Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Making of a Huge Movie Flop: "Ishtar"

Do you remember the 1987 'comedy' film Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and directed by Elaine May? It's one of the most notorious flops in movie history. It was intended, apparently, to be a modern take on the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s.   I didn't know that when I was one of the very few who actually paid to see the movie in the theater back in 1987. And even if I had heard that, it would have meant nothing to me then anyway.  

Why did I go see it?  In a time before Waterworld and Titanic institutionalized the concept of critics and the press rooting against big movies while they were still in production, I remember being very interested in all the incredibly negative advance press about the film, about how disastrous the production was, and how terrible the final product was destined to be.   The contrarian in me refused to accept that conventional wisdom. So I went to see it anyway, literally because of the bad press.  And you know what?  It really was terrible.  Terribly terrible. Achingly un-funny. It's still never been released on DVD apparently, it was that bad. 

Vanity Fair magazine has now published an article exploring the whole troubled production of the film, with particular focus on the increasing tension during filming between Warren Beatty and Elaine May.  I thought it was fascinating, in a 'this could never happen in today's corporate movie business' sort of way.  You can read it by clicking HERE.  Here's a short excerpt to give you a flavor of it:

"In the Sahara Desert, May was very much a fish out of water. She was allergic to the sun, swathed her face in gauzy white veils and huge sunglasses that made her look like a storm trooper from Star Wars. She wore big hats, protected herself with parasols, and took shelter under tents whenever possible. She suffered from toothaches throughout much of the shoot, but refused to use a Moroccan dentist on principle, as if only a New York dentist would do. From the first, dunes were a problem. Sylbert was the designated dune guy. He says, 'I listened to nothing but talk about dunes.' Even before the production had settled on Morocco for its location work, he had looked at dunes in Southern California and Idaho. None would meet May’s standards. 'It was hopeless,' he recalls. 'Nobody was satisfied.'

"Once the production set foot in Morocco, Sylbert embarked on a tour of the country looking for the perfect dunes. He finally found some that fit the bill—he thought—near Laayoune. 'There were these great coastal deserts,' he recalls. 'Perfect. But with all the talk of dunes, Elaine’s idea of the desert was Brighton Beach. '...On the drive back from seeing the fabulous dunes, Elaine suddenly said, ‘Dunes? Who said anything about dunes? I want flat!’ Sylbert says he took 11 bulldozers off a construction site about 25 minutes from Laayoune and leveled a square mile of sand."

1 comment:

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