Comedian T.J. Miller told a story about the harsh conditions of shooting a film under Michael Bay. Cast as the comic relief in Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bay started screaming at Miller as he improvised. “T.J.,” the director shouted, “be funny! You’re supposed to be funny! You’re not even making the [expletive] make-a-wish-kids laugh!”
That’s a relatively light-hearted example of Bay’s cruelty, which ranges from verbally abusing actors and crew to overt sexism. Transformers star Megan Fox was replaced after two entries after she compared him to Hitler. During press gaggles for Pearl Harbor, Bay referred to Kate Beckinsale – as she sat next to him – as not attractive enough to alienate the female audience.
But no one can deny Bay’s status as an auteur (though some will try). You know when you’re watching a Michael Bay joint. His vision is singular, albeit shallow, sexist and at times racist. And he gets what he wants.
Other, far more talented directors have taken the same dictatorial approach to filmmaking. There are the obvious examples – the ones actors still regret working with no matter the quality of the finished product, but there are other, less known but equally cruel directors that would sooner (sometimes literally) kill the actor than yell “cut!” You sort of have to admire that.
15. Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick has been called “the master” by no less than Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. No director has served as more of an inspiration for aspiring young filmmakers. His films are viewed by even casual fans as dense works of art that it takes books to unpack. And, without question, like most people on this list, he was a perfectionist of the highest order.
While shaping Jack Nicholson‘s frighteningly unhinged performance in 1980’s The Shining, it’s no secret that he and the actor went to great lengths to torment lead actress Shelley Duvall. So much so that by the end of filming, Duvall’s hair had begun to fall out from stress. The cruelty paid off, as her role as the long suffering wife of a serial abuser and recovering alcoholic certainly feels authentic.
14. Francis Ford Coppola
The only director whose cruelty and iron fist are attributed to a single film rather than his entire oeuvre, the behind-the-scenes insanity during the filming of Apocalypse Now are the stuff of legend. It was intense enough to warrant a documentary of its own, Hearts of Darkness, which some say is on par with the actual film.
Coppola insisted on filming in the Philippines in a live war zone, threatened suicide repeatedly on the set and urged natives to slaughter a live water buffalo. It didn’t help that virtually the entire crew were on a number of illicit substances throughout filming, which led to star Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack.
Still, over 200 hours of film and three years later, Coppola cobbled together a workable cut of the film. Thank God for editors.
13. Michael Cimino
When footage leaked off the set of Russell’s I Heart Huckabees of the director throwing an expletive-laden hissy fit, those who knew him personally weren’t surprised. The film shows him screaming at Lily Tomlin as Dustin Hoffman awkwardly stands there, waiting for it to blow over. If you haven’t seen it, YouTube exists for just such a reason. There is a hilarious moment where Russell treats a prop door as though he was leaving the room, ranting behind the set, then throwing it open like a lunatic.
This wasn’t the first time his on-set antics got him in trouble with the cast. During the filming of Three Kings, George Clooney approached him concerned over the safety of a driver. Russell was indifferent, and things took a nasty turn when Clooney threatened to beat him senseless. To this day, Clooney states that he will never work with the director again.
11. David Fincher
A list like this is bound to have its share of perfectionists, and no living filmmaker is more obsessed with getting every line, detail and gesture an actor delivers just right. Fincher is downright cruel, shooting digitally so he doesn’t have to reload the camera between takes, shooting up to 80 or more of the same scene.
On the set of Zodiac, the cast was barely allowed to take a bathroom break, which led to star Robert Downey Jr. leaving his urine around the set in mason jars like Howard Hughes in protest. One can imagine how awkward the set became when it came time to visit Craft services. Incidentally, Fincher passed on an opportunity to direct Star Wars: Episode VII. And it’s just as well – can you imagine the budget for shooting elaborate effects shots up to 80 times?
10. Alfred Hitchcock
There are just as many sweet stories about working with Hitch as there are cruel. Most likely, he is the nicest director on the list, but he had his moments. He had a particular penchant for terrorizing his leading ladies – be it shouting at them or throwing live birds in their face.
His on-set pranks were even more cruel than his direction. After betting a cameraman he couldn’t spend a night in the dark studio, he handcuffed him to equipment and treated him to a brandy full of laxative. What was found the next morning was…macabre.
But he never tried to hide his cruelty, and in fact handled reports of it with a Wilde-ian wit. When accused of referring to actors as cattle, he denied ever saying such a thing. “I said actors should be treated like cattle.”
9. James Cameron
It’s no secret that James Cameron is kind of a jerk. It takes a certain kind of person who, while accepting your Oscar, you quote your own obnoxious dialogue. It also takes a certain kind of person to cheat on wife Linda Hamilton while directing her, but we’re not here to pick apart the man’s personal life (we are).
His perfectionism certainly doesn’t spread to his shoddy scripts of action films and George Lucas-level romances that sound like they were written by a 14-year-old. Instead, Cameron is all about the technical. And Heaven help you should you need to use the bathroom, because it’s rumoured he fired crew for doing so on the set of True Lies.
8. Lars Von Trier
Von Trier is known as much for his Cannes film festival antics as his bleakly cynical films. Some argue he’s more of a provocateur than auteur. In press conferences, he’s claimed he understands Hitler, that he is a Nazi and anything else that may get a rise out of the crowd.
But his gruelling, inhospitable shoots are just as hideous. During filming of Dancer in the Dark, Bjork refused to come out of her trailer for three days after fighting with the filmmaker. Von Trier claims his only regret is that he wasn’t more mean to her.
Actor Stellan Skarsgard once convinced friend Paul Bettany to appear in Dogville under the pretense that it would be a blast. During filming one day, Bettany approached him, asking why on earth he thought working with Von Trier would be fun. Skarsgard admitted he had lied, and that he just couldn’t handle going through it alone.
7. Oliver Stone
Of all the directors on this list, Stone holds his place as the most unrelenting ballbuster. Though he directed James Woods to his first Oscar nomination, the actor threatened to walk off the set of Salvador more than once. Jamie Foxx recalls Stone walking up to him on the set of Any Given Sunday and saying, “You’re just not good at all, are you?”
The hardened Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder has been absurdly hard on his actors – seemingly for no reason whatsoever. Perhaps most damning of all, working on the set of W. prompted Richard Dreyfuss to say of Stone, “You can be a fascist, even when you’re on the left.
6. Tony Kaye
Remember American History X? Sure you do, it’s that poster your fraternity brother has over his bed right next to Fight Club. Tony Kaye, director of the prison-beat-the-racist-out-of-Ed-Norton drama, hates your fraternity brother. He and Norton clashed so violently over the direction of the film that, upon release, Kaye spent over $100,000 of his own money to place ads in trade papers and magazines viciously trashing his lead actor.
Like Von Trier before him, he also took to festival circuits to make outlandish claims like he was best director since Alfred Hitchcock. He later relented, claiming it was all an act – which sounds more like damage control than truth.
5. John Ford
Ford helmed the most iconic classic Westerns of their time, prior to Sam Peckinpah disembowelling the genre with indictments of the very themes an old workhorse like Ford held dear. And he treated his cast just so. On the set of 1924’s The Iron Horse, a film about life working on the railroad, he decided to replicate the experience for his actors, forcing them to live like the pioneers they portrayed. They would sleep in ramshackle dwellings in freezing temperatures. One assistant actually died of pneumonia.
4. Werner Herzog
When noted crazy person Nicolas Cage signed on to work with tyrannical madman Werner Herzog for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the smart money was on one killing the other – accidentally or on purpose. You simply cannot have that high a level of ego and crazy on the same set without someone shedding blood.
Miraculously, no one was harmed. Herzog has chronicled his friendship with late actor Klaus Kinski in the documentary My Best Fiend. There’s no doubt the two loved each other very much, but they also destroyed hotel rooms like rock stars, terrified the rest of the crew and even at least once legitimately plotted to murder one another.
For Fitzcarraldo, the true story of a journeyman who desires to bring opera to the jungle and moved a steamship over a mountain to do so, Herzog desired his trademark authenticity. So, naturally, he recreated the journey using no special effects and a 340 ton ship.
3. Otto Preminger
Otto Preminger may not have been a Nazi, but he certainly played his share as an actor before turning to directing. From then on, calling his demanding attitude during filming “fascistic” would be almost a kindness. Though for every nightmare story of Preminger screaming three inches from the face of a performer, there’s a quote like Joan Crawford’s: “Otto is a dear man. Sort of a Jewish Nazi, but I love him.”
And his stubbornness and cruelty propelled some of the finest, most challenging works of their time, be it the psychosexual strangeness of Bunny Lake is Missing, the heroin addled Sinatra in The Man With The Golden Arm of the LSD-inspired, though misguided, hippie exploration that is Skidoo. Even at his worst, Preminger broke glass ceilings, sometimes armed only with the sound of his bellow toward some limp-wristed studio executive.
2. Dennis Hopper
If Dennis Hopper disagreed with you, he would pee on your desk. As he was said to do during a meeting about his little seen The Last Movie. Drugs are a helluva thing, and they led Hopper to being such a control freak on the set of Easy Rider that he would allegedly resort to chiding co-star Peter Fonda about his mother’s suicide. The finished film didn’t suffer, but one can assume the editor had a great deal to do to make sense of the drugged-out lunacy on display. Hopper didn’t direct much, but when he did, beware.
1. Michael Winner
Stories about English director Michael Winner are too fantastical to believe. One could easily confuse him for some kind of Bond villain. To meet him in his prime in the 1970s was to prove your worth through an eight foot door made of solid steel. If he granted you entrance, he could be found puffing away on a Cuban cigar. He was a man who enjoyed being hated. He may not be a household name, but Winner was behind Death Wish, The Mechanic and numerous other Charles Bronson films. His biggest controversy was the Rosemary’s Baby knockoff The Sentinel, in which he used severely disabled and deformed people as demons – a feat that had not been done since Tod Browning’s Freaks in 1932.
Sources: Ranker, Cracked, Thedailymail, Spectator