Direct Confrontation: Actors Versus Filmmakers

March 18, 2020
Actors and directors don’t always get along…check out these twelve tales of on-set and after-the-fact rancor.

The actor-director relationship can often be a warm, creative, mutually satisfying one, as famously evidenced by successful pairings such as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and Adam Sandler and Dennis Dugan. Sometimes, however, it can be a source of frustration, bitterness, pain and unbridled anger, as these notorious cases amply demonstrate.


When it comes to politically left-leaning Hollywood stars, actor, producer and director, George Clooney, is currently the king, grabbing headlines and even getting arrested for speaking out on behalf of people often robbed of a voice on the world stage. So, not surprisingly, when Clooney saw the famously volatile and eccentric David O. Russell – his director on the brilliant 1999 satire, Three Kings – abusing crew members and extras on the film’s set, the actor opted to do something about it. “He screamed at people all day, from day one,” George Clooney revealed to Playboy. “I said, ‘David, it’s a big day, but you can’t shove, push or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.’” No shrinking violet, Russell stepped up to his leading man. “Why don’t you just worry about your fucked up acting?!” he allegedly glowered. “You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.” Clooney told Playboy that Russell even proceeded to get physical with him. “He turned on me, and started banging me on the head with his head,” the actor said. “Then he got me by the throat, and I went nuts. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologised, but I walked away. David pouted through the rest of the shoot, and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.” In a surprise happy ending, however, the warring pair eventually opted for a final ceasefire. “I saw David at a party,” Clooney told The Hollywood Reporter, “and I felt compelled to go over and go, ‘So, are we done?’ And he goes, ‘Please.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ We made a really, really great film, and we had a really tough time together, but it’s a case of us both getting older.” The Clooney/Russell clash, however, remains one of the most referenced in recent Hollywood history.


1996’s The Island Of Dr. Moreau is one of the most infamously troubled movie shoots in film history…just check out the 2014 doco, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, for more than ample proof. Its original director, Richard Stanley, was fired, and its initial leading man, Rob Morrow, walked out upon his boss’ untimely dismissal. According to many reports, the root of much of the film’s rancor was its brilliant but often bizarre co-star, Val Kilmer. Rumours have it that Kilmer was actually cast in the film’s lead role, but eventually begged to have his on-set time reduced because he was going through an ugly divorce. Stanley agreed (just before being sacked), and Kilmer was given a supporting role instead…but that didn’t appear to sate him. He immediately clashed with the film’s new director (veteran John Frankenheimer), allegedly fell afoul of his co-star, Marlon Brando (“You are confusing your talent with the size of your paycheck,” the legend allegedly told him), and is even believed to have burned a cameraman with a cigarette. “There are two things that I will never do in my whole life,” Frankenheimer told Premiere. “The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer again.” When Kilmer filmed his last scene, Frankenheimer cried to the crew, “Now get that bastard off my set!” Kilmer, however, questions Frankenheimer’s assertions. “[New Line studio head] Bob Shaye doesn’t buy much of what Frankenheimer said,” Kilmer told IGN. “I have friends that I talk to once a month who were on that crew. Brando is a friend of mine. The two things that came out were that I was trying to kill people on the crew, and that Brando hated me. Marlon knows it’s out of line. He wrote me a letter saying, ‘You want me to say something?’” Frankenheimer passed away six years later, and took the feud to the grave with him…


When movie studio, New Line, hired advertising maestro and British art scene enfant terrible, Tony Kaye, to bring David McKenna’s powerful script, American History X, to the screen for his directorial debut in 1998, they got a lot more than they bargained for. A brash, bizarre iconoclast of the first order, Kaye was a proponent of what he called “Hype Art”, and seemed set on turning everything into one big, confrontational installation. He feuded with just about everyone involved with the production of American History X, but held his greatest animus for the film’s star, Edward Norton (“a narcissistic dilettante,” according to Kaye), who brilliantly plays a white supremacist looking for redemption. “He wasn’t right for the role,’’ Kaye told Entertainment Weekly. “He’s a very privileged, well-educated young man playing a part that he is absolutely not right for. But the studio only gave me five weeks to find someone better. And in five weeks, I couldn’t.” Though their relationship was initially cordial, Kaye started to bristle over Norton’s increased involvement in the production, with the actor taking on much of the reworking and development of the script. When Norton started rocking up in the editing room, Kaye took out a series of full page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter that cryptically attacked the actor in a swathe of veiled slurs. The feud never subsided, with Kaye ultimately trying to take his name off the film. “Tony Kaye is not interested in much other than Tony Kaye,” Norton told Entertainment Weekly. “He has a compulsive need for external melodrama. He’s taken a very normal level of collaborative interaction and turned it into a melodrama of creative abuse because he needs to paint himself as an oppressed artist. But let’s not make any mistake: Tony Kaye is a victim of nothing but his own professional and spiritual immaturity. Period.” Tellingly, Tony Kaye has only worked sporadically since this much reported battle, but his films (including the epic abortion-themed doco Lake Of Fire and the excellent Adrien Brody drama Detachment) have been powerful and singular.


“You could have called U-Turn Dr. Dolittle, because being able to communicate with the director was like talking to a pig,” Sean Penn raged to The New York Times. “That was my greatest accomplishment on that movie. For seven hellacious weeks, I was able to communicate with a pig. I asked myself many times, ‘What the hell am I doing out here in the desert with Oliver Stone?’” Aside from starring in the director’s neo-noir black comedy, Sean Penn was getting involved in the kind of feud that could only ignite between two of the most contentious figures in the American movie industry. According to an article published in Premiere, Penn felt that a member of the crew – who happened to be the son of a friend of Oliver Stone’s (“He was incompetent,” Penn said, “and additionally, in my way”) – was hindering his acting process, and had also offended his personal assistant on the film set, resulting in a torrent of abuse from the famously short fused actor. In the 2004 authorised biography, Sean Penn: His Life And Times, the actor claims that Stone and his producers had used the article in Premiere to discredit him and “dismiss the contribution of others to the great god Oliver’s piece.” Despite the vehemence and public nature of their set-to, Penn and Stone have since made up…kind of. “I’ve buried the hatchet with Oliver,” Penn says in Sean Penn: His Life And Times. “I ran into him at Sundance, and we had a great conversation. But working with someone, and talking to them in a hallway, are two different things…we just have very different personalities. He was very piggish in our situation. What he’s like now, I don’t know. But I’m all for him.” So much so that Penn almost worked with Stone again, on the collapsed 2007 Vietnam drama, Pinkville.


When James Dean burst onto the screen in 1955 with East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, he literally changed the face of screen acting, following the lead of Marlon Brando in creating a new kind of naturalism that would influence entire generations of performers. The highly sensitive Dean had been pushed to brilliance on those films by two nurturing directors: East Of Eden’s Elia Kazan was a famed “actor’s director” and strong proponent of the “method” school of acting, and Rebel Without A Cause’s Nicholas Ray had involved Dean deeply in all facets of the film, which was a real rarity in fifties Hollywood. When he was cast in his third major film, however, Dean would meet a very different kind of filmmaker. At the helm of the sprawling Texas melodrama, Giant, was George Stevens, a true craftsman who liked to shoot hours and hours of film, and then carve away in the editing room. This, however, meant that his actors would often have to sit around for hours on set, waiting to be called for their long overdue scenes. After spending an entire day doing nothing, the mentally prepared Dean failed to turn up for the next day’s shoot in protest, which infuriated Stevens. According to the film’s co-star and Dean’s friend, Dennis Hopper, the director hauled Dean into the office of Warner chairman, Jack Warner, and “threatened to kick him out of Hollywood.” As Hopper has recalled, however, Dean fought back, leading to an eventual cooling of his heated relationship with Stevens. “For every day that you make me sit, there’ll be two days next time, then three, then four,” he said. “You’ll pay for it, but you won’t stop me working.” Said Hopper: “From then on, when they called Jimmy in to work, he worked. He never sat around after that.”


As so cannily portrayed in the 2011 film, My Week With Marilyn, screen icon Marilyn Monroe’s decision to team with actor/director, Sir Laurence Olivier, on the 1957 romantic comedy, The Prince And The Showgirl, would bring this Hollywood wildflower an added burden of pain and suffering to the already substantial load that she was bearing. Desperate to break free from her “dumb blonde” image, Monroe had joined The Actors Studio in New York (the home of method acting) and subsequently started up her own production company in order to seek out challenging new material. She felt that she’d found it in acclaimed playwright Terence Rattigan’s screenplay, The Prince And The Showgirl, and when Sir Laurence Olivier – a recently knighted legend of the British stage and screen – signed on to direct and co-star, the project certainly looked like a more rarefied undertaking for Monroe. Right from the off, however, Monroe’s allegiance to method acting – and her lack of hesitation in questioning the creative decisions of her director – put her at odds with Olivier, a true Shakespearian traditionalist. “Marilyn had this ghastly obsession with method acting, and was always searching for some inner meaning with everything, but Larry would only explain the simple facts of the scene,” said the film’s cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, in Justin Bowyer’s book, Conversations With Jack Cardiff. “She resented him. It was evident that Marilyn was going to be a problem for Larry on the film. Most actors will come on the set and chat, but she would never come on the set. She went through so many agonised times with Larry because he was, to her, a pain in the arse. She never forgave him for saying to her once, ‘Try and be sexy.’ I saw Larry years later, and I asked him what he had thought about Marilyn. He just said, ‘She was a bitch.’”


When it came to the actor-director relationship, veteran Hollywood craftsman, William Wyler (the largely under-appreciated director responsible for such mighty creations as 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives and 1959’s Ben-Hur) was the on-set equivalent of a distant, demanding husband. According to actor, Charlton Heston, Wyler approached him during shooting Ben-Hur and told him that his performance was inadequate. When an offended Heston asked him what he should do, Wyler came back with a blunt reply: “Be better.” When star Henry Fonda demanded to know why Wyler had put him through forty takes on the 1938 drama, Jezebel, the director was even more terse. “It stinks,” he said. “Do it again.” Wyler’s most bitter relationship, however, was with the inherently dignified but intensely headstrong Gregory Peck, with whom the director had enjoyed a pleasurable working relationship on the charming 1953 romance, Roman Holiday, co-starring Audrey Hepburn (whom, incidentally, Wyler had verbally abused in order to inspire the appropriate emotional response in a particularly pivotal scene). But when Peck and Wyler teamed on the epic 1958 western, The Big Country, there was a shift in the power relationship, with Peck now producing as well as acting. Watching the purse strings as well as his performance, Peck became concerned with Wyler’s habit of doing take upon take, which was starting to bite into the film’s schedule. “He overshot by an hour, which had to be cut,” Gregory Peck says in The Films Of Gregory Peck. “We went way over budget. [As a producer], you’re always aware of money going down the drain.” The collaboration between Peck and Wyler became increasingly fraught with tension, and after the film completed production, the director made his feelings painfully clear. “I wouldn’t direct Peck again for a million dollars,” Wyler sneered, “and you can quote me on that.”


“Faye carries a cloud of drama around with her,” said Elia Kazan, who directed the brilliant but infamously difficult actress in the 1969 drama, The Agreement. “There is something in her at hazard.” Famed for his sensitivity towards actors, Kazan knew how to handle Faye Dunaway, and got no real contest out of her. When she signed on for the 1974 noir masterpiece, Chinatown, however, the man behind the camera boasted a far different set of creative predilections. Polish émigré, Roman Polanski, was a fastidious and autocratic director famed for both international masterpieces (Knife In The Water, Repulsion) and Hollywood hits (Rosemary’s Baby). In his wonderfully muck-raking tome, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – which looks with almost gleeful spite at the major players in American cinema of the seventies – author Peter Biskind describes the Chinatown set as a powder keg. Loose, freewheeling figures of the era, both Dunaway and her co-star, Jack Nicholson, were at loggerheads with Polanski, who treated everybody as his subordinates, regardless of their industry standing. Biskind even claims that the director once forcibly plucked a stray hair from Dunaway’s head, because he thought that it was spoiling his shot. “Well, he’s an auteur, and he had his own pressures,” Dunaway told The Guardian in 2008. “But you want there to be collaboration, and you want there to be kindness, and sometimes that was impossible. We all lost our patience a little bit.” But when The Guardian queried her about Biskind’s further claim that she threw a cup of urine in Polanski’s face after she was refused a bathroom break, Dunaway was furious. “That doesn’t even deserve the dignity of a response,” she howled. “It is absolutely ridiculous.” To his end, Polanski was resolute in his opinion of Faye Dunaway. “She was a gigantic pain in the arse,” the director infamously remarked. “She demonstrated certifiable proof of insanity.”


Acting titan, Marlon Brando, has a long and hilariously chequered track record when it comes to on-set antics. He amusingly taunted his Teahouse Of The August Moon co-star, Glenn Ford, by stealing cookies from the dressing room of the proclaimed “food miser”, and intentionally thwarting the veteran actor’s efforts to steal every scene that he was in. He also drove his The Missouri Breaks director, Arthur Penn, to distraction by introducing all manner of quirky tics to his character. On the set of The Score – a 2001 crime drama ultimately distinguished only by its stellar cast, which also included Robert De Niro and Edward Norton – Brando proved too much to handle for director, Frank Oz, who was making his first serious film after comedies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger. As a top-notch puppeteer and voice actor, Oz had also provided the voices for Miss Piggy of The Muppets and Yoda in the Stars Wars films. Playing a flamboyant gay criminal, Brando showed up to shoot his first scene in full, dandy-style makeup, and proceeded to play his character in a highly theatrical fashion. “He had earnestly worked on his character,” Oz told Time, “but my tone was more reality based.” In take after take, Oz asked Brando to “bring it down”, setting off a boiling spat that never subsided. On set, Brando referred to Oz as “Miss Piggy”, and said, “I bet you wish that I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.” Brando eventually refused to work with Oz, and ultimately had De Niro direct his remaining scenes. “I don’t care about tension on the set if it’s all about the movie and the character,” Oz told Time in 2001, “but I was combative with Brando when I should have been nourishing and gentle.”


When it comes to the on-set emotional torture of his leading ladies, Danish provocateur, Lars Von Trier, is rivaled only by Alfred Hitchcock, and perhaps that director’s most noted acolyte, Brian De Palma. What Von Trier did to Emily Watson on 1996’s Breaking The Waves and Charlotte Gainsbourg on 2009’s Antichrist is there to see on screen, while his emotional excoriation of singer-turned-actress, Bjork, on 2000’s Dancer In The Dark is now the stuff of dark-hued legend. The experience of making the film so shook the Icelandic icon that she vowed never to act again, and has kept true to her promise. Bjork contested that Von Trier was “sexist”, and asserted that he needs actresses to infuse his films with a soul, and that “he envies them and hates them for it.” Though not as famed as his explosive relationship with Bjork, Von Trier also put Nicole Kidman through the emotional ringer on the bizarre 2003 allegorical drama, Dogville, in which she plays a fugitive mobster’s daughter who ends up brutalised by the morally bankrupt denizens of a small American town. “The first week was tricky,” Kidman said at The Cannes Film Festival. “He had preconceptions about me, and I did about him. Then we went off into the forest, and had a heart-to-heart. It was a three-hour, warts-and-all, screaming walk. But we came out with a very strong commitment to each other.” That commitment, however, failed to hold, as Kidman pulled out of a tentative agreement which would have seen her appear in two sequels to Dogville. “I don’t think I tortured Nicole, but I know that she said I was tough,” Von Trier attests. Kidman, however, might feel differently. When UK Telegraph journalist, David Britten, asked the actress about the director a year after Dogville’s release, Britten claimed that she gave him “what might be termed an old-fashioned look.”


No actor or director in America is as outspoken and provocative as actor, writer, director, musician, Vincent Gallo, whose sexually explicit cinematic tone poem, The Brown Bunny, infamously rocked The Cannes Film Festival in 2003. While his brilliant debut film, the 1998 drama, Buffalo 66, was far less contentious, it did spur a rolling feud between the actor/director and his leading lady, Christina Ricci, who gave a terrific performance in the film. Their on-set relationship, however, was wracked by tension and verbal sparring, and since the film’s release, the often horrendously candid Gallo has never hesitated in bad-mouthing his star. When interviewed by a journalist from The New York Post’s notorious gossip section, Page Six, at an industry party, Gallo dropped the hammer, big time. “It was okay when she wasn’t drunk on the set,” he said of Ricci. “She’s an alcoholic…it was either that, or she was on cough syrup the whole time. I don’t like her. She’s an ungrateful cunt. But it was okay. She’s basically a puppet. I told her what to do and she did it. She lost seventeen pounds though, and that was because I only let her eat one whole pizza pie every day.” Not surprisingly, the singularly vicious Vincent Gallo remains a great source of frustration for Ricci. “I don’t think anyone really needs to go through that abuse, ever,” the actress told FilmInk in 2005. “He’s the classless one that has talked out of hand, and I’d rather be the one that says little.” So she wouldn’t work with Gallo again? “Never, not in a million years. I won’t even be in the same movie. It’s not worth it. Even if Woody Allen, for example, had cast Vincent in Anything Else, I would have quit. I’ve told people that I won’t be in movies if they cast him.”


Though rocked by controversy, most of the attention surrounding the 1992 thriller, Basic Instinct, was diverted elsewhere…namely, between the legs of its leading lady, Sharon Stone. Despite its wall-to-wall sex and violence, the most talked about scene of Paul Verhoeven’s hit film had Stone’s mini-skirt wearing murderer uncrossing her legs in a police interrogation room to reveal, well, everything. Stone – who had previously worked with Dutch libertine Verhoeven on the 1990 sci-fi actioner, Total Recall – has maintained that the wily director had tricked her into revealing all, and she even smacked Verhoeven upon seeing the finished film. “He had told me that the light was reflecting off my underwear, and that he could see that I had underwear on,” Stone explained on Piers Morgan Tonight in 2011, “and that if I took off my underwear, there would be a shadow, and we wouldn’t see my pubic hair.” Verhoeven, however, has always claimed that Sharon Stone knew exactly what was going on. “Sharon is lying,” the director said during a Q&A session at The Hudson Union Society. “If you take your panties off, and you place a camera right there, you’re going to see it.” Verhoeven also says that Stone asked him to clear the set, because she was aware that everyone would be able to see, well, everything, during the filming of the scene. “She took her panties off, and then gave them to me as a present,” the director laughed. “She saw it on the video straight after. When her agents saw it though, she freaked out. They said that it would ruin her career, and she demanded that I cut it out. I said no.” The scene far from ruined Stone’s career, and the actress has since been able to laugh at the whole debacle. “At least it proves that I’m a natural blonde,” she once said.

If you liked this story, check out our features on feuding critics and filmmakers, warring actors, and tyrant directors.


  1. Christine

    Fascinating, great research. We all love the creative tension stories and they always seem larger than life in cinema

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