5 Classic Movies That Were Made Possible By Insane Schemes
Like it or not, film as an art form is all about money. Even a tiny independent film about a couple of dudes hanging around their apartment can cost more to make than an average waiter makes in a year.
So for the aspiring filmmakers who don't happen to have wealthy friends or connections at a studio, securing funding is by far the biggest obstacle between them and the fulfillment of their vision. Sometimes that means getting creative. Horribly, horribly creative.
Robert Rodriguez Paid for Movies With Medical Experiments
You know director Robert Rodriguez from movies like Machete and Sin City, though he also finds time for family fare like the Spy Kids movies. But once upon a time (in the '90s), Rodriguez was an indie film hero for making El Mariachi. It was a microscopic budget film (made for as little as $7,000, reportedly) starring some dudes he knew and using every money-saving trick in the book. Rodriguez became an inspiration to every film student and video store clerk who dreamed of making a movie on their own terms, without having to sell out to The Man.
But how far did he have to go to scrape the cash together to make his little action movie? Let's put it this way: It involved letting people perform medical experiments on his body.
"Take everything except my artistic integrity. And my penis."
In his book Rebel Without a Crew, Rodriguez describes his life as a "human lab rat," signing up for several rounds of drug testing and medical studies to generate enough cash to fund his short films and eventually his first full-length feature. It started with a desperate Rodriguez looking through classified ads and seeing he could get a few thousand dollars for participating in a medical experiment and staying in a hospital for about a week. It's one of those things that seems too good to be true if you've never seen a horror movie.
Rest assured, he's already recreated the whole agonizing experience in 4D.
And, yes, there was a reason they didn't mention what the experiment actually entailed until he got there. The company running the experiment, with the delightfully evil-sounding name Pharmaco, was testing a drug to help with the healing of skin and muscle tissue. What they didn't mention in the ad is that to test "healing" his skin, they would have to "wound" his skin. A few football-shaped chunks out of the backs of his arms and a seven-day hospital stay later, and he found himself $2,000 richer.
He would have held the money in his arms but, you know, mangled.
This is when Rodriguez figured out that the medical studies that paid the most were high-paying for a reason -- they tended to hurt. Still, money was money, so he came back for more, signing up for studies that promised even longer stays (and presumably more awful side effects).
To fund El Mariachi directly, he signed up for a one-month drug trial that paid $3,000 but put him through Draconian scheduling (his days were planned out to the minute, and showing up late to things like meals or his daily blood draws would cost him $25 an occurrence). Even more fun, he was required to poop into clear Tupperware, place it in a fridge alongside the other patients' samples and discuss his poop's consistency with a drug counselor.
It only cost $7,000 and a lifetime of human dignity.
It would be worth it, in the end. Though the film didn't make much money, the right people noticed it. This enabled Rodriguez to more or less remake it as Desperado, launching the English-speaking careers of Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas in the process. Fifteen years later, Rodriguez is still making movies ... and he still has his medical testing scars to remind him where he came from.
The Original Willy Wonka Was Just One Big Product Placement
Maybe you thought the 2005 Johnny Depp remake of 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a cynical ploy to cash in on a classic. Really, Hollywood, does even this eccentric childhood fantasy have to get sucked into your reboot machine?
Oompa Loompa, do-ba-dee-get out.
Well, good news, kids. The 1971 original was just one big scheme to sell candy bars.
The odd back story began with a Hollywood producer named David Wolper who met with the Quaker Oats Company. They wanted a vehicle to launch a new chocolate bar. A short time later, who would walk in but director Mel Stuart, holding a copy of the Roald Dahl children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Having not read the book, but realizing that the word "chocolate" was in the title, Wolper convinced Quaker Oats that they totally needed to get into the movie business, preferably today.
"Can't it be Jedidiah Platte's Quiet, Traditional Oat Press?"
Faster than you can say "golden ticket," Quaker Oats was on board to fully finance the project, paying for all pre-production, securing the movie rights to the novel and eventually putting up all the money for the multimillion dollar film budget. And best of all, from their perspective, they had a ready-made tie-in just waiting to be sold: the Quaker Oats-branded Wonka Bar. What could possibly go wrong?
The movie stayed within budget, was well received and posted a healthy 25 percent profit margin. Everybody wins, right? Well, everyone except for Quaker Oats. According to Wolper, the completed Wonka Bars shipped to some stores, but they faced a "production problem" that resulted in a speedy recall; namely, that the bars "tasted horrible." OK, guys, how do you fuck up a chocolate bar?
If you can't get whipple-scrumptious into a recipe, then we can't help you.
It's true that Wonka-branded candy still exists on store shelves, but the Wonka logo that you see now is by Nestle and not the company that had specifically financed the entire endeavor as a means to sell their ill-begotten candy bar. "Thanks for making the brand famous, Quaker Oats! We'll take it from here!"
The Animal Farm Movie Was Funded by the CIA
Most of the American readers in our audience didn't make it through middle school without reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, or at least seeing the animated movie. It's a cautionary tale about totalitarianism, as played out by adorable talking farm animals. The animals overthrow the owners of the farm where they're being raised (in an obvious allegory to the communist revolution), but over time, the animals find out they've traded one set of oppressors for another.
The lesson learned, of course, is that beer is awesome. Also, glue.
During the Cold War, this was clearly the kind of story the American government wanted told. So when it came time to adapt it to a feature-length cartoon, the filmmakers found themselves with a surprising backer: the freaking CIA.
In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency decided that the book by the then-recently deceased George Orwell would be ideal propaganda against what they saw as growing pro-Communist sentiment. So clearly that shit needed to get into theaters.
"This is the only way to stop the next generation of beatniks."
Working through intermediaries, the CIA labored behind the scenes to secure the rights to the novel and to get the project made. First, sending a representative to England, they convinced Orwell's widow to sign over the film rights. What did it take for her to do something so, well, Orwellian? They told her they could arrange for her to meet her movie star hero, Clark Gable.
This is the handsome cost of capitalism, America.
The CIA also made arrangements for the film to be made entirely in Britain, which is vaguely ironic since American taxpayers were funding it. Everything was done in the shadows -- so complete was the hidden nature of their involvement that the people actually making the film never knew that they were working with the CIA. In fact, news of the CIA's involvement was kept under wraps for almost 50 years. Considering that the modern CIA can keep a secret for about three months, this is fairly astonishing.
We're still waiting on the news that The Human Centipede Full Sequence is a slam on trickle-down economics.
These days you can view the entire thing online for free. Or, you can just repeat the seventh grade.
Ed Wood Got a Church to Fund Plan 9 From Outer Space
Most readers have probably heard of Ed Wood, either as "the guy who made Plan 9 From Outer Space" or as the subject of the 1994 Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp as the title character. A World War II hero who also happened to be a transvestite who loved angora sweaters, Wood created some of the world's worst films, and as a result would be remembered longer than a whole lot of people who made good ones.
Citizen Kane never had any zombie-on-boob action.
The following story was also told in the Tim Burton film, though some of you who saw it probably thought it was too stupid to be anything but an addition by an imaginative screenwriter. The story goes that Wood, having a habit of making everything he touched terrible, found that securing funding for his magnum opus, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, was nearly impossible.
"You have got to stop approaching us like this, Ed."
Enter the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, whose members were interested in producing a series of films about the apostles. Wood convinced them that if they financed a hit science fiction movie first, they could use the proceeds to produce the rest of their films. Which may have been a great idea, if the science fiction movie was not going to turn out to be Plan 9 From Outer Space (renamed from Grave Robbers From Outer Space at the Baptist Church's insistence).
No one knows God's plans 1-8, but 9 somehow involves Frisbees and terrible cinematography.
There was only one catch: The Baptists mandated that, to secure the funding, Wood and the entire cast had to be baptized into their church. They agreed, and the whole cast and crew -- from Vampira to pro wrestler Tor Johnson to Wood himself -- entered the waters of baptism and came out Baptists. Baptists who now had enough scratch to fund their monster movie.
All these satanic creatures have God's blessing.
In a twist that surprised absolutely nobody but the church and maybe Wood himself, the film completely tanked and of course did not produce the necessary funds to get the apostle movies made. And, whoever approved the use of church funds for the project was probably fired and ... his baptism revoked? Whatever the rule is there.
That'll teach you to Bapts!
Melvin Van Peebles Suffered for His Art, or At Least His Penis Did
When filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles completed a hit film called Watermelon Man, a comedy about a white man who wakes up black one day, Columbia Pictures offered him a three-movie contract. In response, Van Peebles said, "Great, how about a porn film about a militant black man standing up to the white establishment?"
"At the end it'll just cut to black with the words 'FUCK HOLLYWOOD' flashing in neon for the next 30 minutes."
Needless to say, he now had no studio financing. So, Van Peebles took out a personal loan from Bill Cosby for $50,000, who was apparently as big a fan of militant porn as he was Jell-O Pudding Pops. With some starter money, Van Peebles got to work on what would become Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Wow look, it stars a dog.
To defray costs, Van Peebles approached the project Orson Welles-style -- he produced it, directed it, acted in it, wrote the film's screenplay, scored the entire soundtrack and performed all the stunts. And by performed all the stunts, we don't only mean being thrown off of a truck; we mean personally doing the boning. And by boning, we mean having thoroughly unprotected sex with a woman he never bothered to have medically tested. He also had his 13-year-old son, Mario Van Peebles, film a flashback sex scene with a prostitute, and the scene is so graphic it's difficult to know if the sex is simulated or not.
It sure is difficult with all those boxes in the way.
Probably because the universe has a way of righting these kinds of things, Van Peebles Sr. contracted gonorrhea from the said boning. But because he was a lunatic, he filed a claim with the Director's Guild of America that claimed he was hurt while making his film and required workman's compensation. For the STD he got from having unprotected sex on camera.
Somehow (probably because it was the '70s), the guild took pity on his plight and actually mailed him a check. Which he used to not do anything silly like treat the gonorrhea, but to buy more film to complete the movie.
"Unless the Man pays for my STD, in which case, he's cool."
Knowing that the movie resulted in an STD and the emotional scarring of his son, Van Peebles today is completely ashamed of his actions. And by that we mean he brags about it every chance he gets.
"STDs? I've almost got the whole set."
For more terrifying behind-the-scenes looks, check out 6 Beloved TV Shows (That Traumatized Cast Members For Life) and 12 Classic Movie Moments Made Possible by Abuse and Murder.