How does such a good formula for such a big movie turn bad? World War Z had it all: popular source material (zombies!) and a massive star (Brad Pitt!)... but it seems to have gone so very wrong. At least that's how Laura M. Holson chronicles the June blockbuster debacle in the making in Vanity Fair's new cover story. And while the delaying of the zombie apocalypse isn't quite Warren Beatty in the Moroccan desert, VF's online excerpt today—all reshoots and blown budgets, without any glossy new Annie Leibovitz photos to be found—brings to mind the magazine's 2010 story on the making of the 80s movie disaster Ishtar.
We already know that World War Z has had its problems: Marc Forster's adaptation of the popular book required reshoots, and Paramount had to call in Damon Lindelof to fix the script. But Lindelof's new accounting to Vanity Fair sounds like a movie-maker's worst nightmare:
"I said to them, There are two roads to go down here," says Lindelof. "Is there material that can be written to make that stuff work better? To have it make sense? To have it have emotional stakes? And plot logic and all that? And Road Two, which I think is the long-shot road, is that everything changes after Brad leaves Israel." That meant throwing out the entire Russian battle scene—or about 12 minutes of footage—and crafting a new ending. "I didn’t think anyone was going to say, 'Let’s throw it out and try something else,': Lindelof recalls. "So when I gave them those two roads and they sounded more interested in Road B"—which meant shooting an additional 30 to 40 minutes of the movie—"I was like, 'To be honest with you, good luck selling that to Paramount.'"
Those problems seem almost unfixable: World War Z didn't make sense, it didn't have emotional stakes, it didn't have "plot logic." So the filmmakers tried to fix it in the most unlikely way: a massive do-over—not from scratch, exactly, but this film definitely became one of the bigger fixer-uppers in recent Hollywood history.
According to Holson, the production also threw around money willy nilly: at one point, when the film was shutting down in Malta, "the wrap-up crew found a stack of purchase orders related to the cast and extras that had been casually tossed into a desk drawer and forgotten; the amount totaled in the millions of dollars."
World War Z's increasingly clear problems aren't quite analogous to Ishtar, the notorious Beatty/Dustin Hoffman picture that became the ultimate Hollywood disaster story when it bombed in 1987, but there are notable similarities from production: a pet project of a big movie star, enormous overhead, exotic locales, a frustrated studio.
With a summer that looks chock full of good blockbusters—Man of Steel, Elysium—World War Z could be the one that just doesn't work. The next question is: Can it make back any of that estimated $200 million budget at the box office?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.