MEGALOMANIAC FILM DIRECTORS: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

Cecil B. DeMille once asked Jesse Lasky Jnr if he believed in God. “Yes, sir,” the young writer replied, “I think so.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I believe in you, sir,” said Lasky.

“Not a bad beginning,” said DeMille.

The wonder of it is that all film directors are not megalomaniacs. Orson Welles famously referred to the film studio as “the greatest electric train set a boy ever had”, and being put in the driver’s seat is enough to go to anyone’s head. Think of it: millions of dollars of other people’s money, hundreds of technicians on hand to do your bidding, the whole world ready and waiting to soak up your personal vision. So you want to be a megalomaniac film director? To ensure that your name is writ large in cinema mega-history, all you have to do is observe the following rules.

1. JIFF UP YOUR NAME

Anything Italian sounding or with a European possessive such as von, de or di will do nicely. Hey, it worked for Von Sternberg, Von Stroheim, Von Trotta, Von Trier et al. You opt for Tony Von Dio, with the accent on Dio. It was going to be Tony Del Rio, after Dolores, but you suspect this might have lead to disrespectful types calling you “Del Boy”.

2. PUT YOUR NAME ABOVE THE TITLE

“A Tony Von Dio Film.” Or, better still, insert your name into the title. Thus: Fellini Satyricon, Kinski-Paganini, Tony Von Dio’s Book of Revelations. (Your producers, mindful of the cost of advertising space, will eventually shorten this to Revelation.)

3. STUDY THE MARKET 

You wouldn’t want to be accused of selling out. Musicals, westerns and epics are all conspicuous by their absence from Variety’s 50 top grossing films. You decide to turn Revelation into an epic western with added musical numbers that will be performed live by actors with no previous experience of singing or dancing. You envisage the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as cowboys, and the Whore of Babylon as a hardboiled chanteuse with a heart of gold. You think that maybe you could get Angelina Jolie or Anne Hathaway interested, and Nicolas Cage is already in talks for the pivotal role of the Lamb of God.

4. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE SCRIPT

Whose film is this anyway? Yours or the screenwriter’s? His screenplay is pathetically lacking in mythical resonance, social significance and Big Crowd Scenes. Ignore it completely. Cobble something together as you go along. Rewrite each scene yourself half an hour before it is due to be shot. Actors are naturally lazy; best keep them on their toes.

5. TAKE LOTS OF MIND-ALTERING DRUGS

There is a certain subgenre, not applicable to any of the directors mentioned in this article, known as “The Coke Movie”. Coke Movies are easily recognisable by their zany humour and their car crashes, hysterical performances and flagrant disregard for dull narrative traditions such as The Story. Coke Movies tend to be enormously popular with children under 10 years old, as well as with members of the public who have been taking the same mind-altering drugs as the film-makers.

The mind-altering drugs, when you take them, confirm your suspicions that your current project will change the course of film-making history as we know it, and also persuade you that it would be a terrific idea to cast seven stand-up comedians as the Seven Angels with the Seven Last Plagues, thus adding new dimensions of zany humour to the poignant tragedy of mankind.

6. STRIVE FOR AUTHENTICITY

Period settings offer plenty of opportunity for expensive perfectionism. The white raiment of the four-and-twenty elders must be woven on authentic antique looms which have been handcarved by blind men on the slopes of Mount Sinai. The crowns and the vials-full-of-odours must be fashioned from real gold. Few of these objects will be seen in close-up, but it matters not. You are not making a St Trinian’s film here. You are staging Armageddon.

7. CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION CAREFULLY

Any klutz can make films in a film studio, but it takes real genius to transport hundreds of people and millions of pounds worth of equipment into the Amazon jungle. Since you have already decided that you are making a western, your first task is to raze several square miles of rain forest in order to give the horses room to gallop.

8. ABUSE YOUR ACTORS

Actors are there to fit into your lighting schemes. If the Lamb of God starts agonising over his motivation for the line “Holy, holy, holy,” get ratty with him. Tell him you are creating Art, not running a charitable organisation for the furtherance of sensitive Method performances. If necessary, punch him or make him cry by telling him his mother is dead.

Spice up your sex scenes by encouraging the Lamb and his screen wife to indulge in an offscreen affair behind the backs of their respective real-life spouses. Encourage the angels to ostracise Satan during lunch breaks. Insist on your actors performing their own difficult and dangerous stunts. The actor playing Satan will naturally be reluctant to plunge head-first into the lake of fire and brimstone; it is your job to persuade him that stuntmen are for wimps.

9. ABUSE YOUR EXTRAS

The extras who are doubling as the Tribes of Israel and the Great Multitude of All Nations and Tongues will, sooner or later, grow tired of standing around, waiting to be pelted with locusts. When they threaten insurrection, see to it that one or two are accidentally drowned in the flood of wormwood, and gently remind the rest that there are plenty of tribespeople in the Amazon jungle who will be prepared to work for brightly-coloured beads instead of standard union rates.

10. KEEP THAT CAMERA ROLLING
Clint Eastwood does everything in one take, but he is not a genius and you are. Shoot no fewer than 60 takes of every set-up. Shoot well into the night: your cast and crew won’t object because they will be getting paid overtime, and you will also have shared your mind-altering drugs with some of them. Shoot and shoot again.

11. BUDGET? WHAT BUDGET?
Your backers know nothing about Art. You know, however, that Great Art Hath No Price. Costly special effects such as the fall of Babylon and the sky being rolled up like a scroll are vital to your vision. Go ahead and film them: it is rare for a film studio to pull the plug on a project once shooting has started.

12. CHANGE YOUR MIND

You have been filming in the jungle for several months. You have already exceeded your allotted budget by something like $50 million. Most of your cast and crew have been struck down by septic mosquito bites and dysentery, but the set builders have finally managed to erect a New Jerusalem in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp. Alas, as soon as you lay eyes on the 12 foundations of the city garnished with all manner of precious stones, you realise that the natural lighting effects are not quite what you had in mind. You decide to abandon the New Jerusalem and rebuild it in the Nevada desert.

13. BLOW IT UP

Artistic licence permits you to round off Revelation with a big bang instead of the rather low-key ending suggested by St John the Divine. Your film should incorporate at least one sequence in which the entire set is destroyed in a massive explosion. Also, this saves having to dismantle it.

14. CHOP AND CHANGE

As things stand, you are in possession of 1.5 million feet of film, all of it brilliant. With the aid of your mind-altering drugs, you edit ruthlessly and show the finished print to your producers. They persuade you, against your artistic judgement, that a film lasting 33 hours will not be a feasible commercial prospect.

Furthermore, they complain that the storyline lacks narrative drive and that the characterisations, especially those of the Lamb and Satan, are not sufficiently developed to engage an audience’s sympathies. Also, they would like a happy ending. They threaten to take the film away from you. You remind them you have the right of final cut. The backers send men who threaten to break your legs. You reassemble your cast and film some extra scenes in an attempt to clarify the plot for audiences whose lack of artistic sensibility prevents them from understanding it.

After months of slaving over a hot Steenbeck you present your producers with a film lasting three hours and 20 minutes. Congratulations. You have exceeded your budget by $80 million and gone five months over schedule. Revelation is now ready for public consumption.

15. GIVE GOOD INTERVIEW

Blame your movie’s box-office failure and disastrous reviews on studio interference, on the emotional instability of your actors, and on the complete absence of aesthetic judgement on the part of critics and public.

16. STEAL YOUR FILM BACK

Restore two hours of the cut footage. Open it in Paris to rave reviews and queues around the block. Show the 33-hour version at MOMA and BFI Southbank, with intervals. You are acclaimed as the genius you always knew you were. Feel vindicated.

APPENDIX: 
SOME EXAMPLES OF FILM DIRECTORS BEHAVING LIKE MEGALOMANIACS

Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (1939-) used to be an inveterate exceeder of budgets. Apocalypse Now (1979) went from $12 million to $30 million. One From the Heart (1982) went from $12 million to $23 million, and The Cotton Club (1984) from $30 million to $45 million. During filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, he destroyed several acres of palm trees by dropping 1,200 gallons of gasoline on them. “There aren’t too many places in the world you could do it,” he said. “They’d never let you in the United States. The environmentalists would kill you.”

Heaven’s Gate (1980) directed by MICHAEL CIMINO (1943-) was originally budgeted at $7.5 million. It came in at $36 million, and its spectacular critical and commercial failure nearly bankrupted its studio, United Artists and made the film’s title a watchword for creative profligacy. The director was aiming for perfection. Cimino’s perfectionism included his order for a painstakingly constructed period street to be made six yards wider. One side of the street was accordingly dismantled and moved six yards. Cimino, viewing the result, declared that the lighting was now all wrong: the side of the street that had already been moved would have to be shifted back three yards, and the other side of the street would have to be shifted out three yards. For the full story, read Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the film that sank United Artists.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Like many of the directors who worked on early silents, CECIL B DEMILLE (1881-1959) showed a cavalier disregard for the well-being of his actors. During the shooting of Joan the Woman (1916), for example, Geraldine Farrar was bound to a stake with her nostrils and mouth stuffed with ammonia-soaked cotton while the surrounding logs were set aflame. The same actress was later placed in a tank full of blazing oil. One of DeMille’s biographers notes: “She was only slightly singed.”

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER (b. 1946; d. 1982) “would start the day demanding ten Cuba libres – rum and Coca-Cola,” recalls the producer Peter Berling in Love is Colder than Death: The Life and Work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Berling and Robert Katz. “He would drink nine and throw the tenth at the cameraman.” The filmmaker was a master in the art of cruelty to actors; like a one-man Mutt and Jeff act, he alternated between abusing and building up the confidence of members of his stock company until they ended up grovelling and dependent. He once cast the wife of Uli Lommel as a nympho-sadist and forced her to whip her husband for take after take until both of them collapsed in tears. But his abuse of others was as nothing to his abuse of himself: he smoked anything he could lay his hands on, consumed three grammes of cocaine, often flown on to location by private jet, per day, drank bourbon out of beer mugs, and could go to sleep only after repeated doses of Mandrax and Valium. He died aged 37, a brilliant burn-out, having directed 43 films in 17 years.

Alfred Hitchcock and friends

During filming of The Birds (1963), ALFRED HITCHCOCK (1899-1980) instructed two crew members to follow Tippi Hedren wherever she went off-set. According to The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, the director told her what to eat and what to wear, and she had to ask his permission to visit friends in the evenings. The filming of the climactic scene of the movie, in which her character is attacked by birds, went on for a week, during which the actress had live gulls attached to her body by elastic bands. One bird almost pecked out her eye and Hedren suffered a nervous collapse. When, midway through the shooting of Marnie (1964), she rejected his sexual advances, he stopped speaking to her, gave direction to her only via assistants, and lost interest in the film.

For Heart of Glass (1976) WERNER HERZOG (1952-) worked with all but one of his cast under hypnosis. (It shows.) Not content with having made one film – Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) – in the jungles of South America, the director returned there to film Fitzcarraldo (1982), a story about an opera buff who drags a steamboat over a mountain from one river system to another. Not for Herzog the wonders of special effects and trick photography. “I have decided we will do it for real,” he announced, “and not use modern technology at all.” When local Peruvian Indians demonstrated their reluctance to have him film on their territory, Herzog had 400 natives from another part of Peru airlifted on to the film set. The director has since denied that they where abandoned there for four months without pay, while he returned to Europe to raise extra funds. Herzog has complained that he has exhausted the possibilities of earth, the jungle, the outback, the barren plains. For his next movie “Perhaps I will go to the moon.”

Dennis Hopper (copyright Anne Billson)

Easy Rider (1969), directed by and co-starring DENNIS HOPPER (1936-2010), was such a box-office hit, despite Hopper’s violent rages and LSD binges, that he received virtual carte blanche to make The Last Movie (1971) in Peru – obviously a Mecca for mad film-makers. Hopper ended up with 46 hours of raw footage, which he and various editors, cowboys and hangers-on then tried to assemble into the film to end all films, a commentary on life and art and the bits in between, an examination into the very process of filmmaking itself. They were greatly hindered in this quest by consumption of psychedelic drugs which made everything they did seem incredibly awe-inspiring and mysterious. The film itself, accordingly, turned out to be incredibly awe-inspiring, mysterious and pretentious in more or less equal parts. It was voted Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival, but got dumped pretty rapidly by its American distributors.

Revolution (1985), directed by HUGH HUDSON (1936-), was budgeted at around £17 million. “We’ve gone to £19 million,” said Hudson. “I don’t think that’s much. The Americans do it all the time.” The difference was that the British Film Industry was in one of its perennial states of crisis, and the huge cost and subsequent box office flop of Revolution virtually put the kibosh on Goldcrest, its production company. During filming in Devon, a £20,000 marquee “caught fire”, and a £250,000 camera crane “fell” off a cliff. “We seem to have a lot of problems with stick-in-the-mud Devonians,” said Hudson. Morale was not high. When hundreds of extras had been kept waiting around in full costume, in the cold, for three days, it was suggested to the director that they should either be used or allowed to stand down, because they were tired. Hudson replied, “I like them tired.”

It was said of JOHN HUSTON (1906-1987) that he chose a “victim” on each of his movies. On Freud (1962), he did so many takes of a sequence involving Montgomery Clift being pulled by a rope that the actor’s hands ended up torn and bleeding. Clift was in a bad way; he was still troubled by serious head injuries sustained in a car accident some years previously, and suffered from a hyperthyroid condition, which affected his balance. And, on the Freud set, it was discovered that he had cataracts in both eyes, threatening permanent blindness. Huston, when he heard the news, quipped: “Now I suppose we’ll  have to get him a seeing-eye dog.”

Klaus Kinski as Paganini in Kinski-Paganini

KLAUS KINSKI (1926-1991) sneaks into this list by virtue of Kinski-Paganini (note the personalised title) and because, as Herzog’s favourite actor, he always gave his director a run for his money in the megalomaniac stakes (see Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend). Kinski-Paganini was well named, having been written by Kinski, directed by Kinski and starring Kinski alongside Nikolai Kinski and Debora Kinski. Kinski, as Paganini, gets to bury his head between the thighs of a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. At the Cannes Film  Festival, he called a press conference, insulted everyone in sight and stomped off along the promenade threatening photographers.

STANLEY KUBRICK (1928-1999) was notorious for insisting on every single print of his films being vetted in every single cinema to ensure it was being correctly projected etc: if this is megalomania, we should have more  of it. However, Kubrick also exhibited the darker side of OCD while shooting The Shining (1980), on which he set records for the number of takes of a single scene – variously reported as 127 or 148. Vivian Kubrick’s documentary Making “The Shining” (1980) shows the director bullying Shelley Duvall quite mercilessly, and the rumours circulating concerning filming of the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange (which I haven’t been able to substantiate) are quite unsavoury.

AKIRA KUROSAWA  (1910-1998) was nicknamed “The Emperor”. At the end of Throne of Blood (1957), Toshiro  Mifune, as the Macbeth character,  dies under a hail of arrows which turn him into a human pin-cushion. Kurosawa tried fake arrows which popped up, and he tried arrows on wires. Eventually he opted for real arrows, shot at Mifune by real archers hidden behind bits of scenery.

JOHN LANDIS (b. 1950) is known for his scenes of anarchic destruction in films such as The Blues Brothers (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). During the filming of a scene for his segment of Twilight Zone – The Movie (1983) in which a Vietnamese village is strafed by   an   American  helicopter, Landis later denied that he said, as various witnesses claimed, “Well, we may lose the helicopter,” and, when one of the special effects detonations was more intense than expected, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The helicopter, buffeted by an explosion in the middle of the night-time shoot, crashed on top of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, aged six and seven. Morrow and one of the children were decapitated; the other child was crushed to death. Landis and four of his film crew were indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter. On the stand, the director repeatedly denied that he had been aware of any danger and, in 1987, all the defendants were  acquitted. In 1988, he held a special preview of his new film, Coming to America, for members of the jury which acquitted him.

ELAINE MAY (1932-), formerly half of a stand-up comedy duo with Mike Nichols, wrote and directed A New Leaf (1971), one of the funniest and most underappreciated comedies of the 1970s. In 1973 she started work on Mikey and Nicky (1976), starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk.  During filming, a camera operator watched Cassavetes and Falk wander off the set. The camera continued to run. After several minutes of filming nothing, the operator shouted “Cut!” and turned off the camera. May yelled at him, “You don’t say cut. I’m the director, and only the director says cut.” The operator protested that the actors had left. “Yes,” said May, “but they might come back.”

The ratio of film shot to film shown in the finished print of Mikey and Nicky was 40 to one – twice the average. May finally approved a finished print in 1985. It is said that, during the long and arduous editing, she bit a sound-timer on the leg. The cost of Ishtar, the 1987 megadisaster starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, soared from $35 million to $51 million during shooting. It soared, partly, because of incidents such as the one when May decided she wanted sand dunes in the shot. The Sahara was duly scoured for suitable sand dunes. They were found. Then May decided that she didn’t want sand dunes after all. She wanted flat desert. So, for the next two weeks, the dunes were scraped away, bit by bit.

John Milius, with accessories

JOHN MILIUS (1944-) is a member of the National Rifle Association. He keeps a bazooka in his office. He likes to use live ammunition in his films. “I can’t be a general,” he once said, “but I can try to live like one. When I’m working on a film, I demand the kind of treatment a general gets.” While writing the original script of Apocalypse Now, he redecorated his office to resemble a military command post. He prefaced his film of Conan the Barbarian (1982) with a quotation from Nietzsche. Milius has a reputation for being a wild and crazy guy, but on the whole he seems a reasonable sort of fellow who merely enjoys living up to the legend he has created for himself. “I enjoy the Bomb immensely,” he once said. “I think of it as a religious totem.” And: “Pain is temporary, but the film is permanent.”

STEVEN SPIELBERG (1947-) said “It’s true when I say that 1941 may be too intense for normal people. I just hope there are enough abnormal crazies in the world to make Universal and Columbia back their 30 million dollar negative cost investment.” 1941 (1979), it should be added, was chock-full of wacky humour such as chandeliers crashing on to dance floors, tanks crashing into paint factories, bombers crashing into tar-pits and Ferris wheels crashing into the ocean. There were not enough “abnormal crazies” in the world to prevent the film from being a box-office flop, although it has since been hailed as a cult movie manqué, albeit a not very funny one.

ERICH VON STROHEIM (1885-1957) was the son of a Jewish hatter from Silesia, but passed himself off as the descendant of a noble Prussian military family. With monocle, jodhpurs and riding crop, he cultivated his image as megalomaniac film director par excellence. He built a facsimile of Monte Carlo on the Universal back lot, insisted on extras wearing monogrammed silk underwear under their Austrian military uniforms and on rooms being fully furnished, even though all that might be seen in shot was the exterior of the window. He was partial to orgy sequences: they would be shot on closed sets for anything up to 20 hours, the actors were treated to champagne (even during Prohibition), and girls would emerge with whip marks and bites. For The Wedding March (1928), he imported a professional dominatrix from Vienna. Von Stroheim was also a footage fetishist. His original version of Greed (1923-25) lasted seven hours; the studio eventually had it reduced from 42 reels to 10. Gloria Swanson had him fired midway through the filming of Queen Kelly (1929), after he insisted on having one of her co-stars dribble tobacco-juice over her hand.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Tatler in 1987. I find it interesting now to reflect that the entire piece was cobbled together, in pre-Google days, entirely through diligent perusal of reference books and sifting through cuttings in the BFI library. 

Of course, many things have changed since 1987. Hardly anyone shoots on film any more; the relative cheapness of video takes the financial pain out of excess footage. Francis Coppola has mellowed (to the extent that his films are no longer interesting), Werner Herzog has blossomed, and Hugh Hudson is no longer regarded as a serious film-maker. But I would like to see John Milius back in the director’s chair.
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7 thoughts on “MEGALOMANIAC FILM DIRECTORS: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

  1. Marvellous. I agree about Milius, I still have a soft spot for him, even though in theory I should probably find him a lunatic.

    And though it's not megalomania, the following tweet from Riz Ahmed during the recent Channel 4 screening of FOUR LIONS about how Chris Morris would express himself in Day Today/Brass Eye language made me smile:

    “chris got a way of explaining your motivation as an actor with amazing turn of phrase e.g. “doubt grenade in your guilt shitter”

  2. Last time I saw Milius credited was as writer, co-creator and executive producer on BBC/HBO's Rome. Did you ever see that? Splendid, full-blooded stuff packed with sex, violence and politics.

  3. There was a very interesting article in Word magazine a while back by Lawrence Miles arguing that TV was better when it was (I'm paraphrasing from memory, probably badly) “televised theatre” rather than “mini-films” complete with film-look grading etc.

    I, Cladius and Rome were cited, with I, Claudius held up as among the best examples of the TV medium, and Rome, well, not…

    Personally, though, I enjoyed Rome enormously, and thought James Purefoy and Polly Walker were especially outstanding. Much as I've lately enjoyed watching the likes of The Tudors, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand (RIP Andy Whitfield, alas), Rome remains head and shoulders the best of the recent fashion for gory/sexy/sweary/”historical” things…

  4. Suggest Sam Peckinpah for inclusion.
    2) Director's credit freeze-framed over dramatic shot (Pat Garratt, Killer Elite, Cross Of Iron).
    3) Comedy western without songs (Cable Hogue).
    4) Constant. (Improvisation: Wild Bunch, walk to town square heralding climax).
    5) Constant, coke & booze. Stayed in trailer, leaving crew to make film (Convoy).
    6) Bribed locals to delay town's development (Major Dundee).
    7) A lawless Mexico became synonymous.
    8) George, Hoffman (Straw Dogs).
    9) Killed cat, chickens (Straw Dogs, Pat Garratt).
    11) Forced to create ending from out-takes (Cross Of Iron).
    12) Rewrote ending during filming: the Kid lives (Pat Garratt).
    13) In slow motion.
    14&15) Constant war with producers & studio.
    16) Posthumous restored releases (Major Dundee, Wild Bunch, Pat Garratt).

  5. Pingback: WAKE WOOD: REVIEW | MULTIGLOM

  6. Pingback: Anne Billson: An Admiration + a few links to articles I particularly enjoyed | peeboi

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