Sunday, February 8, 2009

Riot on the Set

The surfacing of an audio tape featuring Christian Bale's blow-up on the set of Terminator Salvation was the top movie news story last week. Though Bale has since apologized for his actions and several public figures have come to his defense, the story isn't going away anytime soon. Bloggers are criticizing Bale left and right, YouTube is currently bursting with hundreds of amusing remixes poking fun at the actor's tirade, and the incident will certainly return to headlines when Salvation hits theaters this May.

Though the scuffle could have turned out a lot worse (he never physically assaulted anyone), I'm resisting the urge to jump on the mockery bandwagon. Instead, I'm using his outburst as a reminder of colossal Hollywood temper tantrums of bygone years. Here now, for your viewing pleasure, is a list of my top ten movie set meltdowns of all time.

10. They Were Expendable - I start off this list by taking a trip back to the year 1945. America declared victory in World War II, the endearing melodies of big band jazz dominated the radio, and John Ford directed this solid adaptation of William L. White's novel. During a particularly tense day of shooting, Ford heaped a torrent of abuse at star John Wayne. Though Wayne was noticeably agitated, he dared not counterattack for fear of suffering a merciless humiliation in front of the whole set. When Ford noticed Wayne saluting incorrectly, Ford gave him the cruelest admonishment: "For Christ's sake, Duke. If you're gonna salute a man, do it right. Maybe if you'd had the guts to sign up and fight, you'd know that. Now that I think of it, I should've gotten a real veteran to play your part. At least he'd know what he was doing. What do you have to say for yourself now, you goddamn coward?" At that point, Wayne burst into tears and walked off to regain his composure. Seconds later, co-star Robert Montgomery made a beeline for Ford, placed his hands on the armrests of the director's chair, looked the old tyrant in the eye, and said, "Don't you ever talk to Duke like that. You ought to be ashamed." Ford ordered a break, everyone took a breather, and the day's work was finished without any further outbursts. Neither cameras nor microphones captured the incident live, so eyewitness accounts will have to suffice. For a nearly comprehensive portrait of John Ford, which includes his many run-ins with cast, crew members, and studio bosses, I highly recommend Scott Eyman's superb book Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford.

9. Rumor Has It... - Kevin Costner's egotistical antics arguably ruined this not-quite sequel to The Graduate. While the film was shot during the summer of 2004, Costner repeatedly criticized freshman director Ted Griffin for his handling of scene set-ups in front of producer Paula Weinstein. The scuffle came reportedly came to a head when Griffin quietly but firmly told Costner to return to his trailer. Costner shot back, "I will not. Not until you change that lighting set-up like I told you." Overhearing the conflict, co-star Shirley MacLaine told Mena Suvari, "There was once a time actors respected their directors." This prompted an annoyed Costner to shoot back, "You keep out of this!" Best Director Oscar winners like Ron Howard, Robert Redford, and certainly Sir Richard Attenborough would have been more patient and understanding with Griffin. Apparently, Costner thought that he could use his Dances with Wolves Oscar (not to mention his movie star clout) as an excuse to run roughshod over the poor man. Unfortunately, his strategy proved successful, as Griffin was replaced by Rob Reiner and hasn't directed anything since.

8. The Shining - The late Stanley Kubrick is regarded as a demanding perfectionist by those who worked with him. Driven by a mad scientist's desire to craft the perfect film, he pushed his cast and crew to exhaustion and beyond, shooting dozens of takes per scene. Shortly after completing production on Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was asked by a reporter to give a summation of the acclaimed director. Douglas replied, "Stanley is a talented shit." Here, Kubrick loses his patience with Shelley Duvall while filming a tense action sequence in his adaptation of Stephen King's best-selling novel. This is one of the few scuffles included on my list that features the added bonus of video footage. If the fight seems tame, that's because it is -- compared to the next seven.

7. Easy Rider - Principal photography of this counterculture indy classic was anything but a feel-good road trip. While shooting a parade sequence in New Orleans during the spring of 1968, director/star Dennis Hopper regularly blew up at his crew for the crime of making suggestions on how to film certain scenes. Driven by drug-fueled paranoia, Hopper often let loose with extended fits of screaming which included many reminders that "I'M THE FUCKING DIRECTOR!". The original, ad hoc crew who worked on the test shoot captured several of Hopper's hotheaded histrionics on tape. When a proper crew was assembled, Jack Nicholson was brought on board not only to replace Rip Torn in the role of the alcoholic ACLU lawyer, but also to serve as a mediator between Hopper and anyone who triggered his temper. Peter Biskind enjoyably documents Hopper's heated exchanges with his collaborators in his indispensible 1998 read, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Here is a clip from Shaking the Cage, the documentary that chronicles the making of the picture, where Peter Fonda recalls a scuffle between Hopper and camera operator Barry Feinstein. (The story begins at 7:42.)

6. Major Dundee - When a production team sets out to make a war movie, the challenge to be met is great. When the studio financing the film allows limited time and money, the pressure to succeed is stifling. When the director hired to keep the production on track happens to be none other than that irascible maverick Sam Peckinpah, tempers are bound to fly. That's precisely what happened on the set of this 1965 Civil War epic when Peckinpah infuriated leading man Charlton Heston. Nearing the end of a difficult day of shooting, a drunken Peckinpah ordered Heston to lead a regiment of Cavalry troops down a hill at a trot. With a precious few minutes of daylight remaining, Heston rallied his fellow actors and followed his direction to a tee. When he reached the bottom of the hill, Peckinpah yelled, "CUT! Goddammit, Chuck! That looked like shit! You came too slow!"
"You told me bring them down at a trot," Heston replied.
"The fuck I did, you goddamned liar," Peckinpah shot back.
Pushed to the brink, Heston snapped, wheeled his horse around, drew his Cavalry saber, and charged at full speed toward Peckinpah. Were it not for the fast-acting camera crane operator who lifted the belligerent filmmaker out of harm's way at the last second, the filmmaker's career could have been brought to an untimely end and would have been given his now-familiar nickname "Bloody Sam" for a different reason. David Weddle briefly recalls this episode in his definitive Sam Peckinpah biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em!

5. The Exorcist - I must confess to an act of cheating when citing this famous adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel, for its making isn't responsible for one on-set ruckus, but several. In order to create the tense, possessed mood the story required, director William Friedkin did all he could to tyrannize his actors. While filming a scene where Linda Blair slaps Ellen Burstyn so hard that she falls onto her back, Friedkin quietly signalled special effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere to grab hold of a wire connected to a harness fitted around Burstyn's midriff and yank it as hard as he could. With a thrashing tug, Burstyn flew off her feet, fell onto her coccyx, and screamed in agony. Seeing her face morph grotesquely, Friedkin ordered cinematographer Owen Roizman to zoom in for a close-up. A furious Burstyn then screamed, "Turn off the fucking camera!" (Everything that occurred in the scene up to that point appears in the film.) After admonishing Friedkin for continuing to film the scene instead of calling an ambulance, Burstyn stormed off to her chiropractor to begin treatment for a spinal injury that continues to bother her to this day. There were other instances where Friedkin slapped Father William O'Malley across the face without warning in order to achieve sadness for Jason Miller's death scene, (sorry to spoil the movie if you haven't seen it) discharged various firearms without warning to scare his actors, and expressed his disapproval of composer Lalo Schifrin's score by hurling the reel-to-reel tape recorder into the studio parking lot in a drunken fit of rage before exclaiming, "Get that fuckin' Mexican marimba music outta my movie!" (Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nitzsche.) Most of these war stories are recalled in Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist, the documentary made for the 25th anniversary of the film's release. Watch it here.

4. I Heart Huckabees - To say that Lily Tomlin went eye-to-eye with director David O. Russell while shooting this existential detective story would be a gross understatement. When the clip you're about to play made headlines in early 2007, I immediately asked myself whether she always flies off the handle on a movie set or if she saved her wrath especially for Russell. If the former is the case, I would pay top dollar for recovered video footage of Tomlin giving Robert Altman a piece of her mind on the set of Nashville. But I digress. (The footage in question begins 38 seconds into the video.)

3. Terminator Salvation - Claiming the newest entry on the list, here is the inspiration for this crack-up compilation. Christian Bale assails director of photography Shane Hurlbut for committing the unforgivable transgression of walking through his shot. No further setup is necessary. Listen to the full, four-minute rant here:

2. Fitzcarraldo - No list of this kind would be complete without at least one foreign film. Besides, Americans aren't the only ones capable of going completely berserk on a movie set. To prove it, here is the late Klaus Kinski blowing up at fellow cast and crew members during the tension-packed filming of this gripping masterpiece that arguably qualifies as the German equivalent of Apocalypse Now. When characterizing his working relationship with Kinski, director Werner Herzog is quoted as saying, "I had to domesticate the wild beast." If there is any exchange between the two that affirms those words, the following one is it. This clip is taken from Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.

And finally, the award most unhinged movie set altercation of all time goes to...

1. Maidstone - Norman Mailer directed and starred in this forgettable drama about a famous movie director who makes a quixotic run for president. When the film's production neared completion, co-star Rip Torn expressed his unhappiness with Mailer's interpretation of the story by assaulting him with a hammer. In a move that predated Mike Tyson's disqualification match against Evander Holyfield by 27 years, Mailer retaliated by biting Torn's ear. The most outrageous part of the brawl lies not in the fact that it caused both men to lose a considerable amount of blood, nor in the fact Mailer's terrified wife and children ran in to break up the fight, but in the fact that the entire incident was caught on film by Mailer's crew...and later edited into the final cut of the film. Should you find yourself too cheap and lazy to snag a copy of the film from eBay or Netflix, take comfort, for here is my pick for the most infamous movie set meltdown of all time in its ten-minute entirety:

There are other dust-ups that have gone unmentioned. Among these dishonorable mentions that didn't quite make the list are Alfred Hitchcock calling Kim Novak "a goddamn fucking cow" for not putting forth her best effort on the set of Vertigo, Roman Polanski plucking one of Faye Dunaway's hairs while shooting Chinatown (Dunaway reportedly retaliated by urinating in Polanski's coffee cup) and Billy Wilder lambasting Marilyn Monroe for forgetting her lines on the set of Some Like It Hot.

Which Hollywood altercations are among your favorites? Have you ever worked as a PA on a movie set and borne witness to an ego-driven blow-up that didn't make headlines? Whatever the case, please leave a comment and tell me all about it.

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