The working titles of Hollywood blockbuster movies
What do you do if you want to keep your film’s production a secret, or if you haven’t thought of a title yet? Choose a working title…
Thanks to the perpetually churning rumour mill that is the Internet, it’s extremely difficult to keep a secret for long – particularly if you happen to be one of the most respected mainstream directors currently working, and your latest film is a $150 million sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Back in 2009, the secretive Christopher Nolan began filming something called Oliver’s Arrow, and actors on the movie's production were wandering around with ‘sides’ in their hand (the miniature scripts which contain the scenes they’ll be working on that day) bearing that title. It didn’t take long, however, for people to work out that Oliver’s Arrow was, in fact, Inception, Nolan’s much-anticipated movie set in “architecture of the mind.”
While the true identity of Oliver’s Arrow was quickly discovered, it’s likely the fake title had already done its job. By the time the link had been made in July 2009, principal photography had already begun in Tokyo – Nolan and his team had managed to finish the script, plan shooting, gather their cast and secure location permissions without arousing too much suspicion.
Of course, fake and working titles have been a common enough occurrence for years, and are applied for all kinds of reasons. Some are due to secrecy, as was the case with Inception, while in other instances, films will be shot under a fake title to prevent service providers from bumping up their prices for a big-name picture or director (as we’ll see later, George Lucas was a pioneer in this field).
In most cases, though, a working title is applied to a movie simply because an appropriate name hasn’t yet been chosen at the pre-production stage. Ridley Scott’s Alien, for example, was referred to as Star Beast for several months before the stark name that would eventually appear on its posters was ultimately chosen.
To illustrate the practice, here are 10 films, their working (and sometimes fake) titles, and the stories behind them.
How The Solar System Was Won
Was actually: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The working title for Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking movie sounds more like a pulpy B-picture than the serious piece of sci-fi it really was, and referenced the classic 1962 western, How The West Was Won.
The actual title of what eventually became 2001 changed multiple times. When Kubrick announced his collaboration with author Arthur C Clarke in the mid-60s, the name bandied about was the rather generic Journey Beyond The Stars. Understandably, Clarke didn’t like the name, and in his diary, which chronicled the making of 2001, he grumbled that it hinted at a film like Fantastic Voyage, a film that came out as 2001 was being planned.
Other titles suggested for 2001 included Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, and Planetfall, before the name 2001: A Space Odyssey was finally chosen some 11 months into production.
Was actually: Return Of The Jedi (1983)
Perhaps one of the most widely known working titles in Hollywood history (prompting the makers of The Simpsons Movie to dub their own work-in-progress under the moniker, Yellow Harvest), the producers of Return Of The Jedi even went so far as to give this supposed horror movie its own tagline – “Horror Beyond Imagination”.
Inspired by a Dashiell Hammett novel called Red Harvest, the Blue Harvest name and logo was plastered all over the third Star Wars movie’s production material. As a result, there’s a healthy collectors’ market for Blue Harvest memorabilia, including letterhead stationery, caps, T-shirts and mailing boxes.
Lucas reportedly adopted the fake title to avoid unwanted fan attention during filming, and also to prevent certain companies charging more money for their services - let's face it, if you owned a catering company and were asked to provide the lunches for a Star Wars movie, you'd probably bump up the price for an egg sandwich, too. Oddly, Lucasfilm’s designers used the instantly recognisable Star Wars typeface for the Blue Harvest logo – how fans and business owners didn’t immediately see through the ruse is a mystery.
Was actually: Batman Returns (1992)
Back when Tim Burton was at the Bat franchise’s helm, the colossal success of the 1989 Batman film prompted Warner to ramp up the security around its sequel to an unusual degree for those pre-Internet times. Artists were even required to work with their office blinds pulled down to prevent information-hungry photographers seeing anything that might give the film’s plot away.
Meanwhile, anyone who had anything to do with the film’s production was told to wear photo ID cards emblazoned with Batman Returns’ fake title, Dictel. The name was mischievously applied by Tim Burton and production designer Bo Welch, who came up with the word, meaning dictatorial or oppressive, during the making of their previous collaboration, Edward Scissorhands.
“It was our word to represent a kind of faithless, huge corporation that makes some useless little product and bullies people,” Welch told Entertainment Weekly back in 1992.
Was actually: Titanic (1997)
While the pretence wasn’t kept up for too long, director James Cameron worked on Titanic under the title Planet Ice while he headed off to Nova Scotia to film icebergs. Quite why the project was kept secret isn’t entirely clear, though it’s possible that Cameron and his production team didn’t want rival studios rushing to make their own films about the Titanic’s sinking.
This perhaps explains why, when Cameron made several voyages to the bottom of the sea to film the remains of the Titanic, the vessel wasn’t even mentioned by name, and was coyly referred to instead as “the prime site”.
Also known as: The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
While most films lose their working titles well before release, some retain them right up until the finished prints are delivered to theatres. Such was the case with Peter Jackson’s feverishly anticipated Lord Of The Rings adaptations, with prints of The Fellowship Of The Rings delivered to cinemas in cans labelled Changing Seasons to combat the threat of theft.
For the same reason, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King were given the titles Grand Tour and Till Death, For Glory respectively.
Incident On 57th Street
Was actually: Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (2002)
With the makers of Chamber Of Secrets apparently fearful of a surge of Pottermania, the decision was made to shoot the film under the rather bizarre working title of Incident On 57th Street – a play on the name of 70s Bruce Springsteen track, Incident Of 57th Street.
To maintain the ruse during location shoots around London, the fake title was printed on all the clapper boards in an attempt to outfox nosy passers-by.
The prize for the weirdest working title on a fanatasy movie, though, must surely go to The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian, whose makers nicknamed the film Toastie, after their favourite lunchtime snack.
Was actually: Transformers (2007)
Michael Bay’s first rampaging robot fest was shot under the working title Prime Directive, a reference not only to a Transformers comic book, but also a nod to Star Trek’s rule about meddling in the affairs of alien civilisations.
Bay and his team really ran out of imagination when it came to dreaming up a working title for the Transformers sequel, Revenge Of The Fallen - they simply called it Prime Directive 2.
Rory’s First Kiss
Was actually: The Dark Knight (2008)
Quite possibly one of the shortest-lived fake titles in movie history, the true identity of Rory’s First Kiss was uncovered almost as soon as it came to light. An attempt to befuddle reporters while The Dark Knight was still in production back in 2007, Warner Bros put out casting notices for "real police officers, sheriffs, county guards and bagpipers to work in non-speaking roles in August,” offering around £76 for 10 hours’ work.
The smokescreen was far too thin to fool wily journalists, however, and the Chicago Sun-Times soon pointed out that, with a quick look on imdb, you’d see that Rory’s First Kiss was listed as being directed by Christopher Nolan, with Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in lead roles. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the project was actually The Dark Knight in disguise.
Nolan’s Batman Begins, meanwhile, went under the generic thriller moniker The Intimidation Game, while The Dark Knight Rises is reportedly being shot with the working title, Magnus Rex – Magnus being the name of one of Nolan’s sons. Nolan employed a similar practice on Inception, with Oliver's Arrow named after another of his progeny.
Actually called: Angels And Demons (2009)
With the Catholic Church rather disgruntled by its portrayal in both Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code and its 2006 film adaptation, director Ron Howard had to use a fair bit of guile and cunning to get the shots he wanted for its sequel, Angels And Demons.
Knowing that he probably wouldn’t get the requisite permissions, Howard simply went ahead and shot the sequences he wanted in various churches and buildings in Rome, with the movie’s production hiding under the title Obelisk.
Adopting the kind of guerrilla filmmaking tactics that you don’t often hear about in relation to big-budget Hollywood pictures, Howard took to sneaking around the Vatican in a hat and shades to scope out potential shots, later piecing the sequences he wanted together through a mixture of digital effects and locations such as Caserta Palace standing in for the Holy City.
Unfortunately for Howard, the fake title, which was also implemented to outfox autograph hunters, didn’t work for long. The sheer size of the production meant that both members of the public and paparazzi soon guessed the film’s true identity, and the month-long shoot in Rome was constantly disrupted by tourists.
Was actually: Star Trek (2009)
These days, even the most secretive film productions can’t stay under wraps for ever, and it didn’t take long for the true identity of the movie shot under the name Corporate Headquarters to come to light. That it was actually the fake title for JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot was whispered about a full two years before the film’s release, with one insider revealing the news to the LA Times while casting was still underway.
Amusingly, the casting call even asked for actors able to pull off a “Vulcan-type eyebrow shape” – a pretty strong hint at the movie’s true identity, I’m sure you’ll agree. Nevertheless, the security around Star Trek was kept extremely tight, with Simon Pegg watched over by a guard while he read the script, and only a chosen few allowed to visit the set during shooting.
By March 2008, however, the tribble was well and truly out of the bag. A cunning photographer managed to get a few sneaky pictures from a location shoot at a Californian university that had been dressed to look suspiciously like the Starfleet Academy, and the Internet hive mind soon figured out that Corporate Headquarters was indeed Star Trek.