The creative process in film is a complicated one. A movie set is essentially a battleground; a clashing of egos which hopefully would result in something great. The cast and crew helps the director carry out his or her vision, and the collaboration is what makes it work.
However, this isn’t the case all the time. Especially in big-budget productions, the director isn’t the only one calling the shots. Financiers, big stars or producers have the final say on major decisions. Here is a list of directors who were fired and replaced because of a multitude of disagreements.
1. Marshall Neilan, James Whale (Hell’s Angels)
Replaced by: Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes is one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century American history. Before he became the influential aviator and famed industrialist, he started out in 1920s Hollywood as a film producer. Hell’s Angels was going to be his 5th feature, and was planned to be a silent film directed by Marshall Neilan.
Principal photography began on October 31st, 1927, but Neilan resigned less then a month in because of the overbearing lack of freedom Hughes’ gave him. Luther Reed and Edmund Goulding were chosen at some points, but when The Jazz Singer brought sound into the motion picture business, Hughes wanted to incorporate that into his own film.
To direct his talkie, Hughes hired theatre director James Whale to film the talking scenes and decided to take on the aerial dogfights himself. Hell’s Angels was going to be Whale’s film debut (who would go on to become an influential horror director with works like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House & The Invisible Man), but Howard Hughes became more and more ambitious. He took control, and it was clear that the film was his and his alone. Hell’s Angels was finally released on November 15th, 1930, three years after its production began.
2. Richard Thorpe (The Wizard of Oz)
Replaced by: Victor Fleming, King Vidor (uncredited)
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most popular films ever with children of all ages still watching it today, but few people know of its troubled production. After a laborious adaptation process of over a dozen different writers (most of whom were uncredited), Richard Thorpe, a highly experienced director who made a string of studio films in the 20s and 30s, was hired.
Principal photography began on October 13th, 1938. According to the official 50th anniversary book about the film, Thorpe was chosen due to his “reputation for bringing in pictures on budget and on schedule.” Thorpe shot footage for nine days. After Buddy Edsen, the original Tin Man actor, was hospitalised due to a paint allergy, producer Mervyn LeRoy viewed the footage and felt Thorpe was unnecessarily rushing the shoot. LeRoy fired him and brought in George Cukor in the interim period to act as an advisor of sorts.
On November 3rd, 1938, Victor Fleming walked on set as the new official director. He ended shooting 80% of the footage used in the final cut before leaving to replace Cukor again for Gone with the Wind. King Vidor was then assigned to finish the filming. Fleming was the only credited director.
3. George Cukor (Gone with the Wind)
Replaced by: Victor Fleming, Sam Wood (uncredited)
David O. Selznick was one of the most renowned producers in Old Hollywood, and his crowning achievement is Gone with the Wind. Principal photography commenced on January 26th, 1939 with lone time Selznick working partner George Cukor, who had also spent two years in pre-production for the film. He was fired in less than three weeks, due to reported disagreements with Selznick.
Victor Fleming, who was shooting The Wizard of Oz at the time, was hastily made to fix Gone with the Wind. Fleming later left for a couple of weeks as well, because of exhaustion from taking control of two major productions in a row without really having the luxury of taking time and care. MGM regular Sam Wood was brought in during the weeks he was away, but like The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming was the only director who received official credit.
4. Anthony Mann (Spartacus)
Replaced by: Stanley Kubrick
Kirk Douglas failed to gain the main role in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which sent him into a fit to prove that he too can make an epic. Douglas optioned the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, and managed to convince Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov to co-star with him. Once that was done, Universal Pictures gave him the green-light.
Dalton Trumbo adapted the novel to screen, and with Douglas’ insistence that he be the sole credited writer, and under his real name, broke the Hollywood Blacklist. David Lean turned down the offer to direct, so Anthony Mann was chosen instead. Mann was an up-and-coming director who had had experience with a lot of low budget film noirs (Raw Deal) and westerns (Winchester 73’, The Naked Spur). Mann didn’t last long. He was fired within the first week of shooting.
Douglas then turned to a young Stanley Kubrick, whom he had worked with on Paths of Glory a couple years previous. Douglas thought Kubrick would be easier to control, but that proved to be wrong. Kubrick wanted full creative control over the film, something Universal and Douglas wouldn’t give him. Disagreements plagued the production every day. Kubrick’s tendency to be precise about every aspect of the mise en scene, including the number of lights used in a scene or the way every extra was positioned frustrated the crew.
Cinematographer Russell Metty, who had lensed films for both Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, complained about Kubrick’s directing style. He also clashed with Douglas and Trumbo, in terms of how the character of Spartacus should be portrayed; Kubrick thought that a compelling main character should be fundamentally flawed. Stanley Kubrick later disowned the film, but Spartacus turned out to be a crowd pleaser and multi-award winning classic.
5. Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales)
Replaced by: Clint Eastwood
Philip Kaufman was considered a maverick of cinema, one of the first Hollywood auteurs. This was probably why he was fired off the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales. It was 1976, and because of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy, Clint Eastwood was still at the top of Hollywood’s hierarchy.
The tension between Eastwood and Kaufman was high, to the point of Eastwood undermining every decision Kaufman made and restaging and shooting scenes behind his back. Eventually, Eastwood just straight out sacked Kaufman. The whole ordeal caused a controversy, and the Directors Guild of America later passed a rule which prohibits an actor to fire a director and assume the role.
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