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Long Time Coming: Movies That Spent Forever in Production

July 11, 2014

With Boyhood, Richard Linklater hits upon a unique approach to the coming-of-age movie by following the same boy — fellow Texan Ellar Coltrane — over the course of 12 years, from ages 6 to 18. As Linklater recently told the New York Times, it was the only way he felt he could understand the experience that his main character would go through. “I knew Eller would grow up. I didn’t know how, what or exactly who he would be, but I knew he would be somebody,” he said. Whatever its artistic upsides, it’s rare for a film to shoot for that length of time and rarer still for it to be an intentional choice on the part of the filmmaker. Here are some past examples of movies with lengthy productions and how it helped (or hindered) the finished product.

Othello (1952)
What is is: Orson Welles directed, produced, and played the title role in this stylized adaptation of William Shakespeare’s grand tragedy.
Timespan of production: 1949–1951
Reason(s) for the holdup: One word: money. As in, Welles didn’t have any. An Italian financier originally agreed to fund the production, but went bankrupt days after shooting began, so the director pulled out his own checkbook and kept filming until his bank account also ran dry. After that, whatever money he made from other acting gigs went directly into his Othello fund, and he resumed production whenever he could — often with different actors and in different countries.
Final result: The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival and enjoys a healthy critical reputation, but even its most ardent admirers admit that the ragtag nature of the shoot is apparent. “To put it mildly, it was quite an adventure,” Welles remarked in his 1978 self-directed making-of documentary, Filming Othello.  “It led us before we were done to many strange and rather wonderful places in the world, into and out of more than one disaster. There were moments of sheer desperation and there was much delight.”       


The Antoine Doinel Series (1959–1979)
What is is: François Truffaut’s accidental franchise, which spans 20 years in the life of his onscreen doppelganger, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), first glimpsed as a troubled young boy and last seen as a thirtysomething man. 
Timespan of production: 1959–1978
Reason(s) for the holdup: Truffaut didn’t plan to check back in with Doinel every few years after 1959’s much-lauded The 400 Blows: it just kind of worked out that way. Initially revisiting the character in a 1962 short film, the director went on to make three additional Doinel-centric features in 1968, 1970, and 1979.
Final result: Given the way it observes the growth of one individual from boy to man, the Doinel series is probably the closest equivalent to Boyhood, although Truffaut took longer breaks between filming than Linklater did. “Doinel was someone who both of us knew intimately,” Léaud told the Village Voice in 1999 about his two-decade collaboration with the French New Wave icon.  “It wasn’t me — he was someone I would see from time to time in films.” 

The Up Series (1964–present)
What is is: Director Michael Apted has been following the same group of British men and women since they were seven years old, charting the course of their thrillingly ordinary lives as they live them.
Timespan of production: 1964–?
Reason(s) for the delay: Because Apted has to wait seven years in between shoots, as opposed to Linklater’s measly one.      
Final result: Though the process has taken its toll on both Apted and the series’ cast (several have dropped out as the years have gone by), practically everyone agrees that the Up movies are a singular achievement. “It’s the favorite thing I’ve ever done, the thing I’m most proud of” Apted told NPR in 2013.  “I’ve made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes. I think what I’ve learned all the way through is the less I do, the better.”


Apocalypse Now (1979)
What it is: Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, which takes viewers up river, deep into humanity’s heart of darkness.
Timespan of production: 1976–1977
Reason(s) for the holdup: Take your pick: bad weather (including an unwelcome cameo by Typhoon Olga), difficult locations, an underequipped crew, lots of on-set rewriting (especially when Marlon Brando turned up and refused to say what was on the page), Coppola’s outsized ego, and star Martin Sheen’s nearly fatal heart attack. 
Final result: "My film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam,” Coppola famously told the Cannes press corps when the movie premiered at the festival in 1979 after two years in the editing room. And while the director’s prolonged battle to get the film made left him with numerous physical and emotional scars, Apocalypse Now is widely considered a classic equal to The Godfather.


Bad Taste (1987)
What it is: Peter Jackson’s ultra low-budget, ultra-gross feature film debut in which a quartet of friends and paranormal soldiers battle a race of cannibalistic aliens.
Timespan of production: 1983–1987 
Reason(s) for the holdup: Although he’s the unofficial king of New Zealand now, back in the early ’80s Jackson didn’t have the resources of an entire country at his disposal. Instead, he had to cobble together manpower and funds, shooting primarily on weekends, casting friends and family members, and using all-homemade special effects — such as the alien masks he cooked in his mom’s oven. 
Final result: Bad Taste is pretty…well, bad, in many respects, but it’s also got a loony spirit and flair for gore that nabbed Jackson international attention. These days, the director is both respectful and vaguely embarrassed by his humble beginnings. As he told DGA Quarterly in 2013: “When you’re starting out, you know, you have to do something on a very limited budget.  You’re not going to be able to have great actors and you’re most likely not going to have a great script. Bad Taste, was really made up as we went along over four years, and it didn’t even have a script. Not having actors or a script tends to be somewhat limiting.”


September (1987)
What it is: Woody Allen’s attempt to write and direct a single-setting film, loosely derived from one of Chekov’s single-setting play, Uncle Vanya.
Timespan of production: 1986–1987
Reason(s) for the holdup: After completing the film in 10 weeks, Allen took a look at his rough cut and decided it needed a complete and total do-over. Actors were replaced (farewell Sam Shepard, hello Sam Waterson), dialogue was re-written, and the entire thing was re-made from the very first scene.     
Final Result: Allen was happier with his re-do, but September was mostly ignored by critics and audiences upon its release. “I always do re-shooting on my movies,” he told interviewer Stig Björkman in the 1993 book, Woody Allen on Woody Allen. “In September, when I’d finished it, I felt I needed to do a lot of re-shooting.  So I said to myself, ‘Well, as long as I’m going to do four weeks of re-shooting, why not re-shoot the whole thing and do it right?’”  By the way, don’t expect to see the first cut on a special edition DVD or anything — Allen says that he scrapped it completely when he started over.      


Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989)
What it is: A trio of Mississippi kids loved Raiders of the Ark so much, that they went ahead and made their own shot-for-shot remake.
Timespan of production: 1982–1989 (though the directors recently raised funds via Kickstarter to shoot an additional scene they didn’t complete the first time around.)
Reason(s) for the delay: Because of their age, a lack of studio financing, and that dreaded thing known as homework, the three were able to work on the film only over summer vacation. And, needless to say, it’s a lot harder to make a globetrotting action adventure film when you don’t have Spielberg’s clout or budget, though the kids did find some inventive workarounds, such as using a puppy as a stand-in for that monkey.  
Final result: The remake may not be as widely known as the original, but within the movie geek world, these three guys are revered as gods for their exhaustive, remarkably faithful recreation.  ”Was it fun?” ringleader and substitute Indy, Chris Strompolos, said to the Austin Chronicle in 2003. ”Of course it was a great time. Who wouldn’t want to drag underneath a truck? Who wouldn’t want to light their buddies on fire?”


Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
What it is: Stanley Kubrick’s controversial career capper follows one married doctor (Tom Cruise) and his surreal, sexually-charged odyssey through after-hours New York City.
Timespan of production: 1996–1998
Reason(s) for the holdup: The famously exacting (and travel-phobic) Kubrick insisted on recreating whole blocks of the Big Apple on a British soundstage and micromanaged every design detail. He also was perfectly happy to shoot scenes over and over again until he got them right. Filming ran for so long, that some actors had to be replaced — Marie Richardson and Sydney Pollack stepped in for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harvey Keitel. By the time the final shot was in the can, Eyes Wide Shut held the Guinness world record for the longest constant movie shoot, with one stretch lasting 46 weeks without a break. 
Final result: One of the most divisive entries in Kubrick’s canon, Eyes Wide Shut is alternately viewed as a masterful portrait of a troubled marriage or an unfinished mess that the director wasn’t able to crack. But Cruise, for one, admired Kubrick’s tenacity. As he told Roger Ebert in 1999, “Stanley bought time when he made a movie. He was not at the mercy of a studio. I’m used to working. I’ll work 15 hours a day and I’ll work very hard to try to make something work. But if he felt that I was tired or the scene wasn’t working, he never panicked.  He knew he had the time. No matter what, he could always go back and take time to fix it.”


Cast Away (2000)
What it is: Tom Hanks does the Robinson Crusoe thing, ending up stranded on a desert island after a plane crash, with only a volleyball for company.  
Timespan of production: 1999-2000
Reason(s) for the holdup: After Hanks put on 50 pounds for the first half of the movie, production wrapped for a year so that he could lose all that weight (plus a little more) and grow a big, bushy beard to convincingly portray a guy who had been living alone on a desert island for four years. That extended break gave director Robert Zemeckis the time to go off and make a whole other movie — the Harrison Ford horror flick What Lies Beneath.     
Final result: Hanks scored his fifth Oscar nomination and the movie was praised for taking the time to make the character’s transformation believable. Nevertheless, the actor expressed some uncharacteristic nervousness about the process. “It was a burden,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2000. “It’s as naked and exposed as one guy with a guitar on stage.”


The Harry Potter series (2001-2011)
What they are: A fantastical series of blockbusters about a boy wizard, based on the novels penned by J.K. Rowling.
Timespan of production: 2000–2010
Reason(s) for the holdup: They had eight movies to make and a whole bunch of child-labor laws to deal with. Cut ‘em some slack, people.
Final result: Over $7 billion at the worldwide box office, an army of devoted fans, and a proving ground for new stars like Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. Yeah, you could say that all that time and money was worth it, even if it meant that the young cast didn’t have the most normal of childhoods. Not that Radcliffe feels like he missed out on anything. “I don’t regard myself as having grown up on camera,” he told CBS News in 2011.  “I regard myself as having grown up on sets and at home. I still did all my embarrassing teenage moments behind closed doors thankfully, so the world wasn’t privy to them.”

Photos: Othello, 400 Blows, 56 Up, Apocalypse Now, Bad Taste, September, Eyes Wide Shut, and Cast Away, Everett Collection; Harry Potter, Warner Bros.