Every great movie is filled with obstacles that a hero must overcome to achieve his goal. Sometimes great obstacles, however, don’t just stay on the script page. Instead, they become part of a film’s actual production. Movies are epic endeavors, especially when they’re helmed by filmmakers with grand visions. But along with those high standards and incredible goals come all sorts of production nightmares. The movies on this list almost didn’t get made thanks to production struggles that brought the process to a halt.
After a script is written or an idea is pitched, a studio needs to agree to put up financing for a movie’s production. It’s hard to imagine now that a classic like Star Wars, which has generated billions of dollars, had trouble getting financing. Many industry insiders even thought it would become the “laughing stock of Hollywood.”
There all kinds of obstacles movies overcame to get made. Costs skyrocketed on Cleopatra and The Abyss, one of those films nearly bankrupted one of the biggest movie studios in the world. Think everyone just gets along on a movie set? Think again. One famous actress got so upset with her director that she threw a cup of urine in his face. Two crew members from another production were so angry about being fired that they spiked the crew’s soup with PCP.
Obstacle: Shooting almost an entire film underwater.
There’s a reason why James Cameron is known as “the scariest man in Hollywood.” The making of The Abyss (1989) has been called one of the toughest films to shoot in history. Most of the sci-fi drama takes place under water, which is obviously an extremely difficult place to film a movie.
On the first day of shooting, the 150,000 gallon water tank built for the film started to leak. Once filming finally got under way, Cameron almost drowned in the tank while setting up a shot. The actors were even required to become certified divers, and there were no stunt doubles used in the movie.
Actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio suffered an emotional breakdown, as actors worked 12 hours a day, 40 feet underwater. The crew had it even worse because they were stationed even deeper, so deep in fact, that they would have to decompress in order to surface safely.
Obstacle: Extremely cold temperatures and all around difficult production.
The Revenant (2015) is a true story about a frontiersman who courageously battles the extreme elements and somehow survives. Some crew members who worked on the movie called it the worst experience of their careers and a “living hell.” There were the extremely cold temperatures, the production nightmare of director Alejandro Iñárritu’s desire to shoot the movie in chronological order, and several crew members who couldn’t handle the ordeal and quit during filming.
In the end, it all seemed to work out. Both DiCaprio and Iñárritu won Academy Awards for their efforts, and The Revenant was a box office success.
Obstacle: You name it, it happened.
The entire production of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece was riddled with issues. Lead actor Harvey Keitel was fired after two weeks and replaced with Martin Sheen, who was dealing with own alcohol issues. There was total chaos on the movie set, which was located in the Philippines: Coppola was writing the movie as it was shooting, cast members were coming down with horrible tropical illnesses, massive typhoons were hitting the islands, a fire broke out, there were tiger attacks, people threw wild parties with cocaine, and Marlon Brando had an epic diva complex.
After a typhoon hit and production needed to stop for a month, several crew members would not return to the jungle with Coppola. Martin Sheen decided to go back but with great reluctance, he even told friends, “I don’t know if I’m going to live through this.” And he almost did not, Sheen later suffered a heart attack on location.
Obstacle: Stanley Kubrick’s desire for perfection.
The stories that have come out regarding the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining (1980) are legendary. Kubrick is known as a perfectionist, one of the most meticulous directors in Hollywood history. He is also known as a multiple take director, often shooting scenes again and again, until he deems them perfect. For example, the famous, but very short, “Here’s Johnny” scene (above) which features Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) putting an ax through a door, took three days to shoot and used over 60 doors.
Production of the horror movie was only supposed to last 100 days; it lasted 250. Kubrick was reportedly so hard on actress Shelley Duvall that her hair began to fall out, and she almost suffered a nervous breakdown. Kubrick also decided to shoot the film in chronological order, which makes production inconvenient and extremely time consuming.
Obstacle: Science fiction was considered a dead genre in the 1970s.
Young George Lucas signed a two picture deal with Universal for American Graffiti (1973) and this movie called Star Wars (1977). Even though American Graffiti turned out to be a box office success, Universal gave up its option (big mistake) on Star Wars because science fiction was considered a dead genre at the time. Plus, the marketing department couldn’t think of any way to sell the film. Insiders were so dismayed that many people involved with the project thought the film would become the laughing stock of Hollywood.
However, Lucas found a friend in 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr., who backed the young director, and stood behind him 100% throughout the entire process.
Obstacle: James Cameron’s Nazi style of running of a movie production.
James Cameron’s epic love story (which unfolds on an “unsinkable” ship) had to overcome a lot of obstacles, mostly created by the director. Cameron’s $200 million-plus production (the costliest ever at the time) required building a studio that was six acres large, contained a 17 million gallon water tank, and had a 750 foot long replica of the actual Titanic.
There was also an incident where someone, probably two chefs who were fired, spiked the soup with PCP, which sickened 50 cast and crew members. Cameron also garnered the reputation of not being very actor-friendly, he reportedly made the actors wade in freezing cold water temperatures for long periods of time. Actress Kate Winslet said of her experience working with Cameron, “You would have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again. If anything was the slightest bit wrong, he would totally lose it. It was hard to concentrate when he was shouting and screaming.” Titanic won 11 Oscars in 1998, including awards for Best Director and Best Picture.
Obstacle: The production nightmare of making an epic film on the open sea.
Maybe this is one film that actually should not have been made? Because the film was shot on the open sea off of Hawaii, the production had to deal with hurricanes and the basic production headaches of having to set up a location on the water. The original $100 million budget swelled up to $180 million (or about $335 million today when adjusted for inflation), the most expensive film at the time.
The movie also experienced several last second script alterations and a slew of different script writers.
The Wizard of Oz
Obstacle: Several actors nearly died or were scarred for life.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) may be every child’s favorite movie, but it permanently scarred many cast members. Buddy Ebsen (who was originally supposed to play the Tin Man) had a reaction to his make-up that caused his lungs to fail and sent him to the hospital for two weeks. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicket Witch of the West) suffered severe burns to her hands and face from an on set fire, as did her stunt double. Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow) wound up with permanent scars on this face from the rubber mask that was glued on every day.
Additionally, the temperature on set needed to be extremely hot for the Technicolor process. The heat caused several actors and cast members to faint. Now, add several script changes and three directorial changes, and it’s hard to imagine how this classic ever got made at all.
Back to the Future
Obstacle: No film company wanted to finance the movie.
Back to the Future (1985) may seem like the perfect movie now, but at the time, nobody wanted to make it. Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale pitched the story all around Hollywood, and it was rejected over 40 times. Some thought the story was too saccharine and didn’t fit with the times. Then there was Disney, who couldn’t believe that anyone would pitch them a story that sounded like incest.
One of the company’s executives told Zemeckis and Gale, “Are you guys out of your minds? You can’t make a movie like this here. This is Disney, and you’re giving us a movie about incest! The kid with his mother in the car, that’s horrible!” Finally, Zemeckis took the script to his friend Steven Spielberg, who convinced Universal to make the picture.
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Obstacle: A tragic accident occurred during filming.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) is an anthology film composed of four stories. Unfortunately, the John Landis-directed story, ” A Quality of Mercy,” ended in tragedy. The story featured a helicopter that chased actor Vic Morror and two children across a river. However, an explosion due to a faulty pyrotechnic caused the chopper to crash, which killed both kids and Morrow.
Additionally, Landis never got permission to have the two children on set working at night, which is illegal. The tragedy led to a high profile legal case, however, no parties were found to be criminally responsible.
Obstacle: Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski’s heated on set feud.
Film sets are ripe for conflict, and the infamous feud between eccentric director Roman Polanski and quick-tempered actress Faye Dunaway is the stuff of Hollywood legend. The director/actress conflict seemed to arise from Polanski’s poor treatment of Dunaway. He would tell her: “Say the fu*king words. Your salary is your motivation!” The heated bickering climaxed when Polanski refused to grant Dunaway a bathroom break. The prickly actress responded by peeing in a coffee cup while sitting on set in a car, she then threw the cup of urine in Polanski’s face.
Despite the antagonistic relationship, Chinatown (1974) went on to be a box office success, and is often cited as one of the best neo-noirs ever made.
Obstacle: The mechanical shark suffered serious malfunctions.
Steven Spielberg was just a young up-and-coming filmmaker when he was hired to helm Jaws in 1974. The studio wanted Spielberg to use a real shark in the film, but the director opted to use a mechanical shark against the bosses wishes. At first glance, Spielberg’s decision was a bad one, the mechanical shark turned out to be a nightmare. It would constantly sink to the bottom of the ocean, and its parts rusted from the corrosive salt water.
The shark obstacle could have been the end of Spielberg. But the film student within the director wondered how Alfred Hitchcock would handle the situation. “I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’…It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
Of course, the decision to shoot less of the shark was genius. Jaws became one of the biggest box office smashes in the history of cinema and pretty much invented the concept of the summer blockbuster. Plus, it was so frightening that generations of cinema-goers still fear swimming in the ocean over forty years later.
Obstacle: Insane production costs.
Right from the beginning, the epic historical drama Cleopatra (1963) was a nightmare for 20th Century Fox. Director Rouben Mamoulian was pushed aside for Joseph L. Mankievitz after shooting had already started, actors were quitting, and star Elizabeth Taylor suffered a near-fatal illness.
The original film was supposed to be shot in London, but was moved to Rome, so all the expensive sets that were originally built in London were nothing more than a giant waste of money. Plus, there was the public relations headache regarding Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s affair, both of whom were married to the other people at the time. In all, Cleopatra cost $44 million to make (about $320 million when adjusted for inflation). Even though the epic was the biggest box office hit of 1963, it still nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. To make matter worse, the movie was not very good. It was much too long and too slowly paced.
I Heart Huckabees
Obstacle: Lily Tomlin and David O’Russell took the gloves off for one of the most epic on set fights ever.
The only thing better than reading about a legendary director/actress fight is getting to witness it, unedited and raw on the internet. Living in the modern age has allowed us to see the on-set fight between director David O’Russell and veteran actress Lily Tomlin. Check out the clip for yourself. On full display are curse words (even the dreaded c-word), temper tantrums, and very childish behavior. Even with this evident dislike between star and director, I Heart Huckabees (2004) was completed without any literal blood being shed.
However, the existential comedy received lukewarm reviews and had a less than stellar box office returns.
The Princess Bride
Obstacle: The film could not get funding.
It’s inconceivable to think that one of the best fairy tale romances of all time almost did not get made. Over the course of 15 years, many notable filmmakers tried but failed to get funding for The Princess Bride (1987), including Francois Truffaut, Norman Jewison, and Robert Redford.
Rob Reiner, who calls the book from which the film is adapted his favorite novel of all time, was finally able to get 20th Century Fox to finance the movie, only because he had previously directed the very successful This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Stand By Me (1986).