravenous drip taped to my arm reading an original magazine from the film’s release year in 1980. Before you wonder whether I had stumbled into some sort of Tardis, I was in fact on a film set, which to me is quite possibly the next best thing to time-travel. Everything from the 1980s style Cadbury’s Roses box on my bedside table, to the doctor and patient costumes worn by my fellow extras, the film-makers had considered every detail in setting of the scene.

The film was James Bond director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, a romantic story drawing on the director’s childhood experiences of cinema and starring Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward. I was called in at the crack of dawn for the hospital scene, but cameras didn’t roll until around 2 pm. I kept myself occupied by reading books, catching up with uni work, and chatting to fellow extras. It was a rewarding way to meet people who share an interest in film, and make contacts for potential future projects. Hanging out with like-minded people for long periods waiting for a call to the set forges friendships surprisingly quickly. Sitting around in 1980s attire with 21st century iPhones and overcoats provided a curious juxtaposition of different eras. The large team of extras were well looked after. I was pleasantly surprised by the food served by the on-set catering team too. The menu differed each day, and provided a variety of different dishes along with a plethora of beverages, desserts and cheese and biscuits (on my filming day I went for spinach and feta cheese quesadillas which were delicious). I also found myself drinking excessive amounts of tea; whether it was to maintain the caffeine boost from the early starts or simply pass the time – not even I could be sure.

In the two places I had my fitting and shot the scene there were plenty of noticeable indicators of the film’s setting. There were rows of late 70s and 80s Fords and Vauxhalls, and even some police cars and ambulances from the same time period. When I was on set the day before filming, there was a close-up scene being filmed in the back of an ambulance – indicated by the 1980 model with its back doors open surrounded by black screens, lights and crew members. Then of course, there were the costumes. At the fitting, there were rows and rows of 70s/80s fashion, in addition to various different patient, nurse and doctor’s outfits. My patient attire consisted of one of the more basic outfits, simply being a light green button-up shirt and bottoms over some white tights; which I could best describe as some fancy retro pyjamas. The walls were adorned with pictures of real photos of 70/80s outfits and haircuts, clearly a reference guide for those working in the costume, hair and make-up department. In fact, I was required to get my long hair trimmed as part of the role. A lovely Welsh hairdresser gave me a bob of sorts – utilising my inherited curls. At first I thought it looked like the Beatles‘ signature haircut from the early 60s, but when it was ruffled up for the role it was more akin to David Naughton’s hair in American Werewolf in London (a film released in 1981; the same year Empire of Light is set in). It wasn’t until I was actually on the hospital set for the film that the detail devoted to the set really sank in. As I sat ‘ill’ in my bed, I admired the work put in by the set designers, costume team, and the props guys who had put together a very authentic looking ward. At one point I was required to silently ‘mime’ a conversation with a doctor in the background of one of the takes. It was fascinating to see the cinematographers and mic operators in their element, adjusting every position and angle so they got each take just right. Sam Mendes himself even approached my bed at one point to adjust a table lamp. There were many people running and back and forth on the set; people shouting ‘rolling’ and ‘action’ every 5 minutes, designers adjusting extra’s hair and makeup, stand-ins for the main actors, and of course, the main actors themselves. It’s a surreal experience working alongside well-known actors who are so greatly admired. As much as you’re aware they are regular people doing a job, it is impossible not to become star-struck when they walk on set. I did however get a smile or two from Olivia Coleman.

The hospital scene was filmed on a set built at Ramsgate airport, but there was a couple of other scenes I was called for that were filmed in Margate. The first was in a cinema on the seafront built to capture the 80s aesthetic. It was classic art deco, with impressive Grecian pillars and marbled stairways, and the red curtains that were typical of theatres of the day. Many of us extras were paired up as couples going on a date night to the cinema, others were grouped into friends, and there were some older extras who sat alone. The props team even handed us the classic popcorn buckets, which were refilled with Sainsbury’s popcorn after every take. The scene we watched was a scene from the 1980 comedy film Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. By the time we wrapped, we all knew every detail of that scene start to finish. Needless to say, watching a film in a cinema as an extra for a film was probably one of the most meta things I’ve ever done.

The other scene was shot right in the heart of Margate’s Dreamland; a recently reopened fairground with rides, arcades, and a roller disco. This was the most enjoyable scene I participated in. The scene they were filming was a living, breathing fairground. There were extras on rides, running fairground stalls, and real ice cream and candy floss stalls. It was a busy scene with a lot of extras present; from groups of intimidating skinheads smoking to families and school children on a day out (At my extra ‘interview’ I was asked if I would be willing to have my head shaved and smoke – I politely declined both!). Despite the large scale of the set, it was the closest I’d been to the main actors. One scene even involved Olivia Coleman and Micheal Ward going around a spinning ride, which made me think acting must be one of the best jobs ever. I was assigned to run a coconut shy in the background of one scene; with an army of 80s school kids ruthlessly smashing coconuts in between takes. At one point one of the youngest extras got upset because he didn’t win a prize on a stall as it wasn’t real: the wonderful Olivia Colman stepped and picked out a prize for him herself. There was such a positive energy on set that day. The sun was shining, the rides were rolling, and I don’t think I’ll ever get through so much candy floss in one day.

Being an extra on such a major movie was a unique and exciting experience. If the opportunity arises, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in filmmaking or films in general. The job requires a lot of patience, as you spend long days waiting around to be called, or even wondering if you’ll be called at all. Regardless of whether your scene is in the final cut, being able to observe the film-making process first hand is a valuable and rewarding experience, and one that has only expanded my passion for cinema. It has forever changed my perspective on the process of movie production, and I would certainly be up for getting paid for lying in a fake hospital bed again reading a Star Wars magazine in the future (and yes, you can spot me in the final cut!).

Watch Empire of Light in cinemas from 9th January.

The fictitious cinema ‘Empire’ created at Dreamland on the Margate seafront, taken when I went for a costume fitting