Op-ed: The Ship Can’t Sink Any Further: More Film Productions Off The Rails
This is my third (maybe fourth) piece on disasters in filmmaking because they are both funny and horrifying. It is where a director’s ego and the studio’s pocketbook collide, lighting on fire promising movies and resulting in really bad box office receipts and responses. Of course, some films such as Apocalypse Now and The Revenant may turn out well in the end, but in most cases, the films end up in the bin. So, no surprise, here are more stories of chaos behind the camera in the last few decades.
The Last Movie (1971)
Before he made Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper had sought to make his story of a film production gone berserk (ironically) his directorial debut, but studios did not give it the green light because it was confusing. Then, his counterculture picture was a smash, and despite problems making that picture, Universal gave Hopper $1 million to go to Peru and shoot it. However, Hopper decided to improvise scenes rather than use the script he co-wrote and cast friends including Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Michelle Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas fame), and director Samuel Fuller as, well, a director making the movie within the movie.
After shooting countless hours of footage, Hopper took the reels back to his home in New Mexico where he prevented everyone from even seeing what he was doing. He then presented it to his friend, experimental Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain), who didn’t like it and dared Hopper to recut it and make it completely unconventional. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Hopper didn’t finish his final cut until six months after the deadline. Not surprisingly, the film was a failure, but it has become a cult hit and critics have given it a second watch, which is certainly redeeming for Hopper’s directorial legacy.
Fresh from Chinatown, Roman Polanski sought to make his swashbuckling adventure that was opposite of what he had made beforehand. Problems arose from the start with casting and distribution – not to mention that other thing that forced him to relocate back home to France – and constant pull-out financial pull-outs that did not let him start shooting the film in 1984. Instead of Jack Nicholson, Polanski settled on Walter Matthau, who only took the role because his youngest son asked him to. Delays in constructing the mammoth galleon in Tunisia forced shooting five months later than scheduled, but then major storms swooped in the summer to make it even more difficult and impossible.
When he first partnered with Paramount in ’75, the budget was $15 million. At the start of principal photography, it was a $25 million budgeted feature with MGM agreeing to distribute. By the time the shoot was over, it had cost $40 million and MGM bought itself out of distributing this mess, which was then taken on by the now-defunct Cannon Group. Critics panned it and the film made only $6.3 million worldwide. In 2010, co-star Charlotte Lewis, aged 16 when she was cast, said Polanski told her she would be given the role if she slept with him. As Matthau said later, “For character and atmosphere I would give it four stars. I would not give it four stars for plot and action.” In short: a shipwreck.
Alien 3 (1992)
David Fincher, one of the best directors in the business today, did not have the best of debuts ever. He even disavowed the movie, saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Certainly, what happened was not totally his fault; even James Cameron and others from the previous films spared Fincher of blame. Immediately after the success of Aliens, 20th Century Fox greenlit the third film of the franchise immediately. Multiple writers and directors were hired, but the story kept changing and Fox spent $7 million (some sources say $13 million) on just pre-production before Fincher, already successful in music videos, was given the director’s chair. He was 28 years old and discovered quickly that he had five weeks to prepare with a partially completed script.
Somehow, Fincher squeezed every ounce of what the story had to complete it. Having to learn on the fly, Fincher’s pushiness and perfectionism alienated him from the crew. (I don’t think he shot a scene 99 times as with The Social Network.) But then again, he got great special effects for the movie, which earned an Oscar nomination. However, with the producers interfering all the time with constant changes and strict deadlines, it was too much for Fincher. It was critically panned, but a financial success; a so-called “Assembly Cut” was produced and released in 2003 without Fincher’s participation and fans of the series have warmed to the alternative version.
World War Z (2013)
The zombie apocalypse got favorable reviews and made a profit when it was released, but the story about its troubled production was already well known at the time. Brad Pitt and Plan B Entertainment were taking on a blockbuster production, the biggest they had done before or since. Marc Forster was hired to direct with only Quantum of Solace as his previous big-budget film, even though many felt he was not suited for such projects. The writing process then grew completely away from Max Brooks’ book, too little footage was shot per day, and principal photography snowballed past its original budget. Forster clashed with his crew and Pitt clashed with Forster. The Hungarian government seized the film’s weapons because they were not cleared by customs. And then there was the third act, which was virtually nonexistent.
Damien Lindelof and Drew Goddard were then brought to watch what they had shot and rewrote the script with a proper third act. The reshoots were made and Paramount was happier with their product, but they weren’t happy with a budget that some sources say went high as $269 million before marketing and advertising, which cost $160 million itself. After a year’s delay, the film came out and thankfully did not become a Waterworld. But the story did not end there as Paramount had previously planned a sequel. Once again, there was a lot of time spent on pre-production with David Fincher as director, but after several delays, the entire project was canceled. Probably for the best.
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