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Movie mess: When things don't go as planned...Trouble on the Set

Updated on August 17, 2011

Trouble on the set...Time to improvise

Like any other job, things can go seriously awry on a movie set. But when you're dealing with a multi-million dollar budget, strict time constraints, demanding actors and nervous studio executives, film directors are sometimes called upon to make compromises or come up with solutions to a problem that changes the whole nature of the film. Sometimes circumstances force a director to sacrifice his original vision in order to get the film done. And sometimes these improvisations are improvements.

Here are five examples of a director having to improvise in order to get his film completed.

APOCALYPSE NOW: When director Francis Ford Coppola hired Marlon Brandon to play the insane Col. Kurtz in his Vietnam epic, he was assured by Brando and his agent that Brando was familiar with the book "Heart of Darkness", which Apocalypse Now was based on. Promises were made that Brando would show up for filming, with all his lines memorized, and that he'd lose weight. (Brando had gained a lot of weight but the character of Kurtz was supposed to be emaciated from his time living in the jungle.) However, when Brando showed up for filming on location, Coppola found out that Brando had never read "Heart of Darkness" nor had he studied the film script. Further, he hadn't lost any of the weight he promised to lose.

What did Coppola do? He read the book aloud to Brando, to familiarize him with it. Brando still had problems with the script and refused to read his lines as written, so Coppola allowed him to improvise. Much of Brando's dialogue in the film was improvised by Brando. As for the weight problem, Coppola only shot Brando in shadow or in close up, so his girth couldn't be seen. When a body-shot was needed, a body-double was used. Coppola managed to get his film done, despite the obstacles Brando put in his way.

THE ORIGINAL STAR WARS TRILOGY: George Lucas (Who directed the first film and wrote/produced all three) had a number of surprises thrown at him. For instance, Alec Guinness was supposed to have a major role in all three films but during the filming of the first installment, Guinness said he was fed up with the "ridiculous" and "silly" premise (He hated sci-fi in general.) He wanted to quit the franchise and ultimately, appeared only in extended cameos in the final two films, forcing Lucas to come up wth the character of Yoda to replace him. Also, Harrison Ford wasn't sure if he was going to return for the third film Return of the Jedi so Lucas had his character frozen in Empire Strikes Back. leaving his fate up-in-the-air until Ford made up his mind.

A SHOT IN THE DARK: Director Blake Edwards was filming an adaptation of the play, starring Walter Matthau as the detective. Edwards and the studio didn't like the dailies or how the film was generally proceeding. The jokes were falling flat. Unsure how to fix the mediocre film, Edwards put the project on hold and moved on to his next project, The Pink Panther. Peter Sellers appeared in that film, in a scene-stealing supporting-role as inept Inspector Clouseau. Edwards was so impressed by Sellers' hilarious performance as Clouseau that he had an epiphany. He had the script for A Shot in the Dark re-written to feature the character of Clouseau (Sellers) and made it a sequel to The Pink Panther. The idea was a good one and A Shot in the Dark is considered the best of the "Pink Panther" films.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS: Director Terry Gilliam was thrown a big set-back during the filming of this movie when Heath ledger--who had a major role in the film--died halfway through filming. He still had a number of necessary scenes to film with Ledger's character Tony. So what did Gilliam do? He cleverly used an aspect of the film to solve the problem. Since the character has to enter the imaginary world of the "Imaginarium" where reality is altered, Gilliam decided that the character's appearance would change every time he entered the Imaginarium. Gilliam used three other famous actors--Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law--to fill in during those imaginary sequences.

CASABLANCA: Director Michael Curtiz was instructed to start filming Casablanca before the script was completed. The film was based on the play "Everyone Comes to Ricks" and the studio execs gave the project the Green-light on the basis of the stage script. The film ultimately went though 12 script drafts but due to time constraints, Curtiz had to start filming before the final version was done. He didn't get the final script until nearly a month into shooting. The writers stayed on the set throughout filming, continually making changes at the studios request. (For instance, the studio knew that the censors would never allow Ilsa to leave with Rick when she was married to Victor.) This created a problems not only for Curtiz but also for actress Ingrid Bergman because the end of the film kept changing. Various drafts had different conclusions to the love triangle of Rick/Ilsa/Victor.

Throughout most of the filming, Ingrid Bergman didn't know who her character Ilsa was supposed to be in love with, which made it hard to her to play her scenes. She kept asking Curtiz "Please tell me who I'm in love with!" He had to keep encouraging her to "Play it in between" and just do her best in the scene. Ultimately, Curtiz made the ambiguity work for him and the final result was great.

These are just a few examples of a director being thrown a curve and coming up with a solution.


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