If Hollywood taught us anything about directing, the job consists of sitting in a folding chair with your name at the back and, occasionally, yelling through a megaphone.
Maybe that works most of the time, but they didn't tell us about all the sneaky and/or bizarre things directors sometimes do to get the performances they want out of actors. Things like ...
One day on the set of Superman, Margot Kidder's makeup guy went to director Richard Donner to tell him that Kidder had scratched her eyes with her contacts. Wearing those contacts would obviously irritate her eyes further, so Donner shrugged and told her to act without contacts that day. As you might expect, she immediately became clumsy as hell (for example, she walked straight into a desk). For Donner, this was perfect.
Without her contacts, Kidder was "the girl I wanted her to be," Donner says. He claims the moment she tripped when she came to the casting office was when he fell in love with her for Lois. That delightful level of everyday incompetence was the quality Donner wanted to get from her, and robbing Kidder of her eyesight was the way to do it.
So after that day, he put into place a law (that's what he called it): Kidder wasn't allowed to wear contacts while acting. And he enforced it with an iron fist: every morning, he had people check to make sure she wasn't wearing contacts. Presumably, she wasn't a fan of that arrangement, but that didn't stop Donner. For him, walking around without contacts "just made her wonderful," and that was that.
So, when rewatching Superman, remember that the way Kidder acts is mainly because all she could see was an impenetrable haze -- which makes her performance all the more impressive. Those longing glances she throws Christopher Reeve? She was flirting with a big blue and red blur. And that moment when Lois effortlessly opens the bottle Clark was struggling with?
An absolute triumph, considering she was probably almost unable to even see the bottle.
In Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation script, the movie opens with a shot of Charlotte's butt in sheer pink underwear. This was not negotiable. Coppola had such a clear idea of what she wanted, she knew the exact brand of underwear she wanted to use. When the film was in production, the costume designer even called the brand, Araks, and asked them for help, since that underwear played such a vital part in Coppola's vision. Scarlett Johansson, though, absolutely did not want to wear sheer underwear. This was apparently equally non-negotiable. So what happens when the immovable scene meets the unfilmable butt?
Now, Johansson was totally fine with being in her underwear on set. She felt like she'd been in underwear for the whole movie, and became totally comfortable walking around like that in front of a ton of Japanese guys ("A skill I probably won't utilize again, admittedly," she says.) But she drew the line at sheer underwear, and Coppola had to sell her on it. So she decided to just show Johansson how it'd actually look, and she put on the underwear herself. That was enough for Johansson, and she agreed to wear it.
She was still a bit wary, though. She threatened the director of photography (jokingly? Half-jokingly? We're not sure) stating that he'll "never work in this town again" if he made her butt look bad. He promised it'd look good, and she trusted him and went along with it. Luckily for everyone, he did not disappoint, and Johansson was indeed happy with how her butt looked on camera.
And when we say "happily for everyone," that includes Araks. They're advertising the underwear on their website as the panty worn by Scarlett Johansson in the opening title shot of Lost in Translation. Unfortunately, the swimming shorts Bill Murray wore in the pool scenes don't seem to be for sale anywhere.
The Aladdin script had a bunch of lines for the Narrator in the opening, but it all just sounded wrong when Robin Williams performed it. So Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had the idea to fill up a box with random items, put a cloth over it, and give it to Williams in the recording studio. Then they'd pull off the cloth and just record him riffing on whatever he found there. The result? When the Narrator is hawking his merchandise, that's Robin Williams talking about what he saw in a box filled with (probably) whatever studio assistants could easily find.
What object inspired the julienne fries line may forever be a mystery.
For example, he pulled out a bra and fired off a bunch of riffs like: "Look at this, it's a double slingshot," "Look at this, it's a double yarmulke," "Mmm, I should've called her." As you might expect, those particular lines ended up on the cutting room floor -- Disney wasn't going to be that edgy with Aladdin. Animation supervisor Eric Goldberg, who worked with Williams in the recording studio, wondered at some points if they were getting away with this (but he surely knew in his heart of hearts exactly what the answer was). Still, a bunch of the perfect riffs ended up in the movie.
Even when he wasn't riffing on whatever they put in front of him, he was always ad-libbing. Sometimes, he'd do the line just as it was in the script, but as a ton real people or pop culture characters -- Groucho Marx or Peter Lorre, for example. Other times, he'd just do a ton of riffs on different subjects -- for instance, for the part where Genie becomes a bee. In the movie, he tells Aladdin, "Stop her, stop her! Want me to sting her?" and that line was just a single ad-lib in a sea of others, spoken only once.
Luckily, as far as we know, they did not release actual bees for him to riff on.
Filming the Aliens scene where she falls from Sigourney Weaver's grasp, Carrie Henn was having a lot of fun. A lot. You see, the chute she had to slide down was three stories high, had a bend, and also had a big net at the bottom to catch her -- in other words, it was the perfect slide for kids. She was having so much fun with it, she'd mess up her takes on purpose just to go down again and again.
Eventually, James Cameron figured out what she was doing and, to keep the production going, offered to let her use the slide as much as she wanted if she got the take right. If she did that, Cameron told her, the slide would be all hers (he even put up a sign saying "Adults: one pound; children: free"). This clever trick worked, and Aliens kept shooting.
That's not the only time James Cameron did something unexpected to get the performance he wanted out of Henn. Remember the scene where Ripley finds Newt in the little hideout she put together? Newt was supposed to be feeling alone and terrified, so when they were shooting that, Cameron wouldn't let Henn's mom or brother on the set (usually, she could always see her mom). With pretty good results -- as an adult, Henn says it was amazing how well that worked at making her feel what Cameron wanted her to feel. Say what you want about James Cameron, but he knows how to turn a child's fright into iconic cinema.
And generally, the crew would go out of their way to make sure 10-year-old Henn was having a great time. For example, they were concerned that the water she drops into (in the scene after she falls from Ripley's grasp) would be too cold, so they filled up the pool 24 hours before shooting started and left somebody on that set all 24 hours to make sure the water stayed warm. Unfortunately, this polite idea kind of backfired -- the water ended up being so hot, Henn could only stay in it for a short time, so she'd go out and then back in, over and over.
Imagine what the actor in the alien suit had to go through.
One very late night on The Exorcist shoot, William Friedkin couldn't get a priest to deliver the right emotion. He was supposed to act shocked and tearful as he gave the last rites to his friend who'd just tumbled down a flight of stairs, but, at 4 AM, after about 25 to 30 takes, nothing was working. The priest just couldn't pull it off convincingly (he was a priest, not an actor, which may have been a factor.), so Friedkin had to figure something out.
He took the priest by the shoulders and asked him if he loved and trusted him. The priest said, "You know I do." So Friedkin hit the priest across the face with all his strength like he owed him money and told the cameras to roll. He says that he had read that great directors like John Ford or George Stevens slapped their actors, and he decided to do just that. Unsurprisingly, tears streamed down the priest's face, giving Friedkin the shot he wanted.
Afterward, according to Friedkin, the priest embraced and thanked him. If you think that sounds suspicious, your instincts are probably not too far off. When one interviewer told Friedkin that he can't pull that card too often, Friedkin replied, with a straight face, that he hasn't hit actors, "more than 570 times." On The Exorcist alone, he treated his actors like crap, treated his crew like crap, and permanently injured Ellen Burstyn's spine. So excuse us for taking the claim that that priest hugged and thanked him for the smack with a grain of salt. At least he didn't claim the priest asked, "Thank you, sir; may I have another?"