Famous Film Fiascos Before ‘Megalopolis’

As reports come in about “chaos” on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, here are some other legendary Hollywood fiascos, including four that Coppola didn’t direct

Last week The Hollywood Reporter published reports that Francis Ford Coppola’s new film Megalopolis, currently filming in Atlanta, had “descended into chaos,” as evidenced by rising costs and the loss of key creatives including the production designer, supervising art director, and the entire visual effects team. With another director at the helm, these reports might be cause for concern; however, chaotic conditions are a common occurrence in Coppola’s filmography. The reports from the Megalopolis set sound tame compared to 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

Filming of the Vietnam war epic in the Philippines went over schedule and over budget. After nearly a year in the jungle, the experiences of the cast and crew mirrored the descent into madness shown on film. Lead actor Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack, in addition to a mental breakdown. A typhoon destroyed many complex sets  before Coppola could use them. And, in the end, he almost completely cut expensive and laborious sequences, such as the creation of an elaborate French dinner for a scene at a plantation, from the final film. In 1991, behind-the-scenes footage captured by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, along with contemporary interviews, became the critically acclaimed documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Coppola’s 1984 film The Cotton Club began filming without a finished script or production schedule. As costs quickly mounted, producer Robert Evans scrambled to find more money, from sources that ranged from the Puerto Rican government to a Saudi arms dealer. One financier, entertainment promoter Roy Radin, was murdered in a contract killing during production.

Megalopolis is not even the first time Coppola has fired a VFX team. On his 1992 adaptation of Dracula, Coppola was committed to using only practical effects techniques which would have existed in 1897, when the story takes place. When the original effects team advocated for digital solutions, Coppola fired everyone and put his son, Roman, in charge of the department to ensure that he carried out director’s vision.

Not surprisingly, the large personalities, lavish spending, and artistic ambitions in the movie industry regularly generate drama. Sometimes a great film emerges, though perhaps more often the resulting movie is as chaotic as its creation. True fiascos get their own behind-the-scenes documentary. Here are four of the most disastrous film productions in history:

FITZCARRALDO

In the late 70s, Coppola was not the only auteur leading a troupe into the jungle and losing his mind in the process. Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo follows a European businessman in Peru attempting to harvest a remote section of rubber trees, which involves hauling a steamship over a mountain. To portray this on film, Herzog opted to actually haul a steamship over a mountain.

The three years of grueling production in the Amazon basin led to many injuries among crew members. A Peruvian worker amputated his own foot with a chainsaw aftera poisonous snake bit him. The original leading man, Jason Robards, contracted dysentery. Herzog replaced him with the notoriously volatile Klaus Kinski. According to Herzog, the indigenous extras hated Kinski so much that one of the local chiefs offered to kill the actor. Les Blank captured all these hardships on film in his documentary Burden of Dreams. For all his trouble, Herzog dubbed himself a “conquistador of the useless.”

THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

By the time filming began on this 1996 H.G.Wells adaptation in the rainforest outside Cairns, Australia, there had already been several casting changes. Disruptive and erratic behavior from stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer led to tension on the set and when storms shut down production after only a few days, lead actor Rob Morrow begged to be released from the project. The studio fired director Richard Stanley, known for low budget sci-fi/horror, after one week and replaced him with Hollywood veteran John Frankenheimer, which created more unease on the set. Today the film is as notorious for the off-screen chaos as for the absolutely bananas content that ended up on screen, including a menagerie of animal-human hybrids, Marlon Brando’s face slathered in white sunscreen, and a little person dressed as Brando’s twin. Stanley’s short, but tumultuous, involvement on the film inspired its own documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.

ROAR

After a trip to Africa in 1969, actress Tippi Hedren and her husband Noel Marshall envisioned a film project spotlighting lions and other wild animals. They would spend the next 11 years attempting to complete the film. They first had to acquire the cats, eventually taking in over 100, and build a ranch in California which served as home for both the animals and the family, as well as the principal filming location. The family’s entire livelihood became tied up in the film and the couple’s children, including Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, were all involved as actors or crew members. Throughout the years of filming, at least half of the 140 member crew sustained injuries. Members of the Marshall-Hedren family were hospitalized after the lions bit and mauled them, and several developed gangrene from the numerous attacks. Unsurprisingly, crew turnover was high. In 1978, filming halted for almost a year after catastrophic floods destroyed much of the sets and equipment and several cats escaped. When the completed film finally appeared in 1981, it flopped and the Marshalls subsequently divorced. However, Hedren has maintained the ranch as the Shambala Preserve animal sanctuary for the past 40 years.

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

After premiering his 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, filmmaker Terry Gilliam announced that his next project would be based on Don Quixote and feature Fear and Loathing’s star, Johnny Depp. Filming began in September 2000, but after only a few days flash floods damaged equipment and altered the landscape they had been filming on. Additionally, Jean Rochefort, the actor cast as Quixote, suffered a back injury and had to leave the film. Two months after it had begun, the film was canceled. Over the next two decades, Gilliam made several attempts to film it with various actors attached, but each time the project struggled to get off the ground. In 2002, the documentary Lost in La Mancha by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, chronicled the difficulties of the first production, which may have hampered Gilliam’s continued efforts to make the film. In 2017, Gilliam finally completed a version of the film starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce. However, a producer connected with an earlier version took the production to court and attempted to prevent the film from appearing at festivals. In the end, the film appeared theatrically in the US and Canada for one night only, and then later on Hulu. With nearly 20 more years of mishaps to cover, Fulton and Pepe released a second documentary in 2019, He Dreams of Giants, about the full history of the film’s production.

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Lani Gonzalez

Lani Gonzalez has appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies and occasionally writes about what she sees at Cinema Then and Now.

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