Great Books about Box Office Disasters and Movie Triumphs

Sometimes discussions about movies turns into an exercise in capitalism—box office receipts, skyrocketing budgets, and Tom Cruise’s salary. While crunching the numbers can be illuminating, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that films are art—art that requires cohesive collaboration between dozens of people in order to succeed, or even make it to the screen. The stories behind some of Hollywood’s most famous hits (and bombs) are just as interesting as what makes the final cut. These five books touch on some of the most famous films ever made, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the way the Hollywood sausage gets made.

The Godfather Notebook, by Francis Ford Coppola
Everybody loves Coppola’s classic films The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. (The third film…exists), and we still read the bestselling Mario Puzo novels that inspired them. This remarkable book doesn’t repeat the well-analyzed process of making those films, but rather goes back even further, reprinting the notes Coppola made while reading Puzo’s novel—long before he began working on a script or assembling a cast and crew. It’s a glimpse into the most fundamental aspect of adapting a novel for the screen, and offers insight into how a genius like Coppola translates the literary into the visual. One thing is certain: anyone who reads it will never watch these classic films in the same way again.

The Devil’s Candy, by Julie Salamon
How do you take a bestselling, award-winning novel by one of America’s greatest writers—a book that dominated pop culture for years—and a host of top-tier Hollywood talent, and create a film that is widely considered one of the worst adaptations ever made? Salamon details the incredible story of failure at the highest levels in the 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. With the book’s incredible success and reputation, stars like Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis, and a director like Brian De Palma, a hit movie should have been guaranteed—but instead, it went on to be an epic flop. Salamon details the troubled production, including De Palma’s inability to control his stars, and the incredible amount of money wasted on meaningless shots and unnecessary details. Studio meddling to change dialog and other details of story didn’t help, either. All in all, The Devil’s Candy is an instruction book on just how difficult and complex a Hollywood production can be.

Final Cut, by Steven Bach
The film studio United Artists was founded in 1919 by Charlie Chapman and other stars. It collapsed 60 years later, largely due to the cost overruns of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. This book, written by UA’s senior vice president and head of worldwide production at the time, details the incredible waste of money involved, the chaos on set that resulted in expensive scenes being unusable for various technical reasons, and a director convinced of his own genius. The film debuted to disastrous reviews and ticket sales, and Cimino’s reputation as a rising star in Hollywood was forever destroyed—along with United Artists itself. Today Heaven’s Gate is a code word for failure, and Final Cut explains how that came to be.

Rebel without a Crew, by Robert Rodriguez
Rodriguez has never really realized the potential shown in his first films, but the story of how he made his breakout Spanish-language picture, El Mariachi, for just $7,000 is one of those Hollywood legends that gives young filmmakers hope. In this book, Rodriguez details how the film was partially funded by participating in clinical medical trials, and how he didn’t try to record ambient sound while filming, knowing he’d need to dub all sound in during post-production, and how he used water guns in some scenes when he couldn’t afford to have enough real guns on set. Inspirational to any artist lacking a budget, the story also enhances the experience of watching the original film—especially considering how polished the final product turned out to be.

The Jaws Log, by Carl Gottlieb
Jaws was a revolutionary film in many ways, aside from serving as the launching pad for Steven Spielberg. While struggling with problems with the mechanical shark, Spielberg reworked most of author Peter Benchley’s script, bringing in his friend Carl Gottlieb to do a dialogue polish (because Spielberg thought the script lacked humor). Gottlieb wound up significantly revising the script, and eventually received full credit for the screenplay. In this book, Gottlieb recounts a chaotic, over-budget Hollywood production that surprisingly didn’t fail, underscoring the peculiar genius of Steven Spielberg, who managed to hold everything together despite all the problems.

The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sistero and Tom Bissel
There is genius like Spielberg’s, and then there is…well, whatever Tommy Wiseau has. The mysterious weirdo behind the infamously bad “adult drama” The Room, which became a cult bad movie sensation almost immediately upon its release in 2003, Wiseau has never revealed any concrete details about his past, or where he got the money to make a movie starring himself, with an unintelligible script (which he wrote) that peppers a nonsensical story of romantic betrayal with odd subplots about drug-dealing simpletons, touch football, and an overly effusive florist. We’re selling it short: the only way to truly appreciate the madness of The Room is to see it…or to read this nigh-unbelievable account of one of its stars, Greg Sistero, who was a struggling young actor when cast in the film, which was quickly revealed to be not a dream job, but an exercise in navigating purgatory. It’s a story so crazy, they’re making it into a movie. Oh hai, cinematic infamy.


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