Five directors and their questionable filmmaking techniques

Directors have long gone to rather worrying extremes to get an authentic performance from their actors. Here are five memorable examples…

“We were in the jungle. We had too much money. We had too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane” said director Francis Ford Coppola at the start of the 1991 documentary, Hearts Of Darkness. He was referring to his quixotic approach to making Apocalypse Now in 1979, but Coppola could equally have been talking about the process of filmmaking in general.

Not all directors literally end up in the jungle, of course, and some don’t even have access to lots of money or equipment, but they’re all wrestling with a creative process that involves actors, props, set designers, technical concerns, and all the other little details that ultimately result in the 90–120 minutes of footage that appear in cinemas.

This pressure may at least partially explain why some directors display an almost maniacal desire to wring every drop of authenticity out of their actors, and why, sometimes, they’ll resort to questionable methods to acquire those performances.

The five instances listed below vary from mild pranks involving vinegar to arduous, protracted shoots and directors armed with guns. Hold on tight – it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

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Bruce Robinson: Withnail And I

A slight yet perfectly scripted comedy drama about the end of the 60s and the end of a fraught yet beautiful friendship, Withnail And I is rightly hailed as a classic. Richard E Grant has yet to better his maniacal performance as Withnail, a cowardly, ranting unemployed actor who remains one of cinema’s finest comic creations.

Writer and director Bruce Robinson undertook one or two rather unusual steps to ensure that Grant gave the requisite performance as the alcoholic Withnail.

Before shooting began, Grant had never touched a drop of booze in his life – in a later documentary, he said that he’s allergic to the stuff – but Robinson insisted that Grant had to get properly drunk at least once, in order to experience the “chemical memory”, as he put it, of being inebriated and then terribly hung over the next day. Ever the dutiful actor, Grant agreed, and was, unsurprisingly, quite ill afterwards.

In one of the movie’s many memorable scenes, in which Withnail drinks a can of lighter fluid, Robinson played a rather mischievous trick on Grant. During rehearsals, the can was filled with water, but in the shot that made it into the final cut, Robinson replaced the water with vinegar. Grant’s look of surprise, and the guttural gasp that follows, was entirely genuine.

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William Friedkin: The Exorcist

William Friedkin is renowned for his rather, shall we say, enthusiastic directing style. During the classic car chase sequence in The French Connection, it’s said that he didn’t bother to tell the New York city council that the shoot would contain at least one extremely dangerous stunt. The story goes that the horrified mother, pushing a baby in a pram and almost struck by Doyle’s speeding car, was an ordinary civilian, and completely unaware that filming was taking place.

It was what happened during the filming of The Exorcist, however, that cemented William Friedkin’s reputation as a fearsome director.

Willing to do seemingly anything to wrest genuine responses of pain and horror from his actors, Friedkin’s quest for perfection didn’t come without its bruises. Linda Blair’s cries of anguish during one possession scene were, she later said, genuine (“That’s the footage they used in the movie, where I’m crying my eyes out,” Blair revealed, in the 1998 BBC documentary, Fear Of God).

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Similarly, a shot where Ellen Burstyn is stuck and flies down to the floor, achieved by a stuntman pulling her back with a specially rigged harness, resulted in a permanent back injury – again, her shriek of pain was edited into the final sequence.

In the same documentary, make-up artist Dick Smith recalled, almost nonchalantly, “He also liked to stimulate the actors. So he would sometimes shoot off a gun or something.”

Friedkin’s rationale for all this pain and terror? His reply, when Burstyn told him that the repeated takes were causing her pain was simple: “But it’s got to look real!”Ridley Scott: Alien

What occurred during the shoot of the infamous chestburster scene is so well-known that it’s long since passed into movie making legend, but it bears repeating here.

For his Hollywood studio debut, Ridley Scott strove to get as much authenticity and atmosphere as possible out of his actors, and to this end, built enormous sets that dominated the cast. The Nostromo set, all claustrophobic corridors and worn atriums, was so big and labyrinthine that cast and crew had to walk from one end to the other in order to escape – something that undoubtedly added to the subdued, terse performances seen in the final cut.

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Perhaps sensing that it would become the film’s defining sequence, Ridley Scott played a macabre practical joke during the shooting of the chestburster scene. Legend has it that, when the alien foetus comes bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, the cast had no idea how bloody the results would be – although the great jets of gore were toned down for the finished film, snippets remain of the actors’ horrified faces.

There’s one brief shot, in particular, where Veronica Cartwright is shown bespattered with claret and reeling in disgust. “What you saw on camera was the real response. She had no idea what the hell happened,” said actor Tom Skerritt in a later interview. “All of a sudden this thing just came up.”

Viewed today, where the chestbursting little alien no longer looks quite as realistic as it once did, it’s the editing and acting that make the scene so timelessly effective – the monster may be just a critter on a stick, but the sense of horror is palpable.

Stanley Kubrick: The Shining

Like William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick was known as an uncompromising and demanding director. Production for his 1980 excursion into horror, The Shining, took place over a gruelling 500 days, as Kubrick ordered take after take of even minor scenes. Although a subject of debate, it’s said that The Shining holds the Guinness world record for the most takes in a single film – estimates vary wildly over the exact numbers, but the repetition had an inevitable effect on the actors.

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After being told to repeat the same brief scene over and over (148 times, it’s said), actor Scatman Crothers famously demanded, “What do you want, Mr Kubrick?”

The actors’ frayed nerves also resulted in some unusual performances. Jack Nicholson’s ranting, leering turn, which became one of The Shining’s defining elements, came about because of Kubrick’s repeated demands for more takes – Nicholson went beyond a rehearsed, studied form of mania and into a far more desperate arena. Many of Nicholson’s menacing outbursts towards co-star Shelley Duvall were improvised.

Duvall repeatedly clashed with the director on set, and some of their heated exchanges were captured by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, whose candid behind-the-scenes footage eventually became the documentary, The Making Of The Shining. One shot appears to show Duvall lying in a hall covered in blankets, apparently collapsed from exhaustion.

“From May until October, I was really in and out of ill health, from the stress of the role and being away from home,” a clearly emotional Duvall later said. Nevertheless, Duvall ultimately concluded that, arduous though The Shining’s shoot was, the results were worth the stress. “I resented Stanley at times because he pushed me, and it hurt,” she said (perhaps through gritted teeth). “But it’s just a necessary turmoil to get what you want out of it.”

Norman Taurog: Skippy

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The harsh tactics of director Norman Taurog during his 1931 film, Skippy, are an infamous bit of Hollywood lore. The story goes that, during a key scene that required child star Jackie Cooper (then aged nine) to cry on cue, the director couldn’t get the anguished response he required.

Taurog then took the morally questionable step of telling a member of the crew to take the little boy’s dog outside and shoot it. A few seconds later, a shot rang out, and unsurprisingly, the young Jackie burst into uncontrollable tears. Taurog’s assistant later brought the dog back in unharmed, having merely fired a blank-firing pistol, but the damage had already been done.

Cooper continued to forge a career as a successful actor and director, and later appeared as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. The trauma of that formative filmmaking experience, it seemed, always stayed with him – Cooper would later entitle his memoirs Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.

The incident is an oft-told tale of creative power gone mad, and has lingered long after the film itself has dwindled from memory.

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