Sack The Director!

January 8, 2019
In light of Bryan Singer's now even more controversial sacking thanks to the Golden Globe Awards bestowed upon his film, Bohemian Rhapsody, we look at a host of other directors who were shown the door.

BRYAN SINGER: SACKED FROM BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Was it any coincidence that during Golden Globe Award Best Actor winner, Rami Malek’s acceptance speech there was no mention of the film’s director, Bryan Singer? Or that the helmer also failed to rate a mention when producer, Graham King, picked up the biopic’s Best Film Award? Short answer: no. Bryan Singer – whose impressive resume includes films like The Usual Suspects, X-Men and Valkyrie – was fired by Bohemian Rhapsody’s backing studio, 20th Century Fox, in December 2017 after rumoured clashes with the aforementioned Rami Malek. Singer was allegedly routinely absent from set with little to no warning, often forcing veteran cinematographer, Thomas Newton Sigel, to take on last-minute directing duties. Malek even allegedly made the big move of complaining to the studio, saying that Singer was absent too often, and was unreliable and unprofessional. Singer allegedly clashed with other members of the cast and crew as well. Production was briefly shut down, and British actor-turned-director, Dexter Fletcher (Eddie The Eagle, Sunshine On Leith), was eventually brought in to complete filming. Singer still received sole directing credit on the finished film (and thanked The Hollywood Foreign Press Association via Instagram when Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Film at The Golden Globe Awards), with Fletcher given the famously nebulous credit of executive producer. It’s another black mark on the increasingly dented reputation of Bryan Singer, who was sued in 2017 over an accusation that he raped a 17-year-old boy, a charge that the filmmaker denied. The film’s success has also angered many commentators, who view Singer in the same light as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.


SAM PECKINPAH: SACKED FROM THE CINCINNATI KID

By 1965, director Sam Peckinpah was beginning to court controversy in the manner that would come to define his entire career. Acclaimed films like Ride The High Country had marked him as a major talent, but trouble came along with his epic western Major Dundee. The studio’s insistence on cuts – and Peckinpah’s refusal to make them – had him barred from the Columbia lot. Peckinpah was then hired by producer Martin Ransohoff to direct MGM’s latest prestige production, The Cincinnati Kid. An obvious reworking of The Hustler, Ransohoff was convinced that with star Steve McQueen, he could make five-card stud poker just as compelling as pool. It’s a popular misconception that Peckinpah was fired because he covertly shot a nude scene. In fact, the nudity was explicitly at Ransohoff’s request. Ransohoff was a product of the ageing Hollywood studio system, whose overriding priority was to deliver a product that made plenty of money. He was also a shrewd, born showman. The collapsing Hayes Code was allowing much more nudity to be allowed on screen, and Ransohoff was hell bent on exploiting that. Peckinpah and Ransohoff hated each other on sight, but on day four, the director duly shot the footage as requested, but enraged Ransohoff by filming on a closed set, and in such a manner that the scene had an unsettling, melancholy tone, whereas Ransohoff had asked for upbeat titillation. “I kicked Ransohoff off the set,” Peckinpah told Movietone News. The producer was furious, and Peckinpah was fired. The story went around that Peckinpah had gone rogue and shot a nude scene without telling anyone. Although the shutdown cost the studio $500,000, MGM stood behind Ransohoff and Peckinpah was, unjustly, branded Hollywood’s new bad boy. In came replacement director Norman Jewison, and the film – minus nudity – become a major hit.

STANLEY KUBRICK: SACKED FROM ONE-EYED JACKS

It’s enticing to play “what if” and conjure up imaginary star or director projects, but few could be more tantalising than the prospect of Stanley Kubrick directing a western. In 1961, it very nearly came to pass. In 1956, Rod (The Twilight Zone) Serling wrote an adaptation of the novel The Authentic Death Of Hendry Jones, which was a thinly veiled interpretation of the life of western outlaw Billy The Kid. The producer rejected the script and turned it over to Sam Peckinpah for a rewrite. This aroused the interest of actor Marlon Brando, who secured the rights to make the film. His company hired director Stanley Kubrick, on the strength of his previous films, The Killing and Paths Of Glory, the latter of which Brando very much admired. Brando, now relishing the role of movie mogul, promptly rejected Peckinpah’s version on spurious grounds, and fired him, replacing him with Paths Of Glory screenwriter Calder Willingham. Willingham, however, was extremely slow in delivering a shooting script. These delays caused the meticulous Kubrick to become highly agitated, which, when set against Brando’s increasingly dictatorial behaviour, created a powder keg atmosphere on set. With no finished script in sight, Kubrick, although keen to direct the film, became ever more paranoid and unpredictable. Brando, in turn, grew incensed with what he perceived to be Kubrick’s sabotaging of his creative vision of the film, and took the unprecedented step of firing him, and stepping into the director’s chair himself. Brando turned in a five-hour cut, which studio Paramount promptly removed from him and cut back to a more manageable 141 minutes. The film remains an enjoyable oddity, but when asked who the real creative force was behind One-Eyed Jacks, co-star Karl Malden replied, “There is one answer to your question: Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.”

ANTHONY MANN: SACKED FROM SPARTACUS

Years after the release of Spartacus, Kirk Douglas spoke amusingly of Stanley Kubrick, the director that he himself brought on board for the historical epic. “You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit.” Whilst Douglas may have a point, Kubrick himself was so displeased with the star that he disowned the film. Spartacus, however, remains a true classic. But Douglas had to fire someone to bring his “talented shit” in, and that was director Anthony Mann. Mann was a brilliant director of iconic westerns (Man Of The West, The Naked Spur) who knew more than most about mythic heroes. “Legend makes the very best cinema,” said Mann. “It excites the imagination more.” He worked four months in pre-production, and his creative approach closely followed the ethos of Howard Fast’s source novel. Mann agreed that “the nobility of the human spirit…this is what pictures are all about. I don’t believe in anything else.” Mann shot the opening scenes in Death Valley, as well as the famous gladiator school training montage. But, a little over two weeks later, he was fired. Spartacus was in many ways the personal vision of star and producer Kirk Douglas. Agitated that he was denied the lead in Ben-Hur, and worse, offered the second lead instead, he quit that film and decided to make his own epic. Mann was in many ways perfect for the film, but was not emotionally up to the bullying and control exerted over him by his intense star/producer. Douglas found Mann weak and indecisive, and had the brilliant filmmaker removed from the film. He later regretted the decision, only agreeing to star in the WW2 movie The Heroes Of Telemark if Mann directed.

ROBERT ALTMAN: SACKED FROM RAGTIME

By 1980, auteur filmmaker Robert Altman had fallen from favour. Critical and commercial successes such as M*A*SH and Nashville had given way to artistically admired but commercially ignored fare like 3 Women and Quintet. In 1980, E.L Doctorow adapted his own novel, the historical epic Ragtime, into a screenplay specifically for Altman to direct. Set in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, it wove a tapestry of narratives involving fictional characters and actual historical figures that articulated important ideas surrounding US history at that time. Altman’s plans were to direct a mammoth six-hour movie, or even a ten-hour TV mini-series. The dense, layered narrative was perfectly suited to his sonic and visual aesthetic. Doctorow and Altman collaborated for months on the complex storyline structure, and an ambitious film rose from the pages. But trouble was brewing. Altman had directed Buffalo Bill And The Indians, starring Paul Newman. Although willfully offbeat, it did have much to recommend it, not least Newman’s brilliant turn as the titular character. The film was removed from Altman, however, by producer Dino De Laurentiis, after the director refused to make changes to make the film more commercially palatable. Naturally this did not impress Altman, and so when De Laurentiis became attached to Ragtime, it wasn’t long before disaster struck. Mere months before principal photography began, both Altman and Doctorow were fired. Doctorow’s script was completely scrapped in favour of a straightforward narrative by Michael Weller, and Altman was replaced by Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), a good director, but ill equipped for the scale and range of this project. Altman was obviously unhappy with the turnabout. “I’ve had trouble getting films made,” he said. “Ragtime is something that I really wanted to do. I liked the whole philosophy of it. It really hurt me to get bumped from that picture.”

ROBERT TOTTEN: SACKED FROM DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER

Robert Totten was a journeyman director who worked in TV, and was known in industry circles as reliable, and especially at home with westerns. By 1969, Don Siegel was rising to the top of the directing tree at Universal. After years of b-movie work, he had scored big with Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff. Madigan’s star, Richard Widmark, wanted Siegel to direct a western called Patch. Given the script to the now retitled Death Of A Gunfighter, he deferred on directing the film. “It was a small picture,” recalled Siegel, “which could be shot almost in its entirety on the backlot. The script needed a lot of work. I flatly told [the producers] that I didn’t want to get involved with the project.” Widmark urged Siegel to direct, but Siegel told the star to give Totten a chance at helming a feature. Angry at the snub, Widmark reluctantly agreed, and shooting began. Siegel didn’t realise that Widmark, a major star, had a lot of influence. Totten was made a scapegoat in a straightforward power play between Widmark, Universal head Lew Wasserman, and Siegel. Totten shot two days of apparently excellent footage. On day two, however, Widmark simply stopped working, and refused to continue unless Siegel was brought in. Wasserman leaned on Siegel – who had no idea that things were getting so out of hand – to intervene. He went over to speak to Widmark in his dressing room. When Siegel entered, Widmark addressed his makeup man, “Bring Mr. Siegel a coffee, black, no sugar. Now leave…I have to speak with my director.” Forced into a fait accomplit, Siegel had no choice but to agree to Totten being fired and take over the reins himself. He did, however, have his name removed from the film and replaced with the industry anonymous standard pseudonym Alan J. Smithee.

RICHARD DONNER: SACKED FROM SUPERMAN II

In 1978, Richard Donner revitalised the comic book movie genre with the smash hit Superman.  Donner was ironically a shoo-in to direct the sequel, as Superman I & II were to be shot as one film and released separately as two features. After missing the release date, however, there was a hiatus in completing Superman II in order to give Donner time to complete the first film. When star Marlon Brando demanded 11.75% of the US gross if his footage was used in any sequel, the producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, refused, and Donner went ballistic. He publicly denounced the decision, demanding control, and issuing a statement: “They have to want me to do it. It has to be on my terms, and I don’t mean financially. I mean control.” Tensions existed between Donner and the Salkinds from day one, but things spiraled downhill as he made more and more demands, and the producers ran out of patience. Director Richard Lester had been quietly involved in the first film, as a middle man between Donner and the Salkinds. He had worked with the producers on the financially successful two part Musketeers movies in the seventies and, inevitably, Donner was fired and replaced with Lester. “The Salkinds chose not to bring me back. After I waited to hear for six or eight weeks, I got a telegram that said, ‘Your services are no longer needed.’” This presented Lester with his own problems. To be given official director credit, the film had to contain at least 51% of his footage. With 80% of the picture shot, a raft of reshoots was required. The resulting film, Superman II, was a huge success, despite its pronounced comedic tone. In a rare vindication of a sacked director’s efforts, Richard Donner’s cut was fully restored and released on DVD in 2006 to huge acclaim.

ARTHUR PENN: SACKED FROM THE TRAIN

In 1963, filming began on one of the last major black and white WW2 epics. The Train was to tell the story of French resistance fighters attempting to stop a German colonel from shipping art masterpieces from a French museum into Germany. Produced by star Burt Lancaster’s company, and starring Lancaster and Paul Schofield, the film was to be directed by Arthur Penn. Penn, who at that time had only two features behind him (the western The Left Handed Gun, and the Oscar nominated The Miracle Worker), was still four years away from Bonnie And Clyde, his game-changing breakthrough movie. Penn had actually found The Train himself, and brought it to Lancaster, who signed on. Everything should have run smoothly, but the film, as everyone knows, was directed by John Frankenheimer. As Arthur Penn explains, he was duped, and never had a real chance to direct. “That was a simple, very bad piece of nonsense that Burt Lancaster pulled,” he has said. “That had a great deal to do with economics and not with me. Lancaster signed on with this, and made an agreement with John Frankenheimer that they would get rid of me on the first day. [Frankenheimer and Lancaster had worked together three times previously] That’s exactly what happened, even though the film was my idea. I brought the film to Lancaster, and my version of the script. Years later, Frankenheimer asked to have lunch with me, because we had known each other back in the days of live TV. He explained to me that he was an alcoholic during those years, and was completely under the sway of Lancaster. He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and felt it necessary for his conscience and his well-being, psychologically, to tell me and have lunch with me. He needed to explain and apologise. That’s the full story.”

ROUBEN MAMOULIAN: SACKED FROM…EVERYTHING!

Rouben Mamoulian was a successful Armenian-born Hollywood director of such films as Dr Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1931), The Mark Of Zorro (1940) and Silk Stockings (1957). He had a unique visual style which marked him as artistically daring for the time, but this also placed him at odds with the Hollywood machine, which had little time for creative experimentation. Mamoulian’s complex scene blocking and intricate camera set-ups simply cut into the bottom line, and his artistry was not tolerable in the sausage factory that was Hollywood at that time. Although he only made sixteen feature films, Mamoulian is unfortunately best known today for the comparatively high number of films that he was sacked from. He was removed from Laura (1944) owing to artistic differences with producer Otto Preminger, who eventually took over directing duties. In 1958, Mamoulian was to direct Porgy And Bess, in part due to his successful 1926 stage production. But, just as filming was about to begin, fire destroyed his carefully designed sets. Producer Sam Goldwyn refused to rebuild them, and insisted that they use the existing MGM lot. Mamoulian refused, and a furious Goldwyn fired him, to be replaced, once again, by Otto Preminger! The final nail in Mamoulian’s coffin came a year later. He was contracted to direct Cleopatra, and hired Peter Finch to portray Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony. Shooting began at huge cost in England. Unfortunately for all involved, star Elizabeth Taylor became ill, and filming was halted. Finch and Boyd had to leave due to other commitments, and Mamoulian, ever the dogmatic, refused to abandon the UK sets that he had so lovingly had built. As filming was now to be done in Italy at less expense, it was either Italy or Mamoulian. Once again fired, this time in favour of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mamoulian’s career was, irrevocably, over.

TED GRIFFIN: SACKED FROM RUMOR HAS IT

Rumor Has It must be one of the most unlikely premises for a high concept rom-com ever conjured up: a pseudo sequel to The Graduate that has positively incestuous overtones, and raises more questions than it could possibly answer. It posits that the characters of the 1967 classic were based on actual people, and then looks at what has happened to them thirty years later, but throws so many contrived and bizarre twists into the mix that the film often defies belief. That said, it is moderately amusing and features fine comedic performances from Mark Ruffalo and old pros Shirley MacLaine and Kevin Costner. The film was written by Ted Griffin, whose previous screenplays included Best Laid Plans, Matchstick Men and Ocean’s 11. Rumor Has It was to have been his directorial debut. Once on set, Griffin decided to exercise his newfound power by promptly firing the original cinematographer. With the film already falling behind schedule mere days after commencing, it was evident that Griffin was simply not cut out to helm a film just yet. Executive producer Steven Soderbergh eventually fired Griffin just twelve days into principal photography, and the whole project was suddenly thrown into doubt. Enter director Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally), whose track record in directing comedies was beyond reproach. “In this case, this script found me, I didn’t find it,” recalled Reiner. “They’d been shooting for two weeks, and they’d shut the production down. They asked me if I could come in and help out. They asked me if I could resurrect it and make it work, so that’s what happened.” Reiner replaced many of the key actors, and reshot entire sequences. This probably altered the tone of the film considerably, neutering what was probably a much more barbed story than the confection that exists today.

VOLKER SCHLÖNDORFF: SACKED FROM POPE JOAN

Pope Joan, based on the novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross, recounts the ninth century legend of a woman who, disguised as a man, becomes pope. That the 2009 German medieval epic ended up a more than passable film is a minor miracle in itself given its troubled production. First, actor John Goodman was sued by the film’s production company, Constantin, after he dropped out of the project in order to take a supporting role in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Despite being sued for breach of contract, with the producers claiming to have experienced serious cost issues involved with recasting the star, the two parties eventually managed to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution that saw the actor rejoin the film. Meanwhile, the delays in filming cost the producers their star, Franka Potente, who withdrew from the film due to scheduling conflicts, and was replaced by Johanna Wokalek. Now, with the film finally back on track, there was another major problem. Constantin had commissioned acclaimed director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid’s Tale) to direct Pope Joan. But a mere six weeks before shooting was to commence, a major row developed between Schlöndorff and Constantin over the industry’s growing habit of simultaneously making extended TV versions of large scale feature films, of which Pope Joan seemed to be a perfect candidate. Schlöndorff spoke publicly in German newspapers of his distaste for the practice, and Constantin took the understandable view that these comments would damage financing of the picture. Not unsurprisingly, Schlöndorff was fired, and then replaced by director Sönke Wortmann, who had to gear up quickly. “Originally, Volker Schlondorff was going to direct the film, but the producers asked me to direct it,” Wortmann explained. “I had to rework the script with seven screenwriters until we got it right.”

ALEX COX: SACKED FROM FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS

The torturous road to the screen of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is as mind-bending as the book itself. Thought unfilmable, no less than Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone had tried and failed to make the film, with such stars as Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Thompson met with actor Johnny Depp, and was convinced that he was the only one who could portray him on screen. The film’s producers originally wanted Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) to direct, but when he couldn’t begin work on the start date, they begged Thompson for an extension. Panicked, Rhino Films scrambled for a director who would commit quickly. Enter Alex Cox (Sid And Nancy, Repo Man), whose own offbeat style seemed a perfect fit for the novel’s stream-of-consciousness approach. Cox began work on the script, but when meeting Thompson for research, things began to fall apart. Cox tried to press home his vision for the film, which included an animated sequence based on Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, who had worked on the book. Thompson was vehemently against this. Reaching an impasse, Cox backtracked and blamed producer Laila Nabulsi for suggesting the animation. Thompson blasted both of them and, in order to save the picture from falling apart completely, Nabulsi made Rhino choose between Cox and her. Cox was then fired only two weeks before shooting commenced. With Cox out – but being used as a bargaining chip by Rhino, who threatened to bring him back, and exclude Depp if the new director, Terry Gilliam, didn’t step up to the plate – Thompson became more twitchy. “They just kept asking for more time,” he has said. “I got agitated about it. I thought that they were trying to put off doing it. I wanted to see the movie done once it got started.” Rhino backed down, granted an extension, and Gilliam wrote a script in just over ten days flat.

JOHN G. AVILDSEN: SACKED FROM SERPICO

In 1973, director Sidney Lumet made one of the best police dramas of the seventies with Serpico. It’s a prototypical Lumet movie, but he was not the first choice of director. After winning acclaim for his film Save The Tiger, which earned Jack Lemmon an Oscar, John G. Avildsen was suddenly hot. Producer Martin Bregman had acquired the rights to Peter Maas’ bestselling book, which detailed the true life exploits of cop Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corrupt fellow police officers. Serpico, as well as being a taut drama, was an intense character piece, and Bregman was impressed with Avildsen’s work with Lemmon, and signed the director to the project. Avildsen brought in screenwriter Norman Wexler, who he had worked with on his hit counterculture movie Joe. The pair quickly met with the real Frank Serpico. “In the French Alps, I rented a remote chalet,” the former cop recalled. “I was still under medication for the bullet fragments lodged in me. Movie director John Avildsen and writer Norman Wexler came to visit, and together we worked on the screenplay for the movie.” Avildsen was pleased with the progress, and dates were set to begin rehearsals. Avildsen sat down with Bregman to discuss the script and his vision of the movie, which involved a stark, soul searching voyage to the dark areas of the soul. Bregman, on the other hand, wanted a solid cop drama grounded with top flight acting. The two became firmly entrenched in their positions, until Avildsen was eventually fired and replaced with Sidney Lumet. Avildsen was resigned about the decision. “I almost made Serpico,” he has said. “If I’d made that, I’d get all the cop movies. You get pigeonholed. In some ways, it’s a curse. It could be worse. The phone couldn’t ring at all…then what would I do?”

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