Early last month, film director Michael Cimino died, and the industry trades published the requisite obituaries and essays about his career, reserving special praise for his Oscar-winning work on Deer Hunter. But they all had to discuss Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s ill-fated 1980 film which went three times over budget, essentially bankrupted its studio and effectively ended careers as well as the New Hollywood movement of the preceding decade. Cimino had gone mad with power and ambition on set and in the editing bay, and never again made a movie people paid much attention to. Instead, he was the Heaven’s Gate guy, a sad, cautionary tale.
What, one wonders, will they write about Suicide Squad director David Ayer when he dies? That he was a true American success story, a high school dropout who joined the Navy for a bit and was working construction jobs when he wrote the screenplay for a little movie called Training Day? Or that he was the guy who was fucked over by the studio while making a comic book movie, forced to merge his gritty cut with a funnier cut put together by the studio thus creating a finished film which feels as schizophrenic as its characters?
Only time will tell, largely because Suicide Squad may yet turn into a financial hit despite the excessive studio tinkering reported by Kim Masters yesterday. As per usual, unnamed insiders say some bad things went down, and the producers, actors and directors involved all deny, deny, deny. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. However, a story like Cimino’s used to be a once-in-a-while example of ego and ambition run amuck. See also: Cleopatra, Paint Your Wagon, Apocalypse Now, Waterworld, Last Action Hero. Ayer’s story, on the other hand, is the new normal.
As Masters said, “Behind-the-scenes drama is becoming typical for giant franchise movies that now are the main focus of the studio business: a production schedule engineered to meet an ambitious release date; a director untested in making tentpole movies; and studio executives, brimming with anxiety, who are ready to intercede forcefully as they attempt to protect a branded asset.”
Recent examples of similarly troubled productions include (from most recent to oldest):
1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
What’s Gone Wrong? This New Hope prequel underwent a secret re-write from Tony Gilroy (The Bourne franchise, Michael Clayton) during production, but it wasn’t enough to please the studio suits who recently viewed the finished cut and ordered a extensive reshoots. Now, according to THR, “Several insiders say Gilroy has been empowered to take the lead on postproduction even as director Gareth Edwards remains involved in the project. Gilroy became the driving force behind Rogue One‘s extensive, recently wrapped reshoots, which ran around five weeks [and gave the film a new ending]. Now he is said to be ‘supervising’ the edit with input from Edwards.”
However, the insiders stress that this a collaboration between Gilroy and Edwards, even if the latter remains the public face of the film and the former is supposed to be doing all of this in secret. Gilroy reportedly mentored Edwards through is prior film, Godzilla, and is stepping in here to similarly mentor the young director who’s only work pre-Godzilla was a micro-budget indie with special effects he created on his own computer.
What Happened In The End? We’ll find out December 16, 2016, but we should remember just how indebted many of the prior Star Wars films, including The Force Awakens, were to reshoots and post-production magic.
2. Suicide Squad
What’s Gone Wrong? They announced the project 22 months ahead of its release date, and have been racing ever since. David Ayer wrote the script in 6 weeks, and had no experience on a film of this scale. Warner Bros. watched from afar with great trepidation until Batman v Superman‘s epic faceplant in March rattled them to such a degree that they scrambled to mold Suicide Squad into something it wasn’t. Oddly, this was a problem of their own creation, as per THR:
A key concern for Warners executives was that Suicide Squad didn’t deliver on the fun, edgy tone promised in the strong teaser trailer for the film. So while Ayer pursued his original vision, Warners set about working on a different cut, with an assist from Trailer Park, the company that had made the teaser. By the time the film was done, multiple editors had been brought into the process.
In May, Ayer’s more somber version and a lighter, studio-favored version were tested with audiences in Northern California. Once feedback on the two versions was analyzed, it became clear it was possible to get to “a very common-ground place.” (The studio-favored version with more characters introduced early in the film and jazzed-up graphics won.) Getting to that place of consensus, however, required millions of dollars worth of additional photography.
What Happened In The End? It’s projected to open as high as $140m this weekend, easily breaking Guardians of the Galaxy‘s opening weekend record for August. It will be weeks two and three that define how this works out though. WB could have another Batman v Superman on their hands, i.e., huge opening weekend followed by stunning weekly drops. One insider reports the studio’s worldwide break-even point is $750m-$800m.
What Went Wrong? It’s hard to say for sure. We know this was a passion project of Sony head Amy Pascal, but when she was ousted after the studio’s hacking scandal her replacement slashed the budget by $15m right as filming was just set to begin. We also know Paul Feig’s original cut was over 3 hours long, and the finished film has the absolutely unmistakable feel of a troubled production, i.e., terrible scene transitions, clunky, ill-conceived cameos, plot holes which were probably explained in deleted scenes and a million dollar dance scene which was plucked out of the movie and stamped over over the closing credits. However, unlike the prior films on this list I haven’t seen an industry trade report detailing behind-the-scenes drama. Instead, all I have is this summation from TVTropes.org:
An anonymous leaker alleged on 4Chan (in a manner similar to previous leaks about the aforementioned Fant4stic) that Melissa McCarthy, a fan of the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, fought with director Paul Feig over the poor script; that McCarthy clashed with another actress in the all-female cast, to the point where both parties had to be mollified by giving them equal lines and screen time; that Kristen Wiig complained about the production between takes; that, as a result of these tensions, the cast and crew had to sign NDAs promising to only speak of the film in a positive light; and that Sony was trying to salvage the movie by having lawyers “strongarm and/or bribe” the original cast into making cameos.
Given the level of online vitriol aimed at this movie, I don’t know how much I trust any of those rumors. That being said, something clearly went wrong behind the scenes to produce such a hatchet job.
What Happened In The End? It will need to seriously rally overseas in the coming weeks to reach its break-even point, but at this point it’s being regarded as a box office flop which would have been better served by a more reasonable budget.
4. The Legend of Tarzan
What Went Wrong? The studio (WB) double-booked the director, David Yates, hoping he could pull a Spielberg or Eastwood and film one movie (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) by day and finish editing another (The Legend of Tarzan) by night and on the weekends. Plus, the legendary producer on the project, Jerry Weintraub, died quite unexpectedly, thus removing the strong-willed voice with experience and clout to protect the project behind the scenes. The studio prioritized Fantastic Beasts over Tarzan, and this didn’t seem to change when early test screening audiences responded negatively to Tarzan. In short, it was more important to get Fantastic Beasts right than to save Tarzan, even with its $180m budget.
What Happened In The End? Tarzan posted one of the weaker 4th of July openings in recent history, and will likely top out at $130m domestic. Its faring far better overseas, but not to the degree that we should ever expect a sequel. More likely, WB’s eventual write-down on the project will now be more manageable as opposed to catastrophic, as was the case on Pan.
5. Jane Got a Gun
What Went Wrong? Big budget studio tentpoles don’t have the exclusive on troubled productions. Jane Got a Gun, a mid-budget western starring Natalie Portman, quickly turned into a nightmare when Portman and the crew showed up to the New Mexico set on the first day of filming only to learn the director (We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Lynne Ramsay) had quit after a prolonged stand-off with the financier. At that point, the film had already been delayed, losing Michael Fassbender to scheduling conflicts. Fassbender’s replacement, Jude Law, had only been with the cast for a couple of days when Ramsay quit, and he quickly followed her out the door, which caused even further delays and caused the budget to jump from $15m to $25m. Gavin O’Connor eventually directed the film with Portman, Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGreggor as the stars, but the studio, Relativity Media, went bankrupt (for a lot of reasons unrealted to the film).
What Happened In The End? Dumped in theaters in January where it grossed $3m, making Jane Got a Gun the worst-grossing wide release (about 1,200 theaters) of Portman’s career.
6. The Revenant
What Went Wrong? The more traditional stuff for troubled productions – uncooperative weather conditions (no snow in the places which would traditionally be snowy), out of control egos (the director barred the producer from the set) and truly reckless ambition (filming only in natural light, using only the tools of 1820s fur trappers to build sets, wading into freezing water and having the star eat real raw meat and sleep in a real animal carcass) which endangered the lives of cast and crew (many of whom quit or were fired for complaining) and caused the budget to balloon (from $95m to $135m). That’s all according to, who else, Kim Masters, though many connected to the film downplayed all of the claims made in her reports, acknowledging only that the delay due to weather was a challenge and that, yeah, sometimes it was really cold.
What Happened In The End? By some minor miracle, this non-sequel/reboot/revival/comic book movie grossed an amazing $532m worldwide, $183m in the States, and won Academy Awards for Best Director, Actor and Cinematography. The reports of it being a troubled production due to the extreme lengths they went to make it more authentic seemed to actually add to its appeal and elevated the pre-release awareness.
7. The Good Dinosaur
What Went Wrong? This is the film which cost 60 Pixar employees (or 5% of the company’s staff) their jobs. Pixar could no longer afford them after Good Dinosaur was delayed 18 months and left the company without a new movie to put out in 2014. The Daily Beast‘s Jen Yamato summed up exactly what happened:
The gold star geniuses of Pixar faltered in their proven storytelling-by-committee methods, scrapped a large part of their script and already-in-the-can vocal performances on a high-profile project, benched their director (Up‘s Bob Peterson), called up a rookie in his place (Peter Sohn, whose only prior credit was 2009’s “Partly Cloudy” short) and delayed the film’s release by 18 months.
Of course, that kind of behind-the-scenes turmoil has worked wonders in the past for Pixar (e.g., Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille). This time around, though, well…the movie at least came with that awesome, Oscar-nominated short “Sanjay’s Super Team.”
What Happened In The End? With a production + marketing budget of $350m, The Good Dinosaur needed to hit $700 million worldwide to break even; it made just $331m, so low that Good Dinosaur will be the first Pixar movie to not at least see profit after TV sales and home video.
What Went Wrong? The script leaked online before filming, and then Sony forced rewrites and continued doing so throughout filming, contributing to an out of control budget and a generally miserable leading man who would apparently rather slit his wrists than play James Bond again. Plus, all of the attention paid to the behind-the-scenes drama spoiled the film’s big third act twist, i.e., the reveal of the villain’s true identity and undercut the marketing (although long time franchise fans could and in many cases did figure it out without knowing anything about the script leak).
What Happened In The End? It needed $650m worldwide to break even; it made $880m. But the franchise is now in complete limbo, with no definite distributor, star or director.
9. Fantastic Four
What Went Wrong? Pretty much everything. The director, Josh Trank, clashed with the studio, producer and stars. The actors, specifically Miles Teller and Kata Mara, reportedly clashed with each other. The studio took the film away from the in-over-his head Trank, dropped between 20-40 minutes of footage and filled it with reshoots, leading to Kata Mara’s infamously bad reshoot wig. Rumors of such troubles weren’t hard to find, but everyone was offiicially playing nice and denying until Trank seemed to confirm everything in a since-deleted Tweet on the eve of the film’s premiere.
What Happened In The End? Nothing good. Trank was quickly fired from one of the Star Wars movies, and is now firmly stuck in director’s jail. The producer, Simon Kimberg, keeps saying there could still be a sequel because that’s the kind of bullshit producers say. We all know this franchise is toast, at least until Fox has to make another one to prevent the rights from reverting back to Marvel. Michael B. Jordan has already moved on to Creed and Black Panther.
What Went Wrong? The director, Edgar Wright, quit during pre-production after Marvel commissioned script rewrites behind his back since he was refusing their demands to maker the film less stand-alone and more directly tied into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paul Rudd asked his Anchorman buddy Adam McKay to take over as director, but McKay refused, instead agreeing to help re-write the script. Multiple actors and crew members, including cinematographer Bill Pope and composer Stephen Price, bolted.
By the time Peyton Reed was hired to direct they’d lost 10 weeks off their planned post-production schedule, thus putting everyone on a severe time crunch to finish the film in time for its apparently immovable release date. One of the film’s editors, Dan Lebental, told THR, “It made for some very long days. … It was hard on editorial but it was very hard on visual effects and sound and 3D. We were doing final mixing while hundreds of visual effects shots hadn’t come in yet. That unfortunately has become a norm in the business, but this was an extreme case.”
What Happened In The End? It turned into a middle-of-the-road hit, critically and financially, and earned a sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp (due out 2018). Plus, Rudd hilariously stomped his way through Captain America: Civil War‘s hands-down best scene, probably leading many of those who skipped Ant-Man last year to circle back around and check it out.
Head here for a follow-up list discussing other troubled productions, like World War Z, Prometheus and The Hobbit trilogy.