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.