Top 10 Tyrannical Movie Directors

It doesn’t matter how pioneering their films are or how many Oscars they’ve won – some directors are so notoriously difficult to work with that many actors and crew members know to stay far, far away from their projects. Although most of the following directors have created some of the best movies ever made, it’s questionable whether the ends justified the means when you read about some of their tirades and bizarre on set behaviour.

10. Michael Winner

Michael Winner
photo: Supermac1961 / Flickr

British director Michael Winner was always a boisterous public figure who enjoyed straying into boorishness, so it’s no surprise that he was similarly overbearing while on set. While filming action thriller Firepower, biographer Tim Ewbank likened Winner’s location shooting in the Caribbean to the Nazis invading Poland and said that the director made good on his dictatorial attitude with instructions like “Pull that shack down, get rid of those people, paint that building white, chop down that tree.” Actor Alex Winter worked with Winner on Death Wish 3 and said that he had an assistant who had to walk around behind him at a certain distance carrying his bag of cigars. If they got too close or far away, he’d fire them. It’s no wonder that Oliver Reed said that Winner was the only director who “shouted louder than I did”.

9. William Friedkin

William Friedkin
photo: Elen Nivrae / Flickr

William Friedkin made himself a name as a reckless director during the filming of his breakout hit the French Connection. The legendary car chase sequence was actually filmed without the proper permits and Friedkin insisted that it be illegally continued into sections of New York City with no traffic control, narrowly avoiding pedestrians and other cars in the process. However, he really pushed things up a notch during the shooting of the Exorcist. He allegedly fired a gun on set during one pivotal scene to realistically capture a look of shock from actor Jason Miller and he ordered the crew to yank Ellen Burstyn so hard when she was attached to a harness that the shot of her screaming in the movie was from the legitimate pain and injury caused to her back.


8. Michael Mann

Michael Mann
photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Some directors are so obsessed with the minutiae and little details that they make for unbearable working relationships. Michael Mann is known for being a trademark perfectionist, but this reputation hasn’t endeared him to some of his cast and crew. While shooting Manhunter, actor Tom Noonan said that he saw Mann inspect a van that was being used in a shot and he noticed a small crack running down the side. He fired half of the art department for the error. In another incident Mann fired a dolly operator because he couldn’t get a shot right and, when another crew member stepped in, he fired him too. While shooting Public Enemies Johnny Depp got so fed up of the director’s technique that he ended up flat out refusing to talk to him.

7. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick
photo: Warner Brothers

Although Stanley Kubrick had a reputation for being a very cooperative director and actors like Malcolm McDowell and Peter Sellers have said that working with him was the most creatively-spirited experiences they ever had, his shoots were extremely difficult because he insisted on perfection. Kubrick took full control of things like location scouting and even what props appeared in a scene and he was notorious for demanding multiple takes from his actors. During filming of the Shining, Kubrick had Scatman Crothers do a scene so many times that the elderly actor looked physically exhausted. Jack Nicholson was forced to intervene and ask Kubrick if he could just use one of the 85 takes rather than put Crothers through any more. Shelley Duvall also complained that the experience made her physically ill and she began losing her hair from stress.

6. Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille has gone down in Hollywood history for his pioneering work on big Hollywood epics like The Ten Commandments and the Greatest Show on Earth. However, while he was good at wrangling huge scores of extras for big scenes, he lacked the personal touch when it came to actors. He was apparently indifferent to the dangers of participating in his epic sequences and expected his actors to risk their safety. While filming Samson and Delilah, leading man Victor Mature was scared of wrestling a tame trained lion. DeMille never got over this and seethed with anger at his ‘cowardly’ star. When he was shooting The Crusades, DeMille had such a blase attitude toward the safety of his stuntmen (despite several on set injuries) that a enraged archer fired an arrow at the director’s head, missing him by inches.

5. David Fincher

David Fincher
photo: Elen Nivrae / Flickr

David Fincher is another perfectionist director who has driven crew members and actors to the brink of despair. During filming on Zodiac, many scenes required upwards of 70 takes. Although cast members Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jnr knew that they just had to go along with it, this caused particular stress for Jake Gyllenhaal. In response to his protests, Fincher took advantage of filming on digital by purposefully deleting hours of takes in front of Gyllenhaal to show him who was in charge (he later admitted he did this just to manipulate his lead actor).

4. James Cameron

James Cameron
photo: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

James Cameron is known for being such a fastidious control freak that he earned himself the nickname ‘Iron Jim’. Both Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris almost suffered from mental breakdowns while filming the Abyss and, although Cameron said that he never wanted to do such a gruelling shoot again, his ambitions for Titanic were so high that the film ran way over schedule and $100 million over budget. When a studio rep visited the set to talk to Cameron about it, he curtly replied ‘Tell your friend he’s getting fucked in the ass, and if he would stop squirming it wouldn’t hurt so much.’ In his defense, he is very hands on and will risk life and limb if he asks his actors to do the same. During filming of Titanic, Kate Winslet balked at the idea of being suspended 50ft in the air, but Cameron filmed another 50ft above her, hanging off a plank. During True Lies, he asked Jamie Lee Curtis to hang out of a helicopter. He made it up to her by shooting the scene himself hanging out of the helicopter door (the True Lies crew also famously wore t-shirts that read “You Can’t Scare Me. I work for James Cameron“).

3. Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier
photo: Siebbi / Flickr

Björk was very candid about what she thought of Lars Von Trier’s methods during filming of Dancer in the Dark. The singer turned actress said that Von Trier deliberately treated women cruelly and that he “envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming.” Björk even tried to dissuade Nicole Kidman from working with Von Trier on Dogville and the actress later regretted not taking the advice. Kidman admitted that it was an incredibly difficult shoot and Von Trier’s insistence that the actors stay in character for hours and hours rankled Paul Bettany in particular who stated that “[Von Trier] has no interest in what actors think” and that it was one of his worst experiences as an actor.

2. David O. Russell

david o russel

David O. Russell made a name for himself with offbeat indie films Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, but his third project, the anti-war satire Three Kings, proved to be a very difficult experience for almost everyone involved. Russell was unhappy with the fact that Warner Bros. had approved a smaller budget and shorter shooting schedule that he had originally wanted. After a series of incidents, star George Clooney approached Russell and told him not to berate and humiliate crew members in front of him, but things came to head when the director violently threw an extra to the ground in an effort to show him how to act more convincingly in a scene. Clooney and Russell got into a physical fight and the actor later remarked that the shoot was the worst of his life. When filming his followup movie I Heart Huckabees, Russell developed a similar feud with Lily Tomlin and their foul-mouthed arguments on set went viral after they were leaked on YouTube.

1. John Ford

John Ford

John Ford is considered to be one of the all-time best directors. The only person to have won four Best Director Academy awards, Ford redefined the Western genre and made some of the finest American movies ever made. However, he was also a notoriously mean and rough man who would regularly scold his actors and crew. Ford expected insanely high levels of discipline and attention to detail from everyone on set. He was constantly mocking and berating actors, even if they were close dear friends like John Wayne (Ford once refused to speak to Wayne for two years because he had shot a picture with his rival Raoul Walsh) or his own family. Ford allegedly cast his older brother Francis for short roles in many of his films just so he could bully him on set. His hardass reputation carried off the movie set, too. Peter Bogdanovich, who filmed a documentary about Ford in 1971, said that he was always testy with people and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. One of his favourite things to do was pretending to be deaf so that others would have to humiliatingly repeat themselves over and over.