The Great Directors Who Went To The Extreme

An exploration of the ethics behind extreme filmmaking tactics.

An exploration of the ethics behind extreme filmmaking tactics.

In a recent interview with The Independent, Mark Rylance revealed that Christopher Nolan allowed neither chairs nor water bottles for the actors on Dunkirk. Far from complaining, Rylance praised the filmmaker for the decree, which was intended to improve the actors’ focus and intensity. In fact, none of the cast seems to begrudge Nolan his idiosyncrasies, perhaps because the film turned out so well. But it raises an interesting question: just how far is it permissible for a filmmaker to go to get the right shot? And where is the line between pushing an actor to do their best work and exploiting them for the good of the picture?

Few collaborations offer such potential, and such potential for abuse, as that between director and actor. Consider it: the actor must work under crushing time constraints, with thousands of dollars being spent every hour, before the gaze of dozens of crew members, with the knowledge that thousands more will soon bear witness to every mistake on a 2,000 square foot screen. The director must somehow make these circumstances feel natural, coaxing an honest and emotionally vulnerable performance from the actor, all the while remaining mindful of the ticking clock. Things sometimes go wrong.

Sidney Lumet, That Kind of Woman

In his indispensable guide to the craft of film directing, Making Movies, Lumet recounts a story from the shooting of 1959’s That Kind of Woman. “I needed tears from an actor on a particular line,” he recalls. “She couldn’t do it.” Lumet finally told the actor to keep going no matter what he did on the next take. Then: “Just before she reached the line, I hauled off and slapped her.” It got him the take he wanted, and when he called “cut,” the actor threw her arms around him and thanked him profusely. But the tactic never sat well with Lumet. “I was sick with self-loathing,” he writes, “I…knew that I would never do anything like that again. If we can’t get it by craftsmanship, to hell with it. We’ll find something else that’ll work as well.”

Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris

Upon its release in 1972, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris provoked a firestorm of controversy and censorship. Many modern critics now view the film as an artistic landmark, but stories about the shooting of one particular scene have tarnished its legacy. The film tells the story of an affair between a widowed American (Marlon Brando) and a young French woman (Maria Schneider). In a particularly graphic sequence, Brando’s character uses butter as a lubricant to rape Schneider’s character. Subsequent interviews have revealed that Schneider did not know about the scene until just before filming and that, although the sex was simulated, her tears and humiliation were real. (It has been disputed whether she did not know about the scene at all, or whether she did not know about the butter.) Bertolucci’s remarks on the subject in 2013 reveal the depravity that can result from artistic aspiration: “I feel guilty, but I do not regret it.”

Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds

The master of suspense has never been thought of as an actor’s director. But when working with the fledgling Tippi Hedren on 1963’s The Birds, he took his characteristic disregard for performers to new heights. After assuring Hedren that mechanical birds would be used for the climactic final attack, Hitchcock proceeded to direct his prop men to pelt her with live foul — for five straight days. Though the birds’ beaks were held shut with elastic bands, one nearly gouged Hedren’s eye, driving her to tears. Hitchcock continued his abuse of Hedren for several more films, holding her under contract and making offensive sexual demands. A 2012 TV film, The Girl, chronicles their turbulent relationship.

Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo

What happens when you drag a crew into the Amazon jungle to make a film about a maniacal opera-lover intent on dragging a 350-ton steamship over a hill from one river system to another? Chaos, as it turns out. Depending on your perspective, the filming of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) represents one of the greatest triumphs or the greatest indulgences in cinematic history. It is surely both. Unlike the clear instances of victimization recounted above, the relationship between Herzog and his star, Klaus Kinski, was more of a give-and-take. The two drove each other to near madness (and creative brilliance) over the course of the hellish production, which was halted numerous times due to budget problems and injuries. Two brilliant documentaries, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams and Herzog’s own My Best Fiend, capture some of the tumult. A sample can be found here.

Stanley Kubrick, The Shining

Like Hitchcock, the notoriously exacting Kubrick made no qualms about using actors as instruments. Principal photography on 1980’s The Shining lasted over a year, thanks to Kubrick’s endless takes and constant changes to the shooting script. The atmosphere overwhelmed actress Shelley Duvall, who eventually grew so stressed that she became physically ill. Kubrick was happy to exploit Duvall’s turmoil for the sake of the film: her gaunt, terrorized appearance is part of what makes the film so haunting. In an example of either consummate professionalism or Stockholm Syndrome, Duvall has since claimed that her combative relationship with Kubrick was “sort of like a game,” without which the film “wouldn’t have turned out as good as it did.”

Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now

“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.” This is how Coppola recalls the experience of shooting 1979’s Apocalypse Now, which, like Fitzcarraldo, had a wild enough production to warrant a documentary (Hearts of Darkness). While it’s difficult to blame Coppola for all the madness that ensued during the making of the film, his fanatical devotion no doubt contributed to the atmosphere — along with the jungle and the napalm. Martin Sheen famously suffered a breakdown and later a heart attack, forcing the production to a temporary halt. Not one to be cowed by a brush with death, he returned to set a month later and finished out the film. How does Sheen reflect on the experience with Coppola? “I’m eternally grateful…I chose to have that heart attack.”

Red Dots

As we can see, examples of directorial line stepping run the gamut from vaguely troubling to downright monstrous. So where should the line be drawn? A first impulse would be to ask the actors after the fact whether they feel they were mistreated. But such answers are necessarily clouded by the competing impulse to promote the movie. What’s more, many actors may only feel exploited until their work is praised, after which time they’re glad to have been pushed. Explicit prior consent is a must for anything involving sex, nudity, or violence, but it seems unrealistic to secure it for every potential request a director might make. And given the emotional nature of the work, some level of spontaneity and discomfort may just be necessary to capture a great performance.

In the end, we’re left deferring to the old cliché of trust. The actor must trust that the director will not exploit his or her power; the director must trust that the actor will make sacrifices for the sake of the work. But despite the examples listed above, it’s important to recall that some of our finest directors — from P.T. Anderson to Barry Jenkins — have extracted masterful performances from their actors without so much as a hint of misbehavior. In light of this, we might do well to expand our definition of what makes a good director to one who gets what they want without resorting to reproachable means. After all, anyone can slap someone to make them cry. As Lumet says, “If we can’t get it by craftsmanship, to hell with it.”

Writer, filmmaker.