“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Anyone who has ever worked on a movie knows Murphy’s Law to be true. Anyone who has ever worked on a Hollywood blockbuster knows this doubly so. Even Brad Pitt. World War Z arrives this weekend after a reportedly disastrous production. A June 2013 Vanity Fair feature put it all on the table: What began as a promising zombie tentpole (Ain’t It Cool News called an early version of the script by J. Michael Straczynski a “genre-defining piece of work”) barely made it to theaters in one piece. Rewrites, reshoots, on-set quarrels, and the seizure of gun props by a Hungarian anti-terrorist squad were just a few of the hurdles World War Z faced while in production. Intensifying the problematic shoot was the scrutiny of prospective audiences. Each misstep became a news item, adding more to the already deafening cries of disaster. Even as the film opens, director Marc Forster is busier playing cleanup than discussing the merits of the movie. On Friday, he took to Deadline to refute rumors of his on-set tension with Pitt and explain the ever-changing script.
For every Cleopatra, which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox in 1963, or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a movie that was equally lethal for United Artists in 1980, there is a Jaws (and its constantly malfunctioning shark) or a Star Wars (Tunisian weather and a faithless crew) or an Apocalypse Now (the wild demands of Francis Ford Coppola). The mythologizing of their hellish productions are washed away by what they deliver. Woes become distant memories to critics and audiences, turning them into success stories.
Will World War Z prevail? The modern movie era has seen mixed results:
The Bad Buzz: Throughout its 1994 shoot, whispers of escalating costs and feuding between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) made their way off the set. A report from the L.A. Times described the shoot as “‘extremely difficult,’ ‘chaotic’ and ‘out of control,’” while budget numbers suggested that Waterworld “could end up costing more than any movie ever made.”
The Results: Reviews of Waterworld couldn’t help but reference the controversy. After poking fun at the film’s budget issues (“In the old days in Hollywood, they used to brag about how much a movie cost. Now they apologize.”), Roger Ebert called the movie “decent.” With a final cost of around $175 million, Waterworld walked out of theaters with $88.2 million domestic gross, and worldwide totals/home video helped the film eventually turn a profit. None of Costner’s later lead roles would eclipse Waterworld’s box office.
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996)
The Bad Buzz: There was a time when Val Kilmer was making $6 million a movie. There was also a time when Kilmer’s on-set antics were perfect tabloid fodder. Early word on The Island of Doctor Moreau suggested a movie in a constant state of chaos, all a result of Kilmer’s behavior. In an Entertainment Weekly report published four months prior to release, director Richard Stanley (who spent four years developing the script only to be fired three days into the shoot) recalled, ”Val would arrive, and an argument would happen.” Stanley’s replacement, John Frankenheimer, was blunter: “I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again.” By the time Marlon Brando arrived on set to shoot his co-starring role, the movie had spiraled so far downward that no one refused him when he asked to spend one scene wearing a bucket on his head.
The Results: Doctor Moreau grossed just above $27.6 million — a paltry total for a Kilmer vehicle at the time. Variety suggested that wouldn’t “be seen in its full glory until it turns up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.” That eventually happened, courtesy of RiffTrax.
The Bad Buzz: How fitting that the largest bad-buzz-to-success story happened to come courtesy of history’s most famous shipwreck. Director James Cameron’s style on Titanic was to go big or go home, spending boatloads of money to perfect the sets, the costumes, and the special effects. After the movie came out, claims were made of Cameron’s sadistic working behavior, but the prerelease judgments all focused on the director’s inability to bring Titanic to port. Originally scheduled for summer 1997, the movie was delayed so Cameron could commit more time to the computer graphics. The budget hit an all-time high — a reported $200 million price tag. It was a disaster.
The Results: Or not. Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time, a four-quadrant beast that remained No. 1 at the box office until March of the following year. Teenagers across the globe fell head over heels in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, needing routine fixes of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” to survive. The movie wasn’t a success — it was a phenomenon. The movie sailed back to theaters in 2012 for a 3-D rerelease, just to ensure no one would ever displace its near top spot.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bad Buzz: A director the studio couldn’t work with. A script reworked on a daily basis. A star running interference to keep his character intact. An exposé revealing the mess of a production two months before it hits theaters. The Bourne Identity isn’t too far off from the World War Z affair. Director Doug Liman struggled with studio executives looking to inject the thoughtful thriller with more and more of their own time-tested ideas. Over-budget thanks to constant doubling back to scenes that had already been shot, the first Bourne was in big trouble. In The Wall Street Journal’s “A Movie ‘Bourne’ to Be Wild,” Matt Damon is described as the logical liaison between Liman and Universal Pictures — and the reason the movie was ever finished.
The Results: Bourne should leave World War Z skeptics with hope. The slick thriller earned $120 million at the domestic box office, high marks from critics, and a devoted fan base. Damon went on to star in two more Bourne films before handing the baton to Jeremy Renner.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
The Bad Buzz: Where were you the first time you heard Christian Bale exploding in a fit of rage on the set of Terminator Salvation? TMZ had released an initial report of Bale’s tantrum on the set of McG’s Terminator sequel and followed it up with an audio clip of the incident. Despite wooing eager fans with an adrenaline-fueled panel at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, the Bale controversy put Salvation under a microscope. Soon there were rumors — fuled by McG himself — that the movie was undergoing constant revisions over the course of the shoot. The finished film was sounding more and more like a patchwork quilt of Terminator references.
The Results: With mixed reviews and $125.3 million at the domestic box office, whether or not Terminator Salvation was a “success” remains unclear. The biggest indicator was the lack of movement on a sequel — a sure thing for today’s biggest hits. The film was supposed to act as the beginning of a new Terminator trilogy. Clearly that didn’t happen — the Halcyon Company, who backed the project, auctioned off the rights, sweeping Salvation under the rug.
The Wolfman (2010)
The Bad Buzz: One month out from the start of production on Benicio Del Toro’s long-gestating passion project, director Mark Romanek bolted, citing creative differences. While not uncommon, Universal averted a production delay by quickly filling Romanek’s role with The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. Dust settled and the shoot carried on as planned, but when the first footage arrived online, many speculated that planned practical effects designs for Del Toro’s makeup had been glossed over with CGI. Makeup guru Rick Baker fanned the flame. “I saw, on my last day at Pinewood [Studios], some of the work they were doing – and I wasn’t crazy about some of the direction it was going in,” he told MTV in July of 2008. Delayed from November 2008 to February 2009 to April 2009, Wolfman finally hit theaters in February of 2010.
The Results: With a let’s-just-get-this-dang-thing-into-theaters approach, The Wolfman came and went, grossing $61.5 million against its reportedly $150 million budget. In his review, generally amiable Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers noted that “The Wolfman bites, but not — I think — in the way the filmmakers intended.” Knowing The Wolfman wasn’t winning over audiences, Universal quickly put a reboot in motion, a film that eventually became the direct-to-DVD release Werewolf: The Beast Among Us.
The Bad Buzz: Everyone who was floored by Kenneth Lonergan’s debut film You Can Count on Me eagerly awaited his follow-up, Margaret. They waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And when someone finally looked into where the Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, and Matt Damon–starring film had gone, it was evident that the film was living out a cinematic nightmare. According to the L.A. Times, Lonergan started rolling cameras on Margaret in 2005, but when it arrived in the editing room, Lonergan was unable to deliver a version of his sprawling drama under the predetermined 150-minute limit. At various points over a six-year period, legends like Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin, and Martin Scorsese all stepped in to help Lonergan cut it down. Eventually, compromises were made, and the film was primed for release. Or burial — as it only trickled out into fourteen theaters at its peak.
The Results: Margaret was never going to make big money, but it certainly didn’t make successful indie money either. And like the behind-the-scenes battle, Margaret sparked a passionate debate after its release. Our own David Edelstein declared, “This is the first bad movie that has ever made me call for a sequel — to get it all right.” But against the wave of negative criticism came a passionate group that saw Lonergan’s sprawling drama as a misunderstood masterpiece. They took on a Twitter-friendly moniker: #TeamMargaret. The online championing was enough to push Fox to give the movie another chance. In July 2012, Lonergan was able to release a three-hour-and-six-minute version on DVD. The new cut turned heads. After revisiting the film, Edelstein went on to write that Margaret “in its extended form and only its extended form is as close to a masterpiece as any American movie in a decade.”