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Directors Gone Wild

The 'Huckabees' cast putting on a happy face. Russell is in the middle.
by Rob Gonsalves

By now, a lot of you will have seen the widely circulated, surreptitiously captured footage from the set of 2004's 'I Heart Huckabees.' In the footage, the irresistible force of director David O. Russell's temper meets the immovable object of Lily Tomlin. A lot of F-bombs fly. Bits of paper and other objects fly, flung by Russell in what can only be termed a titanic shit-fit.

This, of course, is nothing new not even to Russell, who famously clashed with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings. ("Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts," Clooney told Playboy. "I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away. By then, the Warner Bros. guys were freaking out. David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.") Russell also reportedly got fellow director Christopher Nolan in a headlock and, um, suggested that Nolan release Jude Law from his commitment on Batman Begins so that Law could do Huckabees.

Clearly, David O. Russell needs to upgrade his meds.

But, again, directorial rampages are nothing new. It probably goes back as far as the medium itself; directing is a notoriously taxing job, with horrid pressure 24/7, and it's easy for a helmer to lose his/her shit (usually his) at the cast, at the crew, at random air molecules.

One of the more notorious bastards with megaphones was Otto Preminger (ironically, best known by many as Mr. Freeze on the Batman TV series). I am informed by the IMDb that he was guilty (though he probably felt no guilt) of the following:

- Insisted that Robert Mitchum actually slap Jean Simmons for their scenes in Angel Face (1952).

- During the filming of Saint Joan (1957), Jean Seberg (playing Joan) was about to be burned at the stake. To the horror of the cast and crew, the pile of wood below her actually caught fire. Despite cries and screams of horror Preminger would not allow the flames extinguished until he had filmed the scene.

- Giving direction to a group of children on Exodus (1960): "Cry, you little monsters!" (That one's my favorite.)

And in his indispensable acting manual Acting in Film, Michael Caine talks about how he approached Preminger before beginning work on Hurry Sundown and said, "You mustn't shout at me," because he'd heard all the stories. Preminger, taken aback, responded that he only shouted at incompetents, and he and Caine got on swimmingly throughout filming.

If a movie's any good, we don't care if the director loves kittens or feeds them to pitbulls. Do we forgive Roman Polanski's extracurricular activities because he's made quite a few great movies, and do we consign Victor Salva to hell because his stuff is crap?

No, if we go after directors for their idiot behavior off the set like, say, Uwe Boll challenging critics to a boxing match we could be here all day. Here are a few assholes-on-the-set for your consideration:

- Polanski, vexed by the way a stray hair on Faye Dunaway's head was catching the light during the Chinatown shoot, simply yanked it out. If YouTube had existed back then, everyone would be watching Faye screaming "Fuck you, motherfucker!"

- John Ford, according to fellow HBSer Charles Tatum, "could be quite a shit. During They Were Expendable, Ford was constantly abusing John Wayne for not joining the military during WWII. Robert Montgomery finally told Ford to knock it off or he would walk. Ford had the last laugh by putting the ranks and branches of service on the names of everyone in the cast and crew who served during the war in the opening credits. Civilian Wayne's name is listed as is."

- John Landis will carry the stink of the Twilight Zone incident to his grave (and if you are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, have a go at the excellent book on the case, Outrageous Conduct). Adding insult to injury, Landis eulogized Vic Morrow at his funeral thusly: "Tragedy can strike in an instant, but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role."

- William Friedkin, while shooting The Exorcist, didn't listen to Ellen Burstyn when she said the guy pulling her into a wall (for a shot where she gets knocked backwards by the possessed Regan McNeil) was pulling her too hard. On the next take, Burstyn hit the wall so hard she injured her back. Friedkin kept the camera rolling to use her pain; the shot of her shrieking in agony is in the film. (Marc Kandel reminds me, "Ellen Burstyn actually suffers from that back injury to this day a rare event where the director's gift keeps on giving.") On the same film, Friedkin liked to fire a gun to keep the cast rattled.

- James Cameron is a legendary yeller and screamer, and he turns his films into red-hot stressboxes and ordeals for cast and crew. I've never forgotten Ed Harris' terse comment about his sojourn into Cameronville: "I'm not talking about The Abyss," he clench-teethed, "and I never will." Despite this, certain actors Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and of course Arnie have worked with Cameron at least twice.

- Bryan Singer's on-set blowups have also been noted, and he got in a spot of trouble when it was alleged that several young actors had been coerced into appearing nude on the set of Apt Pupil. Singer also put Stephen Baldwin in his place on The Usual Suspects: Baldwin recalled that he came to Singer with various ideas about his character and Singer said "That's nice. Now let me tell you what's really gonna happen. You're gonna do what I tell you." This doesn't quite qualify as assholery on Singer's part, though, because it's Stephen Baldwin, and any rudeness towards Stephen Baldwin is a little more sunshine in the world.

- Francis Coppola, naturally, can be seen in full meltdown in the making-of-Apocalypse-Now documentary Hearts of Darkness; HBSer Marc Kandel singles out "particularly his supplanting death itself with regard to Martin Sheen's ailing condition 'Marty isn't dead until I fucking say Marty's dead!'" I also remember an anecdote from the Dracula shoot wherein Coppola, to inspire Winona Ryder to feel the shame of her character's dalliance with the King of Vampires, screamed "You fucking slut!" at her. Gee, a little leftover Godfather III resentment there, Francis?

- Alfred Hitchcock was a known evil prick when dealing with actors, whom he famously likened to cattle. Not that other people on set escaped his assholery; HBS high sheriff Chris Parry points out that Hitch "had an initiation rite that he put all new PAs through, where he'd bet them they couldn't spend the night in the studio, in the dark, chained to a camera, without losing their shit. They'd, of course, take the bet, then he'd leave them a water bottle filled with laxatives and lock the doors for twelve hours."

- David Fincher got ink recently for his method of putting his actors through 40 or 50 takes on Zodiac. Jake Gyllenhaal complained to the press that he overheard Fincher telling an assistant to delete a bunch of takes Gyllenhaal had worked hard on. Fincher commented that he didn't actually delete them, but wanted the cast to think so in order to get the exhausted performances he wanted. Other directors infamous for let's-do-it-againism include Michael Cimino, who somehow needed 50 takes of Kris Kristofferson cracking a whip in Heaven's Gate, and the late Stanley Kubrick, whose disdain for actors is obvious in the making-of short filmed by his own daughter on the set of The Shining. "You're wasting everybody's time," he snaps at Shelley Duvall not quite as bad as David O. Russell's "I'm trying to fucking help you, you cunt," but still pretty assholish.

Directors who seem to have mellowed significantly since the bad old days include Martin Scorsese, who had quite the coke-fuelled temper back in the '70s; Oliver Stone, whose antics on the set of Natural Born Killers were documented by producer-turned-political-blogger Jane Hamsher in Killer Instinct; and Werner Herzog, whose clashes with "best fiend" Klaus Kinski are the stuff of filmmaking song and story, not to mention the fact that he insisted on tugging a real boat up a real mountain for realism in Fitzcarraldo even though the actual Fitzcarraldo had the boat taken up in pieces.

Pretty much any director you can name, every Cahiers du Cinema superstar whose flicks you've enjoyed, has spewed spittle at one time or another. There are exceptions: David Cronenberg is legendarily mellow on the set (there was that rumor that had him and his wife having sex in front of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello to show them how to do the sex scenes in A History of Violence, but for me that kinda cements his mellow rep); Clint Eastwood just sort of ambles amiably through production by all accounts.

In the end, though, we're talking about make-believe in front of a camera. Egos clash, and heated words are exchanged, and everyone looks at it on YouTube and goes "Holy shit," and eventually someone (in this case the Miami New Times) contacts Lily Tomlin (who, it's worth noting, had worked with Russell before, on Flirting with Disaster, so maybe they knew each other well enough to blow off steam at each other) and says, hey, what was up with that? To which Tomlin replied:

"Oh my God, the one in the car is on there too?" Tomlin asked, referring to one of the two videos, which were shot during two different scenes. In "the one in the car," Tomlin tells Russell: "Leave me the fuck alone! Do you know what the fuck is going on, period? Fuck you! Fuck you motherfucker!"

"I can't believe the damn car is in there. I've never seen it. Is that when I'm sitting in the seat and really going nuts? Oh my God, I'm gonna die when I see that," Tomlin told New Times, laughing.

"I love David," she said. "There was a lot of pressure in making the movie -- even the way it came out you could see it was a very free-associative, crazy movie, and David was under a tremendous amount of pressure. And he's a very free-form kind of guy anyway. [...]

"Adults have fights and go through stuff," Tomlin said Tuesday. "I know some people are more dignified in the world, that if you transgress against that kind of professionalism, that it's some kind of great sin, but I don't see it that way."

She called the episode "in a way liberating... now it's all over, and so what, and I don't have to keep up some great pretention I'm the most dignified, eloquent, elegant, perfect, smart-thinking, kind, generous person. I'm just a plain old human with a whole bunch of flaws."

As are all directors. So as long as they're not throwing shit at us and calling us genital-derived names while we're trying to watch their films and as long as we don't have to work for the pricks for 14-hour days let 'em be pricks. At the very least, there'll be lots more amusing YouTube clips to be had. Though, now that it's happened to David O. Russell, directors now might think about minding their manners on set, lest one disgruntled grip with a phone cam upload their tirades for the world to see and laugh at.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2148
originally posted: 03/23/07 00:52:08
last updated: 03/24/07 22:15:15
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