A recent story in The Hollywood Reporter offered a damning glimpse of life on the set of The Revenant, the hotly anticipated new Alejandro G. Inarritu movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. An electrifying trailer shot the movie to the top of many must-see lists, but apparently the blood-and-guts period sprawl that makes it so intriguing was hard-won: The *Reporter8 describes a production besieged by “crew defections, brutal cold, a global search for snow and even a naked actor dragged on the ground” — and that’s just the lede. At this point nobody knows whether to look forward more to the movie or the DVD making-of.
But this is hardly the first time a director has dragged a cast and crew through the muck to make a masterpiece — in fact directors have even been known to drag a cast and crew through the muck for a movie that isn’t very good. Here are the 10 wildest hell-and-back productions in movie history.
Director: Steven Spielberg
What Happened: Spielberg was only 27 years old when he began work on Jaws in 1973. He was young and cocksure and inexperienced — and he wanted his movie to be perfect. Hence why he decided, against the advice of pretty much everybody involved with the project, to shoot the film at sea rather than on a soundstage, a decision that very nearly obliterated both the film and Spielberg’s then-budding career. Nothing worked: Saltwater sabotaged the cameras; the cast and crew got sunburned and seasick; the boats could barely stay afloat. Finally, and almost fatally, the mechanical shark that was meant to be the movie’s villain went bust. But that last one, Spielberg later said, proved a godsend: it forced him to suggest a shark rather than show one, and with that a classic was made.
What It Cost: $40 million
HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)
Director: Michael Cimino
What Happened: Two words: carte blanche. The late 1970s were a period of ascendency for directors in Hollywood, as radicals were embraced as visionaries whose audacity could yield serious returns. Then it got out of hand. United Artists bequeathed Cimino, hot off winning Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Deer Hunter, with all the power and money in the world — and he used both. His attention to detail overrode common sense: For virtually no reason sets were assembled, torn down, and reassembled at stupendous cost, while the simplest takes were reshot ad infinitum to meet Cimino’s specifications. By the time the production wrapped it had run to three times its projected budget, and the rough cut Cimino haughtily delivered to the studio was nearly five and a half hours. It destroyed United Artists and ruined Cimino’s career. What It Cost: $127 million
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
What Happened: After an inauspicious pre-production period in which roles were shuffled around, musical numbers were devised and summarily dropped, and more than a dozen writers collaborated on one sprawling jumble of a script, there didn’t seem to be much left that could go wrong with The Wizard of Oz. Then all of it did. Buddy Ebsen, the Tin Man, was hospitalized after the aluminum paint he was slathered in coated his lungs. The mega-watt lighting required for the Technicolor photography started igniting flammable costumes and laying actors out across the yellow brick road. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, even found herself trapped in a grease fire in Munchkinland. Replacement directors were shoehorned in while pick-ups and reshoots were mounted at absurd expense. That the movie was ever completed was a miracle. That it was actually good was insane.
What It Cost: $46 million
WORLD WAR Z (2013)
Director: Marc Forster
What Happened: Production wrapped on World War Z toward the end of 2011, and it seemed a good bet, based on studio projections, that even with extension special effects work the movie would be ready for release sometime the next year — and anticipation was understandably high. Then the reshoots started. Weeks of work turned into months, disconcertingly, until finally Paramount felt compelled to hire Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard to totally rewrite the film’s ending. An uprising in post-apocalyptic Russia was traded out for a more modest climax at a World Health Organization facility, while elsewhere scenes were trimmed, plot points were retooled, and once-integral characters were cleaved to cameo status or excised entirely. (Keep an eye out for Matthew Fox!)
What It Cost: $190 million
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
What Happened: The quintessential “troubled production” had nothing but booze to recommend it: the cast and crew were happy to party their way through an otherwise unendurable shoot in the jungles of the Philippines, as all around them disease spread, equipment malfunctioned, and dead bodies littered the set. Those who survived the experience could hardly decide who was worse: Marlon Brando, who refused to read the script and likely wouldn’t have bothered to stay on it even if he had, or Coppola, whose confidence in his own creative genius steamrolled any sense of tact or caution. On the plus side the affair yielded not just one but two great films: Apocalypse Now itself and Hearts of Darkness, the behind-the-scenes doc that captured it all.
What It Cost: $98 million
Director: D.W. Griffith
What Happened: In its infancy the motion picture was beleaguered by every hardship you’d expect of working with a new technology, but by the middle of its second decade the practice had come into its own. The ambitious D.W. Griffith, meanwhile, was coming off the stratospheric triumph of his ode to white supremacy, The Birth of a Nation — so for his next project he decided to double down. Expanding an already massive production to an unprecedented scale, Griffith turned Intolerance into a four-part, 210-minute historical epic that spanned that spanned continents and millennia, making use of thousands of extras, city-sized backlot sets, and every dollar in the studio’s coffers. Even if it were a hit it would barely broken even — and Intolerance was a flop.
What It Cost: $47 million
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
What Happened: Pitched to its French and German producers as a rather more mainstream movie than Jean-Luc Godard was capable of (or interested in) making, Alphaville was to be a pulpy science-fiction noir starring the well-known Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, a private-eye character he’d made iconic in a series of B-movies from the 1950s. But no. Godard commissioned a 30-page script to appease the producers and then ditched it altogether while filming, making the obscure story up as he went and instructing his cast and crew to improvise — including his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, whom Godard demanded use so little artificial light on set that he was sure the developed film would turn out black. The final product was great, but the producers didn’t think so: they were so furious with Godard’s unconventional style that they insisted they be reimbursed their investment.
What It Cost: $1.6 million
DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)
Director: King Vidor
What Happened: Ostensibly a King Vidor film, Duel in the Sun is more accurately the work of David O. Selznick, legendary producer and notorious control freak — never more demanding than when overseeing this, the production that nearly ruined him. Selznick was on hand to interfere with Vidor’s every shot and setup, ordering elaborate reshoots to tweak single lines of dialogue and flying into rages anytime things were less than exactly as he imagined they ought to be. Vidor eventually walked out, but Selznick’s obsessiveness didn’t stop with the shoot. Even the score was a matter of ludicrous debate: after hiring and firing seven different composers Selznick is said to have hounded the one he settled on, Dimitri Tiomkin, to get the right “fucking music” for the love scenes.
What It Cost: $87 million
Director: William Friedkin
What Happened: Friedkin’s ambitious remake of the classic French suspense film The Wages of Fear is a great, long-underappreciated gem, and, happily, its reputation has begun in recent years to be restored. But there’s no redeeming the disaster of its production. Shot on location in Paris, Israel, the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Mexico, among other exotic destinations, Sorcerer was probably always doomed to get a little out of hand, particularly given the scale of Friedkin’s vision and the conviction he had to see it through. Arguments on set led to walk-outs, firings, and replacements in every department, while the head of the teamsters stormed off the set and took the trucking crew with him. In the end it was a group of makeshift pinch hitters that helped Friedkin realize his madcap epic — of course at considerable delay and many millions over budget.
What It Cost: $83 million
Director: Werner Herzog
What Happened: Fitzcarraldo tells the story of the maniac who aspired to drag a 30-ton steamship over a very steep hill. Werner Herzog, being a maniac himself, aspired to one-up the legend: For Fitzcarraldo he did the same with a steamship of his own — and his weighed not 30 tons but more than 300. As history-making feats go it may qualify as the most pointless, but it’s difficult to fault the effort. They really did it. (A candid glimpse of this preposterous endeavor can be found in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams.) Meanwhile the ordeal makes this a shoot like no other.
What It Cost: Many people’s sanity