Shooting The Revenant looks like it was, to coin a phrase, a real bear. At least that’s what literally every article written about the movie so far wants you to believe. Some have called the year-long production “a living hell,”, while lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio said it was “the most difficult film I’ve ever done.” Even the movie’s occasionally tyrannical director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, described being out in the the middle of nowhere in the movie’s remote locations by saying, “There were moments when you said, ‘What the fuck are we here for?’”
While eating actual bloody bison liver and sleeping in animal carcasses qualifies The Revenant as one of the worst movie shoots of all time, it’s hardly alone. Here are some other horror stories from cinema history.
5. World War Z
This Brad Pitt zombie extravaganza — which all but abandoned author Max Brooks’ brilliant source material — is one of the rare production trainwrecks that overcame the headaches to become a huge hit. That followed Paramount executives scrapping the film’s ending once they saw a test screening three months after principal photography wrapped. The first ending was a battle scene that pitted Pitt against flesh-eaters swarming Russia’s Red Square. “The ending of our movie doesn’t work,” Marc Evans, Paramount’s president of production and the executive overseeing the film, told Vanity Fair he remembered thinking after the screening. “I believed in that moment we needed to reshoot the movie,” he said.
The studio hired former Lost writers Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard to brainstorm material to be incorporated into existing footage and create a script for a new ending. The movie’s budget ballooned up to — well, um, estimates put the total near $400 million. Paramount greenlit a new, pared-down end sequence by Goddard and Lindelof that would show Pitt outsmarting zombies at a World Health Organization facility; the movie’s credited director, Marc Forster, wasn’t invited. The move apparently worked, as the movie made nearly $600 million worldwide, though the announced sequel is generating its own drama: World War Z 2 director Juan Antonio Bayona reportedly left the production altogether.
4. Heaven’s Gate
Few films are as apocalyptic as director Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Widely reviled upon its release but favorably reassessed after the complete film was released by the Criterion Collection, its on-set struggles of the movie and the reactions upon its release — including a notable New York Times review by critic Vincent Canby who compared the film to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room” — make it a legendary failure and perhaps the most notorious film maudit ever. It single-handedly prompted studios in the 1970s to stop handing over control of high-concept, big-budget movies to such young directors as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich.
At the time, Cimino was an ascendent filmmaker. He swept the 1978 Oscars with The Deer Hunter the same month Heaven’s Gate began filming, giving him the chutzpah to demand more of what he saw as the American epic he was creating. Because of the endless takes requested by Cimino from the get-go, the movie was allegedly five days behind schedule after six days of shooting on location in Montana. Cimino eventually exhausted the production even more, insisting on shooting over a million feet of film, disassembling a town set built on location and having it rebuilt for $1.2 million because he felt it was too narrow, and having an irrigation system built under the battlefield seen in the end of the movie so the grass would stay the correct color green.
3.The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Terry Gilliam is a vortex of beautiful disasters, some of which turn out marvelously, others of which, not so much. The production of his movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an update of Miguel de Cervantes’ novel that substitutes Quixote’s trusted sidekick Sancho Panza with a 21st century businessman played by Johnny Depp named Toby Grisoni who is sent back in time, went so badly that the movie wasn’t even completed. The tribulations inspired their own documentary, 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, a film that began as a making-of but was expanded when the production bottomed out.
The problems started immediately. The sounds of NATO fighter jets flying over the shooting locations outside Madrid ruined the audio; a flash flood destroyed the film’s sets and equipment, and changed the landscape of the location; and lead actor Jean Rochefort, who was to play Quixote, suffered a double-herniated disc on-set, rendering him unable to ride a horse, a basic qualification for the part.
The movie was canceled. Gilliam persisted in trying to bring it to the big-screen. It came closest to being resurrected in 2014 when Amazon Studios eventually decided to fund a new version of the film starring John Hurt as Quixote and Ewan McGregor as Grisoni to be released in theaters and on its Amazon Prime streaming service. The production was canceled again in 2015 prior to shooting when Hurt was diagnosed with cancer. Gilliam remains set on finding funding for the film with Robert Duvall in the role of Quixote.
We could just tell you to watch Burden of Dreams: That 1982 documentary by filmmaker Les Blank captured the hellish conditions the cast and crew of director Werner Herzog’s drama Fitzcarraldo suffered. But let’s indulge, instead, in the irony behind the movie and Herzog’s own megalomania.
Fitzcarraldo was ostensibly about the rich white title character (played by Herzog collaborator/sometimes enemy Klaus Kinski) stopping at nothing to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, but it was really about Herzog stopping at nothing to finish the movie using increasingly insane on-set demands. The most egregious example was refusing to use models or special effects when attempting to shoot a sequence requiring hundreds of native Peruvian Indians to pull a full-size steamship over a mountain. Other troubles persisted. The crew hated Kinski so much that a documentary Herzog made in 1999 that references the film and the relationship between the star and the director, called My Best Fiend, reveals that Herzog had to turn down an offer from one of the native Peruvian tribal chiefs that had offered to kill Kinski for him.
1. Apocalypse Now
In another twist of ironic fate, the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now — itself a spiritual successor to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God, another movie about a man’s descent into madness while floating down a river — closely resembles its source material. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness seemingly offered the inspiration for Coppola’s movie and a template for how he managed to get the film done after its originally scheduled five-month shoot turned into 16 months of hell.
Problems included replacing his lead actor (Harvey Keitel), an on-set heart attack by the replacement (Martin Sheen), actor Marlon Brando continually refusing to show up in order to simply collect his paycheck for the days he was contractually obligated to be there. Coppola’s film dragged on and on. The whole horrible affair can be seen in a documentary called Hearts of Darkness and a book of director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor’s diaries, which have only extended the legendary nature of how terrible things truly were. Coppola’s summary of the fiasco stands as a epitaph for every production on this list: “We had access to too much money. Too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.”