With the inflation of budgets and egos in the movie business, seeing Hollywood hubris punished on an epic scale has become a spectator sport. Last month, Disney wrote off a $200-million loss as its sci-fi blockbuster John Carter became the biggest box-office flop of all time. Yet the shoot was not calamitous and the reviews weren’t terrible; the movie was just grossly misconceived and badly marketed. Apocalypse on the Set is about nine movies that turned into epic train wrecks as the cameras rolled, tales of disaster that often eclipsed the drama onscreen. Most notorious is Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), a 5½-hour western memorable only for its title, which became Hollywood’s generic phrase for catastrophic failure. Spending three times his budget and burning through 1.5 million feet of film, Cimino bankrupted United Artists, the studio created by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919. And critics were merciless. “The film fails so completely,” wrote Vincent Canby, “that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.”
Taylor also revisits a couple of ghoulish accidents: Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow from a bullet that wasn’t a blank, and the helicopter crash that killed actor Vic Morrow and two young children in Twilight Zone: The Movie. But some disasters are pure follies. Crazed directors include Francis Ford Coppola, who loses his grip on Apocalypse Now,and Werner Herzog, who hauls a steamboat over an Amazon mountain for Fitzcaraldo. Directors seem to go batty in the jungle. Or in the deep—James Cameron subjects his cast to water torture in The Abyss and Kevin Costner sees his career and marriage float away in Waterworld.
But for sheer insanity, no one rivals the late North Korean dictator and mogul Kim Jong Il, who abducted Seoul director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun- hee. He imprisoned them separately for four years, each unaware of the other’s fate, before dramatically reuniting the couple and putting them to work making movies. And they call Cameron a tyrant.