The Most Notorious Actor/Director Feuds in Movie History


A couple of weeks back, we spotlighted a few of the most fruitful and (presumably) harmonious filmmaker/actor collaborations in moviedom. But as we all know, filmmakers can also be a prickly lot, and the recent (mostly tabloid) coverage of director Kevin Smith’s recent swipes at his Cop Out star Bruce Willis (more on that below) got us thinking about some of the less cordial actor/director relationships. We’ve assembled some of the more contentious ones for your reading pleasure after the jump.

Kevin Smith vs. Bruce Willis

Most of the stories we’ve collected here were passed on from on-set witnesses and other third parties; you don’t often hear a filmmaker taking to the stage or the page to blast a big Hollywood star. But when it comes to notorious bridge-burner Kevin Smith, all bets are off (particularly, we can probably presume, since he says he’s retiring from filmmaking anyway). Smith and Willis first met as actors in Live Free or Die Hard, where Smith played the small but important role of a computer hacker; he spoke of that experience in his Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith video, where he professes his love for fellow New Jersey native Willis, and talks about how awestruck he was to work with the man he’d grown up watching on television and in film. That story concludes with Willis proposing that they work together in the future, and lo and behold, Smith signed on to direct the Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop comedy Cop Out (originally titled A Couple of Dicks) in 2009. They were murmurings of friction after the shoot finished, but Smith didn’t start to talk openly about his less-than-ideal experience of directing the once and future John McClane until last year, on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and in his Too Fat for 40 Q&A/stand-up video.

He spends a full chapter in his new memoir Tough Shit laying out his grievances: basically, that Willis was a deeply unhappy lazy-ass who “fostered an unpleasant and unproductive working environment whenever he was on set,” and who couldn’t be bothered to commit to scenes or follow direction. “Where was the happy-go-lucky charmer who made Maddie Hayes fall so madly in love?” Smith writes. “There were no staff limbo parties like there’d been at the Blue Moon Detective Agency whenever Bruce was around. The singing pitchman who made me believe that Seagram’s Wine Coolers were a manly enough spirit to chug at a high school kegger? He turned out to be the unhappiest, most bitter, and meanest emo-bitch I’ve ever met at any job I’ve held down. And mind you, I’ve worked at Domino’s Pizza.’ Willis hasn’t responded to any of Smith’s jibes, presumably because, well, he’s Bruce Willis.

Stanley Kubrick vs. Scatman Crothers/Stanley Kubrick vs. Shelley Duvall

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most respected and acclaimed filmmakers in movie history; he was also a notorious perfectionist whose endless takes were rumored to have driven plenty of actors around the bend. This was never more true than during his production of The Shining, where he frequently clashed with co-stars Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers. (Jack Nicholson, according to most reports, did his best to just keep his cool and soon learned not to bother learning his lines, since Kubrick was inevitably going to rewrite them.) Duvall had little to no acting training; she had been plucked from obscurity by Robert Altman and turned loose in his free-wheeling, improvisation-based productions, which couldn’t be a more contrary working environment to Kubrick’s. The actor and director clashed over her interpretation of the role and her line readings, with Kubrick reportedly demanding 127 takes of one of her scenes. The stress of the shoot made her physically ill; she said the production was making her hair fall out. Crothers’ experience was barely better; the legendary performer was reduced to tears during the 85 takes the director required of the scene where he showed Wendy and Danny the hotel kitchen. “What do you want, Mr. Kubrick?” Crothers asked, not unreasonably. “What do you want?”

David O. Russell vs. George Clooney/David O. Russell vs. Lily Tomlin

Few modern directors are as well known for their contentious relationships with actors as David O. Russell, though his reputation is mostly due to one particularly damaging viral sensation. First, though, there were the stories of his clashes on the set of Three Kings with George Clooney, an actor mostly known for his affability. “In the industry, [Clooney] was known as ‘Good-Down, Bad-Up,'” according to Sharon Waxman’s page-turner Rebels on the Backlot , “shorthand for his ease with guys lower on the totem pole and his difficulty with those with more authority. He constantly stuck up for the crew when Russell pushed for one more take or curtly demanded that a gaffer hurry up.” Three Kings was an important film for both men; Russell was making his first big-budget studio picture (after the indie faves Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster), while Clooney was still looking for a vehicle to shake off the bad mojo of Batman and Robin and help establish him as more than a TV star. As the shoot neared its conclusion, Clooney sent Russell a scathing handwritten note, calling Kings “the most havoc-ridden, anxiety-ridden, angry set that I have ever witnessed,” and their irritations came to a head with an on-set scuffle. According to Waxman, Clooney felt that Russell had been too rough with an extra and got in his face about it; the men shouted at each other, Russell head-butted Clooney, and Clooney grabbed the director by the neck.

Things didn’t get that physical on the set of Russell’s next film, but they got a hell of a lot louder — and more public. 2004’s I Heart Huckabees featured a large ensemble cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzmann, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, and Lily Tomlin, whom he’d also directed in Disaster. Three years after the film’s release, videos of Russell and Tomlin’s on-set shouting matches found their way to YouTube and became a viral sensation, though Tomlin shrugged them off. “David is a very mercurial person, and that’s part of why he’s so brilliant,” she told Movieline. “We were always doing something, and then we’d get manic and crazy and I just flipped out on him. Then he flipped out on me. And you know, stuff goes on. But it’s nothing. It’s like family. If you have a big fight in your family, usually it’s treated that way on the set… I adore David. I adore him as a talent. A lot of my friends said, ‘Well, you won’t work with him again.’ I said, ‘Of course I would! I adore him, I love him. He’s brilliant.'”

Otto Preminger vs. Faye Dunaway/Roman Polanski vs. Faye Dunaway

Otto Preminger was not exactly known for his soft touch with actors, but he met his match during the production of 1967’s Hurry Sundown. They clashed frequently on the set of the film (“Otto was one of those directors you can’t listen to because he doesn’t know anything at all about the process of acting,” Dunaway wrote in her memoir Looking For Gatsby ), to such a degree that Dunaway took Preminger to court in order to get out of the remainder of the six-picture contract she’d signed with the producer/director. “It cost me a lot of money not to work for Otto again,” she wrote. But Dunaway resents her reputation as a “difficult” actor, insisting elsewhere in the book, “Of all the movies I’ve worked on, of all the directors I’ve worked with, there are only two directors that I haven’t gotten along with — Otto Preminger and Roman Polanski.” She clashed with Polanski while shooting their classic Chinatown, writing that he “was just as autocratic and dictatorial in many ways as Otto, but he was a good filmmaker. And Otto wasn’t.” Dunaway asked Polanski for help with her character’s motivation; according to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls , the director responded, “Say the fucking words. Your salary is your motivation.”

The tension between Polanski and his star boiled over in a notorious incident that the film’s cinematographer, John Alonzo, described to Biskind thus: “There was a scene where she gets in the car after seeing her daughter, and Jack is in the car waiting for her and scares the shit out of her… She kept saying to Roman, ‘Roman, I have to pee. I have to pee.’ ‘No. No. You stay there. Johnny, you ready?’ I said, ‘I’m ready.’ ‘You stay there. We shoot, we shoot.’ And then he said, ‘Roll the window down. I got to talk to you. You’re turning too far right. Don’t look at Jack, just look ahead.’ Then she threw a coffee-cup full of liquid in Roman’s face. He said, ‘You c***, that’s piss!’ And she said, ‘Yes, you little putz,’ and rolled the window up.” Point, Dunaway.

Michael Bay vs. Megan Fox

The contentious relationship between blockbuster-meister Bay and his Transformers muse Fox was unusually public — and ugly. It all started with an interview Fox gave to the British magazine Wonderland to promote Transformers 2. Asked her “most and least favorite things about working with Michael Bay,” Fox responded, “God, I really wish I could go loose on this one,” and then gave an answer that made you wonder what her “go loose” response would have been. “He’s like Napoleon and he wants to create this insane, infamous mad man reputation,” she told the magazine. “He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is. So he’s a nightmare to work for but when you get him away from set, and he’s not in director mode, I kind of really enjoy his personality because he’s so awkward, so hopelessly awkward. He has no social skills at all. And it’s endearing to watch him. He’s vulnerable and fragile in real life and then on set he’s a tyrant.” Needless to say, the ingénue’s comparison of her director to Hitler made some headlines. “Criticism is one thing,” Shia LaBeouf told GQ two years later. “Then there’s public name-calling, which turns into high school bashing. Which you can’t do. She started shit-talking our captain.” Bay claimed not to mind—in fact, he insisted that “her crazy quips are part of her crazy charm. The fact of the matter I still love working with her, and I know we still get along. I even expect more crazy quotes from her on Transformers 3.” But when the time came to make that film, Fox was replaced by Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Bay, for his part, said the call was made by executive producer Steven Spielberg, telling GQ, “She was in a different world, on her BlackBerry. You gotta stay focused. And you know, the Hitler thing. Steven [Spielberg] said, ‘Fire her right now.'”

Werner Herzog vs. Klaus Kinski

The prickly relationship between Werner Herzog and the star of five of his films, Klaus Kinski, could be best summarized by the title of the documentary Herzog made a decade after Kinski’s death: My Best Fiend. It wasn’t the first time their vicious fights had been the subject of a documentary; Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams captured the harrowing production of Fitzcarraldo, during which both men were all but driven mad by the difficulties of shooting in the rain forests of South America. A decade earlier, they had worked together on Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and their working relationship reached a point where the actor threatened to walk off the movie, and the director threatened to shoot him dead if he did, and then turn the gun on himself. Kinski claimed Herzog wielded a pistol when he made the threat, which Herzog vehemently denies. True or not, Kinski called Herzog a “nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep” in his autobiography—though, true to form, Herzog says that Kinski wrote that to sell books, and that he helped his old frenemy write the line.

Tony Kaye vs. Edward Norton

Like Russell and Clooney, director Tony Kaye and star Edward Norton had a lot to prove with their 1998 collaboration American History X. Norton was working his way up from valuable supporting player in films like Primal Fear and The People Vs. Larry Flynt to leading man; Kaye was an acclaimed commercial director (one who described himself as “the greatest English filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock”) making his feature film debut. Their working relationship during production was imperfect, but it exploded once the picture got into post. The studio was pleased with Kaye’s first rough cut, but the director wanted to keep working, eventually carving the film down to a mere 87 minutes. Norton and others tried to build the film back up and shape it into something more substantial; Kaye started placing insulting ads in the trades and insisted that he needed eight weeks of solitude to finish his cut. The studio gave him his eight weeks; he came back not with his final cut, but with new ideas about how to “radically reinvent” the film. The studio balked and sent their version of the film to the Toronto Film Festival; Kaye followed it there and whipped up more press, while petitioning the Director’s Guild to have his name removed from the film and replaced with the pseudonym “Humpty Dumpty.” They balked; the film (edited by Jerry Greenbert and an uncredited Norton) was eventually released with Kaye’s name, and Norton was nominated for an Oscar for his work. Neither has cultivated much of a collaborative reputation since; Norton clashed with Marvel over The Incredible Hulk, and was thus not invited to reprise the role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers, while Kaye’s only subsequent narrative film, the ensemble drama Detachment, elicited a terse “I don’t believe that I’ll be working with him again” from co-star Bryan Cranston.

Lars von Trier vs. Björk

Lars von Trier and Björk’s collaboration on Dancer in the Dark resulted in one of the finest films of the director’s career, but it was no easy match for either of the artists. “Fundamentally,” Trier explained years later, “it was a problem that both of us, normally with things, we got it our way, where we decided as a dictator over a product. She was used to doing that and I was used to doing that…” On her website, Björk wrote, “the thing about making that film that upset me most was how cruel Lars is to the woman he is working with. Not that I can’t take it, because I’m pretty tough and completely capable of defending myself, but because my ideals of the ultimate creator were shattered.” There were reports of emotional manipulation and discord; Trier claims his star wouldn’t turn up for days on end. “She didn’t feel like filming. It cost us a lot of money everyday. And we knew that her and her people would always win because they didn’t care. They didn’t give a shit…It was like dealing with terrorists.” They reached a point where they weren’t even speaking on set. “You can take quite sexist film directors like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick,” Björk wrote later, “and still they are the ones that provide the soul to their movies. In Lars von Trier’s case it is not so and he knows it. He needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence. What saves him as an artist, though, is that he is so painfully honest that even though he will manage to cover up his crime in the ‘real’ world… his films become a documentation of this ‘soul-robbery.’ Breaking the Waves is the clearest example of that.” Trier’s recent response doesn’t exactly fight off those charges of sexism: “But the problem with her was a little bit like the problem you have with women — sometimes they do something that you don’t really understand. Something that you can’t calculate and you have no idea why they say it and why they do it. That’s my experience. I have no idea why she reacted in some of the situations like she did.” Stay classy, Lars!

Alfred Hitchcock vs. Tippi Hedren

Apocryphal or not, Hitchcock’s famous comment that “all actors should be treated like cattle” tends to hang over any discussion of his relationships with actors. Though several of them (James Stewart, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly) worked with the master on multiple occasions, reportedly smoothly, his interactions with the icy “Hitchcock blondes” that he preferred to cast in his female leads grew more problematic as he got older. In 1963, he cast Nathalie Kay “Tippi” Hedren in the leading role of The Birds. It was her film debut, and the filmmaker was often cruel to her during the shoot — most famously the five days she spent shooting the climax, with real birds being tossed at her by prop men. She did one more film with Hitchcock, Marnie, but refused to work with him again — and this caused her some career trouble, since he had her under a two-year contract and refused to loan her out to any other interested directors. When she tried to get out of the contract, she says Hitch told her he’d ruin her career. “And he did: kept me under contract, kept paying me every week for almost two years to do nothing.”

Henri-Georges Clouzot vs. Brigitte Bardot

The French sexpot Bardot certainly knew from temperamental auteurs; she worked with Godard, after all. But her interactions with Henri-Georges Clouzot were particularly strained. In La Verite, her character was to have overdosed on sleeping pills — so the director had her take some, claiming they were aspirin, got the scene, and then had her stomach pumped. For another scene, he reportedly got her drunk and slapped her until she cried hysterically. But Bardot had the last laugh: during one of their rows, he shook her by the shoulders and yelled, “I don’t need amateurs in my films — I want an actress!” She slapped the filmmaker in response and shouted, “And I need a director, not a psychopath!”

Sidney Pollack vs. Dustin Hoffman

Just about every writer who got a look at Michael Dorsey, the struggling yet uncompromising young actor played by Dustin Hoffman in Sidney Pollack’s marvelous 1982 comedy Tootsie, drew an easy parallel from the character to the actor playing him. “Dustin feels that his job as an actor with any integrity is to dig his heels in and fight as hard as he can for what he believes in,” Pollack told the New York Times while promoting the film. “I don’t have any quarrel with that. I do have a quarrel with some of his other assumptions. For whatever reason, I think Dustin feels that directors and actors are biological enemies, the way the mongoose and the cobra are enemies. He sees every picture as what he calls a ‘silent war.’ And he’s fought with most of his directors. I think if he would give a director half a chance, and not assume that the director is trying to kill him, he would see that most directors want exactly what he wants, which is the best possible picture.” The pair fought bitterly during the shoot, dueling sharply over not only his character, but the overall tone of the film and the style of its humor: “I was always accused by Dustin and other people of trying to turn the movie into a ‘gentle love story’ as opposed to an outrageous comedy. I used to deny that, but in retrospect I can see they were right. That is what I wanted to make, and that is what I made.” But many of Hoffman’s ideas made the movie what it is — particularly his suggestions to cast Bill Murray as his roommate and Pollack himself as his character’s agent. As a result, we have the rare but occasional example of a film where the feuding of an actor and director actually resulted in a stronger final product.