By now, the fact that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was shot over twelve years is essentially a common household piece of trivia. Of course, this longevity was by design – it tells the story of a family over the course of as many years as a couple’s son grows up. Not every long film shoot is intentional, though. Making movies is hard. Whatever the behind-the-scenes reasoning, some shoots last far longer than they were meant to, and some never leave development hell. Instead of pointing out the biggest disasters, however, I thought I’d count down some of my favourite success stories. Movies that went through all kinds of trouble getting made, but managed to turn out great in the end. Here are seven triumphs of filmmaking that made all the arduous mess worth it.
7) World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)
Marc Forster’s notoriously troubled adaptation of Max Brooks’ book somehow beat the odds. After years of script revisions and delays, distributor Paramount said in early 2011 that they needed a co-financier or else the movie would finally be shut down. They found one, and filming began in the summer. The real trouble began in Budapest. After starting to film the climactic battle, legal trouble over weapons arose and shooting was delayed until May 2012. Then, Damon Lindleof was brought in to rewrite the third act, but dropped out and Drew Goddard stepped in. The entire third act was re-shot, leaning towards quiet horror rather than a gigantic battle. Despite the expanded budget and wasted time and resources, the new third act ended up being the best part of the film, and World War Z became a box office success.
6) Sleeping Beauty (Les Clark, etc., 1959)
This Disney classic took an unusually long time to produce – eight years. Most animated films take quite a few years to be made between conception and completion, but Sleeping Beauty involved a more labor intensive process, presumably because Walt wanted it to be perfect. First, the film was entirely captured with real actors on a soundstage, ostensibly for the animators to have something to work from (why storyboards didn’t suffice is unclear). Returning to the film today, one will also notice how detailed the animation is, with stunning backgrounds that could take over a week to animate per frame. Walt Disney was a noted perfectionist, but it seems he took it to the extreme with his expectations of this film.
5) The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
One of the greatest horror films ever made, it is well known that the experience of filming the movie for some of the actors was just as horrific – with most of Kubrick’s abusive attention going towards Shelley Duvall. Kubrick fans/apologists have posited that the particularly harsh way he treated Duvall was to bring out the hopelessness and desperation of her character, but that seems like a generous reach to me. On top of this, Kubrick was also obsessive with getting the perfect shot. Jack Nicholson spent three days filming the door chopping scene, and the scene where Duvall swings a bat at Nicholson took 127 tries to get it right. But perhaps most chilling is a scene from Making The Shining, a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter, wherein Duvall talks about getting her hair caught in a window and Kubrick says to the crew, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.”
4) The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
I can credit Victor Fleming all I want, and people often do, but he’s just one of six total directors who had a hand in the making of The Wizard of Oz. That’s nothing compared to the script, which was touched by a whopping seventeen different writers at one point or another. Once shooting finally began in late 1938, directors were hired then quickly fired, main actors had to be replaced, others were injured, and several scenes had to be re-shot, sometimes more than once. Test screenings of the finished product were utter failures, and large chunks of the film were cut. A chaotic production led to a chaotic post-production, but the film that everyone finally saw became an all-time classic with massive acclaim, so it kinda worked out.
3) The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
Darren Aronofsky has nothing if not ambition. Perhaps the purest expression of that, The Fountain was suitably not an easy thing to create. In what began in earnest as a $70 million sprawling tale of love and mortality starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Aronofsky was beset by setback after setback. First, the film’s funding was pulled. Under new financiers, the budget was lowered to $18 million. Just weeks before shooting was set to start, Pitt pulled out due to creative differences over the script, and Aronofsky was left scrambling. The film buckled as Warner Bros. shut everything down. A couple of years later, Aronofsky was back at it, armed this time with Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz and a $35 million budget. They finished, but the film flopped. Luckily, a cult following has picked up on how gorgeous and thematically rich The Fountain is, so it has found a second life.
2) The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
One of the most infamously troubled film shoots ever, it’s really a miracle that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was even finished, let alone so excellent. The hellish production was plagued with terribly uncomfortable conditions, including eighteen-hour days of filming in the freezing cold (they ended up burning every piece of furniture in the remote cabin to keep warm). Their budget was about to run out, but filming continued even as the cast and crew began to leave. Famously, star Bruce Campbell ended up being the only one left as a few others used wigs to stand in for other characters. Actress Ellen Sandweiss apparently had such an awful time that she quit acting until 2006. Jane Levy, the star of last year’s Evil Dead, suggests the legacy continues by referring to the filming process as “the worst time of my life”.
1) Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
David Lynch’s debut feature film is one of the strangest and most unsettling cinematic experiences I’ve yet had. Considering the five long years it took him to get it right, it was undoubtedly worth it, both for all of us and for his career. Of course, Eraserhead started out as a student film, but became something much more. It has become a pattern in this list for these films to have perfectionists in control, paying close attention to every detail to get it just right. Lynch is no different. One seemingly simple shot, of star Jack Nance entering a room, took a year before Lynch felt he finally had it. The filming process also encountered several month-long gaps (during which Nance reportedly and remarkably kept that haircut), and funding was a perpetual worry as Lynch paid for much of the film out of his pocket and with donations from friends. After working on the film for two years, cinematographer Herbert Cardwell died and had to be replaced. And even once everything else was done, Lynch took another year to perfect the film’s complex (and ultimately sublime) sound design. The film was unsurprisingly not an immediate success, but has since become a cult hit, midnight screenings and all. Eraserhead stands as one of Lynch’s most striking accomplishments and purest nightmares.