Trouble On Set: Cinematic Tales Of Rack & Ruin # 1

September 10, 2019
Acts of nature, acts of god, acts of stupidity – many of the best stories in Hollywood happen behind the camera. Some productions defy the odds and make it to the screen with quality intact, but many fall into artistic ruin, victims of the curse of trouble on set.

WATERWORLD (1995) One of the most expensive films ever made, the futuristic action/adventure Waterworld certainly looks costly. Most of the film is shot on elaborate floating sets without a sliver of land in sight; the explosions are large and plentiful; and the footage has the meticulous beauty only achieved with costly set ups. The finished product, however, is only half the story, with acts of nature and displays of arrogance rife on the high seas. The main set was a 1,000-ton floating city that used every last ounce of steel on the Hawaiian Islands. Once it was built and ready to shoot, it was discovered that no one had thought to build lavatories on the sea-bound structure. So each day, filming was put on hold while busting cast and crew members were ferried to a toilet barge moored near the shore. That was a minor inconvenience though compared to the time taken to realign the set when it was battered by tropical winds. All that bother, however, was trumped by the hurricane that casually collapsed the whole thing, delaying the shoot for months. During the whole mess, star Kevin Costner put himself up in a $4,500-a-night villa, while the crew slept in back-to-basics bungalows. After a horror two-year production, Waterworld was finally released in 1995, ultimately rating as a critical and commercial fizzer. Kevin Costner, however, has always stood by the film, and what happened on its troubled set. “It’s a lot of people’s favourite movie,” Costner once said. “That’s not bullshit. That’s real. There’ll be a moment in time when people will maybe see what really happened with Waterworld. I know forensically everything about that movie, and what happened. I’ve never seen anybody really get it right. I wouldn’t write the book, but if somebody did, I’d know if they got it right. It’s an amazing movie.”

THE LAST MOVIE (1971) Drunk on the success of Easy Rider and the emergence of “New Hollywood” in the late sixties, movie studios began looking at ways to tap into the youth audience. The idea favoured was to loosen the reins, and let young directors do as they wished. Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie – shot in remote Peru – was born of this system, and is a startling example of everything that can go wrong when an unhinged visionary is let off the leash. Already a legendary drug taker, Hopper developed a habit for the record books, sharing his set with many musician and film friends who he flew down to keep him company. “We were down in Peru in this old Inca village, and Dennis was as crazy as he ever was,” co-star Kris Kristofferson told The Guardian. “I love Dennis, but back then he was the most self-destructive guy I’d ever seen! He antagonised the military and all the politicians. It was crazy.” Somehow Hopper came out alive, and then holed up to edit his forty hours of footage, not taking calls from anyone. The studio had advertised a release for Christmas of 1970 – a few months after shooting wrapped. Hopper didn’t even blink as the deadline flew by. When he showed his final cut to his friend, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the filmmaker ridiculed him for the literal storyline and conventional structure. Hopper promptly disappeared back into the edit suite. At last, after sixteen months of driving Universal executives out of their mind, Hopper submitted his finished cut. Hugely anticipated, The Last Movie won the Critics Prize at The Venice Film Festival. But the studio hated it and scaled back the release. Audiences were likewise unimpressed, and the film tanked. Over the whole ordeal, Hopper nearly single handedly destroyed the freedom of New Hollywood, but he did cement his reputation as one of the true wild men of cinema.

FITZCARRALDO (1982) Maverick German director Werner Herzog’s telling of the rubber baron who took a steam ship over a mountain is known as much for its tortured production as its skilled storytelling. The central motif of the film is the moving of a massive ship over a muddy mountain, a feat actually accomplished by the 20th century entrepreneur Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, who disassembled a ship to rebuild on a river on the other side of the mountain. Herzog decided that it would be more dramatic to drag his ship over intact. He adamantly argued against using special effects. He chose a location 500 miles from the nearest city. He also chose a steamer roughly ten times the size of the real life ship so the task looked more impressive. The footage in the film is spectacular, but the shoot nearly killed them all. The ship slid back into the river repeatedly. The crew was shot at with arrows from the jungle. But hauling a ferry over a mountain is nothing compared to the casting problems. After four months, leading man Jason Robards became critically ill and left the project. He was replaced by Klaus Kinski and shooting began again. Then second lead Mick Jagger had to leave to tour with The Rolling Stones. Exasperated, Herzog scrapped the character, scrapped all the footage, and began again, this time shooting in Kinski’s native German tongue. Although Kinski was perfectly cast as the crazy industrialist, his erratic temper caused havoc on the set. He offended the local tribespeople so much that a chief offered to have him killed. He regularly screamed at the crew, and exchanged death threats with Herzog. Their violent relationship is beautifully captured in the documentary My Best Fiend, while Burden Of Dreams tells the extraordinary story behind this remarkable film. “I shouldn’t make movies anymore,” Herzog famously said during production. “I should go to a lunatic asylum.”

TOWN & COUNTRY (2001) Warren Beatty had earned a reputation as a difficult case long before he was attached to Michael Laughlin’s script about a middle aged man negotiating the temptations of infidelity. Still, in the late nineties, Beatty was bankable enough to still command leading man status, and with him on board, Town & Country attracted a stable of glittering supporting stars, including Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Jenna Elfman and Garry Shandling. But with big names come busy schedules, and the script was rewritten to accommodate the demands of the big name cast. The project had the ingredients to be a hit, but the margin for error was small. When the shoot was marred by mishaps (like Gerard Depardieu’s motorcycle accident, and two days’ worth of film being stolen from the back of a van), the production began to spiral out of control. Almost the entire cast had upcoming commitments, so a rushed rough cut was put together and shown to the studio. The cut rated badly with test audiences. Script doctors were called in, and reshoots were squeezed around the cast’s other commitments, while Beatty out-muscled director Peter Chelsom and demanded endless takes for every scene. The pair are even rumoured to have had a fist fight, though Chelsom tipped water on that gossip during an interview with the UK’s Telegraph. “Whatever the rumours, Warren is an incredible talent.” Three years later, Town & Country had been bashed into some kind of shape, but Beatty was still all over it. After releasing a statement denying that he had been disruptive to the production in any way (“He signed on…as a hired actor with no responsibility for production, writing, or directorial decisions”), Beatty submitted his own edit of the film. Sensibly, studio New Line knew when to cut and run, releasing what they had of the film and taking a $90 million hit.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) James L. Brooks already had an enviable list of writing credits to his name by the time he was offered the job of adapting Larry McMurtry’s renowned novel Terms Of Endearment. Brooks also signed on to direct the adaptation, a rookie corralling some of the biggest acting egos in early eighties Hollywood. Despite being one of the biggest box office successes of 1983, garnering five Academy Awards and remaining a much-loved tearjerker, the shoot was a hellish affair. Casting the warring mother and daughter roles was a perverse merry-go-round until the producers finally locked in Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. The two women worked wonders on screen, but apparently left their manners behind as they competed for star status on the set. Details of their spats vary, but one much reported incident involved Winger lifting her skirt and farting in the direction of MacLaine. On another day, Winger had raised MacLaine’s ire so much that the older actress jumped in her car with the intention of leaving the set for good. She was stopped only by a runner throwing himself on the hood of her car. While the two women clashed repeatedly, Jack Nicholson (playing the debonair astronaut lover of MacLaine), reportedly revelled in the role of peacemaker. Although MacLaine came in with a reputation of being spiky, Winger was battling a nasty cocaine habit and spent months after the shoot in rehab. Terms Of Endearment remains a beloved classic, and the irony of a film about women bonding being beset by catfights has only added to its longevity. When MacLaine was filming the disappointing 1996 sequel The Evening Star, the producers wanted to use a picture of Debra Winger in one scene. In an interview with E! Online, MacLaine recalled, “The producer called Debra and asked if we could use it, and Debra said, ‘Sure, just make sure that Shirley doesn’t use it as a dartboard.’”

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2000) Chronicled in the brilliantly uncomfortable 2002 documentary Lost In La Mancha, Terry Gilliam’s pet project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote faced more forces of nature and unforeseeable disasters than could be believed in a script. Gilliam had been planning an adaptation of Cervantes’ comic classic for a decade, finally giving up on backing from Hollywood to secure a much more modest amount of European funding. Never one for humility, Gilliam imagined that his Spanish-shot film would be as grand as he had always dreamed. The cameras started rolling in September 2000, and on the very first day, filming had to be abandoned because of the rumbling noise of jets from a previously undisclosed nearby NATO base. A few days later, the cameras and set were destroyed when violent flash floods hit the desert location. With the budget and schedule already spiralling out of control, leading man Jean Rochefort took a nasty jolt from his horse, and herniated a disc in his back. Gilliam wanted to forge ahead, but the insurer, investors and first assistant director all saw the writing on the wall – the film was doomed. “My main concern is to protect the film, and sometimes even I can get in the way of the film,” Gilliam once said in self-assessment. “If I’m causing a problem, then I’ve got to be stopped. I tell this to everybody who works with me. They find it hard to believe, but they finally do say, ‘Terry, you can’t do it.’” Don Quixote had eluded them. To his credit, Gilliam allowed the making-of filmmakers to capture the whole thing, joking that “this project has been so long in the making and so miserable that someone needs to get a film out of it…and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me.” Well, in the end, it actually was, with Gilliam finally releasing his version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – with stars Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver headlining in place of Rochefort and Depp – in 2018.

BUFFALO ’66 (1998) Well before Vincent Gallo was accused by critic Roger Ebert of producing the worst film shown in Cannes Film Festival history (2003’s The Brown Bunny), the hipster enfant terrible had earned a reputation as an inflammatory talent. In his early years, he flitted between stints as a professional motorbike racer, a New York underground artist, singer, Calvin Klein model and actor. He argued with photographers, abused directors, spoke his mind about his peers, and was notoriously vitriolic to the women in his life. So when the precocious talent decided to turn his hand to writing and directing, a deeply sentimental and unconventional love story was the last thing that his critics expected. Buffalo ‘66 is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of American independent filmmaking. Still, it isn’t surprising that the film’s success is at odds with the stories from the set. Unconcerned with Hollywood politics, Gallo clashed bitterly with his leading ladies. His assessment of Anjelica Houston was less than flattering, painting her as a cantankerous prima donna. He recalled in a 2003 interview: “At some point, I told her some things like, ‘Listen, baby. We got your name; that’s all I needed. I got my money. I’ll put your wig on a fat truck driver and shoot him from the back.’ That’s when we had a falling out.” Not content with one target of animosity, Gallo also clashed with then-seventeen-year-old Christina Ricci. She has vowed never to work with Gallo again, saying that “Buffalo ’66 was the most beautiful example of self-absorption that I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I wouldn’t take that kind of abuse ever again.” To top it off, Gallo publicly called out Ricci on her fluctuating weight. Gallo is undoubtedly a talent, and Buffalo ’66 deserves all the praise that it gets. But given the pride with which Vincent Gallo seems to fashion grudges, don’t expect a cast reunion anytime soon…

CLEOPATRA (1963) Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton became the greatest silver screen couple in history, and celebrated director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra was the film that brought them together. That any of their careers survived the production is a minor miracle. In the late fifties, 20th Century Fox was in financially troubled waters, and the studio brass decided to find a crowd-pleasing epic to restore their fortunes. They settled on a remake of their 1917 success about the legendary Egyptian queen. Being a star-driven period piece, it was always going to be expensive, but the intent was that the mammoth budget would be spent on lavish sets and costuming. Instead, most of the original budget was chewed up when Elizabeth Taylor fell critically ill, prompting the production to shift from the chills of England to the temperate climate of Rome. The studio had to scrap sets and weeks of footage, and because of revised timetables, had to find a new director and supporting cast. When Mankiewicz was brought on board, production was already $5 million over budget. The turbulence around the production meant that Mankiewicz began his tenure at the helm without a finished script. In the following two-year shoot, he never saw one, having to improvise most of the dialogue with the actors. On top of all the production disasters, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – each married – started a very visible and very criticised affair. The negative publicity had Fox even more nervous for their saviour project, and executives began interfering more and more with Mankiewicz’ shoot. He famously remembers it as “the toughest three pictures I ever made.” The film was eventually released – it was the most expensive film made to that date – to mixed reception. It was long and confusing, but showcased exceptional acting talent, and intrigued audiences enough to save Fox from bankruptcy. It was a close call…

THE VENUS FACTORY (1998) With all the planning and preparation in the world, shooting an independent feature film is fraught with danger. Aussie cousins Jason Gooden and Julian Saggers had produced a few modestly successful short films and decided that their time had come to crack the big time. In September 1997, with $100,000 of financing raised from friends and family, they began production on a comedy about a porn star wanting to crack into mainstream film. Apart from minor hiccups and overspending, the initial shoot went well. But during editing, the hugely successful Boogie Nights was released with an uncomfortably similar plot. Jason and Julian forged ahead with a test screening. It was a disaster. Everyone passed blame onto someone else, and no one knew what to do with the negative feedback. They lined up meetings with distributors anyway. No one wanted The Venus Factory. The budget was now out to $412,000. In an attempt to stem the bleeding, the producers hired veteran writer/producer Dennis Whitburn (Blood Oath) to rework the film. Renamed Starring Duncan Wiley, it received damning reviews at its AFI Awards screening. In a final act of desperation, Jason and Julian decided to re-edit the film themselves, and tried to reshape it into a more commercial comedy. In 2003, with production costs of $1,104,000, the newly renamed Moneyshot managed a six-week limited arthouse release. Despite destroying relationships and finding themselves in debt for the rest of their lives, Jason and Julian later claimed that the ordeal was worth it for what they learned. Something did come out of it all though: Gary Doust’s masterful behind-the-scenes doco Making Venus received rave reviews. “When Gary started shooting the doco, he said that the only way that it would work would be if a disaster happens or if it fails badly, or goes on for years,” Jason Gooden told FilmInk. “I should have known straight away! Never underestimate the power of the spoken word!”

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962) By 1962, Marlon Brando had established himself as one of the greatest actors of all time, already being imitated by the likes of James Dean and Paul Newman. Brando also took his skill set to include writing and directing, which he unwelcomely forced upon the production of Mutiny On The Bounty. Remaking a wildly successful Clark Gable classic was already risky. Then the full-scale replica ship at the film’s centre was two months late arriving to the set, blowing out the budget within the first few months of filming. When celebrated director Carol Reed (The Third Man) quit over clashes with the bullish star, the press were ready to declare a disaster. Replacement director (and two-time Academy Award winner) Lewis Milestone also threatened to quit the film when it became apparent that the crew ignored their director in favour of Brando’s instruction. The two clashed violently, often resulting in Brando storming off the set for days. “Before he would take direction, he would ask why,” Milestone once said of the actor. “Then when the scene was being shot, he put ear plugs in so he couldn’t hear my direction.” Brando also sent jets packed with champagne to friends in Tahiti, and the actor’s ballooning weight required the costuming department to make his pants out of stretch fabric. Brando’s arrogance also put the rest of the cast offside, with respected co-stars Richard Harris and Trevor Howard fighting with the leading man. After a horror twelve-month shoot, the film was released to critical derision. Most singled out was Brando’s shaky British accent, but the reception at the time was undoubtedly influenced by the negative press surrounding the production. Several prominent articles had been published detailing Brando’s excesses, and audiences seemed to have reached the end of their patience for Hollywood self-importance. Through his own fault, it marked the end of the glory days for the larger-than-life Brando for over a decade.

NEIGHBORS (1981) In 1980, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were as hot as Hollywood property gets. Coming off the cult success of The Blues Brothers, the duo was in demand and irrepressible. Offered the opportunity to work together again on an adaptation of Neighbors, the blackly comic novel by Thomas Berger, the pair took to it like mischievous kids at school camp. The director was John G. Avildsen, the man behind the acclaimed films Joe (1970), Save The Tiger (1973) and Rocky (1976). But Avildsen had been less than impressive in handling comedy, with numerous previous efforts in the genre (The Stoolie, Fore Play) critical and commercial failures. The appointment by studio Columbia proved to be the kiss of death for the film, as the director never earned the respect of his larger-than-life stars. From day one, Belushi and Aykroyd took over the set. They decided that it would be fun to play against type and swapped their characters, with Aykroyd playing the obnoxious bully and Belushi the retiring nice guy. Avildsen was given no chance to object. Then the actors decided that the script could be better and set about rewrites, shoving them in Avildsen’s face or simply playing out the revised script during shooting. In the end, the film did reasonable trade, recouping its budget with an aggressive distribution strategy. The saddest part of the whole Neighbors fiasco is that it stands as the last film starring John Belushi, a comic genius who deserved a better final bow. “Oh god, Neighbors,” screenwriter Larry Gelbart groaned to website IGN. “I keep a video of that in the same room as my crazy uncle – and nobody’s allowed to see either one. Neighbors was a heartbreak from beginning to end. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi told me that they were going to enhance the script a little, and I said, ‘John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd enhancing a script is like hiring the Borgias for bartenders at a party.’”

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) The making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 damning of the Vietnam War is the most notorious production in movie history. Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, the cast and crew of Apocalypse Now descended into the same paranoid mania that befalls the novella’s hero. The shoot – all of the manic madness of which is captured in the brilliant 1991 documentary, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – ballooned from the six weeks scheduled to sixteen months, with cast and crew spending most of that time living in the isolated Philippines jungle. Drug taking was rampant. Playboy Playmates were flown in on a rewriting whim. Typhoon Olga smashed through the set, costing millions and setting the shoot back two months. Star Martin Sheen had a heart attack halfway through filming, thought to be stress and anxiety induced. Marlon Brando arrived on set obese, obnoxious and not having read the script or the book. Towards the end of shooting, Coppola threw out the ending and started rewriting, shooting the next day what he had written the night before. Never has life imitated art so starkly. Coppola had been warned of the perils of shooting in an isolated foreign land. His friend Roger Corman, who produced The Big Doll House (1971) in the small pacific nation, said simply, “Don’t go.” But Coppola had taken on studios and egos and naysayers with The Godfather and triumphed – why wouldn’t he again? After sixteen months, Coppola finally emerged with over 200 hours of film. In the end, his vision did triumph. Perhaps all the drama, debauchery and hubris were essential to infuse the film with the urgency and intensity that makes Apocalypse Now so special. It made Coppola a Hollywood leper and legend in turns, ultimately overcoming all the negative press to be revered as one of the greatest films of all time. There is no doubting, however, that it defied the odds to make it out of the jungle and onto the screen at all. “My movie is not about Vietnam,” Coppola famously said. “My movie is Vietnam.”

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