Don’t Worry Darling is opening in theatres this week, offering us our first chance to find out if the movie is better and more interesting than the production-related drama that’s dogged it for months. The production involved COVID-related delays, of course, but also at least one major casting conflict: Shia LeBeouf, the movie’s original male lead, left the production following the beginning of principal photography. At the time, the studio cited “scheduling conflicts;” director Olivia Wilde has since stated that his on-set behaviour was the cause of the troubles. LeBeouf himself says that he quit, but the actor’s reputation isn’t entirely spotless. Then there were rumours suggesting that star Florence Pugh clashed with Wilde; Wilde was served legal custody papers in the middle of her presentation for the film at CinemaCon; and finally, there were the rumours that star Harry Styles allegedly spit on bored-looking co-star Chris Pine in Venice…something that certainly didn’t happen, but has dominated discussion of the movie ever since.
While movies like these are huge headaches for filmmakers, we love them — or at least the stories behind them. There’s nothing like a troubled production history to get us interested in a movie.
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Like all of the best and most troubled Hollywood productions, you can watch the movie and then you can watch the movie about the movie: in this case, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which spends a chunk of its runtime on the making of Hell’s Angels. With seemingly limitless resources, no filmmaking experience, and no one to tell him “no,” producer Howard Hughes forced two directors out before taking over the job himself, then spent a year and a half crafting a silent film before deciding that sound would be the way to go — at which point actors had to be replaced. Hughes’ lax eye toward safety also led to the deaths of three pilots and a mechanic, and left Hughes with a skull fracture (that’s sometimes seen as contributing to his later eccentricities) and facial reconstructive surgery. All told, the film took about three years to produce.
Still: Those aerial sequences remain some of the most thrilling ever filmed.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The troubles on the set of The Wizard of Oz were more damaging for some than others (the verbal, sexual, and physical abuse suffered by Judy Garland — then, and throughout the early days of her career — remains horrific). Although Victor Fleming is credited as the movie’s sole director, he was actually the fourth of five who worked on the film at various points, with at least that many versions of the script in play at any given point. There were several major casting changeovers, as well, the most significant involving the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, who was hospitalized in critical condition after inhaling the aluminium dust used in his makeup. The studio changed the makeup when Jack Haley replaced him.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Orson Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane, was a relatively smooth (if not entirely without drama) production, but that movie’s legendarily troubled release set the stage for a lifetime of struggles for Welles. After getting carte blanche on Kane, Welles lost final cut approval on Ambersons with catastrophic results: Producer RKO waited until Welles left town to do some work on a documentary, and then had the film whittled down by 40 minutes, and the ending reshot to make it more upbeat (in a way that jars with the rest of the movie). The changes were all made in the interest of making something more marketable, but the film still tanked at the box office. It’s a classic even still, but a compromised one; the director’s missing footage remains a holy grail among classic film enthusiasts.
Stromboli might not have been a troubled production for its star and director — they were having a great time — but it quickly became a problem for everyone else involved (and their spouses). The more prosaic problem involved editing: Roberto Rossellini’s Italian-American co-production was mangled by U.S. distributors, leading to a string of lawsuits around the question of what the English-language version of the film would look like, and who would get to decide. But the film’s real issues involved the affair between married director Rossellini and also-married star Ingrid Bergman. Once Bergman became pregnant (Isabella Rossellini being the result), the romance became impossible to hide.
Pearl-clutching U.S. audiences skipped Stromboli, and the fall-out wasn’t limited to the film itself: Producer Walter Wanger was banking on his much-delayed Joan of Arc adaptation (starring Bergman) to save his company and finances…which didn’t happen, at least in part because it came out just a few months after the scandal broke. As for Stromboli itself: It’s a rather impressive and beautiful feat of early European neorealism…but the movie will never be able to compete with its own scandalous reputation.
Cleopatra was to be producer Walter Wanger’s big comeback, and he bet everything on the star power of Elizabeth Taylor — and then Liz had an on-set affair with co-star Richard Burton. The relationship was as often seen as a dalliance among glamorous celebrities (though the Vatican publicly denounced Taylor, so not everyone was so blasé), but if it couldn’t tank the movie, the movie became about the affair; conversations about the film were always centered on “Liz and Dick.” That wasn’t all, though. The movie went through two and a half years of production, two directors, multiple scripts, significant cast swaps, two changes of management at 20th Century Fox, a near-fatal bout of pneumonia suffered by Taylor, and huge cost overruns when it was decided that the original sets in England were unsuitable. Overall, the movie cost roughly $US44 ($61) million dollars, which was about $US30 ($42) million more than the previous all-time most expensive movie (Ben-Hur).
The good news, at least, is that the results were pretty spectacular, and the box office returns were phenomenal…but this was certainly no way to make a movie, and even as the highest-grossing film of the year, it fell well short of turning a profit.
As it happens, shark technology was not quite where it needed to be when up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg set out to adapt Peter Benchley’s bestseller. The movie began without a finished script, nor a complete cast, but Jaws was also reliant on a mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce”), a prop that never worked as it should, and then only when dry. It was a problem that probably saved the movie in the end: The lack of a working shark forced the young director to get creative, and the movie succeeds as much because of what you don’t see as what you do, and the beefed up screenplay turned the movie into an unexpected prestige picture.
Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had previously had luck in shooting movies back-to-back. Their 1973 Three Musketeers movie and its sequel had been hugely successful, so they decided to go that route with Superman, developing and then filming two movies simultaneously to save money. They commissioned a script from Godfather writer Mario Puzo that ran over 500 pages (which would typically be enough for four movies) before finally setting on a director: Richard Donner. There was trouble from the start, as Donner didn’t like Puzo’s campy, goofy tone, and disagreed with the Salkinds when it came to casting: They wanted a big name, while Donner thought a lesser-known actor would more easily win audiences over. He brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the script, pretty much from scratch, before agreeing to the casting of Christopher Reeve. The fact is that Donner was right about pretty much everything, but the conflicts escalated when the director ran over budget and schedule, so the Salkinds essentially took the second part of the production (for what would be Superman II) away from Donner and brought on Richard Lester to finish the project, refilming much of Donner’s work on the second movie to restore a bit of their preferred campy tone.
Once the first movie released to overwhelmingly positive reviews, blockbuster box office receipts, and a handful of Oscar nominations, Donner’s view was vindicated, but the second movie was already in the works. And that one turned out well, too, despite all of the problems. The third movie, directed by Lester and completely Donner-free, offers a look at what the series as a whole would have looked like if the production had gone more smoothly. In this case, the drama that resulted from bringing in a director willing to upset the apple cart was almost certainly worth it.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Here’s another one whose production was so notoriously troubled that it inspired a separate documentary (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse). On the heels of the success of the Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola spent a huge chunk of his own money to develop writer John Milieus’ concept for an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam. Perhaps putting it best himself, Coppola described the production to reporters at Cannes in 1979: “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
The movie’s budget more than doubled, as did the schedule. There were at least ten drafts of the script. Coppola had an epileptic seizure during the filming, and star Martin Sheen had a near-fatal heart attack. Marlon Brando was difficult (not surprising), and he and Dennis Hopper disliked each other so much that they refused to be on set together. This story has a happy ending, though: The movie was a hit with critics and audiences, and still finds itself on lists of the greatest American films of all time.
The Shining (1980)
Even under the best of conditions, doing a movie with Stanley Kubrick was never a cake walk. In the case of The Shining, what was planned as a six-month shoot wound up running to over a year, near the end of which some of the primary sets burned down and workaround had to be found. Both notoriously controlling and a bit of a prankster (to put it mildly), Kubrick had a full maze built for the hedge-maze scenes, and then enjoyed letting the cast and crew get lost. The hardest time, though, was had by Shelley Duvall, who was saddled with the film’s most emotional moments. Forced to wail and scream on cue over and over again for months, the justifiably stressed actor became sick for months and found herself losing hair — only to be criticised on the movie’s release for playing the character at too high a pitch (for me, she’s the film’s most human and relatable character by far). As with just about every other Kubrick-directed film, the resulting movie is brilliant — but forces us to wonder if the road had to be so rough.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
This one seems to have been the product of directorial hubris that didn’t pay off: Michael Cimino, fresh from the success of The Deer Hunter, took a notoriously hard line with his demands for Heaven’s Gate. His style with the film’s actors was, by all accounts, dictatorial to the point of abusive, and he ate up studio money with endless retakes (he shot something like 1.3 million feet of footage) and delivered a movie that was over five hours long. The final version, released at a slightly more reasonable length of three+ hours, tanked at the box office and disappointed critics. The financial hit taken by United Artists caused an industry-wide reevaluation of the value of the individualistic “auteur” directors who came out of the 1970s, and is credited with, for better or worse, ushering in an era of renewed studio control over productions.
From pre-production to release, Roar took just about eleven years to finish. Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren, to this day, works in the care of big cats through her Roar Foundation and Shamble Preserve animal sanctuary. It’s not surprising at all that she would have been involved in the film Roar, conceived as a family-friendly adventure comedy to be written and directed by her then-husband, Neil Marshall, and co-starring her daughter, Melanie Griffith.
Starring the three of them as a family that lives among exotic cats, Marshall was adamant about using real animals. You can probably guess where this is going: Between 70 and 100 injuries were reported on set during filming. Marshall himself nearly lost an arm at one point and suffered gangrene and blood poisoning as a result of several other bites and injuries; Hedren was bitten through to her skull by a lion, bitten on the chest by a cougar, and fractured an ankle when she was dragged by an elephant; Griffith required facial reconstructive surgery and nearly lost an eye. Those weren’t the worst of the injuries suffered on set, although fortunately, no one was killed. It didn’t put Hedren off of big cats, but the movie’s cost overruns and poor box office performance meant that the entire purpose of the film (to raise money for big-cat causes) was entirely moot.
Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now are often conflated in the pantheon of difficult productions, and not without reason: This one was similarly whacked enough to inspire a separate documentary, Burden of Dreams, as well as more than one book. Loosely based on the true story of rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, who transported a steamship overland between two rivers in the 1890s, Werner Herzog decided to do history one better: His ship was ten times the size of the Fitzcarrald’s, wouldn’t be disassembled for transport, and the journey would be recreated without special effects. What could possibly go wrong?
The dangerous filming caused multiple injuries (mostly to the indigenous extras, many of whom seem to have been pretty plainly exploited in the production). Original star Jason Robards became ill during the location shoot, forcing a recasting that caused the director to scrap the nearly 50% of the film that had already been shot. Those delays impacted other actors, and so nearly the entire film was recast well into production. The movie’s new lead, Klaus Kinski, was wildly erratic and prone to sometimes violent rages, prompting a very sincere offer from a local indigenous leader to kill him. Herzog politely declined.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Some of these troubled productions make for amusing stories — the kind of Hollywood gossip we love. But this one’s troubles come from real tragedy: During the filming of the movie’s first segment, actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed during the filming of a sequence involving a helicopter. The incident was hardly inevitable, especially given that, by law, the children ought not have been on set at that time, in the presence of the explosion, and without appropriate supervision. The scene was a last-minute addition by segment director John Landis, and corners were clearly cut. To quote a disgusted Steven Spielberg: “No movie is worth dying for.”
Back to the Future (1985)
They brought it on themselves, really: Director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale weren’t thrilled with the casting of Eric Stoltz as their film’s lead (not because they thought he was a bad actor, but because they saw him as unsuitable for comedy), but, after they were unable to secure Michael J. Fox, their first choice, they agreed to go with studio executive Sidney Sheinberg’s pick. About a month into filming, and during a major edit, everyone decided that the very serious Stoltz wasn’t working for pretty much the reasons they’d predicted, and took the extremely bold step (for young filmmakers) of asking the studio to recast…which would force the scrapping of huge portions of the movie already in the can. With the backing of their friend and producer Steven Spielberg, they were able to convince the studio to pay for the replacement and, fortunately enough, were now able to get Fox. The results speak for themselves and, while an Eric Stolz cut of the film would be fascinating, it’s pretty clear that everyone made the right choice.
Malcolm X (1992)
Versions of a screenplay for Malcom X had been in the works since 1968, just a few years after the civil-rights activist’s death. Novelist James Baldwin took the first crack at the story, though it wasn’t a happy experience, and at least five other writers either wrote or rewrote drafts over the succeeding decades. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to the project in the late 1980s, it wanted white director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) in the chair, a prestigious pick who secured the participation of Denzel Washington, but one that didn’t sit well with many, including young director Spike Lee. Seeing the logic of securing a black director, Warner gave the film to Lee, who went back to the Baldwin draft but substantially rewrote it. Black activists became concerned about Lee’s intentions (was he too middle-class to capture Malcolm X’s story?), and there were protests before shooting even began. Lee was then unable to secure the budget he requested from the studio…but chose to press forward anyway, reasoning that he could convince the studio to pay once he’d shot a chunk of the film. Though the unnecessary controversies dampened the box office somewhat, the movie did quite well, and remains Lee’s epic.
Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 fit one of those sequels that was scheduled before there was really a plan for it. Following the success of Aliens, various concepts were discussed over a period of several years, with none of them really gelling for all of the interested parties. Producer David Giler and his partners finally settled on a two-film concept that would see Michael Biehn’s Hicks take charge for the first of a duology that would involve a socialist separatist movement competing with Weyland-Yutani for control of the perceived military power of the xenomorphs. Cyberpunk author William Gibson was brought in to write the screenplay and Finnish action director Renny Harlan was to direct.
Everything was looking good until the producers decided that they weren’t thrilled with the delivered screenplay and scrapped it, along with a second planned director, eventually going through four more screenplays before beginning production with an only partly completed script. Director David Fincher wound up filming scenes on the fly, and was forced into reshoots when different test screenings produced contradictory feedback. It was a mess, and the movie itself is better than it has any right to be, given all of that, but it’s hard not to feel like they’d have been better off stopping at two.
Waterworld is remembered as a flop, but it was not. The movie actually bit more than respectable business at the box office…it’s just that it cost so damn much to make, coming in at around $US175 ($243) million dollars, at a time when that was real money. With digital compositing in its infancy, the crew was required to build the elaborate (and expensive) ocean-based sets — one of which sank entirely — and there were several script rewrites. The primary director, Kevin Reynolds, quit before the film was done, leaving star Kevin Costner (who nearly died when caught in a squall) to wrap things up. It’s a fun movie, and groundbreaking in several regards but, ultimately, it doesn’t feel like it’s quite good enough to justify all the drama.
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)
The adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel was a dream project for cult South African director Richard Stanley, but his four-year development project ended in deep disappointment when he was fired three days into shooting. Star Marlon Brando had championed the director, but the studio was uncertain, so a series of cast changeovers that don’t seem to have been particularly Stanley’s fault were quickly used as an excuse to push him out. (Bruce Willis dropped out without explanation; Val Kilmer wanted his role cut in half at the last minute; replacement Rob Morrow couldn’t cope with location conditions; James Wood left when these cast reshuffles altered the schedule; Brando suffered a family tragedy that saw him leave without any clear promise of returning; and Fairuza Balk tried, unsuccessfully, to leave the film in the face of all the other chaos).
John Frankenheimer was brought on to get things in order, but reportedly, Kilmer’s bratty on-set behaviour and Brando’s notorious refusal to go to the extreme of learning his lines were too much for the production to overcome. The finished product is…it’s something else.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)
Terry Gilliam’s planned adaptation of the Miguel de Cervantes novel began in 1989, and probably seemed like a quirky no-brainer from the director who was in between his ‘80s cult movies (Brazil; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and his more mainstream hits of the ‘90s (The Fisher King; 12 Monkeys). Gilliam, though, couldn’t secure the financing he wanted and the project wound up in other hands — until that version fell through and Gilliam began looking at it again around 1998. This time it was going to happen! Filming began in 2000…near a loud NATO airbase that made sound recording nearly impossible. On the second day, flash floods damaged much of the set and altered the landscape in such a way as to render it unsuitable for the film’s purposes (and for which the production wasn’t insured). The international crew couldn’t always communicate clearly, and actor’s schedules caused various conflicts. By the time lead Jean Rochefort suffered an injury (less than a week in) that made it impossible to continue, it was clear that the film was doomed.
Given that the film was about the original quixotic figure, whose charmingly unrealistic ambitions make him both heroic and foolish, it was easy to see Gilliam in a similar light. A 2002 documentary chronicled the film’s problems before the director returned to the project again in 2018. The result is fine, really, but mostly serves as a postscript to the more interesting story of an almost comically disastrous production.