Anyone who's ever had to clean the latrines after a football game knows that making entertainment is not as much fun as watching it. Although people tend to think of moviemaking as a dream with no effort, the job is often physically demanding. Some movies enact such a toll on their human components that their struggles have become the stuff of legends.
Upon this, the 30th anniversary of the release of Predator (you want a challenge? Film in the damn jungle), we take a look at nine of the most arduous set environments in film history.
It's super fun to film in the treacherous Mexican jungle, provided you love circumventing health and safety standards. The cold and dangerous conditions even took their toll on the main players, despite the fact that principal actors Arnold Schwarenegger and Carl Weathers were super strong.
Things probably were the toughest on Schwarzenegger. He fought the Predator (spoilers), but the guy wearing the Predator suit couldn't really see through his costume. This led to several incidents where the Predator's giant claw hands would slice across Schwarzenegger's face. Freezing conditions meant the three weeks he spent slathered in cold mud lowered his body temperature several degrees, which led to uncontrollable shuddering like a Smart Car going 45.
Life was tough for the crew, too. Although they were put up at a hotel with a water filtration system, it failed and they all got Montezuma's revenge. And the scene where they go through the water? It was a leech-infested mire. I mean, even more so than most Hollywood production sets.
In the end, everyone came together to turn out one of the most memorable films in action movie history. Perhaps that is because, despite the constant struggle, everyone kinda got along. The same can't be said for most of the other films in this list.
The Abyss (1989)
Without a doubt, the two sets which tend to make the most brutal film shoots are "underwater" and "on location" (like the time Kevin Reynolds decided to film a movie on Easter Island, the most remote island in the world. More on Reynolds later).
Obviously, filming in/under water creates its own set of nightmare scenarios and physically arduous tasks. One exemplary case of this was James Cameron's The Abyss. Most of the filming was underwater, yet no stunt doubles were used. That meant Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Beihn had to do all their scenes with the inherent risks that come with rigging up a complicated series of tools to enable underwater breathing. For instance, during a scene where Harris was underwater, he gave the signal that he was out of oxygen. A diver went down to help, but got stuck on a cable. Then another crew member gave him a breathing device that was backwards, causing a nearly-asphixiated Harris to breathe in water. It wasn't until a camera operator got sick of all this nonsense and correctly applied a breathing device that Harris could breathe. Later on, Harris punched James Cameron in the face because he did not stop filming to help.
Not only were the principal actors in constant danger and exasperated, the equipment provided its own set of headaches. Cameron had chosen to film in an abandoned, unfinished nuclear power plant. The tank was so deep that crew and cast members needed decompression treatment before surfacing. Still, taking a nuclear power plant and making it a set for an underwater movie had its issues. The first day, a leak caused 150,000 gallons of water to spill out, which I guess makes it a good thing it was never used to cool nuclear control rods.
Filming was also arduous: The average work week on set was about 70 hours. To make things worse, the tank wasn't deep enough to block sunlight from coming in. Since this was supposed to be set deep underwater, rays of sunlight filtering through the ocean looked rather out of place. To block the sun, the crew first spread a giant tarp over the tank, but it blew off during a storm. So the decision was made to film at night. I'm not claustrophobic, but having to do an underwater scene in the dark of night touches directly upon my greatest fear (swimming in pee without even knowing it).
The rumor is that James Cameron declared The Abyss to be the worst production he had ever been on, which is a lot coming from the guy who had to clean up real human blood in a real morgue on the set of Piranha II: The Spawning (1981).
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick made a name as one of the all-time great directors through brilliant filmmaking, smart interpretive choices ... and brutally abusing the snot out of his actors. Nowhere is this best seen than with his treatment of Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining.
During filming, veteran actress Duvall became so stressed that her hair fell out. The classic staircase scene took anywhere from 35-127 takes, and actually made the Guinness book of World Records for most takes for a single scene.
Kubrick also told the crew not to emphasize with Shelley Duvall to get a more naturally distraught reaction from her. Really, Kubrick would've made Nicholson an alcoholic then forced him to quit if it meant getting a slightly more realistic performance.
Speaking of Jack Nicholson, he had it a lot better than Duvall but still was treated to his own cheesy personal hell. As Nicholson hated cheese sandwiches, and Kubrick wanted Nicholson filled with rage, Nicholson was only fed cheese sandwiches. Which shows a lack of self-awareness on Kubrick's part, as the actors would probably become enraged just by the director's exacting demands for perfection. The door-busting scene took 60 doors and three days to film. The scene where Jack Nicholson is at the ballroom was rehearsed 13 hours a day for six weeks.
Even the crew could not escape the arduous demands of Kubrick. For exterior shots, he insisted they build a life-size replica of the Overlook Hotel.
Star Wars (1977)
Turns out, getting a realistic depiction of an "alien world" by filming in some remote landscape can take a heavy toll on the actors. That's why you never see anyone in those movies made by the Voyager Probe. When George Lucas chose the desert landscape of Tunisia to film scenes for Tatooine, he got double the challenge. Not only did he need to overcome the harsh desert elements, a freak rainstorm also hit. This led to strife between Lucas and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor: Lucas wanted to roll with the rain-created haze (a technique pioneered by amateur Bigfoot footage), whereas Taylor wanted robots that weren't simply a blur.
When Anthony Daniels first donned his costume for C3PO, the leg shattered and dropped straight into his foot. Also, the eyes of his costume were painted gold, which prevented corrosion with the minor drawback that Daniels was utterly unable to see out of his mask.
Needless to say, Lucas looked forward to the film finishing in Tunisia and moving to a studio in London. However, this presented a whole new set of problems. First of all, British law prevented filming after 5:30PM, which in Hollywood time is barely enough for the average crew member to light the scene and have 25 ice cream sandwiches from craft services.
Because of all these difficulties, production fell way behind schedule. Facing pressure from studio executives to crank out the film quickly, Lucas began filming multiple scenes at the same time. In order to do so, he had to bicycle between sets, which I assume was made extra difficult because the bike kept getting stolen by Ewoks. Eventually, Lucas succumbed to high blood pressure and exhaustion from stress, but he did manage to get the film done and made a billion dollars so it's worth a little hypertension.
Another water movie that gave its cast and crew more than they expected, Waterworld was a horrific ordeal both in terms of physicality and on-set issues. Director Kevin Reynolds thought he'd play it safe and film in an enclosed area of seawater off the coast of Hawaii. What he didn't plan for was a hurricane to obliterate the multi-million dollar set. He also never bothered to check local weather conditions, which meant regular gusts of wind up to 45 miles per hour would frequently mess up carefully set shots.
Just like it's awkward being a kid when mom and dad are fighting, Reynolds' constant quarrels with lead actor and former best bud Kevin Costner led to tensions on the set. This eventually culminated in Reynolds walking off the project, leaving Costner to finish shooting, which prompted Reynolds to quip "Kevin should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favorite actor and favorite director." Another factor ratcheting up the stress levels was the fact that there were no easily accessible bathrooms. Crew members had to be ferried to a nearby barge in order to use portable latrines.
Joss Whedon called his seven weeks spent on-set rewriting the film "seven weeks of hell." But perhaps the most fitting anecdote involves Costner. While filming a scene in which he was tied to a boat, the set was hit by a sudden storm. Luckily we all know how that ended (Costner survived and made it big in the shrimp industry, then invested all the money in Apple Computers).
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
While tough scenes still take their tolls on actors, it doesn't compare to filmmaking back in the days before safety standards or makeup that wouldn't, you know, kill you. Take a look at this list of on-set injuries:
- Buddy Ebsen inhaled so much of his toxic Tin Man makeup he had to be put in an iron lung. At least he didn't have brain injuries, as the Tin Man would completely wreck an MRI machine.
- After replacing Buddy Ebsen, Jack Haley said, "People question me, like you're questioning me now, say 'Must've been fun making The Wizard of Oz.' It was not fun. Like hell it was fun. It was a lot of hard work. It was not fun at all." Haley's costume did not allow him to sit: In order to get some relief during long, hot shooting days, Haley had to lean against a board.
- Margaret Hamilton was severely burned during a scene with the Munchkins. Her recovery involved spending six weeks in the hospital.
- Winged Monkey actors were injured when the piano wire holding them up snapped. (C'mon now, piano wire should at least be strong enough to lift a piano, that's false advertising.)
- To fit studio billing that she was playing a twelve year old girl, Judy Garland had to wear a corset that squeezed her chest in like a can of biscuit dough.
- A part of Ray Bolger's Scarecrow makeup left lines on his face that endured for over a year. (I can relate, my job leaves lines on my face that endured for my whole life.)
- The Horses of a Different Color were dyed with Jell-O, which is like a human actor being completely covered in ground toenails.
- The snow in the poppy field is made from asbestos. Asbestos was found to be a dangerous workplace element in 1931 ... that scene was filmed in 1939.
- The Munchkin actors each made 40% of the dog's salary.
- Bert Lahr's Lion costume weighed 90 pounds (41 kg) and was made of the not-very-breathable lion skin. Due to all the hot lights on set, temperatures often topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (311 K). Because of this TWO different people were given the unenviable job of drying the drenched sweat out of his costume each night
- To compensate for the extreme make-up jobs used in this film, MGM recruited extra help from the studio mail room and courier service. As most of the Oz extras required prosthetic devices (false ears, noses, etc.), and since application of fake face parts requires extensive training, the recruited make-up artists were each instructed in one area only. Each trainee would then move from one station to another to complete make-up application each morning. I always found amusing the notion that some poor mail room employee had to spend weeks going from munchkin to munchkin making sure their prosthetic sideburns are pointing in the right direction.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Now, to be fair, when you sign up for a movie called Cannibal Holocaust, being filmed in the Amazon, you shouldn't have visions of luxurious craft services and huge trailers. In fact, you're probably pretty lucky when it turns out to be a film and not an elaborate robbery. Still, for the cast and crew of the hit 1980 film, things turned out much more unbearable than expected.
Director Ruggero Deodato stated that he regrets ever making this film. Considering it brought him worldwide fame (unlike a prior film of his, the well-titled Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man), that is quite a powerful sentiment. What made it difficult was the brutal nature of filming, the remoteness of the sets ... and hardcore animal abuse. For instance, one of the principal actors botched a monologue after killing a pig, but they couldn't do another take because the pig was really dead and they didn't have another pig.
Deodato also seemed to have an uncanny talent for pissing off his actors, including:
- Making natives stay in a hut while it was burning, then stiffing them on payment
- Paying actors less than agreed upon, and using Colombian Pesos for payment (which are only slightly more valuable than "coupons for back rubs.")
- Screaming at an actress for refusing to go topless.
Also, the whole vomit-inducing slaughter of native animals. But it did pioneer the genre of fake reality shaky-cam footage films. Which means that Deodata is responsible for making people sick who haven't even seen his films.
The Exorcist (1973)
I mean, it's hard to say "We shot a film where a kid vomits, snaps her back as if to appear broken, and becomes intimate with a cross. No, no, I'm pretty sure the child actress involved is just fine, emotionally and physically."
The shoot was originally scheduled for 105 days but dragged on to nearly double that. Both Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair suffered back injuries from being violently swung around on harnesses. One of the screams Burstyn makes when falling is a genuine reaction to injuring her spine. Fortunately, neither actress suffered permanent injuries that would prevent them from acting, and Blair went on to make the greatest film in history,
The brutality was not limited to the main actresses. Let's engage in a hypothetical activity. Pretend you are an actor in a mainstream horror film, and the well-regarded director pulls you aside and asks "Do you trust me?" Obviously, one might expect this to be followed by some sort of unpleasant interaction (many directors like to evoke real emotion from talent by having them recall traumatic memories). However, what one probably wouldn't expect is to be painfully smacked by the director. Yet, that's what happened to the actor playing Father Dyer when director William Friedkin wanted him to show genuine emotions while administering last rites. Oh, and the actor he slapped was a real, full-on Catholic priest. I mean, there's method acting, and then there's "actively doing things that might summon a demon to a film about possession."
Say what you will about Friedkin's slap-happy technique, but at least it was direct. Unfortunately, that couldn't be said for the treatment of actor Jason Miller. Friedkin would elicit genuine reactions from Miller through mischief such as firing guns filled with blanks to scare him and not telling him he was about to get a face full of pea soup vomit.
Overall, everyone on set was pretty uncomfortable, because the bedroom in which most of the famous shots take place was actually a freezer. The crew had to work in parkas and cold -weather gear more suited for an arctic nature shoot. All this was done so that the actors' had visible breath.
The Exorcist became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture, so the results speak for themselves. That means next time you're wondering why you are struggling with your personal issues/love life/pyramid-scheme-masking-itself-as-self-employment, consider it's because you aren't injuring children and assaulting priests. Millennials are such slackers.
Dr. Doolittle (1967)
This classic film was beset by issues on almost every front. For the crew toiling away to make sets that utilized talking animals, things were uniquely difficult. First of all, all the animals that were brought in to Britain for the film got quarantined. That meant that a whole new menagerie of over 1,000 exotic animals had to be purchased in only a short time, without leaving the country. In addition, 20th Century Fox never considered that hey, it might rain in England, so the weather ruined many elaborately set outdoor shots.
For a kids film, it's appropriate that some of the film's strife was very cute. A script went missing after a goat ate it, and a parrot caused lots of confusion after learning to screech the word "cut." Still most of the animal problems were not kid-friendly, such as crew members constantly getting bit and pooped on. Even seemingly impossible stuff that no one would ever expect to go wrong, like trained ducks forgetting how to swim, seemed indicative of a curse that hung over the film (the curse called "working with 1,200 animals and expecting anything to go right, ever").
There was another difficult condition that made long filming days hard to endure, a condition Hollywood calls, "working with a jerk-face." The producers negotiated with the family who owned the rights to the book in order to remove racially sensitive content. The producers then did an about-face and hired the arbitrarily-intolerant Rex Harrison as the lead actor. Harrison held out until producers' choice for co-star (the Jewish Sammy Davis Jr.) was replaced. Other actors report racist and anti-Semitic abuse, according to my surefire source for all character-slandering rumors, Wikipedia. I really hope this attitude applied to the animals as well, as telling off a parrot for being African would be fun to watch.
Let these examples serve as a reminder that some shoots can be insanely difficult, no matter how much Hollywood magic is used. That's why I insist on filming myself whenever I'm upset. If I ever get cast as the lead in an action film, I'm way too out of shape to do any good work, so I'll just have them edit in my anguished looks from the past.