Set design is an important aspect of filmmaking and for the most part, many of the props you see on screen in your favorite movies are just that: props. Things made in a warehouse somewhere by an underpaid intern. Every now and again, though, sometimes filmmakers decide to just use the real thing. Here are 10 of the most amusing examples.
10. The skeletons in Poltergeist
Towards the end of Poltergeist there’s a scene where a lady falls into a muddy pool, and is suddenly accosted by a bunch of spooky skeletons. The scene is consistently rated as one of the scariest and most shocking in cinema, in part, because of how realistic the decaying remnants of a human beings bobbing around like Colgate-white apples, in the worst apple bobbing tank ever, look.
As it turns out, the skeletons you see in that scene are 100% real and were sourced from, depending on who you ask, a nearby by medical college or some guy with a great hookup on skeletons. Oh, and the actress who fell into the pool had no idea. Hilariously, the only reason the producers decided to use actual, real human skeletons for that scene wasn’t because they wanted it to look realistic but because the price they were quoted by prop-makers to make some fake, rubber skeletons was too high. Yes, it was cheaper for the producers to buy actual human remains than it was to pay someone, somewhere to make some fake ones.
9. The horse’s head from The Godfather
In the original treatment for the now iconic scene in The Godfather where a guy gets perhaps the worst wake-up call ever courtesy of a decaying stallion’s head nuzzling against his chest, the horse’s head was supposed to be fake.
In fact, the design team went as far as securing a prop horse head only to have director Francis Ford Coppola tell them he didn’t want to film the scene with it because he didn’t think it looked realistic enough. Unsure of where the hell they could even get a slightly more realistic looking fake dead horse’s head, the production crew instead decided to just get a real one from a nearby dog food factory. As with the skeletons from Poltergeist, nobody bothered to tell the actor that the horse’s head was real so his reaction to seeing it for the first time is said to be 100% genuine.
8. The door from The Shining
Few moments in film are more iconic than the one in The Shining where Jack Nicholson shows a door who’s boss with an axe before sticking his head through it to terrify his wife with a Johnny Carson reference. That scene famously took several dozen tries to get right because the notoriously fickle Stanley Kubrick wanted to get it just right. One of the problems early in recording was that Jack Nicholson was simply too diesel, and was able to cut through the prop door they had too quickly, removing all the tension from the scene.
As it turns out, Nicholson had once briefly trained as a fire marshal and was all too familiar with how to ruin a door’s day with a fire axe. As a result, Kubrick told his crew to use a real door to try and slow Nicholson down. Even with a solid wooden door between him and his fictional wife, Nicholson’s training still saw him tearing through the door in seconds, forcing them to do even more takes until he was suitably fatigued enough to get a take Kubrick was happy with.
7. The deer Tywin Lannister guts in Game of Thrones
Charles Dance is a terrifying man. So terrifying, in fact, that it’s rumored that the collective cast of Game of Thrones refused to divulge spoilers in interviews purely because he frowned upon doing so. For anyone who’s currently sitting there thinking “Charles Dance isn’t that scary,” just remember that in addition to being 6-foot-3 inches tall, he also knows how to gut and skin a living creature convincingly.
To explain, in the first season of Game of Thrones there’s a scene in which Tywin Lannister (played by Dance as if you didn’t already know) is shown deftly gutting and skinning a deer while casually chatting with another character. That deer and the knife Dance was using were totally real and what’s more, Dance only had about an hour of training from a butcher on the day of filming before shooting the scene. In other words, Charles Dance learned how to skin an animal for an episode of Game of Thrones in about the same length of time it takes to actually watch an episode of Game of Thrones.
6. A bunch of guns in Lord of War
Lord of War is an almost painfully average Nic Cage vehicle in which the Ghost Rider plays a charismatic arms dealer. Filmed mostly in the Czech Republic, the nature of the film required production to somehow come up with about 3,000 guns for one scene, as well as a few tanks.
According to director Andrew Niccol, it was actually cheaper to buy real Kalashnikovs for the movie than it was to pay a prop-maker to make some fake ones. Due to the film’s budget, Niccol admitted that he then had to sell most of the guns back to the original seller at a loss, rather than destroy them as he’d intended. In his own words, “I wouldn’t make a very good arms dealer.”
As for the tanks seen in the film, they too were the real thing and were actually borrowed from the same source, but could only be used for a few scenes because the seller wanted to sell them to Libya.
5. A statue in Team America: World Police
There’s a famous story about the production of Team America: World Police that goes something like this: the film’s opening scene, which shows a crudely made puppet being used by another puppet, was included specifically to make Paramount executives think the directing duo behind it had wasted all of their money when they first saw it. According to some sources, as the duo predicted, upon seeing it for the first time a Paramount executive stood up and screamed “Oh god, they f**ked us!”
Although the veracity of this story is debatable, we do know that Matt Stone and Trey Parker wasted tremendous amounts of Paramount’s money seemingly just because the could. To this end they went out of their way to make some scenes look as intentionally crappy as possible and included life-sized props in some scenes to throw off the sense of scale, like that scene with a “panther” played by a small kitten.
Perhaps one of the most well-hidden examples of this occurs during the scene in which the late Kim Jong-Il sings about how ronery he is, and he walks past a large statue of himself. If you look very closely you’ll see that the statue isn’t a prop at all, but a person painted with gold paint to look like a statue (you can see them blink in the brief moment they’re on screen).
4. The fire-shooting guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road
According to the director of the hit film Happy Feet, George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road was about “90% practical effects.” Basically almost every cool thing you see happen on screen happened for real, mostly as a result of Miller’s dislike of CGI and love of practical effects.
Arguably the most radical example of this is the fire-spitting guitar played by the Doof Warrior, which worked as both a guitar and a flame-thrower.
Hilariously, the Doof Warrior’s axe initially didn’t work as a guitar because the design team figured the sound of it would be added in post production. It wasn’t until George Miller saw it and asked someone to plug it in that they realized the director wanted it to work for real.
Guitar parts were quickly added to the prop and it was even wired up to the speakers on the Doof Wagon (which also worked), allowing the man in the Doof Warrior suit, a musician named iOTA, to play it while they shot his scenes.
3. A guitar in The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell is the kind of actor who’s built up so much goodwill over the years he could pretty much get away with anything. Which probably explains how he got away with destroying a priceless antique guitar on the set of The Hateful Eight with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the film and is currently scratching their head, in the film there’s a scene where Russell’s character destroys a guitar like the rockstar he is. The script called for Russell to destroy a fake guitar because the guitar being played in that scene was an antique Martin from the 1870s. Russell apparently had no idea the guitar he grabbed was the real thing on loan from a museum and smashed that up instead (watch Jennifer Jason Leigh’s reaction; it’s 100% real, because she knew how insanely valuable the guitar was).
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the guitar wasn’t properly insured and was so badly damaged it couldn’t be repaired. Although the museum has since said they will no longer lend items to filmmakers, the fact they can now display an antique guitar destroyed by Kurt Russell is probably a pretty good consolation prize.
2. The wolves in The Grey
The Grey was a film advertised to us, the public, as 120 minutes of Brian Mills from Taken punching some wolves to death, and ended up being a tense survival thriller. We’re not saying that the film is bad, per se, just that it’s a little disappointing that it’s not the action-packed wolf-punching extravaganza we were promised by the trailer. Fun fact: the director did film a scene where Liam Neeson fist-fights a wolf and never included it on the DVD because he claimed audiences wouldn’t want to see it.
Moving on, which is hard when what you’re moving on from is Liam Neeson elbow dropping a wolf, the film caused a minor controversy when Neeson admitted in an interview that the film used several real wolf carcasses. According to the director these carcasses were used in lieu of prop wolf bodies and were sourced from a local trapper. Neeson also revealed that he and the rest of the cast had some wolf stew made from one of the carcasses to help them get into the right frame of mind. Neeson would later say that most of the cast disliked the taste while he, being Irish and thus used to stew, ended up going back for seconds.
1. Young Frankenstein used actual props from the original 1931 Frankenstein
This entry is a little different from the rest so you’ll have to bear with us for a moment. Now, the film Young Frankenstein is a parody of the classic 1931 Frankenstein film and follows the adventures of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the nephew of the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Wanting to make his parody film look as close to the original as possible, director Mel Brooks decided to try and track down Kenneth Strickfaden, the guy who’d made the props for the 1931 movie, to see if he still had any of them lying around. When Brooks found Strickfaden he revealed that he still had virtually the entire original set from Frankenstein just sitting in his garage, not doing very much at all. After a brief back and forth Strickfaden agreed to lend the props to Brooks, who in turn had Fox cut Strickfaden a very generous check for his troubles.
So to sum up, the film Young Frankenstein – an homage to classic horror films and a parody of the 1931 film Frankenstein – used the same exact set and props as the very movie it was parodying. If we’d written this article a week after the film Inception came out, this is where we’d make a “prop-ception” joke.