People think acting is an easy job. Actors just show up to work, put on their make up, say a couple lines and go to bed. But, in reality, it’s not that easy. Apart from the fierce concentration that an actor (ok, a good actor) needs to make a scene work, acting in film has any number of extra responsibilities that few outside the business consider. Actors have to hit their mark to say in camera focus. They must do the same scene over and over to get the best possible result on film. And they must rely on a director to help shape and, well, direct, their performance.
The bond of actor-director trust ranks as perhaps the most sacred in the filmmaking business. Naturally then, when a relationship between an actor and a director sours, things get awfully ugly really fast. For that matter, because a director commands supreme authority on a film, enthusiastic direction can warp from emphatic to abusive. Still, actors often submit to hostility from directors in the name of making a great film, or for the sake of giving a great performance, even to the point of tears. These directors are notorious for behaving with hostility on set and pushing their actors to their limits, physically and emotionally.
Here are the 12 Directors Most Likely To Make Their Actors Cry.
12. Alfred Hitchcock
For cinephiles, it goes without saying that good ole Hitch had a wicked sense of humor — just look at his body of work, and the number of thrillers he directed that were laden with twisted humor. Hitchcock always referred to his masterpiece Psycho as a comedy, though for audiences, seeing Janet Leigh sliced to bits doesn’t exactly play like a punchline.
On set, Hitchcock had a reputation as a dry wit and cruel prankster. Janet Leigh recalled walking in her dressing room one day and finding a prop corpse waiting for her. She screamed in hysterics, only to find Hitchcock laughing like a madman nearby. Hollywood lore holds that on the set of The Birds, he presented a young Melanie Griffith with a doll made up to look like her mother, actress Tipi Hedren, the star of the movie…in a tiny coffin. Hitchcock also forced Hedren to perform with birds tied to her costume during filming, making her performance something beyond simple acting. Hitch also boasted that actors should be treated like cattle, which isn’t the highest regard.
11. Lars Von Trier
Art-house darling Von Trier has, for the most part, a great reputation for getting actors to deliver fine work. Unfortunately, the self-described “Nazi” with a history of drinking on set also has a reputation for being horrifically abusive.
Actor Paul Bettany recalls working with Von Trier on Dogville as a trying experience to say the least. Von Trier refused to speak to Bettany during filming, other than shouting occasional directions off camera. Star Nicole Kidman recalls a similar sentiment. Even more notorious are Von Trier’s rows with Bjork on Dancer in the Dark. Bjork so hated making the film, she would begin every day by telling Von Trier how much she hated him, and spitting in his face! She also vanished more than once during the shoot, refusing to return to work with the director. Though she received rave reviews for her performance, Bjork refused to act again thanks to Von Trier’s harassment. Reports from the set of Von Trier’s film Manderlay claim the director forced the actors to watch the slaughter of a live donkey…and then eat it.
10. Michael Cimino
For a man who’s made only a handful of films, Cimino’s name rings notorious in Hollywood. His film The Deer Hunter swept the Oscars in 1979, winning Best Screenplay, Picture and the Director trophy for Cimino — one of the youngest men to ever grab the prize. His follow up, Heaven’s Gate, reached a different level of infamy. Wildly overbudget and behind schedule, the film bankrupted its studio, United Artists.
Just as damning, stories from the set of Heaven’s Gate continue to cause a stir more than 30 years later. Cimino routinely hired and fired crew, abused animals during filming, and exhausted his actors. Cimino forced Kris Kristofferson to perform a whopping 99 takes of the actor cracking a whip. Over the course of repeating the shot, Kristofferson managed to whip himself and a fellow actor. Brad Dourif recalls Cimino demanding more than 30 takes of scenes on a regular basis, and at times, more than 50! The emotional drain took a toll on the actors, none of whom defend Cimino for his eccentric perfectionism.
9. Michael Bay
Bay’s films have a reputation as gawdy, noisy, and often mind-numbingly dumb dreck. Go figure, then, that the director also has a reputation equally as infamous.
Actress Megan Fox has publicly compared Bay and his demanding attitude to Hitler, and claimed she hated working on the Transformers movies. Patrick Dempsey also recalls Bay had a nasty habit of yelling at actors for prolonged periods. Martin Lawrence and Bay almost came to blows during the filming of Bad Boys, and the two engaged in numerous screaming matches. Sean Connery made no attempt to hide his contempt for Bay while shooting The Rock, calling him a “c***sucker,” a term echoed by Shia LeBouf. Bruce Willis, an actor known for his own abrasive behavior, also made no secret of his dislike of Bay while filming Armageddon. Actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley recalls Bay making her walk across salt flats wearing lingerie in 100 degree weather without him telling her what she was doing.
8. Michael Mann
An interlude: I once worked with a high-level executive at a major Hollywood studio. Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was just set to open, and rumors of his abusive behavior on set had already leaked to the press. I asked the executive why studios keep hiring directors known for behavior issues, and rattled off several other names on this list. She laughed and said I was right about most of them, though “Mann actually makes good movies.”
Mann has made some wonderful films — Ali, The Insider and Last of the Mohicans come straight to mind — but he’s also turned in some duds, and through it all, nurtured a reputation for being abusive on set. He reportedly once fired a crewmember for wearing a red shirt, a color the director hates. While filming Miami Vice, star and Mann’s good friend Jamie Foxx got in so many heated arguments that Foxx eventually walked off the movie. It also didn’t help that Mann forced Foxx to film outdoors during a hurricane, or that a shooting (with a gun) took place on set. Mann and Johnny Depp weren’t even on speaking terms during the filming of Public Enemies. Moreover, Mann’s films, though often well regarded, routinely go over budget and over schedule due to the director’s meticulous — and exacting — style.
7. David Fincher
Critical golden boy Fincher revels in the dark and nihilistic, making films of sharp polish which meditate on morose themes. Following the Sony email hack of 2014, Fincher’s name landed in the headlines for something beyond his craftsmanship. The leaked emails revealed that the director had a nasty reputation for on-set tyranny.
Producer Scott Rudin compared Fincher’s “difficult” reputation to Hitler’s hatred of Jews. That attitude has also created a problem with some of his actors. Morgan Freeman recalls Fincher’s obsessive demand to repeat takes. Jake Gyllenhaal, who worked with Fincher on Zodiac, has declared his open frustration with Fincher’s manipulative technique: Fincher would order Gyllenhaal to do numerous takes, only to delete them with the actor watching as a sort of torture! On the same movie, Robert Downey Jr. clashed with Fincher, comparing the Zodiac set to a gulag when the director refused to let him use the bathroom. Downey responded by leaving jars of his urine around the set!
6. John Frankenheimer
Frankenheimer directed some jaw-dropping films in his career, among them Black Sunday, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate. Coming from the old school of directing where a director could get away with doing just about anything to an actor, Frankenheimer became known for terrorizing his sets.
Frankenheimer drank a great deal, even while working. He reportedly clashed with Frank Sinatra while making The Manchurian Candidate, though Sinatra’s showbiz clout kept the director at bay. Frankenheimer’s most notorious stories though come from late in his career during filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Actress Fairuza Balk recalls the director as verbally and, at times, physically abusive — so much so that she actually ran away during the making of the film. Even Frankenheimer’s longtime friend and assistant James Sbardellati recalls the director as a “tyrant” with a habit of screaming at actors and crew without any kind of filter as a way of wrangling the production.
5. William Friedkin
Like Michael Cimino, Friedkin had great success at a very young age, adapting the critical hit The Boys in the Band to the screen, and following up with The French Connection, which nabbed awards for Best Director and Best Picture. His next project, The Exorcist, proved an exercise in terror for audiences and everyone else involved with the film.
Friedkin likes to stimulate actors, and would hide loaded guns around the set and fire them to scare the living daylights out of his performers. When the film called for Ellen Burstyn to perform a stunt in a wire harness, the actress expressed fear about getting hurt. In response, Friedkin ordered the stunt men to pull her even harder, which resulted in Burstyn getting a permanent spinal injury. He treated child actor Linda Blair with similar disregard, and she too suffered permanent injury from violent stunts. While filming another scene with a real priest, Friedkin slapped the man across the face in front of a shocked crew! The director’s behavior eventually caught up with him, and today, he’s had trouble finding work.
4. Roman Polanski
Before a statutory rape conviction put a damper on Polanski’s career, he had a reputation as a brilliant auteur — and a tyrannical autocrat. The craftsman behind classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, Polanski engaged in bitter fights with his performers.
Polanski’s demeaning attitude reached new levels while filming Chinatown, where he clashed with stars Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. When the director caught Nicholson watching basketball in his dressing room, Polanski snatched Nicholson’s TV and threw it out a window. At one point, he grabbed Dunaway by the hair hard enough to yank out a handful of it! When he refused to let her use the bathroom between takes, she threw a cup of her own urine at the man. Apparently Polanski became so frustrated and short with Dunaway, that when she would ask him about her motivation, he would simply scream “your salary is your motivation!”
3. James Cameron
Cameron has made some towering classics of film: the first two Terminator outings, Aliens, Avatar and of course Titanic, which won him a Best Director Oscar. Tough, intelligent and ambitious, he also has a legacy of belittling actors and crew on set.
Cameron had so many heated arguments with the British crew on Aliens that at one point, producer Gale Ann Hurd (also his wife at the time) fired him. Only after hiring a different cinematographer did Cameron — and the crew — make amends. His next film, The Abyss, became even more notorious. A difficult shoot by all accounts, Ed Harris recalls Cameron as being prone to screaming and putting his actors through near-torture. At one point, Cameron forced Harris to don a helmet full of fluid and hold his breath while being towed under water 30 feet below the surface. Harris also broke into hysterics one day after shooting. To date, he refuses to discuss the production.
Actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had it even worse: she had a full nervous breakdown on set! Even frequent Cameron collaborator Michael Biehn found the director to be impossible on the film, at one point fearing for his life due to the level of safety — or lack thereof — while filming underwater sequences.
2. Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick’s films forever intertwine with the director’s own eccentric personality, reclusive lifestyle, and meticulous perfectionism. A director known for his coldness and penchant for ordering endless takes from his actors, tales of his on-set behavior have become Hollywood legend.
On one of Kubrick’s early films, Spartacus, the director’s work style drove stars Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons crazy. During one particularly long day of shooting, Douglas turned to Simmons and asked “who do I have to f*** to get off this movie!?” Simmons reportedly answered, “when you find out, let me know!” While filming the horror classic The Shining, Kubrick actually did reduce character actor Scatman Crothers to tears after demanding more than 30 takes. Star Shelley Duvall recalls Kubrick as charming but “cruel” on set; she herself suffered nervous exhaustion during filming, which included flu like symptoms and sudden hair loss. Jack Nicholson found filming so exhausting, that he would return home after filming each day, collapse into bed fully clothed, and pass out.
1. David O. Russell
Few directors have the critical lauds and awards pedigree that David O. Russell has enjoyed most of his career. His resume boasts solid box office hits and Oscar winners like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Three Kings. But few have such a frightening reputation as on-set despots.
George Clooney fought bitterly with Russell during filming of Three Kings, to the point where the director physically attacked Clooney, putting him in a headlock and headbutting him! Russell faced public embarrassment when video of him bullying the cast of I Heart Huckabees leaked to the internet, showing him as a physical and verbally profane tormentor. The footage depicts him screaming profanities at actress Lily Tomlin and throwing props at a cowering PA. Amy Adams conceded that Russell tormented her so much during the production of American Hustle that she broke down in tears almost every day. Former Caped Crusader Christian Bale actually had to physically threaten Russell to get him to stop, which the director wisely did.
Did we leave out any of your favorite tyrannical auteurs? Let us know in the comments!
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