- Hans Weber
- December 1, 2023
‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ at 20: Behind the scenes of the Prague-shot disaster
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen premiered in cinemas worldwide exactly 20 years ago today, on July 11, 2003. One of the most notorious productions to ever film in Prague, the difficult shoot effectively ended the careers of star Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington, and a real-life disaster washed away millions of dollars worth of its sets in the Czech capital.
Things didn’t start out so bad. Producer Don Murphy had originally obtained the rights to make film adaptations of two Alan Moore graphic novels: From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. To keep things authentic (and modestly-budgeted), both would film Prague, largely standing in for locations in Victorian-era London and elsewhere in Europe.
From Hell, a Jack the Ripper thriller starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, shot in Prague in mid-2000 and turned out pretty well: reviews were mixed-to-positive, and the movie grossed about twice its modest $35 million budget in cinemas worldwide. Director Albert Hughes, who made the film with his brother Allen, would even find a permanent home in the Czech capital, and resides here to this day.
Production on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, meanwhile, would kick off in Prague during the summer of 2002 with a much larger budget of nearly $80 million. Still, that was light for a major blockbuster; The Matrix sequels, released the same year, both cost $150 million, while Terminator 3 came in at an estimated $200 million.
In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, star Sean Connery would play adventurer Allan Quartermain, who leads a group of famous fictional characters against a mysterious villain in order to prevent a plot to start a war between Britain and Germany. Connery had cost a significant slice of the film’s budget ($17 million), leaving little room for big names in supporting roles. He also served as a producer on the film.
Alongside Connery’s Quartermain, there was Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), and even Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who was added into the film to appeal to American audiences. British director Stephen Norrington, fresh off the success of Blade, was brought in to direct.
But things got off to a rocky start on the Prague set. According to Entertainment Weekly, shouting matches between Norrington and Connery almost resulted in physical altercations.
“It was a nightmare,” Connery said to British newspaper The Times. “The experience had a great influence on me, it made me think about showbiz. I get fed up dealing with idiots […] On the first day I realized [director Norrington] was insane.”
“There have been differences of opinion about almost everything,” Connery told The Scotsman during production. “Professional differences, personal differences, you name it. But my philosophy has been to shoot the movie and talk about right and wrong afterwards. To be honest, I just want to complete the picture. That’s all I want right now.”
Director Norrington, who got his start in filmmaking as special effects technician, was reportedly a Kubrick-level perfectionist on the set of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He reportedly delayed filming for a day when an elephant gun prop didn’t look right, and would shoot each scene from 10 setups when many fewer would have sufficed.
”Connery isn’t very pleased with how this is going,” a crew member told an EW reporter on the Prague set. ”He’s not used to being kept waiting on a movie set. I mean, he’s 72 years old. And he’s Sean Connery.”
In the Czech capital, production for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen primarily took place at Barrandov Studio, with location work at the Rudolfinum in the city center, Strahov Monastery in Prague 6, and Olšany Cemetery.
But the worst problems for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would come halfway through the Prague shoot. Devastating August floods in the Czech capital – the worst in Europe in 100 years – would force cast and crew to evacuate the city. The floods destroyed an estimated $7.5 million in props, including, ironically, Captain Nemo’s submarine.
Connery was said to have fled his suite at the Four Seasons in central Prague so quickly that he only managed to save his prized golf clubs in the process. It would take months for cast and crew to reassemble, coming back to Prague in November to complete the disastrous shoot.
”I’ve never been on a set as tense as this,” a stagehand told Entertainment Weekly after the shoot picked back up. ”Everybody just wants to go home.”
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opened on July 11, 2003, going up against Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl at the box office. Still, it managed to gross about $180 million at the worldwide box office, and might have even turned profitable in the end.
Critics, however, were not kind, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen racked up a 17% score on the Tomatometer (from 185 reviews) and 30% at Metacritic. “Just when it seems about to become a real corker of an adventure movie, [it] plunges into incomprehensible action, idiotic dialogue, inexplicable motivations, causes without effects, effects without causes, and general lunacy,” wrote Roger Ebert in a one-star review. “What a mess.”
After shooting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Connery immediately dropped out the next role he had signed on for: Josiah’s Canon, a WWII thriller to be directed by Brett Ratner, which was also slated to film in Prague. The star gave up a reported $17.5 million payday in the process, and the movie was never made.
Reports at the time claimed that “headaches of big budget studio films have completely sapped his enthusiasm for acting.” While Connery would lend his voice to a few small productions in later years, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was his final on-screen appearance. The actor passed away in 2020.
Director Norrington, meanwhile, completely disappeared from the film scene in the wake of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and didn’t even attend the film’s premiere. When asked where his director was, Connery told The Las Vegas Sun to “check the local asylum.”
Despite the disastrous production and critical reception, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may still live on. Last year, it was reported that a new reboot of the film would come to life at Hulu, with Murphy back as producer. No word on if the project will return to Prague.