Loony Directors, Phenomenal Flops: Longform.org's Guide to the Craziest Movie-Making Stories of All Time

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Nov. 19 2011 7:15 AM

The Longform.org Guide to the Making of Movies

Five amazing magazine stories about the film industry, from loony directors to phenomenal flops.

Still of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather, the making of which involved heated disagreements between Francis Ford Coppola and the producers

© 1972 Paramount Pictures.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

This was not an easy list to make. Movie sets often make for great—and embarrassing, and tragic, and completely bonkers—stories. We’ve got dozens of reads about Hollywood and filmmaking in our movies archive, but here are five our favorites, spanning nearly a half-century of Hollywood delights and debacles.

Truman Capote • New Yorker • November 1957

A profile of Marlon Brando, age 33, holed up in a hotel suite in Kyoto where he was filming Sayonara:

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“My guide tapped at Brando's door, shrieked ’Marron!,’ and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet. The door was opened by another doll-delicate Miyako maid, who at once succumbed to her own fit of quaint hysteria. From an inner room, Brando called, ’What is it, honey?’ But the girl, her eyes squeezed shut with mirth and her fat little hands jammed into her mouth, like a bawling baby's, was incapable of reply. ’Hey, honey, what is it?’ Brando again inquired, and appeared in the doorway. ’Oh, hi,’ he said when he saw me. ’It's seven, huh?’ We'd made a seven-o'clock date for dinner; I was nearly twenty minutes late. ’Well, take off your shoes and come on in. I'm just finishing up here. And, hey, honey,’ he told the maid, ’bring us some ice.’ Then, looking after the girl as she scurried off, he cocked his hands on his hips and, grinning, declared, ’They kill me. They really kill me. The kids, too. Don't you think they're wonderful, don't you love them—Japanese kids?’

Michael Idov • GQ • November 2011

Inside the five-year (and counting) production of the Ilya Khrzhanovsky film Dau:

"Khrzhanovsky came up with the idea of the Institute not long after preproduction on Dau began in 2006. He wanted a space where he could elicit the needed emotions from his cast in controlled conditions, twenty-four hours a day. The set would be a panopticon. Microphones would hide in lighting fixtures (as they would in many a lamp in Stalin’s USSR), allowing Khrzhanovsky to shoot with multiple film cameras from practically anywhere — through windows, skylights, and two-way mirrors.

“The Institute’s ostensible goal was to re-create ’50s and ’60s Moscow, home to Dau‘s subject, Lev Landau. A Nobel Prize–winning physicist, Landau significantly advanced quantum mechanics with his theories of diamagnetism, superfluidity, and superconductivity. He also tapped epic amounts of ass."

Peter Biskind • Vanity Fair • February 2010

How Warren Beatty seduced the studios into making the comedy Ishtar, which set the modern bar for cinematic debacles:

"One saga instantly became the stuff of Hollywood legend: the hunt for the blind camel, called for in May’s script. Actually, the hunt was for a blue-eyed camel that would register blind on film. (Or blue-eyed camels—the producers figured they needed four, in case one broke a leg.) The first stop was the camel market in Marrakech, where the animal trainer, Corky Randall, and his assistant found just the right camel, for about $700. But being shrewd traders, they didn’t want to buy the first camel they stumbled on—they thought they could do better. So they told the camel trader, ‘Thanks a lot, we’ll get back to you.’ But, as it turned out, blue-eyed camels were a rarity. None of the subsequent camels Randall came across measured up to the first. As was reported at the time in New York magazine, ‘The humps would be too large or too small. The facial hair would be beige or brown. It was always something.’ Finally, the trainers gave up and went back to the first dealership to buy the perfect camel. ‘Remember us? We’d like to buy that camel of yours that we looked at the other day.’ ‘Sorry,” the dealer replied. ‘We ate it.’ "

John Bloom • Texas Monthly • November 2004

In Austin in 1973, politicos and hippies could get together and create violent, visionary horror films for $60,000. So they did. The story of how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got made:

"And all these years later, almost everyone involved feels permanently changed or, in some cases, permanently scarred by the film. At least one actor—Ed Neal, who played the ‘hitchhiker’—can’t speak about it without becoming enraged. Robert Kuhn, a trial lawyer who invested in the film, would waste years fighting for the profits that should have poured into Austin but were instead siphoned off by a distribution company. Marilyn Burns, the strikingly beautiful actress who became the prototype for the ‘final girl’ in horror films, never realized her great promise, partly because the film was a ‘résumé-killer.’ Gunnar Hansen, the three-hundred-pound Icelandic American who played Leatherface—the chain-saw-wielding maniac who inspired Jason and Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger—has spent the rest of his life trying to stake out another identity. ‘I’m happy I did it,’ he says, ‘but they’ll probably put ‘Gunnar Hansen. He was Leatherface’ on my gravestone.’ And Hooper continues to fight, now thirty years after the film’s release, against the stereotype of being ‘just a horror director,’ while Chainsaw’s screenwriter, Kim Henkel, became so frustrated with his subsequent ‘multipicture’ Hollywood deal that he moved back to Port Aransas in the early eighties, where he’s remained ever since as a part-time university film teacher in Corpus Christi. Only the late Warren Skaaren, the first director of the Texas Film Commission, who would become one of the highest-paid rewrite men in Hollywood, and Ron Bozman, the film’s production manager, who would accept the 1991 Academy award for best picture as one of the producers of The Silence of the Lambs, ascended to the pinnacle of their profession. Still, even Bozman says that Chainsaw was the greater thrill. ‘It was by far the more intense experience. Nothing compares to it for density of experience. It was just such a wild ride.’"

Mark Seal • Vanity Fair • March 2009

The battle to make The Godfather pitted director Francis Ford Coppola against producers including Robert Evans, and the production itself against the real-life mob:

“But as word spread that The Godfather was being developed into a major motion picture, one Mafia boss rose up in defiance. While most mobsters shunned the spotlight, Joseph Colombo Sr., the short, dapper, media-savvy head at 48 of one of New York’s Five Families, brazenly stepped into it. After the F.B.I. took what he considered to be an excessive interest in his activities—which included loan-sharking, jewel heists, income-tax evasion, and control of a $10-million-a-year interstate gambling operation—he turned the tables on the bureau, charging it with harassment not only of him and his family but also of all Italian-Americans. In an outrageously bold move, he helped create the Italian-American Civil Rights League, claiming that the F.B.I.’s pursuit of the Mob was in fact persecution and a violation of civil rights. A top priority of the league’s was to eradicate ’Mafia’ from the English language, since Colombo contended that it had been turned into a one-word smear campaign. ‘Mafia? What is Mafia?’ he asked a reporter in 1970. ‘There is not a Mafia. Am I the head of a family? Yes. My wife, and four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.’

“What began with the picketing of F.B.I. offices on March 30, 1970, soon grew into a crusade with a membership of 45,000 and a $1 million war chest. An estimated quarter of a million people showed up at the league’s inaugural rally in New York City in order to put the feds and everyone else on notice. ‘Those who go against the league will feel [God’s] sting,’ said Colombo.

“The film The Godfather quickly became the league’s No. 1 enemy."

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