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World War Z
Zombies are expected to be a shambling mess falling apart at the seams — zombie movies, not so much. Brad Pitt's geopolitical undead thriller found itself struggling for coherence during production. After disagreements between Pitt and director Marc Forster, an incident involving fully functional guns on set, and large budget overages, the final third of the film was eventually rewritten by Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard, requiring 30 to 40 minutes of reshoots and pushing the total cost up to $200 million, meaning the film beat its own record for most expensive zombie movie ever made.
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Two years before James Cameron told the story of the Titanic, this Kevin Costner mega-flop shared the ocean liner's fate. Waterworld had a number of icebergs, including inclement weather, a sinking set, and a Kevin-on-Kevin feud between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds which ended with Reynolds jet-skiing off the project. Despite pulling in a respectable $264 million, the movie became synonymous with bloated Hollywood folly. That is, until John Carter.
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You have to wonder if at any point during Apocalypse Now's torturous shoot, Francis Ford Coppola looked around at his tiny, mad cinematic empire and found irony in the fact that he was becoming Col. Kurtz. A malarial fever dream of the Vietnam War, Coppola's production was beset by biblical trials. Martin Sheen had a heart attack, Marlon Brando's waistline fluctuated as wildly as his sanity, a typhoon wreaked havoc on the sets, and the budget ballooned. Coppola's next project, the vibrant musical One From the Heart, was shot indoors.
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Hollywood's first true blockbuster was also a prime example of making the best out of a bad situation. With a mechanical shark that refused to cooperate, sophomore director Steven Spielberg made the ingenious, and necessary, decision to withhold the image of the shark early in the film. That decision ratcheted up the film's scare value tenfold and left many beaches empty in the summer of 1975.
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Fitzcarraldo/Aguirre, The Wrath of God
What is it about jungles that drives directors insane? Two more studies of manic obsession that turned its creator into a manic obsessive, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God set Werner Herzog and his best f(r)iend Klaus Kinski loose in the South American rainforest, where they promptly lunged for each other's throats. The documentary Burden of Dreams details the arduous travails on the set of Fitzcarraldo, including the offer to Herzog from local tribesmen to ''take care'' of Kinski.
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While most of these films are examples of catastrophes taking place during a production, the tragedy of The Conqueror only revealed itself in retrospect. John Wayne was cast in the dubious role of Genghis Khan — perhaps offending the gods of good taste — and much of the film was shot 137 miles downwind of the Nevada Test Site. Over the next few decades, no less than 91 cast and crew members developed some form of cancer, which is believed to be tied to the location's hazardous radiation.
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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
This adaptation of the Cervantes classic was a perfect match of director and subject. Tilting at the twin windmills of studio practicality and Murphy's Law, Terry Gilliam had run into problems on a number of his films, including Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But no production has been as unfortunate as Gilliam's unfinished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, itself killed by trials worthy of Job, including the failing health of its star Jean Rochefort. Even now, IMDB has it listed as ''in development.'' How quixotic.
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The Wizard of Oz
The timeless fantasy story had one of the most difficult production cycles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as Scarecrow, but then swapped roles with Ray Bolger to play the Tin Man, ...and suffered an allergic reaction to the makeup, requiring hospitalization. (After a production shutdown, he was replaced by Jack Haley.) Meanwhile, original witch Gale Sondergaard was unhappy with preproduction changes in the character and was fired/replaced three days before filming by Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton suffered serious burns in a sequence due to pyrotechnics in the Munchkinland sequence. At least four men can lay claim to ''directing'' the movie, including George Cukor and Victor Fleming, who also shared directing credit for Gone With the Wind. Because of elaborate makeup and costuming, call times were early and days were long. And that's not to mention the rumor — oft-debunked but rediscovered by new generations of children — that one of the little-person actors hanged himself next to the Yellow Brick Road.
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Still the most costly film ever made — if you adjust for inflation and choose to ignore Pirates of the Caribbean 3 — Cleopatra combined the worst excesses of the dying studio system with the worst excesses of the upcoming era of star-centric productions. Cleopatra was already $5 million over budget and had lost one director before Joseph L. Mankiewicz arrived. One of the great writer-directors of old Hollywood, Mankiewicz seemed lost amidst a runaway production, ultimately turning in a six-hour cut. It didn't help matters that the married star, Elizabeth Taylor, began a public affair with her equally married costar Richard Burton. Taylor was eventually paid $7 million for her work on the movie — close to $50 million today.
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Before Waterworld, Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds collaborated on another ocean-centric production — an old-fashioned epic set on the Polynesian isle Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. The film, which took place on the island itself, employed a significant amount of the native population — which at the time included just over two thousand people. But after filming was over, experts claimed that the presence of an expensive Hollywood production led to increased alcohol consumption and fatally damaged historical sites.
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The Island of Doctor Moreau
Doctor Moreau didn't just star two difficult actors. It starred two difficult actors at extremely difficult moments in their life. Val Kilmer was going through a messy divorce; Marlon Brando was recovering from his daughter's suicide. It didn't help matters that New Line Cinema removed the project's original director and guiding creative force, Richard Stanley, after just a few days of filming. New director John Frankenheimer had the script extensively rewritten mid-filming. The result was an expensive, incoherent mishmash. If it's remembered at all today, it for Brando as a muumuu-wearing kookball.
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The glorious, brownish-tinted era of New Hollywood came to a clattering halt thanks to this Cleopatra of American auteurism. Michael Cimino, who made the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, delivered one of the biggest monuments to inflated self-regard with this overstuffed mess about Wyoming land barons. Word is, the original cut Cimino screened for producers was nearly five and a half hours. Understandably, it was all Rambos, Armageddons, and Transformers from then on out.
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Producing titan Dino de Laurentiis had big dreams of turning Frank Herbert's Dune into a Star Wars-level franchise. Problem: In stark contrast to the zippy fighter-pilot thrills of Star Wars, Dune was filled with big ideas and elaborate plotting to go along with the expensive visuals. The producer hired David Lynch, who at that point had only directed the small films Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Lynch has generally disowned his work on Dune, and the resulting two-hour mess looks decadent and cheap at the same time.
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Darren Aronofsky's half-decade odyssey to create The Fountain began in 2001, when the project was planned as a vehicle for Brad Pitt. Cate Blanchett was hired to play Pitt's love interest. Sets were being built in Australia. A budget of $70 million was agreed upon, thanks to a co-financing deal between Warner Bros. and New Regency. Then, with just seven weeks to go before production started, Pitt dropped out to film Troy. After a Hail Mary attempt to recast the role with Russell Crowe failed, filming was shut down — despite the fact that the crew had already built a massive Mayan temple on the film's Australian set. Aronofsky returned to the film two years later, with a reconceived (and much cheaper) vision — the Hugh Jackman/Rachel Weisz version of The Fountain cost about $35 million and was mostly shot in Montreal.
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Director/producer Shin Sang-Ok had an impressive filmmaking career in South Korea in the '50s and '60s, but he hit a dry spell in the 1970s. He experienced a decidedly unwelcome renaissance, though, when he and his ex-wife were kidnapped by beloved North Korean media personality/dictator Kim Jong-il. Kim wanted to inject a bit of life into the North Korean film industry. The most famous result of Shin's imprisonment was this Godzilla-esque monster movie. Shin and his wife — they remarried — later escaped to America, where Shin directed the film 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. This is all true.
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Shanghai (still unreleased)
The Weinstein Company probably had big Oscar dreams when they greenlit this historical epic, set in Shanghai in the months before Pearl Harbor, back in 2008. If nothing else, the international cast pointed to a potential global hit: Besides John Cusack and Chow Yun-Fat, the film also starred Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Franka Potente, and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi. But just before production was set to start on location, the Chinese government revoked the studio's filming permits. The film was ultimately shot on a set in Bangkok, then disappeared into the Weinstein vault. The film has so far only been released in select Asian countries, although it's currently slated for a Blu-ray release this summer...in Britain.