It is a universal truth very rarely acknowledged that we’ve all directed a few of our own films in the theatre of one’s own imagination. Usually, they are quite basic compositions that entail an idealised version of yourself strutting down the street, scored by whatever is pounding in the old headphones at the time. These imagined movies always go swimmingly during production and are met with adulation by an audience of one (that deluded goon who just tripped over a paving stone and tried to style it out as something that was meant to happen).
The reality of working in Hollywood, however, is a world away and quite often this has to do with a disconnect between a director’s vision and the demands of the studio. From the outside looking in, it would seem Hollywood bigwigs exist only to meddle and derogate.
Whether it be a cigar-smoking depiction of an erratic movie totalitarian in Barton Fink, the seedy sinister conspirators in the recent Mank, or the tragically hilarious self-loathing in Steve Tesich’s epic novel Karoo — avenging silver screen dissidents have painted such a clear picture of the average producer, that most movie fans imagine if Shakespeare was reborn as a fledgeling writer-director then Romeo & Juliet would be redrafted by a script hack, hot off the cash-flowing heels of Avengers IX, as some sort of mild-mannered romcom ‘with some frontal nudity’.
Aside from meddling producers and moneymen, a multitude of things can cause mayhem in a movie’s production. Sometimes you watch a reel of comedy outtakes and think, ‘I can’t believe these lucky bastards get paid for this’, other times you hear of a movie so nightmarish in the making that it would seem if Dante was to rework his Inferno for modern times then filmmaking would surely be reserved as a circle of hell.
Below we’re taking a look at ten of the most nightmarish tales to come out from the bloodied and beaten cutting floor of cinema.
The most disastrous film productions of all time:
Hauling a boat up a mud mountain in the Amazon jungle was never going to be easy, but hiring the infamous actor, Klaus Kinski, as your lead makes it a hell of a lot harder. For starters, Kinski is a man whom extras have offered to assassinate on not one but two separate projects. The absurdity is that whilst he is a damn fine actor; he is far from good enough to warrant the unrelenting level of stress that his demonically misanthropic behind-the-scenes antics induce.
The disastrous movie production of Fitzcarraldo was brilliantly captured in Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams. Werner Herzog finds himself trapped in a nightmare while in pursuit of a dream. In a poignant portrayal of Murphy’s Law, anything that could go wrong while faithfully trying to mimic the true story of Brian Sweeney’s berserk mission to build an Opera House in the Amazon, did go wrong.
As Herzog once said himself, “I would travel down to hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary,” which is a mantra that he would have to live by. Fortunately for those involved, the outcome is as good as they could have possibly hoped for.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
When a film has three writing credits with a further seventeen uncredited and four directors fired before Victor Fleming finally finished the project, it’s a hint that there was trouble in paradise. Sadly, it didn’t stop there.
The tales of Judy Garland‘s onset experiences go beyond glib tales of farce and enter the rather more serious realm of being genuinely harrowing. According to biographers, when Garland was just ten years of age, her pushy stage mother Ethel Gumm would cruelly drug her with stimulants so she would stay awake for 72-hour shoots, only to then force-feed her sleeping pills to knock her out when she wasn’t required on set.
In 2005 Sid Luft, Judy Garland’s ex-husband, had a posthumous memoir published that alleged that the child star was continually groped by the actors playing the munchkins. “They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small,” Luft wrote. “They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress. The men were 40 or more years old.” This is not just an illustration of Hollywood’s dark early years but a toxic example of how the chaotic creative process of filmmaking can be used to mask dehumanising crimes that occur therein. The movie might be over 80 years old, but more still needs to be done on this front to this day.
When Cleopatra’s budget is adjusted for inflation, it remains the most expensive film ever made, which is utterly remarkable when you consider the intergalactic expanse of the current film industry. Fox studios had originally set out a considerable $2 million for the project’s budget. Half of that would be taken up by Elizabeth Taylor’s salary alone, and before a single frame had been shot, the film was already $2 million over budget.
Not long later, with only a couple of scenes in the can, director Rouben Mamoulian was sacked, and Joseph L Mankiewicz was brought in to replace him. Following this debacle, Liz Taylor fell ill, and filming was suspended. Then elaborate sets built in London were completely abandoned as filming relocated to Rome and so on, and so on…
In the end, the great lumbering epic was somehow slashed from six hours to three and remained coherent. Ultimately, it might have cost the studio $42 million more than its original budget, but thanks to its sheer star power and the amount of fevered discussion surrounding it, victory was snatched from the looming jaws of defeat, and the studio was spared bankruptcy by its triumphant, troublesome, ugly duckling.
Dr Dolittle (1967)
Certain movies seem destined to fail. When a cast of wild animals and an even wilder lead star in the shape of Rex Harrison descended on the sleepy rural village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire, UK, it was hardly a sure-fire recipe for plain sailing success.
The production of this absolute madcap idea involved the construction of a temporary dam. The disruptions that this significant construction caused to Castle Combe are too multifaceted to go into, but the response, by contrast, was as one dimensional as they come: famed British explorer, SAS super soldier and all-around posh hardman, Ranulph Fiennes, simply blew the thing up. His behaviour, however, somehow seemed so understandable that the only punishment he received was a £500 fine.
The film, on the other hand, made less than half of its $17 million eventual expenditure back at the box office and it helped spawn the mantra ‘never work with kids or animals’.
Contrary to popular belief, Waterworld wasn’t, in fact, a box office flop. However, the ridiculous lengths that the film went to in order to achieve a minor box office success were so gargantuan that the fact it didn’t flop can only be considered a pyrrhic victory for everyone involved.
Once again, the difficulties encountered were about as predictable as night following the day. When you have to film on an atoll constructed out at sea, the logistics can get a little bit troublesome. As director Kevin Reynolds explained, “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.”
If that was the only issue Waterworld had then it would have been somewhat of a blessing for cast and crew, but as it happens Kevin Costner nearly died after becoming entangled in an errant squall, Tina Majorino was stung three times by a jellyfish and half the set sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Heaven’s Gate was the film that changed Hollywood forever. Off the back of The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino was Hollywood’s next hot auteur. In a perfect storm of events, the production company, United Artists, had just endured a huge overhaul. The new producers were desperate for a huge hit that straddled the rarefied Venn of box office success and critical acclaim. The resultant farce would show exactly why meddling, tight-fisted producers simply have to exist in the artistic world of movie-making.
Cimino’s free reign allowed his disastrous perfectionism to flourish, and six days into filming, they were somehow five days behind schedule. A single whip-crack was even filmed 52 times and comprised the entire day’s footage. By the second week, United Artists had calculated that the film would cost them a million per minute of usable footage at the current rate. This magnificently expensive tumbleweed was allowed to continue rolling like this all the way up until it reached cinemas.
The result is an expansive film of undeniable artistic merit and gorgeous cinematography that sadly failed to reach the heights of its opulent production and proved to be a flop that put a stop to runaway directors and changed the film industry forevermore.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now was a film that triumphantly never succumbed to the failure that destiny seemed to have in store for it. The run sheet of disasters are as follows: Coppola had wanted Steve McQueen for the main role of Willard, but after months of expressing interest, McQueen dropped out over concerns about the (initially scheduled) 14-week shoot in the jungle. Harvey Keitel was cast but didn’t last more than ten days of shooting after the decision was made that he wasn’t right for the role.
Martin Sheen stepped in and then temporarily stepped out owing to a near-fatal heart attack—and the heart attack wasn’t the only medical emergency to befall the frontman. He was also injured by standing too near to an explosion, and the cut sustained to his thumb in the opening sequence was very much real. The military equipment that the Philipino government had lent the production had to be continually recalled to serve in actual escalating conflicts in the north of the Island. The list literally goes on in this vein, endlessly, all the way up until the point that the film was eventually released and stands today as one of the greatest ever made.
It would seem Francis Ford Coppola got as close to delving into hell to make a movie as it’s possible to get and in doing so perfectly encapsulated Vietnam. The epitaph of the Vietnam War was ‘war is hell’, and as Coppola said himself, “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam!”.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Unreleased)
Some ideas just never get off the ground, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote proves that sometimes that’s for the best because it wasn’t for lack of trying that Terry Gilliam’s movie ended up on the ash heap of history.
The crew descended on their monolithic looking Spanish location to start shooting, only to find that owing to a huge oversight on somebody’s part, their destination was doomed due to the proximity of an incredibly loud NATO airbase. A storm soon followed that destroyed the pristine sets, thereafter after a slew of other misdemeanours seemed to continually unfurl. The final nail in the coffin was a spinal injury that the lead actor Jean Rochefort incurred. Ultimately the retelling of the classic epic novel never saw the light of day in its original incarnation.
The Shining (1980)
Nobody ever said that the pursuit of cinematic brilliance should be easier, but it shouldn’t be quite as hard as the torturous production of The Shining, either. Stanley Kubrick’s relentless bid for perfection took a hefty toll on those involved.
Take, for instance, the iconic baseball scene: Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson had to perform that 127 times to get it just right. Ultimately, it would be Shelley Duvall who felt the brunt of this pressure, the constant state of mental duress that she had to exhibit onscreen began to manifest itself when she was away from the camera, and this caused various health problems for the gifted actress.
With a script changing daily and a skeleton crew battling through a remarkable workload, it is amazing that the 13-month shoot resulted in a perfectly coherent piece of gilded cinematic wizardry.
Alien 3 (1992)
The final disaster on the list comes with some very wise words from the poor beleaguered director that it befell. The issue was Alien 3 was that the studio had announced the release date before the script had even been completed. Obviously, this placed an inexperienced David Fincher under considerable pressure, and the resultant interference by studio execs only made things worse.
As Fincher told the BBC back in 2011, “My first movie, it’s fairly well known, was a disaster. I stupidly felt that the people financing it had more to lose than I did if it was bad. I sort of allowed myself to be steered into this communal making, and then when the shit hits the fan, all of a sudden everyone scatters, and you’re the guy saying, ‘Wait? Who has a suggestion now?’ So (now) that if I’m going to take the blame, the brunt of it, I’m going to make the decisions.” Ultimately the director baled out before post-production and fortunately he has since found himself embracing brighter horizons than his dark debut days.