Moviemaking has always held perils for even the best of filmmakers. While the internet age has allowed filmmakers to promote their work and reach new audiences, it also holds new risks, especially for movie studios. When production on a major film runs into trouble—as happens from time to time—the internet can go wild with negative buzz. Should the studio not find ways to control the damage, the negative press on the production can kill a movie on release. (See also: Fantastic Four)
Yet, a rough production does not necessarily mean that a movie will come out bad. Some of the greatest movies ever to grace screens had out of control, disastrous productions which left the cast bloodied, the crew at their wits' ends and some members of the production dead!
Like these fine titles. The movies listed herein all suffered from out of control productions, but all became cinematic classics of their kind—gems that continue to delight and inspire audiences today. So, have a look-see, and find out just how far the creative forces had to go to make these 15 Great Movies with Disastrous Productions!
15 The Wizard of Oz
If The Wizard of Oz isn’t the best movie ever made, it comes damn close. The beloved classic has enchanted audiences since it first debuted in 1939 with its remarkable production value, irresistible music and oft-overlooked incredible performances. Contrary to popular legend, nobody died on set from hanging or anything else. That doesn’t mean people didn’t almost die, however…
The Wizard of Oz took a staggering three years to make. Problems with the fledgling technology of Technicolor caused the production to scrap all footage at least once, as did disputes between director Richard Thorpe and the studio. Victor Fleming replaced Thorpe and scrapped all his footage too, starting from scratch! Original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, landed in the hospital after a violent reaction to his make-up almost cost him his life. Wicked Witch Margret Hamilton sustained severe facial burns when an ill-timed fire stunt set her ablaze! Her stunt double also landed in the hospital after a prop broom exploded while filming a flying sequence. Several of the Winged Monkeys had their suspension cables break, dropping them two stories to the floor of a soundstage. The studio got star Judy Garland hooked on amphetamines to keep her weight down—at 16, her curves had begun to show, and she was supposed to be playing a little girl. And somebody even stepped on Toto!
In short, not only is The Wizard of Oz a miraculously good movie, it’s a miracle the movie ever got finished at all!
Steven Spielberg cut his teeth on the blockbuster thriller Jaws, and the movie drove him to his wits' end. Jaws, of course, revolves around a man-eating shark, and the special effects team had constructed an elaborate shark puppet for use during filming. Unfortunately, they forgot that the puppet would have to work while submerged in salt water. The saline caused the puppet mechanisms to erode and freeze, and foam skin of the shark absorbed massive amounts of fluid, rendering it inoperable.
As if the shark didn’t cause enough trouble, Spielberg—by his own admission—didn’t quite have the experience to wrangle the production. Shooting on the high seas proved almost impossible. Other ships would float into view, ruining shots. Cast and crew suffered from seasickness. The salt water damaged several cameras. With the production difficulties slowing down shooting, the cast members became quarrelsome amongst themselves. Robert Shaw drank almost nonstop and frequently clashed with Richard Dreyfuss. The budget spiraled out of control, and ultimately, cost almost double the original projected cost. Spielberg and Dreyfuss have spoken at length about the backstage difficulties, and had Jaws not become an instant hit, it likely would have ended Spielberg’s career.
13 Apocalypse Now
Dubbed “Apocalypse When?” by Hollywood trade papers, Apocalypse Now had a shooting schedule of six weeks. Shooting would last a full sixteen months due to delay after delay. A series of violent rainstorms postponed filming and damaged sets before a massive typhoon destroyed them altogether. Star Martin Sheen had a heart attack and almost died during production. Marlon Brando turned up to shoot without having read the script or the novel Heart of Darkness upon which it is based. Director Francis Ford Coppola shut down production for a week to read the book to Brando aboard a riverboat. Script rewrites happened on an almost daily basis, and at least one crew member died during filming. The crew buried him in his souvenir crew t-shirt.
The delays and budget overruns on Apocalypse Now could have destroyed just about any studio, but that Coppola self-funded the film makes the swollen cost all the more frightening. The director would take a full three years to edit the movie, lost 100 pounds during shooting, and threatened suicide on a regular basis. Lucky for us, he survived, and Apocalypse Now became one of the greatest movies of all time.
12 The Empire Strikes Back
George Lucas took a page from his friend Francis Coppola when it came time to make Star Wars sequels. Lucas decided to maintain total autonomy and bankroll the movie using his massive earnings from the original movie. Lucas wanted to spend more time with his then-wife Marcia and build Skywalker Ranch, leaving production of The Empire Strikes Back in the hands of producer Gary Kurtz. With a healthy $18 million budget, Irvin Kershner would handle directing duties.
Things didn’t go as planned. Kershner kept a slow pace when it came to shooting and fell far behind schedule. Blizzards in Norway and fires on set also caused delays and raised production costs. The Yoda puppet malfunctioned, and several special effects challenges also caused overruns. In the end, Lucas had to step in himself after Kurtz couldn’t wrangle the production back on schedule (echoes of Vader’s arrival on Death Star II in Jedi, anyone?). The final budget on Empire clocked in at $35 million, almost double the original projected budget. The huge cost also absorbed most of Lucas’ fortune, delaying the construction of Skywalker Ranch and making Empire a make-or-break prospect for the Star Wars mastermind. When the film became a success in theatres (and had a successful toy line to boot) Lucas made his money back and continued to self fund his Star Wars outings all the way to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012.
11 Young Frankenstein
Friends Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks decided to collaborate on this popular horror parody after working together on the Oscar-winning The Producers. Both Wilder and Brooks had plenty of ideas for the script, which they began weaving into a screenplay. Around the same time, Wilder’s agent suggested using Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman in the film, and began integrating jokes written for their characters into the story for Young Frankenstein.
Shooting dragged on and on for a number of reasons. The cast, in particular Wilder, had trouble keeping a straight face while shooting, which often required numerous retakes to correct. Brooks and Wilder also kept coming up with ideas for new scenes, which further lengthened the script. Brooks’ initial cut of the movie was—according to all those involved—a monumental disaster. The movie ran far too long and only a fraction of the jokes worked. In order to save the movie, Wilder and Brooks sat down together and cut out about ¾ of the jokes which refined the story and upped the pacing. The final release became a wild success, and continues to enchant audiences to this day.
Also known as one of the strangest student films ever, Eraserhead took writer/director David Lynch a whopping five years to make! Lynch had enrolled at the American Film Institute when he decided to make the movie, but penned a script that ran no more than twenty pages long! Lynch eventually got some money from the AFI, but due to schedule conflicts, as well as financial difficulties, the production could only shoot on weekends. At one point Lynch had to get a paper route to support the film.
Shooting took place in a barn located in Los Angeles, and the long production period meant that the crew had to disassemble and reassemble sets on a regular basis. Actor Jack Nance had to keep his hair cut in a bizarre style for the entire duration of production. After three years, the production ran out of money, causing further delays. Set decorator Sissy Spacek (yes, that Sissy Spacek) donated money to keep the production moving, while production technician Catherine Coulson donated further funds, along with grilled cheese sandwiches she’d stolen while working her job as a waitress! The film spent a full year in editing as well, with Lynch obsessing over the soundtrack. Eraserhead would become a cult hit on the 1970s midnight movie circuit, and today is lauded as an esoteric masterpiece.
9 Star Wars
Before the turmoil of The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas had to endure the chaos of the original Star Wars production. It almost cost him his life.
Lucas had intended Star Wars as a one-off homage to the sci-fi serials and Disney movies he’d watched growing up. Unfortunately, his vision posed a number of problems. Shot in England, the British crew openly ridiculed Lucas, deeming the movie ridiculous. On set effects—like those of the lightsabers—didn’t work as expected. The R2-D2 prop broke down and the crew ended up having to pull it on wires. The cast complained about the dialogue, and a sandstorm in Tunisia destroyed the Tatooine sets.
Even worse, Lucas knew he would need to develop new effects techniques to complete the movie. He did not, however, realize he would have to totally revolutionize the special effects field to finish Star Wars. Fledgling company ILM had spent a year and half its budget without producing a single usable shot. Lucas had to personally supervise all the special effects himself, and an early cut of the film had a disastrous screening. Marcia Lucas stepped in and reedited the movie, dropping a number of scenes, and subplots, and using about 40% different takes in her cut of the movie. Meanwhile, Lucas himself suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes which severely threatened his health. Friends also recall him contemplating suicide on an almost daily basis.
The result, however, enchanted audiences and revolutionized moviemaking. The trauma of the experience, however, would make Lucas forsake directing for more than twenty years.
8 The Hours
When author Michael Cunningham snagged a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours, a film version became almost inevitable. Hollywood came knocking in the early 2000s, with indie house Miramax finally winning the rights to the novel. Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman signed on to star…and then the production ran into trouble.
First came disputes over casting the third female lead. Cunningham suggested Emily Watson, while Miramax preferred Gwyneth Paltrow. The studio finally cast Julianne Moore in the part, and principal photography began. Then came more woes over casting. Julianne Moore was unavailable to film scenes as an older version of her character, so the production cast Broadway actress Besty Blair in the role. Director Steven Daldry hated the scenes as filmed, and thus called Moore back in much later for extensive reshoots. Daldry also disapproved of scenes featuring actor Zeljko Ivanek in a supporting role, and decided to recast the part instead. This required even more reshoots with Jeff Daniels in the part. Daldry and Miramax clashed too over actress Nicole Kidman’s make-up, which included a false nose.
Ultimately, the film opened to glowing reviews, and Kidman took home the Best Actress Oscar.
7 The Phantom of the Opera
Moviemaking has changed a great deal since 1925 when Universal selected an obscure novel called The Phantom of the Opera as a vehicle for silent star Lon Chaney. Unfortunately, then as now, filmmaking has its share of perils which can end up costing a production millions of dollars.
Director Rupert Julian signed on to direct the film, but quickly ran afoul with the cast. For most of filming, Julian and Chaney had to communicate via intermediaries as the two refused to speak to one another. Costar Norman Kerry once tried to run over Juilan with a horse, and when filming finally did wrap, a preview screening of the film met with disastrous feedback. Universal fronted more money for extensive reshoots which retooled the plot from a horror-melodrama to a slapstick romance. That version fared even worse and was actually booed off the screen!
Finally Universal had a couple of in-house editors look at all the filmed footage and devise a story based on the available material. The resultant story more closely resembled that of the novel, though a different ending kept the audience from finding the story too depressing. The Phantom of the Opera became a smash hit, and renewed interest in the original novel which has been filmed no less than 10 times.
6 The Emperor’s New Groove
Has Disney, in either animation or live action, ever produced a film funnier than The Emperor’s New Groove? Featuring a solid group of voice actors which include David Spade, John Goodman, Patrick Warburton and an irrepressible Eartha Kitt, the movie earned positive notices on release. It has since become a cult favorite. The wacky slapstick comedy had a troubled production period, however, which often escapes the notice of fans.
New Groove started out as Kingdom of the Sun, a '90s style animated epic in the vein of The Lion King. The movie borrowed loose inspiration from The Prince and the Pauper, imagining the tale of mistaken identity set in an Incan kingdom. However, following the underperformance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney executives grew weary of the high price tag on Kingdom of the Sun. An early screening didn’t go well, and Disney threatened to kill the movie altogether.
Instead, the writers and animators pooled together to rework the movie into a comedy. Characters were dropped and others added while the creative team worked to make the movie into a joke-every-minute story for a 2001 release. The final release earned a number of accolades, including one from playwright David Mamet who declared it one of the best scripts in Hollywood history.
An afterword: actress and director Trudie Styler directed a documentary about the troubled production, which included extensive detail of the film’s reworking. Titled The Sweatbox, the film played the Toronto Film Festival to strong reviews, before Disney vaulted the documentary, and has since refused to release it!
5 Annie Hall
Woody Allen has long retained a position as one of Hollywood’s preeminent writer-directors, a position he first earned during the 1970s with a string of hit comedies. His crown jewel: Annie Hall, better known as the movie that finally snagged Diane Keaton an Oscar, and that beat Star Wars for the Best Picture Oscar (robbery!). Even Allen’s most ardent admirers probably don’t realize the movie’s inception as a murder mystery.
Allen’s first cut of the movie ran about two and a half hours, and by all accounts, needed a total overhaul. The story had too many subplots, none of which were easy to follow. Allen did, however, recognize that the romance between the film’s leads (played by Allen himself and Keaton), worked better than any other scenes. Allen dropped the first half hour of the film as well as a number of subplots and added new footage shot during reshoots. Allen also added some hasty narration to streamline the narrative.
Annie Hall would go on to win four Academy Awards and become one of the biggest hits of 1977.
4 Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, lion of film, has a nasty habit of filming a lot of extra material which he then deletes from his movies, in essence crafting his plots during editing. Nowhere in his filmography is this predilection more evident than in his similar classic Blade Runner.
With a shoot described by star Harrison Ford as “a bitch,” Blade Runner involved lots of night shoots and extensive special effects work, which quickly exhausted cast and crew. Constant rewrites led to an ever-changing script, and to several roles getting dropped during filming. Early screenings terrified the producers, who found the plot difficult to follow and the ending too depressing. Reshoots added a happy ending and narration to help explain the plot. Neither, however, could do anything to clear up several plot inconsistencies and technical errors which audiences spotted after release.
Blade Runner flopped at the box office, though its design and brand of thoughtful science fiction helped it find a cult audience on video. In 2007, Scott released an edit deemed the “final cut,” which corrected the plot holes and several continuity problems. It met with universal acclaim.
3 American Graffiti
Production turmoil struck George Lucas again, though this time it didn’t threaten his fortune or life, just his sanity. Lucas wrote American Graffiti with film school buddies Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck as nostalgic valentine to their teen years in the early 1960s. With friend Francis Ford Coppola producing, Universal Pictures funded the movie, which went before cameras in 1972.
Go figure that a film about rowdy teenagers and their adventures would have its own share of mishaps. Crew members were arrested for growing marijuana. Actors Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford got drunk on a regular basis and became known for rowdy parties. Ford would later get kicked out of his hotel by the management. Le Mat also ended up in the hospital after a violent allergic reaction. An actor set a fire in George Lucas’ hotel room as a prank, and upon viewing the movie, Universal considered it a bomb in the making, and refused to distribute it!
Lucky for Lucas, positive word of mouth began spreading around the studio. Universal decided to give the film a limited release, which further created positive buzz. Upon wide release, American Graffiti earned rave reviews and did strong business at the box office. It would also capture five Oscar nominations, though would not win any.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has devoted his career to exploring madness in various forms. Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo could have been about Herzog’s own. The movie followed an Irish entrepreneur who wants to build an opera house. To earn the necessary funds, he decides to enter the rubber trade which will involve him carrying a 300-ton steam ship over a mountain! Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Herzog found the quixotic efforts of Fitzcarraldo’s protagonist so fascinating; filming the movie would involve transporting a real ship over mountains as well.
As if the physical demands of the production weren’t enough, filming on the Amazon River and surrounding jungle had its own perils. Several crew members sustained severe injuries while filming a water rapids sequence. Actor Jason Robards, who had signed to play the lead, shot half the movie before contracting a severe case of dysentery. Robards’ health forced him to withdraw, and Herzog replaced him with temperamental actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog then set about reshooting the entire film, and dealing with Kinski’s erratic behavior. Kinski’s constant tirades even prompted a local Indian chief to offer to kill the actor for Herzog!
Fitzcarraldo became an art house classic on release, and its troubled production history has become fodder for movies itself, notably the documentaries Burden of Dreams about the making of the film, and My Best Friend about the contentious relationship between Kinski & Herzog.
Fans often cite X2 as the best big-screen outing for the X-Men, and the film debuted to positive reviews and strong box office in 2003. Early buzz around the movie, however, did not predict its success—the production itself had strained the wits of cast and crew.
Director Bryan Singer returned to direct this first X-Men sequel without a finished script. During the development process, actress Halle Berry won an Academy Award, which pressured the production into expanding her role. Singer also battled with Fox Studios over the budget, which necessitated still more rewrites to eliminate characters and effects sequences. As the cameras rolled, the rewrites continued, and tensions began to rise between the cast and crew. When Singer and producer Tom DeSanto had a fight over Singer using painkillers which rendered him unable to shoot, the set exploded. Halle Berry lashed out at Singer over his unprofessionalism, and reportedly told the director he could “watch my black ass while I walk out of here.” Singer fired DeSanto that day, though the producer refused to leave the set. Berry is rumored to have complained directly to studio head Tom Rothman, who offered to pay the actress a sizable bonus to return to set the next day.
Though X2 became a box office smash, the production had taken its toll on the creative team. Berry expressed no interest in appearing in any future installments, while Singer opted to direct Superman Returns before a third X-movie. Fans of the series, no doubt, remember how that ordeal turned out…
Know an awful production story from a great movie? Share in the comments!