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13 great movies that were hell to make

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Jun 19, 2020, 10:51 AM EDT

Filmmaking is perhaps the most complicated of all art forms because it combines all so many of the rest: Writing, photography, design, music, and acting. All those elements have to weave together in just the right way to make a movie truly come to life. So, when one or more of those crafts is off, or when external or internal obstacles place themselves squarely in the way of the talented people trying to complete the movie, a film's production can go horribly askew.

And yet, somehow, throughout the years, movies that seemed destined for disaster have not only made it to the big screen despite a rocky production, but have gone on to become some of the most beloved movies of all time. For genre films, it's even more remarkable when that happens, since the filmmakers are often creating worlds or images never before glimpsed.

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Jaws, one of the most astonishing examples of a movie that was a nightmare to make yet went on to become a cinematic touchstone, here are 13 sci-fi, horror, and fantasy movies that were hellishly difficult to make but not even heavenly to watch.

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It took 11 screenwriters, three directors, and two Tin Men to make The Wizard of Oz. MGM head Mervyn LeRoy had writer after writer pen draft after draft — and the rewrites didn't end once the cameras started rolling; actors Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley (the Tin Man) even pitched in.

Speaking of Haley, he wasn't the original Tin Man; Buddy Ebsen was cast but had to exit because the costume made him ill. The movie had several directors as well. Richard Thorpe shot the first two weeks of footage before being replaced by Victor Fleming, the credited director who shot the bulk of the movie over six months. His friend King Vidor stepped in to shoot the last few scenes when Fleming was tasked with completing Gone with the Wind. Yet somehow — as though someone clicked their heels and made a wish — the movie coalesced into the masterpiece we all love to this day.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)

The greatest horror movie ever made nearly didn't make it to the screen. Director William Friedkin had trouble finding actors to portray Chris MacNeil, her daughter Regan, and the tormented priest Father Karras, finally settling on relative unknowns Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, and Jason Miller — the latter of whom had never been in a film before.

Meanwhile, the production, with its complicated effects and heavy atmosphere, doubled both its budget and its schedule. A fire that burned down the set didn't help matters, nor did the injuries that Burstyn and Blair endured during the filming, as recounted in the documentary The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist. The problems led to the myth that the film was "cursed" — a lot of piffle, but good for publicity!


Jaws (1975)

Bad weather. An uncooperative ocean. Three mechanical sharks that refused to work for most of the production. A young director certain he was going to get fired. A script written on the fly, as the budget and shooting schedule ballooned. All that and more were part of the chaotic creative journey that led to one of the greatest horror thrillers of all time.

Ironically, one of Jaws' major problems — the inability of the shark to function in the saltwater — became one of the movie's greatest strengths, as director Steven Spielberg was forced to hint at the shark's presence more than actually show it. The result was a milestone of suspense and terror that launched the career of one of our finest filmmakers.

Star Wars A New Hope C3PO and Luke Skywalker

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

Like many films on this list, the first obstacle was getting it off the launching pad. Big studios such as Disney and Universal all turned down writer/director George Lucas' pitch before Lucas finally convinced 20th Century Fox to pony up a relatively paltry $9 million to make the picture. As recounted in the documentary Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, Lucas also had to start his own special effects shop — Industrial Light and Magic — after he found out that Fox's effects department had been shut down.

Principal photography quickly got behind schedule as the crew faced weather issues on location in Tunisia and constant breakdowns of props and equipment. Lucas eventually came down with hypertension and exhaustion as the process wore on, which is perhaps why he didn't direct another movie for 22 years. But this one... well, it changed cinema history.


Superman/Superman II (1978/1981)

"You'll believe a man can fly," the ads for Superman promised, but for a while, it wasn't even certain you'd get to see that man take to the air. Arguably the first true superhero movie, and still one of the best, Superman was an incredibly troubled production from start to finish. Making Christopher Reeve look believable as he soared into the sky was perhaps the film's major challenge, but far from its only one as recounted in the documentary You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman.

To top it off, the producers were trying to shoot Superman and Superman II at the same time; they ended up halting production on the second one to finish the first, and completing the sequel with a different director entirely. Both films are terrific fun, and Superman still stands as the most majestic and heartfelt version of the story of the kid from Krypton to date.

Joseph Pilato in Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead (1985)

George A. Romero's third zombie film — following the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) — was meant to be an epic conclusion to his saga of the reanimated dead. Set on an island where a self-styled tyrant is training zombies to use as a literal army of the dead, Romero's original script had to be drastically rewritten when the producers cut the budget from $7 million to $3.5 million.

By narrowing the scope of the story, however, to a small group of scientists and soldiers in an underground facility, Romero still managed to create a dark, bleak parable about how lack of communication may be a greater threat to humanity than any walking ghoul. Embittered for years over his experience in making it, Romero eventually came to consider Day of the Dead to be the best of the original trilogy.

Back to the Future

Back to the Future (1985)

Although Michael J. Fox was always the first choice to play the time-traveling Marty McFly in director Robert Zemeckis' brilliant sci-fi comedy, his commitments to the Family Ties TV show meant he couldn't do the film. After seeing actors like Johnny Depp, John Cusack, and others, Zemeckis landed on Eric Stoltz for the part.

But just a few weeks into shooting, it became clear that Stoltz was wrong for the role. Rather than keep going, Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg decided to recast — at a cost of $3 million added to the $14 million budget — and Fox worked on the movie at night while shooting his series during the day. But since Back to the Future is pretty much a perfect movie, is anyone going to argue with this decision?

Brazil plastic surgery scene

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam tends to excel at making movies under difficult circumstances, but production on his fourth film, an absurdist spin on 1984 titled Brazil (the original title was 1984 ½), seemed to go relatively smoothly. But when he submitted the film to the U.S. distributor (Universal), trouble started. As chronicled in the book The Battle of Brazil, Universal claimed that the movie's bleak ending bombed with test audiences and demanded a massive re-edit, whittling Gilliam's 140-minute cut to an hour and a half and slapping a happy ending on it. 

When Gilliam refused to approve the cut, Universal sat on the movie, prompting the director to take out an ad in Variety asking for his film to be released. It was only after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association — for which Gilliam secretly screened his cut — voted it "Best Picture" that Universal relented. Good thing they did: Brazil is still Gilliam's shining moment and one of the best dystopian satires of all time.

The Abyss 1

The Abyss (1989)

Shooting a movie on the water is one of the hardest things to do in the picture business, which is why James Cameron went ahead and shot an entire movie underwater for over six months, with his cast and crew working 70-hour weeks.

Dealing with new technology and setting up each shot was a slow, laborious, grueling process, made even more tiring and uncomfortable because everyone was wet all the time. The giant tanks they used for the shoot leaked. Stars Ed Harris and Elizabeth Mastrantonio both had nervous breakdowns. Everyone was in danger of drowning all the time. But, somehow, Cameron and his team pulled it all together, making a movie that has gradually become regarded over time as one of his best.

exorcist iii

The Exorcist III (1990)

There have been five Exorcist movies (including two versions of The Exorcist IV), and not one of them has had a smooth ride to the screen. Author-turned-director William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III was a worthy successor to the original's troubled legacy.

Yet, according to Bob McCabe’s The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows, when Blatty submitted his restrained, low-key sequel to the producers, they wanted to know why a movie with the word "exorcist" in the title did not feature an exorcism. So they had him shoot one, adding an entirely new character (a priest) and tacking a special effects finale to a movie otherwise built on atmosphere and mystery. Even with that, it's still the only Exorcist sequel worth a damn and a fine horror film in its own right.

The Fountain

The Fountain (2006)

Why did it take Darren Aronofsky five years to bring his surreal, ambitious mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and historical romance to the screen? Two words: Brad Pitt. Aronofsky, coming off the success of his harrowing 2001 drama Requiem for a Dream, intended to shoot The Fountain — about an undying love that spans three timelines — on a $70 million budget with Pitt and Cate Blanchett as his leads.

But rising production costs, and Pitt's decision to drop out of the project seven weeks before filming was supposed to start, led Warner Bros. to cancel the movie. Aronofsky didn't give up, however, writing a new $35 million version with Hugh Jackman as the lead. And guess what? The Fountain was still one of the most challenging, poetic sci-fi movies of its decade.


X-Men: First Class (2011)

By 2010, the X-Men franchise was on the ropes: the last two entries (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) had done okay at the box office but were nobody's idea of good movies, while the franchise seemed adrift. The idea to create a prequel — an origin story for the very first X-Men team focusing on Professor X and Magneto — had been considered as far back as 2003, but it only got to the script stage in 2009.

Matthew Vaughn was hired to direct after initial choice Bryan Singer dropped out, and filming took place from August to December 2010. Vaughn went through five cinematographers trying to get the right 1960s look for the movie. Principal photography ended without one thing in place: An ending. The third act had been left half-finished while the team came up with a new climax and shooting continued into April 2011 — leaving just over a month for post-production before the movie's planned June opening. In the end, they made the deadline, and X-Men: First Class, which had been less than a year in the making, opened to rave reviews and revived the franchise.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The story of how this modern masterpiece came to exist is now a legend in its own right. After several false starts over the course of several decades, it took director George Miller 120 days to shoot the movie in incredibly tough, remote conditions in the desert of Namibia. Extreme weather and other issues stretched the shoot to the point where an executive from Warner Bros. flew down to make sure the production stayed on track.

To make matters more difficult, Miller and stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron all fought with each other. And then the reshoots started. All along, Miller wasn't exactly sure what he had, but by the time he was done and the movie was released, we all knew: He had made one of the greatest action movies of all time.