13 Movies That Only Exist Because Of Brazen Acts Of Subterfuge

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Vote up the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that were all worth it in the end.

Making a movie is difficult even in the best circumstances, but some films require extra dedication from their creators. Copyright laws, permits from local officials, government censorship, and the whims of producers can all stand in the way of a filmmaker creating the movie they envisioned, but some refuse to let these obstacles stop them. From sneaking into DisneyWorld to film a dark comedy about a conspiracy behind Disney itself to taking out a full-page ad in the newspaper to publicly shame a studio into releasing their movie, these filmmakers went to brazen lengths to get their projects onto the big screen. In some instances, they broke copyright rules to use footage that was essential to their visions. In others, they went undercover to gain unprecedented access to their unsuspecting subjects. Some of these movies led to decades of lawsuits, while others managed to get away with their illicit behavior by posing clever legal arguments or escaping the jurisdiction altogether. 

Whether it’s breaking the law or going undercover with criminals, these movies prove that having a great idea and a budget to match is no guarantee that the filmmaking process will be smooth (or legal). Vote up the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that were all worth it in the end. 


  • For a movie that launched a decade-spanning, multi-million dollar franchise, Mad Max got off to a messy start. Helmed by an emergency room doctor and featuring real-life criminals, the production was anything but ordinary, and the $200,000 budget necessitated some law-breaking shortcuts. Director George Miller conceived of Mad Max in part because of the car accident victims he saw as an ER doctor. Set in a barren near-future Australia where oil shortages and financial unrest have caused violent societal breakdown, the movie stars Mel Gibson as "Mad" Max Rockatansky, a renegade police officer who takes justice into his own hands when a motorcycle gang murders his family. 

    The production was almost as anarchic as the world it depicted. Miller used real members of the Hell’s Angels and another biker gang called the Vigilantes to play Max’s enemies in some sequences. Art director Jon Dowding stole props from a local store to use in one scene. And they closed roads without permission so they could shoot the crash sequences. According to Miller, they had help from off-duty police officers who had grown interested in the film and wanted to be part of the production, but they never went through the proper permitting process because there was no legal way to do it. “No one had made these kind of movies at the time,” he remembered. “So there was no one to go to really get a permit.” Much of the success of the movie and the franchise it spawned can be attributed to Miller’s dedication to heart-stopping action sequences despite a limited budget. Since there was so little oversight, the director and his crew could go all-in on stunt work, which resulted in at least one world record when stuntman Gerry Gauslaa rode a four-cylinder bike more than 28 meters and jumped off it in mid-air. When Mad Max was released in 1979, it made close to $100 million worldwide. Until The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it held the Guinness World Record for the most profitable movie of all time. Miller would go on to direct high-budget movies, but even when he had $150 million for Mad Max: Fury Roadhe used minimal CGI, opting for the real-life action set-pieces that made his first film so successful. 

  • F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent movie Nosferatu is one of the most influential horror movies ever made and a pioneer of German Expressionism, but it was almost destroyed before its legacy began. Producer Albin Grau wanted to make a movie based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but the author’s widow refused him the rights to the story. He decided to do it anyway, changing names and locations, most notably replacing Count Dracula with Count Orlok. Played by Max Schrek, the Count is a hideous monster. Fangs jut from the front of his mouth like rodent teeth, his nails are gnarled and bestial, and his bare skull, which seems abnormally large, is emphasized with pointed ears and a chalk-white cast. Names and physical characteristics aside, the movie adheres closely to Stoker’s novel. Grau’s production company admitted as much in its program for the movie’s German premiere, saying it was “freely adapted” from Dracula. This revelation did not go down well with Stoker’s widow and nearly cost the movie its continued existence.

    Florence Stoker had inherited the rights to Dracula upon her husband’s death and was living almost solely off its profits. When she discovered the story had been blatantly (and admittedly) plagiarized, she brought a lawsuit against Grau. After years of legal fights, she won the rights to the film and $5,000 in damages, but was stymied by appeals and burgeoning legal fees. She finally gave up on the financial incentive and requested instead that every last copy of the film be burned. The judge hearing the case seemed to think this was a reasonable compromise, and the systematic destruction of a cinematic masterpiece began. Luckily for future filmmakers and audiences, a few copies survived. Florence Stoker eventually got the money she was hoping for by selling the rights to Universal Pictures, but although Bela Lugosi’s seductive Count Dracula became the basis for future cinematic vampires, Schreck’s brutish Count Orlok endures. According to one critic writing nearly a century after the film’s release, “There is scarcely a horror film that exists that doesn’t seem impacted by Nosferatu in some way.” It may have been the result of a brazen breach of copyright law, but the movie has more than made up for its illicit origins. 

  • First-time filmmakers invest a lot of themselves in their debut features, but Cameron Crowe showed extreme dedication for his first movie, the cult stoner classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In 1979, Crowe was a writer for Rolling Stone who wanted to write a book about high school. Realizing he’d lost touch with the subject matter in the seven years since he graduated, Crowe decided to go back. Under the pseudonym Dave Cameron, he passed himself off as a senior at a high school in California for an entire year (with the permission of the principal). There, he insinuated himself into various social circles and came away with all the intel he needed to write a comedic story about casual drug use, non-committal relationships, and the highs and lows of first-time car ownership. Crowe says that the experience was invaluable. “I thought these kids were a lot smarter than they were being given credit for,” he said, “They're anonymous Joes who are not unwed mothers or angel dust cases; they're just average kids slugging through life. When I saw the inner trauma in these kids' lives, I started getting excited.” His undercover operation led to a book that he repurposed into a screenplay for a hit film.

    Directed by Amy Heckerling, Fast Times at Ridgemont High follows a year in the lives of an assortment of high school students, from a 15-year-old trying to lose her virginity to a guy trying to dump his girlfriend so he can make the most of senior year. Its cast is a who’s-who of future Hollywood stars, with debut appearances from future Oscar winners Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker, and a starring role for a baby-faced Jennifer Jason Leigh. There's also Sean Penn as the high-as-a-kite surfer bro Jeff Spicoli, whose run-ins with the history teacher Mr. Hand rival Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for most memorable cinematic depictions of high school academia. The movie made more than six times its $4.5 million budget at the box office, but the success of its theatrical run was nothing compared to the legacy it developed in the ensuing years. Thanks to Crowe’s first-person perspective, Fast Times at Ridgemont High broke through the noise of nostalgic recreations of high school shown in other ‘70s and early ’80s movies like American Graffiti and Fame. By embracing boredom and indifference alongside drama and heartbreak, it got to the heart of the teenage experience and became “one of the most influential high-school movies ever made.”

  • The Crew For 'Under the Skin' Hid Cameras Throughout Glasgow To Secretly Film People Interacting With Scarlett Johansson
    Photo: A24

    Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi movie Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial creature in a woman’s body who roams the streets of Glasgow luring unsuspecting men to a horrifying end. Such an otherworldly premise doesn’t seem suited to documentary-style filmmaking, but Glazer shot much of the movie with hidden cameras using unsuspecting bystanders as subjects. As Johansson’s character drives through the streets of the city looking for prey, many of her interactions are with non-actors who didn’t know they were being filmed. The director explained that the process was necessary to create a sense of invasion. Johansson’s character is a malevolent extraterrestrial infiltrating the real world, and by filming the actress’s interactions in secret, the audience feels that they’re complicit in something underhanded. “It feels like she shouldn't be there and we shouldn't be there,” Glazer explained, “I think that all plays into the atmosphere.” 

    To achieve complete anonymity, the film crew invented a camera the size of a matchbox. They constructed 10 of them to install in strategic locations based on where filming was taking place, such as on outdoor furniture or above storefronts, and even behind shop windows. Eight cameras were built into the van that Johansson’s character drives. Glazer sat in the back with members of the sound and camera crew while another van followed close behind. After they finished filming an interaction, production assistants emerged from the second van to get consent forms from the people they had just filmed. According to the director, nearly everyone allowed them to use the footage except for a couple who happened to be breaking up while they were being filmed. Glazer and his team captured 16 hours of footage per day, which contributed to the torturous two-year editing process that ensued. When the movie was finally released, however, it was hailed as a “chilling masterpiece,” with critics marveling over how the incorporation of documentary footage into a sci-fi movie “has a surprising way of evoking what it is to be human."

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    ‘Escape from Tomorrow’ Was Shot At DisneyWorld, Without Permission

    Getting on the wrong side of Disney is notoriously dangerous, but that didn’t deter director Randy Moore when he set out to make his debut feature. Escape from Tomorrow is not only a sickening takedown of the company but a movie that was illicitly filmed at DisneyWorld and Disneyland. The story centers on a father (played by Roy Abramsohn) who learns that he’s lost his job right before he goes to the theme park with his wife and kids. The crowds, rides, and costumed employees become a surreal and menacing spectacle that spurs an existential crisis. Plagued by hallucinations and an increasingly irate spouse, he stumbles upon a conspiracy at the heart of the Disney corporation that upends his understanding of the company and its motives. 

    Moore and his crew snuck into the parks under the guise of tourists and filmed on DSLR cameras. Disney iconography features heavily, and not in a good way. Costume-wearing employees turn out to be anything but child-friendly, and the rides are instruments of murder. There’s even a jab at one of the park’s most prominent financial backers, Siemens. Long before shooting began, Moore was aware that copyright issues might keep the film from ever being seen, but told Abramsohn that he would drive around in a van projecting it on walls if he had to. To his surprise, it got into the Sundance Film Festival and became a hot ticket when attendees learned it might never get released. The film’s producers decided to screen it for the press before showing it to potential distributors, hoping that media attention might prevent the company from blocking it, and their strategy paid off. A Columbia University law professor penned an article in The New Yorker explaining why it fell under fair use laws, and a preeminent entertainment lawyer helped lead the movie to its legally secure release. Under the concept of fair use, copyrighted material can be used without permission if it is substantially altered, such as through parody. Escape from Tomorrow falls squarely within that category. Although the director reportedly lost nearly 50 pounds due to the stress of filming in secret, he would not have been able to make a movie that portrays Disney in such a grim and disturbing light unless he had done so without the company's knowledge. Without his guerilla approach to making the movie, it likely wouldn’t exist.

  • For ‘The Ivory Game,’ The Filmmakers Infiltrated Poaching Networks And Captured Crimes On Camera
    Photo: Netflix

    The illegal ivory trade is a lucrative industry with deep ties to corrupt government officials and law enforcement in Africa and Asia. To get below the surface and expose the extent to which elephants are being killed for their valuable tusks, filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani decided to go undercover. Their 2016 documentary, The Ivory Game, was filmed over 16 months and chronicles the efforts of a handful of journalists, anti-poaching enforcers, and conservationists to uncover the vast criminal network that traffics ivory from Africa to China. Davidson and Ladkani knew the risks. The mafia and global crime syndicates are involved in the trade, and have assassinated people who stood up to them. “It wasn’t as easy as just saying, ‘Let’s do this,’” Ladkani said, “It was a super dangerous thing [...] We asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to get involved in this?’ But after quite a few discussions, the decision was ‘Yes.’”

    The precarious situations they faced included a midnight raid on a compound in Tanzania thought to be sheltering a notorious poacher nicknamed “The Devil” who was responsible for the killing of at least 10,000 elephants. They also captured incriminating audio from an illegal ivory shop via a camera the size of a button, and interviewed members of an anti-poaching task force in Tanzania that had been secret up to that point. Their risky approach led to footage that was impressive enough to attract the interest of Leonardo DiCaprio, who signed on as executive producer after seeing an early cut of the film.