10 Troubled Productions that Produced Great Movies
There’s no getting around it: making movies is hard. Like, really hard. There are so many variables at play that it’s miraculous most films get finished. The fact that some are great is the best evidence of a higher being. Although every film shoot is tough, there are some that transcend that toughness. There are some film shoots that have become legendary for just how wrong things went — there are stories of hubris, random acts of nature and actors making impossible demands. There are stories about the productions of bad movies that make you say “Oh, of course it was a bad movie. Look at what they went through!”
Sometimes, a disastrous production doesn’t mean the movie is bad. Heck, sometimes a disastrous production is simply a prelude to the release of an exceptional film. These are 10 of them.
James Cameron's films tend to make a lot of money, please critics and leave audiences buzzing. In short, he tends to be a good investment...even though he may not seem like it at certain points. His 'Titanic' would go on to smash box office records and win 11 Oscars, but the film had the studio quaking in its boots during the shoot. The massively complicated production had its fair share of unavoidable problems (that's what happens when you film most of your movie on top of a massive water tank), but they were only increased by Cameron's massive temper, which caused certain crew members to flee the set and Kate Winslet to vow to never work with him again. The budget ballooned past $200 million. Shooting went a month over schedule. Three stuntmen were in horrible accidents. Most infamously, someone spiked a pot of soup on the catering table with PCP, requiring 50 people to be sent to the hospital. In other words, if 'Titanic' wasn't such a smash, it would be considered one of the biggest disasters in Hollywood history.
Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' is generally considered to be one the best films ever made and a definitive portrait of the Vietnam War. However, as we see in the harrowing making-of documentary 'Hearts of Darkness,' they achieved this by accidentally transforming the entire production into the war itself. A Hollywood crew, with all of the money and technology in the world, found themselves stuck in the middle of the jungle, making little headway and finding the locals and the elements of little help. The list of problems the production faced feels impossible. Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen a week into filming and Sheen would later have a heart attack on set. Storms destroyed entire sets, delaying filming by months. The payroll was stolen. Marlon Brando showed up to the shoot horribly overweight. Coppola claims he contemplated suicide during the production and we don't blame him. The fact that the film exists in a finished form at all is shocking. The fact that it's a masterpiece is extraordinary.
'Gone With the Wind'
Although not quite as out-and-out nightmarish on some of the others on this list, the making of 'Gone With the Wind' had a few events that truly raise eyebrows, especially when viewed in a modern context. The legendary film was originally set to be directed by George Cukor, who had been developing the project for two years. However, Cukor was fired less than three weeks into filming for reasons that are still mysterious today. Was it because producer David O. Selznick had a massive creative falling out? Was it because Cukor supposedly knew about star Clark Gable's days as a gay gigolo and the leading man didn't want anyone talking? In any case, Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who shot the bulk of the film ... before he had to be replaced for a few weeks by director Sam Wood, who filled in while Fleming took a leave of absence due to exhaustion. Even with three directors involved, 'Gone With the Wind' went on to become one of the most famous and popular films of all time. This is a rare case of two many cooks not ruining the meal.
When most filmmakers decide to make a movie about a man who transports a boat between two parallel rivers by dragging it through the Amazon jungle, they decide to accomplish such a feat with special effects or models. But not Werner Herzog. Oh, no. The German madman/filmmaker decided to actually push a full-size boat through the jungle, enlisting local native tribes to assist him. This came with all of the ordinary problems you associate with filming in the jungle (disease, wild animals, bad weather, lack of resources), but it somehow managed to get worse. Star Jason Robards became seriously ill a few months into production, forcing him to drop out and forcing Herzog to start over. Mick Jagger, who played a supporting role, had to leave the production due to this delay and Herzog wrote him out of the screenplay entirely. Klaus Kinski was hired to take over the lead, but the star's infamous temper slowed production to a crawl and terrified the natives, who told Herzog they would gladly murder him if he said it was okay. All of this pain and suffering translated straight to the screen: 'Fitzcarraldo' is a great movie.
'World War Z'
It's probably too early to call 'World War Z' a great movie, but it's certainly a very good one. Part of the credit has to go to expectations: everyone thought the Brad Pitt zombie epic would be an absolute disaster, so the fact that it's solid and extremely entertaining is a pleasant surprise. But why did everyone think it would be a disaster? The press was not shy about the film's disastrous production, which begins with various prop weapons being seized by European authorities, continues with a ballooning budget, reaches a dire point with Pitt refusing to speak to director Marc Forster and climaxes with the final hour of the film being completely rewritten and re-shot at enormous expense. How is 'World War Z' even watchable? How is it actually really good?!
Time has been very kind to Michel Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate,' which began its life as one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history before transforming into a misunderstood masterpiece in recent years. Still, there's no denying that its production is one of the most disastrous in Hollywood history and it helped single-handedly end the artistic renaissance of the 1970s. Almost all of the blame can placed on Cimino himself, who steered the project months behind schedule and transformed an $11 million budget into a $40 million budget. Cimino's perfectionist qualities led to him filming 50 takes on scenes and demanding an entire small town set be dismantled and moved a few feet away. With well over a million feet of film shot, the studio drastically re-edited what they saw as a disaster, releasing a version of the film that was instantly reviled. It's taken 30 years for 'Heaven's Gate' to get fixed and move past its reputation as the biggest clusterf--- in Hollywood history.
Anyone who signed up for 'Titanic' and was surprised by the sheer madness on the set certainly hadn't heard tales about the production of James Cameron's 'The Abyss.' The underwater sci-fi adventure required the use of two massive water tanks, which frequently sprung leaks. But the real problems went beyond simple technical and mechanical gaffes -- the cast had to endure 70-hour work weeks for six months, spending much of that time underwater and isolated. It was hard, physically demanding work that left everyone so frustrated that they worked out their anger at Cameron by destroying their dressing rooms. The most famous story of the shoot came when Cameron told the actors to urinate in their wet suits since it would take too much time to get out of the water, causing star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to yell "We are not animals!" Alas, all of the trouble paid off because 'The Abyss' is an excellent film ... but ouch.
'Aguirre, The Wrath of God'
Like James Cameron, Werner Herzog's films seem to thrive on chaos. Years before 'Fitzcarraldo,' he journeyed to the jungles of South America to shoot 'Aguirre, The Wrath of God' and crafted one of the greatest films of the 70s. However, as you'd expect, you don't film a story set almost entirely on a raft floating down a river in the middle of the jungle without a few problems. There were the expected issues, like a flood destroying the set and the rafts the production had been using (prompting Herzog to incorporate the flood into the film and write a new scene where the characters build new rafts). There were also the unexpected problems, like temperamental star Klaus Kinski blindly firing a pistol into a tent of crew members, taking an extra's finger right off. Then there were the downright hideous problems, like Kinski attempting to leave the film and Herzog threatening to shoot him dead if he tried. And that's before we get to the story of the men Herzog hired to capture monkeys for the final scene attempting to sell them to someone in the United States, forcing Herzog to intercept them at the airport.
It's a story that everyone knows: George Clooney and director David O. Russell got into a fistfight on the set of 'Three Kings.' The Desert Storm satire was already facing its fair share of problems before the Clooney/Russell conflict reached its climax, but budgetary/scheduling issues and a crew deeply unhappy with their director's improvisational style aren't nearly as exciting as one of the great modern directors having a physical altercation with one of the biggest movie stars of all time. The director and star clashed throughout the production, with Clooney frequently coming to the aid of crew members that he felt Russell was abusing (Russell's take on all of this is much different, of course). It all came to a head during the filming of the climax, when Clooney came to the aid of an extra with whom he claims Russell was being rough. One thing led to another, fists flew and the second assistant director quit on the spot. But hey! The finished film is terrific!
Has there ever been a better film with a more troubled production than 'Jaws'? The answer is no. Steven Spielberg's shark thriller is an undisputed masterpiece, but its making-of story remains one of the great nightmare stories in all of Hollywood history. The problems began when the young Spielberg demanded that they shoot on the actual ocean instead of in a tank, immediately putting the entire production at the mercy of Mother Nature. Soon, the $3 million budget ballooned to $9 million and the 55 day shoot became 159 days. The actors clashed. A boat carrying members of the crew sank. Most famously, the mechanical shark frequently broke down, causing filming to slow to a crawl and forcing Spielberg to improvise. However, this seemingly disastrous problem turned out to be a godsend. Unable to fall back on his (fake-looking) shark, Spielberg kept the villain of the film out of view, heightening the suspense and transforming 'Jaws' into the first class horror story it is today.