They’re the sorts of tales told in hushed, almost reverential tones among film geeks. Some are pure urban legend; some have a grain of truth while others drastically understate the severity of what happened.
“I heard that the ‘real’ actors in ‘Copland’ shunned Stallone on the set… and he channelled that into his acting, which is why it was such an excellent performance!” one will say. “I heard that Spielberg sent all the actors to a *real* boot camp! They had nothing but one slice of bread and a raw carrot to eat and had to run 50 miles every day to help them understand what it was like to be in the military!” another will add.
“I heard that Christian Bale starved himself for a whole year to get that gaunt look for ‘The Machinist’!” a third brings up.
“I heard that, on the set of ‘Scream’, Wes Craven yelled out traumatic childhood memories to Drew Barrymore so she’d look genuinely scared when Ghostface was coming after her!” a fourth says.
“They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets,” Dennis Farina chimes in. No, wait. Now I’m thinking of ‘Get Shorty’. Never mind. Just go with the first ones.
Anyway, the message these tales convey is clear. With great art, comes great suffering or in many cases that somewhere along the line, someone has behaved like a complete and utter asshole.
Whether it’s the Stallone/‘Copland’ example (which I heard once from one completely unreliable source… so take it with a metric tonne of salt), or some more well-documented examples like the on-set feuds between Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski on the set of ‘Chinatown”, there’s an undeniable link between people behaving in a thoroughly unacceptable manner and ensuing greatness.
When making ‘The Shining’ legendary director, Stanley Kubrick managed to elicit a truly memorable performance from actress Shelley Duvall. What was not revealed at the time, and only emerged later, was that the unspeakable torment influenced Duvall's performance at the hands of her director.
There’s the well-documented case of “Apocalypse Now” a shoot that was so unbearable that it nearly killed its lead, drove its director into madness and, by all accounts, was just not a particularly fun experience. Sure, the result was one of the most enduring, powerful anti-war films ever made but, when your lead has a heart attack, and the director’s response is “He isn’t dead until I say he’s dead”, you’ve got to wonder if it’s worth it.
Flash forward some decades, and the behaviour endures and sometimes the mystique around it remains. When news broke of Clayne Crawford’s misdeeds on the set of ‘Lethal Weapon’, the actor seemed - in part - to blame his poor behaviour on his exacting standards at work (“I’m sorry if my passion for doing good work has ever made anyone feel less than comfortable,” he wrote in a statement). In this case, Crawford’s “passion for doing good work” involved calling his co-star Damon Wayans a “pussy” and a “crybaby” because Wayans was reluctant to do stuntwork after being hit on the back of the head by a piece of shrapnel and, later, yelling at a bunch of kids for making noise while the scene was shot.
The fact that it was caught on tape makes it all the more damning, although some in the Crawford camp have also pointed out that Wayans was no picnic to work with either. The difference here is we’re not talking about high art here. We’re talking about a mediocre series based on series of movies that - even at their worst - were infinitely better.
Similarly, was the world of cinema much better off after David O’Russell went on an epic, unpleasant rant towards actress Lily Tomlin on the set of ‘I Heart Huckabees’?
(For the record, Lily Tomlin appeared to be able to move on, saying nothing but kind things about the temperamental director.)
Was ‘Arrested Development’ a much better experience thanks to Jeffrey Tambor’s appalling behaviour towards Jessica Walter? I somehow doubt it. Was ‘Terminator: Salvation’ greatly improved by the dedication Christian Bale showed to his craft? If the answer’s yes, then Christ only knows how bad the film would’ve been without him.
Ultimately, the question’s something of a moot point. For all the assholes out there, there are plenty of actors, writers and directors out there who can do their job without verbally or psychologically abusing people, and still get excellent results. Dame Judi Dench delivered a genuinely heartbreaking turn in ‘Philomena’ and - if the rumour mill is accurate - neither Steve Coogan nor Stephen Frears felt the need to scream at her even once.
So why do the people euphemistically described as ‘perfectionists’, ‘exacting’ or ‘temperamental’ still getting work? Some (Coppola, Dunaway, Polanski) can lay claim to the result - great art (of course, this brings about an entirely different argument about whether the ends justifies the means). But, when you’re making a network TV show with Damon Wayans, can you not hire the assholes? Or at least avoid hiring people who are likely to lose their shit at a couple of ten-year-olds playing at a goddamned swimming pool?
Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.