The wheels came off things left and right in 2017, including highly anticipated films like Justice League and the Star Wars Han Solo origin story, which both experienced well-publicized production issues. While the conflicts of these projects may seem endemic to 2017, films that had production troubles are nothing new. Making a movie is a massive undertaking that exists in a violent vortex of egos, and the history of films with production issues goes back to the dawn of the medium and spans the entire globe.
In some instances, these nightmare productions tell the tales of films that almost didn't get made, or at least didn't make it all the way to completion, as was the case with Apocalypse Now. In other instances, the behind-the-scenes drama during production was a result of feuding between the director and the studio, or ego battles between actors and the production. In some cases, technology made life hell, as happened on the set of Jaws.
After his immense success with the first two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola took over directing Apocalypse Now from his friend George Lucas, who was intending to make it as a black-and-white cinema verite art film before landing the deal for A New Hope.
Coppola intended to shoot Apocalypse Now over four months, though things went wrong from the get-go, and the film's nightmarish produciton lasted longer than a year. Shooting in the jungles of the Philippines, the crew experienced serious problems with weather, and had to deal with the challenges of hauling equipment through a remote jungle. The production issues were so intense, they became the subject of a documentary, Heart of Darkness.
Martin Sheen was brought to the set a few weeks after filming began, after Coppola fired Harvey Keitel, who was originally cast as the lead. The project required an internalized actor in the lead and, according to Coppola's Apocalypse Now Blu-ray commentary, Keitel was not the right man for the job. When Sheen arrived, he found a chaotic set filled with sick crew members.
John Milius's original script was being deconstructed and rebuilt every day by Coppola, who had no idea what the ending would be. Sheen had a heart attack during production, and Coppola suffered an epileptic seizure. Desperate to save the film, Coppola shoveled millions of dollars of his personal money in order to finish production.
Then there was Marlon Brando. A legend at that point, Brando showed up severely overweight, a look not favorable for a man playing a Green Beret. Brando infamously refused to learn his lines and resorted to improvising. His scenes were shot in darkness in order to hide how large Brando had become. Adding to difficulties was Brando’s refusal to work with Dennis Hopper. As a result, scenes involving Hopper and Brando had to be completed with the actors shooting lines separately.
Other problems included difficulties with the Philippines government and a production designer who obtained actual cadavers to use as set decoration. Ultimately, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was released to immense critical acclaim and is now regarded by many to be one of the greatest war films ever made.
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Known for his obsession with perfection, director Stanley Kubrick put actors Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall through one of the worst productions of their careers. Scenes were recorded over and over, one taking 140 takes for Kubrick to be satisfied with the results. Due to her character being in a constant state of distress and Kubrick continually demanding more of her, Shelly Duvall began losing her hair as filming neared its end.
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When The Twilight Zone: The Movie was first announced, it seemed to have all the ingredients for a great film. The adaptation of the beloved science fiction television series was set to be produced by Steven Spielberg and feature multiple segments, each under the leadership of a different director. However, tragedy struck during filming and caused the film to be permanently stained.
On July 23, 1982, during the production of director John Landis’s portion of the film, star Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Shin-Yi Chen were killed by a crashing helicopter while filming a scene in which Morrow’s character hallucinated that he was in Vietnam. Reports of neglect for actor safety emerged from the set, as did the fact that the two child performers were hired illegally and paid under-the-table in order to avoid labor laws.
Landis and three other members of the production crew were tried for manslaughter, but ultimately acquitted. Landis rarely speaks of the incident but maintains he was not at fault. The incident led to a widespread crackdown on set safety regulations in Hollywood.
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Ridley Scott’s Alien gave the world a masterclass in science fiction horror, and James Cameron’s Aliens helped define modern sci-fi action while advancing the role of female protagonists in both action and science fiction. Given the franchise's history, Alien 3 was an obvious choice for 20th Century Fox. Worried about protecting its property, the studio interfered to the extent that the film’s director, David Fincher, disowned the project, saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
Things didn't look good for the third Alien film from the start. Fox spent a rumored $13 million on pre-production, which included multiple script drafts from myriad writers, the plots of which range from an alien invasion on Earth to a film set on a wooden planet. Finally, Fox hired David Fincher, a successful music video and commercial director, to see the film to completion. The inexperienced and impressionable Fincher was thrown into his first feature-length narrative film at just 28 years old.
With such a messy pre-production, disaster during filming was inevitable. Fincher found himself without a completed script and only five weeks to prepare before production began. The project went through numerous snags, including a rewrite of the final act mid-production. This halted filming, so Alien 3 missed its intended date of completion. Fincher recalls:
"I'd always thought, 'Well, surely you don't want to have the Twentieth Century Fox logo over a sh*tty movie.' And they were like, 'Well, as long as it opens.' So I learned then just to be a belligerent asshole, which was really: 'You have to get what you need to get out of it.' You have to fight for things you believe in, and you have to be smart about how you position it so that you don't just become white noise. On that movie, I was the guy who was constantly the voice of 'We need to do this better, we need to do this, this doesn't make sense.' And pretty soon, it was like in Peanuts: WOP WOP WOP WOP WOP! They'd go, 'He's doing that again, he's frothing at the mouth, he seems so passionate.' They didn't care."
Alien 3 remains a divisive film with fans of the Alien franchise. It was a success at the box office, and a subsequent Assembly Cut caused some fans to reconsider their initial hatred for the picture. Fincher, learning from his mistakes with Alien 3, went on to make Se7en in 1995, cementing himself as one of Hollywood’s next great filmmakers.
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