Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at great movies with disastrous productions. In most cases, chaos behind the scenes does not bode well for the resulting motion picture but in some cases it is cause for innovation or the filmmaking challenges present their own creative opportunities. What follows are the films discussed on today’s show as well as a few additional titles.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dir. Victor Fleming
The Wizard of Oz was an ambitious production in its day and the project was a complicated undertaking made even more so due to changes in the cast and crew. Some of the changes were due to norms of the film industry at that time. In 1939, directors were not stars or auteurs. They were employees of the studio who were hired to execute the studio’s vision and could be reassigned at any time. But even allowing for that, The Wizard of Oz had a chaotic shoot. Filming began with Richard Maplethorp but the director was replaced by George Cukor who didn’t actually shoot anything but did reconfigure the look and style of the film. Directorial duties on The Wizard of Oz then passed to Victor Fleming who oversaw the bulk of principal photography and is credited on the film. Fleming left The Wizard of Oz to work on Gone with the Wind, which was having its own problems, and the Kansas scenes were directed by King Vidor. There were change ups in the cast as well. Buddy Epsen was cast as the Tin Man but had to leave the project when he had an allergic reaction to the makeup meaning that Epsen’s scenes had to be reshot. Margaret Hamilton was severely burned by fire on the set during her smoky exit from Munchkinland and her stand in was later injured while filming the flight scenes. For its time, The Wizard of Oz was extremely expensive and did not recoup its budget in its original release. It was only after The Wizard of Oz was shown on television and in later revival screenings that it became the beloved film that it is today.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir. Tobe Hooper
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low budget horror film that became a seminal title in American cinema. But while it was being made many of the people involved never thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would ever see the light of day. The production suffered financial problems and it was made by a mostly inexperienced cast and crew in the grueling heat of the Texas summer. The production problems came to a head in the climactic dinner scene which was the product of a now legendary twenty-six hour shoot. The house did not have air conditioning and temperatures on the set rose to over 100 degrees. The set was decorated with actual meat and dead animals acquired from a shelter and they started to spoil under the hot production lights. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, had only one set of his costume and so it was never cleaned for fear of losing it. According to Hansen, he smelled so badly that it made other people sick to be around him. But the difficulty of the shoot came through on screen and made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as visceral and intense as it is. The making of the film is well catalogued in the documentary Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and in Hansen’s memoir Texas Chainsaw Confidential.
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Jaws is one of many films to have production go awry due to filming on the ocean. The challenges of shooting at sea include dealing with weather and shifting tides as well as coping with sea sickness and civilian boaters passing through the background. All of that was exacerbated by the mechanical shark which barely worked. Jaws had been rushed into production and the shark was never tested in salt water before it was shipped across the country for filming on Martha’s Vineyard. The salt water caused the shark’s skin to disintegrate and the volatility of the ocean brutalized the mechanics. The production schedule on Jaws tripled as did the budget and director Steven Spielberg feared he would be fired off the movie. But when Jaws opened it became the biggest box office success of its day and Jaws is now regarded as one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. The making of Jaws was documented in Carl Gottlieb's book The Jaws Log.
Star Wars (1977)
Since passing to Disney, Star Wars has had a rocky relationship with its directors. Lucasfilm parted ways with two filmmakers before production of their movies even got underway. Colin Trevorrow was originally announced as the director of Episode IX but was let go after the critical excoriation of The Book of Henry and Josh Trank was fired from an unnamed Star Wars spinoff after the release of his disastrous Fantastic Four reboot. The first spinoff title, Rogue One, was essentially taken away from Gareth Edwards and significantly reshot and reshaped in post-production by Tony Gilroy. And then there is Solo. This film was actually in the middle of shooting when co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired off the movie and replaced by Ron Howard.
Chaos behind the scenes is not that unusual on a Star Wars film. The classic trilogy was very difficult to make and the original Star Wars had an especially tumultuous production. At that time, science fiction and fantasy films were not a big box office draw and some executives at 20th Century Fox opposed the making of the movie. Star Wars was budgeted at about $8 million but delays and overruns put the final cost at $11 million. Special effects company Industrial Light and Magic had trouble achieving the realistic look that Lucas wanted and blew through half of their budget without producing a single usable shot. The movie went through massive bouts of reediting with Lucas firing the original editor and replacing him with Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew his then-wife Marcia Lucas. Star Wars was originally scheduled for release in December 1976 but the lagging production resulted in delaying the opening until May 1977.
Dir. William Friedkin
William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer was a remake of The Wages of Fear and told the story of Americans living abroad who are recruited to transport trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. The movie was shot on location in the Dominican Republic and the combination of Friedkin’s exacting filmmaking style and the challenges of the geography made the shoot a nightmare. Shortly into the film’s production, the original cinematographer was fired because Friedkin was unsatisfied with the rushes. In his memoir, Friedkin says that half the crew went to the hospital and or had to be sent home because of food poisoning, gangrene, or malaria. The major set piece of Sorcerer involved trucks crossing a suspension bridge over a river. The first bridge was built, taking three months and costing a million dollars, but the river dried up and a new million dollar bridge had to be built elsewhere only to have the second river evaporate as well. The crew improvised with wind machines and hoses and the result was a stunning sequence. Friedkin has called Sorcerer his favorite film. Unfortunately, reviewers at the time didn’t see it that way. Sorcerer was released to cinemas the same month as Star Wars and it died at the box office. Friedkin’s career never fully recovered. But in the years since, Sorcerer has been reevaluated and it is now regarded as one of the director’s best movies.
Superman: The Movie/Superman II (1978/1980/2006)
Dir. Richard Donner/Richard Lester
Superman: The Movie was the first great superhero movie. The original plan for Superman will sound familiar to today’s audiences. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind envisioned a two part movie with the first half ending on a cliffhanger and both Superman movies were shot simultaneously under the direction of Richard Donner. But the project proved very complicated and the film went over schedule and over budget. As the production ran further behind, the decision was made to concentrate on completing the first film. The story was restructured and the first film came to a closed conclusion by using the ending intended for Superman II. The first film was released to rave reviews and huge box office but relations between the producers and the director soured and Richard Donner was fired from Superman II. Richard Lester was brought in to complete the sequel and he reshot a lot of footage in order to get the director credit. Twenty-six years later, Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and editor Michael Thau collaborated on a restoration of Donner’s version of Superman II.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now was a war film set during America’s occupation of Vietnam. At the time the conflict was still a sensitive subject and studios were leery of sinking money into a film about it. Frances Ford Coppola, who was fresh off the success of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, took on the project with his usual bombast and financed Apocalypse Now with his own money. But principal photography proved more difficult than anyone imagined and the planned sixteen week shoot more than doubled as the production was besieged by inclement weather, creative challenges, personality conflicts, and budgetary problems. Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the lead role but he was let go and replaced by Martin Sheen who then suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. The helicopters on loan from the Filipino government were periodically called away, sometimes in the middle of a shot, to fight the rebellion growing in another part of the country. Actor Marlon Brando showed up to the set overweight and without having read Heart of Darkness or memorizing any of his lines. After principal photography was finished, Coppola spent years editing the footage. Apocalypse Now was finally released in 1979 and it is now considered one of the great movies. The making of Apocalypse Now is featured in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Dir. Terry Gilliam
Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. Controversy erupted between director Terry Gilliam and then head of Universal Pictures Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam completed the film, running 132 minutes, but Sheinberg deemed it too long and too confusing for audiences and blocked the picture from being released. When Gilliam refused to make changes, Universal attempted to take Brazil away from the director and created its own ninety-four minute cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. In an attempt to keep control of his film, Gilliam made the dispute public by taking out a full page ad in Variety magazine asking Sheinberg to release the film. Gilliam also set up clandestine screenings of Brazil on college campuses and the film was eventually screened for members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who later gave Brazil the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut Brazil and released Gilliam’s version.More information can be found in Jack Mathews' book The Battle of Brazil.
The Crow (1994)
Dir. Alex Proyas
The production of the 1994 comic book movie The Crow was beset by problems. Several crew members were injured including a carpenter who was electrocuted and burned by a scissor lift and a stuntman who fell through a roof. At one point a grip truck caught fire and a hurricane destroyed several of the sets. All this preceded the death of star Brandon Lee. With just a couple of weeks of principal photography remaining, a fragment of a blank round was left in the barrel of a gun and when it was fired Lee was killed. After the production went through a shutdown period, the filmmakers finished The Crow through a combination of body doubles and what was then cutting edge technology in which existing footage of Lee was composited into other shots. The Crow prefigured the dark and gritty comic book films that came later and it is now considered a cult classic.
Dir. James Cameron
Titanic was another aquatic film with a difficult production. It was the most expensive film in Hollywood history to that point at a cost of over $200 million in 1997. Part of the film’s enormous cost was dedicated to a full scale replica of the RMS Titanic. Construction of the sets ran behind, delaying the film. Shooting in the water presented its own challenges and some of the crew and cast got ill due to spending long periods of time in cold water. James Cameron is known for his demanding directorial style. As tensions increased on the set, someone laced lobster chowder with PCP and sent more than fifty people to the hospital. Titanic was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 1997 but the special effects were not complete and caused the release to be delayed until December. Reports of endless production and escalating costs resulted in a lot of negative press and both critics and studio executives braced for disaster. But when Titanic finally opened it was the biggest hit of all time, staying at number one at the box office for fifteen weeks and then continued to play in theaters for months. It was also a critical success and won eleven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.
American History X (1998)
Dir. Tony Kaye
American History X was the story of a reformed white supremacist starring Edward Norton in one of his early roles and directed by Tony Kaye who at that time was an up and coming filmmaker. Norton and Kaye had different views of what American History X ought to be and Norton’s performance was not to Kaye’s liking. The relationship between Norton, Kaye and New Line Cinema broke down during post production. Norton and the studio executives gave Kaye notes on how to alter the film. Kaye would have none of it and New Line took American History X away from the director and banned him from the editing process. Kaye responded by filing a lawsuit against New Line Cinema and when that didn’t work he attempted to take his name off the picture but was unable to do so. Kaye then began trash talking American History X to anyone who would listen including journalists and advertisers and film festivals. In the end, the studio released its version of American History X and the movie was a hit with critics and audiences. Edward Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Kaye’s campaign against Norton and New Line Cinema all but destroyed his career and in 2002 Kaye wrote a lengthy mea culpa in which he expressed regret for his behavior.