Working on a movie set can be a hellish experience at times. While some productions are luckily blessed by an ultra-prepared cast and crew that ensures shooting the movie goes swimmingly, others descend into utter chaos. Whether it’s harsh locations or a director gone mad, some films have endured the most tortured production experiences.
Let’s have a look at 10 of them.
1. The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)
Recently chronicled in the brilliant documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, this production has grown to become one of the most troubled and chaotic shoots in Hollywood history. To begin with, director Stanley spent four years developing the project before learning that New Line Cinema had went behind his back to offer directing reigns to Roman Polanski.
Furious and perplexed, Stanley met with Marlon Brando, who was set to star, and The Godfather actor was sympathetic towards the Stanley, who had distant familial ties to legendary African explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the chief inspiration for Brando’s character Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
However, the madness sadly didn’t stop there. After an inflating budget and severe tension with the unruly Val Kilmer, New Line abruptly fired Stanley and brought in John Frankenheimer. However, although Stanley had suffered a mental breakdown because of the mounting disaster unfolding before his eyes, Frankenheimer’s brutally dictatorial style of directing alienated the cast. He clashed with Brando multiple times and once said he would never do two things in his life ‘climb Mount Everest and work with Kilmer again.
2. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Werner Herzog’s art-house dive into the unforgiving Amazonian jungle is widely considered to be a masterpiece of cinema, a hallucinatory vision of madness which greatly inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. However, it came at a price. To begin with, Herzog reportedly wrote the script in a frenzied daze while on 200-mile bus trip with his football team. One of the players got drunk after a game and vomited on the screenplay, resulting in Herzog tossing it out the window.
When Herzog rewrote the script, he wanted actor Klaus Kinski for the titular role. Klinski’s way of accepting the role was to ring the director in the middle of the night screaming wildly out of his love for the screenplay. However, their contrasting visions for how the character would be portrayed would form the basis of many quarrels and clashes on set. Herzog drove Klinski mad with his style and the tempestuous actor, irritated by noise he heard from a hut where a number of cast and crew were playing cards, fired a gun three times, blowing off the fingertip of an extra in the process (could have been much worse, of course).
Legend has it that, in a desperate attempt to prevent Klinski from quitting, Herzog forced him to act at gunpoint. The filmmaker has categorically denied this ever happening, but it’s an interesting fable from a troubled production nonetheless and a snapshot of the boiling tension simmering somewhere under the tall trees of the Amazonian jungle.
3. Waterworld (1995)
The troubles of Waterworld are legendary nowadays. The futuristic “Road Warrior on Water” movie starring Kevin Costner was the most expensive film ever made at the time, massively overshooting its budget to $135 million. The movie’s set was every bit as plagued by doom as its post-apocalyptic story, beset by turmoil of an unprecedented scale at the time.
Several key crew members quit, including the assistant director and special effects designer, with one source telling the Los Angeles Times that “no one is running the show, and the environment is hostile to the detriment of the film.”
Sets were completely obliterated by a hurricane as the obvious drawbacks of shooting a movie on water became apparent. Joss Whedon, The Avengers director, worked on the movie when he was still making his way and described it as “seven weeks of hell.”
4. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1987)
Ask any actor and they’ll tell you that working with Terry Gilliam is an experience you won’t soon forget. The director wrapped his ‘Trilogy of Dreams’ with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1987, with its spiritual predecessors being Time Bandits and Brazil – often viewed as Gilliam’s magnum opus.
Yes, Baron may have opened to rave reviews and is considered to be another fantasy classic from the Python, but its production was rushed, dangerous and fraught with turmoil. Sarah Polley played Sally Salt, one of the film’s leads. She was nine years old at the time of filming and had this to say to Ain’t It Cool News: “It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it’s dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe.” Wow.
5. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dancer in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful and moving cinematic experience from an equally extraordinary filmmaker in Lars von Trier. The mind that brought us Nymphomaniac and Melancholia dropped Dancer in the Dark at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to numerous standing ovations and the prestigious Palm d’Or. However, behind this gripping piece of cinema was a dark example of a toxic actress/director relationship.
The film boasts a memorable central performance from Bjork, who had rarely acted before and found the experience so mentally exhausting that she vowed never to act again. She did act again, but she admitted to bearing scars from her strained relationship with von Trier, who pushed her time and time again until it was reported she greeted him on the set everyday by saying “I despise you.”
6. The Abyss (1989)
James Cameron has never been what you would call “by the books,” and for his underrated aquatic epic The Abyss, the director submerged himself in a giant concrete bowl that held 7.5 million gallons of water. Weighted with 40 pounds of camera equipment, Cameron filmed along the bottom of the tank, going 75 minutes on a single supply of oxygen. During one of these dives, Cameron found himself in trouble when he took a breath and got no air. When a safety diver George eventually tried to rescue him, Cameron panicked and inhaled loads of water when trying to fit his backup regulator.
As Rebecca Keegan writes in her Cameron biography ‘The Futurist’: “By the end of the day, [Cameron] had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank.” Well, you never could accuse Cameron of being boring.
Oh yes, the actors also spent so long underwater that the chlorine gave them skin rashes and sickness, while they had to undergo decompression at the end of each working day. They were worked hard by Cameron, with shooting schedules racking up 60-hour weeks of gruelling, physically exhausting underwater exploration.
7. Dune (1984)
Bringing Dune to the screen is not easy — just ask psychedelic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. However, master of surrealism and cinematic abstraction David Lynch decided to give it a bash, riding high after the success of The Elephant Man. At that time, Lynch was in demand, even turning down directing Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
However, he decided to accept directing Dune, even though he hadn’t read the book or directed a sci-fi movie before. What could go wrong? Well, Lynch hadn’t handled a production of this magnitude before and it became quickly apparent that he lost control. The product was a horrible, baffling mess of a film that was universally panned.
Roger Ebert gave it one star out of four and said “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Ebert added: “The movie’s plot will no doubt mean more to people who’ve read Herbert than to those who are walking in cold”
8. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Nick Thorpe, the excellent award-winning writer and journalist perfectly captured the madness of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo with a stunning Sunday Herald piece, which saw him going deep into Peru to recall the mayhem of what was dubbed ‘Herzog’s Unfilmable Nightmare.’
The key ingredient to this particular soup of disaster was as follows: Inter-tribal warfare, plane crashes, attempted murder, Mick Jagger and an ego-maniacal Klaus Kinski.
Herzog’s portrait of the rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald quickly began to resemble one of the most disastrous filming experiences of all time. Just like with Aguirre, Klinski was a tormentor-in-chief. The German actor was restless and reckless, being described as a ‘wild animal’ by someone who worked on the film. There was hundreds of native Indian extras working on the film, with one of them offering to have Klinski killed because of his spontaneous raving outbursts.
Herzog became unbelievably desperate during the filming process, telling Thorpe: “If I’d had to climb down to Hell itself and wrestle the film out of the claws of the devil, I would have done so,” the German director later recounted. “It was just not possible for me to allow myself private feelings of doubt whilst in the middle of making Fitzcarraldo.
9. The Twilight Zone (1983)
During the John Landis-directed segment entitled ‘A Quality of Mercy,’ actor Vic Morrow was decapitated on set by an out-of-control helicopter, also killing two child actors Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Lee. When the cameras rolled, pyrotechnic fireballs engulfed the helicopter, forcing it spin uncontrollably and crush the 6-year-old Renee. It toppled over and its main blade sliced the 7-year-old Myca. Hundreds of crew members looked on in horror. According to Stephen Farber and Marc Green’s book, Outrageous Conduct, there Renee’s mother started shrieking as she kneeled over her daughter’s lifeless body.
It was a horrific accident, but some good eventually came out of it, with Warner Bros. revolutionising their safety approach to making films. Vice president John Silvia exhaustively convened committees to inspect every single aspect of the filmmaking process. It didn’t prevent horrific accidents from ever happening again but Silva’s emphasis on extensive risk assessment most certainly spared Warner Bros. and other film studios several other traumatic episodes.
10. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The mac-daddy of hellish film productions, Apocalypse Now’s tortured shoot in the energy-sapping heat of the Philippines is almost as legendary as the movie itself.
“My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” announced Francis Ford Coppola to reporters before the critics’ screening of the film. Dennis Hopper said: “ I felt like I had fought in the war”.
Coppola wanted Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen for the role of Captain Willard, before it eventually went to Martin Sheen. In the midst of a complete personal breakdown, Sheen walked into a production set already riddled with drug-taking and alcoholism and his eyes lit up. Early in the process, Sheen got incredibly drunk and ordered the crew to film him. Despite threatening to punch Coppola, the director kept rolling and it eventually ended up in the theatrical cut, when we are introduced to Willard cooked up in his bedroom.
Actor Sam Bottoms, who played Lance Johnson, spent his time on set high on LSD and speed, while Sheen also suffered a near-fatal heart attack, at the age of 38.
Then there was Marlon Brando.
Having previously worked with Coppola on The Godfather, the actor turned up to the set not having read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ridiculously overweight and, after finally reading the script, refusing to be in the movie. He eventually agreed, but only if he was filmed in shadow and allowed to say whatever he wanted. Unprompted, he also shaved his head and demanded that all his lines be improvised, which partially explains why Kurtz is a babbling maniac in the film.
Coppola lost over 100 pounds during the nine-month ‘Hell on Earth’ shoot and threatened to commit suicide several times. The weather wan’t kind either, with an enormous typhoon destroying pretty much all of the sets.
Meanwhile, Hopper was surviving on a daily diet of rum, beer and three ounces of cocaine. In fact, cocaine was the only thing Hopper requested from his director throughout the shoot. Brando also hated Copper passionately and refused to be in the same scene as him. A six-week shoot eventually ended up closer to sixty weeks.
There’s plenty more to this, of course, and it’s all wonderfully captured in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. It’s unmissable.