How Decades of Val Kilmer’s Home Movies Became an Intimate Documentary Years in the Making

The actor's life story gets a revealing closeup through his own footage in this new Cannes-bound project. Here's how it happened.
Director Wes Anderson, from left, Timothee Chalamet, and Tilda Swinton pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'The French Dispatch' at the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Monday, July 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Val Kilmer Documentary Interview: How the Actor Told His Life Story
Val Kilmer Documentary Interview: How the Actor Told His Life Story
Val Kilmer Documentary Interview: How the Actor Told His Life Story
Val Kilmer Documentary Interview: How the Actor Told His Life Story
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Val Kilmer has been waiting to tell his story for decades. In “Val,” the intimate first-person account of the actor’s ambitious rise to Hollywood A-lister and the bumpy years that followed, Kilmer shares his experiences in both candid voiceover narration and years of home video footage from virtually every chapter of his life — from his promising early days to the clashes over creative vision that came later, and the tragic battle with throat cancer that limited his ability to speak.

Kilmer, who wrote about his health struggles in the 2020 memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry,” received an operation on his trachea that has left him unable to speak beyond a whisper. But his footage tells a much louder story. Kilmer had his camcorder in hand for every phase of his career, but it took directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo to piece it all together.

The movie premieres at Cannes this week ahead of its release on Amazon this summer, and it provides a striking window into the struggles of a passionate artist whose sensibilities often run counter to the Hollywood machine. The filmmakers ultimately dug through some 800 hours of footage from Kilmer’s personal archive over the past three years. “It was gold, like a treasure trove you’re lucky to come across in your career,” Poo said.

The gestation process for “Val” dates back to 2014. Scott had been working as an editor for Harmony Korine on several projects, including “Trash Humpers,” and became familiar with Kilmer’s archival material after editing his performance in Korine’s 2012 short film “The Lotus Community Workshop” as part of the omnibus project “The Fourth Dimension.” The short finds Kilmer playing a motivational speaker (named, of all things, Val Kilmer) who roams around a marginalized stretch of Americana in tune with his strange surroundings. “I was so captivated by his performance, and I just really felt the urge to tell Val how great it was,” Scott said.

Korine gave the editor Kilmer’s number, and the two began collaborating on the actor’s touring one-man show about the life of Mark Twain. In the meantime, Scott began to help Kilmer digitize his extensive home video material. When Kilmer’s cancer threw a wrench in his plans to turn the Twain play into a movie, Scott received a call from Poo, who had recently edited the Oscar-winning short film “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405” and was looking for a higher-profile project. Poo said the footage, which was stored in Scott’s garage, screamed for additional context.

“I was pretty much floored,” Poo said. “The more of it you get to see, the more you understand who he is now,” added Scott, who spent over nine months digitizing Kilmer’s footage. (Since the actor’s speaking ability is limited, the narration is supplied by his son, Jack.) Kilmer explains early on that he wanted to make a movie about acting for years, and while he didn’t have a precise project in mind as he gathered material, “Val” provides a unique window into the awkward and often messy struggles of a creative performer attempting to find a vessel for his interests. “There was always a sense that he was interested in his own craft,” Scott said. “You got the sense from the material that he was knowingly, wisely, gathering some of these things for a bigger story one day.”

The footage goes all the way back to the dressing room for his 1983 Broadway debut in “Slab Boys,” where he was forced to perform in the shadows of Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, and includes everything from his breakthrough in “Top Secret” and his camaraderie with Tom Cruise on “Top Gun” through his unsatisfying ride on the set of “Batman” and his even rockier experiences alongside Marlon Brando during the disastrous production of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

It also chronicles Kilmer’s passion project, “Cinema Twain,” a one-man show about Twain that he had intended to turn into his own directorial debut until it was waylaid by his health struggles. Kilmer’s transformation into Twain consumes a key aspect of the story, as he’s just on the verge of advancing his project when his cancer intervenes. The movie follows Kilmer all the way through his current endeavors, as he shrugs off missed opportunities and indulges in newer creative paths like painting. While Kilmer has a producing credit on the movie and retains ownership of the footage, the filmmakers said that he allowed them to explore some of the more troubling passages of their subject’s life. “Val is a very active, energized artist,” Scott said. “He was very open and collaborative on all fronts.”

“Val” stretches all the way back to Kilmer’s childhood, when his brother Wesley harbored filmmaking ambitions and filmed Val in a number of 8mm films. Wesley died from a seizure when Val was still an adolescent, but the actor kept the material and much of it was restored for the movie. “His brother was really a budding genius director who probably could have gone on to be one of the greats,” Scott said. “There were just loads and loads of these reels that hadn’t been transferred.” That included cell animation that Wesley had created by hand. “It was just really special to unearth all these things, and then to actually put those animations together for Val to see for the first time.”

Val Kilmer
Val KilmerMark Humphrey/AP/REX/Shutterstock

With Kilmer as its guide, “Val” covers the actor’s initial passion projects as a Julliard student and shows how his immersive approach followed him through a wide range of opportunities, from his turn as Jim Morrison in “The Doors” through half-baked studio undertakings like “Red Planet.” By the time that 2000 sci-fi project came around, Kilmer’s filming ambitions had reached dramatic new heights. “He shot over 200 hours of footage just around ‘Red Planet,’” Poo said. “He had a full camera crew with him, and his own HD cam. It was a lot, and we ended up using less than a minute.”

It’s a revealing minute, and one of several moments where Kilmer expresses his anger over a director failing to communicate a coherent vision. “Val got those cameras so early on that people weren’t even used to having cameras on set,” Scott said. “So he managed to get a different perspective,” the actors’ perspective, rather than filmmakers and behind-the-scenes people coming in and filming the actors in the process.”

Ultimately, the movie positions Kilmer as the tragicomic hero at the center of a story about art and commerce coming to blows, as well as his ability to make peace with the disconnect. “Val always said he didn’t see it as a documentary,” Scott said. “He saw it as a movie starring Val Kilmer as the main character in the story about his life, and we all aligned on that feeling.”

The Cannes premiere for “Val” completes a cycle for the project. “Before we had made anything,” Poo said, “Val was like, ‘And then we’ll show it at Cannes.’”

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