Thank goodness for budget cuts. Filmmakers sometimes complain that they have to compromise their artistic vision because they didn’t have enough money. But I believe that good filmmakers will wind up being happy that they had less to work with because it forces them to come up with a more creative solution.
That’s certainly the case with the following five classic movies. They were, in most cases, saved by budget cuts. I’ll show you what I mean.
1. Back to the Future
The script for Back to the Future went through several drafts on the way to becoming the masterpiece we all know and love. In fact, the same could be said of every film on this list. The time machine changed from a time chamber to a refrigerator before finally settling on a DeLorean. And its power source, instead of being a small amount of plutonium or a bolt of lightning, was going to be a nuclear explosion.
Writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale envisioned the climactic sequence of Back to the Future showing Marty McFly going to a Nevada desert and driving the DeLorean time machine straight into ground zero of a nuclear test explosion. Let that sentence sink in for a moment.
Let me explain all the things that are wrong with this idea:
- How would Marty survive the heat or lethal radiation dose from the nuclear blast? The flux capacitor is behind the driver seat, so the radiation would have to penetrate the car to reach it and power the time travel equipment.
- What part would Doc Brown play in this sequence except as kind of a coach on the sidelines giving Marty advice while Marty did all the work?
- Why would Doc risk transporting the time machine such a long distance and having it drive outside in broad daylight if he’s so worried about disrupting the space-time continuum?
- A huge nuclear explosion would be totally out of place with Back to the Future’s small story about Marty’s parents. It would overpower that story to the point of seeming like a completely separate movie.
What other movie do you know of that has a character miraculously survive a nuclear explosion? How about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? “Nuking the fridge” became a new permutation of the old “Jumping the shark” phrase to signify when a TV show or movie series has outlived its usefulness and entered the realm of the ridiculous.
Luckily, Back to the Future dodged a bullet when Zemeckis had his budget sliced and he suddenly didn’t have enough money to shoot such an expensive scene. So he and co-writer Gale put their heads together and came up with a brilliant scene in which Doc is in the thick of the action, Marty is forced to think fast to solve several problems and we get one of the most iconic images of all time when the DeLorean hits a wire just as it’s electrified by a bolt of lightning. That scene still gives me chills of excitement every time I see it. Thank you, thrifty Universal executives, for making that moment possible.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
It’s a rare thing in movies to have your expectations surpassed in every way. When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up to make their own version of a James Bond-Errol Flynn serial adventure, I’m sure moviegoers must have thought they were in for one of the biggest treats of all time. Sure, Spielberg was coming off a bomb called 1941 (which, coincidentally, was written by Zemeckis and Gale). But Spielberg had made way more great movies than bad ones, and Lucas had yet to make a single bad film.
What did moviegoers finally get for their patience? Raiders of the Lost Ark, probably the best action-adventure movie ever made. The amazing thing is that this movie was made on the cheap and on the fly. Lucas executive produced the film, and he gave his friend Spielberg a $20 million budget and a two-and-a-half-month shooting schedule. Spielberg, who had gone over budget on his last three Hollywood films, took this as a challenge and he worked fast and creatively to wind up with a film that was ahead of schedule and under budget. Now that’s amazing. He shot Raiders of the Lost Ark in just 73 days, despite all the accidents and illnesses plaguing the production. And the film cost just $18 million, making it one of the most profitable films of all time.
If Lucas had spent more extravagantly on this “B-movie” he probably would have ended up with something that barely resembled the perfect action spectacle it became. Spielberg agrees with me, as he said in a 1981 Time magazine interview: “We didn’t do 30 or 40 takes – usually only four. It was like silent film – shoot only what you need, no waste. Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.”
Because Spielberg was in such a rush to stay on schedule, he was open to Harrison Ford’s suggestion at one point that Indiana Jones simply fire his gun at a swordsman in Cairo rather than having a long, drawn-out sword fight. The brilliance of that moment is in the fact that everyone involved was perfectly capable of producing an impressive fight scene, but they cut it short, leaving the audience wanting more but being delighted by how surprising that turn of events was. I love it when movies do what I think they should obviously do if they were set in the real world. It’s rewarding.
Thank you, Lucas and Spielberg, for not wasting money, but using your incredible intelligence to make exceptional entertainment.
Rocky is one of my favorite movies because it is one of the most character-driven movies I’ve ever seen. It is so focused on Rocky Balboa and his plight to overcome incredible obstacles and live up to his potential that it doesn’t need big special effects or an enormous cast to be successful. It’s a quintessential drama.
When Rocky and his would-be girlfriend Adrian go to a skating rink on Thanksgiving night, we see a clear example of how this movie benefitted by having such a low budget. This scene was originally going to have dozens of other skaters all over the rink, but they couldn’t afford all the extras so they instead just used the excuse that the rink was closed for the holiday. This scene would have been ruined by the distraction of all the other people because it’s a pivotal scene where the two characters begin to bond and realize they need each other. “We make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I’m dumb, you’re shy,” as Rocky puts it.
Rocky II is still a good movie, but it’s just not as good as the original. This is partly because it naturally gives in to the temptation to try to top the first film rather than just presenting its own story in its own way. At no point is this starker than in Rocky II’s training sequence. Rocky is running through the streets of Philadelphia and suddenly dozens of people stop what they’re doing and start following him as he makes his way up the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Let’s compare that to the corresponding scene in the first Rocky. When Rocky first starts training he can barely hobble all the way up the steps to the museum. He soon doubles over and struggles for breath in the frigid air. Weeks later, after an intense training montage, he sprints through city streets and down docks before arriving at the same steps, which he hurdles up. The only one to share in his joy at that moment of triumph is his dog Butkus. This makes the moment more special for us, the audience, because we’re the only ones who get to see history taking place. Everyone else in Philadelphia is oblivious to Rocky’s epic journey. We don’t need to see dozens of people cheering for him because we’re already doing that.
The loneliness and isolation of the first Rocky are a big part of what makes the film so memorable. Rocky V tried to recapture that spirit but it ultimately failed. Rocky Balboa, which was released 30 years after the original film, did a much better job. The Rocky series was never meant to be big and gaudy. It almost became a self-parody by the fourth film (which I have to admit is a guilty pleasure of mine). But the first film stands as a testament to the power of low-budget filmmaking at its finest.
4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely considered to be the best in the series. Ironically, it had the lowest budget of any of the Star Trek films.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture went over budget, but it still earned enough money at the box office to warrant a sequel. Paramount hired producer Harve Bennett (who had a reputation for being frugal) to make Star Trek II. He hired several writers to try to come up with a story that was big enough for the big screen but small enough to be made for a reasonable price.
It wasn’t until a young writer/director named Nicholas Meyer showed up that all the pieces came together. Meyer took the ideas for the Genesis device, Kirk’s wife and son, Spock’s death, and Khan’s obsession with taking revenge on Kirk and somehow managed to incorporate them all into a near-perfect script in just 12 days. And he didn’t even receive any money or formal credit for doing it!
To save time and money, Star Trek II reuses three special-effects scenes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Reusing these scenes turned out to be not only economical but a perfect example of how this film is different than the first. I’ll describe each scene and how it’s improved by the sequel:
- Three Klingon battle cruisers attack. In the Kobayashi Maru test, we don’t know it’s a test the first time we see it so we’re concerned for the Enterprise and her crew when we see them under attack by merciless Klingons. The captain is clearly in over her head and we don’t know how she’s going to get out of this unwinnable situation. Compare that to the first film where we see a group of Klingons (who we don’t know or care about) firing at a giant nebula. Not very riveting in comparison.
- Kirk docks with the Enterprise. As Kirk and his crew approach the Enterprise via shuttlecraft, Kirk is using his glasses (a symbol of his anxiety about his age) to read a book. Kirk makes a few snide remarks and Sulu gets in a great line. The entire scene is less than 30 seconds long. Compare that with the five-minute scene of Kirk and Scotty slowly making their way to the Enterprise in the first film. The special effects are certainly impressive, but the scene drags after a few minutes and it doesn’t really build up to anything.
- The Enterprise leaves space port. When the Enterprise is preparing to leave space port in Star Trek II, Spock suddenly turns the reins over to a junior officer named Saavik. This adds a bit of tension to a scene that would otherwise have been fairly boring, and it also plays into the theme of youth vs. experience. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this scene is a little too long and it lacks any kind of tension or drama. Yes, it’s the first time we’ve seen the Enterprise leave port, but could we please move on with the story?
Probably the most “i-KHAAAN-ic” moment in Star Trek II is when Kirk (you guessed it) shouts Khan’s name twice. But this scene easily could have been ruined. Meyer could have been tempted to have Kirk and Khan actually face each other in person just once and have a fight. But anyone who saw Star Trek III: The Search for Spock can see that that would have been a mistake. “I… have had… enough of you!” doesn’t hold a candle to the monosyllabic “KHAN!”
With a tight budget that forced the filmmakers to work within a limited framework, Star Trek II became more epic than its big-budget predecessor and made it possible for Star Trek to become a viable film franchise. Live long and prosper, penny pinchers!
5. Star Wars
George Lucas is at his best when he has limited resources to work with. After making American Graffiti in 1973, Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz set out to tell the biggest story they could on a limited budget. Lucas worked on draft after draft of his script for a space opera called Star Wars, and Kurtz kept reining him in and helping him keep budgetary constraints in mind as he imagined alien creatures and worlds.
Lucas wanted to include a whole planet full of Wookiees, but he scaled it back to just one – Chewbacca. He wanted Han Solo to be a green alien but was persuaded to go for the more practical choice of casting Harrison Ford in the role. The Death Star sets had to be constructed in creative ways to give the illusion of immense size. The entire $13 million budget was stretched and put to extraordinary use. The film included a relatively small number of optical effects compared to later science fiction films, but each of those effects was groundbreaking and important to the story. There was no room in the budget for including pointless special effects.
Star Wars’ brilliance lies in its minimalism. It created an entire galaxy by showing a desert, several special-effects shots, confined sets and a few amazon scenes. Most of the galaxy is only hinted at. When Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that he used to be a Jedi Knight and he fought in Clone Wars, we get a sense of how grand those old times must have been. The cantina scene where he pulls out his lightsaber clues us in to the fact that Obi-Wan is no pushover. He’s holding back because of his old age, but he must have been an incredible warrior in his prime. Grand Moff Tarkin mentions the Galactic Senate and the Emperor only in passing. The story feels epic mostly because of what it doesn’t show.
To see what Star Wars would have been if Lucas had had a bigger budget and access to more advanced special effects, just look at the Special Edition he released in 1997. Most of the changes are superfluous and don’t add to the story. The original version is a much better film because nothing goes to waste in terms of story, character development, special effects or just about anything else. I can’t think of too many other movies that can boast the same thing.
An Important Note
It’s interesting to note that, though none of these movies was the filmmakers’ first, all five of them were made near the beginning of their respective creators’ careers. They had already had a chance to get their feet wet in the world of film and try new things before perfecting their work in these follow-up films. The fact that they hadn’t yet become comfortable in their careers meant they were still driven to achieve greatness, no matter the effort.
You can see a progression in the films of Zemeckis, Spielberg, Stallone, Lucas and many others where they got stuck and kept making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe I’ll do another list of films ruined by big budgets to shine more light on that subject.
For now, this is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
The photos from Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Wars are the copyright of their respective owners.