Disaster strikes a great many film productions, some worse than others. The forced casting of Bruce Willis in The Bonfire of the Vanities doesn’t hold a candle to lives lost from mishandled equipment on the set of The Crow or Rust. Nonetheless, some productions seem cursed with the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a movie, or the bad decisions that create bad experiences for everyone involved.
Many of these stories strike notoriously enough to receive documentaries chronicling their undertakings, sometimes more interesting than the actual film the doc is about. But even when a problem production turns into a beautiful final film, the tumultuous working environments, studio-mandated changes, poor planning, and domino effects of problem after problem still shock.
Here are some of the most disastrous movie productions in history.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Just as he won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for his film The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino’s next film, Heaven’s Gate, received the go-ahead from United Artists to move forward. No one took the fact that the script had already sat on a shelf for quite some time as a warning sign. On set, Cimino had particular ideas in mind for the film that were very costly and time-consuming, causing work overload for the crew and the shoot to fall behind schedule.
One set of a built street scene was dismantled and rebuilt six feet wider at his specific request. He also filmed an extreme amount of takes, amounting to 220 hours of footage, although some cast members sat around for weeks with nothing to do. Cimino’s first cut of the film ran over five hours, too long for the studio to accept. The next edit cut the film down to over three and a half hours, which premiered in 1980. The movie was then cut a third time, down to two and a half hours, for a new release the following year. Heaven’s Gate continues to receive highly mixed reviews, with some calling it a masterpiece and others calling it one of the worst films ever made. Everyone can agree on one thing: it qualifies as one of the most disastrous movie productions in history.
The Shining (1980)
Many celebrate the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as one of the most visionary horror movies in cinema history. It also holds a Guinness World Record for the most retakes for a scene with dialogue: 148 takes for the scene in which Mr. Hallorann, played by Scatman Crothers, discusses the ability to ‘shine’ with young Danny Torrance, played by Danny Lloyd.
Director Stanley Kubrick was known for his large amounts of multiple takes, and filming stretched from the planned six months to over a year. The shooting days ran long and exhausted the cast & crew, with few days off. The script rewrites happened so often that, in frustration, Jack Nicholson refused to learn his lines from new scripts, knowing there would be more script changes to come and only memorizing his lines just before a take.
An infamous scene where Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance holds a baseball bat while frightened, backing away from her husband, was supposedly shot over 127 takes. Kubrick was protective of Lloyd, an unknown child actor, but was especially hard on Duvall, who suffered from so much stress on set that her hair began to fall out, and she became physically ill. Their stormy working relationship is of such note that in 2022, the Razzie Awards retroactively removed Duvall’s nomination for Worst Actress for the film, stating that they understood her performance to be under duress from Kubrick.
A short 1980 documentary, Making ‘The Shining,’ by Vivian Kubrick, the director’s daughter, captured some of these behind-the-scenes moments in one of the most disastrous movie productions in history.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Orson Welles endures, remembered as a master of his craft, but even he had to deal with studio meddling in his day. His film, The Magnificent Ambersons, suffered major butchering by production company RKO, even hot off the heels of Citizen Kane. RKO also floundered the release of the movie.
Welles’ original cut of the film checked in at 135 minutes, and even he deemed it too long. After shaving 17 minutes off, he turned in his rough cut to RKO and headed to South America to start work on his next film. But the film tested poorly with test audiences. RKO, who had negotiated final cut rights to the film, began to re-edit it, leaving over 40 minutes of Welles’ movie on the cutting room floor. They also opted to reshoot a happier ending, bringing in Robert Wise, who had previously worked with Welles as an editor on his cut, to direct new scenes, along with assistant director Fred Fleck and the business manager of Welles’ Mercury Theater, Jack Moss. These changes incensed Welles, who felt stuck, unable to do anything about the situation from overseas.
The editing altered the film so much that the score’s composer, Bernard Hermann, felt the cuts ruined his music and forced the removal of his credit from the film. Adding insult to injury, RKO destroyed the cut portions of the film, guaranteeing the public would never see Welles’ version. The studio also continued to use the elaborate mansion built for the film as a set piece for some of their horror movies. Though many still uphold the released film as a classic, Welles remained torn about the studio’s handling of the production.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)
Director Terry Gilliam has a reputation for streaks of bad luck with his productions, but none have seemed like as much of a hassle as his reimagining of the novel Don Quixote, which he first started to put together in 1989.
For decades, Gilliam sought financing, which always proved insufficient or fell through at the last minute. In 2000, the film’s production went as far as shooting on location in Spain. Still, scheduling conflicts, noise from a nearby military base, the poor health of one of the film’s stars, and flooding, which led to insurance problems, all worked to ruin the shoot, eventually canceling production and causing Gilliam to lose the rights to the film.
Nonetheless, he continued pursuit, gaining the rights back after a few years and recasting, only to lose funding at the last minute once again. Then, there was a misdealing with Amazon Studios and a separate escalation by producer Paulo Branco in a dramatic attempt to take control of the production. Gilliam finally secured a small budget and yet another new cast in time to begin filming in 2017. Even though the final film’s creation was still riddled with problems, including accusations of damage to historic locations while filming and a legal battle with previous producer Branco, who tried to claim rights to the film and prevent its premiere, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally released in 2018.
Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about the film’s long-standing troubles, was released in 2002, well before Gilliam’s own film saw the light of day.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Pre-production on Francis Ford Coppola’s wartime film began wracked with casting problems because no one wanted to spend the planned several months away from the United States. As filming began in the Philippines, cast shuffling was still happening, with Harvey Keitel replaced by Martin Sheen, but that would be the least of the film’s production problems.
Although he didn’t arrive for his scenes until much later, Marlon Brando was so physically ill-prepared for his work on the film that Coppola had to improvise, only shooting Brando’s face for his character. Sheen also suffered a major heart attack during the production, having his brother, Joe Estevez, step in to complete portions of his role. At one point, a typhoon wiped out much of the sets, postponing production and sending the cast home for weeks. The American Humane Society labeled the film unacceptable for its treatment of an animal during a tribal ritual, and actual human corpses used on set caught the attention of police, apparently acquired from a grave robber.
During all this, Coppola continued to seek more and more funding, even reaching out to friends like George Lucas, whose Star Wars has just garnered much success, to help the production. The budget skyrocketed and Coppola hoped he wouldn't be ruined, with the original 1977 release date delayed until the premiere in 1979. Now the film holds as one of the most studied in film history.
The 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness relays the story of this legend among disastrous movie productions.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Though considered a highlight of classic Hollywood cinema, problems riddled the production of The Wizard of Oz, including going through a number of directors to oversee the project. While Victor Fleming directed the most significant chunk of the film, the original director was Richard Thorpe, who was replaced after two weeks of work by George Cukor, who then had to leave to direct Gone with the Wind and was replaced by Fleming. King Vidor took over for Fleming when he went to replace Cukor on Gone with the Wind.
Buddy Ebsen, originally cast as the Tin Man, was poisoned by inhaling aluminum powder from his makeup, made to give him a metallic look. Hospitalized, he had to leave production after ten days of shooting. Jack Haley took over the role in a newly created aluminum paste makeup that only gave him an eye infection. Margaret Hamilton’s own makeup was copper-based and caught fire while filming a scene where her Wicked Witch of the West character exits through a blast of fire. She sustained burns and was also rushed to the hospital, unable to return to finish filming for three months. Judy Garland didn’t have to wear dangerous makeup, but she did have to change things about her appearance to play the central character of Dorothy, including being given prescription drugs to keep her weight down.
Garland was sixteen while filming. Many allegations about the nefarious actions of the actors playing the munchkins have circulated for years but are unsubstantiated.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Director Richard Stanley worked hard to make his dream project, a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, happen. However, between constant cast reshufflings, Stanley’s refusal to report back to the studio, and the suicide of star Marlon Brando’s daughter just before filming, the production began to fall apart pretty early on. Val Kilmer proved his reputation for being hard to work with when he arrived on set days late and started creating tensions only exasperated by the harsh weather conditions of shooting in Australia. Other actors wanted out of their contracts, with one being recast, and the chaos led to Stanley’s replacement with director John Frankenheimer.
Pressures escalated as Kilmer and Brando reportedly didn’t get along, keeping other cast and crew members waiting hours with their disputes. Frankenheimer also had problems with much of the cast who no longer wanted to be there, and rewrites happened so often that Brando was fed his lines through an earpiece instead of memorizing them. Meanwhile, Stanley, who seemed to disappear after being ousted, befriended a group of extras in the film and snuck back on set, appearing in scenes under prosthetics and special effects makeup.
The documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, released in 2014, chronicles the production’s wild events.
Though categorized as an adventure comedy film, Roar’s production surely seemed like a genuine horror to its crew. In a family affair, Noel Marshall and his wife Tippi Hedren initially developed the idea of a house overrun by African animals, and their children, including Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, agreed to star in such a film with them. Despite warnings from trained professionals, untamed lions and elephants roamed the set, and most of the people working on the film sustained injuries from them, garnering the film’s tagline: “No animals were harmed during the making of Roar, but 70 members of the cast and crew were.”
According to crew members, the number may have been even higher than that, with individuals getting bitten in the throat, having their ears almost ripped off, scalped, or worse. Lions attacked Marshall so many times that he contracted blood poisoning and gangrene. An elephant also picked Hedren up by her ankle, fracturing it, in a scene still in the film. The same elephant broke the shoulder of its trainer on another occasion. Griffith almost lost an eye after being attacked and needed reconstruction surgery. Flooding from a pipe burst also wiped out a significant part of the filming area, setting the shooting schedule back a year and damaging fences that let some animals escape. Three lions were killed during the roundup, contrary to the film’s tagline. Another 14 animals died of other illnesses on set.
Raising the funds for the movie and feeding all the animals wasn’t easy, and the family sold their houses and other possessions to keep production going. They also had to take on additional responsibilities like veterinary care for the animals on set. The strain of this film likely played a part in the divorce of Marshall and Hedren a year after its release, and Marshall never directed another film.
Werner Herzog wanted his film inspired by rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald to be authentic, which meant shooting in the jungles of Peru and recreating feats like transporting a steamship uphill. While the movement of the real-life ship involved taking it apart and reassembling it, Herzog forced the movement of an entire 320-ton vessel. This need for authenticity also resulted in the exploitation of native people who worked on the film either as laborers or extras, making the film more faithful to Fitzcarrald’s life than anything else.
The local tribe had not agreed to allow building on their land and burned down the sets, forcing Herzog to find a new location. Two small plane crashes also occurred during filming, with many injuries and one survivor paralyzed. Someone drowned after taking a canoeing boat from the production, and another person suffered a snake bite, cutting off his own leg to stop the venom from spreading. The film’s cinematographer sustained a significant cut, needing stitches without anesthesia, and the film’s star, Jason Roberts, acquired dysentery after filming 40% of the movie and could not continue.
Herzog recast the role with Klaus Kinski, even though the two had but heads on numerous films previously. Kinski’s outbursts made the natives uncomfortable and caused so much turmoil on the set that a native chief offered to kill Kinski for Herzog. Herzog himself admitted that he probably should not make films anymore, with such a chaotic production as Fitzcarraldo.
The documentary Burden of Dreams, released in the same year, 1982, showcases all of the problems with Herzog’s production.
The Abyss (1989)
No stranger to disastrous movie productions, director James Cameron especially loves a wet set. The Abyss, which takes place primarily underwater, proved so grueling a shoot that actors have refused to talk about it since.
Large tanks had to be built for the production but were not ready on time and sprung leaks once filming began. Figuring out so many technical problems, including underwater communication, lighting and cinematography, and safety, even with the shortcuts taken, meant cast members became bored waiting for something to do. Sometimes, actors would sit for hours in a submersible, waiting for filming to start. Once they had something to do, much of the film involved putting them into uncomfortable situations. They wore ankle weights to keep them down underwater, and blackouts often kept them in the dark, unable to see in any direction in the water.
Going back and forth between the two extremes of boredom and exhilaration, constantly being isolated and underwater, caused cast members to have breakdowns on set. In one particular story, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose character needed resuscitating in the scene, was slapped repeatedly and pounded on the chest while the camera ran out of film. She stormed off set, exclaiming, “We are not animals!”
Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic was also a lot, with the cast and crew developing illnesses from being in the water for so long. However, the catering’s clam chowder, which somehow became spiked with PCP, causing psychedelic hallucinations and multiple hospital visits, remains one of the most random and still unsolved events to happen on a film set.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky had problems photographing Stalker, with all of the footage he shot over the first year, all of the outdoor scenes, unusable due to improper development of the film. Disagreements with his cinematographer resulted in a replacement, and Tarkovsky started the shoot all over again from the beginning. But this was not the worst part of the production. The film’s premise of exploring a dangerous area known as the Zone became all too real as the production involved spending days shooting at abandoned power plants.
Although the main plant used in filming was hydropower, the cast and crew were exposed to liquid from a nearby chemical plant. The movie also filmed near a thermal power plant. Though some immediate allergic reactions presented themselves, remnants of filming in toxic locations also came, with several production members, including Tarkovsky, later dying of similar cancers.
Though not nearly as heralded, an earlier film holds a parallel experience. 1956’s The Conquerer, in which John Wayne plays Genghis Khan, a disaster in its own right, filmed near nuclear test areas in Utah. This seemingly caused many of its cast and crew to have problems later in life as well, with over half of them developing various types of cancer. John Wayne died of stomach cancer.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
For his segment in the anthology horror film, director John Landis created a story about a racist white man, played by Vic Morrow, who travels through history to experience atrocities put upon others. In one scene, Morrow’s character becomes a stand-in for a Vietnamese man during the Vietnam War, attempting to rescue two children, played by Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, from American soldiers.
While on set, a planned explosion detonated, causing shrapnel to hit and detach the tail rotor of a low-flying helicopter used in the scene. As Morrow held the two children, trudging through the knee-deep water recreating the Vietnamese wetlands, the aircraft spun out of control towards the three actors, decapitating Morrow and Le and crushing Chen as it landed on her.
An investigation and a prolonged civil suit revealed that Landis ignored many warnings about the shoot beforehand and that another crewmember kept the children hidden from a fire safety officer and welfare worker. Landis had also hired the child actors off the books, having them shoot their scene at night against child labor laws and without informing their parents and guardians of the details of the risky shoot. Though the court acquitted Landis and the others involved on manslaughter charges, assistant director Andy House removed his credit from the film, using “Alan Smithee” instead, and producer Steven Spielberg ended his friendship with Landis.
The incident resulted in new, stricter production rules and safety guards implemented across the film industry.
The Thief and the Cobbler (1993)
Animator Richard Williams is most known for directing the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the independent artist spent nearly 30 years producing his masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler.
The project began in 1964, originally a collaboration between Williams and writer Idries Shah, whose stories inspired the work. Disagreements disrupted the production in 1972, even though over three hours of scenes had already been animated and Vincent Price and others had already recorded their voices. Williams refocused the project and continued at his own studio, constantly taking on other projects to help with funding, pushing back the schedule. The script also went through rewrites all the time, with characters undergoing many redesigns over the years.
The animation style proved very time-consuming, with intricate patterns and perspectives at an unheard-of 24 drawings per second. As Williams continued to seek new funding, his path crossed with numerous industry producers, Japanese investors, a Saudi Arabian prince, and even Disney, whose later film Aladdin seems to borrow aspects from this film.
Finally, a deal landed at Warner Bros. in 1989, but a rough cut of the film put together by 1992 did not meet studio expectations. The film was taken from Williams, finished by animator Fred Calvert with newly added songs, and released in 1993 as The Princess and the Cobbler. Miramax, under Disney, then acquired domestic rights, recut the film again with newly recorded celebrity voices for the characters, and rereleased the film as Arabian Knight in 1995. Richard Williams never saw his original vision for the film finished.
The 2012 documentary Persistence of Vision archives Williams’ work on the film. A fan edit, available on YouTube dubbed The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut aims to finish the movie to Williams' original vision.