Masterminding a movie demands a certain kind of personality, but these directors went off the deep end when it came to demanding perfection on their sets.
Michael Cimino – ‘Heaven’s Gate’
The 1980 Western sent the late Cimino to movie jail, despite his Oscar-winning exploits on previous film ‘The Deer Hunter’.
Much of that was do with the writer/director’s crazy demands, which included
making the crew build a bespoke irrigation system under the battlefield set (everything was shot on location) so that the grass would be super-green before it was covered in fake blood, as well as destroying and then rebuilding a set at a cost of £800,000 when Cimino decided the buildings weren’t spaced correctly, even though he had drawn up the specifications.
Actor Tom Noonan has also recalled how Cimino once held a loaded gun to the actor’s head after they got into an argument.
Elaine May – ‘Ishtar’
A brilliant comedian and twice-Oscar-nominated writer, May was also notoriously difficult to work with, as it proved on the legendary 1987 flop starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
Having asked her production designer to find a suitable desert filled with dunes (which had to be next to a five-star hotel so the movie stars could stay nearby), he found the perfect location in Morocco. It was all arranged and booked, but unfortunately, it seemed that May changed her mind and wanted the set to be flat instead. The designer was forced to hire a crew and machinery to flatten a square mile of hilly sand.
Werner Herzog – ‘Fitzcarraldo’
Neither Herzog nor star Klaus Kinski understand the word compromise, which made for a hellish shoot on this drama about a dreamer who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest.
As well as fighting bitterly with his star, Herzog also demanded a 320-ton steamship was transported over a hill by the extras and crew. Meanwhile, his relationship with local tribes totally broke down, resulting in the film set being burned to the ground and the director himself having to assist an operation after one of the crew’s wife was shot in the stomach with an arrow.
Charlie Chaplin – ‘City Lights’
Many consider the 1931 movie to be Chaplin’s best work, but such was the icon’s perfectionism that it was a nightmare production which took almost two years just to shoot. For one scene, Chaplin demanded 342 takes and often the smallest scenes would take weeks to film. The first scene they started shooting was when the Little Tramp meets the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). They began doing it on 27 December, 1928 and still hadn’t finished it by April the following year.
After 11 months, bored with waiting so long between working, Cherrill asked to go for a haircut earlier than usual. Chaplin was so angry that he fired her, before later rehiring her when he couldn’t find a better replacement.
Abel Gance – ‘Napoléon Bonaparte’
For his 1927 mega-epic about the French commander, the filmmaker went to extreme lengths to achieve his innovative concept.
He created a bespoke film format called Polyvision specifically to fulfil his vision for the climax of the film, which involved stacking three cameras on top of each other for shooting and subsequently three projectors side-by-side to project it.
Meanwhile, in a pre-digital world, a split-screen scene looking inside Napoleon’s mind required 16 separate filmic superimpositions. This required ferociously complicated maths because the film had to be exposed and then re-exposed every time.
David Fincher – ‘Zodiac’
There’s no doubt that Fincher is one of the most brilliant directors working today, but he’s also one of the toughest to work for.
Jake Gyllenhaal criticised the ‘Gone Girl’ helmer for shooting dozens of takes during the making of ‘Zodiac’ and then deleting them, whilst co-star Robert Downey Jr said he enjoyed working Fincher “because I understand gulags” and left jars of urine around the set to make a point about the director’s lack of breaks.
But as Fincher himself has said, “When you go to your job, is it supposed to be fun, or are you supposed to get stuff done?”
Terrence Malick – ‘Days of Heaven’
Malick is notorious for his perfectionism, which is why this elegiac drama took a staggering three years to edit, as the director dithered endlessly. The producer had to remortgage his house to cover the budget.
The main mansion used in the film was built from scratch, with Malick getting the crew to create the entire house inside and out, rather than the usual exterior façade. And one day, when helicopters had been hired to drop peanuts from the sky (simulating a locust storm), Malick decided he wanted to shoot a scene of cars instead, resulting in huge cost overruns.
But the director’s main obsession was shooting all the outdoor scenes during so-called ‘magic hour’, actually just a period of a few minutes at dawn and dusk when the sun looks a certain way meaning many days involved only a tiny bit of filming.
Stanley Kubrick – ‘Barry Lyndon’
o list about obsessive directors would be complete without Kubrick, but his antics on this now-beloved-then-criticised epic went above and beyond.
Doing over 100 takes wasn’t unusual, while the crew spent a week setting up thousands of candles for a shot to be filmed with a rare and expensive lens normally used by NASA. Kubrick took a look at the set-up and abandoned it without shooting a frame.
The director was also famously fickle about his cast. While some actors didn’t realise they’d been hired until they showed up on set, it’s thought Kubrick hired and fired at least 50 actors and extras during production.
Howard Hughes – ‘Hell’s Angels’
The reclusive billionaire was used to getting his own way, which is why he wouldn’t take no for an answer when his aerial stunt co-ordinator told him many of the dogfighting scenes he had designed for this 1930 movie about WW1 fighter pilots were too dangerous. He was right, three pilots and a mechanic were killed during production.
For a climactic scene in which a plane was required to pull out of a steep dive, Hughes himself stepped into the cockpit, but as expected he was unable to do the manoeuvre safely, crashed and suffered a serious skull fracture.
Tom Hooper – ‘Les Misérables’
Hooper’s drive for authenticity in this musical adaptation caused many a sore throat amongst the A-list cast, as according to Russell Crowe, each take involved the actors singing an entire song live from beginning to end.
That’s because Hooper decided to have the stars actually perform on-set with total freedom and only a piano accompanist being piped into an earpiece rather than mime to a backing track.
It was a choice that paid off creatively but was horrendously difficult to execute – the director forced the sound team to re-invent ways to hide microphones and an off-screen pianist had to follow the singer’s lead without being in the same room. It was the first time something like this had been attempted on such a scale.
Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, South Bank Show