Legendary Directors and the ‘Inspired Lunatic Tradition’ in Filmmaking

Christopher Karr


A creative act by any artist is an attempt to play God. After all, the word “create” means to “form out of nothing” and “bring into existence.” Filmmaking allows the artist to play God on a grand scale. The writer wrestles his ideas into black marks on a page and the visual artist works with hard materials like paint and tools, but the filmmaker uses flesh and blood human beings to perform scenes in time and space.


The movie director plays the creator of a miniature world, the organizer of a controlled sphere. As Ingmar Bergman once said, “To shoot a film is to organize an entire universe.” It’s a demanding task, playing master of a mini-universe. And major problems occur whenever humans decide to play God. For instance, what happens to the actors and technicians who devote themselves to a God who’s a tad insane?


Consider Werner Herzog, probably the most certifiable director still working in the film industry. This is by no means the most difficult title to earn in a place like Hollywood, but Herzog’s antics are uniquely unparalleled. What other director has agreed to leap into a cactus patch in order to appease a cast of little people threatening to walk off the set? (“Getting out was a lot more difficult than getting in,” he recalled in his book, Herzog on Herzog.)


When filmmaker Errol Morris approached the legendary director with his idea for a documentary about a pet cemetery, Herzog discouraged Morris by claiming such a movie would never be produced. In fact, Herzog added, he would eat his own shoe if the documentary was made. Morris’ film, “Gates of Heaven,” finally debuted in 1978. At the premiere, the humbled director participated in a short film titled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.” He boiled a leather boot for five hours with garlic, herbs, and broth before feasting.


During the making of 1982’s “Fitzcarraldo,”  Herzog concluded, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum.” Naturally this sudden flash of clarity was ignored — he’s made 26 films since then, the majority of which  are documentaries, like 2005’s “Grizzly Man,” a disturbing account of the life and death of a bear enthusiast who was ultimately killed by his favorite critters.



Herzog’s craziness often produces unbelievable-but-true anecdotes. When he learned a close friend was dying in 1974, he was determined to see her one last time. The problem was that she lived in Paris and Herzog lived 500 miles away, in Munich. His solution? He would simply walk. He found it unthinkable that she would die without seeing him once more, and she was reportedly so elated when he arrived that she recovered and lived eight more years.


In the book Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers, Robert Schnakenberg points out that stories like this say “a lot about the character of a man whose grandiose antics blur the line between visionary craftsman and monomaniacal whackjob.” In an interview with Chris Rodley, David Lynch praised Herzog as ”one of the all-time greats.” Rodley reminds Lynch that “He can be pretty crazy. He’s threatened to shoot people on set!”


The occurrence to which Rodley referred took place during the making of Herzog’s first masterpiece, 1972’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.” When actor Klaus Kinski tried to walk away from the location shoot in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, the director threatened to kill him.


“I told him it was impermissible for him to walk away,” Herzog told CNN’s Daniela Deane in 2009. “I explained to him calmly that he would not survive if he tried. I had a rifle...and I told him I would shoot.”


In “Kinski Uncut,” the actor reveals that he still harbors bitter feelings toward his director: “Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep....A poisonous spider should sting him and paralyze his lungs! The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode!” In the end, no one died during the making of “Aguirre.” An extra lost his finger after Kinski blindly fired three shots into a hut, but there were no fatalities. Despite all the shenanigans that accompany a Werner Herzog shoot, there have yet to be any deaths. 



Sadly, the same cannot be said for Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian director of antiquated American classics like “Mildred Pierce,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Casablanca.” He directed 173 films in 50 years and was reportedly one of the cruelest directors in the history of cinema. In Aljean Harmetz’s book The Making of Casablanca, Fay Wray said “I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera.” As Graham Lord wrote in actor David Niven’s biography Niv, Curtiz “was deeply disliked by his actors and crews, and renowned for his belligerence as well as his difficulties with the English language.”


At least 25 horses were killed during filming for 1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” (Some sources claim 200 died.) In order to stage the titular battle scene, Curtiz had trip wires strewn across an open field. When the director shouted “Bring on the empty horses!” (meaning the horses without riders), the handlers sent the massive herd galloping full-speed-ahead to their death.


When Curtiz directed “Noah’s Ark” eight years earlier, he decided the most realistic way to stage a massive flood was to actually flood the set and not tell the extras. Cinematographer Hal Mohr recalled the horrifying moment he realized the director’s intentions: “We had thousands of extra people on the sets, and they would do anything you’d tell them, just to get the day’s work,” he told Leonard Maltin in The Art of the Cinematographer.


When Mohr explained how the effect could easily be produced “in a trick way” with miniatures, Curtiz wouldn’t hear of it. “‘We’re going to actually have these columns collapse,’ and...tons of water...would come whooshing down onto the set. I said, ‘Jesus, what are you going to do about the extra people?’ He said, ‘Oh, they’re going to have to take their chances.’” When the filmmaker opened the floodgates of his fake heaven, the extras were authentically surprised: three drowned, multiple limbs were broken, one was injured so badly his leg had to be amputated, and the star caught a severe case of pneumonia. As Curtiz once yelled at an assistant: “The next time I want an idiot to do this, I’ll do it myself!”

There is another, less sadistic variety of insanity typical among exceptional filmmakers. Critic Pauline Kael understood the psychological motivations behind the bursts of madness that have visited our most celebrated directors: “At a certain point in their careers — generally right after an enormous popular success — most great movie directors go mad on the potentialities of movies,” she wrote in the New Yorker in 1977. “They make a huge, visionary epic in which they attempt to alter the perceptions of people around the world....they shoot this epic in what they believe is a state of super-enlightenment. They believe...they’re literally going to bring mankind the word.”


 She cites Francis Ford Coppola’s then unfinished “Apocalypse Now” as a prime example. In Coppola: A Biography, Peter Cowie wrote the director “envisioned the film as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world.” As Coppola famously declared at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”


When Coppola approached Al Pacino for the role of Captain Willard, the actor declined. “I know what this is going to be like,” Pacino said, according to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “You’re gonna be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I’m gonna be down there in a swamp for five months.” The numerous catastrophes that plagued the production of the director’s absurdly ambitious “Apocalypse Now” have since become legendary.


Production began six weeks behind schedule (and $2 million over budget) when Typhoon Olga demolished the sets that had taken months to build. Coppola was warned beforehand by a crew member who begged the director not to begin filming at the beginning of rainy season. (“What’re you, a f****** weatherman?” Coppola retorted.)


When shooting finally began, Harvey Keitel was replaced with Martin Sheen after two weeks; helicopters borrowed from the Philippine government would suddenly disappear in the middle of filming in order to suppress guerrilla rebels in the jungle; 1,200 gallons of gasoline were used to torch acres of palm trees for a single shot (“They’d never let you [do this] in the U.S.,” he told The Guardian’s Anne Billson in 2010. “The environmentalists would kill you.”); and Brando, having received a $1 million paycheck in advance, reportedly showed up overweight and completely unfamiliar with the script. In his autobiography, however, Brando claims “Coppola was alternately depressed, nervous and frantic....what I’d really wanted [was] to make my part smaller so that I wouldn’t have to work as hard.”


By December, Coppola realized, as he poured over colossal amounts of footage, that he didn’t have an ending so production resumed again in the Philippines. In March, Sheen had a heart attack and left production for nearly two months. Coppola’s biggest concern was making sure this news didn’t get back to the studio and distributors. In the official shoot schedule, Sheen’s collapse is recorded as being the result of “heat exhaustion.”



Throughout the shoot, Coppola threatened suicide several times and lost 100 pounds. In the notorious 1991 making-of documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” Coppola’s wife said “It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the center of himself and confront his...fear of going insane. You have to...go insane a little, to come out the other side.” Pacino’s prediction about a five-month shoot turned out to be optimistic. Production dragged on for a crippling 16 months. And the war wasn’t over when shooting wrapped. In his book In the Blink of an Eye, editor Walter Murch said it took two years to compile a film from all the footage. That’s an average of one-and-a-half cuts per day.


After the decade-long battle to bring “Apocalypse Now” to the screen, Coppola decided to make a small musical on a soundstage for about $2 million. But by the time 1982’s “One From the Heart” was finished, the budget had skyrocketed to $25 million. Every film Coppola made in the 1980s (and 1990s) represents an attempt to pay off debts related to that financial disaster.


Facing bankruptcy, Coppola demanded $2.5 million from producer Robert Evans to direct “The Cotton Club.” When the director rewrote the script, Evans and the film’s star, Richard Gere, hated it. But “the more everybody hated it, the more Francis loved it,” Evans said, according to James Robert Parish’s book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops.


The budget eventually ballooned to $47 million while Coppola treated the actors like his personal puppet collection, setting some aside for months without using them. “I gained  20 pounds waiting around for something to happen,” Bob Hoskins said. “I was slated for three weeks’ work,” Nicolas Cage said. “I was there for six months, in costume, in makeup, on the set in case Francis got an idea that would involve my character.” Cage ultimately expressed his anger by demolishing his trailer and a vendor’s cart needed for a scene. The final product is a discombobulated mess scattered with a handful of colorful performances.


To paraphrase Seneca, every genius is cursed with  a small touch of madness. That minute pinch of madness expresses itself differently in the heart of every filmmaker. Directors like Herzog, Curtiz, and Coppola make elaborate sacrifices in order to accomplish their extraordinary visions. Part of their burning motivation comes from the desire — the need — to take risks on top of risks. Some bets pay off, and others don’t.


“No one has ever brought off one of these visionary epics,” Kael wrote in her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-hour “1900.” Yet “legendary follies that break the artists’ backs are...among the great works of film history, transforming the medium...and carrying on an inspired, lunatic tradition that is...integral to the nature of movies.” In a strange way, one is thankful for their inspired madness. 



Author Bio:

Christopher Karr, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is originally from Barbourville, Kentucky. After graduating from Northern Kentucky University with a BFA in Theatre, he co-founded the experimental theatre group Artemis Exchange. Since moving to New York City in 2008, Karr has written a novel, poetry, essays, a slim adaptation of the Bible, and an unfilmable screenplay based on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. His award-winning plays have been performed in Cincinnati and Chicago.


Photos: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (New World archives); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Warner Bros.); Apocalypse Now (United Artists/Paramount); Francis Ford Coppola (Wikipedia).

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