Hit Movies That Almost Didn't Make It to the Big Screen
Everyone thinks filmmaking is a grand adventure — and sometimes it is. Actors make a lot of money to perform in character for the camera, and directors and crew members pour incredible talent into creating "movie magic" that makes everything look simple and fun.
However, some of the most famous movies in history had such challenging and frustrating productions that everyone worried they would be box office flops — or completely scrapped before completion. Take a look at our list of amazing hit movies that almost didn’t make it to the big screen.
The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz is an iconic classic, so it’s hard to believe the glittering 1939 MGM spectacle was almost never made. From the very beginning, it took 17 screenwriters and six directors to tackle the project. When shooting finally started, filming was a disaster.
The 1982 adventure drama Fitzcarraldo had one of the most difficult productions in film history. The movie was director Werner Herzog’s insane story of real-life rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. Shot in South America, one of the film’s most famous scenes involves dragging a gigantic steamship up a hill.
Rapa-Nui was almost doomed from the very beginning. The 1994 historical drama focuses on the history of Easter Island. Director Kevin Reynolds described the film’s shoot as a "nightmare." It was difficult to make because of the remoteness of the location.
The 1995 science fiction thriller Waterworld involved many aquatic filming locations, which proved to be an expensive headache for everyone involved. Director Kevin Reynolds and his film crew had to construct artificial islands far out at sea, which quickly gobbled up the $100 million budget.
It’s a miracle no one was killed during the making of the 1981 adventure thriller Roar. The film focuses on wildlife preservationist Hank (Noel Marshall), who lives with a menagerie of lions, tigers and other wild animals. Marshall, who also wrote, directed and produced the film, decided to work with more than 100 live animals — for real.
If you think a drama about a group of teenagers in the 1960s would be simple to make, think again. George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti had many behind-the-scenes complications. First, a crew member was arrested for growing marijuana. Actor Paul Le Mat suffered an allergic reaction to a walnut, and Richard Dreyfuss’ head was cut open.
James Cameron’s 1989 science fiction drama The Abyss was an ambitious project. Featuring a number of underwater scenes, the submersible oil rig took 18 months to build. The film’s budget was around $2 million. Cast and crew members often worked 70 hours a week, and actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were on the verge of a mental collapse.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Director Richard Stanley desperately wanted to embark on his dream project: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley was especially thrilled when acclaimed actor Marlon Brando signed on to play the title role. But then, three days into filming the 1996 thriller, Stanley was fired.
Francis Ford Coppola was determined to continue his directing success after The Godfather. He decided to adapt Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness into an epic war movie about the futility of the Vietnam conflict. This project became the 1979 drama Apocalypse Now.
Similar to Apocalypse Now, the 1980 action drama Heaven’s Gate spiraled out of control. The movie fell behind schedule and went over budget. Director Michael Cimino’s obsession with period detail and accuracy led to repeated reconstructions for sets. Additionally, Cimino insisted on an unnecessary number of takes — once even waiting for a particular cloud to float into view. Seriously?
Cleopatra was always intended to be big. The 1963 romantic epic starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the vast budget allowed for the production crew to build elaborate sets. The film remains the most expensive movie ever made — it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
The 1967 musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle was troubled from the start. It had a difficult star (Rex Harrison), terrible weather for filming, wayward animals, expensive reshoots and poorly chosen filming locations. It was a disaster, and no one enjoyed working on the film, including the local residents in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe, United Kingdom.
Director William Friedkin is known for going "all out" for his movies. The Exorcist director constructed a gigantic bridge over a Dominican Republic river for his 1977 thriller Sorcerer. When the riverbed dried up, Friedkin relocated to Mexico, where he built another bridge over the Papaloapan River. This river also dried up before filming began.
In the pre-CGI days, 1984’s fantasy horror film Gremlins faced many complications. Director Joe Dante and his creative team dealt with problems caused by the movie’s dozens of creature effects shots. "We were inventing the technology as we went along, as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlins characters," Dante explained.
Director Elaine May confessed, "I knew about acting, but I knew nothing about film." She admitted that she felt the 1987 adventure Ishtar was a "screw-up." For one thing, shooting in the Sahara Desert was a bad idea. May and her crew were fearful they would be kidnapped, trapped in landmines or caught in the middle of a civil war — if they survived the heat.
The script for the 1992 science fiction thriller Alien 3 was repeatedly rewritten, even after sets were built and production had already started. Various directors worked on the project before David Fincher stepped on board. During the entire production process, Fincher was frustrated by the cast, crew and studio producers.
Originally, Brad Pitt was supposed to star in the 2006 science fiction drama The Fountain. The movie centered around him, but then he dropped the picture due to script disagreements just weeks before production. Director Darren Aronofsky struggled to find a replacement actor — they eventually chose Hugh Jackman — and Warner Bros. shut the production down.
Team America: World Police
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 action satire of the War on Terror, Team America: World Police, was shot with puppets on a soundstage and turned into a demanding production. They produced the film with marionettes that took four people to operate. Some shots were so complex they took an entire day to film.
The Emperor’s New Groove
If you think there can’t be any drama producing an animated film, think again. Disney’s 2000 film The Emperor’s New Groove had many problems. Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, the movie was supposed to be scored by recording artist Sting. However, his songs were ditched after a tepid response, and the original director (Roger Allers) left the project.
Following Universal’s success with the 1999 fantasy The Mummy, director Mark Romanek created 2010’s The Wolfman. Unfortunately, the film had some hairy problems. Four weeks into the production, Romanek quit, and Joe Johnston took over. He requested many reshoots, and a new screenwriter was brought in to change the ending of the original script.
World War Z
Marc Forster’s 2013 science fiction thriller World War Z required more extras than the average film. Many of the film’s raging zombies were achieved by CGI, but hundreds of others were real-life extras. A scene shot in Malta required 900 extras. The number of people on set reached about 1,500 at one point.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Director George Miller spent 14 years of his life working on 2015’s science fiction fantasy Mad Max: Fury Road. He insisted on shooting the film with as many practical special effects as possible, and he repeatedly crashed real cars for the film’s action scenes.
Director Ridley Scott was excited to work on the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, he probably had no idea just how difficult 1982’s science fiction fantasy Blade Runner would become. He had a fractious relationship with the cast and crew, leading to many heated debates.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Producers thought Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean shouldn’t have been made. In 2002, Disney CEO Michael Eisner tried to pull the plug, not wanting another box office flop like The Country Bears. Even actress Keira Knightley had her doubts. When she was asked about her next project, she said, "It’s some pirate thing — probably a disaster."
When comic book expert Michael Uslan started working for DC Comics, he had the vision to buy the rights for Batman and make a serious movie about the Caped Crusader. When he told Vice President Sol Harrison about his idea, Harrison warned him the brand was dead and to drop the project.
Back to the Future
It took some time to get Back to the Future off the ground. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s 1985 science fiction fantasy was turned down by studios for years. Finally, famed director Steven Spielberg signed on as a producer, and the film found a home with Universal Pictures.
Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises of all time. The first film, released in 1977, had broad special effects, causing the film to fall behind schedule almost right away. It seemed like a hopeless endeavor at times.
You would think after James Cameron’s experience filming The Abyss he would have avoided water-based movies. Instead, he directed the 1997 historical drama Titanic. The shoot didn’t go very well, and crew members described Cameron as a "300-decibel screamer." In addition, actors endured hours in cold water.
Director Stanley Kubrick was determined to turn Stephen King’s The Shining into a perfect film. The 1980 psychological horror flick was a lengthy production. Kubrick ordered multiple retakes, often shooting scenes more than 100 times. The famous "Here’s Johnny" scene, which featured Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) forcing an ax through a door, took three days to film and destroyed more than 60 doors.
There has never been a movie like the 1975 horror drama Jaws. The film went severely over budget due to mechanical problems with Bruce, the film’s fake shark. Crew members called the film "Flaws." It was only supposed to take 55 days to film the movie, but it turned into 159 days.