Trouble On Set #2: More Tales Of Cinematic Rack & Ruin

October 15, 2019
We recently looked at twelve fractious movie shoots, plagued by everything from bad weather and budgetary problems to domineering directors and badly behaved stars. You thought that was it? Well, think again! Here are twelve more unforgettable tales of trouble on set.

THE GODFATHER (1972) By the late sixties, mafia movies were anathema in Hollywood. When Mario Puzo’s lurid novel The Godfather unexpectedly became a bestseller upon its release in 1969, however, studio Paramount cautiously picked up the film rights, not expecting more than a modest return on its investment. The studio hired young director Francis Ford Coppola, whose only previous notable effort, Finian’s Rainbow (1968), had done unexceptional business. The Godfather was rushed into production, and right from the off, the headstrong Coppola had his own ideas about what the studio saw as merely a mafia quickie. Paramount had wanted him to alter the story to make it contemporary in order to save money on period details, and handed him a cast that was crass and unsuitable. Coppola rejected everything, insisting on a forties setting and a cast headed by Marlon Brando, who at that time was unbankable. Furthermore, he steadfastly refused to consider any other actor for the lead role of Michael Corleone than newcomer Al Pacino, who was so far from Paramount’s suggestions of Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, as to seem almost laughable. “The Godfather was a much unappreciated movie when we were making it,” Coppola has said of the film. “They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way that I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. It was an extremely nightmarish experience.” Coppola spent as much time battling with Paramount over the film as with producer Robert Evans, who was vacillating between backing his director and vilifying him. Add mob interference requiring all references to the word “mafia” being excised; Frank Sinatra’s fury at being ridiculed and possibly slandered on-screen; and a spiralling budget, and it’s a miracle that the film got made at all, let alone emerging as arguably the greatest film of all time.

I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) Harking back to dictatorial directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age such as Otto Preminger and Erich Von Stroheim, David O. Russell appears to turn up on set actively looking for a fight. The admittedly talented writer/director appears to wilfully alienate himself from his cast with alarming regularity. On Three Kings (1999), after his star, George Clooney, had reasonably asked him to refrain from constantly demeaning the crew, Russell squared up to the actor with the warm sentiment, “Why don’t you just worry about your fucked up acting?! You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.” On his 2009 film, Nailed, Russell managed to do to James Caan what nobody had ever done in fifty years: namely, push the veteran actor to walk off a film. Why? Because Russell felt that Caan couldn’t depict both coughing and choking on a cookie properly, and insulted him about it in front of the crew. Caan reasoned that it’s impossible for a human to do both, and so Russell reasoned back in his own inimitable fashion. Industry professional Caan walked. He was also rumoured to have been involved in a screaming match with Jennifer Lawrence on the set of 2015’s Joy, but the actress said that the reports were “tabloid malarkey.” Russell’s pièce de résistance, however, came on the set of the quirky comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004), where he erupted in actress Lily Tomlin’s face during a scene set up, calling her every name under the sun (including bellowing the C-bomb inches from her face), before violently sweeping papers off a desk and storming off to his trailer and refusing to come out. The unfortunate event was captured on film and says more about the director than he would care to admit. Russell and Tomlin, however appeared to heal the wounds sometime later. “I adore David,” Tomlin said in 2015. “I adore him as a talent. I would work with him again. I love him. He’s brilliant.”

JAWS (1975) Nearly 45 years ago, the classic Jaws proved that the combination of masterful direction, great acting, and passable special effects could create almost unbearable tension. Not that the effects were supposed to be unrealistic. Steven Spielberg, with only one theatrical feature (1974’s The Sugarland Express) under his belt at the time, reasoned that the mechanical shark built for the film would fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but he couldn’t build his whole film around a faulty device, so he kept its appearances to a minimum. But the problems of shooting a film at sea, with a huge mechanical contraption that constantly malfunctioned, and once even sank, drove the cast and crew to the point of madness. These problems, however, paled in contrast to the clash of personalities that boiled between the brilliant stars who made Jaws such an enduring cinema milestone. Robert Shaw was an alcoholic of almost biblical proportions, and he constantly felt that he was only there because the producers couldn’t get Sterling Hayden or Lee Marvin for the role of sea dog Quint, and thus he was belligerent and drunk for much of the shoot. He took a particular dislike to New York actor Richard Dreyfuss, who he thought too bigheaded, and delighted in cutting him down to size at any opportunity, frequently making Dreyfuss incandescent with rage. Dreyfuss, however, is now somewhat sanguine about the verbal bullying that he suffered. “Robert was the largest personality that I’ve ever met,” Dreyfuss has said. “He was outsize in his kindness and in his capability of being nuts. In private, he was the sweetest man in the world, but then he would walk onto set and turn into this vicious, nasty guy who tried to cut you down at the knees…and I was his greatest target.”

DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) Lars Von Trier’s post-modern musical Dancer In The Dark perhaps unsurprisingly was not without its problems during production. The notoriously demanding and highly eccentric Danish director’s star, Icelandic singer Bjork, had not only never acted before, but felt she was ill-equipped to take on the film’s emotionally rending lead role. Von Trier and Bjork were subsequently propelled into a spiralling series of artistic squabbles, with the singer going on record to state that the whole process was so emotionally taxing that she would never act again. Also, the level of dictatorship that she witnessed on set distressed her. “I wasn’t comfortable with the way that he worked with his group,” Bjork said of her director. “My father was a union leader, and was very working class, so I didn’t agree with the kind of hierarchy that I witnessed in Denmark.” The film itself is many things: a simultaneous homage and inversion of the Hollywood musical genre; a diatribe on the death penalty; and the nature of love and the sacrifices that one must endure to preserve it. In short, it’s intense stuff. The arguments centred on Bjork’s interpretation of her character, Selma. “We had different ideas about who Selma really was,” the singer has explained. “I wanted her to be more of an artistic character but Lars, who is a complete fanatic, wants his characters to suffer, especially the female ones. I couldn’t really accept that.” But it seems that Von Trier is not content to simply disagree on an approach; his methodology is to wage a war of mental attrition on his lead actor. “Lars doesn’t consider it his responsibility to make sure that people are psychologically stable after he’s worked with them in such an intense way,” Bjork says. “As far as he’s concerned, they can be ruined emotionally, but that’s just not his responsibility.”

MAD DOG MORGAN (1976) Daniel Morgan was the kind of renegade Aussie outlaw that gave Ned Kelly a bad name. Morgan descended into both villainy and madness after witnessing a barbarous massacre of Chinese immigrants in the Riverina district during The Gold Rush. After a spell in prison, he became a bushranger but was shot by bounty hunters and eventually went completely mad and lusted for revenge. The role was tailor made for late wild man Dennis Hopper, and so it was in 1976 that he stepped into these crazed shoes for director Philippe Mora’s violent, bloody film, Mad Dog Morgan. Easy Rider icon Hopper, who was just coming off the infamously debauched shoot of his second directorial effort, The Last Movie, was a big name, but he was virtually unemployable in the US due to his heroic drink and drug binges. Hopper’s presence on the modestly budgeted Mad Dog Morgan instantly turned the production into a circus. “Dennis arrived in Australia, and he was arrested almost immediately over some sort of incident in a bar,” Mora has said of his errant star. “The reality was that Dennis was incredibly famous as Mr. Counterculture and Mr. Easy Rider. He made Easy Rider, and it was still playing in cinemas at this point, so every drug dealer and hippie in Australia gravitated to Dennis. They were almost parachuting in to meet Dennis Hopper.” Hopper’s drink and drug use became legendary on set. At one point, co-star David Gulpilil simply disappeared from the set for days and had to be located using Aboriginal trackers. When Mora asked him why he’d vanished, Gulpilil said: “I had to talk to the Kookaburra birds, which are snake eating birds that laugh, and I had to ask the trees about Dennis.” When Mora asked what they said, Gulpilil replied: “They say Dennis is crazy.” And who would argue with that?

STONE (1974) One of Australia’s first bone fide cult movies was 1974’s Stone, a mad-as-you-like biker Ozploitation movie, which played out like a Roger Corman Down Under epic. One of the most commercially successful Aussie films of the seventies, the movie still has a huge following here thanks to frequent special anniversary showings and themed weekends, as well as a lovingly produced retrospective documentary, Stone Forever, which was released in 1999. Coming after Easy Rider (1969) but before Mad Max (1979), the film had room to grow into an enduring and fondly remembered classic. Stone was very much a labour of love for one man. Sandy Harbutt is Stone’s writer, producer, director, costume designer, actor, and composer. His driving vision pushed the film forward, and he even paid some of the crew in beer and pot. That unswerving vision, however, also led to borderline megalomania, but perhaps when dealing with 400 real life bikers from differing gangs, all vying for a bit of screen time, the shoot was never going to be easy. Engineering a real full-on fight may be disreputable, but it sure makes for good cinema! Co-Producer David Hannay recalls the making of the film to be a war of attrition. “There is unfortunately a lack of enthusiasm about genre movies in the Australian film culture, which I’m constantly fighting against, because I love genre pictures,” says Hannay. “Some of the most socially relevant pictures of all time have been genre pictures, and they work because they say something important in an entertaining fashion.” By entertainment, he means actual crushed cheekbones, busted ribs, and blackened eyes. But Hannay is unrepentant about Harbutt’s methods and vision. “Sandy needs somebody who is prepared to fold themselves into what he wants to do and be committed to that…but that’s something that you would have to talk to him about.”

THE COCA COLA KID (1985) In 1984, Eric Roberts was a major star on the rise. He’d given stunning, eye catching performances in films such as King Of The Gypsies (1979), Raggedy Man (1981), Star 80 (1983) and The Pope Of Greenwich Village (1984), and when he was signed to star in the Australian film The Coca-Cola Kid, it was rightly seen as a major coup. Directed by famed European filmmaker Dusan Makavejev (who helmed the 1971 groundbreaker WR: Mysteries Of The Organism), and based on a series of stories by renowned Australian author Frank Moorhouse, The Coca-Cola Kid was viewed as a high-end, blue ribbon production for Australia. When combined with the wild, anarchic behaviour of crazed artisan Dusan Makavejev, however, the presence of the notoriously erratic and eccentric Eric Roberts would soon unhinge the project. Though his performance as an American Coca-Cola exec sent to Australia was typically interesting and unconventional, Roberts’ behaviour on set was decidedly less so. Allegedly still hanging onto the deranged, murderous character that he’d played in Star 80, Roberts alienated his co-stars immediately, while the loose, freewheeling Makavejev had no way of reining him in. “We didn’t have a relationship at all,” co-star Greta Scacchi has said of working with the intense Roberts, whose methods she saw as being at odds with the more relaxed, Australian style of production. “On screen, he wouldn’t look at me. I don’t know if that was a performance choice. I had no fun working with him, and I’d tolerated all this shit that he’d been giving me for a long time.” Despite his seeming distaste for Scacchi, Roberts still decided to surreptitiously remove his underwear during a love scene. “I really didn’t want to do it again, so I just worked my way through it,” Scacchi has said of the scene.

SHANGHAI SURPRISE (1986) Hollywood has a long history of pairing real life partners. Sometimes these pairings can produce box office gold, but often times it’s a disaster. Either way, the publicity that the film generates whilst shooting is usually red hot, but in the case of Shanghai Surprise, the heat supplied by Madonna and Sean Penn was enough to almost kill the film before it completed shooting. The light hearted period romp was originally intended for Kevin Costner and Kelly McGillis, but when both their schedules conflicted, the film went into turnaround. Eventually recast as a vanity project for Madonna and Penn, the disastrous decision to choose Jim Goddard to direct these two volatile performers sealed the film’s fate. A British director of TV drama, he was hopelessly unprepared for the big budget film and its hot tempered stars. When the couple refused to take part in publicity interviews, the paparazzi heat only intensified. With the pair now labelled “The Poison Penns”, the film had become a circus, and Goddard was simply not equipped to take charge. Penn, now bored with the movie, began questioning Goddard’s abilities vocally, and tried to get the director thrown off the picture. Finally, the timid and genteel Goddard walked off the set. Ultimately, Penn turned to director and friend James Foley for his direction, refusing to speak with Goddard, in a situation that was intolerable to all. Whatever the real reason for the film’s failure, co-star Richard Griffiths was in no doubt. “Shanghai Surprise was a good idea, but it was shafted by Sean Penn,” the actor has said of his experience. “He was vying for control all the time, when he should’ve just kept his head down. After all, he was going to bed with Madonna every night, never mind being paid millions of dollars for wanking around.”

LAWMAN (1971) Director-star relationships can always turn a little sour sometimes, but one can only wonder just how far Michael Winner had pushed his leading man when Burt Lancaster held him by his lapels over a perilously high cliff edge during the shoot of the western Lawman in Durango in 1970. Winner had honed his not inconsiderable talents in a series of sixties British movies (including The Jokers and Hannibal Brooks) that ranged from good to great. Spreading his wings, genre-wise, Winner decided to tackle a western. With a terrific cast (Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall) and a fine script by Gerald Wilson, Winner had a great framework around him to guarantee a sure-fire hit. But Burt Lancaster was used to having things go his way, and why not? By 1970, he was Hollywood royalty. To him, Winner was an effete Brit with a cigar and an attitude that far outweighed his reputation. Their relationship was strained from the start, when Winner attempted to be polite to his star by calling him “sir”, which only seemed to piss Lancaster off even more. The flashpoint came over a trivial matter of continuity over a different gun that Lancaster was using from one scene to the next, which Winner gently brought his star up on. Lancaster exploded. “You stupid cock sucking moron, Winner! What the fuck do you know about westerns?” Winner wouldn’t back down, and this sent Lancaster into a sputtering fury. He grabbed the director and held him out over the cliff edge. “What gun did I fucking use, asshole?” Staring death in the face caused Winner to surrender his argument, even though the scene wouldn’t cut together. Later, Lancaster told Winner that he only threatened to kill people that he respected.

THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) In 1975, the western was in a moribund state. The Wild Bunch (1969) had ushered in an elegiac period, with many “end-of-an-era” westerns eschewing action for a valedictory tone that all but killed the genre at the box office. Writer and director Philip Kaufman (who would go on to direct the modern classic The Right Stuff in 1983) had cut his teeth on the superb western The Great Northfield-Minnesota Raid (1972), and Clint Eastwood, who had purchased the novel, Gone To Texas, as a project that he would star in, hired Kaufman to write and direct. The film, now renamed The Outlaw Josey Wales, commenced filming with a script by Kaufman and Sonia Chernus that Eastwood thought “brilliant.” By 1975, when shooting had commenced, Eastwood had directed four films, and was growing in confidence with each one. Although he had sufficient confidence in Kaufman to direct, after only a few days filming, he exerted a level of star clout so immense that immediately afterward rules were put in place in Hollywood that would not let such a power play occur again. Just like that, Eastwood swept away his director and took over the film himself. “Kaufman’s work as a writer was excellent,” Eastwood recalls, “but when it came to shooting it, it turned out that our points of view were completely different. I had invested my own money to buy the rights to the book, I’d spent a lot of time developing this project, and I’d conceived a precise vision of what the film had to be. Phil’s approach was probably solid, maybe it was better, but it wasn’t mine. I would have been angry at myself if the result hadn’t corresponded to what I hoped for.” It’s a fair point, and an all-too-rare glimpse into Eastwood’s actual level of power, and how he chooses to wield it.

MAJOR DUNDEE (1965) Director Sam Peckinpah was no stranger to trouble on set, and it was usually him that started it. Stories of his alcohol and drug-fuelled verbal and physical outbursts are legion. You were either with him – as actors Warren Oates, James Coburn, LQ Jones, James Caan and others were – or you were against him. Staunch upright conservative Charlton Heston was the polar opposite of Peckinpah’s “Fuck it, let’s do it” style of filmmaking, but signed on to make the epic US Cavalry western Major Dundee after being impressed with Peckinpah’s previous genre entry, Ride The High Country (1962). The tension on set quickly became apparent, and Peckinpah’s erratic behaviour – firing crew members for no reason, not turning up, or wandering off mid-scene – troubled his star immensely. At one point, incensed by his director’s cavalier attitude to his work, Heston lunged at him on horseback, cavalry sabre raised. The film ran massively over schedule. The original cut was over four hours long. “It was really sad what happened to that picture,” says co-star James Coburn. “The studio took it away from Sam and re-cut it. We had a great knife fight in that picture, between Mario Adorf and myself. It was a viscous fucking knife fight! While we were shooting it, people were yelling for us to stop! That’s how real it looked. It was a terrific piece of action, and it was cut from the film.” Heston even deferred his own salary to get the film finished, but it ended up being butchered to the point of incoherence. “The night that it premiered, Sam saw the studio’s cut and was just devastated,” Coburn continues. “His hands were shaking. He had half a pint of whiskey and dropped it. It smashed on the floor. My wife said, ‘Sam, it’s okay, it’s only a movie.’”

LE MANS (1971) Racing car movies have been with us for years, and almost all of them fail. Cinema has yet to capture the immediacy, the spectacle, or passion behind the sport. But it hasn’t stopped revhead stars from mounting their own vanity pieces. Paul Newman (1969’s Winning) and Tom Cruise (1990’s Days Of Thunder) tried, and in 1965 Steve McQueen wanted to make the definitive race car movie. Called Day Of The Champion, this prestige film would be directed by top-flight director John Sturges, who had guided McQueen’s career to success with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). Delays in schedules postponed the start of shooting until 1970. In those intervening five years, McQueen’s stature had grown enormously. He had formed his own production company, and was increasingly taking artistic control over his projects. By the time that shooting began on the renamed Le Mans, its star and director were diametrically opposed as to the film’s focus. McQueen wanted to make a fly-on-the-wall semi-fictionalised documentary about the famous 24-hour race, whereas Sturges, mindful of the critical drubbing meted out on John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966), was aware that a lack of story and sympathetic characters amounted to certain box office disaster. Filming began, but Sturges found his authority undermined. McQueen would constantly be paring the script down, ripping out pages of dialogue, and leaving little but brief interchanges between extended race sequences. Erstwhile professional Sturges soldiered on, but he was losing control, and the crew didn’t know who to take orders from anymore. Finally, the veteran director snapped, quitting the movie with a terse remark to McQueen: “I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit.” McQueen, nonplussed, brought in malleable, compliant TV director Lee H. Katzin to finish the job, but ultimately time has proved Sturges’ instincts to be correct. Le Mans was a box office car crash, but it has had a lasting impact on racing fans and McQueen acolytes, with the complicated making of the film finely captured in the 2015 documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which you can read much more about right here.

Like this story? Check out our first Trouble On Set Feature Story, along with our special features on feuding actors and tyrannical directors.

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