Troubled Productions: Are More Projects Experiencing Hiccups Than Ever Before?

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

On June 20th, 2017, five months into shooting Solo: A Star Wars Story and mere weeks away from wrapping production, Lucasfilm replaced Phil Lord and Chris Miller as directors on the project and hired acclaimed director Ron Howard to reshoot the majority of the movie.  This isn’t the only time in recent history when a director parted ways with a production he was involved in: Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after being attached to the project for almost a decade, Tim Miller didn’t return to direct this year’s Deadpool 2 despite having piloted the first film to massive success, and Zack Snyder was replaced by Joss Whedon on the extensive reshoots for Justice League.

It always seems some release date is being pushed back, some film is undergoing massive reshoots, or some director is getting fired.  So what’s going on? Have things always been this way and we are just hearing about it more now, or is something new driving a rift between studio executives and directors?

Troubled productions are hardly new to the film world.  Go back to any decade and you’ll find examples of behind-the-scenes drama well into productions.  Director George Cukor repeatedly clashed with producer (and friend) Richard O. Selznick over the direction of Gone with the Wind in 1939, and bad blood between Cukor and star Clark Gable eventually lead to Cukor’s dismissal from the production after almost three weeks of shooting.

Coincidentally, Cukor himself had come in to replace Richard Thorpe as director on The Wizard of Oz just the year before.  It would turn out that Cukor would be the second of four directors who ended up helming that film at different intervals and for varying reasons.  A revolving door of directors ended up being the least of the MGM’s problems, as poisonous aluminum body paint, fire injuries, and drunken cast members would plague the production.  All these issues made the companion film’s (Return to Oz) brief firing and re-hiring of its director Walter Murch 46 years later seem quaint by comparison.

Just as director clashes aren’t anything new to the film scene, neither are reshoots, which often are scheduled and budgeted during pre-production.  Often these reshoots are simply to pick up closeups and alternate takes, or even fix errors found in editing. Whole scenes may need to be added or cut after the editor sees how everything flows together in post-production.  It’s a normal part of filmmaking, but there are times when they are used to drastically alter a film in trouble. Famed director James Wan (The Conjuring, Aquaman) recently tweeted that all but one of his movies involved reshoots, sometimes adding in iconic elements we now associate specifically with those finished films.

One of the most famous examples of a film that was completely re-worked in reshoots is Superman II (1981).  Richard Donner shot Superman II simultaneously with Superman: The Movie, often shooting scenes for both films back-to-back on the same set to save time later.  When he had about 75% of Superman II in the can, he put all his focus on finishing the first film in time, planning on finishing the sequel later.  He never got the chance, as after Superman: The Movie, he was fired (or left voluntarily, depending on who you ask) and replaced by director Richard Lester.  Lester not only finished Superman II, but reshot the majority of the movie, resulting in a Frankenstein’s monster of a film that was part Donner footage stitched together with mostly Lester footage.

So if all these problems commonly arise in productions, and have been around for some time, why does it feel that they seem more prevalent now?  Well let’s look at one recent example I mentioned earlier: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Justice League was seen by many as a sort of last chance for the cinematic DC Extended Universe (DCEU) Warner Bros. has been trying to establish.  Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was in full swing, and fans of the DC comics were anxious to see their favorite heroes thrive on the big screen together.  Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice have proven to be divisive among audiences, with the following film, Suicide Squad, making even fewer people happy.  Wonder Woman last year was a major step up for the studio, but all eyes were on Justice League to pick up the slack the previous three films before had dropped.

Warner Bros were just as anxious for Justice League to succeed, and they played into that anticipation by releasing the first footage from the film almost a year and a half before its release date.  They opened the set up to press with almost no embargo, unleashing a flood of information on the hungry public.  Then Zack Snyder stepped down from the production in the wake of a family tragedy.  Then Joss Whedon (Avengers) took his place and reportedly reshot 15-20% of the movie.  Then a journalist reported that Zack Snyder didn’t leave Justice League of his own accord so much as he was pushed out.  Whether or not that rumor was true wasn’t as important as the fact that many were ready and willing to believe it based on the problems the film was facing so far.

By the time the film opened, its entire history was shrouded in speculation and negative buzz, with much of its impact being reduced to a punchline: a mustache digitally removed during Whedon’s reshoots.

I don’t think films today necessarily go through more issues than films made decades ago, I just think we hear about them more.  We absorb news through social media and websites. All it takes is a Facebook friend to share one article on why Zack Snyder was fired from a movie, and suddenly we have preconceived ideas about that entire movie.  As the internet continues to grow, the curtain hiding the magic of moviemaking falls. Less than a year after Justice League came out, Solo: A Star Wars Story is set to be released, and that film is facing similar problems behind the scenes, just as The Wizard of Oz was facing issues less than a year after Gone with the Wind was being shot.  Films don’t have more issues now than before, we’re just hearing about them quicker.

This fascination with, and exposure of, failure in an age of instant information isn’t necessarily a curse on the entertainment industry either.  Over the decades, as more fans became aware of Richard Donner’s missing footage from Superman II, the more they cried for his cut to be assembled.  In 2006, that’s exactly what they got. Due to popular demand, Richard Donner got to go back and put together the movie he always wanted to release, twenty years after he had shot it.

Less than a year after Justice League, fans of Zack Snyder’s vision are clamoring for him to assemble his cut of the film.  My guess is, if it will happen, it won’t take Warner Bros. another twenty years to get around to it.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

Image Credit: Solo: A Star Wars Story poster