Reliving Troubled Productions With Apocalypse On The Set

The engaging new book Apocalypse on the Set takes a breezy and entertaining look at nine film productions that essentially went through hell to get to the screen.

Some of them were gigantic disasters at the box-office like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which ruined an entire studio (United Artists). Others went on to weather their stormy conception to become bona fide classics like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

There are also films like The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which production was marred by tragedy. There’s James Cameron’s elaborate underwater saga The Abyss, which was very nearly marred by tragedy.

Then there are the obscurities, such as Pulgasari, a pricey North Korean monster picture with Marxist messages produced by dictator Kim Jong Il, featuring a South Korean director and his actress wife who were kidnapped to make the movie.

Writer Ben Taylor appears to have a type of cinematic setback for every taste. Of course, he didn’t leave out Waterworld, the futuristic Kevin Costner aqua adventure, which was a hellish production experience for all concerned, but ended up turning a profit as it swam upstream. Nor did he miss The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s fanciful survey of the life of a German storyteller which seemed to have its budget and equally-large cast constantly in flux.

Taylor culls different sources for his book, practically none of them first hand. However, his exhaustive research seems to have pulled out some fun facts and anecdotes not played up in other accounts of the films featured here.

Except for the Kim Jong Il effort, pretty much everything else has been chronicled in detail in other books; there have been entire tomes centering on Baron Munchausen, Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate (Steven Bach’s Final Cut, one of the finest books ever written about the movies) and the Twilight Zone fatalities.

Still, Taylor does a commendable job encapsulating the reportage he’s collected, taking financial details and making them understandable while delving into the topsy-turvy world of high risk, often egomaniacal filmmakers who get a jolt walking the expensive moviemaking tightrope. Sometimes they make it, but as Apocalypse on the Set will make you realize, more often they don’t.