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:
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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’.
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.
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.
Screen Rant: Are YOU interested or involved at all in filmmaking? If so, are you STILL interested in and/or involved with filmmaking after writing this book and seeing how wrong it can all go?
Ben Taylor (pictured above): I always loved filmmaking – but on a much smaller scale. After writing this book my interest hasn’t diminished so long as I can do things like write a spec script from the safety of my desk.
What is the worst Hollywood “Crash and burn” story you know? (I.e. – a troubled production that DIDN’T make it to completion.)
Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Man who Killed Don Quixote’ sadly never saw the light of day. The lead actor became ill, the set was washed away by a flood early in the production, and things unraveled quickly. There has been some talk recently that the picture may resume but the cast would change completely and with the original attempt taking place in 2000, it seems to be an uphill battle. [NOTE: Visit our archives for an extensive recap on the troubles plaguing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.]
SR: How do you see the challenge of making films today, as opposed to the Hollywood eras covered in the book, which are now decades old? Have these higher stakes (i.e., more money on the table) changed the game, or is the challenge of filmmaking the same as ever?
Without question the advent of digital technology has made it easier for a director to see their vision realized. Much of the magic now lies in the post-production phase. The challenges today may be those of speed and competition. Films have less time to perform and are often up against greater competition in their opening weekend. Marketing must be more pervasive and aggressive as the audiences are presented with a greater choice of mediums.
There seems to be a resounding opinion these days that money woes and/or fears have led to a seemingly institutionalized “lack of originality” in Hollywood. With big budgets mostly being thrown behind adaptations, sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes, do you think Hollywood is truly hedging its bets on the risks of filmmaking right now? Or is “original” filmmaking still going strong?
Originality is still very much alive though you may have to dig a bit more to find it. The unexpectedly original film is likely to be found in an unexpected place. Foreign releases often offer new ideas. The financial bet in filmmaking is big and therefore a big opening is required. As a result, these brands become more crucial given the phenomenon of a built-in auduence. I believe action Director Renny Harlin (who helmed the failed ‘Cutthroat Island’) once said, “In Europe, filmmaking is perceived as an art form with marginal business possibilities, and in the US, filmmaking is a business with marginal artistic possibilities.”
Are established brands truly a safety net, or are those productions just as ripe for disaster as any other film?
As directors change, often so does the brand. Additionally, brands can fade as the films within become rote. The Bond franchise - for all it’s longevity – has seen numerous incarnations of the hero ranging from humorous (Roger Moore) to farcical (Pierce Bronson) to brutal (Daniel Craig). This fresh take on familiar material keeps the franchise alive. Ironically, it is these changes that keep the audience coming back, not necessarily the similarities.
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If this book (a production in and of itself) turns out to be a success, we will see a sequel? One where you possibly look into more modern cases of troubled film productions?
I think these really are the most intriguing disastrous productions. A non-fiction follow up would likely follow the strange-but-true nature of these stories, but perhaps with a different focus, such as notable historical blunders.
What would you title your sequel book?
Any sequel to a book on disastrous films would have to include ‘Human Centipede’ in the title.
Apocalypse on the Set is currently on sale and can be ordered by visiting the Overlook Press Website or clicking the image above. Having read the book, I can say that it is a very interesting page-turner that film fans will not only enjoy, but find useful for some great anecdotal storytelling at parties ;-).
Check out the official trailer for Apocalypse on the Set below: