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Five Notoriously Troubled Productions

Five famous film productions where everything that could've gone wrong went spectacularly wrong.


20th Century Fox originally intended to spend no more than $2 million on Cleopatra, but producer Walter Wanger had much more ambitious plans for the project and managed to get that increased to $5 million. Rouben Mamoulian was hired to direct and Elizabeth Taylor was paid a then record $1 million to play the title role. Filming began in London in 1961, but Taylor soon caught pneumonia due to the harsh winter weather and production was shut down for several months while she recovered. Only ten minutes of film had been produced at a cost of $7 million. Mamoulian was fired and replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

To make things easier on Taylor, the entire production was relocated from rainy London to sunny Rome. The huge sets that had already been built at Pinewood were abandoned and later used for the parody Carry on Cleo. The long delays meant that Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, who'd been hired to play Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony respectively, had to leave the production and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. I probably don't have to tell you what happened between Burton and Taylor on set.

Cost still spiralled and Fox shut down other productions to pour more money into completing the film. Mankiewicz was even fired and rehired during the editing phase when the studio realised there wasn't anyone else who knew how to put all the footage together. Mankiewicz' first cut was six hours long and he proposed splitting it into two films entitled Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra, but the studio wanted to capitalise on the public's fascination with Burton and Taylor and didn't want to release any version of Cleopatra that didn't have Burton in it. Cleopatra was the highest grossing film of 1963, but since it cost $44 million (about £370 million in today's money) it failed to turn a profit and nearly left the studio bankrupt.


The troubled making of Apocalypse Now has become the stuff of Hollywood legend and was chronicled in the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The film began development in the early 1970s with John Milius writing the script, George Lucas directing, and Francis Ford Coppola producing. Lucas had planned to shoot it as a fake documentary on location while the Vietnam War was still going on. By the time they were able to secure financing the war was over and Lucas was busy making Star Wars so Coppola took over as director.

From the moment the crew arrived in the Philippines to start shooting everything started to go disastrously wrong. Tropical storms repeatedly destroyed sets and delayed filming. Harvey Keitel was originally cast as Willard, but Coppola quickly became unhappy with his performance and Keitel quit two weeks into production. He was replaced by Martin Sheen, who suffered a nervous breakdown and a near fatal heart attack, which was passed off as heat exhaustion so the studio wouldn't get jittery and pull the plug. Joe Estevez, Sheen's brother, stood in for him while he recovered.

Marlon Brando showed up on set out of shape and total unprepared. He refused to do the script and repeatedly argued with Coppola. Dennis Hopper deliberately kept antagonising Brando after he yelled at him over a simple misunderstanding which resulted in Brando refusing to share the set with him. The one scene they shared together had to be shot on separate nights. It got to the point where Coppola was so fed up with Brando that he had the assistant director direct all of his scenes.

Apocalypse Now was meant to shoot for six week. It ended up shooting for sixteen months producing nearly 200 hours of footage which took over two years to edit. The whole thing took a heavy toll on everyone involved especially Coppola, who threatened suicide several times during production. The fact he came out of this entire gruelling experience with an enduring masterpiece and a legitimate box office hit was nothing short of miraculous.


Following the Oscar winning success of The Deer Hunter, United Artists gave director Michael Cimino $11 million and free reign for his next film, a Western epic loosely based on the Johnson County War starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken. This would soon prove to be one of the biggest movie making blunders of the last century.

By all accounts Cimino was an absolute nightmare on set who was often abusive towards the cast and crew. According to Tom Noonan, during one dispute the director pulled a loaded gun on him. There were also reports of repeated and serious animal abuse such as real cockfights and horses being tortured and killed. Cimino's Kubrikian perfectionism caused numerous delays as he demanded take after take. One shot required 52 takes and took up an entire's day filming and only lasted for a single second. He would have entire sets destroyed and rebuilt if they weren't exactly to his liking. He delayed filming until a cloud that he liked rolled into the frame.

By the time filming was finally complete after about six months the budget had ballooned to a then massive $40 million. Cimino's original cut was over five hours long before the studio had him cut it down to three hours and forty minutes. After a disastrous premiere the film was pulled from theatres so it could be cut down even further. The film was a critical and commercial disaster, making only £3.5 million to become one of the biggest box office flops of all time.


I'm willing to bet more people know the messed up story of the making of The Island of Dr. Moreau than have seen the actual film. The film's original director, Richard Stanley, spent four years developing his adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, but not long after New Line Cinema gave it the green light they went behind his back and tried to get Roman Polanski of all people to direct it instead. Stanley was furious and reached out to star Marlon Brando, who was sympathetic to Stanley's plight and helped convince the studio to keep him on as director.

Bruce Willis was originally going to star as Edward, the man who washes up on Moreau's island, with James Woods as Montgomery, Moreau's assistant. Willis dropped out before filming started allegedly citing his divorce from Demi Moore as the cause. Val Kilmer was hired to replace him, but he demanded a 40% reduction in the number of days he was required to be on set. Rather than find someone else, Woods was let go and Kilmer was given the smaller role of Montgomery. Northern Exposure's Rob Morrow was then brought on board as the film's new lead.

Just before filming started Brando left the set and retreated to his private island following the suicide of his daughter Cheyenne. This left the production in limbo as no one was sure when or if he would return. The film was meant to shoot in Australia for six weeks. Instead, the cast and crew got stuck there for six months. Bad weather was the cause of some delays, but the majority of them were the result of the egotistical behaviour of the film's stars. Kilmer was more than living up to his reputation of being difficult to work with; showing up late for filming, refusing to say his lines, repeatedly arguing with the director, and bullying the cast and crew. Morrow became so unhappy with the hostile situation on set he called up the head of New Line and tearfully begged to be let go.

Unhappy with the progress of the project, New Line fired Stanley after just four days of production. He was offered his full fee if he left immediately and did not discuss the reason for his firing (rumour has it he snuck back on set as an extra in make up). John Frankenheimer took over as director and David Thewlis was hired to replace Morrow. Things did not get any easier under Frankenheimer's leadership. He constantly had the script rewritten and often clashed with his stars. Brando often refused to leave his air conditioned trailer and when he did he would refuse to learn his lines and had to have them fed to him through an earpiece. He also regularly clashed with Kilmer, who continued to be such a pain that Frankenheimer all but had him thrown off the set once his final scenes were filmed.


Terry Gilliam is no stranger to troubled productions. I really could've filled this entire list with his films. Eric Idle, his friend and fellow Python, once said that people should go and see Terry Gilliam, but to be in them was "fucking madness!!!" The film that has caused him more headaches over the decades is undoubtedly his take on Cervantes, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Filming began in Navarre in 2000 with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as Toby Grummett, a 21st-century marketing executive thrown back through time who Quixote confuses for his squire, Sancho Panza. Practically from day one things started to wrong. Sets and equipment were destroyed by flooding. Planes would keep flying over the set ruining takes. Rochefort became seriously ill and had to depart. The filmmakers faced numerous financial difficulties (such as being unable to obtain insurance) which eventually led to the entire production being cancelled. The whole sorry affair later became the subject of the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.

Gilliam made repeated attempts to relaunch production over the next two decades, but they all ended up being cancelled for various reasons. He was finally able to secure funding in 2017 and started shooting a new version with Adam Driveras as Toby and Jonathan Pryce as Quixote. Production finally complete, Gilliam faced the new problem of actually getting the damn thing released, partially due to a legal dispute with Paulo Branco, the film's former producer. The film had a very scattered release in only a few countries over a two year period.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig


  1. You might add Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. He said it was worse than Apocalypse now. Klaus Kinski, natural disasters..who knows what was worse. great list.

  2. A few years back I watched a documentary about THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (which, by the way, I paid to see in an actual theater in 1996), and the contrast between the interviews of the American and Australian cast members (in regards to the original director being fired) was hilarious. The Americans were all saying things like "What happened was very unfortunate" and "The studio and director should have sat down and worked things out". The Australians were all saying things like "Too bad he didn't start a riot" and "He should have burned the place down". I gathered the Australians really hated working on that shoot.


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