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The formula for making a terrible film

While John Travolta’s ‘Gotti’ is easily 2018’s worst movie, here’s a look at the elements that take a movie from bad to worst

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It may only be June, but we already have a runaway favourite for worst film of the year. John Travolta’s Gotti, a long-in-the-making biopic of the New York crime boss John Gotti, has been savaged by critics, despite a splashy premiere in Cannes and the star’s reported conviction that it would bag him an Oscar. Having managed the rare achievement of a 0 per cent score on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it has gone down no better with the public, earning a wretched $1.7 million (Dh6.24 million) in its opening weekend.

From the tortuous production history of this misbegotten passion project, to the crunchy grey wigs Travolta wears, Gotti was a checklist of ingredients for box office calamity.

Looking at the ignoble precedents for megaflops, here’s our step-by-step guide to making one of your own.

Get terrible hair

How many silver foxes died to be piled atop Travolta’s head in Gotti? Bad hair is often the sign of a bad movie, as Nicolas Cage has proved on numerous occasions. But the all-time film-sinking hair job remains Colin Farrell’s Alexander hair, a Goldilocks mane that made him look more like a Swedish beach bum than a feared pillager of the ancient world. Perhaps the hair was a metaphor — for everything vain, silly and unruly that director Oliver Stone inflicted on the man and his myth.

Cast your spouse

Kelly Preston hasn’t had much of a role to play lately except that of Mrs John Travolta. In Gotti, she gets to be Mrs John Gotti: the kind of casting call that doesn’t ring any alarm bells, no siree, about what kind of vanity project we’re facing. The ultimate example of marital nepotism, though, was Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002). Failing to heed the lesson learnt by Madonna’s first husband, Sean Penn (who starred with the material girl in 1986’s stinky Shanghai Surprise), Ritchie charged right in to give the old ball-and-chain a star vehicle he might direct: a romcom seen by practically no one, except derisive critics and Razzie voters.

Be in development for decades

If your film has taken 18 years to reach the screen, it’s not a guarantee that there’s something wrong with it, but the odds aren’t promising. Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea (2004) was an idea hatched by Barry Levinson during his late ’80s hot streak. Endless rounds of script revisions were needed, and by the time Kevin Spacey offered his starring services in 1994, Warner Bros already thought he was too old. This didn’t stop Spacey picking up the rights after his Oscar win for American Beauty (1999), and pushing ahead in the quadruple-threat capacity of writer, director, producer and camera-hogging star.

Write a script that hates humanity

When you’ve spent $50 million (Dh183.62 million), say, on a film called Death to Smoochy (2002), and your main character is a sacked, malevolent children’s TV entertainer (Robin Williams) plotting to kill the cuddly purple rhino of the title (Ed Norton), you may have placed misguided faith in your script’s wit. The film that put an end to Film4 as a production entity.

Triple your budget at sea...

James Cameron will tell you that making an exorbitant film on a boat can pay dividends. But there’s a long list of seafaring productions that sank into a watery grave. Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) confirmed forever its director’s unsuitability for comedy, scarred as it was by years of production delays after Polanski fled his sentencing for rape in the US. Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), meanwhile, was a runaway juggernaut of ballooning expense, cursed by endless rewrites, sets being torn up and rebuilt, and Michael Douglas bailing when he decided Geena Davis was being overpromoted. Both belly-flopped, even more than Waterworld (1995).

...or by outspending Ancient Rome

In 1963, 20th Century Fox, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and a cast of zillions teamed up to recreate the Battle of Actium on a scale that Octavian himself might have found extravagant. As with later films such as Heaven’s Gate (1980), Dune (1984) and The Lone Ranger (2013), money dripped from Cleopatra and, while it was a significant box office draw, it holds the dubious honour of being the only film to outgross everything else in its year but still lose money.

Throw in an awkward scene

Sometimes you can see too much of a film’s leading man. Bruce Willis’s Color of Night (1994), a deranged erotic thriller about a therapy group, was universally derided as the worst film of 1994, despite competition from Willis himself in Rob Reiner’s North. But it lives on in infamy for a scene with Jane March in a swimming pool. Gigli, meanwhile, will never be forgotten for a scene in which Jennifer Lopez uttered the line, “It’s turkey time! Gobble, gobble,” to her co-star and then boyfriend Ben Affleck.

Lunge desperately for acting awards

A paralysed former country singer, searching for her long-lost son by wheelchair? Renee Zellweger! Her stuttering helpmeet, an African-American of diminished mental capacity, chatting periodically to ghosts? Forest Whitaker! The film in question was My Own Love Song (2010), and there are reasons you haven’t seen it. Both stars had already won Oscars, so what possessed them to try this in an attempt to win more? The faulty mojo of writer-director Olivier Dahan inspired a collective madness. Other busted Oscar flushes include Hilary Swank in Amelia (2009), the biopic of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, and Jennifer Hudson trying to capture the early days of Winnie Mandela in 2011.

Star Warren Beatty

While Travolta’s record in the turkey department (Battlefield Earth, Mad City, Killing Season) is not to be sniffed at, he’s not in Beatty’s league. Even Warren’s most widely seen film (1990’s Dick Tracy) grossed less than half what Tim Burton’s Batman made in the same year, and cost much more. Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987) spent ludicrous sums to pack Beatty and Dustin Hoffman on a mirthless trek through the Sahara. The recent stillbirth of his Howard Hughes movie, Rules Don’t Apply, would have shocked no one — especially after Town & Country, 2001’s all-star romcom, which cost a staggering $90 million and recouped less than a 10th at the US box office.

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