10 of Hollywood’s Most Legendary “Troubled Productions”

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This Friday, Paramount unleashes World War Z, the Brad Pitt-fronted zombie apocalypse tale that has been on the receiving end of an inordinate amount of pre-release bad buzz. Stories of third-act rewrites, tension between star and director, shifting release dates, and massive budget and schedule overruns have dominated WWZ’s advance publicity, far more than anything of note about the film itself (which is unfortunate, as it’s a frequently gripping and reasonably intelligent disaster flick). But that’s nothing new in Hollywood; for decades we’ve been fascinated by stories of high-profile productions run amok, and by guessing whether those on-set woes would actually impact the final product.

The Wizard of Oz

DIRECTOR: Victor Fleming (credited); Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, King Vidor (uncredited) PRODUCTION WOES: Shifting directors; extensive rewrites (up to 17 writers are rumored to have contributed); extensive reshoots; recasting a lead role (Buddy Ebsen’s Tin Man makeup put him into the hospital); on-set accidents (Margaret Hamilton’s makeup caught fire and put her in the hospital); animal training issues; disastrous previews. RESULT: Initially, it didn’t seem that Oz was worth the trouble — its initial release barely recouped its $2.7 million budget. It was only in its re-releases and annual television airings that it came to be considered a classic.

Cleopatra

DIRECTOR: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (credited); Rouben Mamoulian, Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited) PRODUCTION WOES: Shifting directors; ballooning costs (up from a $2 million budget to a final cost of $44 million that nearly sunk 20th Century Fox); rebuilding of sets (after the production was moved from London to Rome); recasting lead roles (Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd left the film during that move due to other commitments); shutdowns due to health (leading lady Elizabeth Taylor nearly died); bad publicity (both from the out-of-control production and Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton); director fired during editing. RESULT: Reviews were mixed, but the film did eventually recoup its budget, with a total domestic gross of nearly $58 million.

Jaws

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from a $4 million budget to a final cost of $9 million); location trouble (the locals in Martha’s Vineyard raised hell about certain sets and production elements); technical difficulties (boats sank, cameras were ruined, the mechanical sharks designed for the production seldom worked); water shooting (Spielberg made the film in the ocean rather than in a tank); tension between actors; over schedule (the projected 55-day shoot took 159 days). RESULT: Unable to rely on the special effects, Spielberg instead took a crafty, tell-don’t-show approach to the shark that was compared to the best of Hitchcock. The endless waiting time also resulted in the actors, director, and screenwriter devising new scenes and iconic lines. The film was ultimately a box-office smash, its total worldwide gross to date an astonishing $470 million.

Apocalypse Now

DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from a $13 million budget to a final cost of $31.5 million); over schedule (the 16-week shoot ended up taking 16 months); directorial hubris (Coppola contemplated suicide during the shoot and tried to cover up Martin Sheen’s heart attack); rebuilding of sets (typhoons wiped them out); recasting lead role (Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen after one week of shooting); shutdowns due to health (Sheen’s aforementioned heart attack); tensions between actor and director (Marlon Brando showed up overweight and underprepared). RESULT: Though an undeniably troubled production, the result was not one but three great works of art: the film itself, its 2001 re-edit Apocalypse Now Redux, and the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness, which is possibly the best “movie about movies” ever made.

Heaven’s Gate

DIRECTOR: Michael Cimino PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from an $11 million budget to a final cost of $44 million, nearly sinking United Artists); over schedule (the film was five days behind by day six); directorial hubris (recent Oscar winner Cimino reportedly demanded endless retakes); technical difficulties (Cimino would wait hours for the right cloud formations); disastrous previews. RESULT: The film grossed a mere $3.4 million in its initial release. American critics widely panned the film when it was originally released, but European critics were warmer, and it has since been reassessed. Many find it a flawed masterpiece, and it was recently given the cinephile stamp of approval in the form of a release by the Criterion Collection.

Fitzcarraldo

DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog PRODUCTION WOES: Shutdowns due to health (leading man Jason Robards was forbidden from returning to the set after leaving midway through with dysentery); recasting leading roles (Klaus Kinski replaced Robards, while Mick Jagger’s character was written out); extensive reshoots (due to recasting); actor/director tension (Herzog has said a native chief offered to kill Kinski for him, but Herzog declined — so they could finish the shoot); technical difficulties (Werzog famously pulled a 320-ton steamship over a hill using pulleys rather than special effects). RESULT: One of Herzog’s greatest films, one of Kinski’s finest performances — and, again, another great movie in the form of Les Blank’s riveting documentary about the production, Burden of Dreams.

Twilight Zone: The Movie

DIRECTORS: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller PRODUCTION WOES: On-set accident resulting in the death of three actors (Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed when a helicopter flew out of control during a pyrotechnics sequence). RESULT: As would occur over a decade later with the late Brandon Lee’s The Crow, the film was completed using Morrow’s available footage. But the story of the accident and the subsequent manslaughter trial cast a pall over the film’s reception.

Ishtar

DIRECTOR: Elaine May PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from a $27.5 million budget to a final cost of $55 million); over schedule (its release was ultimately pushed back from Christmas 1986 to summer 1987); location troubles (tensions in North Africa caused rumors that Palestinians might attempt to kidnap co-star Dustin Hoffman); directorial hubris (endless retakes and, reportedly, outrageous demands); technical difficulties; tensions between actor and director (May and Warren Beatty spent much of the film not speaking to each other). RESULT: Stories of the out-of-control shoot saturated industry press well before its release — with Beatty suspecting they were the work of Columbia head David Putnam, who took over the studio while the film was in post-production there. That bad buzz led to a lousy $14 million box office gross, and the film’s title becoming a buzzword for disastrous productions. But, as with Heaven’s Gate, a small cult of defenders has grown in the years since its release, and the film is set for a Blu-ray and DVD release (its first) this August.

Waterworld

DIRECTOR: Kevin Reynolds (credited); Kevin Costner (uncredited) PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from a $100 million budget to a final cost of $175 million — a record at the time); rebuilding of sets (wiped out by a hurricane); extensive rewrites (including one by Joss Whedon, who called his time on the set “seven weeks of hell”); actor/director tension (rumor has it that Reynolds was either fired or walked off the set two weeks before the end of the shoot, leaving star Kevin Costner to take over directing duties); water shooting. RESULT: Though Waterworld’s problematic shoot and spiraling costs made it a popular object of scorn for the Hollywood press during its production — scribes dubbed it Fishtar and Kevin’s Gate — the film would prove profitable, recouping its giant budget in overseas grosses and chalking up its $88 million domestic gross as profit. Still a pretty lousy movie, though.

Titanic

DIRECTOR: James Cameron PRODUCTION WOES: Ballooning costs (up from a $135 million original budget to a final tab of $200 million — a new record); over schedule (by three weeks); technical difficulties (the ship was built in such a way that props and costumes had to be reversed so the image could be flipped in post); shutdowns due to health (Kate Winslet chipped a bone in her elbow; 50 people were hospitalized when a crew member reportedly laced the catering with PCP); water shooting. RESULT: You’d think Cameron would stay on dry land after the money hole of water shooting nearly sank Jaws, Waterworld, and his own The Abyss. But Cameron’s Titanic, initially pegged as a waterlogged, out-of-control mess during production, became an Academy Award winner and the highest-grossing movie of its time.