Making a feature length movie is not easy. Making a feature film that is actually good is much harder still. If you have ever seen a truly terrible television commercial, realize that the people behind that spot couldn’t create 30 seconds of decent material; trying to make a two-hour long product is a whole lot harder.
What goes on behind the scenes of a film production can involve everything from budget and scheduling woes to clashing personalities to mechanical issues to sickness, injury, and so much more. It’s up to the cinematographer, director, and editors (and producers, VFX specialists, and so on) to make sure that the movie that ends up on the silver screen obfuscates all the messes that led up to the release date.
The sad fact is that many movies never even get the chance to be on screen; many film projects with plenty of potential are, for about ten thousand different reasons, never completed. Some are never even started, some are scrapped mid-production, and a few are finished but never released. Amazingly, a good number of movies that have gone on to be huge box office hits and/or critical darlings almost fell into the category of movies that were almost never made.
Today, Chinatown is considered by many film critics and media studies scholars to be one of the best movies of the 20th Century. Say what you will about Roman Polanski (things like “Hey, you’re morally flawed!”), but the guy made a damn good film. (That might have been in part thanks to Jack Nicholson’s acting, too.) He was also apparently such an outright jerk on set that co-star Faye Dunaway almost quit on numerous occasions. Her departure would have required so much re-shooting it would likely have sunk the entire production. She stayed despite Polanki’s verbal abuse and disrespect, and cinephiles are glad for that.
14. A Nightmare on Elm Street
In the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the issue is not so much that the movie almost didn’t get made, but rather that the film horror fans love — and which launched a huge franchise — was almost altered to a point beyond recognition. In fact this classic horror flick was almost re-written into a kids’ movie. Disney was all set to buy the movie from Wes Craven, so long as he would tone the content down to where it could get a PG rating. Craven said no, new production company on the block New Line Cinema eventually took the film concept as-is, and the rest is film history.
13. Blade Runner
The peerless dystopian classic that is Blade Runner had one very harsh critic right from the start: Phillip K. Dick, author of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the film was based. Dick apparently hated the first draft of the script with a passion. However, it was re-written a few times, and the production commenced. Then, days before actual shooting started, the financier, Filmways, pulled their cash out of the project, leaving it with no budget. The producers managed to cobble together funding from multiple fill-in sources, but the movie was almost run off the rails before it ever got started.
Platoon won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1986 and is considered by most critics and viewers alike to be one of the best war movies ever made. But making it took director Oliver Stone nearly two decades. He wrote an early version of the script in the late 1960s after his own service in Vietnam, but then spent the 1970s and early 80s having the project rejected everywhere he took it. People were weary of the Vietnam war era, and producers didn’t want to spend time and money on a project rehashing it all. Stone stuck with it, and eventually he created a masterpiece.
11. Fast & Furious 4 – 8
When the feature film The Fast and the Furious hit theaters in 2001, the scale of its success came as a pleasant surprise to those involved with the movie. The producers quickly greenlit a sequel, called 2 Fast 2 Furious. This was followed by The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which started to feel like the proverbial Jumping the Shark moment to some critics and fans. Plans for a theatrical release for the fourth instalment, Fast & Furious, looked grim, with the fourth movie destined for video only release if it were made at all. The producers stuck with their baby, though, and the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight Fast movies all hit theaters and sold tens of millions in tickets. More Fast movies are planned for the future.
10. Back to the Future
The Back to the Future trilogy is one of the best-loved trio of movies ever made, with the first film in particular an absolute favourite of many people born in the 1960s and 70s (and with younger viewers who came to know the movie on video). But if you had a time machine back to the year before production commenced, you’d be laughed off of movie lots all over Hollywood if you told people that. Director Robert Zemeckis was rejected by more than three dozen production companies; people thought the idea was just too corny to work. Then Spielberg got involved and…it worked.
When Jaws came out in 1975, its release basically created the term “Blockbuster.” People literally lined up around the block while waiting to get into theaters to see the movie. And then they didn’t go into the ocean for the next few years. But due to the constant mechanical failures the crew experienced with their robotic sharks, the production almost fell apart. There ended up being many fewer shots of the fearsome beast than intended, but that ultimately helped the film, as the suspense is only heightened as we wait in fear, wondering when it will appear again.
8. The Princess Bride
While 1987’s The Princess Bride is a favourite film of many who remember it from the theater and who found the movie much later alike, it was almost never filmed. Not for lack of trying, though: multiple producers (including Robert Redford) tried to put a production based on the 1973 novel (of the same name) together for years, but studios kept passing, they were losing funding, or losing executives to firings or death. The production seemed cursed until Rob Reiner came along and made good on a deal he had with 20th Century Fox; the studio had basically said “Make anything you want” and what he wanted to make was The Princess Bride.
7. World War Z
World War Z proved to be one of those all-too-common Hollywood messes of a production wherein everyone involved can almost rest assured their efforts will result in a hit movie, if only they can get the damn thing finished. (Other examples include Titanic and Ben Hur and not You Got Served.) With shoots all over the world, from Malta to Budapest to American back lots, and with thousands of extras involved, the production devoured its original budget. Faced with the prospect of falling apart or a dramatic alteration to the ending, the studio chose to rewrite the denouement, massively scaling it down.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Not only did the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s almost never get made, but even once production was approved, the film as originally envisioned would have looked much different than the movie we all know and love. Truman Capote, who wrote the book on which the film was based, wanted Marilyn Monroe to star in it and hated the casting choice of Audrey Hepburn. The first screenwriter and director to sign on to the film were fired, and for a while it looked like shooting would simply never start. Once the film was finished, the ever chipper Capote made it clear that he hated it. But most other people didn’t.
5. Dirty Dancing
OK, so maybe people aren’t rushing out to the video store for a copy of Dirty Dancing or moving the movie to the top of their Netflix streaming queue (which is good, because video stores don’t really exist anymore, and Netflix doesn’t seem to have it offered for streaming), but when it came out, this movie was a huge hit. And it still has a warm spot in many hearts. But producer Linda Gittlieb had the project rejected more than 40 times before a studio agreed to make it. Male production execs failed to see the appeal of a movie about sexy dancing; audiences of both sexes (but mostly female, to be fair) sure saw the appeal once it was on the screen.
4. Apocalypse Now
The production of Apocalypse Now was such a harrowing, disastrous affair that a documentary about the making of the film called Hearts of Darkness was itself a huge hit. The movie went over budget and over schedule and it ran into difficulties caused by everything from weather to warfare (monsoon rains and a fleet of helicopter that the Philippine Army kept co-opting for use in actual combat). Add to that the conflicts between the huge personalities on set, including the ego of Marlon Brando and the mania of Dennis Hopper, plus the near mental breakdown of director Francis Ford Coppola. But clearly it was finished, and now we are left with a goddamn masterpiece.
3. Toy Story
That’s right, freakin’ Toy Story almost never saw the light of day. When the all computer graphic production was proposed, it was just too new and different for a lot of film executives to understand. And even after the first scenes had been “shot”(which is to say animated) the test reels were not satisfactory. Production was halted so the characters could be redesigned and the script rewritten, and had these updates not gone well, the whole thing was slated to be scrapped and forgotten. Instead, it helped establish Pixar as one of most celebrated production companies around today and opened the door for other Toy Story films.
2. Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins has been charming millions of movie lovers (and annoying a few) for decades. Since its 1964 release, the film has become a mainstay of family entertainment, but had P.L. Travers, the author of the book on which the movie is based, stuck to her guns, it would never have been made. In fact Walt Disney’s pursuit of the property was such an epic journey that it was the inspiration for another movie that did rather well in its own right, the 2013 feature Saving Mr. Banks, which starred Tom Hanks as Disney and grossed more than $100 million in box office sales.
1. The Wizard of Oz
When The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, it changed the landscape of cinema forever. From the film’s stunning colour photography to its amazing special effects, the movie was one of the most advanced and spectacular pieces produced to that date and remained ahead of its time for many years more. Behind the scenes, it was a mess that almost imploded. There were more than a dozen writers who worked on the script, there were five directors hired and fired, and many actors were injured on set during the long, expensive production.
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