Everyone loves a good old Hollywood disaster story.
Whether it’s a flash flood destroying Terry Gilliam’s Spanish location on the second day of filming, or James Cameron and his entire crew being spiked with PCP on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, the disasters behind the camera can often be more interesting than the movies being shot.
Sets are, almost by design, fairly chaotic places at the best of times, and when you throw in exotic locations, competing financiers, interfering producers and inexperienced (or mentally unstable) directors, the results can be pretty popcorn worthy in their own right.
Already this summer we had reports of ‘The Dark Tower’ director Nikolaj Arcel editing his movie with two producers, one from each of the film’s co-financers, literally sitting in the editing bay and looking over his shoulder, and last year we had ‘Fantastic Four’ director Josh Trank allegedly taking to 4chan to bitch about his employers.
Both those movies turned out pretty crappy, and it’ll be interesting to see in the next few months if Disney’s Young Han Solo movie can survive similar troubles, with wunderkind directors Lord and Miller clashing with writer Lawrence Kasdan and eventually ‘bowing out’ of the film entirely (read; getting fired), not to mention the recently announced news that Michael K. Williams was being cut out of the movie and digitally replaced with Paul Bettany (which effectively means that Williams will be motion capture performing Paul Bettany).
Of course it’s perfectly possible that the experienced Ron Howard will be able to right the ship, but many directors of similar status have been overcome by such troubles in the past. Let’s take a look at some notable examples.
The Hobbit Trilogy (2012 – 2014)
The Hobbit movies should have been a slam dunk, right? Peter Jackson was returning following a comfortably long break, and after the gargantuan task of adapting the Lord of the Rings its much shorter and comedic prequel should have been a breeze.
But the production was troubled before it even began. Jackson had actually wanted to adapt the book as early as 1995, intending to follow it up with the Lord of the Rings, but a confused situation with the rights to the novel led to the project being shelved while Jackson pushed ahead with the main trilogy.
Once those movies had proved to be a mega-hit, of course, everyone was enthusiastic about getting more of Jackson’s middle earth on film, with New Line and MGM putting together the groundwork for a deal in 2006. But by that point Jackson had begun a messy lawsuit against New Line over merchandising revenues that he felt he’d been swindled out of.
Naturally enough New Line had no interest in hiring a director that was currently suing them, but MGM had no confidence in the project without Jackson’s involvement, so everything was put on hold until New Line, coming off a string of flops, swallowed their pride and rehired Jackson in 2007.
But just as one lawsuit was getting wrapped up, the Tolkien estate began legal proceedings to get a proper share of the $6 billion or so New Line had made off Middle Earth, and to try and block the filming of the Hobbit. Nothing could proceed until the Tolkien’s were paid off (for a rumoured $38 million).
By the time pre-production began in 2008 Jackson had elected to remain on only as a producer, with Guillermo Del Toro filling in as director. But after two years of script revisions and production delays, Del Toro quit and Jackson was forced to rework the film as quickly as possible.
Later that year the film ran into conflict with the International Federation of Actors over what they felt were anti-union business practices. Warner Brothers proceeded to use the threat of moving production to strong arm a ridiculously permissive deal out of the NZ government, in the process gutting actor’s rights and permanently damaging the reputation of the kiwi film industry that Jackson had devoted so much of his life to promoting. So far so disastrous.
By the time production began in 2011, Jackson had had almost no time to prep for his version of the Hobbit, and, as this shockingly candid behind the scenes feature shows, was essentially left to bloc scenes and even write the script as he filmed.
The Lord of the Rings had years of pre-production, which were essential to the movies’ success. But while the Hobbit had technically had three years of development, much of the design work and writing had been thrown out after Del Toro’s departure, leaving Jackson up to his neck in a movie that was not ready to begin filming.
All of this culminated in the frankly bizarre decision to split the fairly short book into not two, but three separate parts, essentially so that production could be pushed back again and Jackson could be given time to prepare for the battle of the five armies. The resulting movies were an utter mess and a massive waste of potential, but the truly tragic part of the whole thing is to be found in a barely reported mishap during production.
A local farm was chosen as a low-cost holding pen for some of the many horses, sheep and goats needed for filming, but the gross negligence of those in charge of said animals led to at least 27 of them dying of dehydration and exhaustion. Not even a great movie would be worth that.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash; the Man on the Moon (2002)
While many might have expected Eddie Murphy’s meteoric rise as a stand-up performer in the 80s to be followed by an equally rapid fall, in reality the wunderkind shock jockey’s demise was more of a whimper than a bang.
He made a name with his infectious stage presence, instantly recognizable laugh and seemingly inexhaustible source of jokes about how women were stupid and gay men were disgusting (for real, like most performers who aspire to be shocking Murphy’s old stuff has not aged well at all, but that’s a discussion for another time) but when it came to his film career a series of offbeat gems like ’48 Hrs’ and the Beverly Hills Cop series were followed with a string of middle of the road, barely funny family comedies, and increasingly diminishing returns.
By the late 90s’ Murphy was churning out low rent slapstick nonsense like the Nutty Professor series, and by the 2000s he was struggling to get back to those artistic heights with the deplorable ‘Norbit’
If you had to pick a moment where the guy’s career took a sudden nosedive many would probably point to his arrest in 1997 for allegedly soliciting a prostitute (an act apparently so beyond the pale it damaged his standing as a family friendly comic more than a thousand AIDS jokes ever could), but for my money the real turning point will always be the infamous, and awkwardly titled, ‘The Adventure of Pluto Nash; The Man on the Moon’ ( I don’t know why they underlined man either).
Costing a rumored $100 Million to make in 2000, this middle of the road sci-fi comedy was so glaringly terrible that the studio literally refused to release it for two years, presumably while all those involved acquired new identities and fled to South America. When it finally came out another $20 million was inexplicably blown on marketing, but the movie could still barely muster together a $7 million worldwide gross, making it one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, a box-office bomb so notorious ‘Robot Chicken’ would still be mocking it a decade later.
So what went wrong? Arguably the whole thing is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, but if the broth had already been a terrible, horrible tasting broth, and yet dozens of cooks had spent about twenty years cooking the soup, changing it, adding to it, and then had spent a $100 million mass producing the soup and a fifth of that again marketing it around the world.
Putting that slightly belaboured analogy aside, the script had apparently knocked around LA since the 80s, getting repeatedly retooled and reworked by seemingly every script doctor in Hollywood. By the time production started the movie was sort of about a smuggler trying to become a legitimate businessman, but it was also sort of about running a night club on the moon, and also sort of about fighting moon-corporations and also sort of about environmentalism and also kind of a Blade Runner riff thing with clones.
Other than a laconic turn by John Cleese as a talking car the comedy falls flat all over, and the Playstation 1 tier special effects looked dated while it was being made, and looked worse in the post-matrix world it was eventually released into.
And as for Murphy, well, he honestly gives one of the most lacklustre, phoning it in performances of a career that eventually became all about phoning it in. He so blatantly does not care and does not want to be there that he just deflates any shred of drama or excitement from any scene he’s in, which is almost all of them. If there is a moment in this man’s career where you can pin point him giving his last fuck, this has got to be it.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
The last of Hollywood’s Roman epics is also probably the most unusual entry into the genre, a movie that subverts and criticises its bombastic, morally simplistic predecessors like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, while simultaneously attempting to outdo them in scale and bombast.
Filmed in Franco’s Spain by the mega-producer Samuel Bronston the movie was supposed to relaunch the epic genre, revitalize Bronston’s company and (allegedly) help the brutal dictator quietly launder oil revenues. In the end the film cost about $20 million (roughly $155 million in today’s money) and barely grossed back $6 million, losing approximately $126 million for its investors.
In a classic case of art imitating life the filmic empire of Bronston, who had produced some of Hollywood’s biggest movies like ‘El Cid’ and ‘King of Kings’, was brought low by a film about the fall of Rome, with the producer filing for bankruptcy shortly after its release.
The movie was hampered by huge production costs, including the largest outdoor set in film history, a 92,000 sq. metre recreation of the Roman forum (that was actually a hastily adapted and expanded set of Peking from a previous film about the Boxer Rebellion), and a ponderous, highly intellectual script that lacked the high romance and lavish spectacle of other historical epics.
None of this is helped by the films romantic leads, Sophia Loren and Irish actor Stephen Boyd, who both seem to struggle with the rather weighty material they’re given. Boyd in particular, although he has a certain charisma, was an odd choice, and unsurprisingly only got the role once Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas had turned it down.
In truth, ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ isn’t a terrible movie by any stretch. The film takes a thoughtful, intelligent look at Rome’s decline, eschewing the Hollywood convention of ‘Rome = Soviets/Nazis, persecuted Christians = Good Americans’ to instead attempt a morality tale of corruption, entropy and the oppression of an immigrant workforce that keeps every empire ticking over, and it certainly still has some lessons to teach us today (lessons that are somewhat undercut by the involvement in production of an actual fascist dictator, but still).
Alec Guinness gives a star turn as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the immensely talented character actor James Mason elevates every scene he’s in, even when he’s playing off the good-natured but plodding Boyd. But nonetheless the film tanked on a legendary scale, killing the epic genre and proving once and for all that huge budgets, attractive stars and epic locations would not be enough to ensure a movie’s success with audiences. A lesson that Hollywood might even learn some day.
Oisín O’Driscoll, NUIG