Cinema exists, much of the time, to help us escape the real world. But the real world behind the scenes of film production can be as strange, violent, or disgusting as anything on the screen.
10An ‘Alcoholic’ Who Is Allergic To Alcohol?
In Bruce Robinson’s British classic Withnail & I, Richard E. Grant plays Withnail, a pseudointellectual, unemployed, alcoholic actor who visits the countryside to escape the madness of the city. He and fellow lunatic and failing actor-pal Marwood vacate the sordid apartment they share, leaving insane drug dealers, violent Irishmen, and homegrown filth behind—all while in an alcohol-induced daze.
Before filming Withnail & I, Richard E. Grant had never touched alcohol before—purely because he was physically intolerant to the stuff from an enzyme deficiency. So, how do you ensure that a strictly teetotal actor will deliver the perfect performance as an alcoholic? You get him drunk to the point of passing out for the day.
Bruce Robinson felt that for Grant to portray cowardly alcoholic Withnail, he needed to be severely intoxicated—at least once. So, over the course of one evening, Grant drank an entire bottle of champagne and half of a bottle of vodka. He spent the next day passed out and feeling terribly ill.
9Michael Cera And The Doors Of Perception
When Michael Cera isn’t playing that awkward kid who wants to share lo-fi band mixtapes with the girl he loves, he can be found slowly suffocating in a tent as part of a ritualistic ceremony with Chilean natives or tripping out on mescaline with the cast of his latest movie.
In Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus, Michael Cera does just that. He plays Jamie, the leader of a group of friends who are roaming the deserts of Chile in search of the famed hallucinogen mescaline. Upon finding the magical cactus, the group ingests the sap and trips out for our amusement.
According to Cera and the film’s director, Sebastian Silva, the mescaline used in the movie was no mere prop. To be as authentic as possible, the actors didn’t have to worry about simulating taking the substance—otherwise known as acting—because the scene involved was accomplished by recording the cast taking part in a real mescaline trip.
8The Abyss Is Darker Than You’d Expect
James Cameron isn’t the kind of director to shy away from a monstrous task, either through fear, laziness, or anything else. Evidence of this is in The Abyss—a movie so difficult on the cast and crew that they referred to it as The Abuse.
Sessions on set ran 15–18 hours per day, with many cast members spending up to five hours underwater at a stretch. Cameron commissioned an underwater station to fuel up on oxygen and save time while filming. The pH levels in the tank were off, so Cameron suffered hair loss and skin burns.
During breaks, the cast would emerge from the tank, shaking and struggling to readjust to being back on solid ground. Once out of the water, they would immediately climb into plastic hot tubs to warm themselves up, but this only led to ear and sinus infections.
After all was said and done, The Abyss hit theatres and was a blockbuster. But whether James Cameron believes the success was worth almost dying for is a different question altogether.
7John Waters Aims To Shock
Film director (and noted connoisseur of bad taste) John Waters has never been one to shy away from controversy—or mind-bending insanity. One example of this occurred on the set of his surreal comedy Pink Flamingos.
In this masterpiece of madness, longtime collaborator and “Drag Queen of the Century” Divine starred in a particularly jarring scene in which her character eats a dog turd. Of course, this being a John Waters film, and Divine being willing to pave the way for disgustingly outrageous gross-out acts to come, the feces consumed was real, fresh, and most likely still very warm.
To this day, Divine remains a drag legend, and John Waters’s Pink Flamingos has become something of a cult classic. Audience members sometimes vomit during the feces sequence. To Waters, that’s as good as a standing ovation.
6Poltergeist Really Did Disturb The Dead (Because It Was Cheaper)
The Poltergeist script is based around the many terrible things that could happen if you toy with the peace and sanctity of death. During production, filmmakers missed the point and decided to toy with the peace and sanctity of death.
During the infamous swimming pool scene, Jobeth Williams is thrown into a muddy death-hole and barraged with several skeleton corpses. The Poltergeist production team saw fit to preserve the film budget and use actual human skeletons rather than shell out the cash for seemingly authentic props.
Jobeth Williams didn’t know she was practicing the breaststroke with dead folk until the scene had been shot. When Steven Spielberg broke the news of this afterward, she didn’t seem to mind. She was just happy that she hadn’t been electrocuted.
5Daniel Day-Lewis Risks His Life For Authenticity
Daniel Day-Lewis takes method acting seriously. When he portrayed wheelchair-bound Christy Brown in My Left Foot, he damaged his ribs and was spoon-fed by crew members. When he played Gerry Conlon in In The Name of the Father, he suffered intense interrogation from real policemen and lost 14 kilograms (30 lb) living on prison rations. The man’s commitment is well known, but on the set of Gangs of New York, he took things a bit too far.
Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and everybody else on set wrapped themselves in thick coats between scenes. Daniel Day-Lewis refused to. He said that the type of coat provided hadn’t existed in the 1800s, when the film was set. So, after a long time treading cold weather in a skimpy coat of 19th-century design, Day-Lewis contracted pneumonia and was soon treading on the cusp of death.
After a slow recovery, Day-Lewis was able to continue fighting random strangers in the beautiful city of Rome where filming was taking place. He was nominated, once again, for an Oscar for his turn as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.
4Apocalypse Now Was A Nightmare From Start To Finish
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now remains the stuff of legend—a nightmare through and through.
It all began when Coppola opted to shoot in the actual jungle of the Philippines rather than on a soundstage. Many problems arose from this decision. Rogue tigers prowled around the set. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos stole helicopters from the shoot. Severe weather conditions destroyed many costly sets. Coppola also rolled the cameras on the ritualistic slaying of a water buffalo, slaughtered on-set with a machete. This didn’t sit well with the AHA or the RSPCA, leading protests from animal rights activists in the UK.
On top of all of this, an elusive Marlon Brando appeared on set completely unprepared—and completely overweight—refusing to deliver the performance his director wanted. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack at the age of 36, Francis Ford Coppola had a mental breakdown midway through production, and even after production ended, millions of feet of editing problems delayed the release.
Apocalypse Now was most certainly at the heart of darkness.
3Alfred Hitchcock Was A Sadist
Alfred Hitchcock earned the title “The Master of Suspense” by being one of the creepiest, darkest, most unflinching directors of all time. His 1963 film The Birds was a fine example of his suspenseful horror, but behind the scenes, another form of horror was taking place.
Alfred Hitchcock had become fixated with Tippi Hedren. After plucking her from a television commercial and giving her a starring role, Hitchcock’s fixation approached the point of obsession—which only made him more deviant when Hedren rejected his advances. When she asked to be released from her contract, Hitchcock famously threatened to ruin her career as an actress and control every aspect of her life through the power that he had gained in Hollywood.
During her worst period of work on The Birds, Hedren was promised that the penultimate scene of the movie would feature mechanical birds, and the attack would last only briefly. But when she arrived at the studio, cages of ravens, gulls, starlings, and pigeons were released—some chained to her and others hurled her way. They pecked her viciously until she bled.
Frantic and hysterical, she was escorted from the studio to a doctor. Only to reshoot the same scene over and over—for five days straight.
2Sam Peckinpah Doesn’t Care Much For Animals
Sam Peckinpah is probably best known as the director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs—two completely different films, loved and remembered for very different reasons. But it was during the making of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid that he set himself on a path of being reviled for a lack of compassion.
In an early scene of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, we see an image of several live chickens buried up to their necks in soil. The camera pans, giving us a few moments to ponder whether the birds are real. The chickens are then shot with rifles—all in glorious slow-motion, of course.
The chickens were indeed real. After being buried live in the dirt, they remained still, terrified and unable to breathe properly. Sam Peckinpah wandered along chicken death row and doused their heads in lighter fluid, searing their eyes and putting them into a panic. Then, once they looked alive again, the rifles were loaded and the cameras rolled. Both the scene and the chickens were shot.
1Everything Werner Herzog Has Ever Been A Part Of
Werner Herzog is one of the most well-known and revered directors of our time. Whether making movies, documentaries, or short films involving eating his own shoe, it seems as though literally everything Herzog does is worthy of talking about.
On the set of Even Dwarfs Started Small, one of the dwarfs was run over by a driverless car and sustained minor injuries. Later on during filming, the same dwarf accidentally set himself on fire. After these two incidents, Herzog promised to jump into a cactus at the end of filming if the dwarfs would be more careful of themselves and the equipment around them. They were, and he did.
In 1976, a large volcano on an island of the coast Guadeloupe was set to erupt. The entire island was evacuated. Werner Herzog visited the volcano in all its sulfuric glory and filmed the documentary La Soufriere, almost as if testing fate. When he arrived, he found his focus in the form of an old man who refused to leave and sat on the slope of the volcano. Herzog filmed a 30-minute feature on the old man’s perception of death, and he left the island unscathed.
Herzog’s real-life antics are as memorable as his cinematic ventures. In January 2014, Herzog saved the life of Oscar-nominated madman Joaquin Phoenix, by pulling him from an overturned car on a Los Angeles roadside. In a UK interview with Mark Kermode, Herzog was famously shot in the stomach with an air rifle. Though bleeding, he continued on with the interview, claiming that it “wasn’t a real bullet” and that there was “no need to worry.”