American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas found it nearly impossible to find a studio that would make his coming of age story about cruising and the California culture of the early ‘60s, not even the one who developed it. Universal came on board only when Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off The Godfather’s monster success, signed on to produce. But it was not easy sailing for Lucas, whose only other feature, THX 1138, had bombed at the box office. He was given a minimal budget for American Graffiti, most of which went to securing the rights to the rock and roll soundtrack that anchored the film’s vibe. Hundreds of teenage extras worked for free, only kept around by the temptation of free stereos and radios raffled off in-between scenes. There were also production issues galore, including crew members getting busted for marijuana possession, allergic reactions that prompted hospitalization, and two camera operators who were nearly killed during a racing sequence.
Perhaps the most remarkable story of American Graffiti is the large cast of unknown actors, which required a huge casting call, some of whom became massive stars, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. The youthful energy of the cast led to some infamous partying on and off the set, which only added to the overall aura and legend of this film, Lucas’s passion project, whose success allowed him to pursue another relatively famous passion project, which was also, ironically, beset with problems.
Star Wars (1977)
After the success of American Graffiti, George Lucas finally could pursue his dream project, which he had been working on for years, a space opera featuring cutting-edge special effects. But, from the beginning, Star Wars was beset by issues, causing the production to go over budget and cause severe stress. The production was so stressful that Lucas suffered from exhaustion and hypertension. The grueling shoot in the Tunisian desert was a nightmare, as a rare storm destroyed sets and props, putting the schedule and the budget off-kilter. Even more than the weather, Lucas’s vision of the film caused the most significant issues, from the constant malfunctioning of the droids and other equipment, which were already experimental and groundbreaking, to the fact that his vision for the special effects was so complicated and forward-thinking that he had to create his own visual effects company to even finish the film.
There were clashes between Lucas and his cinematographer and apprehension from some of the cast and crew, who weren’t even sure what kind of film they were making. Established Shakespearean actor Alec Guinness famously scoffed at the entire thing, making it clear he was only there for the paycheck. Harrison Ford had trouble even saying some of Lucas’s lines, citing they were great on a page but impossible to speak. Problems continued even after production ended when star Mark Hamill got into a car crash a few months before the film was slated to open, so a stand-in needed to come in for pick-up shots because of damage to Hamill’s face. Fortunately, things still ended up working out for the best.
Oh, how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall—or a buoy in the ocean—for the production of Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster of 1975. From the famously strained relationship between two of the film’s stars, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, to the even more famously strained relationship between Spielberg and his star, the mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce, who was constantly breaking down. Jaws’ legend precedes it. The constant breakdowns caused a long shoot and increased tensions, but weather and shooting challenges also contributed to a nightmare production, which saw their main boat actually sink and a stuntman come close to death during a diving sequence. Even a film with speedy pre-production can cause problems, as Jaws was green-lit so fast that it started shooting without a script. Add to it the nightmare of shooting on the open ocean, something Spielberg admits caused him PTSD that still haunts him, and few productions would make better dramatizations than this.
Ironically enough, Kevin Costner said Spielberg warned him about the dangers of shooting on the ocean after his experience with Jaws. Still, Costner and his director Kevin Reynolds didn’t heed the legendary director’s advice, and Waterworld would soon teach them to always listen to the master. The most expensive film ever made at the time became a punchline for all of its budget overruns and its nightmare production. But the true scope of the troubles that beset the water-based production are nearly unbelievable, including the costs of building massive floating sets in the middle of the ocean, which required helicopters and boats to film and transport all the cast and crew back and forth from Hawaii, where the production was based. A hurricane destroyed the multimillion-dollar set during production, several extras nearly drowned, one of the stuntmen was almost lost at sea, and that’s not even mentioning Costner himself nearly dying during an action sequence on the water.
Costner was extremely committed to the production. He often butted heads with director Reynolds, with Costner even taking over during post-production when Reynolds got so fed up he walked away. Rumors have it that Costner was a bit of a diva as well, insisting on CGI to hide his receding hairline and staying in an expensive villa while the crew would lodge in sweltering condos without air-conditioning. But Costner worked hard, spending most of his time on the set and investing $22 million of his own money on the film. There was personal drama as well, as Costner’s marriage ended during the long shoot, and he banned tabloids from the set following rumors of an affair with an extra. Costner himself called the production a “12-ring circus,” but the film and its legendarily troubled production has managed to surpass its own legend and is now considered a modest success thanks to a cult following. However, it’s still an example of excess and ambition outweighing practicality.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It’s hard to imagine a recent film with a more dramatic production story than George Miller’s epic fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise. He hadn’t planned to put thirty years between sequels of the apocalyptic road warrior story, with the most recent, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, having come out in 1985, but life and other obstacles forced Miller to put it off that long. The first major hurdle they had to overcome was 9/11, the aftermath of which prevented them from getting insurance and being able to transport their vehicles.
Then, once they finally got everything squared away and were ready to resume, their star, Mel Gibson, had become persona non grata, thanks to his very public behavior forcing Miller to re-cast the starring role of Max. Finally, in 2012, they were ready to go, with their new Max, Tom Hardy, in tow. But then came the real hurdles Miller and his team had to conquer, which included being forced to relocate the entire production from Australia to Namibia after record rains turned the Australian desert into a giant flower bed. Add to that all the difficulties of shooting in the desert, including wind, sand, and extreme temperatures, and you’ve got a challenging shoot. And that’s not counting the brutally cold nights where one of the scantily-clad actresses actually came down with hypothermia.
But what is a dramatic production without cast conflict? On top of all the weather and location issues, Miller had to deal with his two stars, Hardy and Charlize Theron, reportedly at constant odds. Each has since acknowledged how circumstances played a role in their complicated working relationship, but it must have made for a very interesting shoot.
Another major source of drama concerning the production is what makes the film such a masterpiece — Miller’s insistence on as many practical stunts as possible. The film shot over 400 hours of footage during their eight months in the blazing desert heat. When the president of Warner Bros saw the footage and the skyrocketing budget, he pulled the plug, telling Miller that he would have to use what he’s got, and what Miller had was everything but the ending. He wondered how on earth he would be able to release a film without an ending when fate intervened. A different president took over the studio, allowing Miller to shoot his ending and finish the movie the way he wanted. The result was a huge critical and commercial success, but it certainly didn’t come without drama and a lot of classic movie-making magic.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s horror masterpiece may not have had the number of issues of other famously troubled productions, but there were enough to have put it in the pantheon of nightmare shoots. When you start with a legendarily controlling and perfectionist director such as Kubrick, there are bound to be some problems. Kubrick was a demanding and challenging presence on the set, so much so that he and star Shelley Duvall were constantly at odds, and she famously declared that working with him was unbearable. Duvall became physically ill from the stress of the shoot, and even star Jack Nicholson was so exhausted from his performance that he would sleep on the floor between scenes.
One significant source of the stress on set was Kubrick’s famous need for many takes, as many as 140 takes for a single scene, which would push any actor to the limit. Actor Scatman Crothers was reportedly brought to tears from the multiple takes for one scene. And yet, one of the most crucial scenes in the entire movie had to be done in one take—the scene with the twins and their death. Because they only had one set of dresses for the young actresses, who would be covered in blood in the pivotal scene, Kubrick was forced to get it on the first take, which caused him great stress—which he passed on to the crew.
There were physical production challenges as well. A fire late in production destroyed two sound stages, forcing them to stop filming until they were rebuilt. And, because Kubrick refused to fly, all the exteriors that were shot in Oregon were shot by a separate crew, while Kubrick stayed at their studio outside London. The drama even continued after the movie was released in theaters. Kubrick decided he wanted to change the ending and pulled all the prints with the original ending from the theaters and replaced them with the new ending, the one we all know.
World War Z (2013)
There really was no way for this film to avoid drama, not with a story about a zombie apocalypse with globetrotting locations and the biggest star in the world. While there weren’t any problems with the cast of World War Z, there were enough issues with the production, from weapons for the shoot being seized by a counter-terrorism unit in Budapest to massive budget overruns to dealing with hundreds of extras and mind-boggling CGI elements. But the kicker was that the studio came in and wanted a new ending, bringing in Damon Lindelof to make the movie they wanted. It may not be all the razzle-dazzle, but it’s got all the elements of a fantastically dramatic Hollywood nightmare.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
There are no better stories than those of fraught productions where the movie turns out to be a huge surprise hit. Like Star Wars, everyone involved with Dirty Dancing had no idea what they had. But director Emile Ardolino believed in what he had and kept pushing his vision. He was motivated mainly by the chemistry he saw in the screen test between stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, which was pure magic. Little did he know that Swayze and Grey had worked together previously in Red Dawn and had not gotten along. That didn’t stop him from casting them as star-crossed lovers, Johnny and Baby, even though the tension on-set between them became the stuff of legend.
In fact, just recently, Grey made headlines by saying she wishes she could apologize to Swayze, who passed away in 2009, for the “friction” on the set. But that friction was cinematic gold, as Ardolino somehow managed to turn their animus into sexual tension that melted the screen and made millions of fans when the film became a worldwide sensation. It made up for the fact that the grueling production featured several dancers passing out from dehydration during the shoot and Swayze being hospitalized for a knee injury. The production even had to overcome controversy around an abortion subplot in the film, standing up to sponsors and insisting it be cut. The producer and the studio backed Ardolino, but that’s probably because they didn’t think anyone would ever see the movie. He later admitted he hated the movie and thought it would flop.