This past September, Paolo Sorrentino, Oscar-winning director of The Great Beauty, announced a daring new project: a feature film about Silvio Berlusconi, one of the scariest men alive.
Berlusconi, whose corrupt history as Italy’s former, powerful Prime Minister, was caught up in “tax fraud, possibly (possibly!) soliciting an under-18 prostitute, bribery, and Mafia associations, among other controversies,” according to The Film Stage blog. The explosive nature of Sorrentino’s revelations could endanger the production in a myriad of ways, including the safety of the actors and crew members.
In case you think we’re being paranoid, here are some other films where the body count on set almost approached the one on screen:
Gomorrah. After this Italian Mafia exposé became an international success, the author of the original novel received endless, credible death threats. In the fall of 2008, gangsters gave anonymous quotes to a string of Italian newspapers, claiming that writer Roberto Saviano would be dead by Christmas. Saviano fled Italy, according to the Guardian, having spent two years “under round-the-clock protection by a team of seven paramilitary Carabinieri.”
Apocalypse Now. The reports from this set were endless and so extensive they were the subject of their own film – the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled late-70s production stretched for an eternity and was failed with catastrophic failures: lead actor Martin Sheen nearly died of a heart attack that was ultimately kept in the movie; dummies were dispensed with in favor of dead bodies reportedly on loan from a “grave robber”; Dennis Hopper was on so much cocaine his lines had to be shot separately so that Brando didn’t have to deal with him; the Government of the Philippines even snatched the production’s helicopters to go fight a guerilla insurgency and Coppola suffered a seizure and a separate nervous breakdown from the stress.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Anyone who says seen this cult classic remembers the bizarre helicopter crash early in the film. It’s an impressive set piece for a reported $100,000 indie movie from the 70s – but that may be because it was a terrifying accident. During filming, a rented helicopter landed safely in a tomato patch, then suddenly, its tail rotor hit the ground, spun the helicopter out of control and caused it to burst into flames. Director John DeBello got the actors and crew to safety, but the actors, still in character, continue to ad-lib and pieces of the real-life disaster became part of the plot.
White Helmets. Netflix’s new short documentary, a possible frontrunner for the 2017 Oscars, follows the Syria Civil Defense, a group of volunteer rescue workers who race headlong into gunfire and through towns under heavy bombing to save innocent lives. Filmmaker Khaleed Khateeb says three of his subjects were killed in one day in a bomb raid, mere feet from where he was filming.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Werner Herzog’s work with actor Klaus Kinski was so tumultuous and legendary in its own right that a documentary – My Best Fiend – was made about their relationship. The trouble started on the set of 1972’s Aguirre when Kinski, suffering from untreated mental health issues, fired gunshots into a tent full of crew members and extras because they were “making too much noise”; one bullet partially severed an extra’s finger. Herzog threatened to murder-suicide his leading man if he didn’t stop causing problems.
General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait. Legendary French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary on the tyrannical Ugandan dictator almost got 200 people executed.
Schroeder, already treading on dangerous ground making a movie with and about the murderous Amin, thought he could push his luck further by showing Amin a doctored version of the film excluding several unflattering sequences. Undercover Ugandan agents reported back to their boss, telling him that one sequence showed the dictator criticizing his foreign minister, who was found murdered shortly after. Amin rounded up hundreds of French citizens living in Uganda and had them imprisoned until Schroeder cut out two minutes of the film.
Today, the full version of the film is available through Criterion thanks to Amin’s eventual fall from power.
The Jinx. Andrew Jarecki’s shocking and relentlessly engrossing HBO documentary chronicled the trials of Robert Durst, heir to a billion-dollar real estate empire but scorned by his family over perceived psychotic tendencies. His brother Douglas, now in charge of the family business, hired private security guards and agreed to appear on camera but may now regret his participation. After the film was completed, a private investigator working for Robert’s lawyer told the Washington Post that Robert had spoken of having his brother whacked, presumably in part because of his negative comments in the documentary and other past slights.
Roar. Often called “the most dangerous movie ever made,” this five-year-long vanity project by Tippi Hedron and Noel Marshall involved their daughter, Melanie Griffith, and 150 rescued or otherwise untrained lions and other dangerous animals. Over 70 crew members suffered injuries due to lion bites and other incidents on set, resulting in a presumably outlandish insurance premium.
Cinematographer Jan de Bont lost most of his scalp when a lioness nearly lopped off his head, requiring a reported 220 stitches. De Bont survived and, fun fact, went on to make back-to-back blockbusters: Speed and Twister.
Midnight Rider. This film may be permanently unfinished but it’ll certainly be remembered for its notorious production. Camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and other crew members were injured because this Gregg Allman biopic production was trapped on a bridge when a real locomotive came barreling through. The courts found that use of the tracks was unauthorized, leading to increased scrutiny of Hollywood safety standards. Under a plea deal, producer/director Randall Miller spent a year in prison and was slapped with ten years probation, becoming the first director convicted of manslaughter in an on-set accident.
The Sword Of Tipu Sultan. Obscure in the west, this notorious 1990 Indian film production almost went down in a massive blaze on its studio set. There were apparently no ventilators on the property, so when lighting equipment heated up loose wires and other areas, a small fire spread quickly and trapped almost everyone in the building. 62 people died; star Sanjay Khan spent more than a year in the hospital and suffered through dozens of surgeries, but the film was released… after paying out a few thousand rupees to victims.