Filmmaking is a notoriously difficult business. For any big-budget movie, there can be as many as several hundred crew members working on over a thousand separate shots, with sound engineering, lighting rigs, costume designs, and physical practicalities all necessitating a high degree of time investment and expertise.
With so many elements that can go wrong, it should come as no surprise that the making of some films have proven to be especially traumatic for their directors, who are intimately involved in every phase of the process, from casting to sound design, editing to the not-so-inconsiderable task of choreographing actors and cameras on set.
For some of the directors on this list, it was a simple case of having made the wrong movie at the wrong time. For others, different factors like friction between cast members, escalating budgets, unwise location choices, and natural disasters all conspired to wrest disaster from triumph. In each case, the life of the filmmaker in question was indelibly altered by their experience.
1. Peeping Tom (1960)
Throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the British duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced a string of timeless movies through their production company The Archers, including A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). In 1959, Powell stepped away from the partnership to make Peeping Tom, a groundbreaking study of the life and passions of a serial killer who photographs the dying expressions of his terrified victims. The film, which seems decidedly tame by today’s standards, provoked such a strong critical backlash that Powell’s career was effectively over. One contemporary critic, Sunday Times writer Dilys Powell, even labeled the movie “essentially vicious.”
Peeping Tom has since received the positive critical recognition it so justly deserves: The film is sometimes credited as the first slasher movie, edging out Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which premiered just a few months later, ironically to much widespread acclaim.
2. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)
Former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam has a long and decorated career as a filmmaker, including the 1985’s critically acclaimed cult flick, Brazil. The making of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, however, pushed the director to his limits. Originally conceived in 1989, the movie—which is loosely based on the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes—suffered a catastrophic journey to the big screen, with multiple changes in personnel, financial difficulties, legal wrangles, aborted productions, and lengthy insurance claims.
“I think films can—to use a technical term—f**k up people’s lives, and that is very much at the core of this one,” Gilliam has since said of the film. An astonishing 29 years after work on the project began, the movie finally saw the light of day in 2018, to generally favorable reviews.
3. Playtime (1967)
French filmmaker Jacques Tati is routinely listed in many best-of lists of directors. Playtime is a particular jewel in Tati’s filmography but it’s also a project which brought its creator immense personal difficulties. The movie, which follows two characters visiting Paris who repeatedly encounter each other over the course of a day, serves as one long and delightful visual gag.
Filming took an extraordinary nine years, during which Tati built a set of nearly 15,000 square meters in size (nicknamed Tativille), which included two fully functioning mini-skyscrapers. With expenses spiraling, the director took out numerous loans, but the film failed to recoup its production costs, and Tati was left completely bankrupt, having lost the rights to his own older films (which he sold to help pay off his debts) as well as his family home in the process.
4. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic director on this list, German filmmaker Werner Herzog put himself, his cast, and his crew through extremes to complete Fitzcarraldo, a 1982 historic epic charting the expedition of Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald to unlock lucrative rubber territory in the Amazon Basin.
Based on the real-life story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, the production was shot in various locations throughout South America and required a 320-ton steamship to be manually hauled up a steep hill. Numerous injuries and even deaths followed, particularly among the indigenous people hired as extras.
Despite fires, illnesses, two plane crashes, and snake bites (one of which prompted a Peruvian logger to sever his own foot off with a chainsaw, to prevent the spread of poisonous venom), the production—and Herzog—somehow persevered. “I shouldn’t make movies any more,” Herzog said in the 1982 documentary Burden Of Dreams, about the making of the film. “I should go to a lunatic asylum.”
5. Roar (1981)
Roar has, over the years, acquired a cult following to match its legendary reputation as one of the most ill-advised and troublesome productions in movie history. Written and directed by Noel Marshall, who had previously enjoyed enormous success as an executive producer for The Exorcist, Roar follows the story of a wildlife preservationist and his family, played by Marshall himself alongside his then-wife Tippi Hedren (who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and Marshall’s sons John and Jerry. Throughout the film, the family is attacked by a variety of big cats, including lions, tigers, and jaguars.
It took 11 years to make, during which no fewer than 70 of the cast and crew suffered injuries resulting from the real big cats used on set. Add in a feline virus and dangerous flooding and you can begin to understand why Roar marketed itself as “the most dangerous movie ever made.” Despite the movie’s assertion that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film,” three lions had to be shot by local law enforcement following their escape from the set. Marshall, who was bitten so many times during the shoot that he eventually developed gangrene from his injuries, never directed again.
6. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s hard to believe that Frank Capra’s beloved Christmas film could ever have caused such woes, but at the time of its release, the movie was a financial failure. Contemporaneous reviews were decidedly mixed, and the feature recorded a $525,000 loss at the box office against its $2.3 million budget, resulting in the sale of its production company, Liberty Films.
Capra himself never quite recovered professionally, making several more films but failing to secure the same levels of financial backing. It's a Wonderful Life also ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which criticized its perceived “communist leanings.” It was only over the ensuing decades, when the film enjoyed regular seasonal showings on television, that its popularity steadily grew.
7. Rollerball (2002)
Director John McTiernan had, by this point in his career, notched up a string of hits, including Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), and Last Action Hero (1993). He was viewed by the industry as an eminently bankable figure, but Rollerball proved a commercial and personal disaster for the famed director. The movie bombed at the box office, grossing roughly $25 million against a budget of $70 million. Worse, McTiernan was later arrested and imprisoned for making false statements to an FBI officer concerning his hiring of a private investigator to illegally wiretap Rollerball's co-producer, Charles Roven, during the making of the film. While in prison, McTiernan declared bankruptcy. However, after a lengthy break, he is currently directing his first film in over 20 years.
8. It's All True (1942)
It’s hard to imagine any studio losing faith in the great Orson Welles, but that is exactly what happened with this unfinished 1942 project, which RKO Pictures unceremoniously pulled the plug on while the director was shooting on location in Brazil. Welles tried desperately to finish the movie, but to no avail. He later came to believe that the film had been cursed by a voodoo doctor who was, he claimed, the reason behind his subsequent Hollywood decline. Four decades later, a portion of the recorded It’s All True footage was discovered in the vaults of Paramount Studios.
9. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
John Patrick Shanley’s previous film-writing credit, Moonstruck (1987), saw him lauded as a genius, which meant that Joe Versus the Volcano (which Shanley got to direct as well as script) could not have been more eagerly anticipated. But the resulting film, which starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, proved to be just too quirky for commercial success.
Although championed in some quarters, most notably by respected film critic Roger Ebert, the movie was so widely panned upon its release that Shanley returned to theater work and 18 long years passed before he got the chance to write and direct another film. Doubt (2008), which is based upon his own Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play of the same name, earned several film awards and Oscar nominations. It may have taken some time, but Shanley finally redeemed his box-office credentials.
10. Gigli (2003)
By the early 2000s, director Martin Brest was enjoying an enviable run of success, having previously helmed Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Midnight Run (1988), and Scent of a Woman (1992). Brest’s following effort, Meet Joe Black (1998), didn’t quite hit the same heights, but it was his next project, Gigli (which he originally wrote and directed; the studio ended up taking full creative control of the film), that effectively put an end to his directing career. The romantic-comedy/crime thriller grossed just $7.2 million worldwide against its $75.6 million production cost, making it one of the most expensive box-office flops of all time. Gigli earned itself an impressive six Golden Raspberry Awards too, including Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay of 2003.