When Directors Push Actors Too Far
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. However, it is also one of the more controversial due to its portrayal of Wendy Torrance and treatment of her actress, Shelley Duvall. Duvall endured sleep deprivation, isolation from the other cast members, and verbal abuse from Kubrick himself. One scene in particular drove Duvall to the brink: After discovering her husband has gone mad, Wendy is forced to defend herself using a baseball bat. That scene had to be reshot 127 times before Kubrick was satisfied. Duvall reportedly started losing her hair and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result.
This example is one of many instances where movie directors pushed their stars to the limit in order to achieve “perfection”. Below are several more cases of people being forced to endure harsh conditions, stray far out of their comfort zone, or even enter into potentially fatal situations for filming. The focus will be on actresses, but some male actors will also be included.
Warning: Disturbing content and potential spoilers.
Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie
Alfred Hitchcock was notorious (pun not intended) for his female leads. Tippi Hedren is perhaps the actress who suffered the most. Her screen debut was in the 1963 film The Birds, and Hitchcock personally oversaw her training, to the extent that he coached her on what to eat, drink, and wear. He was very controlling, but at first the shooting went well. Then, there came the final bird attack scene.
Hedren was assured that only mechanical birds would be used; although it wouldn’t be as realistic, she would be guaranteed safety. However, Hitchcock instead released live crows, ravens, and gulls into the room where the scene was shot over a five-day period. Though the birds’ beaks were clamped shut, Hedren’s cheek was scratched and she almost lost an eye. A doctor ordered her to take a week off to rest.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end for Hedren. Due to her contract, she couldn’t appear in films other than those directed by Hitchcock. In 1964, she starred as the titular heroine in his thriller Marnie alongside Sean Connery. On set, Hitchcock told the other actors not to come physically close to her, and he kept her in isolation from the rest of the cast. To make matters worse, he allegedly made sexual advances towards Hedren. It didn’t help that Hedren’s character in the film was constantly mistreated by Connery’s.
Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris
Shooting a sex scene can be very uncomfortable. For 19-year-old Maria Schneider, who starred opposite Marlon Brando in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, it was traumatizing. The movie already featured several nude scenes with the then-48-year-old Brando. Then came the infamous rape scene with Brando, featuring a stick of butter – which was not in the script and came as a shock to Schneider.
Bertolucci said that the scene was withheld from Schneider because he wanted to generate a “reaction of frustration and rage.” It worked too well. Following the film’s release, Schneider was hounded by the press and seen primarily as a sex symbol. The experience turned her off future nude roles, and she struggled from depression and drug addiction, attempting suicide several times. Bertolucci didn’t get away with that scene. Many copies of Last Tango were destroyed, Bertolucci’s civil rights were revoked for five years, and he was given a four-month suspended prison sentence.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in James Cameron’s The Abyss
James Cameron is apparently one of the more difficult directors to work with. He has been called “dictatorial”, pushing many people to the edge. Quite a few actors have stated that they would never work with Cameron again, most famously Kate Winslet, who allegedly almost drowned filming 1999’s Titanic.
However, there was another actress who had a bad experience in a Cameron film. Coincidentally, it also involves water. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played the female lead in 1989’s The Abyss, which takes place deep underwater. Like the crew of Titanic, Mastrantonio and her colleagues underwent their share of water woes: long days of shooting with no bathroom breaks, hysterical breakdowns due to stress, and even prolonged exposure to chlorine that turned their hair white and burned their skin.
However, it was one scene that nearly did it for Mastrantonio. Towards the end of the film, her character sacrifices herself to save her peers. In other words, she tries to drown herself. Virgil “Bud” Brigman (her estranged husband), played by Ed Harris, is able to revive her by screaming and slapping at her. Unfortunately for Mastrantonio, the screaming and slapping went on even after the camera ran out of film! Cameron directed Harris to do the shots several times, since the actor reportedly kept messing it up. Mastrantonio didn’t take kindly to her treatment, standing up and screaming “We are not animals” before storming off set and leaving Harris to continue with a sandbag. She has since stated that she will never appear in another Cameron film and, unlike Winslet (who will be in Avatar 2), it’s unlikely she’ll change her mind.
Ellen Burstyn in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist
Conditions on the set of 1973’s The Exorcist were, to put it bluntly, chaotic. Besides the claims of supernatural occurrences, there were the conditions director Friedkin subjected his cast to. Linda Blair, who plays the possessed Regan McNeil, had to shoot scenes at night wearing a thin nightgown. Father William O’Malley, who played Father Joseph Dyer, was slapped by Friedkin in order to get a more “solemn” expression (offending many of the Catholics on the set). Friedkin also had the unpleasant habit of shooting prop guns at his actors to get surprised expressions from them.
However, things got very serious during a scene where Regan slaps her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who falls to the floor. Despite both actresses being strapped in harnesses, Burstyn landed hard on her coccyx. Friedkin promised not to jerk her around so much, but did it anyway. Burstyn permanently injured her back; the scream she gives in the finished movie was a genuine scream of pain.
Martin Sheen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now
The filming of 1979’s Apocalypse Now was plagued with all kinds of trouble. Typhoon Olga destroyed many of the sets in the Philippines and shut down production for about a month, there was widespread drug use among the crew, and one of the actors had to be replaced. Francis Ford Coppola faced a great amount of stress during production, and afterwards faced scrutiny for killing a live water buffalo at the film’s ending.
However, his treatment of Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Willard, was more questionable. He repeatedly told Sheen he (the actor) was evil, kept him drunk and locked up before shooting the opening scene, and even got into an argument with him when production was stalled. As a result, Sheen developed unhealthy habits, most notably an increase in smoking. On his return to the Philippines, he had both a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. Coppola felt so guilty that he suffered an epileptic seizure not long after.
Entire Cast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Revenant, and The Blair Witch Project
Tobe Hooper turned the entire cast of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre against him due to extreme heat, rotting food, and an actual finger amputation on set. Alejandro G. Iñárritu lost many of his cast members while filming The Revenant due to harsh, very cold, conditions. In Hooper’s case, it was due to the low budget, while for Iñárritu it was all about realism and staying true to the story the film was based on.
Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myricks’ tactics for 1999’s The Blair Witch Project went even further in order to evoke fear and disorientation in the young stars. Donahue, Williams, and Leonard were told to improvise most of their scenes and do their own filming. The directors stalked the actors during the day and rattled their tents by night, while also progressively starving them. In this case, pretty much every scene was manipulated by the directors. The film is considered a classic now, but it doesn’t justify the actions taken by Sanchez and Myricks.
Raymond Massey in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden
Sometimes it’s not dangerous conditions or extreme discomfort that will do it for an actor. Sometimes it’s just plain mischief. Such is the case behind Elia Kazan’s attempt to get genuine anger from Raymond Massey, one of the stars from his 1955 film East of Eden. And boy, did he get it.
Massey plays Adam Trask, a farmer and the strict father of Caleb Trask, played by James Dean. Dean would annoy Massey offstage, so that the older actor would more easily show the hate his character has towards Dean’s. (This technique is part of what is called “method acting”, where an actor uses his own experiences and everyday interactions/mannerisms to play an actor. Dean and Marlon Brando are some of the better known method actors.) Of course, Kazan let Dean’s behaviour continue towards Massey, causing some unnecessary tension between the actors that eventually boiled over.
Massey had been acting stiff for one scene (his character is angry at Dean’s for how he reads from the Bible) and Kazan was not amused. So he gave Dean some pointers and, lo and behold, Massey was so offended by the vulgar language Dean used that he stormed off and threatened to call his lawyers. Kazan may have gotten the results he wanted, but his approach was a little underhanded. He was lucky Massey didn’t go through with his threat or, worse, leave the production altogether.
In the wake of #MeToo and more rights and protection given to actors, directing techniques such as the ones in this article will most likely not be used anymore. However, there are still changes that need to be made, which won’t be easy given what human nature is like. Hopefully, they’ll be ones that will lend a scene the authenticity the director desires without costing the comfort or lives of the cast and crew.
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