Filmmaking is a risky endeavour. In your mind, there’s an awesome final product that your brain got busy creating, and it’s going to take loads of other people getting creative for your vision to work -sort of. Woody Allen is famous for being disappointed in his final films because he falls short of realising his grand vision (except for a few). Allen is, however, a filmmaker reputed for his smooth shoots and his low-key style of directing. Many other directors have encountered obstacles of biblical size in order to achieve their vision.
I’m not a big fan of people, in general. However, a film set will need to have a ton of them to help around and work on the shoot -especially on a high budget. A director will have to make sure not to run afoul of their team. That may seem like an obvious thing to state, but human beings are sensitive creatures and should be handled with care. Ridley Scott learned that the hard way on Blade Runner: Hot off the heels of making Alien in England, he found the Hollywood shoot starkly different to the point that he had a hard time getting used to the different methods of working. He even went so far as to complain in a press interview, much to the discontent of his team. Oops.
Some directors, perhaps most, probably the best ones, are insufferable. Kubrick was being exacting to work with: The Shining was extremely taxing on actress Shelley Duvall. Warren Beatty, a stellar talent if there ever was one, famously insisted on multiple takes (tens of them) while making his classic feature Reds, and would shoot his actors to exhaustion. What does that mean for a film shoot? Delays. Going over schedule. Going over budget. And failing to do the necessary compromises between art and business, best expressed by James Cameron (the man who would shoot 70 hours per week in an abandoned nuclear power plant for The Abyss, or yell at his actors while they were freezing in a cold water tank):
“Filmmaking is war. A great battle between business and aesthetics.”
Yes shooting on location brings an indisputable authenticity to a shoot, and avoids the cost of building large sets. However, that means taking the risk of everything not being perfect -in the best of circumstances. Most usually, it’s taking the risk of all hell breaking loose: The Revenant even had unbearable (sorry, bad joke, had to do it) conditions. Sure, by deciding to shoot in exteriors, Alejandro Iñarritu knew he would face tough conditions while also gaining the gorgeousness of natural light, but that meant that Leonardo DiCaprio had to shoot scenes by -40°C. The film encountered noticeable delays but kept being bankrolled. At least Leo won an Oscar for his performance. Francis Ford Coppola went through typhoons among many other things (see below) during the making of Apocalypse Now and created a classic and lost the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to Kramer vs. Kramer (a fine film nonetheless).
Sometimes, there’s not much you can do about that, but it’s still a major thorn in your side when health problems kick in. Such as, you ask? Where do we begin! The Wizard of Oz, the mother of all nightmare productions: amidst a script that wouldn’t get written and directors that kept changing, an actress being burned, a dog that became a liability (but he’s cute), the first actor cast to play the Tin Man developed severe allergies to his make-up and costume and had to be recast. Mentioning Apocalypse Now: actor Martin Sheen suffered a stroke through the shoot. What to do? If they let anyone outside of the set know, the shoot was going to be under intense outside pressure, and Martin Sheen would have likely not been able to get hired afterwards. So they kept it a secret, rearranged a schedule but encountered more delays (on top of the occasional typhoon).
Production hell is about all of the above, and so much more. It’s also about insanity. Development hell is when a script doesn’t get finished, no one gets attached to the project, or people can’t work together, or people work but people drop out… And all that is before a single frame is even shot! Hollywood classic Cleopatra cost a then-unprecedented $44 million from a planned $2 million. What happened? Elizabeth Taylor got $1 million, outstanding sets were built in London but never used before the production relocated to Rome. That’s a start. Terry Gilliam could tell stories about this, as his famous project Don Quixote has been in production hell for decades. However, there’s a silver lining as the master is now in production again. Let’s hope he gets insurance.