The Craziest True Stories From Film Sets

Making movies is a community effort. It starts with a screenplay, which gets bought by a producer or a studio, at which point a director gets attached and then, with any luck, you get the greenlight and you’re off to the races. And then…anything can happen. Given the sour temperament of a director or a star, or the volatile climate of your location or the dubious means of a financier, you could find yourself in a dire situation. Films both great and horrible have faced production turmoil. Here are movies that tested and, in some cases, conquered the resolve of their filmmakers.

“Apocalypse Now”

If you’ve seen the harrowing documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” you know the score. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-set variation on Joseph Conrad’s novella sailed way overbudget and overschedule, as a series of calamities hammered the production: Shooting was halted when a typhoon destroyed the sets; the film’s stress-ridden star, Martin Sheen, suffered a near-fatal heart attack; Marlon Brando showed up to the set massively overweight and thoroughly unprepared. Was it worth it? “Apocalypse Now” was a box office success and is acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, so to cinephiles the world over, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Those who endured the year-plus production might provide a different answer.

“Winter Kills”

William Richert’s star-studded adaptation of Richard Condon’s paranoid satire was a risky proposition based on the off-kilter material alone. That it was initially produced by a pair of softcore porn peddlers, Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg, who secured a chunk of their financing via the mafia, made it a deadly undertaking. During the production, Goldberg was chained to his hotel bed and shot in the head — presumably by the mafia for racking up a mountain of debt; Sterling, meanwhile, would later snag a 40-year jail sentence for marijuana trafficking. The set was also shut down three times for failure to pay the crew on time. In retrospect, it’s a fascinating misfire with fine performances from John Huston, Jeff Bridges and Anthony Perkins (and a cameo from Elizabeth Taylor!), but you can sense the behind-the-scenes turmoil on the screen.

“Three Kings”

Behind-the-scenes tensions on this brilliant Gulf War adventure comedy started in preproduction, when director David O. Russell resolved to rid George Clooney of the TV-actor tics he’d developed on “ER.” As he put Clooney through meditation and breathing exercises, the actor grew anxious over the lack of a completed script with which he could prepare for his role. By the time they got on set, Clooney had tired of O. Russell’s hectic creative process, which was compounded by his abusive treatment of the crew. When the frustrated director allegedly threw an extra to the ground, Clooney confronted him. A fight between the leading man and his director ensued. Only egos were bruised, but the conflict leaked to the media, giving the film a “troubled” reputation prior to release. Though O. Russell and Clooney eventually reconciled, it’s unlikely the two will ever work together again.


What happens when you bring two notorious control freaks together to make a movie? In the case of “Rebecca”, you wind up with a masterpiece, but not without a tussle. Producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock battled over authorship throughout the production, with the latter shooting zero coverage so as to hamper the former’s meddlesome tendencies. It didn’t work. Selznick shelved the film for a year so he could reshoot and recut the film to his finicky specifications (though supervising editor ultimately tired of Selznick’s tinkering, telling him, “This is it; you cannot have that film anymore. Out it goes.”) Laurence Olivier was unhappy with the casting of Joan Fontaine over his preferred costar, Vivien Leigh, so he treated her poorly throughout the shoot. When Fontaine turned to Hitchcock for reassurance, he reassured her that everyone disliked her (in order to get the desired distraught quality from her performance).

“Arrive Alive”

No one remembers this darkly comedic detective thriller starring Willem Dafoe and Joan Cusack from the early 1990s because it was shut down two weeks into shooting and never finished. Written by Mitch Glazer and the late, great National Lampoon/SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue, the Miami-set noir was intended for Bill Murray, but the star found the material far too violent for his taste. (The script opens with the Miami Seaquarium’s killer whale, Lolita, biting off the head of her handler.) By the time director Jeremiah S. Chechik was on board, the production had moved on to Dafoe, a favorite of the studio (Paramount), but not necessarily known at the time for his comedic chops. As elaborate sets were being built, the studio soured on the dailies, forcing it to pull the plug on a script that is every bit as hilarious and relevant as it was 30 years ago.

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