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 dignified. What follows is a lengthy catalogue of ill-advised location choices, tantrums, dreadful acts of God, spiked bowls of soup, dangerous lions, bruised egos, broken bones, and shattered dreams.
For the prospective filmmaker, this article could be read as a cautionary tale of just how badly 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)
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 17 writers had an uncredited hand in it, among them poet Ogden Nash.
The script was finally completed in late 1938 when shooting commenced. It was chaos. Directors were hired and then quickly relieved of duty. Tin Man actor Buddy Ebsen had to exit because he was allergic to his aluminium make-up, getting replaced by Jack Haley. The dog who played Dorothy’s loyal companion, Toto, misbehaved, resulting in ruined take after ruined 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, The Wizard of Oz’s nightmarish production difficulties were never apparent on the big screen–and unlike some other films on this list, it remains a timelessly entertaining fantasy.
Cleopatra was big. Its stars were ’60s icons, its sets were huge, its budget vast. In fact, when its budget is adjusted for inflation, the film remains the most expensive ever made.
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 but went unused when 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 $44 million–a sum that very nearly destroyed its studio. Even though the movie was a hit, it struggled to make back much more than its huge budget. The result is one of the most wildly opulent, lumbering historical epics ever made.
Dr. Dolittle (1967)
This musical adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s books had just about everything you could imagine from a troubled production: a difficult star (Rex Harrison), terrible weather, wayward animals, expensive reshoots, and poorly-chosen locations.
One of our favorite anecdotes from Dr. Dolittle? How about the decision to build a huge artificial dam in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe. The construction deeply annoyed local residents–as did the film production’s insistence that TV aerials had to be removed from several houses in the area. One day, famous explorer Ranulph Fiennes (then still in the SAS) decided to blow up the dam with flares and plastic explosive. According to the Guardian, Fiennes was fined £500.
By the time Dr. Dolittle had finished filming, it had vastly overshot its original budget of $6 million. The final spend was a shade over $17 million–a hefty sum for the time. Just to rub salt in the wound, the movie made less than half of its outlay back in theaters.
American Graffiti (1973)
Compared to George Lucas’ 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 was initially unimpressed by what they thought was only worthy of release as a TV movie, it 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.
As we’ll see from other entries on this list, shooting a film at sea is a potential nightmare. In fact, any would-be filmmakers would be strongly advised to avoid seawater altogether.
As Steven 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 as “Flaws.” Actor Richard Dreyfuss later said of the production, “We started the film without a script, without a cast, and without a shark.”
What began as a 55-day shoot overran to a worrying 159 days. The crew, increasingly concerned that the young Spielberg was out of his depth, repeatedly asked him when the movie was going to be finished. Meanwhile Dreyfuss and co-star Robert Shaw–who spent long stretches of the production in his cups–were engaged in a bitter feud.
While filming the now famous final scene out at sea, the movie’s boat had its hull accidentally ruptured and quickly began to sink. In a panic, Spielberg yelled, “Get the actors off the boat.” A sound engineer by the name of John Carter wrote a sign in response that read, “Fuck the actors. Save the sound department!”
“I thought my career as a filmmaker was over,” Spielberg later said of those dark days.
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 $4 million to $9 million, 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.
William Friedkin never did make things easy for himself. On The French Connection, he devised a famously dangerous chase between a car and an elevated train, and insisted on shooting the sequence himself. Friedkin folded a mattress around himself and sat in the back of the pursuing car, filming the action over the stunt driver’s shoulder as they careened down city streets. In The Exorcist, he worked for months on a refrigerated set, leaping around in a skin-tight red track-suit and, on one occasion, discharging a gun to get a terrified response from one of his actors.
This was as nothing compared to his 1977 thriller Sorcerer, which was about a group of men shepherding a lorry load of nitroglycerin across South America. In worrying echoes of Fitzcarraldo, Friedkin had a gigantic bridge constructed over a Dominican Republic river at a huge cost, only for the riverbed to dry up. Refusing to compromise on one of the movie’s key scenes, Friedkin relocated the shoot to Mexico, where he had the bridge rebuilt over the Papaloapan River. This too ran dry before filming could commence.
All told, this 12-minute sequence cost the production $3 mmillion to execute–a considerable amount of money for the time. According to star Roy Scheider, Sorcerer “made Jaws look like a picnic,” which is really saying something.
As the shoot wore on, 50 members of the crew became ill through malaria, food poisoning, and gangrene. “There are just things over which we have no control and that’s one of the themes of Sorcerer,” Friedkin once said. “It’s the main theme–no matter how difficult your struggle is, there’s no guarantee of a successful outcome.”
After the struggle of Sorcerer‘s shoot, the film wasn’t rewarded with a huge box office success. But time has been kind to Friedkin’s tough, stunningly filmed adventure-thriller, and it’s one of the few movies that the director says he “wouldn’t change a frame of.”
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 Studios 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.
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 to 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 though 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 behavior, that it birthed its own legendary 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 story.
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 America’s involvement in Nam. Aiming for absolute realism, at least in location, Coppola shot the movie in the Philippines, a country 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 were storms, script rewrites, and leading man Martin Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel within the first week of shooting) suffered a heart attack.
“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 Gatewas 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. Rumors 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 then 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.
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.”
That Roar was even made defies belief. That no one was killed during its making is nothing short of a miracle.
It’s a thriller about a wildlife preservationist, Hank, who lives with an extended menagerie of lions, tigers and other toothsome animals, and what happens when Hank’s family shows up to visit. Mystifyingly, director Noel Marshall, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred, decided to shoot the film with over a hundred live animals. He also cast his wife (Tippi Hedren) and her daughter (Melanie Griffith) as his co-stars.
To understand just how crazy Roar‘s production was, consider these numbers: it took 11 years to make. The reported cost was $17 million. Around 70 members of the cast and crew–in other words, just about everybody–suffered from injuries of some kind. Hedren had her throat bitten by a lion. Griffith received an injury to the face and required 50 stitches. Cinematographer Jan de Bont nearly had his scalp torn off by a lion and required around 200 stitches.
When Roar finally came out in 1981, it received little attention, perhaps because, although it was billed as a family film, it looked so disturbing. Take a look at the clip above, put together for Drafthouse Films’ reissue of Roar from 2017. That look of terror in the performers’ faces? That’s not acting.
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 adjust 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 moviemaking, the director’s comments to a UK newspaper that he preferred working with UK crews led to a bizarre protest.
Not realizing the offense 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 sometime later wearing a T-shirt of his own saying, “Xenophobia sucks.”
The various clashes between Scott and 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 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.
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.
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 320-ton steamer and dozens of extras.
Elsewhere, there were various injuries, some bouts of dysentery, sundry moments of ranting and bad behavior 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.
Unlike Werner Herzog, Joe Dante didn’t have to contend with dreadful conditions in the jungle or a raving Klaus Kinski. He did, however, have to deal 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 a while. 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.
“I knew about acting, but I knew nothing about film,” director Elaine May once admitted. “I thought one of the big lights on the first day of shooting was the camera. It was a really screwed-up production. It really was.”
That screwed up production was of Ishtar, one of the most ignominious box office failures of the 1980s. What should have been a surefire comedy hit with the star wattage of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman behind it instead descended into barely controlled chaos. In retrospect, shooting in the Sahara desert was probably a bad idea; out among the dunes, first-time director May and her crew soon found themselves in fear of kidnap, landmines, and being caught in the crossfire of a civil war.
To get an idea of how grim the shoot was, consider this: One sequence involved Dustin Hoffman lying on the sand as vultures descended around him. In order to make the vultures flap down on cue, May and her crew placed scraps of meat on Hoffman’s body, just out of shot.
“Are these vultures going to know where the raw meat ends and I start?” Hoffman nervously asked.
May shot the scene 50 times.
As tensions grew between director and cast, and the production slid behind schedule, the once generous sounding budget of $27.5 million was soon spent. By the time the budget had ballooned to $51 million, word began to spread among the Hollywood press of Ishtar’s over-spending.
According to Vanity Fair, the number of takes was so excessive that a snake charmer complained that the stress had caused his cobra to die of a heart attack.
The confusion continued into post-production, as the sorry task of cutting more than 100 hours of footage into a workable film commenced. At one point, there were reportedly three teams of editors working on their own cut of Ishtar: one headed up by Hoffman, another by Beatty, and a third by May. Hoffman and Beatty reportedly feuded over who got the best close-ups.
Sensing a flop, critics rounded on Ishtar when it finally screened in May 1987. The movie earned less than a third of its dizzying budget in theaters, and while Ishtar’s since garnered a cult following, Elaine May hasn’t directed since.
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 $2 million.
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 making 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 $7 million had already been spent on set construction alone.
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 anything 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 became, 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.”
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: Waterworld. What could possibly go wrong?
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. Often summed up as Mad Max at sea, Waterworld’s aquatic locations proved an expensive headache for everyone concerned. The production quickly burned through its authorized $100 million budget as various sets and water vehicles were built in Hawaii.
Back in the ’90s, digitally matting out unwanted bits of shoreline or stray boats in the distance was still an expensive 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.”
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 $175 million 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 described–although it’s just possible that Reynolds had listened to the advice of Steven Spielberg (“Oh, I would never shoot another picture on water”), he’d have left the task of directing Waterworld to someone else.
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)
Having earned deserved cult success with his low-budget movies Hardware and Dust Devil in the early ’90s, director Richard Stanley embarked on his dream project: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Island Of Doctor Moreau. After a four-year development process, in which the initially small budget ballooned as Marlon Brando signed on as one of the stars, Stanley set off for Australia to commence shooting. Three days later, Stanley was fired.
One of the major problems was Val Kilmer. Having agreed 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 percent–an obvious spanner in the works at that late stage, given that the story’s events revolve almost 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.
Following repeated clashes with a petulant and uncooperative Kilmer, and with bosses at New Line growing increasingly concerned that Stanley couldn’t get the film finished, the director was relieved of his duties. 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.
As the shoot continued, rumors began to circulate of strange and brattish behavior by Brando and Kilmer on set. News circulated that the production had been marred by awful weather. Most curious of all, there were stories that Richard Stanley was still abroad in the forest, and was occasionally visiting the set dressed as an extra.
Incredibly, all of these stories and more were borne out by the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau, which is essential viewing if you can track it down.
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 $40 million 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.”
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 sumptuous retelling of the ‘unsinkable’ ship’s fate in 1912.
The shoot didn’t go well. Cameron’s formidable presence was documented by The Times’ Christopher Godwin, who described the director as a “300-decibel screamer, a modern-day Captain Bligh with a megaphone and walkie-talkie, swooping down into people’s faces on a 162-foot 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 low when a disgruntled member of the crew spiked the lobster soup with a hallucinogenic drug. Cameron and more than 50 other people were reportedly rushed to the 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, unlike its title ship, proved to be unsinkable at the box office.
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 to at first ibe scored by recording artist Sting. But after test screenings of work-in-progress footage were met with a tepid response, the film’s premise was extensively reworked. And Sting’s songs were ditched, much to his chagrin, and the original director walked away from the project. (The finished film included a few new tunes by Sting that even he seemed not very impressed by.)
New director Mark Dindal stepped in to rescue the production, and within two weeks, the film had morphed into The Emperor’s New Groove. Despite 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.
Team America: World Police (2004)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s action comedy may have been shot with puppets on a sound stage rather than in an uncomfortable, rain-swept location somewhere, but it remained an immensely demanding production. Stone and Parker, having scored a hit with their South Park movie, were given the freedom to make their scabrous satire of the War on Terror.
Shooting Team America proved difficult from beginning to end, as Stone and Parker wrestled with what was and wasn’t possible within the framework they’d set themselves–the film’s Thunderbirds-style marionettes took four people to operate, and some shots were so complicated that they took an entire day to film.
“It was the worst time of my entire life – I never want to see a puppet again,” Stone said after Team America‘s release in 2004. “You work 20 hours a day, take sleeping pills to go to bed and drink coffee to stay up. You feel like a piece of s**t, none of your friends like you, your parents don’t like you, but you have a movie at the end.”
If you’re looking for further insight into Team America’s tough shoot, check out an on-set interview between Troma’s Larry Kaufman and the pair of writer-directors. Clearly exhausted and frustrated by the experience, they vow, on-camera, that they’ll never direct another feature again. To date, they’ve been as good as their word.
The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky’s sprawling and downright weird The Fountainoriginally began as a $70 million 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 $18 million. 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 $35 million. 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, rumors began to build that The Wolfman was in trouble. Reshoots amounting to five weeks were convened at one point, and a new writer was brought in to come up with 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.
World War Z (2013)
Some of the most striking images in Marc Forster’s World War Z were of its churning sea of raging zombies. While quite a number of these shots were achieved with CGI, many of them also required lots of flesh-and-blood extras. Hundreds of them, in fact. According to an article published by Vanity Fair, a sequence shot in Malta (standing in for Jerusalem) required around 900 extras. Coupled with the crew, the number of people on set reached about 1,500 – and when you bear in mind that the Jerusalem sequence took six weeks to shoot, it becomes easier to see how the film’s budget could spiral out of control.
As costs continued to pile up, the production’s globetrotting continued to Budapest, where it hit another problem: a huge cache of weapons, designed for World War Z’s final battle sequence, were seized by officials from a counter-terrorism unit. Reports circulated that the guns hadn’t been satisfactorily de-activated.
The shoot continued, with several action set-pieces scratched from the script in order to bring the movie back in line with its original budget. Then Forster showed an early cut to studio executives, and this much became clear: World War Z needed a new ending. The movie’s release date was duly pushed back, while Damon Lindelof was brought in to craft an entirely new conclusion.
The ending originally devised–a huge, action-packed battle in Russia–was ultimately dropped, and Lindelof wrote a more low-key conclusion which picked up after Brad Pitt’s character left Israel. That new ending, shot at a cost of a rumored $20 million, pushed World War Z’s overall spend to around $190 million.
Ultimately, the reshoots worked: finally released in the summer of 2013, World War Z was a solid financial hit.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It’s fair to say that, when it came to filming his fourth Mad Max movie, director George Miller didn’t take many creative shortcuts. Here’s a production that, from earliest conception to release, lasted something like 14 years. Its budget was, by the standards of the series, a huge $150 million. Miller, insisting on shooting the movie with as many practical effects and real vehicles as he could, spent eight exhausting months in the blazing heat of the Namibian desert, repeatedly crashing cars.
We haven’t even mentioned the unexpected rainfall, which turned Miller’s first-choice desert location in Australia into an unsuitably lush meadow of flowers. Or that instead of commencing filming with a script, Miller used hundreds of storyboards (drawn by Brendan McCarthy) as his roadmap.
By the time he finished filming, Miller had amassed a startling 400 hours of footage–a duration that put even Ishtar in the shade. But from all that footage of crashing cars and road warriors in the desert, editor Margaret Sixel helped Miller (her husband) craft one of the most astonishing films of 2015: a pell-mell, full-blooded and blackly funny chase movie that stood apart from the blockbuster pack. Miller risked his career by making Mad Max: Fury Road. But for once, the risk paid off, resulting in one of the best action movies of recent times that even got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Unreleased Version)
Director Terry Gilliam’s no stranger to difficult shoots and releases–to cite but two examples, check out the stories behind Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. But the ill-fated production of Gilliam’s first attempt at a Don Quixote adaptation was so remarkable that it received its own documentary, 2002’s Lost in La Mancha. Having been stuck in development hell for years, Don Quixote 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 afterward.
In 2019, an entirely new production with a different script based on Don Quixote finally got a very limited release… as in as a speciality event in the U.S. The end results to Gilliam’s decades-spanning dream were decidedly mixed.