Skip page navigation

Vadim Rizov

| e-mail

The 10 Most Disastrous Film Productions of All Time

world war z review

This Friday’s “World War Z” is one of the most troubled would-be blockbusters in recent memory. Cost estimates have ranged from $200 to $400 million, with the reasons for the overspending chronicled in this hypnotically detailed “Vanity Fair” article. Though the sheer amount of misspent money might be unique, the root causes — a chaotic set overrun by too many unsupervised extras, miscommunication and conflict between all members of the cast and crew, endless rewrites and re-shoots — are hardly unprecedented. Here’s a look at ten of the most troubled productions in film history.

10. “Joker” (2012)

Let’s start with a recent example underreported in the Western media. “Joker” is the second directorial effort by Bollywood editor-turned-helmer Shirish Kunder. In an email, film writer and Bollywood super-fan Danny Bowes explained that Kunder’s first film “Jann-E-Maan” “was well-received but got crushed at the box office by a Shahrukh Khan (aka King Khan, arguably the biggest star in Bollywood) blockbuster. The next year, Shahrukh starred in Shirish’s wife’s [director/actor Farah Khan] biggest hit, ‘Om Shanti Om,’ which Shirish edited.” Commercial hopes were nonetheless bright for “Joker,” which was to be the first Indian film in 3D. There were on-set troubles learning to use the cameras, but morale was more seriously jolted by Khan’s sudden announcement he would beat Kunder to the punch by post-converting his “Ra.One” to 3D. Subsequent releases of that as well as a few other post-converted 3D films didn’t perform as well as expected, and the Indian film industry quickly soured on the format’s commercial potential.

Result? “Kunder starts having serious money troubles, production goes on hiatus for several months, and ‘Joker”s release is pushed back from October 2011 to August 2012. When production resumes, it’s on the cheap and a whole lot of stuff that was supposed to be in it gets left out,” Bowes explains. “When it finally came out, it was exhibited in 2D only despite there being countless shots in it that were clearly shot stereoscopically, and was only an hour and forty minutes, a full hour shorter than Shirish allegedly intended it to be.” Reviews were catastrophic and Kunder lost his next directorial gig, but he’s still set to edit his director wife’s new film — which will star none other than Shahrukh Khan.

9. “Tootsie” (1982)

One of several movies on this list whose creation was tumultuous enough to merit a whole book, “Tootsie”‘s gestation took about four years from start to finish, making for plenty of trade journal fodder throughout. The starting date for production was pushed back from February to April of 1982, a delay necessitated by a multi-month quest to come up with the right makeup and look for Dustin Hoffman in disguise as female actress Dorothy Michaels. On the set, Hoffman clashed endlessly with director Sydney Pollack. “For whatever reason, I think Dustin feels that directors and actors are biological enemies, the way the mongoose and the cobra are enemies,” Pollock told “The New York Times” in 1982. “I think if he would give a director half a chance, and not assume that the director is trying to kill him, he would see that most directors want exactly what he wants, which is the best possible picture.” Nearly a dozen writers pitched in, but bad feelings most strongly lingered between Hoffman and the late Larry Gelbart, who quipped of the experience “Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statuette.”

8. “Rosebud” (1975)

Most of Otto Preminger’s film sets involved him finding one actor to scapegoat and mercilessly berate throughout, but tensions on “Rosebud” — a thriller about five wealthy girls kidnapped by the Palestinian Liberation Army — spiraled more than usual. Trouble began when Preminger unwisely hired his son Erik to write the script. The product of an affair with famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Erik had only learned of his father’s identity as a young adult (the two first met in 1967). Otto’s decision was well-meant, but he was disappointed with the outcome, causing tension between father and son (of a scene Erik wrote in which a dying Palestinian terrorist is consoled by Richard Attenborough’s character, Otto fumed “United Artists would rather burn the film than release it with this scene in it.”).

Cast and crew turnover was heavy: a little over into a month into production, the grips had a sign listing the odds on who the 19th person to be fired and replaced would be. The most high-profile of the replacements came early, when Robert Mitchum’s on-set drunkenness led to his firing (there are many versions of what actually happened, but that’s the simplest). Mitchum was replaced by the equally inebriation-prone Peter O’Toole (of which Mitchum said “Hell, that’s like replacing Ray Charles with Helen Keller”). Other production lowlights included O’Toole’s hospitalization after losing two pints of blood through internal bleeding and a shutdown due to his receiving a bomb threat. The whole debacle was chronicled in journalist Theodore Gershunny’s book “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture,” bluntly subtitled “The Anatomy of an All-Star Big-Budget Multimillion Dollar Disaster.”

7. “Duel In The Sun” (1946)

In 1946, the average cost of a Hollywood production was $665,000. Producer David O. Selznick’s lavish “Duel In The Sun” cost $5 million, making it the most expensive Hollywood feature to date, with another $2 million spent on advertising (including such extravagances as “5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing,” Adam Lounsbery notes). The release was as outsize as the production difficulties: at least seven people directed scenes while Selznick rewrote the script on a daily basis on a shoot that lasted over a year, tripling its budget in the process.

All the while, star Jennifer Jones — who’d left husband Robert Walker for the still-married Selznick — had to crawl through a bruise-inducing canyon while fretting over her relationship (she made a suicide attempt after filming wrapped; the two later married). Because of the film’s salacious content, Selznick had to release it himself, with problems all the way to release: a strike at Technicolor pushed the film’s release to December 31. The result was the second highest-grossing film of 1946, though the cost meant it didn’t do much better than break even.

6. “Sorcerer” (1977)

Even before “Sorcerer” began shooting, William Friedkin’s dream cast — Steve McQueen, Lino Ventura, Marcel Mastroianni and Moroccan actor Amidou — fell apart, the first harbinger of trouble to come. The thriller’s best remembered for a 12-minute sequence in which a nitroglycerine-laden truck struggles to cross a rickety wooden bridge in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm; said bridge was constructed at the cost of a million dollars over three months, only for the river below to dry up. The bridge’s setting was then relocated from the Dominican Republic to Mexico.

During the rebuilding process, 12 crew members who were using drugs had to leave the country (a courtesy to Friedkin, he explains in his new memoir “The Friedkin Connection”; otherwise they would have been immediately arrested). The water under the replacement bridge dried up again; the sequence was eventually completed for the cost of $3 million, about a ninth of the total budget. The resulting tumult (similar difficulties dogged the entire shoot) carried over into Friedkin’s next feature, 1980′s “Cruising,” whose production was systematically disrupted by angry gay activists concerned the film would stoke homophobia.

5. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (never completed)

Trouble has often stalked Terry Gilliam: he has the distinction of having not one but two full-length books written about his difficulties (“The Battle of Brazil” and “Losing the Light,” which concerns “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”). Having learned from his past studio battles, Gilliam brought on Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to film a making-of for 1995′s “Twelve Monkeys” in case things went south and he needed evidence that any problems weren’t his fault. The movie was a rare problem-free critical/commercial success, and Gilliam invited the pair back to document his long-anticipated “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” The shoot infamously fell apart in a series of events documented in 2002′s “Lost In La Mancha,” one of the rare making-ofs for a movie that was never completed.

4. “The Life Of Wu Xun” (1950)

This biopic about a 19th-century Chinese pioneer of free education had a troubled production history that was still nothing compared to what followed after its release. Wu Xun spent years begging, turning the accumulated cash into capital for a charity school. Interest in Xun resurged in the 1940s, and shooting on this movie began in 1948 at the China Film Studio. When the studio began having difficulties, the Kunlun studio bought the rights and unedited rushes totaling about one-third of what needed to be shot. That spring, the Communists took over Shanghai and the National Congress of Artists and Writers, leaving writer-director Sun Yu uncertain whether the heroic story of a landlord who was firmly part of the feudal system was suitable for the current political climate.

When money troubles hit Kunlun, Yu took advantage of this period to rework the script into one that (per writer Paul Clark) “that emphasized the limits of Wu Xun’s reformism and his failure to liberate the poor.” Despite ongoing arguments about the story’s current political appropriateness, the production ended up as a sprawling, well-received two-part epic. The following year, Chairman Mao (who writer Kevin B. Lee calls “the Roger Ebert of China for decades”) wrote a famous editorial effectively denouncing the film as reactionary and counter-revolutionary. For the nascent film industry, the ensuing fallout meant an emphasis on (Clark again) “films that were full of politics and considerable educational significance” as a sure way of “avoiding mistakes.”

3. “Hell’s Angels” (1930)

Like many of the films on this list, “Hell’s Angels” went through many directors (possibly up to six), going way over budget and schedule in the process. The prolonged shoot of this World War I aerial combat epic sprawled from the end of the silent era to the beginning of the talkie, requiring dubbing the flying scenes and reshooting of dialogue sequences to keep up. Four people died during filming of the dangerous plane footage (leading Howard Hughes to perform some stunts himself, resulting in a life-endangering crash of his own, later memorably re-enacted in “The Aviator”). Hughes threw money at money, staging what may still be the world’s largest premiere (50,000 onlookers surrounding Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on a street lit by 185 arc lights), and the movie performed well but — like “Duel In The Sun ” later — was too expensive to do much more than recoup the investment.

2. “Cleopatra” (1963)

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, “Cleopatra”‘s four-year path to the screen is well-known. Perhaps best known as the movie where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton first met and became the world’s most-famous couple, it began as an attempt at a noir-ish, snappy story of power and sexual intrigue. At the urging of producer Walter Wanger (and against 20th Century Fox’s wishes), “Cleopatra” was reconfigured as an epic. The first shooting period spent $7 million to produce 10 minutes of footage that ultimately proved unusable, leading first director Rouben Mamoulian to resign.

Replacement Joseph L. Mankiewicz moved the film from its unsuitable England locations (hampered by Egypt-inappropriate rainy conditions and union troubles) to Rome, where difficulties never ended. The resulting shoot had problems at almost every level, from the major (the final cost of production and promotion was near $45 million, a potentially ruinous outlay it took Fox three years to recover) to the absurd (security guards had to be hired to keep scantily-costumed female extras safe from sexual harassment).

1. “Fitzcarraldo” (1982)/”Apocalypse Now” (1979)

The twin gold standards of production difficulties and the ultimate reference point for all subsequent tortuous shoots; it’s no accident that in his memoirs, William Friedkin compares his reckless investment in “Sorcerer” to the myopia of “Fitzcarraldo, the man who built an opera house in the Brazilian jungle.” Without Herzog’s film, few would remember this true story; the resulting movie, great as it is, is overshadowed by its making-of, famously documented in Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”. It was with this movie and the many subsequently-shared stories about “Fitzcarraldo”‘s production (like the time an Indian chief offered to kill impossible lead actor Klaus Kinski) were the beginning of the cult of worshipful personality Herzog now commands for being a consistently wild and crazy guy; it’s the ultimate Herzog set from hell, one out of many shot under seemingly impossible, self-imposed dangerous circumstances.

Similarly, “Apocalypse Now”‘s endless, insanity-inducing shoot — documented in both a documentary and a published book of director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor’s diaries — have come to occupy nearly as much cultural space as the movie itself, if not more.


Categories: Lists

Tags: Apocalypse now, Brad pitt, Disastrous movie productions, Fitzcarraldo, Francis Ford Coppola, List, Rosebud, Tootsie, Vadim Rizov, Werner herzog, World war z