In this #MeToo climate a lot of of the discussion has surrounded the question of art v the artist. Should we still celebrate the work of a filmmaker when off-set he has engaged in abhorrent, and in some cases, allegedly criminal activities?
Many big names in the film industry think that we should; director Duncan Jones says, “the work isn’t the person, if it were, we are going to lose a lot of art,” while Meryl Streep went one step further by suggesting that “terrible people” should be protected if they are making profound art.
“Everybody has their blank spots, but the genius that understands so much else about the human experiment is worth safeguarding, and shouldn’t be touched,” she told Buzzfeed. “People who are terrible also have terribly clear insights on other subjects, so I don’t think you throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
I wonder though, would Streep still have that opinion if she was in the car Uma Thurman felt forced to drive on the set of Kill Bill some 15 years ago? In The New York Times’ interview with Thurman over the weekend she not only revealed harrowing details of Weinstein’s alleged assault, but also the shocking experience with Quentin Tarantino during the filming of the 2003 movie.
The director wanted her to drive a car so they could get the closing shot of the movie. Thurman, who wasn’t expecting to drive at all, was told by someone on the team that the vehicle, a Karmann Gia, wasn’t safe to use after they had reconfigured it from a stick shift to an automatic.
“Quentin came in my trailer and didn’t like to hear no, like any director,” the actress said. “He was furious because I’d cost them a lot of time. But I was scared…that was a deathbox that I was in. The seat wasn’t screwed down properly. It was a sand road and it was not a straight road.”
After aggressive persuasion on Tarantino’s part, Thurman put her trust in him and got behind the wheel of the car. Her trust was misplaced. She ended up losing control and it crashed into a palm tree leaving her with injuries she still struggles with today.
“Quentin and I had an enormous fight, and I accused him of trying to kill me,” Thurman continues. “And he was very angry at that, I guess understandably, because he didn’t feel he had tried to kill me.”
Of course he didn’t. He was a director trying to get his shot in the most authentic way possible, but when that way means putting a person’s life at risk, or their concerns to one side, it should never be the one you choose to pursue.
This is the problem we’ve heard too many times about directors choosing their artistic vision over the well-being of their cast or crew. While filming The Abyss, James Cameron kept the cameras rolling while Ed Harris nearly drowned because his safety diver couldn’t get to him with the oxygen tank.
During the filming of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick deliberately bullied Shelley Duvall to make her seem more desolate on screen and told everyone on the producing not to “sympathise with her.”
Bernardo Bertolucci sickeningly conspired with Marlon Brando to shoot a rape scene with Maria Schneider for Last Tango In Paris and allowed her to be sexually assaulted with a stick of butter.
And who can forget the great Alfred Hitchcock and his horrific treatment of his female stars? Not only did he sexually harass Tippi Hendren on the set of Marnie and The Birds but during the latter production he threw live birds at her to get the most realistic effect. That excuse, of making shots look as realistic as possible, is the exact one Tarantino used to justify the real strangulation of Thurman on the set of Kill Bill, as well as Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds.
Both films see these actresses’ characters get throttled – The Bride is strangled by Gogo with a chain and Bridget von Hammersmark by Hans Landa with his bare hands. Tarantino claims it was Thurman’s idea for her to be strangled for real in Kill Bill. “It was Uma’s suggestion,” the director says in his rebuttal to her New York Times piece. “To just wrap the thing around her neck, and choke her.”
Given that he spends much of this interview downplaying his responsibility for the car crash and involvement in keeping the footage out of Thurman’s hands (she says in 2004 they had a “fateful fight because he wouldn’t let me see the footage and he told me that was what they had all decided”), it’s hard to know exactly how accurate his statement is. Though he does admit that it was his suggestion to strangle Kruger for real in Inglourious Basterds: “That was an issue of me asking the actress, can we do this to get a realistic effect.”
Diane Kruger has now said that Tarantino never “forced her to do anything that she was uncomfortable with,” but what if she had been? Or another actress had been? Would Tarantino have let it go or badger her like he did Uma with the car?
We also cannot forget that sometimes actresses’ give their permission because they are too scared to say no for fear of being seen as difficult. When women like Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd said no to Harvey Weinstein their careers were hampered. Even in cases that don’t involve sexual harassment, just the whims of a male auteur, women have often felt that they had to go with the flow too or face negative repercussions.
The fact that Tarantino carried out these demeaning and violent acts is even more concerning. As Jessica Chastain points out, “Directors inserting themselves into a scene depicting abuse is crossing a boundary. How can an actor feel safe when your director is strangling you?”
For so many directors, safety is a secondary concern in order to realise their creative vision but why are they allowed to get away with it just because they are making art? If people in power working for the police force, or in schools, or hospitals exhibited the same sort of cavalier attitude towards health and safety they would likely be out of a job. There’s no reason why film directors shouldn’t be treated in the exact same way if they are a danger to those around them.
That’s why film sets need to be better monitored to ensure that these type of situations are nipped in the bud and not just brought up decades later. Film director Lexi Alexander, responding to the Uma Thurman story, made a pretty good suggestion to contend with the overarching power of the filmmaker.
“Every movie/show should have an independent safety officer on set who does not get hired by anybody involved in the film, whose career doesn’t depend on ‘keeping a relationship’” she tweeted. “This way ADs, actors, stunt ppl can anonymously express their concern w/o jeopardizing their career (sic).”
This would certainly force directors like Quentin Tarantino to make safer decisions in their filmmaking, and if they choose to not adhere to safer practices then studios and executives should cut ties.
This is why I don’t agree with Meryl Streep. No artist should be given free reign to work if their actions hurt other people. And if not working with “great” filmmakers makes the industry a safer place then that’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.