Epic Tale of Bloated 'Blues Brothers' Production Shows Us What Not to Do
Almost everybody (at least people I know of a certain age) loves The Blues Brothers, the 1980 John Landis comedy full of celebrity cameos, car chases, musical numbers, and a brilliant performance by John Belushi. The film, the brainchild of Dan Aykroyd, had a very troubled production history, which was detailed in a recent Vanity Fair article. It serves as a great example for any indie filmmaker of what not to do when making a film.
The piece in Vanity Fair deconstructs the troubled production history of the classic film which originated as a sketch on Saturday Night Live. The sketch was so successful, Aykroyd and Belushi went to Hollywood to open for Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheater, signed to Atlantic Records, and put out a hit album:
Let's Make A Movie
When Aykroyd decided to make a film, and with Belushi's monster success following Landis' Animal House, the movie was green-lit in about thirty seconds. Ned Tanen, then president of Universal's film division, receives a call from Sean Daniel, Universals's V.P. in charge of Production. “Belushi, Aykroyd, Blues Brothers, how about it?” “Great,” Tanen replies. “I’ll tell Lew.”
Lew Wasserman is the head of Universal, an old-school Hollywood exec who believes in the primacy of studio over star or film. Movies are movies. He's been in power for years, and managed to survive the sea-change brought by films like Easy Rider, but now it's the late 70s, and Star Wars and Jaws have introduced the blockbuster. The inmates are no longer running the asylum.
Wasserman trusts Tanen, who had persuaded him to make Universal’s smash American Graffiti. Tanen knows a deal when he sees it. Belushi gets $500,000, Aykroyd $250,000. The studio gets a potential blockbuster and quite possibly a franchise. “There was no inter-company conversation,” Tanen recalls.
Just One Problem...No Script
The film was ready to go, except for one hitch. There's no screenplay, and Dan Aykroyd has never written one. Months later, a 324-page draft is produced.
Titled, The Return of the Blues Brothers -- The script contains great scenes and inspired ideas -- It gets meta, with separate story lines detailing the recruitment of all eight backup musicians -- Landis, script in hand, locks himself away. He cuts, shapes, tones. Then he cuts some more. Three weeks later, he emerges with a script that’s down to size and, as they say, shootable. More or less. It still lacks certain basics, such as stage directions.
One of the biggest obstacles on the set of The Blues Brothers was Belushi himself. The comedian had turned into a megastar so quickly that he suddenly found the world ready to cater to his every self-destructive whim. Even the Chicago police couldn't resist. Film producer Mitch Glazer recalls:
John would literally hail police cars like taxis.The cops would say, ‘Hey, Belushi!’ Then we’d fall into the backseat and the cops would drive us home.
Things were made worse by Belushi's raging cocaine problem:
The production is falling behind, and fast, and the trend is largely attributable to Belushi, who stays out until all hours -- Sometimes he can’t be found at all. Except by cocaine, which finds him everywhere. Friends, fans, and hangers-on literally throw it at him. They slip vials into his hands and pockets.
Overbudget (by a lot)
The film balloons past its original 17.5 million dollars to 27 million plus, partly due to the enormous car chases:
Weiss takes Tanen into the “war room,” where action sequences are engineered, and to the building where vehicles used in these sequences -- 70 police cars alone -- get repaired and sometimes built. “They got a full feeling for the size of the production,” Weiss says. “They also caught an earlier flight home. I saw a distinct ashen pallor on Ned’s face.”
The film's schedule has been thrown out the window. Landis turns in a cut, only to find that the theater chains won't book the film because they don't think white people will see the movie (which is both racist and stupid). It's booked in 1,400 theaters around the country. The reviews are mostly bad (Ebert kind of liked it), but:
The Blues Brothers -- is needlessly long and clearly flawed. In New York, Belushi drives from theater to theater, gauging audiences. Aykroyd watches the movie in a theater in Times Square. He detects laughter. The Blues Brothers makes $115 million, becoming one of Universal’s most enduring hits and by far its greatest farce.
The Blues Brothers is an object lesson is what not to do when making a movie, and especially an indie. As Ned Tanen says:
You go in thinking, "This is going to be great!" About the 20th day in, you think, "This is the worst piece of garbage out of hell. Nobody will see it. I’m going to be assassinated for making it."
Some lessons to be gleaned from the film are:
- Go in with a script
- If your film has effects of any kind, plan them out well in advance
- Be aware of the vices of your actors and deal with them before things go really wrong.
- When all else fails, believe in the project, and be prepared to fight.
This is a fascinating article, both for the drama that went in to making the movie, as well as the lessons an indie filmmaker can take away from a run-away train of a Hollywood movie. Any production, big or small, will benefit from copious pre-production and careful planning. A screenplay is also probably a good idea. And had The Blues Brothers not succeeded, it would have put a serious dent in Universal's books and ruined a lot of careers. Saturday Night Live spin-off movies certainly wouldn't be as ubiquitous.
What do you think? As an indie filmmaker, what lessons do you think you can take away from a bloated Hollywood production? Have you had experiences where your film got out of control, and how did you fix the situation?