‘Apocalypse on the Set’ Author Offers 9 Bizarre Tales of Movie Making

Published 3 years ago by , Updated September 18th, 2012 at 8:33 am,

A lead actor and two children are decapitated on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. A Korean director is held prisoner for four years before being coerced into making films for Kim Jong Il. An epic western fails so badly that it bankrupts an entire movie studio. While trying to get a riverboat over a mountain (see above), one crewman is forced to saw off his own foot in order to save his life.

Such are the types of stories you’ll find in the new book Apocalypse on the Set, and do you know the one thing that connects all of these tales of death and hardship? Every single one of the films actually made it into theaters.

When looked at in detail, it’s clear that there are more reasons for a movie production to fall apart than there are for it to come together. In Apocalypse on the Set, author Ben Taylor weaves together nine truly bizarre tales of films which had every reason to fail – and yet, somehow made it through the fire to the silver screen. Some of the stories you may have heard (Apocalypse Now, The Crow, Waterworld, or James Cameron’s The Abyss), while some of the stories may be new to you. One thing is certain, though: once you’ve read this book, you’ll never see the prospect of being a filmmaker quite the same way again.

Check out our interview with author Ben Taylor about creating this impressive collection of off-beat film history:


Screen Rant: You’ve picked a unique blend of films to explore: some are more obscure and/or artistic, while others are more famous and/or mainstream. Why these nine films? What was the attraction to these nine particular stories?

Ben Taylor: Each film represents a unique set of circumstance. When you see them all together you begin to realize just how diverse, even limitless the number of challenges that face a film production are. The problems experienced range from the blood sport of studio politics, to tyrannical dictators mad for their own creature feature. The pictures span a diversity of personalities, genres and problems.  Some titles will attract readers because of the popularity of the film, other chapters focus on more obscure pictures that have some real surprises in the story of their making.

In the introduction to the book you make it clear that you wanted to look at films that actually made it to completion and were released in theaters. What made you want to focus on films that crossed the finish line? Why not write about some of the ‘crash and burn’ film productions in Hollywood’s long, chronicled history of failures?

Those films that never reached completion are less interesting because they present less perseverance, which seems to shape the arch of any good story. Additionally, often a completed picture presents an interesting duality: many people are surprised to learn that a whimsical childhood favorite like, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, was achieved under incredible stress. Additionally, each of these films represent the incredible inertia that builds behind a picture once the project is in motion. Sometimes this is a function of financial investment, in other cases it is the result of the director’s sheer will.

The case studies in the book are pulled together from many different sources of published or public material and, presumably, your own viewpoint and understanding of the facts. Did you find your viewpoint changing as you dug deeper into the research about these productions?

Absolutely. Many will be surprised to learn that the seemingly fastidious nature of Francis Ford Coppola was perhaps the reason for the success behind ‘Apocalypse Now’, rather than the cause of the production problems. Interestingly, the insanity of [Werner Herzog's] ‘Fitzcarraldo’ shoot can be found in the lead actor, and not entirely in the decision to push a ship over a mountain. Even personalities as one-dimensional as Kim Jong Il’s take shape as you learn that in addition to being a tyrannical leader, he is in fact very much a lover of the cinema – so much so that he penned a book titled ‘On the Art of the Cinema’.

Ruthless Dictator. Avid Film Fan.

As the narrator/storyteller, what audience would you say you are speaking to? Hardcore cinephiles? Mainstream movie fans? Those who want to be in the movie business? All of the above?

Everyone likes a good story and each chapter is just that. Any fan of the movies will love it and those who haven’t seen the movies explored in the book will discover that the chapters are a great primer for watching each title.

What was YOUR favorite anecdote that made it into the book?

Some of the most absurd facts are those less reported: like the fate of a man working along side the crew of Werner Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’. The crewmember was clearing a path through the thick jungle vegetation. This path would provide a surface to move a boat over a mountain and would be the film’s central image. Herzog recalls when the man was bitten by a venomous snake, [In Herzog voice“It only takes a few minutes before cardiac arrest occurs. He dropped the saw and thought about it for five seconds; then he grabbed the saw again and cut off his foot. It saved his life, because the camp and serum was twenty minutes away.” It is an incredible fact behind the production. Even more amazingly it is merely a footnote amid the unending awful events surrounding the production.

The chapters of the book each start with a story about a particular figure or event – often far removed from filmmaking.  What was the interest in forming these larger metaphorical connections?

The anecdotes were pieces of information I came across sometime before the book and later realized fit squarely into the overall theme of each chapter. ‘Pulgasari’ was the first chapter written and the story of a mammoth, incomplete hotel built in a country that largely doesn’t permit tourists was just as absurd as the idea of a dictator kidnapping a film director for his private use. I liked it and did this for all the chapters.

Francis Ford Coppola feeling the pressure on the 'Apocalypse Now' Set

You also include many circumstances or events that both led up to and followed the actual film productions – did that help you get a better ‘big picture’ insight into them?

Often the intention and initial exuberance behind a picture becomes a distant memory to what occurs on set. Interestingly, the story behind the making of many of these films creates a circle. The narrative onscreen is inspired from some deep emotional experience (The Crow, Apocalypse Now) and the effort to make the picture generates an equally significant emotional experience. Some have said that a movie is made three times: when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it. That was very true with each of these movies.


Taylor on the challenges of modern filmmaking…

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  1. I’ll definitely be reading this. As much as I love movies I love learning about the way they are made and the behind the scenes stories.
    I remember when DVD started to overtake VHS what I loved the most were the extras. From the commentaries to the making off segments I ate it up. And to this day if a DVD or Blu-ray comes out and the extras are lacking I won’t buy it.

    • How refreshing to find an interview where the questions give clear insight into the author’s final product and process while managing to avoid fluff and obscure arty-talk. ScreenRant nails it once again. Why can’t more interviews be like this?

      • Thank you for the kind words, random reader.

        Have you checked out the web series http://www.reality-inc.com ? It is quite excellent.

  2. I see a new series on History coming out of this

  3. The documentary about Gilliam’s failed Don Quixote movie is a fascinating study in Murphy’s Law or, for those who are so inclined, schadenfraude. Even the stories about Baron Munchausen, which actually saw theatrical release after its own share of development hell, are pretty interesting. There was a great book called Gilliam on Gilliam some years ago that was a series of detailed, in-depth interviews on each point of his career, and it’s a great read for those interested in hearing about all these trials and tribulations from the director’s perspective, in his own words. (The Lynch on Lynch and Burton on Burton entries in the series are equally satisfying.)

  4. Good one Kofi.

    Most people who are not in the “biz” have no idea how much effort and blood, sweat and tears goes into a film sometimes. It takes years off a life, but worth it in the end… yes? yes. What matters is how the disaster is handled. Who picks up the reigns and gets the film finished? despite the unpredictable catastrophe along the way.