'The Beach' Bombs: Looking Back on Leonardo DiCaprio's Famous Flop


Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach

After a behind-the-scenes battle that was detailed in a series of e-mails leaked to the public as part of the Sony hack last December, the Aaron Sorkin-written Steve Jobs biopic has started shooting in the Bay Area. Danny Boyle is directing the film, which stars Michael Fassbender as the revolutionary Apple cofounder and Seth Rogen as fellow wiz kid, Steve Wozniak. Prior to Fassbender’s casting, a revolving door of actors came and went from the film, including Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio. The Inception star was Boyle’s choice and it would have been an auspicious reunion: 15 years ago this February saw the release of DiCaprio and Boyle’s first and only collaboration on The Beach, a movie that was supposed to confirm them both as Hollywood superstars, but instead put their meteoric rise on temporary pause.

From the beginning, The Beach proved a tricky project to get off the ground. The movie started its life as a novel by British author Alex Garland, about Richard, a young backpacker who discovers a paradise on a remote beach in Thailand that slowly descends into hell. It caused a minor sensation when it hit shelves in 1996: The book is a terrific piece of writing, boasting a propulsive pace, an exotic location, a complex hero, and genuinely surprising twists. Boyle snapped up the film rights for his four-man creative team, which consisted of producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge and star Ewan McGregor — the same squad from the director’s first three films, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary.

Watch a trailer for The Beach:

The latter movie was Boyle’s first Hollywood venture and, unfortunately, his first significant flop. Perhaps because of that, he was more susceptible to the studio 20th Century Fox’s suggestion that he shake up his team a little when it came time to make The Beach. So McGregor wound up being dropped in favor of the then 26-year-old DiCaprio, in his first solo star turn after Titanic became a worldwide sensation.

To say the Scottish actor didn’t take the news well is an understatement: McGregor severed their friendship and declined to speak to Boyle for years. “It was very badly dealt with,” he told an interviewer in 2002. “The film was almost irrelevant; it was a friendship issue and all of those things.” Boyle later acknowledged this and apologized for his decision in a 2013 interview with Jonathan Ross, saying, “We didn’t treat him very well, I’ve got to be honest about it. We didn’t behave at our best. You learn and we’ve apologized.” (The duo’s reconciliation is a boon for Trainspotting fans: Boyle and McGregor have both discussed their plans to move ahead with a sequel, to potentially shoot in 2016 on the first movie’s 20th anniversary.)

DiCaprio and Danny Boyle of the set of The Beach

As it turned out, replacing McGregor with DiCaprio didn’t make The Beach easy for Boyle. With a big movie star came a bigger budget (reportedly in the $50 million range, more than double the cost of Boyle’s first three movies combined) and bigger expectations. Flush with Fox’s cash, Boyle set about trying to improve on the natural splendor of the film’s beach location, Thailand’s Maya Bay, flattening the dunes, uprooting the vegetation, and inspiring protests from local environmentalists. Hodge’s script also makes some significant departures from the novel — like tacking on a more upbeat ending and transforming Richard’s unrequited romance on the page into a requited romance onscreen — that feel like typical Hollywood concessions. In recent years, Boyle has openly admitted that the size of The Beach more or less doomed the movie from the start. As he told Moviefone in 2013, “The whole commerce of it — because it was a big movie and Leo [DiCaprio] was in it — that also adds a slight distance. It hasn’t got that heat in it.”

The Beach opened to largely indifferent reviews and disappointing box office on February 11, 2000, temporarily ending Boyle’s stint in Hollywood and sending him back to England. Still, the movie’s failure was probably a bigger blow to DiCaprio, who had the added pressure of trying to navigate his post-Titanic career. The Beach caught him at an awkward moment in his evolution as an actor; he still looked like a teen idol, but clearly aspired to more adult subject matter. It would take Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to get him over that hurdle in 2002, with Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can both testing DiCaprio in ways that made him a more versatile and daring actor, one better equipped to juggle spectacle-laden blockbusters (Inception, The Great Gatsby) with riskier fare (Django Unchained, The Wolf of Wall Street).

Virginie Ledoyen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Guillaume Canet

If DiCaprio grew as an actor in the wake of their collaboration, Boyle got back to basics. His next feature, 28 Days Later, was a complete rejection of The Beach’s super-sized production values — a lean, mean zombie thriller shot guerilla-style on the streets of London. (Proving there were no hard feelings about Boyle’s adaptation of his book, Garland wrote 28 Days Later, as well as the director’s 2007 outer space thriller Sunshine.) And in that Moviefone interview, Boyle credits The Beach’s failure as being one of the key reasons for the success of his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. “When we went to Thailand, we went about it as colonial filmmakers. We took, like, 200 crew [members] from London and when you do that…you arrive like a conquering army. When we came to do Slumdog I said, ‘Listen, we’re not going to take anybody. We’re going to hire everybody there, we’ll cast it there, we’ll do everything there and we’ll make it grow out of the country itself.’”

Reflecting on The Beach all these years later makes us all the more wistful that DiCaprio and Boyle won’t be re-teaming for Steve Jobs. Their last trip together might have had a less-than-idyllic end, but it would have been fascinating to see them become travel companions again for this new adventure.

(The Beach is available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, YouTube and Vudu)

Image credits: Everett