20 incredibly arduous film productions

Script rewrites. Exacting directors. Terrible twists of fate. We look back through the ages to bring you 20 nightmarish film shoots…

The lavish lifestyles of Hollywood’s more famous actors and filmmakers may hint at a world of glamour and cash, but as this list proves, the process of actually putting a movie together is rarely a dignified process. What follows is a lengthy catalogue of ill-advised location choices, tantrums, dreadful acts of God, spiked bowls of soup, ruined studios, bruised egos, broken bones and shattered dreams.

For the prospective filmmaker, this article could be read as a cautionary tale of just how badly wrong a production can go – though in order to keep the tone relatively light, we’ve excised those film productions that ended in tragedy (you’ll have to look elsewhere to discover the sad stories behind Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Crow).

Nevertheless, we suggest you pour yourself a strong drink before delving into the following accounts…

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Now rightly regarded as a classic, the glittering quality of MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz gives little clue to its fraught production process. Although Victor Fleming is widely credited as director, no fewer than five other directors were involved at various points in its making. Similarly, its script was credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolff (such a fabulous name), but no fewer than 17 writers had an uncredited hand in it, among them poet Ogden Nash.

The script was finally completed in late 1938, and shooting commenced. It was chaos. Directors were hired and then quickly relieved of duty. Tin Man actor Buddy Ebsen had to be replaced because he was allergic to his aluminium make-up, and was replaced by Jack Haley. The dog who played Dorothy’s loyal companion, Toto, misbehaved, resulting in take after take. Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of the West, was burned during the filming of a Munchkinland scene.

Even after the shoot was complete, the troubles continued. Various scenes had to be reshot, and when a two-hour version of the movie was shown to test audiences in June 1939, there were complaints that it was too long.

Miraculously, little (if any) of The Wizard Of Oz’s nightmarish production difficulties were apparent on the big screen – and unlike some other films on this list, it remains a timelessly entertaining fantasy.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Cleopatra was big. Its stars were 60s icons, its sets were huge, its budget vast. In fact, the film remains the most expensive ever made, if its budget is adjusted for inflation.

Remarkably, Fox had only planned to spend $2 million on making Cleopatra – a rather optimistic figure in hindsight, given that the production managed to burn through $4 million before a single frame had been shot. Liz Taylor was given $1 million to play the lead role, a sum which, like everything else on the film, soon ballooned wildly out of control.

Director Joseph L Mankievitz was brought in to replace Rouben Mamoulian shortly after filming began. The production was subjected to repeated delays, as various actors came and went, and Taylor fell seriously ill. Elaborate sets were built in London, and then never used after the production relocated to Rome. An early cut of the film weighed in at a mighty six hours; at the behest of Fox, this was hacked down to just three.

By the time Cleopatra was released, it had rung up a cost of $44million – a sum that very nearly killed its studio. Even though the movie was a hit, it struggled to make back much more than its almighty budget. The result is one of the most wildly opulent, lumbering historical epics ever made.

American Graffiti (1973)

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Compared to George Lucas’s ambitious sci-fi outings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a drama about 60s teenagers would be relatively simple to make. This did not prove to be the case, as the film fell behind schedule, a member of the production team was arrested for growing marijuana, and a shooting permit was withdrawn by San Rafael City Council just two days into filming.

Actor Paul Le Mat suffered an allergic reaction to a walnut and ended up in hospital. Richard Dreyfuss’ head was cut open when Le Mat threw him into a swimming pool. Harrison Ford was arrested during a barroom brawl. Filming of a race sequence went wrong, with almost fatal consequences. Someone set fire to George Lucas’ hotel room.

From this nightmare emerged one of the most acclaimed films of 1973, and although Universal were initially unimpressed by what they thought was only worthy of release as a TV movie, was a huge hit. Without American Graffiti, it’s arguable that Star Wars would never have followed – a movie that had production woes of its own, as we’ll soon discover.

Jaws (1975)

As we’ll see from other entries in this list, shooting a film at sea is a potential nightmare. In fact, any would-be filmmakers would probably advised to avoid seawater altogether.

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As Spielberg’s adaptation of a hit Peter Benchley novel span out of budget due to mechanical problems with Bruce, the film’s fake shark, various crew members redubbed the movie Flaws. Actor Richard Dreyfuss later said of the production, “We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.”

Jaws is notable, however, for being an example of a film that benefited from its production difficulties. Had the fake shark functioned as planned, it’s likely that Jaws would have ended up as just another violent, cheesy monster movie, instead of the masterful piece of suspense we ended up with.

Although Jaws’ planned budget swelled from $4million to $9million, Universal quickly forgave Spielberg after it made most of its money back on the first weekend. Jaws ushered in the new age of the summer blockbuster, and secured Spielberg’s position as Hollywood’s foremost director of populist hits.Star Wars (1977)

Along with Jaws, Star Wars would come to define the summer blockbuster – it was a big, broad, special effects-laden fantasy whose imagery would soon appear on a legion bedspreads and lunchboxes. But while John Williams’ score gives Star Wars the confident swagger of a hit movie right from the opening frame, its path to the big-screen was not a smooth one.

The film fell behind schedule almost right away, as storms delayed location shoots in Tunisia. On set at Elstree in London, crew members were smirking at what they thought was an ineptly-handled children’s film. Harrison Ford’s “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it” line, now an oft-quoted snippet of Geek history, aptly sums up how many actors and filmmakers felt about Star Wars before its release.

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Lucas valiantly pressed on, even as his fledgling special effects department, ILM, struggled to turn out the hundreds of effects shots the movie would require. Four miniature shots, which Lucas rejected, amounted to half of the film’s effects budget. Costs ballooned, and ILM had to rush manically finish the rest of the visual effects in just six months.

As the film continued to fall behind schedule, Lucas was forced to split his crew into three units in order to get the thing finished. A screening of a rough cut of the film was disastrous, and Lucas began to flag under the pressure.

The film’s fortunes began to change in the editing room. A previous editor, John Jympson was replaced by Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, while Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia, would also play a key part in taking the various snippets of people in suits and effects shots, and crafting a truly epic space opera.

Executives at Fox, initially convinced that they had a flop on their hands, were instead rewarded with a colossal hit. The rest, of course, is so much geek history. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now was a film production so nightmarishly protracted, and filled with so many ill-advised decisions, terrible turns of fortune and bad behaviour, it earned its own documentary, Hearts Of Darkness. That account of Francis Ford Coppola’s quest to make the ultimate Vietnam movie is so good, and so definitive, that we’re tempted to tell you to simply go and watch it, assuming you haven’t already done so. Nevertheless, here’s a brief taster of Apocalypse Now’s hellish history.

After the success of The Godfather, Coppola sunk millions of dollars of his own money into an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart Of Darkness, which spun that classic tale into an epic war movie about the futility of the Nam conflict. Aiming for absolute realism, Coppola shot the movie in the Philippines, a location chosen due to its similarity to Vietnam. A shoot initially expected to last for five months swelled to more than a year. During that time, there war numerous storms, script rewrites, and leading man Martin Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel within the first week of shooting) suffered a heart attack.

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“We were in the jungle. We had too much money. We had too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane” was how Coppola summed up the infamously messy production, whose chaos undoubtedly made the film the deranged masterpiece it would become.

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Like Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate was a film that spiralled out of financial control, with fatal consequences for the studio that tried to pay for it, United Artists. Michael Cimino’s epic western, starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, repeatedly fell behind schedule and overspent its budget. Cimino’s obsession with period detail and accuracy saw sets repeatedly constructed, torn down and then rebuilt.

As the production burned through hundreds of thousands of dollars per day, Cimino shot over a million feet of footage. Dark rumours began to spread of drug use, unnecessary numbers of takes, and Cimino insisting that they wait for a particular type of cloud to float into view for one of his shots.

When principal photography finally ended in March 1980, Heaven’s Gate was already wildly over budget. Cimino changed the locks on the editing room, and with the assistance of editor William Reynolds, delivered a cut of the film that ran to an absurdly long five-and-a-half hours. A leaner cut was demanded by the studio, weighing in at more than three hours, which was released to critical derision.

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One reviewer famously said of the film, “It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect.”Blade Runner (1982)

The adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep had been through a long Hollywood writing process before director Ridley Scott even got hold of it. Admired and optioned by various filmmakers and producers since its publication in 1968 (Martin Scorsese even expressed an interest, which could have resulted in an extraordinary film), the novel that would ultimately become Blade Runner was subjected to numerous rewrites before and after Scott signed on in early 1980.

What Scott hadn’t reckoned on, we suspect, was just how difficult the film’s shoot would quickly become. Having made Alien at Shepperton Studios in the UK, Scott had to get used to the rather different process of making a movie in Los Angeles. What began as a fractious relationship with cast and crew bordered on mutiny as the shoot wore on – already irked by Scott’s exacting style of movie making, the director’s comments to a UK newspaper that he preferred working with UK crews led to a bizarre protest.

Not realising the offence he’d caused, Scott returned to the Blade Runner set to find the entire crew wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans including “Yes gov’nor my ass”. Scott responded by turning up some time later wearing a T-shirt of his own, saying “Xenophobia sucks”.

The various clashes between Scott and various actors, filmmakers, financiers and studio heads were all beautifully captured in the documentary Dangerous Days; archive footage shows Harrison Ford looking surly and bored. Scott and several other collaborators explained how torturous the production was from beginning to end; the final shot was captured just as its producers turned up to pull the plug. The same producers would later force insist on a happier ending and a hideous narration to make the plot more intelligible – something that would linger until an earlier workprint, which lacked the voiceover, was unearthed in 1992.

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Met coolly by critics and audiences on its release in 1982, Blade Runner has grown in stature since. It took several years, but Scott and his filmmakers’ efforts were eventually rewarded, as the film was rediscovered and hailed as a seminal piece of sci-fi.Fitzcarraldo (1982)

One of the most famously (or infamously) difficult productions in film history, Fitzcarraldo was Werner Herzog’s ambitious, slightly insane story of real-life rubber baron, Carlos Fitzcarrald. Shot in various parts of South America, one of the film’s most famous scenes involved the dragging of a gigantic steamship up a hill. Herzog stubbornly rejected the possibility of creating the scene using miniature effects, and instead shot it for real, with a genuine 320-ton steamer and dozens of extras.

Elsewhere, there were various injuries, some bouts of dysentery, sundry moments of ranting and bad behaviour from the legendarily difficult Klaus Kinski, while the departure of Mick Jagger, who was supposed to play a supporting role, meant that Herzog had to start the film again from scratch.

Gremlins (1984)

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Unlike Werner Herzog, Joe Dante didn’t have to contend with dreadful conditions in the jungle or a ranting Klaus Kinski. He did, however, have to contend with the problems caused by Gremlins’ dozens of creature effects shots. In those pre-CGI days, Dante and his team of effects creators were repeatedly kicking against what was possible with puppets, rubber and wire.

“We were inventing the technology as we went along, as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlin characters,” Dante said in a Den of Geek interview. “A small army of puppeteers was living beneath each set, controlling rods and levers and staring into video monitors with the picture flipped as in a mirror. The last three months of shooting was only Gremlins [effects shots]. It really did get maddening after awhile. And as I said, the studio wasn’t especially supportive.”

The process of shooting Gremlins’ effects was so arduous that the scene in which Gizmo is pelted with darts was added in order to satisfy the crew, who’d grown weary of the mechanical puppet’s infuriating limitations.

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron’s The Abyss was big, ambitious, and very, very expensive. This was largely due to its huge number of underwater scenes, which were filmed in an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina. The submersible oil rig took a total of 18 months to build, and the budget for the sets alone ran to around $2million.

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The Abyss’s shoot was, by all accounts, horrible. Cast and crew spent six months filming, working 70-hours per week – which soon took its toll. Lead actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio teetered on mental collapse. The process of filming scenes underwater and in the dark was slow, and one sequence could often take an entire day.

Of the difficult production, actor Michael Biehn said, “One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out.”

James Cameron’s directing style didn’t win him many friends (Mastrontonio reportedly shouted, “We are not animals!” when the director suggested his actors should urinate in their wetsuits to save time between takes), but the film was well-received critically, and the filmmakers’ ordeal at least resulted in a distinctive-looking film unlike anything seen before.

Alien 3 (1992)

For most sci-fi fans, the story of Alien 3’s production will need little introduction. A film seemingly doomed from the start, its script was rewritten repeatedly even as sets were being built and scenes shot. Various directors were attached and then promptly detached, before a young David Fincher stepped into the breach – by which time $7million had already been spent on set building alone.

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From beginning to end, Fincher was frustrated by various objections from cast, crew and studio bosses. A test screening didn’t go down well, and Fincher was forced to go back, many months later, and shoot more scenes. Executive producers then recut the film behind Fincher’s back, and the entire process was so unpleasant that Fincher refused to have any more to do with it.

The whole sorry episode was captured in the making-of documentary, Wreckage And Rage, the full version of which was only released in full on 2010’s Alien Anthology box set. Given just how messy the entire enterprise was, it’s quite remarkable that the finished Alien 3 was as coherent as it was.

Rapa Nui (1994)

When a director compares his experience of making a film to a Werner Herzog production, you know it must have been arduous. Flushed with the success of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves in 1991, director Kevin Reynolds embarked on a more personal project – Rapa Nui, a drama about the history of Easter Island.

In a 2008 interview with our very own Simon Brew, Reynolds described the nightmarish process of the film’s shoot. “That’s probably also the most difficult picture I’ve ever done,” Reynolds said, “because of the remoteness of the location and the circumstances we were shooting under, it was like a Werner Herzog picture.”

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By choosing to shoot on location, Reynolds had inadvertently created a bit of a problem for himself – Easter Island’s remote position in the Pacific Ocean meant that flights to and from Chile’s mainland were scarce. “We had one flight a week from the mainland, and there were times we ran out of food to feed people, and things like that, it was…it was very bad,” Reynolds said, ruefully.

Then, once Reynolds had struggled through Rapa Nui’s shoot, he then embarked on another infamously difficult production: WaterworldWaterworld (1995)

The woes of the ill-fated Waterworld are well documented, and although this post-apocalyptic sci-fi did make money (it wasn’t a flop, as some have suggested), the amount of effort that went into making it wasn’t really reflected in its critical and commercial reception.

Best (or rather, lazily) summed up as Mad Max at sea, Waterworld’s aquatic locations proved an expensive headache for everyone concerned. The production quickly burned through its authorised $100million budget (an enormous sum for the mid-90s) as various sets and water vehicles were built in Hawaii.

Back in the 90s, matting out unwanted bits of shoreline or stray boats in the distance wasn’t an option, so Reynolds and his filmmakers had to construct the film’s artificial island far out at sea. “Logistically, it’s crazy,” Reynolds said. “Each day you shoot on the atoll with all those extras, we had to transport those people from dry land out to the location and so you’re getting hundreds of people through wardrobe and everything, and you’re putting them on boats, transporting them out to the atoll, and trying to get everybody in position to do a shot. And then when you break for lunch, you have to put everybody on boats and take them back in to feed them.”

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In the process of shooting, star Kevin Costner narrowly avoided death when he got caught up in a squall. Young co-star Tina Majorino was stung three times by jellyfish, and two stuntmen were injured. One of the sets sank. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon was flown out to fix various issues on the script.

By the time Waterworld was finished, it had run up a budget of $175million, and Reynolds had walked away, leaving Costner to finish the film himself. But despite some critics’ gleeful savaging of the resulting movie, it wasn’t the disaster many had predicted – though it’s just possible that Reynolds had listened to the advice of Steven Spielberg, who having survived making Jaws, said, “Oh, I would never shoot another picture on water”.The Island Of Doctor Moreau (1996)

Having earned cult success with his low-budget movies Hardware and Dust Devil in the early 90s, director Richard Stanley embarked on what he hoped would be his breakthrough into the mainstream: an adaptation of HG Well’s classic novel, The Island Of Doctor Moreau. After a four-year development process, Stanley set off for Australia to commence shooting. Three days later, Stanley was fired.

One of the major problems, it seemed, was Val Kilmer. Having signed up to play the film’s lead, Edward Douglas (changed from the book’s Edward Prendick), Kilmer suddenly decided that he wanted to reduce his part in the film by 40 per cent – an obvious spanner in the works at that late stage, given that the story’s events revolve entirely around his character. Stanley came up with the idea of hiring actor Rob Morrow to play Douglas, with Kilmer shunted over to fill the role of a supporting character.

Exactly why Stanley was fired after all this isn’t clear, though it’s thought that the early footage from the shoot (reportedly rendered useless due to Kilmer’s refusal to recite his lines as written in the script) displeased studio bosses.

The more experienced director John Frankenheimer was brought in as a replacement – but still, the problems continued. The production was shut down while a new writer reworked the script, and David Thewlis was brought in as the new lead, after Rob Morrow also exited the production.

When The Island Of Doctor Moreau was finally completed and released in the summer of 1996, the reviews were not kind, and it barely earned back its $40million budget. In the aftermath, Frankenheimer made a solemn vow: “There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life. The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again.”

Titanic (1997)

You’d think that, after The Abyss, James Cameron would have developed a similar outlook to Steven Spielberg, and avoided water-based projects at all costs. Instead, Cameron charged headlong into Titanic, a gigantic retelling of the ‘unsinkable’ ship’s fate in 1912.

The shoot didn’t go well. Cameron’s formidable directorial presence was well-documented; The Times’ Christopher Godwin once wrote that Cameron was a “300-decibel screamer, a modern-day Captain Bligh with a megaphone and walkie-talkie, swooping down into people’s faces on a 162ft crane.”

As actors were subjected to torturous conditions in cold water, Cameron said, “Filmmaking is war. A great battle between business and aesthetics.”

The shoot reached its grim, wartime nadir when a disgruntled member of the crew spiked the production team’s soup with a hallucinogenic drug. Cameron and more than 50 other people were rushed to hospital. This and other mishaps led the film to overshoot its intended production schedule of 138 days, and its already gigantic budget began to mount.

The troubled shoot led to suggestions that the film would be a horrendous flop on a par with Heaven’s Gate; the reality, of course, was just the opposite. The cost to Fox’s coffers (not to mention the wits of Cameron’s cast and crew) was high, but the film was a critical and financial smash.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Just to prove that troubled productions aren’t limited to live-action films, Disney’s animated feature The Emperor’s New Groove was fraught with problems. Originally entitled Kingdom Of The Sun, the film was originally intended to be scored by recording artist Sting. But after test screenings of work-in-progress footage were met with a lukewarm response, the film’s premise was extensively reworked. Sting’s songs were ditched, much to his chagrin, and the original director walked away from the project.

New director Mark Dindal stepped in to rescue the production, and within two weeks, the film had morphed into The Emperor’s New Groove. In spite of all the frantic work behind the scenes, the resulting film did well both critically and financially.

Filmmaker Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, recorded an account of The Emperor’s New Groove’s making, and The Sweatbox was the resulting documentary. It was well-received at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002, but Disney, who hold the rights, haven’t released it on DVD. We can’t think why.

The Fountain (2006)

Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious, sprawling and bloody weird The Fountain originally began as a $70million vehicle for Brad Pitt. But then, in one of several unfortunate events, that funding was withdrawn. New financial backers were later found, and the production started up again with a lower budget of $18million.

Then, Brad Pitt pulled out over script disagreements, just weeks before shooting was meant to commence. Aronofsky struggled to find a replacement actor, and in spite of the fact that huge, expensive sets had already been built, Warner shut the production down.

Aronofsky returned to the project two years later, this time with Hugh Jackman as his leading man and a budget set at $35million. Finally shot and finished in 2006, the film had, from beginning to end, taken Aronofsky almost five years to bring to the screen. The result was a remarkable-looking mixture of movie and yogic exercise video that, sadly, didn’t do too well at the box-office.

The Wolfman (2010)

The Wolfman, dreamed up in the wake of Universal’s success with The Mummy, was fraught with problems throughout its hairy production. Director Mark Romanek quit four weeks before shooting was due to start, and Joe Johnston hastily stepped in. As the production was subjected to delays, rumours began to build that The Wolfman was in trouble. Reshoots amounting to five weeks were convened at one point, and writer was brought in to write a new ending.

“When we went back to shoot the new stuff, we enhanced one, because our suspicion was it was going to be the more dynamic ending,” Johnston later said. “So we shot new stuff for that, the B version, which is now the version in the film.”

The film was delayed again until February 2010, as visual effects makers struggled to complete the final scenes. A new editor, Walter Murch, was brought in, and there were reports that Danny Elfman’s score had been ditched and then reinstated.

Perhaps as a result of the fraught shoot, The Wolfman received neither the critical nor financial success Universal had hoped – it made its money back, but it didn’t match the numbers enjoyed by The Mummy.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (unreleased)

The ill-fated production of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote adaptation was so remarkable that it received its own documentary, Lost In La Mancha. Having been stuck in development hell for years, Gilliam’s film was stricken from the first day of shooting – it was, to borrow a turn of phrase from Hunter S Thompson, a king hell bummer from start to finish. 

First, a Spanish location turned out to be so close to a NATO airbase that it was unusable due to the noise. The next day, savage storms wrecked the once perfect landscape. Then the multi-national crew began to experience communication problems. Actors dropped out. The actor who was supposed to play Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, injured his spine and had to withdraw. This final setback proved to be the production’s undoing, and it collapsed days afterwards.

Gilliam has tried to get his Don Quixote project off the ground since, but perhaps due to some bizarre curse, these attempts have so far come to naught. Nevertheless, Gilliam was still adamant that he would one day make his dream film. “Don Quixote gives me something to look forward to, always,” Gilliam said in 2010. “Maybe the most frightening thing is to actually make the film.”