MARTIN SCORSESE: SACKED FROM THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
With his exalted status in modern cinema, it’s difficult to believe that the master director behind Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf Of Wall Street could actually be sacked. But back in the late sixties, Martin Scorsese was just another hirsute young film school graduate with a no-budget feature to his credit. On the strength of his highly autobiographical 1967 drama, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, Scorsese was hired by producers, Paul Asselin and Warren Steibel, to direct their low budget thriller, The Honeymoon Killers, which was based on the sordid true story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the notorious “Lonely Hearts Killers”, who murdered a string of vulnerable spinsters in the forties. With his head full of groundbreaking stylistic ideas, and high on what he could achieve with the film, Scorsese hit the ground running…and then quickly hit a wall. “It was a 200-page script, and I was shooting everything in master shots with no coverage because I was an artist,” the director says in the book, Scorsese On Scorsese. “Since the guys with the money only had enough for a $150,000 black-and-white film, they said that we just couldn’t go on; there would have to be close-ups or something. Of course, not every scene was shot from one angle, but too many of them were, so there was no way of avoiding a film that was four hours long. I was fired after one week’s shooting, and for a pretty good reason too. That was a great lesson.” Martin Scorsese was replaced on The Honeymoon Killers by opera composer, Leonard Kastle, a neophyte director who ended up crafting a chilling, highly unusual film that would sadly stand as his sole directorial effort.
RICHARD STANLEY: SACKED FROM THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
The 1996 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, is one of the most infamously troubled productions in movie history. Original leading man, Rob Morrow, walked off the film; his co-star, Marlon Brando, was his usual eccentric self; and actor, Val Kilmer, is rumoured to have made the shoot a living hell for everyone involved with a barrage of bizarre behaviour. In amongst all of this, the film’s original director, Richard Stanley, was fired. He’d already watched his previous film – 1992’s cerebral thriller, Dust Devil – get torn to shreds by an insensitive, hit-seeking distributor, and Stanley hoped that he could turn The Island Of Dr. Moreau (in which a sailor is shipwrecked on an island populated by human/animal hybrids created by the titular mad scientist) into “a really slick, epic, voodoo, gothic horror.” Along with the instability of the entire production, and Val Kilmer’s erratic behaviour, the film’s backers were becoming increasingly suspicious of Stanley’s curious visions for the movie. “As soon as the budget goes over a certain level, you’re in the hands of the company,” the director told The Guardian. “When it hit $35 million, my position started to become untenable. They say, ‘It has to be this way, kid. The waist-high field of marijuana plants has to go; the animal sex has to go; and you can’t have the female lead cooked and eaten.’” Stanley was fired early in production, and replaced by Hollywood veteran, John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, French Connection II), who crafted a film that earned the original director’s disdain. “It’s now the slave bunch liberated by the outsider who leads the rebellion,” Stanley told The Guardian. “It’s the same old pro-democracy liberal American message.” The whole sorry story is expertly captured in the 2014 documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau.
PHILIP KAUFMAN: SACKED FROM THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
Though his resume is studded with modern classics (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being), Philip Kaufman has had little luck when it comes to movie projects, dealing with disappointingly indifferent audiences, unfeeling studios, and even the censor. In the mid-seventies, however, Kaufman was building momentum as a director, with the inventive 1972 revisionist western, The Great Northfield-Minnesota Raid, and the unconventional 1974 adventure, The White Dawn. Spotting an obvious talent, major movie star and producer, Clint Eastwood, hired Kaufman to adapt and direct the western novel, Gone To Texas, for the big screen. Renamed The Outlaw Josey Wales, shooting commenced on a script by Kaufman and Sonia Chernus that Eastwood thought “brilliant.” By 1975, Eastwood had directed four movies, and his stature as a filmmaker was starting to equal his towering on-screen status. He’d initiated The Outlaw Josey Wales, and when he saw it moving in a direction that he didn’t like, Eastwood acted quickly…and with extreme prejudice. “Kaufman’s work as a writer was excellent,” Eastwood has recalled, “but when it came to shooting it, it turned out that our points of view were completely different.” The talented Philip Kaufman was summarily sacked, and Eastwood hopped into the director’s saddle. “Clint decided that we had creative differences,” Kaufman told Venice Magazine in 2001. “He was the producer. He was the biggest star in the world. One of us had to go. [Laughs] It wasn’t my choice. The original book was by a very right wing guy [Forrest Carter], and I turned it into a more liberal, humanistic story. That, however, wasn’t the original material that Clint gave to me. I’ve never seen the film, but I hear that it’s very good.”
JOHN G. AVILDSEN: SACKED FROM SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
When music-minded producer, Robert Stigwood (Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy), was looking for a filmmaker to helm his 1977 project, Saturday Night Fever, he thought that he’d found his man in John G. Avildsen, who had directed the well-received 1973 drama, Save The Tiger, and the controversial underground films, Joe and Cry Uncle. More importantly, Avildsen had just finished production on the boxing flick, Rocky, and Hollywood could smell a hit in the making. “I’d just done Rocky, and it hadn’t even opened yet,” says Avildsen in the VH1 documentary, “Behind The Music: The Story Of Saturday Night Fever”, “but the buzz was good, and I was the boy of the moment.” Though set in the hedonistic world of the then hugely popular disco craze, and syncopated to the falsetto pop of The Bee Gees, Stigwood and his leading man, John Travolta, had envisioned Saturday Night Fever as a gritty slice of New York life, anchored by a barely likeable leading character. Avildsen, however, wanted to soften the tone of the film, punch up its more positive aspects, and make its anti-hero, Tony Manero, into more of an actual hero. “He wanted me to be this guy who did all the favours in the neighbourhood,” John Travolta says in the VH1 documentary. “It was a sweet idea, but it wasn’t the movie that I’d signed to do. Frankly, I was just not very happy with the direction in which it was going.” Travolta and Stigwood promptly fired Avildsen, and replaced him with the more like-minded John Badham. “[Stigwood] said, ‘I don’t want this to ruin our friendship.’ I thought that was pretty good,” Avildsen laughs bitterly of his sacking. “It was a surprise, and a real disappointment.”
SIDNEY J. FURIE: SACKED FROM THE JAZZ SINGER
“You always approach a film like it’s the most important thing in the world,” director, Sidney J. Furie, once said. “But failing goes with the territory. Filmmakers are like gunslingers, and you don’t win every duel.” One cinematic duel that the Canadian-born director certainly lost was 1980’s The Jazz Singer, the remake of the groundbreaking 1927 Al Jolson starrer that marked the first feature-length motion picture with synchronised dialogue. A journeyman director then best known for his 1972 Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings The Blues, which starred neophyte actress, Diana Ross, Furie was brought in to guide the much heralded movie debut of big name pop/rock singer, Neil Diamond. The director’s approach to this story of a Cantor’s son who pursues a career as a pop singer, however, was decidedly loose. Working on the film for several weeks, Furie was constantly rewriting the screenplay, much to the confusion of his actors, who were also pushed into ad-libbed scenes without being given any idea of where said scenes would be placed. The film’s backers, EMI, eventually threatened to close down production if Furie didn’t send them a completed screenplay. When they got it, EMI not only judged it to be sub-par, but also claimed that it would double the film’s budget and shooting schedule. Furie was immediately fired, after having shot 48 hours of largely unusable footage. Fellow journeyman, Richard Fleischer (then most famous for the likes of The Vikings, Mandingo, and Doctor Dolittle), was quickly hauled in as a replacement. In losing this cinematic duel, however, Sidney J. Furie also dodged a bullet, with The Jazz Singer eventually going on to tank at the box office and receive across-the-board brutal reviews.
RICHARD RUSH: SACKED FROM AIR AMERICA
A highly committed American auteur with a titanic flair for the audacious and invigorating, Richard Rush (most famous for against-the-grain, freewheeling stand-alones like The Stunt Man, Getting Straight, Freebie And The Bean, and Psych-Out) is also one dark cinematic pony, having little luck with movie projects, and often having to fight tooth-and-nail to get his movies made. In the eighties, Rush was hit hard when he was hired to adapt and direct Christopher Robbins’ book, Air America, which chronicled a covert and corrupt CIA airlift organisation operating during The Vietnam War. Deeply in love with the project, Rush researched heavily and penned what he thought was his best screenplay, which attracted the attention of Sean Connery, who agreed to star. Putting together a production that he described to The AV Club as “bulletproof”, Rush had even secured the permission of “one of the Asian air forces to bomb any country that I wanted so I could get it on film.” When Rush returned from setting up the shoot, however, there was a new head of production at the company backing the film. “He’d fallen in love with the project, and wanted it for himself,” Rush told The AV Club. “The first thing that you do when you want to take over a project is get rid of anybody already connected with it, because they will be your enemy. So he got rid of me.” The film was eventually directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies), with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. in the lead roles. “There have been residuals,” Rush says of his paid and credited script work on Air America, “but every once in a while, I actually see the movie, and it depresses me.”
MIKE HODGES: SACKED FROM DAMIEN: OMEN II
Richard Donner’s The Omen was one of the surprise hits of 1976, a thrill-filled horror flick about an American ambassador (Gregory Peck) who learns that his infant son is actually the literal Antichrist. Filled with baroque religious imagery and alarming kill-scenes, the film’s producers saw it as a potential franchise starter, and quickly put a sequel into motion. Titled Damien: Omen II, the film would follow the titular Antichrist as a young boy, with respected British director, Mike Hodges, at the helm. Then most famous for the seminal 1971 thriller, Get Carter, the 1972 satire, Pulp, and the grim 1974 horror-thriller, The Terminal Man, the keenly intelligent Hodges saw Damien: Omen II as a means to dig into more pressing issues than religious apocalyptic scare-mongering. Attracted by the secondary theme of the abusive nature of corporate power, Hodges “wanted to show wealth as size, like Welles had done in Citizen Kane.” This thoughtful take on the material, however, was not what the producers had envisioned. “It soon became obvious that I was shooting a film different from the one that they wanted,” the director says in Get Carter And Beyond: The Cinema Of Mike Hodges. After three weeks of filming, Hodges was shown the door…in no uncertain terms. “I was having a discussion with the producer, who was slightly neurotic, to say the least, and he got very angry,” Hodges (who was replaced by journeyman, Don Taylor) told The Guardian. “We were sitting in an office, and he suddenly rummaged in his bag, and put this handgun on the table. I said, ‘Is that loaded?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I found it very scary, I have to confess. The whole film was very threatening.”
NICOLAS ROEG: SACKED FROM FLASH GORDON
The loopy sci-fi adventure, Flash Gordon remains one of the greatest disasters of the eighties: a camp, kitsch, over the top romp that was supposed to be one of the decade’s biggest hits, but ended up being a major bomb. But if the film’s powerhouse producer, Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong, Barbarella), had stuck with his original choice of director, it may have been a different film altogether. Eventually helmed by the highly regarded but seemingly unsuitable Brit, Mike Hodges (Get Carter), De Laurentiis had initially assigned this adaptation of Alex Raymond’s vintage comic strip (later turned into popular radio and film serials) to Nicolas Roeg, who had directed arthouse favourites like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and Performance, as well as the superior sci-fi flick, The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie. Though initially indifferent to the project, Roeg was eventually won over by the original comic strips. “I gradually came to the conclusion that Alex Raymond was an absolute genius,” the director told American Film. “It took me a long time, but suddenly I tore into what I felt he was doing! It was extraordinary.” Though it’s difficult to believe that De Laurentiis didn’t see it coming, Roeg’s approach to the material was typically unconventional, and the producer was chasing a mainstream hit, and not an arthouse critical darling. “It took me a year until I’d got it down how I wanted to make Flash Gordon,” Roeg told American Film. “And I said to Dino, ‘Look, this is it. It’s ready.’ And he looked at it and said, ‘I don’t want to make that picture.’ End of project!”
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: SACKED FROM COCOON
Rightly renowned as one of the pioneers of motion capture technology with the likes of A Christmas Carol, Beowulf and The Polar Express, producer/director, Robert Zemeckis, wasn’t always a Hollywood power player. Though now a heavy hitter after the box office triumphs of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and the Back To The Future trilogy, in the early eighties, Robert Zemeckis was merely a burgeoning filmmaker with a lot of promise. He’d made two impressive but financially disappointing films – the raucous 1980 comedy, Used Cars, and his 1978 debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was set amongst the explosion of Beatlemania in the US – and 20th Century Fox had somewhat nervously handed him the reins on two more projects. One was the rollicking action adventure flick, Romancing The Stone, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, and the other was Cocoon, a sci-fi drama about a group of senior citizens reinvigorated after an encounter with aliens. But when the bigwigs at 20th Century Fox saw Romancing The Stone, they became even more nervous about Robert Zemeckis. “They thought that it was a disaster,” the director told The LA Times. “I’d spent a year developing Cocoon, but they were all very nervous in those days, and it was budgeted at $15 million. They said, ‘We can’t give this guy another movie to make!’ So they fired me.” Ironically, 1984’s Romancing The Stone turned out to be a success, and cemented Zemeckis’ standing as a director of high-tone Hollywood entertainment. It was, however, something of a win-win for Fox: they brought in Ron Howard to direct Cocoon, and he delivered a charming, much loved box office hit.
VINCENT WARD: SACKED FROM ALIEN 3
If there’s one thing that producers, Walter Hill and David Giler, have been when it comes to their hit Alien franchise, it’s brave. They have consistently sought out the services of daring filmmakers to push the series forward, rather than going with obvious hit-makers or studio stalwarts. After Ridley Scott had established the concept of a rampaging killer extraterrestrial with 1979’s Alien, and James Cameron had taken it to the level of a war film with 1986’s Aliens, Hill and Giler tapped New Zealand director, Vincent Ward, to helm the third film in the series. Acclaimed for his eerie, NZ-shot dramas, Vigil and The Navigator, Ward’s approach to the Alien mythology was characteristically unusual, with the director envisioning for his setting a wooden mini-planet inhabited by technology-fearing monks. When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the alien crash land on their strange, self-contained world, the monks believe that The Devil is amongst them. With the eventual discovery that Ripley has been impregnated by the alien, Ward’s bold and daring concept begins to tap into themes revolving around abortion and exorcism, getting increasingly further away from a big studio film and closer to the arthouse work that has defined the director before and since. Now often referred to as one of the greatest sci-fi films never made, Vincent Ward’s take on Alien 3 was basically just too out-there. Producer, David Giler, has claimed that there were too many holes in the story’s logic, even for a sci-fi film. “There were just too many questions,” he says on the Alien 3 DVD. Though a few of Ward’s ideas were retained, the director was replaced by then young up-and-comer, David Fincher, who would experience his own baptism of fire on the notoriously troubled film.
JOSEPH SARGENT: SACKED FROM BUCK AND THE PREACHER
In the 1972 western, Buck And The Preacher, Sidney Poitier stars as an ex-army wagon master who warily teams with a con-man-of-the-cloth (Harry Belafonte) to help freed slaves escape persecution and make a life for themselves on the frontier. A winning mix of humour, action, and social commentary, Buck And The Preacher is an under-celebrated western that ended up being something of a cinematic milestone. It was one of the first westerns to feature a black hero, and also marked the first time that an African-American had directed a western for a major Hollywood studio. That man was Sidney Poitier, climbing into the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as Hollywood’s foremost African-American star with such seminal films as Lilies Of The Field, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and In The Heat Of The Night. The film’s milestone status, however, was not the original intention of uncredited producers, Poitier and Belafonte, who had hired Joseph Sargent – then an accomplished television director who would go on to direct a handful of strong features (The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, White Lightning) – to helm the large-scale project. But though he was doing professional work, Poitier and Belafonte soon realised that Sargent was shaping a standard western, whereas they wanted to focus on the racial elements of the story, particularly the details of black life in the west, and the relationship between the black settlers and the area’s Native American population. Sargent was politely fired, and the film’s backing studio, Columbia, allowed Poitier to take the reins on the western. “We made a movie that deals with social, political, and ideological realities,” Harry Belafonte told The New York Times. “We made an honest film.”
WAYNE KRAMER: SACKED FROM BULLET TO THE HEAD
In Hollywood, the power player is usually the movie’s star, particularly if they’re a proven box office draw with a history of hits. It’s their face on the poster, and it’s them that the audience is paying to see. While a handful of directors are stars themselves, most are largely unknown to the cinema going audience at large. Wayne Kramer learned this first hand when he signed on to direct Bullet To The Head (which went straight to DVD in Australia), an action belter starring Sylvester Stallone as an ageing hitman who teams up with a young cop to bring down a common enemy. Though he’d made a name for himself with 2003’s Las Vegas-set drama, The Cooler, Kramer was definitely reporting to Sylvester Stallone on Bullet To The Head…and the actor wasn’t too happy with what he was seeing. “It just didn’t work out,” Stallone has said. “It was becoming way too technical and visual; I wanted old school.” Wayne Kramer was summarily sacked, and Stallone found that old school approach in the form of action veteran, Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets Of Fire). “I was very interested in working with Sly,” Hill told FilmInk. “I’d wanted to work with him for a long time. He felt the same about me, so maybe it was our time. But the previous director is somebody who I have a very good relationship with. Wayne’s a good guy, and he’s a very talented man. Obviously, I don’t feel happy about it, but we all have projects where something goes wrong, and it doesn’t work out. I could tell you ten movies – but I won’t – that I developed that didn’t work out, and somebody else ended up doing it.”