Movie-making is a chaotic sort of alchemy. You don't know what you're going to end up with until you're done, and maybe not even then. Still, it can be shocking to read about the making of your favorite movie, and discover that people on set had zero respect. Here are nine beloved films that people making them thought were a joke.
Many of the stories in this list have a few things in common: younger, inexperienced directors; somewhat obnoxious producers or studio people; veteran actors who were too old for this shit; and British crew. It's good to remember stories like this, so you can remember that it really is a miracle when a movie doesn't blow chunks, and you can't always tell halfway through.
1) Superman: The Movie:
Both director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind have told this story at various times, but Donner's version seems the most coherent. When Marlon Brando was cast in this film, at an almost unimaginable cost, he announced that he thought Jor-El should be an animated character, with Brando providing a voiceover only. Brando suggested that since Kryptonians are aliens, nobody really knows what they look like — so maybe the Kryptonians are all "green suitcases." But then Brando came up with a better idea: Jor-El could be a green bagel, floating in mid-air — and this would be what makes him different from the other Kryptonians, who would all be suitcases. The opening scenes of the destruction of Krypton would have been pretty interesting if Brando had gotten his way. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, thought nobody would take him seriously as an actor after playing Lex Luthor. (There's also the fact that the producers were apparently scheming to fire Donner the whole time he was directing this film.)
John McTiernan hadn't directed a big studio picture before he was given the reins of this "Rocky Vs. E.T." movie, and it was a difficult shoot. American camera operators didn't know how to shoot action in the dynamic way that McTiernan wanted, the original Predator suit (originally occupied by a constantly complaining Jean-Claude Van Damme) looked awful, and the monkey in the red suit wouldn't play ball. (The monkey was standing in for the Predator during some scenes when it was invisible.) Carl Weathers remembers seeing McTiernan constantly sitting with his head in his hands, wondering "What the hell have I gotten myself into?" But most of all, the producers didn't have much faith in McTiernan — so they made him hire Shane Black (who just directed Iron Man 3) to play Hawkins, the guy who keeps making pussy jokes. Black had just written Lethal Weapon, and was there in case they needed a last-minute script rewrite.
As with Predator, this was David Cronenberg's first big picture. And production really was kind of a nightmare, since it was rushed into production early to take advantage of tax credits, and Cronenberg was writing the script in the middle of filming. By all accounts, star Jennifer O'Neill did not realize they were making a horror movie, and kept yelling at Cronenberg to take out all those exploding heads. But also, The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan was constantly drinking on the set and openly lacked confidence in the film they were making. By some accounts, McGoohan made several attempts to wrest control over the project away from Cronenberg entirely. By Cronenberg’s account, McGoohan just didn’t know the Canadian director and lacked confidence in him.
4. Star Wars
Read any book about the making of the original Star Wars, and you'll be heartbroken at the way some of the crew, especially at Shepperton Studios, treated George Lucas. He was making this film at a time when science fiction movies were cheap and terrible, for the most part, and the crew were disrespectful towards the space-opera auteur. (He also tried to make them work longer hours than strict British union rules would allow, and messed with their lighting set-ups.) The crew would go to the pub and openly disparage Lucas, but worst of all Lucas lost cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (who'd worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey) and was instead stuck with Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, The Omen) who had very traditional ways of doing things and could be heard loudly announcing on set that Lucas was an amateur. But then there's also the fact that Obi-Wan actor Alec Guinness thought the movie was "fairy-tale rubbish" and he was having to recite "rubbish dialogue" every day.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean
Disney executives on set were frantically phoning their office about Johnny Depp's off-kilter performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates movie. To the point where Depp came close to being fired a few times, except that producer Jerry Bruckheimer protected him. As Depp explains to Vanity Fair: “They couldn’t stand him. They just couldn’t stand him,” Depp says of Disney’s reaction to his controversial interpretation of Sparrow. “I think it was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, who was quoted as saying, ‘He’s ruining the movie.’ Depp reveals to Smith, however, that he remained unfazed by the studio’s hysteria. “Upper-echelon Disney-ites, going, What’s wrong with him? Is he, you know, like some kind of weird simpleton? Is he drunk? By the way, is he gay?… And so I actually told this woman who was the Disney-ite… ‘But didn’t you know that all my characters are gay?’ Which really made her nervous.”
James Cameron had directed Terminator by the time he took on the sequel to Ridley Scott's famous space-horror classic. But he was still a relative newbie, and Aliens was a big, complicated shoot. But also, British crewmembers. They wanted to be done by 5 PM and hit the pub every day, and Cameron wanted to work until everybody passed out. In Rebecca Keegan's must-read book about Cameron's film-making career, she details how the British crew thought Cameron hadn't earned his director gig by working his way up through the ranks and doing his time as a dolly grip or whatever. Worst of all, first assistant director Derek Cracknell openly tried to overthrow Cameron, according to producer Gale Ann Hurd: "Cracknell felt he was better qualified than Cameron to direct the film. “Jim would ask him to set up a shot one way and Derek would say, ‘Oh no no no, I know what you want,’” says Hurd. “Then he’d do it wrong and the whole set would have to be broken down.” Cracknell was seriously undermining Cameron and Hurd’s tenuous authority. The director of photography, Dick Bush, also wasn’t working out. And Cameron and Hurd were falling behind on their ambitious, 75-day shoot." It ended with the entire crew walking out, until Cameron pacified them.
This film was famously fraught with problems — including malfunctioning mechanical sharks. Spielberg had rejected two scripts, and wound up hiring writer Carl Gottlieb to write enough of the script every evening to have something to shoot the next day. Plus a lot of improvisation. But also, the crew openly started referring to it as "Flaws" on set, and Spielberg himself wanted to quit. He asked producer Sid Sheinberg, "Why are you making me do this B-movie?" But Sheinberg basically forced Spielberg to finish the film, with amazing results.
8. Blade Runner
This was an incredibly difficult shoot, in which Ridley Scott did tons of night filming. And there were huge tensions between Harrison Ford and Scott from the beginning — when Ford had his head almost shaved to play Decker, Scott insisted on overseeing the haircut personally, which led to it taking four hours. The technicians working on the film were all also in pretty much open revolt against Scott — the set divided into pro-Scott and pro-Ford factions, with all the technicians on Ford's side. People wore anti-Scott T-shirts on set. And meanwhile, Philip K. Dick, who wrote one gushy letter about how well Blade Runner captured his work, was openly derisive on set — telling people he had fantasies about leaping across the set and strangling Ford, while yelling, "You're destroying my work!" By the time they were forced to add the notorious narration, almost everybody involved hated this movie.
9. Transformers: The Movie
This animated movie based on the classic Transformers cartoons is beloved of fans and regarded by many people as superior to Michael Bay's trilogy (soon to be tetralogy.) And it boasts an amazing cast, including Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy and Eric Idle — all of whom were pretty much openly derisive of this film, which they thought was a total joke. In his book The Greedy Bastard Diary, Idle refers to this film as "a Japanese animated movie" for which they "offered me tons of money" to fly to America and record dialogue as Wreck-Gar — but then they "tortured" him by making him do this one line of dialogue that Idle thought was total nonsense, over and over again. Meanwhile, Orson Welles was in declining health during the recording sessions and died soon afterwards — and apparently thought this kids' cartoon was kind of ridiculous.
Additional reporting by Amanda Yesilbas and Katharine Trendacosta.