Replacement Thrillers: Last-Minute Movie Changes That Worked

The replacement filmmakers who delivered

Published on

While people are quick to call some productions "troubled" when filmmakers are replaced on their way to the screen, not every example of a writer, director or actor being replaced turns out badly. While we’re very sorry to see Edgar Wright leave Ant-Man, we thought we’d try to be optimistic and take a look at some other movie substitutions that worked out for the best…

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The original choice: Tom Selleck

In one of the most famous examples of recasting in the film industry, Selleck fell victim to his own popularity. After auditioning for the role of wisecracking private eye Magnum in the eponymous TV series and then Indiana Jones in Raiders, he won both jobs. But CBS, which had signed him first, refused to let him out of his contract and he stayed with TV. In a crushing, painful irony, the show’s shooting schedule was later delayed, meaning he could’ve done both. Selleck managed a few notable movies – including the Three Men & A Baby films – but has largely stuck to the small screen, where he and his luxurious ‘tache can currently be found appearing on cop drama Blue Bloods.

***The replacement: ***Harrison Ford

Yes, the former Carpenter was the beneficiary of luck, but he spun that into a solid career. Plus, though we’ll never know (beyond screen tests) exactly how well Selleck inhabited Professor Henry Jones, we do know that Ford turned him into the grouchy, witty, adventurous and careworn crusader for historical justice that carried him through three films. Sorry, eh? Kingdom Of The Crystal what? You must be thinking of someone else. As we were saying: the Indiana Jones trilogy went on to be one of the most successful and beloved film series of all time.

The Lord Of The Rings

***The original choice: ***Stuart Townsend

Poor Stuart Townsend. He’s never quite broken out, and being part of the ensemble for Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien would certainly have helped. But he scored the role of warrior Aragorn and completed the two months’ training and preparation needed for the part, only to be fired the day before filming began when Jackson suddenly decided he wanted someone older. “I finally read an article where the filmmakers said, 'We were totally wrong about Stuart and we accept that it was our fault,' which was so nice because I did get shafted up the ass,” the actor later told Entertainment Weekly.

***The replacement: ***Viggo Mortensen

Mortensen had been largely serving time in smaller character and romantic interest roles before Jackson hurriedly offered him the part. No-brainer, right? Wrong! “Basically, I got a call: 'Do you want to go to New Zealand for 14 months to film The Lord Of The Rings?' Just, you know, this famous epic trilogy! And my first reaction was ‘No!’” Mortensen told the LA Times. “I hadn't read the book, and I certainly hadn't read the script; I usually like to have a lot more time to prepare for a major role; and I really didn't want to be away from my family for that long.” Fortunately, his son convinced him he’d be crazy not to take the job. The rest is cinematic fantasy legend.


The original choice: Dougray Scott

Would Wolverine be different if his animalistic rage and occasional uses of the word “Bub” have come layered with a softly Scottish brogue? It nearly happened, as Dougray Scott was originally cast as Logan in Bryan Singer’s first mutant movie. But the schedule on John Woo’s Mission: Impossible sequel overran and Scott was stuck shooting at Tom Cruise instead of chewing on cigars. He’s diplomatic about the whole thing. “I’ve really enjoyed the movies I got to do and the TV work. I feel very fortunate anyway. Basically, my movie ran over and I had to pull out. It wasn’t his fault and Hugh did a fantastic job.” Scott may not have enjoyed Jackman’s subsequent level of career success, but he’s still working consistently.

The replacement: Hugh Jackman

It seems impossible to consider now, but there was a large contingent of the audience unhappy with the news that the Aussie actor would be playing the famed mutant. He was, after all, far too tall and best known for performing in stage musicals at the time. He’s since turned from unknown to highly bankable, Oscar-nominated leading man, but has admitted that he got the job partly because Singer offered Russell Crowe the role and Crowe instead recommended Jackman. The biggest issue now will be finding someone to eventually take over the muttonchops from Jackman when he decides he’s had enough of playing the role… Good luck to whoever that is. And don't screw it up. Bub.

The Wizard Of Oz

The original choice: Richard Thorpe

Thorpe was the first man hired to direct the adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s book, but he was far from the last. He conceived an entire look for the movie, including a tousled blonde hairdo for Judy Garland’s Dorothy and a baby doll makeup style, which he thought more closely resembled the original illustrations. He was behind the camera for two weeks before the producers decided they hated everything he was doing, and health issues from the Tin Man make-up for Buddy Ebsen led to a shutdown, during which time Jack Haley was hired as a new Tin Man and Thorpe was sacked.

The replacements: George Cukor / Victor Fleming / King Vidor

Cukor was the initial replacement, though he was hired on a temporary basis while MGM looked for someone more permanent to replace him. To his credit, Cukor toned down Dorothy’s look, preferring to contrast her natural appearance with the vivid fantasy tone of Oz. He left to concentrate on his dream job making Gone With The Wind (more on that in a moment) and Victor Fleming, credited with turning around troubled productions before, was parachuted in. He didn’t finish the film either, however, because he was then drafted to take over Wind. In his place came King Vidor, who got the film across the finish line. Between them, the filmmakers somehow produced a classic.

Gone With The Wind

***The original choice: ***George Cukor

As previously mentioned, Cukor had been more interested in directing Gone With The Wind than helping Dorothy navigate the fantastical realm of Oz. Hired by power producer David O. Selznick, Cukor spent two years preparing to make the film, including finding the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. But trouble brewed for several reasons, including Cukor and Selznick clashing over the script and Cukor’s legendarily snobby tone getting him into trouble.

The replacements: Victor Fleming/Sam Wood

Fleming was brought in at the behest of his friend (and Wind leading man) Clark Gable to take over when Cukor was unceremoniously discharged. Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who did uncredited and ultimately unused work on the script, said of Fleming: “He was a fine adaptable mechanism — which in the morning could direct the action of 2000 extras, and in the afternoon decided on the colours of the buttons of Clark Gable's coat and the shadows on Vivien Leigh's neck...” Ultimately, Fleming left the film due to exhaustion, and Sam Wood completed the final two weeks’ shooting. All three directors have work remaining in the final product, which, adjusted for inflation, is still the highest grossing film of all time.

Avengers Assemble

***The original choice: ***Zak Penn

This is less a last-minute switch than a replacement made before a single frame of film was shot. Penn, who got his superhero scripting start with the story for 2003’s mutant sequel X2, went on to write The Last Stand and The Incredible Hulk. Trusting his abilities, Marvel tapped him to write its biggest gamble, rounding up the Avengers. But when Joss Whedon was hired to direct, he threw out Penn’s script. “We could have collaborated more, but that was not his choice. He wanted to do it his way, and I respect that,” Penn told GQ. He still got a story credit on the film and we’d be fascinated to see how his take differs.

The replacement: Joss Whedon

For his side of the story, Whedon admits that he wasn’t keen on Penn’s screenplay. "There was a script... There just wasn't a script I was going to film a word of," he told GQ. “I needed that bedrock of certainty, so that when they asked me why something was in the script, I could tell them exactly.” Whedon might have seemed a risk at the time, coming primarily from TV and with only one film directing credit, the underperforming Serenity, to his name. But his combined Marvel comics experience, his keen ear for dialogue and his willingness to collaborate with the cast led to a massive, billion-dollar-plus success.


The original choice: Jan Pinkava

Pinkava was coming off of an Oscar win for his short film Geri’s Game and got the chance to direct one of Pixar’s features. But though he’d quickly won over the studio’s “brain trust” – including John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton – with his pitch about a foodie rat who dreams of being a chef, Pinkava’s more fantastical ideas clashed with the creative team’s feelings on the story and he was replaced. Happily, these days he looks back without bitterness on the experience, as he recounted to Animation Views. “Ratatouille was an enormous experience as my first feature film," he recalls. "I would have liked to complete it, but Brad Bird was able to take it on, make it his own and lead the team to a very successful finish.”

The replacement: Brad Bird

Bird, who had been recruited by old classmate Lasseter to work for Pixar, had just scored a huge success with The Incredibles. When the studio’s bosses decided that Pinkava had to be switched out, Bird was a somewhat natural choice. He overhauled the story’s basics (though a lot of Pinkava’s ideas remain in the final movie, and he retains a story credit) and crafted a heart-warming tale brought to life with typical Pixar detail and the winning vocals of Patton Oswalt as rodent hero Remy. The final version won an Oscar and cemented Bird as a director who could craft crowd-pleasing fare. He’s since gone on to make Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and is even now working on Tomorrowland.

The Terminator

The original choice: Lance Henriksen

Henriksen might not be the first person you picture when you hear the words “killer cyborg”, but James Cameron’s original vision of the character was a regular-looking man, someone who could blend in when hunting his human targets. The actor was a long-time friend of the writer/director and initially got the part. But then Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up to audition for the role of Kyle Reese and Cameron changed his mind. He cast Henriksen as a police detective who dies at the hands of the Terminator and assuaged any lingering disappointment by also casting him as Bishop in Aliens.

The replacement: Arnold Schwarzenegger

As mentioned, Schwarzenegger originally tried out for the Kyle Reese role, but has since revealed he’s glad he got the title role. “He said it was a good thing, because there was so much dialogue,” stunt co-ordinator Joe Kramer told MTV. “He said, ‘I would have f***ed that up totally.’ He had a great sense of humour about it.” That hasn’t stopped Arnie tackling chatty roles since then, as he of course went on to become a movie icon and Governor of California. While his post-politics film career hasn’t been as successful as he might have hoped, thus far, but he’s now part of the Terminator reboot pic Genesis, due out next year.


***The original choices: ***Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr.

As he travelled the hard road making Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón had several actors in mind for the leads, with Angelina Jolie originally in the role Sandra Bullock took (Jolie dropped out with a scheduling clash) and Robert Downey Jr. as fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski. But it quickly became apparent that the demands of the film were not suited to Downey Jr.’s improv style. "I think Robert is fantastic if you give him the freedom to completely breathe and improvise and change stuff," Cuarón told the NME. “But we tried one of these technologies and it was not compatible.” Downey’s doing all right for himself, though. He’s in a superhero movie or two.

The replacements: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

To quote Kowalski himself, “Fantastic.” The switch certainly didn’t hurt the film. And Clooney’s chemistry with Bullock helped keep both actors sane during an arduous, effects-heavy, meticulous shoot. “It frustrates me when everyone always talks about how charming he is, how he’s a practical joker,” Bullock has said about her co-star. “When he gets on a set, he’s all work.” Though the pair did enjoy needling their director, including impersonating him during the production (and press tour). Gravity went on to win seven Oscars and earn more than $716 million worldwide.

The Truman Show

***The original choice: ***Dennis Hopper

Hopper was hired to play Christof, the god complex-afflicted creator and overseer – in more ways than one – of the fictional Truman Show in Peter Weir’s 1998 drama. The screen legend lasted two days in the role, and was then sacked. "Scott Rudin, the producer, had made an agreement with the director that he didn’t want me to do the part, and if he didn’t like what I did after the first day’s dailies then he would fire me,” Hopper told Sabotage Times in 2011. “And they fired me.” The incident was chalked up to “creative differences.” Hopper’s career wasn’t affected, and he kept working until his death in 2010.

The replacement: Ed Harris

Harris was brought in with no time to prepare, but nailed the serene, commanding and arrogant Christof to such a degree that he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for his performance. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the man now, though there’s still some part of us that wonders whether Hopper’s scenes could be rescued from the dustbin of film history for a comparison. We get the feeling Christof would certainly be a little more intense...

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us