Alfred Hitchcock famously said that all actors should be treated like cattle. Uma Thurman’s recent revelations about how Quentin Tarantino choked her to get the desired result for a scene in his movie Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2004) is one of the many examples of how several directors have taken Hitchcock’s diktat to heart.
According to a report in The New York Times, in which Thurman accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, the actress also revealed how she almost died while shooting Kill Bill. In place of a stunt double, Tarantino forced Thurman to drive a convertible for a scene even though the actress had been warned that the vehicle was faulty. Thurman ended up crashing her car into a palm tree leaving her with, in her words, a permanently damaged neck and “screwed-up knees”.
Tarantino’s treatment of Thurman can be traced back to the notorious legacy left behind by great filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and, of course, Hitchcock.
For shooting the climax scene of The Birds (1963), which takes place in an attic, Hitchcock, without warning, dropped the plan to use mechanical props and got his team members to throw actual birds at his lead, Tippi Hedren. Though the birds had their beaks shut with elastic bands, Hedren almost lost her eye in the process. For another scene, he got the birds tied to Hedren with chains and got his shots as she screamed out of actual fright. The experience, in addition to Hitchcock’s alleged repeated sexual overtures on the set, took a toll on Hedren.
Stanley Kubrick, known for shooting innumerable takes, overwhelmed Shelley Duvall with his gruelling methods and frequent script changes while shooting the horror film The Shining (1980). Duvall’s health deteriorated over time, and Kubrick used her gaunt, sick look to his advantage as her character was meant to be traumatised by Jack Nicholson’s character. Scatman Crothers, who played a supporting role, was in tears after Kubrick demanded more than 30 takes for a scene.
David Fincher shares Kubrick’s reputation of shooting multiple takes. The opening sequence of The Social Network (2010), featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara in a pub, was reportedly shot 99 times. Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal, who acted in Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac complained of the director’s methods during interviews.
William Friedkin’s set of the horror movie The Exorcist (1973) is filled with stories of actual terror courtesy the director’s treatment of his actors. For a scene, Friedkin slapped William O’Malley, an actual priest who played Father Dyer, and got Malley’s stunned reaction captured on camera. In another scene, Friedkin fired a blank shot with a gun to get his desired reaction from actor Jason Miller. He also got Ellen Burstyn to be pulled back on a harness so strongly that she hurt her tailbone, leading to a permanent spinal injury.
Sidney Lumet confessed to slapping an actress on the sets of his 1959 film That Kind of Woman because he needed tears for a particular scene. These stories of physical abuse by a filmmaker, however, sound worse when they contain a sexual angle. For a scene in Kim Ki-duk’s 2013 film Moebius, an actress alleged that the director slapped her and forced her to shoot an unscripted sex scene. She was later replaced.
The infamous rape scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic drama Last Tango in Paris (1972) has also been deeply controversial. Marlon Brando, in consultation with Bertolucci, used butter as a lubricant for the scene with Maria Schneider. According to Bertolucci, Schneider knew about the rape scene, which was a part of the screenplay, but the idea of using butter was spontaneous. In 2007, Schneider told The Daily Mail that she felt humiliated in the process. “To be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” Schneider said. “After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise.”
In a case of a filmmaker not letting his stars do what he would not, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and some of his crew members on the sets of Starship Troopers (1997) took off their clothes when actress Dina Meyers questioned Verhoeven whether nudity was necessary for the scene. According to the DVD commentary, Verhoeven told Meyers that unlike Europeans, Americans are ashamed of their skin. Meyers retorted by asking Verhoeven why he and his crew were not naked. Verhoeven obliged, got Meyers to drop her clothes, and he got his scene.
Sometimes, filmmakers do not single out an actor for their dictatorial designs, but go after the entire cast and crew. Examples include Lars Von Trier and David O Russell. For Manderlay (2005), Von Trier reportedly had an actual donkey slaughtered and got his cast members to eat it.
Meanwhile, the world got a look at how nasty Russell can get with his actors when he threw around props and insulted Lily Tomlin on the sets of I Heart Huckabees (2004). A video of the incident was leaked on the internet.
The one filmmaker most notorious for his temper and take-no-prisoners attitude on a set is James Cameron. His 1989 film The Abyss was shot over six months, underwater, six days each and 70 hours a week. The schedule inevitably pushed the actors to breaking point.
In one scene, Ed Harris had to remain towed 30 feet below water with his helmet filled with special breathing fluid that rushed up his nose even as his eyes swelled up. For another scene, Harris and Leo Burmester had to do their own stunts without breathing apparatus.
Both Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio broke down while the film was being shot. At one point, a physically exhausted Mastrantonio stormed off the film’s set shouting, “We are not animals!” Running behind schedule, a desperate Cameron even asked his actors to relieve themselves inside their wetsuits.
After Titanic’s release in 1997, Kate Winslet said that she would work with Cameron again only for a lot of money – she almost drowned during the shoot, got pneumonia, and hurt her elbow. In 2012, she spoke of Cameron’s temper on the sets of Titanic, though she added that Cameron always had reason to be angry.
According to Avatar lead Sam Worthington, Cameron would nail a cell phone to the wall with a nail gun if it ever rang on the sets. Christopher Nolan too did not allow phones as well as chairs and water bottles on the sets of his 2017 film Dunkirk.
Away from Hollywood, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has a reputation for dragging his cast and crew to the edge to shoot his films, which often require physically demanding schedules in rough locations.
His 1982 film Fitzcarraldo is about a businessman (played by Klaus Kinski) who attempts to get a steamer ship weighing over 300 tons pulled across a muddy hill to gain access to quality rubber in the Amazon basin in Peru. Herzog shot the film without special effects and employed indigenous people, just as the titular character does. Three crew members were injured as they pulled the steamer across a hill.
Herzog also got into frequent fights with Kinski. Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend (1999) is a chronicle of his tumultuous relationship with the brilliant yet mercurial actor.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 magnum opus Apocalypse Now drove its cast and crew to borderline insanity, according to the filmmaker himself. “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane,” Coppola said in an interview. Lead actor Martin Sheen had a breakdown as well as a heart attack, which brought the shooting to a halt. The film’s wild production stories demanded a documentary of its own. Twelve years later, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, detailed the journey of Coppola and his crew in vivid detail.
While filmmakers have been known to torture and manipulate their performers through the decades, the philosophy gets a pass because of the so-called genius complex. Sheen said that he was eternally grateful that he had a heart attack during Apocalypse Now. Shelley Duvall compared her relationship with Kubrick on the sets of The Shining as “sort of like a game”. The actress slapped by Lumet, according to the director, hugged him after the scene was shot and thanked him for his actions. All is fair in love, war, and filmmaking, it seems.