Disaster Artists: Despotism, Directing, and the Troubled Production

Lights! Madmen! Action!
By  · Published on August 21st, 2017

Lights! Madmen! Action!

The tyrannical tendencies of filmmakers are one of the great cinematic clichés. Charlie Chaplin famously attributed his process to “sheer perseverance to the point of madness.” Crew t-shirts on The Abyss read: “You Can’t Scare Me, I Work For James Cameron.” Stanley Kubrick lords above even the prickliest, slave-driving control freak. Meanwhile, David Fincher is said to be such an unrepentant “disciplinarian” that he “paints with people.” Of his experience filming Fincher’s Zodiac, Robert Downey Jr., had this to say:

Sometimes it’s really hard because it might not feel collaborative, but ultimately filmmaking is a director’s medium. I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garret [Fincher], that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him because I understand gulags.

Being a meticulous perfectionist doesn’t necessarily spell “tyrant.” But directors and despots share a remarkable amount of connective tissue; a muddied cocktail of omnipotence, hubris, and insecurity. That both job descriptions dabble in absolute power, to varying degrees, is at once compelling and uncomfortable. Compelling, because there’s a juiciness to big egos, ruthless ambition, and high stakes. Uncomfortable, because there’s something repellent about filmmaking’s affinity to conditions of tyranny—something odious about Hitchock, DeMille, or Friedkin flexing the same megalomaniacal muscles as Atilla.

Arguably, the explicit coalescence of director and despot took place in the late 19th Century when theatre theorists began to stan super hard for gesamtkunstwerk; for the subservience of all moving parts towards a singular artistic vision. In L’oevre d’art vivant, theatre theorist Adolphe Appia argues for the primacy of the director, who implicitly possesses all the bodies “whose collaboration [in the play] is essential if he is not to create mere marionettes.” This sentiment would be echoed by Appia’s successors and throughout the annals of cinema:  the artistic project begins and ends with the director. So help you, God. 

Troubled productions leave the barrier between director and despot at its thinnest. And mercifully, some such disasters were filmed and produced as documentaries. Cautionary tales of unbridled chaos, ego, ambition and everything in between.

Enjoy, and beware:

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

hello heart of darkness my old friend

FILM: Apocalypse Now

STATUS: Completed, fortunately. 

A post-mortem shot and directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s impossibly forgiving wife Eleanor Coppola, Hearts of Darkness is a sweaty, spectacular portrait of what happens when an entire production meta-acts. Charting the financially bloated, logistically fraught, and spiritually chaotic production of Apocalypse Now, we see everything from Martin Sheen suffering a personal crisis (and a heart attack); to Marlon Brando sandbagging the production almost as ruthlessly as the actual typhoon that hit the Philippines during the shoot; to Coppola gradually twisting into a Kurtz-like figure: tyrannical and obsessed. Like Coppola said: “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Not even close to the weirdest photo of Jodorowsky (L).

FILM: Dune

STATUS: Rejected by studios.

Psychedelic Chilean-French ciné god Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune and he wanted it to “be the second coming of a god.” It was, arguably, the greatest film to never see the light of day. Jodo’s Dune would have starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and his own 12-year-old son, Brontis. Pink Floyd and Magma were going to compose the score, and the visual  talent included H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, with Dan O’Bannon (Total Recall, Aliens) to head up the special effects. These were to be Jodo’s “Spiritual Warriors” in what would prove a hopelessly ambitious project. In the end, the script was the size of a phonebook and would have resulted in a 14-hour movie. No studio wanted it. But, as the film details, Jodo’s failed second coming left behind a spectacular legacy (O’Bannon, Foss, Giger, and Giraud, for instance, would all go on to work on Alien). 

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau

“A Stan Winston original…fallen prey to the leprosy that afflicts foam latex.”

FILM: The Island of Dr. Moreau

STATUS: Completed, unfortunately. 

An insider account of the famously troubled production of The Island of Dr. Moreau, David Gregory’s Lost Soul offers an oral history of a deeply weird mess fuelled by zeal, inordinate amounts of cash, and possibly black magic. The film concerns the captivating and charming oddball Richard Stanley, the eccentric indie auteur behind Hardware, and how he lost control of his magnificently gaudy and depraved passion project. Actors, studio heads, and Stanley himself speak like folks telling war stories over drinks: from the hurricane to the off-screen debauchery, t0 the unabashed contempt and fuckery of the great trickster god Marlon Brando. Anecdotes about the debacle fly fast and furious, though testimonies from the film’s leads (with the exception of Fairuza Balk) are unsuspiciously, and tragically absent. All told, Lost Soul offers a coroner’s report on an overly ambitious vision and its metamorphosis into a doomed and fragmented train wreck. 

Burden of Dreams

Literally, a hill to die on

FILM: Fitzcarraldo

STATUS: Completed.

Fitzcarraldo is about a European determined to bring a steamship over a steep hill to realize his dream of building an opera house. Burden of Dreams is about a European determined to bring a steamship over a steep hill to realize his dream of filming Fitzcarraldo. Where the historical figure Fitzcarraldo broke his ship up piece by piece to scale the hill, Werner Herzog has the ship dragged up in its entirety because art. Herzog actively (and cooly) risks the lives of others in service of this vision, fruitlessly wrestling with the elements, tribal unrest, and his greatest nemesis, physics. Over the course of the film, Herzog sinks into a quiet and pointed rage; from an optimistic refusal to be a man without dreams to what is quite possibly one of the most spectacular rants ever caught on film (“[the jungle is] a land that God, if he exists has has created in anger”). 

Lost in La Mancha

All dinged up and nowhere to go.

FILM: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote 

STATUS: I’ll believe it when I see it

Much like Cervantes’ hero, reality killed Terry Gilliam’s dream of adapting Don Quixote: plagued as it was by flash floods (“Which is it, King Lear or Wizard of Oz?”); an unforgiving production schedule; an untenably tight budget; and finally, by lead actor Jean Rochefort’s herniated disk. Gilliam’s vision would have seen a present-day marketing executive (to be played by Johnny Depp) transported back in time, only to be mistaken for Quixote’s peasant side kick Sancho Panza. It is remarkable that a film with such a talented director, capable cast and crew, and strong aesthetic vision could be so marked by misfortune as to be shut down. Gilliam’s affinity and enthusiasm for the project are almost painful to watch especially when every now and then glimpses of his realized vision peak through. Speaking of which, according to IMDB, the project has been (maybe) revived and is (MAYBE) slated for pre-production in 2018. Something something Sisyphus something something. 

“Perhaps we should be thankful that cinema can be a playpen in which godlike dreams of creation and destruction can be reduced to manageable size,” writes The Guardian’s Phil Hoad. I think there’s some truth to this. Despite a sinister mouth-feel, the autocracy of a filmmaker pales when compared to the real thing. When productions are thrown into chaos and directors most flagrantly resemble despots, there is a set scope to their tyranny. A contained and observable pressure cooker of ambition, willfulness, and overextended reach. By attending to it, perhaps we can learn something of the despots who operate outside of Hollywood.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).