23 November 2023

From David Fincher to Stanley Kubrick, these are the directors notorious for their on-set antics

The director of The Killer is notorious for wanting to film a lot of takes. But what do some of the other biggest directors get up to on-set?

This week “film twitter” was ablaze with discussions around director David Fincher and his penchant for shooting many, many takes. After a video of actor Jake Gyllenhaal being subjected to a whopping 46 takes for a simple shot in Zodiac made the rounds, discourse once again turned to the director’s rigorous shooting style. It’s long been said that Fincher’s directorial stylings have been blown out of proportion, becoming something of a filmic urban myth. And for that reason, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to get into the nitty gritty of his apparent on-set antics, as well as those of some of our other favourite auteurs…

David Fincher’s unflinching love of retakes

Fincher loves a take. On the set of Gone Girl, it was rumoured that the number of takes was averaging at about 50. For Zodiac, that number was 70. It was even rumoured that Rooney Mara had to redo a scene 99 times for The Social Network. For Fincher, not only are the rumours around his love of re-takes over-egged, but there’s a reason for them. Speaking to the New York Times back in 2007, Fincher explained that he hates “earnestness in performance […] usually by take 17 the earnestness is gone.” To be fair to Fincher, his demanding technique works: his films are unrivalled in their slick quality. It does, however, lead to tensions with actors. Speaking of his experience filming Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal said that Fincher “paints with people” and that it can be “tough to be a colour.”

Stanley Kubrick’s all-round perfectionism

It wouldn’t be unfounded to suggest that being on-set with iconic director Stanley Kubrick wasn’t exactly a breeze. While Shelley Duvall’s traumatic experience shooting The Shining has long been the subject of conversation within film circles, in reality it seems that Kubrick’s perfectionism was whole lot more pervasive. As well as often asking for many takes from his actors, Kubrick had a tendency to get bogged down in the minutiae: it was rumoured that when Full Metal Jacket was translated to Spanish for international release, Kubrick spent hours figuring out the right right word for “c*nt.” Add in the fact that in his later life Kubrick developed a fear of flying, resulting in the majority of the New York-set Eyes Wide Shut having to be filmed in London, and you’ve got what sounds like a pretty stressful on-set experience… Great films, though!

Terrence Malick’s lengthy editing process

For the director of Badlands and The Tree of Life, it’s all about editing. Often presenting his actors with little to nothing in the script department, Malick encourages improvisation instead. For Knight of Cups, lead Christian Bale even resorted to sneaking a look at other actors’ notes to try and ascertain what to expect from each scene. Where Malick’s films are really made is in the editing room, where the director will pour over the hours of footage for up to a year in order to create a loose story. Speaking to Cinemontage, Malick’s collaborator, editor Mark Yoshikawa, said that for the director “the greatest sin was to perfect something to the point that it lost all spontaneity and life.’

Judd Apatow’s love of improv

Judd Apatow’s hilarious films – from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up – aren’t the result of a meticulously crafted script. While unlike Terrence Malick there is still a script – a “brilliantly written” one according to actor Tim Bagley – Apatow will first shoot a draft of the scene he’s written before going to town on improvisation. “He pitches a lot of lines, often while the camera is still rolling” and “gives the actors several takes to improvise and play, allowing something inspired to happen in the moment” said Bagley. The result? Moments like this.

Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth”

When it comes to documentary film, it’s most often the case that the director is aiming to emulate the “truth”. But Werner Herzog, the German director behind documentaries like Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is more interested in what he calls “ecstatic truth”: moments of reality that becoming almost surreal. On-set, this manifests as Herzog coaching his subjects and staging footage in order to create the narrative that the director sees fit. One such instance of this can be seen in his 1993 documentary Bells From the Deep: the sequence of pilgrims sliding over a frozen lake were revealed by Herzog to just be drunken men the director had found nearby.

Alfred Hitchcock’s somewhat abusive tendencies

When it comes to the hijinks of directors on-set, Alfred Hitchcock’s have got to be the most talked about of the bunch. In pursuit of getting the most evocative and “real” performances from his actors, Hitchcock often took to surprising them in an increasingly boundary-crossing ways. On the set of The Birds, a real bird was attached to actor Tippi Hendren’s shoulder, and nearly pecked her eye. And according to Janet Leigh, Hitchcock personally stabbed at her with a prop-knife for the filming of Psycho‘s iconic shower scene.

  • Writer Amber Rawlings

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