My 5 Favorite Troubled Film Productions

With so many pieces that have to come together to make a movie, it's a wonder any of them are successful at all. Which is why I've always had a fondness for troubled productions, or if you will, the underdogs of the film world. These are films that really had no right to be any good, let alone great, not with the obstacles and setbacks facing them. Here, then, are my favorite tales of cinematic turmoil, and how they still ended up producing something good (or great).

Alien³Ok, not the greatest final product, yet it has a lot of fans, myself included. Alien³ stands as a return to Alien's roots after James Cameron took it into the action genre, and David Fincher's grimy hand seems to be clearly holding the reins. Except that the first time director was essentially working without a script! Treating Fincher like a newbie, the studio kept changing things on him, forcing him to rethink and reshoot entire sequences. Multiple time. After Sigourney's hair had grown out! The "director's cut" is at least available, restoring Paul McGann's role to its rightful status and making sense of the movie's middle, though having the alien gestate in cattle was probably not the most memorable idea.
Other problems: Morphing accents. Sets on fire. Cinematographer had Parkinson's.
Evidence: Alien³ DVD featurettes

Terry Gilliam's production wasn't all that troubled (by his standards anyway - he stands with Orson Welles as one of the directors positively beaten by a Don Quixote project), but its release certainly was. When the film was recut by the studio for American audiences (read: dumbed down), Gilliam declared open war. He vowed that the shit he would stir up would be much more unpleasant than releasing the film as was. He made good on that promise. He had been given final cut, after all, and the film had been released in Europe. He started making a lot of noise in the media. Behind Universal's back, Gilliam started showing his cut at festivals and universities, where a simple "clip" might last the whole of the film. Eventually, so many people and critics had seen it, even going so far as winning "under the wire" awards, that the studio had to give in.
Other problems: None unrelated to the studio system.
Evidence: The Battle of Brazil: A Video History (included in Criterion Collection boxed set, along with the "Love Conquers All cut").

Happy Together
Wong Kar-Wai is an improvisational genius. I don't rightly know how he even creates films the way he does, but he basically crafts characters with the actors, writes scenes for those characters and then plays it by ear! Movies are made in the editing suite, after all. Piecing Happy Together, however, was a difficult process. The story of two gay Chinese men in Argentina turned out beautifully, lyrical, sad and evocative, but the cast and crew recount how this was their Apocalypse Now. Stranded in a foreign land while the writer-director had this big, fat writer's block for weeks on end. And then one of the stars had to leave because of a music tour engagement, requiring scenes to be repurposed to accommodate a NEW story, one where his character leaves suddenly instead of dying. It's actually better for it!
Other problems: Local overpricing (people thought they were making a big budget kung fu movie). Bomb threats. The crew threatened at gunpoint. One of the stars almost left secretly.
Evidence: Buenos Aires Zero Degrees ("making of" documentary)

Blade Runner
Oh man, people did NOT appreciate Ridley Scott's British management style on the set of this movie. He cast a really very green Sean Young whose lack of professionalism got on Harrison Ford's nerves. The first day was lost because columns were, in his opinion, upside down and had to be reset. It set the tone. Both cast and crew make him out to be unreasonable, demanding and a tyrannical perfectionist. He didn't like consulting people, and consequently people assumed he just had disdain for American crews. They felt vindicated when they found a British newspaper article where he said he liked making movies in England better. This spawned a brief t-shirt war insulting to the director. People quit. And of course, the "suits" didn't understand the film, leading to the disappointing theatrical release with its gutted subtext and sluggish, idiotic, lame voice-over and its stupid happy ending. The final/director's cut is, necessarily, brilliant.
Other problems: Script instability. Cast instability (imagine the film with Dustin Hoffman and Nina Axelrod). Financiers backing out. Cleaning the Bradbury building every morning before people got to work. Filming in an actual freezer. Endless night shoots. Beehive smoke. Mildew. The final film's continuity flubs.
Evidence: Dangerous Days

Apocalypse Now
The most famous troubled production story arguably gave us the best film on this list. A profound exploration of the dark recesses of the human psyche filtered through the Vietnam experience, Apocalypse Now was exactly that for its director, cast and crew as well. There's something to be said about throwing everyone into the same situation as that of the characters, and the film is just like the Vietnam War: A financial and personal quagmire with no end in sight and no reasonable game plan in a tropical foreign country fighting an insurgency. Coppola's little trip to the Philippines would end up lasting years (on and off) as he and everyone involved dealt with, among other things, a set-destroying monsoon, military equipment that left without notice to fight the insurgents, and Martin Sheen's heart attack. Willard was originally played by Harvey Keitel, but a change was made after filming began. The script was thrown away midpoint as the film started to grow bigger and bigger. Brando was difficult and wound up improvising his scenes because he didn't like what was on the page (nor did he lose the promised weight), leaving Coppola to find an ending from what bits and pieces he could. And all the way, hemorrhaging his own money while Hollywood pointed and laughed. It's this desperation and "organic" growth (as malignant as it might have seemed then) that allowed for this masterpiece. Hey, it could have been worse: George Lucas could have directed it "documentary style" as was previously planned.
Other problems: Name it.
Evidence: Hearts of Darkness

Underdogs all. But all of them biting.


Nicholas Yankovec said...

Am I the only one who actually liked the voiceover in Bladerunner? I always thought it suited the noir type story well.

Siskoid said...

Unfortunately, it's got nothing interesting to say. It either explains a story I already understand, or makes me laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of it all ("Sushi. Cold fish. That's what my wife called me.")

As Dangerous Days reveals, Harrison Ford tried many iterations before the studio whisked him into a Ridley-less recording studio where a huffy, unknown man gave him pages to read. He read them essentially to get rid of them, thinking they would never make it into the picture. They did, and I think it shows. Ford's tone sounds bored more than "film noir".

But I respect your preference. So does Ridley Scott, if we go by his comments on the Cracked-Up Holy Crap Ultimate Briefcase Edition.

Sea-of-Green said...

Ah, yes, Terry Gilliam's production troubles have become legend, haven't they? It seems to me that the biggest problem Mr. Gilliam has with ALL of his films is just managing his time and staying on budget. Don Quixote might have survived, otherwise.

Austin Gorton said...

Count me as one of those who likes the Blade Runner voiceover, in principal, at least. It definitely adds to the Marlowe-esque feel of the film.

Or at least, it would have, if it was written by, you know, a writer or filmmaker and not the studio. Because while I like the idea of using a noir-inspired voiceover, the actual execution of it wasn't very good.

Siskoid said...

If there's one impression you get from The Battle of Brazil, it's that neither side is particularly reasonable. Gilliam comes off as a petulant child. I think it's a better story than Brazil itself.

Siskoid said...

Bottom line for me though is that the voice-over cut also omits the unicorn AND adds the lame happy ending. And those are unforgivable.

Dan said...

I don't particularly like the Blade Runner VO, but I don't despise it, either. It's distracting and unnecessary, but it doesn't ruin the movie for me.

The tacked-on ending, on the other hand...sheesh.

"Alien 3," by the way, remains one of the more traumatically scarring experiences of my filmgoing life. I made my Dad promise to take me and my friend Phil to see it - and we all kind of stumbled out of the theater two hours later, saying, "What the hell was that?"

Baal said...

What always has bothered me is calling it Alien 3. There was no Alien 2. There was Alien and then Aliens. It should either be Alien 2 or Aliens 2. And yes, I suffer from OCD. Why do you ask?

Siskoid said...

To be fair, it's actual "Alien to the third power".

Which doesn't make any more sense.

Anonymous said...

Especially as there was only one of them.

Nicholas Yankovec said...

I have to admit that I haven't seen the version with the voiceover for years, so it may not be as good as I would like to remember.

However, and this may sound a tad dumb, but I think it's safe to say that most big fans of the film are also sci-fi genre fans. A lot of non-genre fans I know, who have never seen the voice-over version do seem to get a bit confused at various points during the film. I think the studio had a legitimate reason for wanting it in, whether they went about it in the right way is a different subject. No excuse for the happy ending though.

I do wonder what I would have made of the film if I had seen the director's cut first. Never know now.


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