Top 10 Craziest Directors
Some of the most overlooked personalities in the film industry are the men and women who sit in the director’s chair. While most of the public is content with engaging themselves with the off-screen antics of actors and actresses, it is often the directors who outshine their fellow artists in terms of eccentricities and sheer craziness.
This list takes a look at ten of these fascinating personalities. It includes the brave, the arrogant, the mentally ill, and the obliviously insane- gathered and ranked based on three criteria. The first is the nature of their work. Those willing to engage in difficult, bizarre, and dangerous projects are ranked higher on this list. The second is the demands that they place on their production crews and actors. The more demanding a director and the more outrageous their requests, the higher they will score. And the third and final criterion involves their lives when they are not sitting behind a camera. Many directors have behavioral ticks, idiosyncrasies, phobias, and habits that influence their work. When these three factors are combined, we get a list of the top ten craziest film directors who ever made a movie.
10. Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa was simply one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His thirty films established genres and influenced countless filmmakers. His most famous work, Seven Samurai (1954), is a masterpiece that established the modern action/adventure genre as we know it and is frequently cited as one of the greatest movies ever made. His Rashomon (1951) was one of the first Japanese films to gain international attention at foreign film festivals and pioneered a brand new narrative structure that is known as “the Rashomon effect.” His film Ikiru (1952) is beloved as a humanist response to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The Hidden Fortress (1958) inspired the story and many of the characters in George Lucas’ Star Wars. And finally, his Yojimbo (1961) virtually established the “man with no name” character archetype that was later used most famously by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy.
Kurosawa was known as a stern taskmaster and a devoted perfectionist. His nickname was “Tenno,” which is Japanese for “Emperor,” reflecting his dictatorial control and command over his projects. There are many stories about the lengths that Kurosawa would go to in order to get the perfect shot. For a scene in Rashomon where there was a great rainstorm, he had water mixed with ink sprayed from fire trucks onto the set so that it would show up on the camera lenses. In Throne of Blood (1957), a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Kurosawa didn’t use fake arrows when the main character is executed by a firing squad of archers. He literally had professional archers fire at the main character as he ran around trying to dodge them. At any moment he could have easily been killed.
He also was known for building gigantic sets. One of the largest was the shantytown built for Red Beard (1965) that cost a fortune to build and ended up in only one or two short shots. Another infamous set was a castle built on the slopes of Mt. Fuji in Ran (1985) which was then set on fire and burned to the ground for a single scene.
Kurosawa was also known to be demanding, and sometimes cruel, to his cast. He had one technique where he would choose one actor in particular from a cast and berate and insult him especially. The idea was that seeing him abuse one cast member would motivate the other actors and actresses to give their best performances. An example was Yoshio Inaba who played Gorobei in Seven Samurai. Although his methods were extreme, they did result in some of the finest films ever made.
9. Lars Von Trier
This Danish filmmaker is one of the most controversial artists currently working in the industry. He began to make films when he was 11 years old and has never stopped. He is noted for making extremely cerebral and graphic films, such as the serial killer drama The Element of Crime (1984) and his most recent Anti-Christ (2009). His film Europa (1991), the final film in a series of films known as the Europe-trilogy, won the Prix du Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. He was also one of the founders of the avant-garde film movement called Dogme 95, which seeks to purify filmmaking by refusing expensive special effects and other gimmicks.
Where do we begin? His films are notorious for unbelievably graphic images, including unsimulated sex in such films as The Idiots (1998) and Anti-Christ. His company, Zentropa, also was the world’s first mainstream film company to produce hardcore pornography. He frequently has his actors and actresses engage in full frontal nudity on camera.
Despite all this, he is a devout Catholic. His conversion to Catholicism was one of the turning points of his life, inspiring him to establish Dogme 95 so he could pursue a more honest style of filmmaking. This is where the crazy really gets interesting. Being a member of Dogme 95 means that you have to prescribe to certain rules while making a film, such as only filming on location, only using hand-held cameras, and not giving the director any credit. Von Trier’s roots in the movement have led him to pronounce obscene handicaps on his own work. For instance, Europa was filmed entirely in sepia. His film Dogville (2003) was filmed entirely on a sound stage with no set.
He only uses digital cameras, making some projects difficult to shoot. An example is Dancer in the Dark (2000), a musical where the musical sequences were shot simultaneously with over 100 digital cameras. But even when he isn’t working on a film, Von Trier has many odd idiosyncrasies, including several crippling phobias. The worst phobia is his fear of flying which has resulted in him shooting most of his films in either Denmark or Sweden, even ones that are supposedly set in countries like America. When his films premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, he drives all the way to France and back from Denmark.
8. Orson Welles
Widely considered to be one of the most important and influential film directors who ever lived, Orson Welles’ filmography reads like a greatest hits collection. His first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) are frequently cited as two of the greatest films ever made. His Othello (1952) won the Palme d’Or. Touch of Evil (1958) is also considered to be one of the greatest film noir/thrillers ever made. Finally, his Chimes at Midnight (1965) laid the groundwork for how battles would be choreographed and filmed for decades, inspiring battle scenes in films such as Braveheart (1995) and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003). But Welles’ genius was not limited to the director’s chair. He was also a fantastic Shakespearean actor and radio personality.
The career of Orson Welles is the stuff of Hollywood legend. While he was easily one of the greatest talents the industry has ever seen, he also sported one of its biggest egos. He was so audacious that his first film Citizen Kane was basically a biopic of William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s most powerful newspaper magnates- so powerful that he almost succeeded in completely suppressing the film. It is said that if it wasn’t for Hearst, Citizen Kane probably would have won all eight of its Academy Award nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor. Instead, Hearst’s opposition was successful enough that it basically established Welles as an enfant terrible, making it almost impossible for him to get his films financed within the United States.
This was compounded by his notorious reputation for being difficult to work with. He demanded total control in his projects. He also had a nasty habit of being unreliable, frequently missing his own engagements and showing up late for important events. In his later years, he would have to rely on starring in commercials to support himself and his film career. Even then he was famous for being impossible to control and work with. Check out his famous “Frozen Peas” commercial (above) for a taste of his ego. To really get an idea of Welles was like, watch the film Me and Orson Welles, a historical look at his time as owner of the Mercury Theater and their production of Julius Caesar. Bombastic, and narcissistic, Welles established a legacy of being one of the world’s greatest, and most intriguing, artists.
7. John Waters
Shocking, disturbing, and graphic, John Water’s 1970s transgressive cult films have been horrifying and delighting audiences for decades. He started out by making campy exploitation films with his regular troupe of actors, known as the Dreamlanders. Some of his earliest films include the degenerative classics Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), and the infamous Pink Flamingos (1972). He would later move on to more mainstream work, the most famous being Hairspray (1988), which would later be adapted into an award winning Broadway musical and then remade into a movie (2007).
John Waters is easily the one of the filthiest filmmakers alive, a title which would no doubt delight him. His films frequently deal (rather explicitly) with issues such as homosexuality, gender issues, and the counterculture. He is notorious for his casting decisions which include real-life convicted criminals (like Liz Renay and Patricia Hearst) and porn stars. His most famous regular actress was Divine, a drag queen who became one of the leading icons of the counterculture movement. In Pink Flamingos, Waters even made her eat real dog poop. This keeps with Waters’ habit of constantly trying to shock his audiences. His films frequently have full frontal nudity, unsimulated sex acts, and realistic-looking violence (in the case of Pink Flamingos there is a scene where police officers are killed with an axe and then cannibalized).
In contrast, Waters is a distinguished, sophisticated personality off-screen, who makes regular appearances on the late night talk show circuit. He is known for taking equal pleasure in high-brow art films and schlocky exploitation films. He was once quoted as saying, “I love Bergman and I Dismember Mama.” He is also famous for his No Smoking short film that plays before feature films at art houses.
6. Stanley Kubrick
Most directors are only able to excel in one or two genres of film. Stanley Kubrick is the definitive exception to that rule. Working in multiple genres, his films have become infamous milestones that continue to inspire filmmakers to this day. He directed the war films Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). He has made two of the most influential science fiction films ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1972). His film The Shining (1980) is considered to be one of the definitive horror films. Dr. Strangelove (1964) is widely cited as one of the greatest comedies of all time. And finally, he excelled at making period pieces like Spartacus (1960) and Barry Lyndon (1975), the latter of which was named the greatest film of all time by Martin Scorsese.
Kubrick has gone down in history as being one of the most difficult directors to work with and one of the biggest obsessive-compulsive perfectionists of the industry. While he was known as a loving family man, he was inconsiderate and rude to the people that he worked with. He was disrespectful to his actors and never complimented any of his coworkers, fearing that it would make them “complacent.” Kirk Douglas was quoted as saying that he was unwilling to compromise with anyone, had an out-of-control ego, and considered his personal vision of a film to be more important than the collaboration of fellow artists.
He was infamous for doing countless takes of every single shot. During the shooting of The Shining, he supposedly made Shelley Duvall redo a single shot 127 times and elderly cast member Scatman Crothers redo a scene 148 times, which is a world record. The stress was so great for Duvall during shooting that her hair began to fall out.
Kubrick was also notorious for engaging himself with every step in the making of his films, including writing, directing, sound track work, and editing. He would often visit random theaters to confirm that his films were being shown with the proper lighting. In addition, when his films were released in foreign countries, he would have control over the dubbing casts and the translation of the script into other languages. Since his death, no new voice translations have been authorized for his films.
5. Cecil B. DeMille
Before Spielberg and before Wyler, there was Cecil B. DeMille. One of the earliest directors to start working in Hollywood (his first film was made in 1913), he would direct some of the earliest, and best, big budget epics in film history. In a career that spanned several decades, his work would include silent pictures, talkies, and some of the earliest usages of the primitive two-strip Technicolor process. Many of his films were adaptations of biblical stories, such as The Ten Commandments (1923), The Ten Commandments remake with Charlton Heston (1956), The King of Kings (1927), and Samson and Delilah (1949). His knack for working with large groups of extras, gigantic set pieces, and colossal stories would establish DeMille’s work as the prototype for Hollywood blockbusters for decades to come. He also was one of the first directors to become famous in his own right, paving the way for filmmakers, and not just actors and actresses, to become household names.
Like many of the directors on this list, DeMille was a stern taskmaster. Actually, that is an understatement- he was essentially a tyrant on the set of his films. He demanded absolute commitment from everybody involved in his films. For example, in order to preserve the “spiritual nature” of the film King of Kings he made his stars enter into contracts that prohibited them from doing anything “unbiblical” for five years, including going to ball games, night clubs, and even riding in convertibles.
DeMille also demanded that his actors and actresses take physically dangerous risks on film. If they refused, DeMille would despise them. In one scene in Samson and Delilah, actor Victor Mature gained his hatred when he refused to wrestle a live lion (even though it happened to be tame and toothless). During his production of The Crusades (1935), several stuntmen were hurt and several horses were killed in one particular scene. DeMille’s was so cavalier about their safety that one of his expert archers opened fire at him. And one story about DeMille says that during the filming of a huge battle sequence he joked that he would use live bullets as a way to cut down on the cost of extras. He was apparently aware of his reputation as a tyrant on set as he would frequently wear big leather boots and carry a whip.
4. Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine is one of the most bizarre and obscure directors on this list. His debut was in 1995 with Kids (1995), an NC-17 look at the life of several Manhattan teenagers during the AIDS crisis. He has since gone on to direct several other strange and unusual projects, such as Gummo (1997), a fragmented look at life in an Ohio town in the 1970s after it was hit by a tornado; and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), a film that proscribed to the self-imposed rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto. His work is frequently centered on dark humor and absurdism. Some of his favorite themes are dysfunctional childhoods, mental disorders, and poverty. He is very unconventional in his approach to narrative with several of his films employing surrealist, non-linear experimental structures. Widely accepted as an underground artist, he has nonetheless gained wide support in several circles, including the international film festival scene, having won prizes at both Venice and Rotterdam. Some of his fans include famous directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Gus Van Sant, and Werner Herzog.
Harmony Korine is no stranger to controversy as his films contain many explicit and vulgar images. During Gummo, there is a scene where a cat is drowned on camera. Kids features multiple scenes of teenage drug abuse and sexuality. His 1998 film The Diary of Anne Frank Pt II was a three-screen collage of a boy burying his dog, various kids in satanic outfits vomiting on a Bible, and a man doing a minstrel show in blackface.
Setting Korine apart from other crazy directors are the lengths he will go to for his profession. Korine has professed that he wishes to die for the cinema. This is a wish that has frequently almost come true. The most obvious would be his project entitled Fight Harm where he would film himself engaging random people in actual street fights. Korine described the project as a cross between “a Buster Keaton vehicle and a snuff film.” After only six fights he was so injured that he was hospitalized and forced to abandon the project. So Korine is a triple threat: his work is bizarre, he requires great (and ridiculous) commitment from his performers, and he is willing to put himself in the line of danger for his work.
3. John Ford
The only man in history to win the Academy Award for Best Director four times, John Ford is a filmmaker of legendary proportions. While some of his best work includes adaptations of 20th century novels such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), he is best remembered for practically inventing the Western genre. Working for over fifty years and making over 140 films, Ford was making Westerns as far back as 1917. Over time, he would come to pioneer many of the archetypes that distinguish the Western genre. One of his most famous Westerns, Stagecoach (1939), elevated the genre into an art form. It was one of the first times that a Western was taken seriously and not delegated to the realm of cheap B-movies.
Ford established the careers of many famous actors, including almost single-handedly making John Wayne into a star with his breakthrough role in Stagecoach. Over the years, Ford and Wayne would collaborate on some of the most beloved and influential Westerns ever made, including The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Fort Apache (1948).
He helped establish and popularize many important film techniques, such as long shots, the use of Expressionistic style, and tracking shots. He was also one of the pioneers of on-location shooting, frequently setting and filming his movies in Utah’s Monument Valley.
Easily one of the most influential filmmakers, he was named by both Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman as one of the greatest directors who ever lived. Akira Kurosawa, who you will remember from earlier on this list, tried to model his entire career and film making methods on the techniques and personality of John Ford.
Like many early Hollywood directors, John Ford was known as a stern and at times overbearing man to work with- but Ford’s personality went farther than that. He was just a mean old cuss. The best way to summarize Ford’s personality is that he is said to be the only person who ever made John Wayne cry. Let me repeat that, he made John Wayne cry. He was infamous for how hard he would treat and work his actors. He would often mock and bully them.
Not only was Ford a tough man who demanded the best from his actors, he also but great strains on his production crews. When he would shoot on location (remember that he was one of the first directors to do so), he would frequently make the entire cast and crew live out of stagecoaches. John Ford was as tough as his beloved Western terrain and just as demanding.
Ford was just as demanding on himself as a filmmaker. One of his greatest exploits was storming Omaha Beach on D-Day and filming the invasion. Not only did he capture the events on film, he was cited by his superiors for bravery. Apparently, during the invasion he filmed from a position where he was “an obvious and clear target.” He didn’t stop filming, even while getting wounded in the process. As if storming Omaha Beach armed with a video camera wasn’t ballsy and suicidal enough, he was also wounded while filming a documentary of the Battle of Midway.
Underneath his tough exterior, Ford was a kind and sentimental man. One example of this is how he paid for a former Universal actor’s wife’s operation. When the actor asked Ford for help, he publically assaulted the man and insulted him. However, when the actor left the studio, Ford’s business manager gave him a check for $1,000.
2. Howard Hughes
Yes, we are talking about that Howard Hughes, the famous American aviator, engineer, and industrialist. When he wasn’t innovating the field of aviation, he gained prominence as a genius filmmaker from the late 1920s. His first two films, Everybody’s Acting (1927) and Two Arabian Knights (1928) were huge successes, the latter even snagging the first Academy Award for Best Director of a Comedy Picture. He would then go on to make several controversial big budget films, like Hell’s Angels (1930) and The Outlaw (1943). He would also go on to produce the famous Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932), directed by Howard Hawks.
As you may notice from the short career bio, Howard Hughes was not the most influential of filmmakers. Sure, his work was important for its time. But overall, his career was too short to have any kind of outstanding impact on the industry. The reason why he is number two on this list is because of his incredible obsessive-compulsive disorder. The intensity of his illness makes him perfectly suited to be positioned so high on this list. While there are many stories about Hughes’ various neuroses, this list will only dwell on those involved with him as a filmmaker.
For starters, one of the earliest quirks about Hughes as a director concerned Jane Russell’s blouse in The Outlaw. He believed that the fabric bunched up to create the appearance of two nipples on each breast. He was apparently so upset that he wrote detailed instructions to his crew on how to fix it. He was so frustrated that eventually he designed a special bra just for Russell to wear in the film. While on set he would be plagued by massive mood swings that impeded production of his films. The most famous incident in Hughes’ life concerning film was his 1947 episode where he locked himself in a screening room for four months. He lived off nothing but chocolate bars and milk and stored his urine and feces in empty bottles and containers. During this time, he would watch film reels all day while completely naked. The entire time he was in the screening room, he didn’t bathe. He would also spend time meticulously stacking and rearranging dozens of Kleenex boxes. The last famous incident of Hughes’ behavior concerning the cinema was his obsession with the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra, which he ran on a continuous loop in his home. It is reported that he watched the film 150 times. Despite all this, Hughes is really only fit for the number two spot on this list because his idiosyncrasies were dictated by an untreated mental disorder. This is different from the number one entry who supposedly had full control of his senses throughout his entire career. Which leads us to…
1. Werner Herzog
In his nearly fifty year long career so far, Werner Herzog, originally part of the New German Cinema movement, has established himself as one of the world’s leading film directors. He has inspired countless filmmakers with his amazing films.
Known for shooting both documentaries and regular films, Herzog made his first few movies on a 35 mm camera that he stole from the Munich Film School. From there he has filmed some of the most eclectic, engaging, and hypnotic films ever made. His film Fitzcarraldo (1982) won the Best Director Award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. It’s about a rubber baron who pulls a steamship over a mountain to gain access to rich rubber territory, so he can achieve his dream of building an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), the story of Spanish soldier who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in the hope of finding El Dorado, gained international attention and accolades.
Herzog has made pictures all over the world, from Greece (Last Words), the Sahara Desert (Fata Morgana), Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), Africa (Cobra Verde), Australia (Where the Green Ants Dream), to the American mid-West (Stroszek). He has proven himself time and again to be willing to travel to the ends of the earth in order to tell a story and make a great film.
Recently, Herzog has been working in Hollywood. Unlike many foreign directors whose work begins to decline under the influence of Hollywood, Herzog is still going strong. Some of his work in America includes the famous documentary Grizzly Man (2005), the Christian Bale vehicle Rescue Dawn (2007), and the criminally underappreciated Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (2009), starring Nicolas Cage.
This entire list could easily have been made up of the crazy things that Herzog has done throughout his career. Suffice to say, it is a miracle that he is still alive. Herzog has long had a habit of choosing to direct films that purposely require next to impossible and life-threatening shoots. During the filming of Aguirre, he had the cast and crew live on rafts on Amazon River tributaries for five weeks, dodging life-threatening rapids and barely missing getting drowned in a massive flood. In Fitzcarraldo, he put the lives of hundreds of natives in danger by making them pull a 320-ton steamship up the side of a mountain. At any moment, the cables could have broken and killed the workers. At one point, his cast was even attacked by unfriendly locals from the neighboring forests. Then there was the time that Herzog risked the lives of his entire crew (himself included) by filming a documentary on the side of a volcano that was ready to erupt at any minute. Included in the film is a scene where the crew is shown escaping from poisonous fumes leaking from the volcano. The end result, entitled La Soufrière (1977), was only thirty minutes long.
His madness doesn’t end with the shoots themselves. Herzog also tends to work with strange, eclectic, and difficult casts. His film Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) had a cast comprised purely of little people. Two of his greatest films, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977), featured Bruno Schleinstein in the lead roles. Bruno, who went by the name of Bruno S., was a self-taught musician who had spent most of his life in mental institutions and had been a street performer before Herzog casted him. His unfamiliarity with performing in front of the camera made shooting Bruno very difficult, sometimes requiring Herzog to “listen to” him for several hours on the set before he could work up the nerve to perform. But his most infamous partnership was that with Klaus Kinski. Known as being a raving madman, the five films that Herzog made with Kinski can all be considered miracles for having been made at all. As shown in Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999), a documentary detailing their relationship, they were constantly at each others’ throats while on set. During the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, Kinski became so out-of-control that the local natives offered to kill him for Herzog. Despite their tumultuous relationship, they considered each other close friends. It’s a blessing that they didn’t kill each other.
In fact, as I have already said, it is a miracle that Herzog is still alive. Pushing the boundaries of film making and directing to worlds previously unheard of, there is no limit to Herzog’s audacity, bravery, and brilliance in the face of danger and hardship.
Bonus: David Lynch
David Lynch has established himself as one of America’s greatest cinematic auteurs. His films are bizarre, avant-garde excursions that have pioneered different methods of narrative filmmaking. His first film, Eraserhead (1977) quickly established itself as a cult classic. He would go on to create some of the best, and most peculiar, films ever made. These include the Academy Award nominated The Elephant Man (1980), the disturbing Blue Velvet (1986), the Palme d’Or winning Wild at Heart (1990), and Mulholland Dr. (2001), a film which remains an enigma to many to this day. He also was the co-creator of Twin Peaks, a television show that has gone on to become a cult favorite. In addition to the aforementioned Palme d’Or, Lynch has received two César Awards for Best Foreign Film, a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival, three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director, and the French Legion of Honor.
Those familiar with Lynch may be surprised that he appears on this list. The truth is, while Lynch’s work may be bizarre and incomprehensible, on set and in his private life he is pretty normal. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have his fair share of odd idiosyncrasies. He has been a fervent supporter of Transcendental Meditation since 1973. He doesn’t allow cooking to take place in his home because he can’t stand the smell. But other than those few little ticks, Lynch is a regular man. It is his work that establishes his personality as an unusual fellow and warrants his entry on this list.
by Nathanael Hood
Learn more about underappreciated films at the author’s blog at forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.