The Hellish Productions of 6 Great Movies

By  · Published on November 4th, 2013

by David Christopher Bell

All this week, Film School Rejects presents a daily dose of our favorite articles from the archive. Originally published in November 2011, David C. Bell explores some of the toughest roads to the big screen for a score of great movies.

Most films tend to be technological and logistical nightmares right from the start; clusters of egos working together with complicated equipment in an attempt to capture what is essentially a really elaborate lie tends to be a rather surreal process, so it’s not really surprising to hear that a whole lot of craziness can go down during the making of a movie – however as unsurprising as it may be, it’s still damn entertaining.

That’s why DVD documentaries, in my opinion, are like the ultimate kind of reality TV: stick a bunch of millionaire actors, union laborers, and eccentric artists in a room with expensive and possibly life-threatening electrical equipment and you’re surely going to get something worth watching. These are the sets that were no doubt the worst to be party to, and the best to be a fly on the wall for – that is if you happen to be a really sadistic fly.

6. Eyes Wide Shut

The torment that comes from Stanley Kubrick’s final film was not from the conditions of the set, nor was it even from any complications that arose during shooting. It certainly wasn’t Nicole Kidman’s nude scenes. What made working on this film a living hell was much more elegant than any disaster or ego clash – it was the pure tedium. 15 months of it.

Kubrick is known for being a rather meticulous director, and for this film he went above and beyond, setting an actual Guinness World Record for “longest constant movie shoot” at 400 straight days. That means that for those 400 days production never took a break. The reason for such a long shoot is of course Kubrick’s extreme attention to detail and perfectionism. At one point he shot a take of Tom Cruise walking though a door 90 times before he thought it was right. Ten whole days were spent deciding whether or not a character should make a certain hand signal. A 13-minute scene with Sydney Pollack took three full weeks of filming to get.

Of course it’s not like they didn’t know what they were getting into – as Vincent D’Onofrio, who had previously worked with Kubrick, told the actors “Rent a house or an apartment, because you’re going to be in England for a while.” And later in an interview Cruise himself expressed both his excitement and awareness of the possible length of the shoot saying “Nicole and I talk about it so much at night. When we’re 70 years old, sitting on the front porch, we’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Wow! We made this movie with Stanley Kubrick!’ We know it may take a long time to finish, but we don’t care.” When asked how long was a long time, he predicted six months. Oh so close!

Not long after the film was finally completed Kidman and Cruse famously separated, no doubt because they were sick of looking at each other.

5. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

Whoever the sick bastard was that decided to cast both Bette Davis and John Crawford together in this film must have known the kind of perfect storm they were creating by doing so. After all – up until this point Crawford had once deliberately seduced one of Davis’s costars just to piss her off, and Davis had publically called Crawford an African caterpillar-eyebrowed mannequin who had “slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.” They were not pals – in fact their professional rivalry only got worse when both actresses signed to Warner Bros and were faced with actually competing for the same roles. It was in their older years that they were both cast as clashing siblings in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?.

It got pretty bad. Stitches bad, when at one point during a fight scene Davis ‘accidentally’ kicked Crawford right in the head – causing a trip to the medic. Joan then retaliated by filling her costume with rocks for a scene where Davis had to drag her body, causing the actress serious back injury in the process. This was all after Davis made sure to have a Coca Cola machine installed in her dressing room – the significance being that Crawford’s late husband had been the CEO of Pepsi. Nothing could even be interpreted as playful jabbing between rivals, as Bette was later quoted saying “The best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down some stairs in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?.”

It didn’t even stop there – after the movie was finished Davis ended up getting nominated for the role, which caused Crawford to actually lobby against her co-star getting the Oscar. She went so far as to offer to accept the award for any of the other nominees who couldn’t accept the award in the event that they won, which was exactly what happened when Anne Bancroft won over Davis. Up stepped Joan Crawford, happily accepting the award that Davis didn’t get.

However it should be noted that in the end, Davis got the last word when Joan Crawford died some time later, saying “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

Freaking ice cold.

4. The Shining

This list could be all Kubrick films if it wanted to be. The Shining stands out with an equally elegant type of on set tedium as the previously mentioned Eyes Wide Shut – however this time it was mixed with much more focused abuse, specifically at the two biggest victims of the film played by Scatman Crothers and Shelley Duvall.

While Kubrick did long shoots for every actor (including spending 3 days shooting the infamous door-chopping scene with Jack Nicholson) he focused his longest and most grueling shoots on these two, and actually took yet another Guinness World Record in the process for the most takes for one shot, at a whopping 127 takes for the scene where Wendy swings the baseball bat at Jack:

Watching that clip with this knowledge, it becomes clear why Duvall comes across as desperate as she does. However some of the production crew says that this record is in fact wrong, as the most takes they shot during production was actually when Scatman’s character Hallorann explains to Danny about what Shining is, which is said to have taken 148 different takes. No matter who is right in this matter, what’s clear is that Kubrick was a crazy, crazy man.

On top of all of this Kubrick also appeared to treat Duvall in a much harsher manner than the rest of the cast, presumably to create a feeling of hopelessness in her character. The process nearly drove the actress sick with stress, as she explains during a making of documentary:

If you keep watching, you will see in the very next sequence an instance of Kubrick completely blowing off Duvall’s complaints of getting her hair caught in a window while shooting, telling the crew “Don’t sympathize with Shelley” and demanding that she does another take.

3. Apocalypse Now

You can’t really have a list like this without putting Apocalypse Now on it. As far as hellish sets go, the 16 months of sporadic shooting for this film was everything you would expect the perfect production hell to be. Starting with a recast of the main character from Harvey Keitel to Martin Sheen along with a set-destroying typhoon that shut down production 2 months into the film, the shit hit the fan nice and early for the cast and crew.

Oh, it got worse. It’s hard to even know where to start – there was Laurence Fishburne, who had lied about his age to get the part of the 17-year-old Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller. Laurence was actually 14 at the time of shooting, making the fact that most of his co-stars were either drunk or on some kind of drug a bit disturbing especially when you take into account that this whole ordeal was happening in some remote Philippine jungle. Sam Bottoms, who played Lance Johnson, at one point shot a scene on a triad of amphetamines, weed, and LSD.

Then of course there was the one-million-dollar man, Marlon Brando. One million being the money he got in advance for playing the role of Kurtz, which he did so drunk and overweight without ever reading the script or the original source material “Heart Of Darkness.” In fact the entire ending of the film had to be changed in order to accommodate and conceal Brando’s misshapen physique.

The winner has to be Martin Sheen, our ‘hero’ of the film, who suffered both a drunken breakdown and a goddamn heart attack on the set. Surely one of the finest moments of insanity has to be his inebriated kung fu demonstration that resulted in a broken mirror and fit of tears – All while celebrating his 36th birthday:

To be fair, having an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown on the set of a Francis Ford Coppola film isn’t a half bad way to spend a birthday. It’s certainly more memorable than cake and music.

2. The Abyss

So with most of the previous on this list it’s been focused more on specific people who went through terrible ordeals on set either because of other actors or the director or copious amounts of drugs and alcohol – in this instance the villain was the set itself:

That there is the containment building of the unfinished Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant in Shelby, North Carolina. In order to effectively shoot the underwater scenes they needed, the giant concrete structure was filled with 7 million gallons of water at a depth of 40 feet, making it the largest underwater set ever constructed. That’s the cool part – the rest is horrendous.

To start things off, on the first day of shooting the tank sprang a leak that spit roughly 150,000 gallons of water a minute and had to be repaired by specially brought in experts. That was probably the least terrible thing that happened during the following six month, 70 hour a week shoot that featured Ed Harris nearly drowning and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio storming off the set screaming “We are not animals!” But those two incidents aside, what made this particular set so incredibly unbearable was that even when things were going exactly right, everything still sucked.

The water, for example, was treated with so much chlorine that the crew developed skin rashes and loss of body hair – not to mention that they were all slowly turning into blondes. There was a giant tarp being used to make the set dark that ripped early on during a thunderstorm, so all shooting afterward had to be done exclusively at night. Oh, also it was cold. Really cold – outside of the water all production meetings had to be done in hot tubs because the outside air was downright frigid.

To top this off, the average time people were spending submerged was five hours – so much time that they actually had to undergo decompression before getting out. And of course, in the water for 5 hours there really isn’t a place to take a leak, so they just… you know… went. Some cast and crew members were even seen nodding off while underwater, for the process of shooting was so slow that they never even completed a single scene in a day.

Most of the actors said that the waiting, combined with being submerged underwater in the dead of night, was the absolute worst part of the experience. Michael Biehn claims that out of the five months he was there he only acted for about four weeks, Ed Harris claims to had randomly broken into tears from the frustration – and many of the cast actually trashed their dressing rooms in anger, going so far as throwing couches from the windows.

A lot of the actors still express some grievances with director James Cameron to this day for his demanding nature, however in his defense, according to the cast and the crew he spent an average of 12 hours a day without ever getting out of the tank, often seen in full dive gear watching the dailies for the previous day on his giant underwater monitor. The man was dedicated.

1. The Evil Dead

The more you hear the cast and crew talk about it, the more you can believe that the filming of The Evil Dead could have just as likely ended in a crime scene.

“I never worked so hard or so long in my life… It got so cold there. After Tim Philo left and I had to operate the camera, be my own first assistant and load the cameras, etc, I also had to help blood up Bruce… My hands would be covered in syrup, and I’d realize, I gotta change the film magazine, I gotta change the lenses, so I would have to wash this blood off my hands. It was like fifteen degrees in this place, and there was no heat. The only thing we had was the coffee maker, full of coffee, not water. So I had to pour hot coffee over my hands to get the blood off them, and to warm them up enough to be able to load the 16mm cameras. It was a very hard, physically difficult experience. We should have taken days off, we should have rested, but it got to the point where we’d work eighteen hour days non-stop for, it seemed like, months.” –Director Sam Raimi, from “The Evil Dead Companion”

Even in the first six autumn weeks of shooting The Evil Dead, things were pretty terrible. The Tennessee-located cabin that they used had to be purged of wall-to-wall cow manure as well as heavily repaired to look livable. They had to dig a trench in the floor to fake a basement. The actors wore old and uncomfortable contact lenses that had to be taken out every fifteen minutes to prevent eye damage. At one point actress Ellen Sandweiss spent an entire freezing cold night shooting in a nightgown while barefoot, resulting in her feet getting torn to shreds by roots and twigs. This film would turn out to be the very last of her acting career.

Then things got worse, as their $300,000 budget ran out and, due to Sam Raimi’s extremely thorough shooting style, the six weeks had turned into the entire winter season, the cast and crew began to leave. The rest of the film was shot with only five people alone in the middle of a Karo syrup-covered cabin in Tennessee for the month of January. The only remaining actor being Bruce Campbell, who was known for doing anything producer Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi wished of him. For all the other actors, they would simply stand in themselves. Thanks to the magic of wigs, this included the female leads as well.

Bruce Campbell became so exhausted by the 12–18 hour shoots that they often kept him in character (awake, being the character) by jabbing him with sticks – At one point Raimi and Tapert decided to take total advantage of his condition for their own amusement, insisting that Bruce chop wood on camera over and over for what they called the big “wood chopping scene.” It took Campbell 45 minutes before realizing that there was, in fact, no such scene planned. Dicks!

After shooting was completed Bruce and Rob had the pleasure of taking a shotgun to every prop leftover before heading back for post-production. Campbell has since described the experience as being ‘Vietnam-like’ and claims to have grown a beard and slept on his floor for the following two months after shooting.

What are some of your favorite production horror stories?

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