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‘World War Z,’ and Why Good Productions Don’t Equal Good Movies

'World War Z,' and Why Good Productions Don't Equal Good Movies

If you believe the reports, the making of “World War Z” was downright apocalyptic. At Vanity Fair, Laura M. Holson details five full pages of fights, arguments, spats, feuds, grudges, altercations, tiffs, and other synonyms for disagreements that I haven’t learned yet. “Z”‘s confirmed budget was $170 million, which in the world of Hollywood means it’s probably at least a little higher (Holson quotes a source at a rival studio that speculates it could be as high as $250 million). The big budget got bigger when producer/star Brad Pitt, director Marc Forster, and studio Paramount Pictures decided they needed to fix their ending — and chose to toss out the originally scripted and shot finale (a massive zombie battle in Russia) for a new sequence set at a WHO research facility in Wales. No Hollywood production has received this much scrutiny since Disney’s equally bloated and equally troubled “John Carter.” And we all know how that turned out.

Actually, though, I suspect things may turn out differently for “World War Z.” For one thing, the movie’s not bad — if not a masterpiece then a surprisingly competent summer horror-action blockbuster. Granted, it contains almost no story, character, or dialogue — unless guttural zombie screeches count as dialogue — and mostly consists of Brad Pitt traveling the world (“The better to leverage your international box office, my dear!”) and running from hordes of the undead. But on its own terms, it’s proficient, effecive entertainment. The action is frenetic, the swarms of bug-like zombies are creepy, and several of the set pieces are quite memorable. It’s not the smartest zombie flick you’ll ever see, but like its monsters, it’s fast, scary, and brutally effective. 

What’s more, if you didn’t know this movie was troubled — if you didn’t know Forster and Pitt may have had a falling out on the set, and that they’d trashed and rebuilt the third act from scratch — I don’t think you would ever know. Thinking about “World War Z” and “John Carter,” and the gleeful way some journalists approached both those movies, ready (and frankly excited) to trash a surefire bomb, reminded me of a fact of filmmaking that some people seem to forget: a good production does not equal a good movie, and vice versa. 

History is littered with examples of both. True, some troubled productions do result in cinematic trainwrecks. Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” nearly bankrupted a studio on the way to becoming a critical and commercial mega-flop (although the film does have its defenders). The remake of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” churned through two directors (Richard Stanley and John Frankenheimer) and three leading men (Val Kilmer, Rob Morrow, and David Thewliss); the finished film is a lot less interesting than its Wikipedia page. While making “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” director Brian De Palma clashed with star Bruce Willis and disagreed over and over with Warner Brothers over the direction and tone of the project, as chronicled in the very entertaining behind the scenes book “The Devil’s Candy” by Julie Salamon. The movie was a bomb, and it was very easy to see why.

But some of the greatest movies in Hollywood history endured similarly unstable shoots and came through the other side unscathed. Principal photography on “Apocalypse Now” took well over a year, and director Francis Ford Coppola had to work around one star’s (Martin Sheen) near-fatal heart attack and another star’s (Marlon Brando) weight issues. According to Hollywood legend (and HitFix), director Roman Polanski and star Faye Dunaway fought so violently on the set of “Chinatown,” that the latter allegedly threw a cup full of urine in the face of the former after he refused to let her go to the bathroom. Stanley Kubrick never treated Shelley Duvall that badly; he just made her do dozens or even hundreds of takes of seemingly simple shots during the making of “The Shining,” nearly driving the actress insane in a production that stretched on for months. And “The Wizard of Oz” had more directors than “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (the credited Victor Fleming, plus George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, and King Vidor) plus two Tin Men, after the first one (Buddy Ebsen) was nearly killed by his aluminum makeup.

In some of these cases and others, the resultant movies wouldn’t be half as successful, creatively or financially, if not for their problems. Steven Spielberg has said many times that he doubts “Jaws” would have been the blockbuster it became if Bruce, the mechanical shark, had functioned as intended from the start of production. Without a working shark, Spielberg was forced to improvise, and to keep his monster lurking below the waves and in our imaginations. Necessity was the mother of invention.

It was for “World War Z” as well. The Huffington Post has a list of the changes that were made to the film in post-production and reshoots. It confirms that many of the best moments in the movie — including a harrowing zombie attack on an airplane — were added after the fact by screenwriters Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (with additional “sharpening” by Christopher McQuarrie). The original ending to “World War Z” was yet another big-scale assault by thousands of zombies. The new ending, which involves Pitt and just a few other survivors trapped in a single location, has a smaller scope but very large stakes. And it was all borne of the problems in the original production. If they hadn’t occurred, if everyone had gotten along famously, if the script had been finished in the first place, there’s no way Lindelof and Goddard would have ever gotten involved.

It’s hard to say the movie is “better” this way without seeing the cut footage — but there’s no question the movie is pretty good this way, and would have at least been very different (and potentially much worse) without it. “World War Z” certainly isn’t in the same class as those great movies with troubled productions I mentioned earlier, but it’s no disaster — and another indication that negative buzz shouldn’t encourage anyone to write off a film before they see the finished product.

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