The most unbelievable film sets in film history
First things first, I want to put this caveat up front: This is for films that actually made it out the door. There are many films that literally fell apart while filming to never be completed (like how Peter Jackson was supposed to make King Kong in the late 1990s, that kind of thing).These are absolutely insane behind the scenes stories about movies that somehow actually got out there into the world. We’re going to start a bit mild, but work our way towards arguably the craziest one in the history of Hollywood.
This movie never had a chance in hell of turning out the “right way.” I actually like this movie a lot (particularly the “Assembly Cut”), but it was hated by fans of the series at release, especially after waiting six years for the sequel after Alien 3 (1992) Aliens (1986).And those six years were a fucking nightmare.
Just for some context, there was a full seven-year gap between Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). However, in the seven years between those movies, 20th Century Fox wasn’t trying that hard to make a sequel. In fact, no one really wanted to even try, but James Cameron’s script for Aliens was so impressive, he got a green light.That was around 1984, so that means Aliens wasn’t seriously being developed for most of those seven years.On the other hand, the six years leading up to Alien 3 were DESPERATELY spent trying to make it happen.
(This GIF is test footage where they tried to put a real dog into an alien costume. It didn’t work out very well.)Countless drafts of scripts were written and are almost completely different from one another. One was written by legendary cyberpunk author William Gibson. One was written by David Twohy, who went on to create the character of Riddick. The weirdest one was written by Vincent Ward and involved a literal planet made out of wood by space monks.And in a desperate move to save time, elements from all of these scripts (and others we don’t have time to mention) were smashed together, creating the religious prison planet mash-up we ended up with.
It also led to a completely chaotic set where rewrites happened constantly and the new young director was constantly shoved around by producers and totally fucked over.That young director was David Fincher, who hated his experience so much that when he made Fight Club for 20th Century Fox in 1999, the studio executives had to specifically meet with him and assure they wouldn’t fuck with him like that ever again.Oh! One last thing. When they were trying to record the music, no one could oversee the recording due to the L.A. Riots of 1992, so Fincher didn’t even get to hear most of it until the film was finished. Basically, everything that could go wrong went wrong, and there’s even more, but we need to move on.
Poor poor Richard Stanley. The Australian born filmmaker had one dream: Take his favorite novel by H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and adapt it to the screen. In fact, he’d been developing the film for over four years.And it literally couldn’t have gone worse for Richard Stanley unless he was murdered on set. He was fired from the film literally four days into filming, and Stanley resorted to sneaking onto the set as one of the film’s extras to watch his dream project totally crumble.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
He was fired for two primary reasons. One, the studio didn’t like the direction the film was moving in. Two, he didn’t get along well with Val Kilmer, the film’s biggest name actor besides Marlon Brando as the titular Dr. Moreau. Val Kilmer is known for being a dick on set, but he actually had an excuse. Kilmer found out he was getting divorced by watching TV news on the first day of shooting. To make matters even worse, Marlon Brando was still recovering from his daughter’s suicide.
Combined with the fact that the new director, John Frankenheimer, didn’t really get along with the leads either and that’s how a six-week film shoot ends up turning into a six-month film shoot. The set was so miserable and disastrous that one of the film’s stars, David Thewlis, skipped the film’s premiere.If all of this sounds unbelievable, this is only a fraction of the story. If you’re interested in learning more, track down the excellent documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). It’s available on Amazon Prime goes into way more detail than I ever could.
Just like Fitzcarraldo (1982) The Island of Dr. Moreau, there is an excellent documentary about the horror-show that was the production of Fitzcarraldo called Burden of Dreams (1982). If you watch Fitzcarraldo, you have to watch Burden of Dreams. You know a film set has gone wrong when one of the locals walks up to the director and offers to murder the lead actor for a nominal fee.
I could go through the laundry list of everything that went wrong here from the set literally being attacked by bows and arrows (because the set was the actual fucking Amazon rainforest) to the prostitutes that were hired to keep people happy, but what you really need to know is this: Fitzcarraldo is based on a real story about a rubber baron who wanted to move his boat over the Amazon rainforest land to get it into inland waters.Except the real Fitzcarraldo achieved this by taking the boat apart, because dragging an actual steamboat through the middle of the Amazon is something no sane individual would attempt.
Except for director Werner Herzog, who not only literally dragged a steamboat through the real Amazon, but they used a boat that was ten times the size of the actual steamboat from the story. The end result was total fucking mayhem that literally injured countless people. Again, just watch Burden of Dreams, there’s some unbelievable shit. It’s possibly the craziest behind the scenes film documentary of all time, except for the documentary about…
One of the most infamous behind the scenes documentaries of all time is Apocalypse Now (1979) Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), even more infamous than Burden of Dreams. That’s probably because the documentary is basically watching director Francis Ford Copolla go completely insane while losing massive amounts of weight.Hell, the documentary is basically the go-to for “fucked up movie productions,” parodied on the DVD release of Tropic Thunder (it’s also the reason that the behind the scenes for Trailer Park Boys was called “Hearts of Dartmouth: Life of a Trailer Park Girl”).
And dear God does Apocalypse Now earn its spot on here. There’s a funny story before the filming of Apocalypse Now where Coppola tried to convince Al Pacino to sign on to the film. Al Pacino said: “I know what this is going to be like. You’re going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I’m gonna be down there in a swamp for five months.”Al Pacino was clearly skeptical of the planned six-week shooting schedule and turned Coppola down. But his joking overestimate of five months turned out to be lowballing it.
Coppola shot over 200 hours of film (about a million feet of film, a number that’s going to be important later) which took nearly three years to edit down into a movie. Whole scenes had to have the sound completely dubbed back in, Coppola mortgaged a house to help finance his movie, and that’s without getting into the unbelievable sixteen-month shoot. Martin Sheen almost died from a heart attack. Coppola threatened to commit suicide multiple times. A young Laurence Fishburne got addicted to heroin.There’s way more that went wrong, but what’s amazing is that the final film actually turned out well, so well it won two Academy Awards and made a lot of money. Which was great for Coppola, vindicating his madness.Unfortunately, his madness directly inspired the final film here…
Unlike the last three movies, there is no definitive documentary about Heaven’s Gate (1980) Heaven’s Gate. That’s probably because nobody involved with the project really wants to talk about it anymore (for reasons that will become abundantly clear).This disaster happened because of the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), which was written and directed by Michael Cimino. It was a critical darling and a financial success, so United Artists, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, backed him completely for Heaven’s Gate, a decision that United Artists went on to completely regret.
You see, Michael Cimino was “inspired” by the filming of Apocalypse Now. Remember how I said that Coppola shot a million feet of film for Apocalypse Now? Well, Heaven’s Gate shot 1.3 million feet, and it is heavily rumored that Cimino did this specifically to beat Coppola’s “record.”Needless to say, a director that was determined to pull that kind of shit should never have been in charge of an $11.6 million film. Keep in mind, this is 1980s money unadjusted for inflation, this was a lot of money back then, but not as much as the final budget that got up to $44 million.
The production was an epic-scale clusterfuck, and unlike Apocalypse Now which got great reviews and made a lot of money, Heaven’s Gate didn’t even flop. It straight up died at the box office, making literally $1.3 million and completely scorned by critics at the time, mostly because of its three and a half hour runtime. They cut it down to two and a half hours, but this version got even worse reviews because it didn’t make any goddamn sense (and I’ll use this opportunity to mention that Cimino’s original cut ran for five hours).
In the years since, critics have reassessed the three and a half hour version as something worth seeing (you know, if you’re into three and a half hour long westerns), but the reason Heaven’s Gate tops all of this is because it completely destroyed United Artists as a company. The company was purchased in 1981 by MGM, ending a company that had co-produced James Bond, Rocky, and The Pink Panther films.It’s a failure that literally represents the end of an era in Hollywood filmmaking. There aren’t many films you can say that about without exaggerating, but Heaven’s Gate is the unfortunate exception.
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