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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

He looks happy here, but the shoot of "Jaws" was not easy sailing for Steven Spielberg.

Five other movies that should have been disasters ... but weren't


Last week, I wrote my countdown column about Brad Pitt's zombie action epic "World War Z" and how it was guaranteed to flop. After all, everything ­­– from a ballooning budget to massive script fixes – pointed to a disaster.

Yeah … about that …

One surprisingly solid zombie summer blockbuster and a shocking $66 million opening weekend later (that's about $20 million more than everyone expected), I have enough egg on my face to make a well-sized omelet. To be fair, "World War Z" still has a way to go. The movie has to hold on strongly over the next couple of weekends to cover its bloated $200 million budget, and the international audience needs to turn out like experts expect.

But it's not the guaranteed flop I promised last week. In fact, they've already begun preparing the sequel. One plate of crow, please.

This isn't the first time, however, that a disastrous production didn't lead to a disaster of a movie. In fact, some of Hollywood's most treasured films were made amidst drama and chaos. Here are five movies that flipped off their critics and turned out surprisingly good.

"Apocalypse Now"

Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" is one of the great cautionary tales, for both filmmakers and critics alike. Things continually went wrong for the Vietnam War epic. One star – screen legend Marlon Brando ­– famously showed up massively overweight, forcing continuous mid-shoot rewrites. The other star, Harvey Keitel, had to be recast with Martin Sheen, who would proceed to have a heart attack during the shoot.

In the end, a 14-week shoot for a $12 million war movie turned into a 14-month long shoot for a $31 million war debacle. It only seems fitting the "Heart of Darkness" influenced film, meant to be a look into the craziness and insanity hiding within man and war, ending up making its cast and crew go crazy as well (there's even a documentary about the production that's almost as fascinating as the actual movie).

As we know now, though, the insanity was worth it. "Apocalypse Now" is now deservedly known as one of the best war movies ever made, as well as one of the most iconic. Even the things that went wrong ended up going right, such as the shadowy lengths to hide Brando's massive weight gain that ended up making him a more memorable and hypnotically terrifying villain. It's a great war movie and possibly an even better cautionary tale for future filmmakers.

"Jaws"

Spielberg's water-logged game-changer is yet another classic Hollywood lesson in stuff going wrong in all of the right ways. The then-novice director was working with a script that was constantly getting rewritten while they were shooting, Richard Dreyfuss was terrified by the often-drunk Robert Shaw and Spielberg wasn't all that impressed when he first heard John Williams's now iconic score. Boats sank and, of course, the shark didn't work.

Much like "Apocalypse Now," however, the problems are what made it great. Thanks to its constant malfunctioning, the shark had to be hidden for much of the film, making it the tense blockbuster it is today instead of a dopey, fake-looking killer shark movie (you know, like its sequels). The always-changing script also allowed for inspired improvisation, such as Roy Scheider's famous line, "we're gonna need a bigger boat."

The production may have gone over budget and way over schedule, but considering the end result became a monstrous hit and changed the Hollywood summer blockbuster forever, I think the studio will take it.

"Titanic"

Nowadays, we know "Titanic" as the massive record-breaking blockbuster that won a ton of Oscars, launched the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and catapulted James Cameron's ego to the moon and back. Before it made $658 million in America alone, however, the film was expected to be as big of a disaster as its titular ship.

Cameron went mad with the production details, causing the budget to grow to $200 million, a record at the time. It didn't help that Cameron was notoriously difficult to work with, being boisterously demanding and forcing his actors to spend long shoots in freezing water. A crew member would eventually get his revenge by spiking some soup with PCP, sending Cameron and others to the hospital.

The director obviously got the last laugh. Even if you scoff at the romance and script, you can't say the final act is anything less than impressive, a technical feat that's still remarkable. It further cemented his legacy as one of the biggest, boldest blockbuster directors of modern cinema. He still learned his lesson though, scaling back for … oh wait, his next film was the $237 million sci-fi epic "Avatar."

"The Bourne Identity"

It's hard to imagine that a fairly unassuming spy thriller like "The Bourne Identity" could have been such a disaster to make. But before the Bourne series became one of the better action trilogies of the past decade, it was predicted to be one of the decade's biggest disasters.

The script was being constantly rewritten, but that's nothing new at this point. What is new is that director Doug Liman, making his big budget debut, continually fought with Universal over certain scenes and reshoots. It got to the point that a Wall Street Journal expose – damningly released a few weeks before the film's release – stated Matt Damon essentially served as the messenger between the warring parties.

Thank the heavens for Damon, then, as "The Bourne Identity" ended up being a slick, entertaining hit. New director Paul Greengrass would then evolve the series in the next two films with his carefully crafted shaky-cam chaos, inspiring seemingly countless copycats. So maybe we shouldn't be so thankful.

"Aguirre: The Wrath of God"

Put simply, acclaimed director and documentarian Werner Herzog is insane. This is a man who got shot during an interview … and kept going with the interview. This is a man who made a bet with a fellow filmmaker that involved eating his own shoe. So when a crazy, intense director like Herzog teams up with an equally crazy, intense actor like the steely-eyed Klaus Kinski, you can be sure a whole lot of crazy is going down.

Their first collaboration, "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," is yet another "Heart of Darkness"-themed saga whose obsession with insanity stretched into the production. At one point, Kinski fired a gun into an occupied tent, which luckily only took off the tip of an extra's finger. Another crew person was hit on the head with Kinski's sword, which would have been a lethal blow if it wasn't for the crew member's helmet. Later, when Kinski tried to leave the project (probably to the extras' delight), Herzog reportedly threatened to shoot him.

Obviously the two were a match made in heaven, so they made four more films together, including "Fitzcarraldo," a fascinating movie about an insane man trying to get a steamship over a hill. And Herzog being Herzog, he actually made it by having extras try to pull a steamship over a hill. Take that, CG artists; none of your computers can match Herzog's crazy.

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