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When the Production of a Film is More Interesting Than the Film Itself

Movies and Television can tell amazing stories and portray wild things, from alien worlds to teenagers on broomsticks. Film production can also be an interesting act, from the elegance of Selena to the cultural influence of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. In theory, the former is supposed to be more interesting. That which the camera shoots should be more entertaining than the stuff behind the camera. But sometimes, this doesn’t happen “and not just because the camera operator was drunk and shot the director instead of the set”. The result can be disturbing or hilarious. I’m going to look through an arbitrary number of these films.

Song Of The South

Song Of The South was a Disney movie made shortly after World War 2. It’s based on an obscure book that Walt Disney was fond of as a child. It’s about some children and a liberated slave living on a plantation in the reconstruction-era south. Most people who watch the movie nowadays describe it as “boring”. Despite how absurdly boring the plot is, this was actually a landmark film in history for many reasons.

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First, James Baskett got an Oscar for this film, making him the first black male to be voted for one. Simultaneously, the film has never been released in the United States outside of theaters, due to Disney’s fear of how racist the film is. The songs and dialog are often criticized, as is the concept of making a light hearted film set in the south, with an African American protagonist, just after the Civil War. Song Of The South was never home-released in the United States but has been released in other countries. Since Japan was one of the few NTSC countries to get a release, most people in the United States who have seen this film have seen the version from Japan, which used Japanese subtitles over the American version. This could be considered piracy, but under Japanese law, the Japanese edition is now in the public domain.

One could even argue that this film was the first “special effects in lieu of an actual story” film. While the story is bland, Song Of The South was a technological masterpiece at the time. This was one of the first films to blend live action actors and an animated environment, in the same scenes. Though it was done in completely different ways, Song Of The South‘s technique of blended mediums was the basis for Tron, and how real people were integrated into the digital environment in Tron. Song Of The South was the spiritual progenitor of the modern day Blue and Green Screens, which are used in almost any modern film with any special effects. The airport fight scene in Captain America: Civil War? Traceable to Song Of The South. The underwater scene in Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire? Traceable to Song Of The South.

In a way, Song Of The South and its influence on film is actually a microcosm of a lot of American Film history. Initially gaudy and racist with bland stories, followed by stronger prototyping in the 80s, followed by a bouquet that ultimately stems from said 80s prototypes. You want film history? Here it is, in its most unpolished form.

Titanic

Most people who saw Titanic in the theaters remember it fondly. However, if you go to any thrift store in the continental US, you will always find at least one VHS copy of Titanic. For some reason, everyone and their brother bought copies of Titanic, watched it once, and donated their copy for resale. The thing about thrift stores and Titanic is actually true. For some reason, every thrift store has at least one copy.

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Despite the fact this movie is boring enough to be a staple of unpurchased stuff at goodwill, Titanic had a hilarious production history. During the shoot in Canada, at a communal dinner of the cast and crew, someone drugged the soup with PCP. More than 50 people had to be hospitalized. Many crewmembers got sick from the shooting process, with flu, colds, and kidney infections; including Kate Winslet, who got pneumonia. She also flashed Leonardo DiCaprio when they first met, as an ice-breaker for the nude painting scene. Pun not intended. Multiple people broke bones and nearly drowned. One injury resulted in a splenectomy. The film was such a safety disaster, the Screen Actors Guild had to investigate the production.

On an even more depressing note, the old couple who are hugging in bed as they drown are Ida and Isidor Strauss. Isidor co-founded Macy’s department store. The company that built the real Titanic also worked on the sets of the film.

The Wizard Of Oz

The Wizard Of Oz should rank higher on the list for its ratio of how interesting the film is vs its production. However, to be fair, this film pretty much invented the genre of “teenage girl travels through a drug-trip world”, and when it was made, we didn’t have a plethora of films in that genre, such as a bunch of Alice in Wonderland remakes and Labyrinth; so I’ll give it a pass for that. While the film’s content is boring by modern standards, the production is amazing to this day.

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The costumes and makeup for The Wizard Of Oz would be considered felonies by modern standards. Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, had to live on a liquid diet to avoid ingesting any of the makeup, which was made partially with copper, and was toxic. Her skin remained green for some time after production was completed, due to how strong it was. Buddy Ebsen was the first choice for the Tin Man, but he had an allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in his makeup. Jack Haley replaced Buddy Ebsen, and the makeup team switched to aluminum-based paste. It gave him an eye infection. The cowardly lion’s costume was made of real lion pelts, which is very “Silence of the Lambs“.

The actors were abused in shocking ways as well. The first time the Wicked Witch disappears in flames, there were two takes made. The first one is the one used in the film. In the second one, the Witch’s cape caught on fire, which caused her makeup to catch on fire as well “the toxic copper makeup”. She had second and third-degree burns from the take. I’d make a joke about a witch being burned, but it would be crass to the victims of the various witch burnings in Europe and North America. At one point, the director slapped Judy Garland. This was nothing compared to the fact they gave her meth to make her loose weight “which was especially horrible, given that she later died of an overdose”. The infamous poppy-field set was made out of asbestos. The flying monkey actors were all injured when the piano wire holding them up snapped and dropped them to the stage.

However, The Wizard Of Oz had some positive effects as well. Some of the people who played the Munchkins were from Europe and used their visiting to the US as a means of escaping the nazis. One of them even worked as a pilot in World War 2.

Pulgasari

Pulgasari is a North Korean knockoff of Godzilla which was primarily released in North Korea and Japan, but shown in several other countries. While a “North Korean Godzilla Ripoff” sounds hilarious, it’s actually not. First, the film isn’t actually all that entertaining. It’s the story of rebels who use a giant monster to get rid of their terrible government. The film is too long for its plot, has one-dimensional characters, and the production quality is about as good as Vegas In Space. It starts with a poor village in a state which is ruled by an evil dictator, to the point a large rebellion has formed. The state forces the local blacksmith to melt down all metallic assets in the village for weapons, and when he is unable to, he is imprisoned and dies. However, he and his daughter are able to create a metal-eating monster which grows to an absurd size. The rebels use the monster, named Pulgasari “Or Bulgasari, depending on what romanization system you prefer,” to defeat the evil king. This is a bland movie, but the story of how it was made is amazing enough to be its own movie.

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The story of Pulgasari‘s “production” starts after the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea after World War 2. Shin Sang-ok was a production assistant on Viva Freedom!, a South Korean film made after the end of the Japanese occupation, and beginning of the American occupation. From there, he was extremely prolific in South Korean cinema, until the repressive government of the 70s caused him to go out of business. Around the same time, his ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped by North Korean agents, causing her to go missing in Hong Kong. Shin Sang-ok investigated and was kidnapped as well. The two were taken to North Korea, independent of each other. Shin Sang-ok was imprisoned for attempting to escape while the North Korean government attempted to indoctrinate him. The two re-met in Pyongyang, when the then-dictator, Kim Jong-il, revealed that he wanted the two of them to continue working on movies. They remarried, and restarted their careers. Shin Sang-ok directed 7 films, the last and most famous of which was Pulgasari. Choi Eun-hee starred in over 80 movies. The two were able to convince the North Korean government to let them visit Vienna for a film festival, and once there, gained asylum at the U.S. embassy.

What makes Pulgasari an interesting film is that its director and one of its actors were kidnapped, imprisoned, victims of attempted brainwashing, used to make films against their will, and escaped North Korea. This film is special because it’s more ethical to pirate it than buy it because you’re not directly contributing to the victimization of artists, rather than the other way around. Additionally, it might be the most subversive film ever made. There’s been a large amount of interpretation that the evil king in this film is actually an allegory for the Kim family, and the film an allegory for the suffering of the Korean people. It’s a mystery how Shin Sang-ok was able to get away with a script which is such a criticism of the North Korean government.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

You’re probably thinking something along the lines of “How could you have a movie whose production was more interesting than Pulgasari?! It has kidnapping, brainwashing, and an escape from North Korea! That film’s production could be its own movie!” To be fair the production of Pulgasari could be its own movie. In the case of the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, the production was so troublesome, it WAS made into its own movie! The Island of Dr. Moreau was such a trainwreck of a production, somebody made an entire movie about it: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
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For those of y’all who don’t know, The Island of Dr. Moreau is an H.G. Wells story about a man who seeks to improve the human race by taking animals and splicing them in with aspects of humans. Like all of H.G. Welles’s works, this has been adapted a number of times, with most of the adaptations not being very faithful.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is widely believed to be the most troublesome production in film history. It would work really well as a soap opera. The film went through at least four directors, had a bunch of cast changes, had one of the actors nearly have a mental breakdown due to a mixture of his daughter’s suicide attempt and nearly losing his island to French nuclear tests, had several incredibly hostile actors, had one person try to flee the country, concern that one of the ex-production staff would burn the set to the ground, had so many rewrites that one of the actors stopped learning their lines, had a person go missing after shredding a bunch of documents after the studio fired him by fax, ballooned from 40 to 70 million dollars in budget due to unforeseen costs, and ultimately ended with a six-week production that lasted six months. Many combinations of the actors and production people have vowed never to work with each other again.

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Nate Watson, Deadcoder

Nate Watson is a Software Engineer/ College Student who lives in Florida "and is crazy enough to live in Florida". When he's not programming, he's learning Japanese, editing the Code Lyoko Wiki, watching reviews of bizarre movies and shows, watching bizarre movies and shows, enjoying anime, writing about movies and TV, and designing houses with admittedly questionable taste. He also plays Minecraft, and guilty pleasure flashgames.

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