Five Watery Debacles

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The sea is a seriously forboding place, full of toothy fish, tentacled creatures and wizened old men with beards. It’s no coincidence that Davey Jones didn’t put leave his locker in, say, a village pond. It can be stormier than Gordon Ramsay’s family Christmas and more unpredictable than a hyena’s breakfast. It’s certainly no place to take your cast and crew to shoot a movie, where schedules rule and variables are the sworn enemy. Still, (fool)hardy folk that they are, filmmakers have done exactly that. Michael Apted, director of Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, decided against joining sea veterans like Steven Spielberg and Peter Weir on the open water roll of horror. “I went to speak to every director who’s ever shot on water,” Apted told Empire. “They all said the same thing: ‘Don’t!’” Apted instead opted for the smoke-and-mirrors approach of a hydraulically-powered vessel moored to terra firma, but his words got us thinking about those other weathered, seafaring directors. What went wrong or, in the case of Waterworld, right, on the shoots. Hold tight for some seafaring tales that will literally bend your bones…

Director: Steven Spielberg

As the recent Red Sea attacks by that psycho shark bastard oceanic whitetip prove, the ocean is full of things that would like to have you for dinner, and not in the 'Come Dine With Me' sense. But as Steven Spielberg explained to Empire, the shoot for Jaws presented a whole different terror. “Had the audience been along for the ride,” he remembered, “they wouldn’t have been scared of the movie – they’d have been scared of the sea.” Anyone on Martha’s Vineyard in May 1974 would have stumbled upon a very wet and seriously worried Jaws crew drowning its sorrows after yet another fraught day’s shooting. Filming, miles out in the shallows off Massachusetts’ coastline, was hampered by storms, yachts drifting frustratingly into shot and rough seas. The Orca nearly sank and Bruce the mechanical shark developed a nasty case of rust. If Spielberg hadn’t been wearing that baseball cap, he’d probably have torn his hair out. The production drifted like Hooper and Brody’s raft. 100 days over schedule, $5m over budget and with more shonky sharks than a Viz annual, Spielberg had to play fast and loose, using every trick up his sleeve to get reels in the bank. “I was just trying to survive Jaws – all of us were,” he said. “We were in survival mode every day on that picture. It was a physically dangerous production.” Somehow, the result was one of the greatest films ever made, arguably the greatest of all testimonies to the director’s genius. And, somehow, despite it all, we still love sharks.

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Director: Kevin Reynolds

In retrospect, shifting Mad Max 2 onto water wasn’t perhaps the smartest idea. The two Kevins – Reynolds and Costner – were at the height of their powers post-Prince Of Thieves and took on a project that more experienced filmmakers might have run from screaming, and some actually did. When Spielberg advised Reynolds to pass on the project, he had his own experiences of Jaws’ spiralling budgets to call on. Even with its original $100m budget, Waterworld was going to be expensive. When the figure swiftly swelled to $175m, Universal’s formidable exec Sid Sheinberg’s eyes must have popped. Suddenly he had the most expensive film in history on his hands, with catastrophe after catastrophe visiting the production. Critics cried hubris; Reynolds just cried, as he repeatedly halted production in the face of hurricane warnings. He saw one his carefully assembled sets swept away and had to wait anxiously while a stunt coordinator was treated for the bends. Josh Whedon – flown out for some last-minute script changes – describes the experience simply as “seven weeks of hell”. Reynolds, even more concisely, called it “monstrous”. Smokers and drifters had to costumed and ferried to an atoll a mile off the coast of Hawaii, then ferried back to Dryland for lunch. Then taken back again for another set-up. It was a logistical nightmare and stress levels were cranked by a well published clash between Costner and Reynolds that made front pages back in Hollywood. That hostility is water under the bridge now, according to Reynolds: “We've put some things behind us and managed to sit down and talk about that project,'s not as acrimonious as it was right afterwards, that's for sure.” Despite of its heinous shoot and a Costner performance that packed all the charisma of a dead plaice, Waterworld ended up grossing $260m and turned a profit in the face of a withering – and undeserved – critical pasting. But the chances of a film like Waterworld being greenlit now? Zip.

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Director: James Cameron

Never work with children or animals as W.C. Fields’ maxim goes. If he’d been on the Baja set of Titanic he’d probably have added 775 feet, iron-clad ships. Titanic wasn’t entirely shot at sea – the almost-to-scale recreation of Harland and Wolff’s finest was moored to a Baja dock – but for its soaked-to-the-bone cast members, bobbing in a 17m gallon tank, it may as well have been the mid-Atlantic. It certainly shared all the traits of a sea-born production: serious overrun and budget-busting sundries which saw it overtake Waterworld as the most expensive of all time. At $200m, it ended up costing more than the ship itself. The modern-day scenes with elderly Rose were shot at sea aboard the Russian research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, and hardly ran more smoothly. One disgruntled crewmember slipped into the galley and poured PCP into the clam chowder. James Cameron spat out his spiked soup, but other crewmembers weren’t so lucky, reduced to gibbering wrecks until the whole ship resembled a deleted scene from Fear And Loathing. Back at Baja, Kate Winslet suffered pneumonia and a chipped elbow, while injuries to stuntmen prompted an investigation into on-set safety by the Screen Actors Guild. “If you’re going to hang out with Jim, you better have your life insurance,” laughs Bill Baxton, “but I don’t consider him a difficult man. I consider him an incredibly passionate man who is completely uncompromising.” Not everyone enjoyed the experience, but Cameron can point to 1.8 billion reasons why all the stress paid off. Still, it’s probably not a big surprise that Avatar 2 won’t be the aquatic adventure rumours suggested.

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Director: Renny Harlin

This stupendous flop - the biggest commercial disaster in history - was a giant plank-walking exercise for pretty much everyone involved. It put paid to Geena Davis’ hopes of A-list status, and, along with Showgirls, sent Carolco Pictures to the wall. So why did this classic buccaneering tale of gallant gamblers and mast-clambering seadogs not end up buckling even the teeniest swash? What went wrong? Well, everything. The omens weren’t good when producer Mario Kassar sent the production to Malta’s Mediterranean Studios, the home of water bombs like Raise The Titanic and Orca. Things quickly went wrong on set. Lead Michael Douglas walked away from the production, sets were built and then dismantled again when they didn’t meet with Renny Harlin’s approval, and two dozen crewmembers quit in protest to the sacking of a colleague. When sewerage seeped into the water tanks the “Cutthroat Island stinks” headlines wrote themselves. That was before anyone even saw the script or witnessed the catastrophic lack of on-screen chemistry between Geena Davis and Matthew Modine. Then Oliver Reed mooned Davis and got the chop too. You literally couldn’t make it up, although if they had it would have made a much better film that Cutthroat Island.

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Director: Peter Weir

Sadly it’s time to put the rumours to bed once and for all: there will not be a Master And Commander sequel. At least, not as far as Peter Weir is concerned. “I think once was enough,” he revealed on an Empire webchat. “The film was so costly. To shoot at sea you need very deep pockets.” Having sagely noted the budget busts on Waterworld and Titanic, Weir approached Patrick O'Brian’s Napoleonic era stories with usual care: he sent the cast to naval boot camp to ensure authenticity and kept most of the shoot on dry land to ensure they didn’t all drown. “I’d read all the books about shooting at sea,” said Weir, “and I made the decision early on that we wouldn’t go to sea for anything but a short period of time.” The production was at sea for only ten days in total, with a massive tank, miniatures and CGI used to fill in the gaps. Three replicas of the HMS Surprise were built: one full-sized and seaworthy, a replica of a real 19th century man-of-war HMS Rose; one a full-scale replica moored in Baja; and one teeny tiny miniature built by Weta Workship. For Weir, learning CG techniques and working via monitor for the first time in the cramped confines of the Rose, it was a whole new filmmaking education. Still it wasn’t without its terrors, as Russell Crowe remembers: “I think probably the most dangerous evening was when we found ourselves about 40 miles off the coast trying to do a ship-to-ship transfer of 225 people in 8” swells. That wasn’t a good look.”

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Director: Lewis Milestone

The first run at filming the classic tale of mutiny on the high seas in 1935 saw Charles Laughton play the sadistic Captain Bligh and Clark Gable his strong-willed master’s mate, Fletcher Christian. At $2m, it was the most expensive movie to date, and if success at the box office masked a painful shoot, it didn’t erase the painful memories of cast and crew. Laughton, a landlubber if ever there was one, spent most of the open water shoot being violently seasick, taking time out from leaning over the side to exchange hostile glances with the notoriously homophobic Gable. Two crewmembers ended up adrift for two days when a 28-foot replica of the Bounty was blown out to sea, and a second unit cameraman drowned when a barge capsized. The 1962 remake was safer but hardly less stressful, thanks largely to Marlon Brandon’s high-maintenance, hard-partying approach. Over the eight month shoot MGM’s bill rocketed to $19m – equivalent in today’s money to the budget of Clash Of The Titans, big bucks for a movie without a single kraken to show for itself. The ship itself cost $750,000 ($5.2m in today’s money), as days were lost to script rewrites and tropical deluges. On one day alone 17 inches of rain cascaded onto the set. But the biggest grey cloud over production was Brando, who drove off one director, Carol Reed, and alienated another, Lewis Milestone, with his constant demands for new dialogue, lateness and uncooperative attitude. He chartered jets to fly champagne and turkeys to the Tahiti, party provisions that impressed none of his cast mates. “The Mutiny of Marlon Brando,” screamed one newspaper headline back home, as rumours of on-set dissent spread through Hollywood. Most of the cast and crew were too seasick from the rough seas, but you suspect they'd have pushed him overboard given half a chance.

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