My Way Or The Highway: Tyrant Directors

February 20, 2018
For some directors, the process of making a film is a richly collaborative one. For others – such as the rogue’s gallery of bullies, perfectionists, manipulators, dictators, sadists, hard taskmasters, and provocateurs collected here – there’s nothing even remotely democratic about it.


“He worked Shelley Duvall to death,” actor, Joe Turkel, told The Guardian of his The Shining director, Stanley Kubrick. “She called her boyfriend in LA and said, ‘Get your ass out here and look after me.’ Her scenes were so difficult, with all that screaming – and when you’re dealing with Stanley, you can’t wing it. You have to hit it.” The most famous cinematic perfectionist of all time (“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want,” he once said), Stanley Kubrick would go to any length to achieve what he viewed as his on-screen ideal. On 1980’s horror classic, The Shining, it meant laboriously and insensitively doing take after take after take. “He’ll do a scene fifty times, and you have to be good to do that,” leading man, Jack Nicholson, told Newsweek. “There are so many ways to walk into a room, order breakfast, or be frightened to death in a closet. Stanley’s approach is, ‘How can we do it better than it’s ever been done before?’ A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don’t, he’ll beat it out of you…with a velvet glove, of course.” Most of that beating was visited upon Nicholson’s co-star, Shelley Duvall, with Kubrick pushing the actress to achieve new levels of on-screen fear, infamously driving her through a record-setting 127 takes on one scene, mercilessly taunting and needling her all the way. “For a person so charming and loveable, he can do cruel things when you’re filming,” Duvall has said of the experience. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Why? Because of Stanley. It was a fascinating learning experience. But I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”


“The best films are because of nobody but the director,” Roman Polanski once said, taking the concept of the auteur theory to new and outrageous heights. Despite his diminutive stature, the Polish-born director of classics such as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Knife In The Water is a towering figure on set, casting his creative shadow over everyone and everything. Shooting his masterpiece, Chinatown, in 1974, Polanski’s dictatorial approach to filmmaking was at constant loggerheads with the freewheeling attitude of his leading man, Jack Nicholson, who had previously enjoyed the looser approach taken by creative compadres like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), Henry Jaglom (A Safe Place) and Hal Ashby (The Last Detail). Bristling under Polanski’s tyrannical brand of control, Nicholson stormed off the set several times, but the pair always patched up their differences, which is more than can be said for leading lady, Faye Dunaway, who waged a running war with her director. Though he’s mellowed somewhat in his older age, Polanski still asserts rigid control on the set. “He’s obsessed with details,” Ewan McGregor told FilmInk of working with the director on 2010’s The Ghost Writer. “That’s what makes this film so special. He can be tough though, and he’s quite brusque in his notes. He’s obsessed about getting the fine details right. The camera crew will set up a shot that he’s devised, and more often than not when he comes back to the camera, it doesn’t look right, and he gets them to move the camera, and he sets it up exactly again. He’ll work until they get it exactly right. He’s the same with the acting. He’s really pedantic about how you deliver the lines and the beats and the timing.”


“It took us nine months to shoot it,” The Exorcist star, Ellen Burstyn, told The Guardian in 2000. “I’ve never done any other film that took so long. Six day weeks, twelve hour days, for nine months…it was very stressful, and difficult in so many ways. There were emotional heights that had to be hit, and then sustained.” The horror classic’s director, William Friedkin, is famous for his on-screen grit (best espoused in the likes of The French Connection and Cruising), which he has often achieved by creating a hothouse atmosphere on set, pushing his actors to extremes, and grinding extraordinary performances out of them. Friedkin’s intense, all-or-nothing style of directing was at its most brutal on 1973’s The Exorcist. In a bold move, Friedkin had cast a Catholic priest and non-actor, Father William O’Malley, in one of the film’s pivotal roles. At the end of the film, O’Malley has to weep over the body of a dead friend; not getting the emotional response that the scene required, Friedkin took drastic action. He looked at Father O’Malley and asked, “Do you trust me?” When he replied in the affirmative, Friedkin slapped the priest across the face with force, which prompted the appropriate levels of shock, confusion and sadness, all of which were caught on camera. Friedkin put his female stars, Ellen Burstyn and young actress, Linda Blair, through even more physical pain. To create a sense of in-your-face realism when the two actresses are hurled around by demonic forces, Friedkin had them strapped into harnesses, which would then be jerked around violently by members of the crew. Burstyn and Blair suffered serious back injuries, with their resultant grimaces of agony caught on film and included in the final cut.


“There is a dreadful story that I hate actors,” Alfred Hitchcock once said. “Imagine anyone hating James Stewart…I can’t imagine how such a rumour began. Of course, it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know that I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark, and that I would never call them cattle. What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle.” Though softened somewhat in the 2012 biopic, Hitchcock (and far less so in the scathing 2012 HBO telemovie, The Girl), Hollywood’s British-born “master of suspense” was a noted tyrant and perverted tormentor of his crew. Hitchcock was infamous for his on-set crudity and mean-spirited practical jokes. The director would notoriously find out about somebody’s phobias, such as mice or spiders, and then send them a box full of them. But when it came to his leading ladies, Hitchcock was even more twisted. He was distant and cold toward Vera Miles on Psycho, and obsessed over Grace Kelly, but saved his greatest acts of on-set tyranny for Tippi Hedren, who starred in 1963’s The Birds and 1964’s Marnie. After she allegedly rejected his romantic overtures, Hitchcock (perhaps influencing a whole generation of sleazy Hollywood bigshots) used his directorial position of power to put the actress through hell. On The Birds, he even had her attacked by real birds in one crucial scene. “There were boxes of ravens, gulls and pigeons that bird trainers wearing gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled at me, one after the other, for a week,” Hedren told The Telegraph. “He was so insistent and obsessive, but I was an extremely strong young woman. There was no way that he was going to get the better of me.”


“Oliver Stone is a sweet, sensitive guy,” actor, Shia LaBeouf, told FilmInk of his Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps director. “It’s all about the movie though: nobody is there to fuck around and be friends and check if you’re doing alright. Nobody is gonna help you, and you’re not getting cuddles. Oliver is like an intellectual bully. He is the sweetest man in the world – you want to hug him all the time – but there is a version of Oliver that isn’t sweet, and that pushes you, and that can break your heart…he can bring you low, but also lift you up.” A dangerous double threat to any actor – an imposing Vietnam War veteran with a deep, probing intellect – Oliver Stone is a famed provocateur on set, furiously riding his often beleaguered crew members, and brewing up chaos and madness in order to push his bedraggled performers to new levels of intensity and authenticity. He hurled abuse at the then inexperienced Charlie Sheen on Platoon, accusing him of being a Malibu pretty boy; was cruel and borderline vicious toward actresses, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, on Wall Street; clashed with Val Kilmer on The Doors; and even dared to suggest that Tom Cruise needed to push himself harder on Born On The Fourth Of July. In short, Oliver Stone is a tyrannical but strangely endearing bully with a psychological bent. “With some people, he definitely fucks with them,” says Platoon star, Willem Dafoe, in the biography, Stone. “He’s a manipulator sometimes. Lots of directors are, but he’s a mind-fucker, because he believes that if he turns up the heat on someone, they’ll be tested in a way that may surprise them. He can be very perverse.”



“I’m the king of the world!” When writer/director James Cameron infamously hollered these words – referencing a pivotal moment from his massively successful film, Titanic – upon winning an Oscar, he immediately set himself up as a singularly divisive cinematic figure. Was Cameron entitled to enjoy his moment in the sun? Or was it a high profile act of hubris, indicative of the director’s massively inflated sense of his own importance? When it comes to his film projects, it’s all about James Cameron – what he says goes, and if you don’t agree with it, you’ll probably go too. He has a reputation – common in many talented directors – for being a steely perfectionist (“People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not,” he once said in response to the criticism. “I’m a rightist. I do something until it’s right, and then I move on to the next thing”) but he also has a major blind spot when it comes to treating those around him with compassion. “I push people to get the best out of them,” he once said. “And the same applies to me. If I come home at the end of a day of filming, and my hands aren’t black with dirt, that was a day wasted.” Cameron, of course, is probably making a lot more money than those that he pushes around with such ruthless abandon. On the set of Aliens, he made no attempt to understand his English crew’s culturally informed approach to their work, and nearly triggered a full-scale mutiny; he frequently butted heads with his The Terminator star, Arnold Schwarzenegger; and his personal dark side is so regularly on display during filming that his long-serving crew members have a name for it: “Mij”, which is Jim spelled backwards.


Not all directors exercise their desire for on-set control through screaming and shouting. Famed for his uncanny sense of style and meticulous attention to detail, David Fincher has never been interested in painting in pastels and presenting a warm, cuddly world view. For the director of Fight Club, Se7en, Panic Room and The Social Network, the need to assert control is expressed through an obsessive demeanour on set, with Fincher casting his eye over every single detail of the production. Though not one to berate or hammer his actors gracelessly, Fincher’s style has nevertheless proved an uneasy fit for some of his performers. “He’s a sweet guy,” actor, Robert Downey Jr., told FilmInk of the director, who he starred for in the dark true crime thriller, Zodiac. “But on the set, he knows more than is probably appropriate. So he is, I hate to say, right. Shooting a scene in a movie can sometimes feel like a beautiful, natural thing, and at other times, it’s just a technical endeavour. We were working pretty hard. There was this grind in so many scenes, and we were retaking scenes if they didn’t work. It was a Woody-Allen-as-a-drill-sergeant type of feel.” Proving that all actors like to be directed in different ways, Downey Jr.’s Zodiac co-star, Chloe Sevigny, enjoyed Fincher’s quiet brand of tyranny. “David was meticulous,” she told FilmInk. “But I like it when the director is in control of everything and driving the train and making sure that everybody does their absolute best, and won’t take anything less. He just wants everybody to be at the top of their game, and he’s very serious about the project. I like somebody that just goes in and takes charge.”


“Michael Bay is loud, he’s boisterous, he’s obnoxious, and he’s rude,” Scarlett Johansson told FilmInk of her The Island director in 2006. “He’s all these things, and at the same time, it’s this strange combination of being an incredibly charming and endearing guy.” Michael Bay is something of a Hollywood rarity: a director whose famous on-set yelling and screaming actually endears him to his actors and crew members, as opposed to alienating them. Equally loved and maligned for his propensity for staging explosions and doing everything on a massive scale, the one-time music video director debuted with the testosterone-juiced 1995 actioner, Bad Boys, and he hasn’t let up since, delivering juvenile blockbuster after blockbuster. His steroid-inflected style hasn’t endeared him to critics, but Bay works his cast and crew hard to make it happen. He initially clashed with actor, Martin Lawrence, on Bad Boys; pushed Sean Connery into calling him a “cocksucker” on the set of The Rock; berated Owen Wilson for being late on Armageddon; went ballistic on the WW2 epic, Pearl Harbor (“Michael was putting in 24-hour days,” said former Disney chairman, Dick Cook. “And he was driving the crew and the performers and everybody crazy”); and prompted starlet, Megan Fox, to deliver a now famous character assessment after she worked with him on two Transformers movies. “He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is,” she told Wonderland Magazine. “He’s a nightmare to work for, but away from set, I really enjoy his personality. He’s vulnerable and fragile in real life, and then on set, he’s a tyrant.” But don’t expect the hard-rolling Michael Bay to change anytime soon. “I don’t change my style for anybody,” he told GQ. “Pussies do that.”


“On the opening day of all his pictures,” recounted actor, Gregory Peck to John Briggs for his book, The Films Of Gregory Peck, “Willy Wyler calls the cast together and says, ‘Now, boys and girls, there’s just one prima donna on this picture, and I’m the one. And I’ll have that understood from the beginning.’” The famously dignified actor worked with William Wyler (The Best Years Of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) on the 1953 romantic drama, Roman Holiday, and then on the 1958 western, The Big Country, so is well placed to hold court on the director’s infamously dictatorial style. “Wyler’s a taskmaster,” Peck told John Briggs. “He’s hardly ever satisfied, and he’ll have you play a scene fifty times. Some people are restless with that, because he doesn’t always tell you what he wants on the 41st take. But I always knew what he wanted: to have everybody at their best at every moment. And with Willy, you always had a pretty good shot at being your best.” Though he’d get the best out of his actors, Wyler didn’t spare their feelings in getting there. When Henry Fonda demanded to know why Wyler had put him through forty takes on the 1938 drama, Jezebel, the director didn’t hold back. “It stinks,” he said. “Do it again.” Wyler didn’t even ease off on screen darling, Audrey Hepburn. When the young actress couldn’t muster the appropriate tears for a dramatic scene in Roman Holiday, Wyler flew into a rage and verbally abused her in front of the whole crew, screaming at her to get it right. “It was embarrassing,” Peck recalled. “It frightened her and shook her up, but she did it perfectly the very next time. Wyler just scared the wits out of her.”


“I do not welcome advice from actors,” director, Otto Preminger, once said. “They are here to act.” Arriving in Hollywood from Europe in 1935, the headstrong stage director made the move to celluloid under the guidance of Darryl F. Zanuck, the co-founder of Twentieth Century Fox, who was always on the lookout for new talent. Though their relationship started out solidly, the pair clashed during the shooting of the 1937 adventure, Kidnapped, with Preminger’s violent temper and on-set tantrums making him briefly unemployable. He returned to the stage, and his success there saw Preminger embraced once again in Hollywood, where he would go on to make a series of bold, controversial, censor-baiting films, including 1953’s The Moon Is Blue, 1955’s The Man With The Golden Arm, and 1962’s Advise & Consent. The bullish Preminger would clash with studio heads, producers, and the censor for the rest of his career, and was always keenly aware of his iconoclastic status in Hollywood. Ironically, considering his theatre background (and the fact that he was an occasional actor himself, with roles in Stalag 17 and TV’s Batman, on which the show’s star, Adam West, remembered Preminger as being “rude and unpleasant”), Preminger became infamous for his poor treatment of his actors. In his autobiography, Confessions Of An Actor, Laurence Olivier – who had starred in Preminger’s 1965 thriller, Bunny Lake Is Missing – recalled his director as being “a bully.” Preminger allegedly cajoled a group of child actors on his 1960 epic, Exodus, by yelling, “Cry, you little monsters!” and often mocked his performers publicly. “Directing Marilyn Monroe was like directing Lassie,” he said of his River Of No Return star. “You needed fourteen takes to get each one of them right.”


When it comes to American cinema, John Ford is nothing short of a monument. He defined the western with masterpieces like 1939’s Stagecoach, 1956’s The Searchers, and 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and worked just as effectively in other genres with the likes of 1940’s The Grapes Of Wrath and 1952’s The Quiet Man. He was also a brave and fearless patriot, joining the military in WW2 despite his position in Hollywood, and ultimately serving in The US Navy’s documentary department, taking his camera right into the heart of battle to create a number of staggering, Oscar winning non-fiction works. The great John Ford (nicknamed “The Admiral”), however, was also something of an emotional hand grenade, leading to a barrage of on-set explosions. In the 2007 documentary, Becoming John Ford, one of the director’s biographers, the scholar Joseph McBride, says that “he was a tyrant, and he was a sadist. The John Ford [filmmaking] family is like a bunch of abused children, and he’s the abusive father. And yet they were devoted to him.” An alcoholic with a mean streak, Ford “would read and drink himself into oblivion”, according to McBride. Despite being longtime friends, the director and actor, Henry Fonda, clashed so violently over the themes and characterisations on the 1955 naval comedy, Mister Roberts, that it ended in blows, with Ford ultimately thrown off the film after he “sucker punched” an unsuspecting Fonda on the set. Ford infamously meanwhile referred to his regular leading man, John Wayne, as a “big idiot”, and was so disgusted that Wayne hadn’t enlisted during WW2 that on 1945’s war flick, They Were Expendable, the director included every actor’s former military rank and branch in the credits…with Wayne’s a cruelly conspicuous blank.


“Look at the big directors,” Henry Hathaway once said. “All of them are bastards.” The hard working helmer of straight up adventures, war flicks, thrillers and westerns (such as True Grit, Niagara and How The West Was Won) – who worked consistently and prolifically from the thirties through to the seventies – was unquestionably from the old school. He has been remembered as a kind and decent man off-set, but when in the director’s chair, Hathaway was the boss, and he brooked no insubordination. On set, he was in charge, and no one else’s opinion was worth spit: he determined where everything would go in a shot; he refused to coddle his actors; and he even swaggered around carrying a riding crop. “He’d tell you exactly where to move, how to walk, how to talk,” Dennis Hopper – who featured for Hathaway in 1965’s The Sons Of Katie Elder and 1969’s True Grit – told The Hollywood Interview. “He’d give you line readings. [When we were shooting From Hell To Texas in 1958] I was trying to ‘live in the moment’ and do things without preconceived ideas. I walked off the picture three times on location. He’d beg me to come back, and we’d have a wonderful dinner where he’d be utterly charming. I’d say, ‘Mr. Hathaway, tomorrow I’d like to try the scene this way.’ And he’d say, ‘Sure, kid, whatever you say.’ And the next day on the set, he’d be screaming and yelling again, and I’d say, ‘Mr. Hathaway, last night at dinner, you said that I could try this.’ He’d scream, ‘That was just dinner talk, kid! We’re makin’ a movie here! Now get the fuck over there and hit your mark and say your lines like I tell ya!’”


  1. Ali C.

    One director and actor with a reputation as an uncompromising tough guy on the big screen is conspicuously absent from this rogues gallery of film – makers. Clint Eastwood . Always on schedule and never over – budget , Clint has directed 39 films and won 4 Academy Awards. Make my day and answer this please – Why can’t more/ most directors follow his example ?

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