The art of moviemaking is never easy, but some films struggle more than others to reach the big screen. From disputes between directors and crew, to stars off their faces on whatever they can find, via injuries caused by effects gone awry, there’s a lot that can go wrong. That’s to say nothing of script issues, distribution questions, or budgetary constrains. Seriously — there’s a lot that can go wrong.
Some movies let the stress get to them and end up as flops. Others power through their difficulties and somehow, miraculously, come out unscathed. In fact, some of the greatest movies ever went through seriously chaotic productions, with no one involved expecting to get a finished film out of it, never mind a good one. Some more recent big hits have also narrowly survived serious drama, and we’re here to get these stories out there for all to hear.
And so, here are fifteen films that seemed catastrophic on set but ended up amazing on screen…
15. Wonder Woman (2017)
Before Wonder Woman hit theaters this June, the DC Extended Universe was in constant crisis. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad had both been blasted for their tonal messes, the upcoming movies schedule seemed to be changing every week, and no one at Warner Brothers or DC seemed able to get on with each other.
And for a while, it didn’t look like Wonder Woman would change that. The original director, Michelle McLaren, walked out due to ‘creative differences’. Parts of the film had to be reshot, despite star Gal Gadot being five months pregnant, which had to be covered up using visual effects and wardrobe trickery.
And yet, the movie which replacement director Patty Jenkins shot was lightyears better than anyone had expected, bringing a new lease of life to the DC series by ditching the grim approach in favor of an uplifting, entertaining crowd-pleaser.
14. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s creature feature is now renowned as a brilliant thriller that began Hollywood’s obsession with the summer blockbuster, but no one on set realized it would be such a success.
In fact, the production was thwarted at every turn by technical problems, mostly with the three mechanical shark models; all of them malfunctioned regularly due to not being suited to salt water, and the one full-sized model actually sank on its first day. Other problems included takes being ruined by other boats getting into the shot, and even a boat starting to sink with cast onboard.
Remarkably, though, it was these technical problems that made Jaws what it is. Unable to use the shark models as much as he wanted, Spielberg instead decided to subtly hint at the shark throughout most of the film, actually resulting in it being a much more threatening presence because we never really see it until the end.
13. The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola is famous for pulling masterpieces out of complete chaos, and The Godfather was no exception. Even before cameras rolled, Italian American groups were threatening to boycott it for promoting stereotypes, while producer Al Ruddy had his car shot at by the real mafia, unhappy with how they were likely to be portrayed.
Casting was tricky too; studio execs hated the idea of casting Marlon Brando, leading Coppola to fake a heart attack in order for them to relent. And then on set, Coppola was constantly at odds with both his crew, who reportedly had little respect for their boss, and those execs, who were on the verge of firing him.
12. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott is another director known for his almost-disastrous productions, and sci-fi noir Blade Runner was a prime example.
The American crew didn’t get on with the British director, leading Scott to comment to the press that he preferred the “Yes, guv’nor” attitude of British crews. His crew responded by showing up to work wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Yes guv’nor, my ass”. Scott and some of his closer colleagues responded with T-shirts saying “xenophobia sucks”. This tumultuous atmosphere reached the point where the studio was ready to fire Scott, but he finished the final scene just in time.
Problems continued through post, though, with execs forcing a tacked-on happy ending and overly expositional voiceover, which Harrison Ford deliberately delivered in a dull tone in the hope it would be cut. The film was released with these awful additions, though later director’s cuts allowed Blade Runner to finally be appreciated as the masterpiece it is.
11. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Disney’s revival of Star Wars launched to a good start with 2015’s The Force Awakens, but not long after, things behind the scenes of the first spin-off weren’t going so smoothly.
In summer 2016, Rogue One underwent several weeks of reshoots; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the worrying bit was that these were shot by a new director, with Tony Gilroy being brought on to replace Gareth Edwards. There was also internal debate about the film’s ending, with Gilroy shooting a happier ending in which Jyn and Cassian survive, in order to please execs worried about the death toll.
We don’t know exactly what changed everyone’s mind, but the more morbid ending was the one that made the final cut. Probably for the best, as that powerful ending is part of what made the film a great new instalment in the Star Wars franchise.
10. The Blues Brothers (1980)
In a real life mirror of Jake and Elwood Blues’ “mission from God”, production on The Blues Brothers was nothing short of anarchy – largely due to the drug-fuelled antics of star John Belushi.
Belushi took everything he could get his hands on – which was a lot – not only in the evenings, but in his trailer and in a private bar he’d had built on set. After particularly bad nights, he’d show up either late or not at all the next day. At one point, he tried to attack director John Landis, who’d flushed his cocaine down the toilet. Plus, before the last day of shooting, Belushi fell off a skateboard and injured his knee, requiring LA’s top orthopedist to be rushed in and pump him full of anesthetics.
9. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia was troubled from the start. Producer Sam Spiegel initially announced an all-star cast, including Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas, and Cary Grant, but every one of them pulled out, leaving the production with a relative unknown, Peter O’Toole, in the lead.
And on location, there were too many problems to count, from illnesses spreading among the crew to one cast member having a heart attack, and even disgruntled soldiers roped in as unpaid extras trying to shoot the director. Most notably, the production had to change location twice – shooting in Jordan got too costly, so they had to move to Spain, but then director David Lean couldn’t find the right locations for the final battle here, prompting another expensive move to Morocco.
8. Back to the Future (1985)
It may be one of your favorite movies today, but you can’t tell from watching Back to the Future what a hard time those involved had making it.
Though Michael J. Fox was the first choice to star, he was already committed to sitcom Family Ties, shooting at the same time. The crazy decision was made to cast him anyway — after Eric Stoltz’s performance in the lead role was found inadequate — and so Fox would film Family Ties every day, then Back to the Future through the evening until 2:30AM. He couldn’t even catch up on sleep at weekends, as this was the only time he could film outdoor daytime scenes!
Director Robert Zemeckis had a hard time too, describing the harsh filming schedule as “the film that would not wrap”. After it eventually did, however, both must have been glad their efforts paid off, as it rocketed Fox to stardom and led to two great sequels.
7. The Revenant (2015)
Directors being demanding of their cast and crew can be described as artistry and leading to better films. Or it can be described as endangering to their lives, which is how everyone reacted to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s behavior on location for The Revenant.
Disagreements with the director led to several crew members quitting or being fired, while Tom Hardy objected to the safety of several stunts he was asked to do. To calm Hardy down, Iñárritu allowed the actor to choke him out… an image of Hardy strangling the director was later printed on a T-shirt Hardy gave out to the crew. They unsurprisingly appreciated it.
The troubled production paid off; despite his questionable demands, Iñárritu received a Best Director Oscar, and more notably, Leonardo DiCaprio finally got that Best Actor statue he’d been after for years.
6. Gladiator (2000)
Another Ridley Scott production, and another historical epic – both phrases which seem to be synonymous with ‘on set troubles’.
Shooting began without a script that everyone was happy with, causing tension among the cast; Richard Harris stopped trying to keep up with the rewrites, and often didn’t know what was going on, while Russell Crowe stormed off set when his questions about the story weren’t answered.
But real tragedy struck when Oliver Reed died of a heart attack during filming in Malta. He hadn’t finished shooting his scenes, requiring $3.2 million to be spent on planting a CGI version of his face on top of a body double, and the final act of the story to be rewritten to have his character killed.
5. Star Wars (1977)
Given how much of a globally adored franchise it has now become, it’s remarkable just how little faith anyone had in the original Star Wars back in the ‘70s.
George Lucas, who had little experience outside of low-budget indie filmmaking, didn’t get on with his crew, who found him too demanding. His cast, meanwhile, felt the opposite – that he didn’t give them enough direction. They also criticized the script, which Alec Guinness famously dismissed as “fairy-tale rubbish”; in fact, Guinness insisted that Obi-Wan Kenobi be killed off so he didn’t have to return for the sequel.
Add to that technical problems with malfunctioning props and the sheer bad luck of showing up to film in the arid Tunisian desert at the one time there was a torrential rainstorm, and it looked like Star Wars would go down as a catastrophic failure. How wrong they were!
4. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Another classic which you probably loved as a kid and (hopefully) still love today, The Wizard of Oz definitely wasn’t such a happy experience for those who made it. Not only did it go through a number of different screenwriters, but it actually had five directors, with four being credited in the finished film.
Problems on set came from the make-up, with Ray Bolger’s face being damaged for a year after filming due to the Scarecrow mask stopping moisture and air from getting to his face. Meanwhile, Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, suffered a serious burn filming one scene; when she later refused to do another pyrotechnic-heavy scene, her stand-in got hospitalized from the effects going wrong again. The film’s Tin Man even had to back out of the role, after being hospitalized himself.
3. Ant-Man (2015)
Compared to DC’s recent films, most installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have gone through development and production rather smoothly. Ant-Man was the exception.
It had actually been in the making long before anyone came up with the initials MCU; writer/director Edgar Wright first wrote an Ant-Man treatment in 2001. The film was officially announced in 2006; it then went through endless revisions, ultimately being incorporated into the larger Marvel universe.
It was 2014 by the time Ant-Man was ready to go into production, with Wright still attached to direct. This is where it really went wrong, as Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter ordered rewrites without consulting Wright, leading the director to leave in a huff after over a decade of wor on the project. As sets were already built, it was a rush to find a replacement, with Marvel eventually settling on Peyton Reed.
2. Brazil (1985)
As a member of Monty Python, Terry Gilliam is known for the surreal humor of his movies, but Brazil was to see that humor take on a darker form – being Gilliam’s take on Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was to be a cynical satire.
But that’s not what the execs wanted. Sid Sheinberg, chair of Universal, insisted on a cut with a happy ending tacked on, and ordered it without Gilliam’s consent. This meant that, at one point, there were two separate editing teams working on Brazil. When Gilliam found out, he was horrified and started a lengthy dispute with the studio.
Ultimately, Gilliam won out by putting a full-page ad in Variety asking Sheinberg to release the intended cut of Brazil and by conducting his own private screenings with critics. This led to Gilliam’s version winning a Los Angeles Film Critics Association award, which thankfully was enough for Sheinberg to relent.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
No other film could possibly deserve the top spot on this list, for the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was a catastrophe on every level.
Production in the Philippines was hit by a typhoon. The Philippine army, who military equipment had been borrowed from, asked for it back so they could fight Communist insurgents. Harvey Keitel, the lead, was fired a few weeks in. His replacement, Martin Sheen, had a heart attack. Marlon Brando showed up morbidly obese and unfit. 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne lied about his age to get a role, and Dennis Hopper reportedly got him addicted to heroin. Someone in the props team decided to dress the set with real corpses.
The list could go on. For the full story, watch the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. But first, if you haven’t seen it, do watch Apocalypse Now. Because, by some miracle, despite the ridiculous struggles faced, it is a masterpiece.
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