If it's crap ... We'll tell you
You've heard stories about the making of movies, how some go smoothly (i.e. a Clint Eastwood production, under budget usually and with no hassles) and some that start shaky and then have some bumpy patches, only to become a success (Easy Rider). But others just turn out to be madness from the start, more or less. Over-budgets, egos inflated, Hollywood gone to excess with shooting for the moon, and sometimes a director and his bosses just not seeing eye to eye and chaos reigning over. Some of these films you have seen, some probably not. But all in all, they're great chronicles of making movies.
#5: FIASCO: A Hollywood History of Iconic Flops (James Robert Parish)
This book basically makes for a kind of quick-to-read rundown of the big ones. Some of the biggest flops, some more monumental and career-altering than others, are given some history. Since it is a collection of some fifteen or so films, ranging from at one time the biggest over-budget movie ever, Cleopatra, to more here-then-gone turkeys like Town & Country in 2001, there's only so much time to chronicle the histories. Frankly, I could read a whole book about the making of Cleopatra, certainly would be much more entertaining than the colossal, occasionally admirable 4-hour epic it was.
But the lack of time and space to write at length about the movies is made up for the condensation of the highlights. We learn how unresponsive and (non)collaborative Elaine May could be with her opus Ishtar; the rampant self-made hype about the already self-conscious Last Action Hero; Travolta's dreadlocks in Battlefield Earth. And there are a few movies mentioned, like The Wild Party (1975) that I haven't and probably will never see (Merchant-Ivory, nevermind). But it's a great primer, and has some very memorable anecdotes, to share about some of the costliest movies. Two words: Cuthtroat Island.
4) THE APOCALYPSE NOW BOOK (Peter Cowie)
Many of you have probably seen at least one of the versions of Apocalypse Now- either the original 1979 theatrical cut or its bolder, fatter Redux cut from 2001 (neither is less than a masterpiece, though the theatrical cut is the one in my top-10 favorite films). But the history of its making is so notorious that it was dubbed by the media during its making as "Apocalypse Never* and was just the *first* of Francis Ford Coppola's movie-problems that he would later encounter in the 1980's.
To give an idea of how long the production lasted, technically the amount of shooting days on the production were the same as for ALL THREE of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. It was originally conceived to be released in 1977. Not so fast - as if a hackneyed action writer (or, to give some more credit, a season of Lost) were given a tale of a troubled movie production to write about, this is what came out in reality: trouble with helicopters from a Filipino dictator; trouble with the screenplay, originally written by John Milius as "The Psychedelic Soldier" for George Lucas (yes, George fucking Lucas) to direct; the typhoon knocking out most of the major sets; diseases; Martin Sheen's heart attack; (SPOILER) Marlon Brando; and an editing process that took nearly two years, despite (or rather all thanks to) the great Walter Murch at the helm.
A good deal of what's covered in the book won't be any news to people who have seen the superb documentary on the making of Apocalypse, Hearts of Darkness, but there is a lot more ground covered by Cowie that is invaluable, not just for die-hard fans like myself of the film. We get a very detailed description of the process of the script, which in fact was being rewritten and improvised during shooting (with Marlon Brando?! Say it isn't so!), and the editing process, which is eschewed in the 'Darkness' documentary (for example, we learn the importance of, you know, narration). Ultimately, one gets the sense of what a filmmaker who has seemingly everything and nothing to lose (the former financially, the latter his sanity) and pulling out such a triumph against odds of weather, circumstance, bad luck, bad health, and bad timing.
3) THE BATTLE OF BRAZIL (Jack Matthews)
Among Terry Gilliam productions gone awry - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen spiraling out of control with its budget, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote being delayed due to the actor breaking his hip among other calamities (sadly there's only a documentary on that story, Lost in La Mancha) - the making of Brazil catches my attention the most. The shooting of the film had it ups and downs- a difficult Robert De Niro and leading lady Kim Griest, plus a few technical snafus (a wonderful segment with lots and lots of eyeballs had to be cut), but for the most part it was a smooth production and editing... that is until it came time to release the film. There's a reason this book cover looks like a Rage Against the Machine poster.
What was green-lit as a subversive satire- as Terry Gilliam put it, "Franz Kafka meets Walter Mitty"- was seen later on when it was finished as something unreleasable, at least to the mind-set of Sid Sheinberg, who ran Universal Studios. The battle of getting the film to a releasable cut was so contentious that Universal, unbeknown to Gilliam until later, made their own "Love Conquers All" version that was a total mess. It all came down to clandestine screenings, and the help of the LA Film Critics (one of whom, Jack Matthews, wrote this book).
It's a tall tale that could only come about from a Gilliam production, a man who, like Coppola, stuck to his guns and in the end won out, though at a cost perhaps to his sanity that can barely be touched upon in a movie book. The movie ultimately wasn't a huge success financially, but has amassed an incredible following (the Nostalgia Critic, for example, cites it as his favorite film), and it's a David & Goliath story that is absolutely riveting to read; a shorter documentary version also appears on the Brazil Criterion edition.
It looked like such a great deal – on paper. Take a fabulous book (and if you get a chance to read it, please do, it is really one of the towering American satires ever written), give it to a director (Brian De Palma) who has just come off of two of his best films- The Untouchables (a huge hit) and Casualties of War (not so much, but critically so)- and then load it up with a cast of A-list actors, such as Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman. What could go wrong? Most of the things that go wrong with adaptations from books and/or runaway productions and/or miscasting.
The film itself is fascinating to watch because it is such a fiasco. Some of it is very funny (certain over-the-top scenes with Tom Hanks), and others make one want to jump out the window. The account of the making of the production enriches the film because of all of the crap that De Palma went through to make it, the miscasting (I'm looking at YOU Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman), the trouble in finding a courthouse in New York city, the overages in costs that skyrocketed over a matter of weeks, and the director's own sense of sanity in trying to make a keep moving ahead even as he knew, deep down, he was making a bad movie.
The levels of greed and self-delusion also make it fascinating, and Salamon has the best account out of almost any making-of-book by her access to everyone from top cast, De Palma, and crew people (one of the enlightening/heartbreaking/awesome stories is about a Second Unit Director's quest to get a perfect shot of a plane landing at an airport). How much Hollywood execs thought it was a surefire hit (they even called it “the best film our studio has made”), and then how it came and left so quickly as to almost not appear at all, make it a staggering tome of what can go wrong when everything on the surface appears to be typical up-and-down Hollywood filmmaking. The cogs are clotted, one can see, when it really needed a simple, even low-budget treatment with the likes of John Lithgow and John Cleese (De Palma's original choices for Sherman McCoy and the British dude).
Michael Cimino's 1980 film is so notorious that a cult in the 1990's had to commit mass-collective suicide in order to trump the former's status as just a name to make people perk up. This book, which I read through in about a month's time savoring every page, is about the making of his almost career-ending feature. But it's also about something else, something much deeper that only a former studio exec like Bach could put forward: the culture of Hollywood, the studio system, and how it functions to create such films.
While Devil's Candy and even the Apocalypse Now book to an extent go to reveal how filmmakers like De Palma and Coppola were given the kind of control and budgets they had for their films, which turned out the way they did based on factors of their own making or by chance or accidents, Bach's aim is much more ambitious: chart the history of United Artists, how the studio functioned at such a high rate of quality in the 1970's after decades being either very up (the 1960's) or very down (the 1940's), and how a film like Heaven's Gate could have been made. It's enough to tell how much Bach is fascinated by, and wants to fascinate us with, the studio system mechanics and wheeling and dealing that Heaven's Gate's story doesn't even *begin* until 80 pages in with Cimino's first huge success, The Deer Hunter.
In order to understand how something can happen, one must know the history, ironically something Cimino himself futzed with in Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate Before reading the book, one might wonder how a director with only two features- albeit two Oscars- could make such a colossal failure, enough to the point that the studio was SOLD by how big a failure it was. Bach's detailing of the process, the sort of flowering, of ego on both sides, makes it possible. And Bach doesn't stop writing about how the studio kept chugging along as Heaven's Gate (originally budgeted at 11 million) went to almost 40 million in 1980 money. It's most telling to see the comparison he makes, somewhat indirectly though by proxy of him being a main figure at UA at the time, with Cimino and Woody Allen. To read about how a studio that could make Manhattan could also make Heaven's Gate is very telling about what was really great and really sucky about an auteur-led system.
Ego, greed, delusions of grandeur and just plain delusions plagued the production, but also the studio as well. It's chock-full of awesome trivia for us movie buffs, but it's also a story of art and commerce, pride and ambition, and how so much had to kind of converge to make what started as a modest tale called The Johnson County Wars (loosely based in fact) to become an epic starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Hupert and Christopher Walken (yeah, strange isn't it?). That the film itself isn't as bad as reported is besides the point; the how films are made changed forever with this one film. Few times in history can that be claimed.