Chaotic Film Productions

Charles Graham Dixon

Lynne ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Ramsay managed to throw her latest film, Jane Got A Gun, into complete chaos by not actually bothering to turn up on the first day of shooting. Everything was in place – sets, scripts, actors, technicians. However, after clashing with the film’s producer Scott Steindorff (a reported three-day standoff) over control of the final cut, Ramsay walked out before a foot of film was shot. Of course, this isn’t the first troubled film production and certainly won’t be the last.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) 

While Captain Willard descends into near madness travelling down the Nung River into Cambodia, Francis Ford Coppola was also beginning to lose his grip on reality. In his desire to create a heightened level of realism and the ‘ultimate’ Vietnam film, Coppola and his crew went ludicrously over budget, spent over a year instead of five months shooting and saw their star, Martin Sheen, suffer a heart attack. The result of this arduous, life-changing production is still a masterpiece.

For a detailed account of the trials and tribulations behind the film, watch Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982) 

Werner Herzog productions invariably contain moments of insanity – this is a man who was shot during a BBC interview and initially ignored it. Add volatile collaborator Klaus Kinski to the mix, along with hundreds of non-professional actors, venomous snakes and an attempt to drag a 320-tonne steamship over an enormous mountain and the scene is set for an almighty mess.

Kinski and Herzog’s on-set relationship, chronicled in the brilliant behind-the-scenes film Burden of Dreams, reached breaking point during filming, with reports that the native extras offered to have Kinski murdered, so appalled were they by his behaviour. 

Other routine hiccups in the production included actor Jason Robards, who was cast in the lead role, suffering from dysentery and being forced to abandon the film. A Peruvian native also contracted malaria and died while another native family were attacked and injured near the film site by a hostile local tribe. Just your run-of-the-mill Herzog production. 

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Perhaps The Exorcist retains its power due to the lengths William Friedkin went to to get exactly what he wanted. Ellen Burstyn suffered back injuries after Friedkin misled her about exactly how hard she would be slammed against the hardwood floor in one scene. The look of shock and fear on Father Dyer’s face at the end of the film is not so much brilliant acting as a reaction to the hard slap suddenly given to him by Friedkin to evoke a response. And that it did. 

On top of Friedkin’s tyranny was the sense that the film was cursed. The set was destroyed during a fire one weekend when it was totally deserted and as many as nine people associated with the production died during the making, and shortly after the film’s production.

American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) 

Considering he went on to make Star Wars, the production of George Lucas’s teen nostalgia movie should have been simple. It wasn’t. The film had a strict shooting schedule of only 28 days, which meant losing half a day on the first night of shooting due to lens problems. That was just the beginning: A key crew member was arrested for growing marijuana prior to shooting, the assistant cameraman fell off a filming truck and was run over, actor Paul Le Mat suffered an allergic reaction to a Waldorf salad, local councils constantly withdrew permission to film the California locations and Richard Dreyfus gashed his head before a day of close-ups. Despite all this, and via a budget of only $775,000, the film went on to gross $140,000,000.

Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992) 

Before Se7en, The Social Network and Fight Club, David Fincher was unknown and the nightmare he encountered shooting Alien 3 nearly made him turn his back on filmmaking for good. Alien 3 went wildly over budget, changed directors, had its script rewritten by multiple writers during shooting and was re-cut by studio executives behind Fincher’s back – one of many ways they constantly undermined the young director. Unsurprisingly, David Fincher disowned the film.

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) 

After making The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was Hollywood royalty. But Heaven’s Gate marked not only the end of the decade but also a golden period for American cinema. The film was budgeted at 11 million dollars but ended up spiralling to 44 million and only made 3 million at the box office. Not good.

Cimino shot a million, yes a million, feet of film and handed in a cut of 5.5 hours to bemused studio executives. In the end, Heaven’s Gate destroyed United Artists, Cimino’s career, and the unprecedented levels of freedom afforded to young talented directors.

The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) 

Is there a greater production problem than having your star die during shooting? After a mistake by crew members who left live ammunition rather than blanks in a gun used for filming, Brandon Lee was accidentally killed with eight days of filming still remaining.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam, Unreleased) 

Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote project was so troubled it never actually came to fruition, and a documentary was made on the problems it encountered. The project was doomed from the start after Gilliam decided to shoot near a NATO air base, freak floods destroyed equipment, and the leading actor, Jean Rochefort, fell off his horse and had to bow out altogether, leading to the film’s demise. Gilliam still hopes to make the film.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller, 1983) 

Deaths on movie sets really shouldn’t occur – after all, this is meant to be fiction. During a segment of the film directed by John Landis, actor Vic Morrow and a child actor were both decapitated and mutilated by the rotor blades of a helicopter while another child actor was crushed to death. Apparently an inexperienced technician exploded two pyrotechnic explosions incorrectly, the helicopter pilot lost vision and control and crash landed on Morrow and the children.

To compound matters, the film’s production violated Californian child labour and health and safety laws and led to civil action against the filmmakers, which lasted for nearly a decade.

The Abyss (James Cameron, 1986) 

The cast of The Abyss were driven to breaking point in James Cameron’s ambitious underwater thriller. Cameron’s uncompromising (to put it kindly) directorial style alienated his cast after he had them working 70-hour weeks and asked them to urinate in their diving suits to save time between takes – hey, at least he was trying to shorten their hours.

The pressure finally got to the cast and they resorted to smashing up their trailers and dressing rooms, Keith Moon-style, to release their pent up anger.

Follow Charles on Twitter: @CharlesGD 

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