12 Stories Behind Film Production Nightmares

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures / Universal Pictures

A movie's finished product can often belie the insane struggle it took to make it; even Hollywood's worst offerings sometimes end up looking far better than they should. Here are 12 stories behind famous film productions where everything went wrong and nothing felt right.

1. Alien 3

After four years of developing an Aliens sequel, Alien 3 went into production with David Fincher in the director's chair in 1991. Before Fincher came aboard, two directors passed on the project (Renny Harlan and Vincent Ward) and Twentieth Century Fox had sunk $7 million into pre-production and development. Due to this investment, the studio announced a release date for summer 1992 before a screenplay could be finalized.

Because they had already constructed expensive sets before determining a concrete storyline, Alien 3 had to revolve around whatever they built. This meant that the film focused on Ellen Ripley being trapped on a prison planet with an alien baby inside of her, despite the fact that teaser trailers suggested that the Xenomorphs would come to Earth to wreak havoc on humanity.

David Fincher went into production unprepared to deal with heavy studio interference and creative limitations, and re-writes and re-shoots frustrated the young director. He eventually left the project before post-production started.

"My first movie, it's fairly well known, was a disaster. I stupidly felt that the people financing it had more to lose then I did if it was bad," Fincher told BBC One in 2011. "I sort of allowed myself to be steered into this communal making and then when the shit hits the fan, all of a sudden everyone scatters and you're the guy saying 'Wait? Who has a suggestion now?' So (now) that if I'm going to take the blame, the brunt of it, I'm going to make the decisions."

2. Waterworld

Shooting a movie on the open water is almost always a bad idea, namely because you have no control over the weather or the sea. Waterworld's initial $100 million budget, which was the highest ever for a Hollywood film at the time, ballooned to $175 million after production wrapped in 1994. This was mainly due to the cost of transporting extras from land to shooting locations in the middle of the sea, a large number of watercrafts breaking down, and an expensive set floating away.

“Logistically, it's crazy,” director Kevin Reynolds told Den of Geek. “Each day you shoot on the atoll with all those extras, we had to transport those people from dry land out to the location and so you're getting hundreds of people through wardrobe and everything, and you're putting them on boats, transporting them out to the atoll, and trying to get everybody in position to do a shot. And then when you break for lunch, you have to put everybody on boats and take them back in to feed them.”

On top of rising production costs, Kevin Costner nearly drowned when he was caught in a squall, jellyfish frequently attacked and stung the cast, and Joss Whedon had to be flown in for last minute re-writes on the script. Whedon later described the experience as "seven weeks of hell." He also referred to himself as the "world's highest-paid stenographer," because of all the notes he had to take from Kevin Costner and studio executives.

While it's unclear if Kevin Reynolds walked off the project or if he was fired, Kevin Costner had to finish the film with only two weeks left in production. In the end, critics panned Waterworld and it became one of the biggest box office bombs in history when it was released during the summer of 1995.

3. The Shining

Stanley Kubrick was notorious for shooting multiple takes for his scenes. During the production of The Shining, Kubrick demanded Shelley Duvall perform the iconic baseball bat scene with Jack Nicholson 127 times to get the terror and horror just right. That's merely one example of how difficult the director could be to his stars during the 13-month shoot.

Script pages would often change from day-to-day with Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson filing constant re-writes. The practice was so frequent that Jack Nicholson refused to learn any of his lines until he got on set because he knew that they would change just before shooting anyway. Shelley Duvall was under constant stress due to many arguments with the director about her acting and her character, Wendy Torrance. Kubrick wanted Duvall to be on edge in a constant state of fear and isolation, which eventually made her physically ill.

In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1980, Shelley Duvall described working with Stanley Kubrick as "almost unbearable, but from other points of view, really very nice, I suppose."

4. Heaven's Gate

After winning an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director for The Deer Hunter in 1978, Michael Cimino followed up on its success with the notorious Heaven's Gate—and almost bankrupted the movie studio that made it, United Artists. Cleared for a budget of $11 million, its production cost soared to $44 million (about $122 million in 2014) when the film was delivered in December 1980. This was due to Cimino's precise attention to detail that included multiple takes, tearing down and re-building expensive sets, and, in one case, waiting for the "right cloud" to pass the frame. As a result, Michael Cimino shot over one million feet of film (about 220 hours of footage), which cost the studio almost $220,000 a day.

At one point, United Artists tried to fire Cimino, but his contract with the studio prevented his termination from the project. Once shooting completed, Michael Cimino worked tirelessly with editor William H. Reynolds to produce a final cut of Heaven's Gate, which had a running time of five hours and 25 minutes. United Artists refused to release Cimino's cut and demanded a shorter version, which clocked in at two hours and 48 minutes. Critics trashed it for being excessive, unfocused, and an overall disaster. It was also a box office bomb, taking in only $3.4 million in 1980.

5. World War Z

The film adaptation of Max Brooks' best-selling novel World War Z initially had a December 2012 release date, but it was later pushed to summer 2013 when production woes and delays plagued the project. With less than three weeks left in production, Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were brought in to re-write its third act and ending. "The script needed months of work, not days," a studio source told Vulture in 2012. "And changes were needed throughout the film, not just at the end."

However, at this time, Brad Pitt and Marc Forster were no longer speaking to each other and a studio executive had to be brought to World War Z's shooting location in Budapest to intermediate. While the production was on hiatus, Lindelof and Goddard spent a few weeks re-tooling World War Z's ending, and Paramount issued a new budget for seven additional weeks of re-shoots.

According to Vulture's initial reports, "Pitt, not Forster, who has final approval over all the new pages generated by whatever writers work on the project over the next three weeks. And the communication breakdown between actor and director over how to reshoot it severely limits Paramount’s ability to foresee an end to production." A new ending was shot that focused on smaller action set-pieces and made the film more about a man trying to get back to his family instead of a man trying to save the world from extinction.

World War Z opened in June 2013 to moderate critical acclaim and a $540 million worldwide box office with a sequel in the works with Juan Antonio Bayona replacing Marc Forster as director. 

6. Apocalypse Now

After the success of The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola struggled for five years to bring Apocalypse Now to the big screen. Coppola eventually assembled a large cast and crew in the Philippines for a five-month shoot that quickly turned into 16 months of brutal filming due to the country's torrential weather.

Production shut down after two months because some of its sets and locations were lost during a typhoon and had to be re-built or re-located and its lead Martin Sheen—who replaced Harvey Keitel who Coppola felt wasn't right for the role after one week of shooting—suffered a heart attack. Due to numerous delays, crewmembers and cast were either held on location in hotels or transported back to the United States for weeks at a time, which resulted in a ballooning budget. The film's payroll was also stolen.

Although Apocalypse Now was slated for a May 1978 release date, it was pushed to August 1979 because of continuing delays during post-production. Since Coppola had a tough time shooting the film, he was unable to adequately capture jungle and military sound effects, so a majority of its sound had to be re-recorded.

The making of Apocalypse Now can be seen in the documentary Hearts of Darkness.

7. The Abyss

James Cameron has a reputation as "the scariest man in Hollywood" because of his demanding and dictatorial shooting style. While Titanic and Avatar had their fair share of production nightmares, The Abyss might have been the most grueling and emotionally depleting shoot of Cameron's career.

A majority of The Abyss takes place deep underwater—mix that with James Cameron's on-set demeanor and you get a number of production horror stories and near-death experiences for the Academy Award-winning director and his cast.

On the first day of shooting, the main, 150,000 gallon water tank sprung a leak, and its repairs contributed to the budget going over $4 million. Safety was one of the most important things during production, so a decompression chamber was built onsite and each actor was assigned a safety diver and bell in the event of drowning or decompression sickness.

James Cameron almost drowned when trying to map out a shot in a flooding room, while Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were under severe mental and physical stress because of the production's slow pace and submerged shoots. During one of the multiple takes during Dr. Lindsey Brigman's death scene, the camera ran out of film, which led to a frustrated Mastrantonio storming off the set yelling, "We are not animals!"

"I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don't ever want to go through this again," said Cameron. "The Abyss was a lot of things. Fun to make was not one of them," said Mastrantonio.

8. Twilight Zone: The Movie

During the shooting of the John Landis-directed "Time Out" subsection of Twilight Zone: The Movie, star Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were brutally killed during a freak helicopter accident. The scene was part of the story's original ending that involved Morrow's character traveling back in time to save two children when a U.S. Army helicopter attacks a small Vietnamese village.

The accident occurred when a stunt pilot had trouble navigating a low-flying helicopter through smoke and debris created from pyrotechnic effects. An explosion caused it to fly out of control, and it crash landed on top of the three actors, killing them instantly.

The accident led to almost a decade of litigation and court action. In the end, Twilight Zone: The Movie's filmmakers and producers were all acquitted of manslaughter. "There was absolutely no good aspect about this whole story. The tragedy, which I think about every day, had an enormous impact on my career, from which it may possibly never recover," said John Landis of the accident and aftermath in 1996.

9. The Island of Doctor Moreau

Richard Stanley, the original director on The Island of Doctor Moreau, was fired after three days of shooting. While it's unclear why New Line Cinema canned him, it's believed that it was due to on-set clashes with Val Kilmer. John Frankenheimer was hired to take over directing duties after production shut down for a few weeks. Despite the pause in shooting, The Island of Doctor Moreau's script wasn't completed, and pages were still being submitted as filming wore on. During this time, actor Rob Morrow left the production and David Thewlis was brought in to replace him.

Frankenheimer only took the job because he wanted to work with Marlon Brando, who was difficult throughout production. Brando refused to learn any of his lines, so a small radio transmitter was placed in his off-camera ear and words were fed to him while filming. Frankenheimer and Brando didn't get along with Val Kilmer, and the trio constantly argued during production. "There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life. The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again," Frankenheimer said after The Island of Doctor Moreau's release.

10. Fitzcarraldo

Director Werner Herzog went through a nightmare production while making Fitzcarraldo in the early '80s. The film follows Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irish would-be rubber industrialist who is determined to transport a steamer ship through a South American jungle to a vast rubber territory in Peru during the early 20th century. Herzog wanted to give the film absolute realism, so he made his film crew transport a real 30-ton steamer ship through a dangerous jungle instead of using miniatures or special effects, resulting in a long and grueling production.

Star Jason Robards left the film due to dysentery and his role had to be re-cast with Klaus Kinski, who didn't get along with Herzog during filming. A famous rumor has it that one of the extras offered to kill Kinski for Herzog because he was so difficult to work with, but the director declined the offer because he needed him to finish the picture.

Mick Jagger also had a role in Fitzcarraldo, but he was ultimately cut when The Rolling Stones' touring schedule conflicted with re-shoots. Herzog had to re-start production after almost half of the film was completed and a year into shooting.

The making of Fitzcarraldo is documented in the film Burden of Dreams.  

11. American Graffiti

The city of San Rafael, California revoked American Graffiti's production license and permits after one day of night shooting when local merchants and business owners complained about the noise to the city council. Filming was forced to move to Petaluma, which is about 20 miles north of San Rafael.

During production, Harrison Ford was arrested for taking part in a bar fight, a crewmember was arrested for growing marijuana, and someone set George Lucas' motel room on fire. The night before shooting pivotal close-ups, Richard Dreyfuss suffered a huge gash on his forehead after Paul Le Mat threw him in a swimming pool. Additionally, two cameramen were almost killed while shooting the film's climatic drag race scene.

12. Ishtar

Ishtar is known as one of the biggest fiascos in filmmaking history. Warren Beatty produced the movie for Elaine May as a favor for taking an uncredited screenwriting role on his Academy Award-winning film Reds in 1981. Beatty believed that Ishtar would raise Elaine May's reputation as a top-notch filmmaker in Hollywood, but, in reality, it ended her career as a director.

Shooting began on Ishtar in Morocco and in the real Sahara Desert instead of a studio backlot. This decision put the production in the middle of high tensions between the Moroccan military and guerrilla factions, and dunes were checked daily for land mines.

May's directing style included multiple takes and shooting hours and hours of footage and, as a result, Ishtar's budget ballooned from $27.5 million to $51 million. Elaine May and Warren Beatty didn't get along during production either, while Dustin Hoffman worked as an intermediary between the two filmmakers.

In-fighting continued into post-production, as three separate teams of editors were brought in to shape Ishtar for Elaine May, Warren Beatty, and Dustin Hoffman, who all had input in the final cut. "I've had a lot of trouble with all my movies," May told Movieline in 2011. "I'll just admit that. I didn't want to direct—I wanted director approval [as a writer]."

Critics panned the film and audiences ignored it. Ishtar only grossed $14 million when it opened in May 1987. "If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today," said the director.