It’s an old joke in Hollywood how “director” is awfully close to “dictator.” On set, the director is meant to have control, lead the film, shoot it and also control it. He handles the egos of the actors, he gets through the tough times and he balances everything out. A director can become a foster father on set and boost no-names to stardom and lead others to awards. However, other times, the director can be a total mess and just add to a nightmare production. Too many times, directors take a very harsh view of actors as just cattle and putting them through incredibly harsh actions. Sometimes, that can lead to success and even Oscars but other times, it ends up a total mess.
Some shoots are legendary for horrible productions that do end up turning them into hits. But other times, directors just go way too far in their attempt to “make it look good.” They’ll cross the line into utter abuse, physical and mental, cause needless pain and often be totally unnecessary in the long run. It’s hard to tell if it’s the guy’s personality or the fact they can be so intense on set and remarkable how many big-name directors fall into this type of behavior. That so many have long careers even with such behavior is remarkable and shows how much actors are willing to put up with. Here are 15 of the most horrible acts committed by directors on film.
15. Scorching, Stinking, Rotting Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
There’s a very good reason the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains so revered by horror fans today. And that’s because the actual shoot was a horror in its own right. With a budget of only $300,000, Hooper couldn’t afford such luxuries as fans or care on set. That meant the cast had to film in Texas in the middle of July with temperatures reaching 110 degrees. Rather than stretch the budget on new outfits, Hooper had the cast wear the same sweat-stained clothes every day. For the climactic dinner scene, the windows were blocked off which meant that the scene, lasting 27 straight hours of filming, had temperatures pushing 120 degrees. Add in the prop food which quickly rotted and made the place stink to high heaven. Hooper ignored the complaints because he felt it made the film feel more believable, not grasping how it was affecting the actors. Gunar Hansen, who played Leatherface, was so lost in the heat of his mask that he actually thought he was going to kill star Marilyn Burns. That included slicing her finger for real and Hooper just letting it go because it looked amazing, seemingly ignoring that Burns was truly afraid for her life. While the movie became a hit, Hooper would admit it took years for anyone in the cast to ever talk to him again for such a hellish experience.
14. Ruptured Eardrum But The Scene Was Great (Brian De Palma)
Given his tendency for movies involving violence (Scarface, Dressed to Kill), it’s no surprise De Palma would rub folks the wrong way on set. However, it’s not any of his gangster dramas that would have him put his cast in serious danger, but rather Carrie, the adaptation of the Stephen King thriller. De Palma was surprised that Sissy Spacek was okay with his harsh style (even with the idea of being buried alive for real), but the rest of the cast wasn’t happy.
We eventually got to the climactic scene where Carrie goes insane at the prom and uses her telekinetic powers to kill everyone. A big moment is her pulling a water hose off the wall and sending water streaming over her classmates. De Palma wanted close-ups of everyone being nailed hard, but the fire marshal on set warned him of the dangers of exposing people to a full blast of high-pressure water at close range. De Palma just ignored that and went right ahead with a high blast into the face of P.J. Soles and the rest of the gang. De Palma was impressed by how the actress screamed in agony and then collapsed to the ground. That was because when she was turning her head, the water spray ruptured her eardrum and she passed out from the pain. Soles was deaf in the ear for six months yet De Palma cites it as a highlight of the scene.
13. You’re 15? Dance Under A Waterfall (Michael Bay)
It’s no secret that Bay is truly one for style over substance, the former music video director is the brains behind such infamous, overblown blockbusters as The Rock, Armageddon and the Transformers films. But Bay is also famous for some rather… unique viewpoints on women. He dismissed casting Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor saying, “she’s not so attractive that she’d alienate the female audience.” That was nothing compared to his treatment of Megan Fox whom he cast for a dance party scene in Bad Boys II when she was 15. Informed that she couldn’t be seen with a drink in hand because of her age, Bay instead put Fox to dance under a waterfall. Then, her “audition” for Transformers was basically her washing Bay’s car while he filmed it. His treatment of her on set was incredibly brutal and would inspire Fox’s famous words: “he’s worse than Hitler”. So Bay hired Rosie Huntington-Whitley right off a Victoria’s Secret shoot by driving her into the middle of a desert and making her walk back in underwear, heels and a cape. He may rake in the big bucks, but Bay’s treatment of women on set is horrible even by Hollywood standards.
12. Anger Management (David O. Russell)
Russell is great as a filmmaker with good credits like Three Kings, The Fighter and more. However, he’s earned himself a reputation for being one of the absolute worst people to work with in Hollywood. Many a time a director has snapped on set, but few have gone as full-bell as Russell has. On Kings, he screamed around and kicked an extra on the ground. He then got right into George Clooney’s face and grabbed him by the throat— they had to pull Clooney off Russell.
When he heard that Jude Law was leaving I Heart Huckabees for Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Russell attacked Nolan at a party. That would pave the way for the shoot where Nolan would grope actors (male and female) while screaming at them. The result was the now infamous video of Russell completely losing it against Lily Tomlin in one of the most epic on-set fights Hollywood has ever seen. It’s continued as both Jennifer Lawrence (who won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook) and Amy Adams have reported Russell treating them like garbage on their films with him. Talented he may be but Russell has a short temper that makes folks wary of his shoots.
11. Dance ‘Til Your Feet Bleed (Gene Kelly)
Cyd Charisse once summed it up best: “You gave your heart to Fred Astaire but you gave your body to Gene Kelly.” One of the greatest dancers film has ever seen, Kelly’s moves are still remarkable and utterly brilliant. He was a top notch director in his own right, planning out his own dance sequences and pulling off great moves constantly. Kelly was a true perfectionist who would put in 18-hour days and give his all to his craft. The bad part was that Kelly insisted most everyone else put up with that same workload even if they couldn’t match him. The biggest example is his most famous film Singing in the Rain. Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience when cast as his love interest and was not prepared for how intense Kelly would be— just rehearsing with him was enough to make your feet ache. Kelly pushed her on, yelling at her and refusing to let her rest even when her feet were literally bleeding. It got to the point of Reynolds hiding under a piano crying and even Kelly had to admit how bad this was and apologize to her.
10. It’s Just An Overdose (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
“The French Hitchcock” has earned that nickname in two ways. First, he’s a masterful director who specializes in thrillers. Second, by being an absolute tyrant who drives his casts crazy, just like Hitchcock did. He believed the best way to get real emotion from actors was to put them through real horrors. For Les Diaboliques, actors had to eat real raw putrid fish and he once had Charles Vanel submerged in actual crude oil. But that’s nothing compared to what Clouzot did to legendary bombshell Brigitte Bardot. In La Verite, Bardot was to have a scene simply asleep with drool coming out of her mouth. Somehow, Clouzot believed Bardot just couldn’t pull off so simple an act so believably so he did the logical thing: He fed her sleeping pills, telling her they were aspirin for her headache. She looked great for the shot… and then it dawned on the crew that she wasn’t faking it. She was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. Nearly overdosing his own leading lady is Clouzot’s most infamous act.
9. Swing The Axe… 127 Times (Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick was a genius filmmaker to be sure and a perfectionist, which isn’t bad for a director. However, Kubrick took it to a truly insane degree, often refusing to let actors leave until a scene was done just right. A famous story is how he spent two days shooting Sydney Pollack just standing up from a chair and walking to the door. The Shining took nearly a year to complete because Kubrick wanted it to his exacting standards of perfection. That included making Shelly Duvall swing an axe 127 times and Scatman Crothers to break down crying over his retakes. Kubrick took Duvall to task, howling and screaming on set to the point that Duvall started losing her hair. He seemed to think the best way to make Duvall look believable being trapped by a psycho was to make her feel that way for real and screamed at her brutally to the point of true abuse. Duvall became physically ill and many speculate she was never the same emotionally after the movie was done. Many feel that Kubrick’s obsession with perfection was his biggest flaw despite how it could seem a gift at times on screen.
8. Don’t Worry, It’s Just A Flash Flood (Werner Herzog)
Even by the standards of German filmmakers, Herzog is known as being completely insane. For Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Herzog decided the only way to film the story of a group of men suck on a jungle river was… to film a group of men on a real jungle river in Peru. There were no stuntmen, so the actors are genuinely going through everything. That included a flash flood hitting the area and rather than evacuate, Herzog decided to film the actors in the middle of it. Fitzcarrlado is where Herzog became a mad legend as he insisted on dragging a 320-ton steamboat up a jungle rise and into a river in the middle of the worst weather seen in years. They then dropped it into the river, filming from inside and injured half the people on board. Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski fought constantly on set right in front of the local natives that were hired as extras. Herzog even claimed that the chief of the tribe offered to kill Kinski and Herzog was seriously tempted.
7. Your Dog Is Dead, Now Cry (John Ford)
In terms of amazing filmmaking, it’s hard to beat Ford. The man won four Oscars for directing, made John Wayne a star and is still seen as a genius of the Western. He was also as hard as nails, usually drunk and often put his tough characters to shame. In The Informer, Ford kept star Victor McLaglen off-guard by telling him they were rehearsing when they were really filming and making him perform drunk and even act with a horrific hangover. Amazingly, it ended up winning McLaglen an Oscar. He and Henry Fonda actually got into a wild fight on the set of Mr. Roberts with Ford waltzing into the lunch room to punch Fonda in the face. But perhaps the worst had to be when he directed Shirley Temple in the comedy Wee Willie Winkie. Never a fan of child stars, Ford felt Temple couldn’t properly pull off a dramatic scene. So, he had an assistant go up to Temple just before shooting to tell her that her dog had been run over by a car. It ended up being a great scene, but showed how the respect for Ford was balanced by a lot of people hating his freaking guts.
6. Just 4 Deaths On Set (Howard Hughes)
The old joke is Hughes was insanely rich as well as being richly insane. The brilliant tycoon and inventor was also notable as a filmmaker and before he became an infamous recluse, he hung out in Hollywood a lot. His most notable credit as a director was Hell’s Angels, a drama about World War I fighter pilots. Hughes wanted it to look great so he hired actual veteran pilots from WWI to help shoot the flying scenes. He then proceeded to put them through antics that made most of them wish they were back in the real war. The stunt work was so wild that four people died in crashes and Hughes, when informed, raced to the set… after he was done with his golf game. The final scene was to have the hero do a dangerous strafing run and pull out at the last minute. Every one of the pilots (and remember, these were guys who’d been in actual combat) declared it was way too dangerous and refused to do it. So Hughes did it himself, crashing and landing in the hospital where he needed facial surgery. The movie The Aviator actually touched on this period but downplayed how Hughes went way too far trying to recreate war conditions.
5. It’s Just A Little Cold Water (James Cameron)
To be fair, Cameron himself has mellowed with age and openly acknowledged what a complete a-hole he could be on set. But that doesn’t take away from how this man inspired sheer hatred from his casts on his movie sets. Titanic may be famous for bits such as Cameron being the one to draw Kate Winslet nude, and then nearly crushing the actors in the freezing cold, however, The Abyss is Cameron at his utter worst. The underwater saga utilized then-breaking CGI effects, but it was the water shooting that was a total nightmare with Cameron putting the cast through 70-hour weeks. Divers broke out in rashes and lost hair diving into the water constantly and Cameron himself nearly drowned doing a dive for some shooting. Injuries were constant with Cameron openly telling the cast and crew to relieve themselves in their wetsuits. The biggest was when Cameron pushed a scene where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio nearly drowns, forcing her to go through the scene (involving her soaking wet and topless while being slapped) over and over again. Mastrantonio finally snapped, breaking out into sobs and screaming “we are not animals!” Cameron has admitted it’s the worst filming experience of his life and when he can acknowledge how horrible he was, you know it was bad.
4. If I Can’t Have You, No One Can (Alfred Hitchcock)
The man is revered as a master of suspense, the genius behind such masterpieces as Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and more. Many believe the fact that he never won an Oscar is a miscarriage of justice and he’s still the go-to description for dark and suspenseful films. The man was respected for his craft and his amazing way of making so many actresses look stellar on screen. However, Hitchcock was also infamous for his utterly horrible treatment of actresses on his sets. The worst may be Tippi Hedren, cast in The Birds as an unknown and reports of how obsessive Hitchcock was of her on set. This included throwing live birds at her, even having Hedren tied to one that nearly clawed her eye out. It made her look believably scared but was truly afraid for her life. Far worse was that Hitchcock became infatuated with her, hiring staff to follow her off-set. When Hendren rebuffed his advances, Hitchcock made sure that, while under contract, Hedren made no movies and by the time it was up, her career had been cooled. Hitchcock may have been a master of suspense but his treatment of Hedren on set made Norman Bates look stable.
3. Use Some Butter, But Don’t Tell Her (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Like many on this list, Bertolucci is certainly talented with his work. He won an Oscar for The Last Emperor and was acclaimed for making everything from epics to quiet dramas work well. After slews of work in Italy, Bertolucci came to prominence with Last Tango in Paris, a dark romantic drama. The film got a boost by the addition of Marlon Brando, fresh off his Oscar-winning comeback in The Godfather and he and Bertolucci actually got along, each respecting the other as incredibly demanding figures. That may have led to how the film turned out as Brando’s character gets into a dominating romance with Maria Schneider’s younger woman. The movie rocked viewers with its graphic take on sexual antics and Brando earned another Oscar nod for it. But recently, controversy erupted when a 2013 interview surfaced where Bertolucci reveals a dark secret of the film’s most infamous scene. To spice up the sex scene between Brando and Schneider, Bertolucci decided to have Brando use butter on her… without bothering to tell Schneider first. Bertolucci defended it as “making her reaction real” but to many, it’s utter sexual assault and has sadly tainted Bertolucci’s work and this film ever since.
2. Don’t Tell Them They Might Die In The Scene (Michael Curtiz)
The acclaimed director could work just about every genre imaginable. He made Errol Flynn an action star, directed Joan Crawford to an Oscar with drama, could do comedy, musicals, all of it. It’s fitting that he won the Oscar for directing one of the greatest movies of all time, Casablanca. That’s more remarkable given the man was basically guilty of manslaughter. In 1925 (before stuntmen and when studios cared even less for the safety of actors), Curtiz took on directing Noah’s Ark, based on the Biblical tale. Naturally, the big sequence was a massive flood utilizing a 600,000 gallon tank of water. Curtiz pressured the shoot to be rushed to meet the studio deadline and thus ignored safety concerns. This included not bothering to tell the extras all this water was coming at them, Curtiz actually saying “they’ll have to take their chances.” Thus, the water came crashing down, causing so many injuries that 35 ambulances were needed. Lead star Dolores Costello came down with pneumonia, one extra had to have a leg amputated and three drowned. The studio hushed all that up but it would lead to the rise for more safety concerns and the creation of the Screen Actors Guild. As revered as Curtiz may be for his work, it doesn’t take away from how he caused so much death for a single shot.
1. It’s Ok If The Helicopter Crushes Them (John Landis)
In the early 1980s, Landis was one of the hottest young directors around. His credits included hits like The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places. In 1983, Landis joined the crew for a movie version of The Twilight Zone, an anthology based on the classic TV series. He directed the opening segment starring veteran actor Vic Morrow as a bigot who’s given a severe lesson by finding himself as everything from a Jew in Nazi Germany to a black man hunted by the Klan. Morrow had shot most of the segment with the final bit being him saving the lives of two children during the Vietnam War and returning to his own time a wiser man. For that scene, Landis had a full mock up helicopter complete with swinging rotor blades for Morrow and the two children, who, it turns out, had been hired illegally. Ignoring the warnings from the technicians and safety consultants, Landis openly yelled out for the copter to hang lower despite the explosions going off. The copter fell off its support and crashed, killing Morrow and the children instantly. Landis was put on trial for manslaughter and found not guilty but the incident clearly haunted him. With the exceptions of Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, he never directed a major movie and has admitted he regrets the incident to this day. It showcases how the desire to “make it look good” can go way too far in Hollywood.
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