United Artists
United Artists

5 Movies Made for Strange Reasons

United Artists
United Artists

Generally, filmmakers undergo the tortuous, years-long process of making a feature film for two reasons: They have something to say, and their financiers want to make money while they say it. Some movies, however, enter production owing to more unusual motivations. Take a look at five films that originated out of unique circumstances.

1. Raging Bull Got a Green Light from Rocky Balboa

In 2013’s Grudge Match, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro cashed in the equity of their iconic roles as boxers to portray aging rivals getting in the ring for one last bout. But if not for the success of Stallone’s Rocky, De Niro may have never gotten his passion project, 1980’s Raging Bull, made.

De Niro met boxer Jake LaMotta after reading the embattled fighter’s autobiography and became obsessed with telling his story. He convinced director Martin Scorsese to join him; Scorsese had just finished a film, New York, New York with producer Irwin Winkler. Winkler had helped usher Rocky to screens in 1976 and had a deal with United Artists. Despite the talent assembled, UA wasn’t keen on a melancholic tale of an abusive pugilist. But Winkler had ammunition: He knew the studio was desperate for a Rocky sequel. In a slick move, Winkler told them the only way they’d be getting Stallone back in the ring would be to finance Winkler’s other, far less marketable boxing film.

“So we said to them, ‘Well, you want to make Rocky II?’” Winkler told National Public Radio in 2007. “'We'll make Rocky II, but you have to make Raging Bull.’ [B]ut the sad thing is that Raging Bull might never had been made and probably wouldn't have been made unless we took that position on Rocky.”

The studio bit: Rocky II made over $200 million in worldwide box office in 1979. Raging Bull followed in 1980. Though not nearly as profitable as Stallone’s crowd-pleaser, it earned De Niro a Best Actor Oscar and a regular spot on lists covering the best American films ever made.

2. A High School Class Convinced Francis Coppola to Make The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton’s novel of juvenile class struggle, The Outsiders, is said to have practically invented the young adult market. Circulating in classrooms since its release in 1967, the book has sold more than 10 million copies. But it was one school in particular that helped it achieve a first-rate feature adaptation.

In 1980, Jo Ellen Misakian, the librarian of a small Fresno, California grade and middle school, wrote a letter to director Francis Ford Coppola imploring him to consider making a film based on Hinton’s work. More than 100 students signed her petition; she included a copy, presumably to spare Coppola a trip to the bookstore.

“I feel our students are representative of the youth of America,” Misakian wrote. “Everyone who has read the book, regardless of ethnic or economical background, has enthusiastically endorsed this project.”

Coppola’s production company reviewed both the petition and the book: Producer Fred Roos flew out to Tulsa, Oklahoma to meet with Hinton. Coppola wound up optioning the novel, though Roos—in continued correspondence with the school—cautioned there might be rights issues with the title and even asked students to come up with alternatives.

The Outsiders shot in 1982 for a 1983 release: Coppola directed one of the most substantial casts in film history (Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, and Diane Lane). As a thank you, Warner Bros. sent a print of the movie and several of the actors, including Swayze and Ralph Macchio, to the school for a special screening, where students declared it “rad.”

3. Bill Murray Ghost-Busted On One Condition

Thanks to his stint on Saturday Night Live and hit movies like Stripes, Hollywood wanted to be in the Bill Murray business. One script virtually tailor-made for the actor was 1984’s Ghostbusters, co-written by SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd and actor Harold Ramis. But being an ensemble piece meant it was hard to attract name talent to the project; Eddie Murphy was among those who passed.

At the time Ghostbusters was being shopped, Murray had decided to try his hand at dramatic performing and became infatuated with filming an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Leveraging his comedic celebrity, Murray told Columbia Pictures he’d agree to star in their big-budget comedy if they financed his pet project about a war veteran on a spiritual quest. They agreed, and while The Razor’s Edge failed to find an audience, Ghostbusters became one of the most popular comedies of all time. (These days, no amount of bartering seems able to convince Murray to do a second Ghostbusters sequel; he’s avoided the project for years.)

4. The Movie Inspired By a Classified Ad

In 1997, Backwoods Home Magazine published a bizarre classified notice. “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me,” it read. “This is not a joke … Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

The ad was so peculiar that it eventually found a home as a meme, with people circulating it online and speculating as to its authorship. Screenwriter Derek Connolly thought it might make an interesting basis for a film and recommended it to his writing partner, director Colin Trevorrow, as a clever way of heeding their agent’s advice to pitch a film based on a pre-existing concept. The result, 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed—about a reporter who answers the ad and finds a man who may or may not be preparing to time-travel—garnered positive reviews and developed a cult following.

As for the actual ad? It was written by Backwoods staffer John Silveira because the magazine was running short that issue. Silveira says he received more than 1000 responses, some of which took his offer very seriously. “Dozens, in prison, asked me to go back in time and talk them out of committing the crime that put them away,” he wrote in 2010. “Others … were from people who begged me to go back and save a loved one from a tragic death. Those letters were so heartbreaking I almost couldn't read them and I felt a certain amount of shame for not anticipating the false hope I placed in so many hearts.”

5. The Lambada Movie Made Out of Spite

Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were two Israeli cousins who made an unlikely impression in Hollywood during the 1980s via their Cannon production banner. Movies involving Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and Dolph Lundgren helped populate video store shelves for much of the decade.

But the two eventually had a falling out; by 1990, they no longer shared office space. Globus, who remained with Cannon, decided to pursue an idea they had to do a film based on the then-popular lambada Brazilian dance craze. He teamed with Warner Bros. for the aptly-titled Lambada.

But Golan was not about to let his former business partner hoard the vast profits of fad-based dance films. After Globus had put Lambada in production, Golan announced The Forbidden Dance, a film written in just 10 days and distributed by Columbia. The former partners then circled one another, announcing one release date after the other in the hopes of arriving in theaters first.

Fittingly—or tragically, if one happened to be a moviegoer in spring 1990—their efforts wound up premiering on the very same day. Lambada won the box office duel with $4.8 million compared to Golan’s $1.8 million haul in fewer theaters. The two would later attend a 2010 retrospective of their filmography, their dance-movie rivalry presumably forgotten, before Golan’s passing in 2014. 

The Criterion Collection
14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.


To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”


Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”


Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”


In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”


During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”


All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”


Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”


Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”


In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”


In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.


Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”


In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Pop Culture
How to Perform the Star Wars Theme—On Calculators
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The iconic Star Wars theme has been recreated with glass harps, theremins, and even cat meows. Now, Laughing Squid reports that the team over at YouTube channel It’s a small world have created a version that can be played on calculators.

The channel’s math-related music videos feature covers of popular songs like Luis Fonsi’s "Despacito," Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You," and the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, all of which are performed on two or more calculators. The Star Wars theme, though, is played across five devices, positioned together into a makeshift keyboard of sorts.

The video begins with a math-musician who transcribes number combinations into notes. Then, they break into an elaborate practice chord sequence on two, and then four, calculators. Once they’re all warmed up, they begin playing the epic opening song we all know and love, which you can hear for yourself in all its electronic glory below.

[h/t Laughing Squid]


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