Directors are an interesting bunch. The people who sit behind cameras and shout “action!” are full of unusual stories and odd little eccentricities. Some have peculiar pastimes, while others harbor strange secrets. Some are scoundrels, while others are modern-day superheroes. Most of the directors on this list are some of the most respected filmmakers of all time, but they’re also unique individuals who lead some incredibly weird lives.
10Francis Ford Coppola’s Itch-Scratching Shirt
Francis Ford Coppola has done it all. Not only did he direct some the greatest films of all time, the man also started his own winery, founded a short story magazine, started his own brand of spaghetti sauce, and flooded the world with a whole bunch of little Coppolas who like to make their own movies.
However, Coppola isn’t just a successful producer, director, and cafe owner. He’s also a genuine inventor who’s solved a question that’s bedeviled man since the dawn of time: how to scratch an itch on the middle of your back. His solution? A state-of-the-art, specially designed, one-of-a-kind T-shirt, complete with a really cool reptile.
Here’s how it works. On the back of the shirt is a turtle, and the turtle shell is divided up into rows and columns. Picture a Battleship board or a bingo matrix, if you will. The first row consists of seven letters that spell out the word “TROPICS,” and underneath each individual letter is a column of numbers. So let’s say you’re feeling an oncoming itch. It’s slightly to the left of center, so you could tell a friend or loved one, “R-5,” and bang, they know right where to scratch.
True, this probably involves memorizing where all those numbers are, and that’s kind of irritating. But it’s a lot better than spending several agonizing seconds shouting to your friend, “Left, further left, down, no, further up!”
9George Lucas Wanted To Be A Race Car Driver
A long time ago in a town far, far away (well, depending on where you live), there was a young boy named George Lucas. George enjoyed greasing his hair back, wearing dirty Levis, and nailing taps to the heels of his pointy black shoes. Most of all, George loved his car.
When George was 15, his father gave him a Fiat Bianchina with a two-cylinder engine. At first, George wasn’t crazy about his “dumb little car” with a “sewing machine motor,” but with a little bit of elbow grease, George turned his “motor scooter” into the speediest sports car in Modesto. The teen spent his spare time working on the Fiat at the Foreign Car Service—when he wasn’t cruising around town, racing his friends and picking up girls, of course.
With his tricked-out Fiat, George drove in competitions across southern California, winning trophies and practicing for the day he could finally become a formula race car driver. The boy lived and breathed for racing. He loved working in pit crews and editing the newsletter for his Sports Competition Club. George had a few spills along the way. Once, he totally flipped his car while going 100 kilometers (70 mi) per hour, but the kid didn’t slow down. In fact, George was a serial speeder with an ever-growing stack of tickets.
Everything changed when George was 18. He was making an illegal left turn when a truck plowed into the side of his car. The Fiat slammed straight into a tree, and George would’ve died if his homemade racing seat belt hadn’t snapped. Thankfully, George had also taken the roof off his car so the kid went sailing. In other words, if he’d been wearing his seat belt, George would’ve become a Force ghost.
After two weeks in the hospital and several months of physical therapy, George gave up on his dream of becoming a race car driver. Instead, he went to Modesto Junior College where he became interested in film, and, well, the rest is history.
8John Huston Killed A Woman
John Huston was kind of like the Ernest Hemingway of directors. As a kid, he toured vaudeville with his dad before dropping out of high school to become a boxer. Later, he learned to paint, acted in plays, and worked as a reporter. Eventually, he moved to Mexico where he became an honorary lieutenant in the Mexican cavalry so he could have free horse riding lessons. He never learned to speak Spanish, with the exception of “Dos Equis.”
After shaking up the cinematic world with The Maltese Falcon, Huston joined the army during World War II, became a major, and directed a string of controversial documentaries that were censored by the government. After the war, he directed critically acclaimed movies like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King, all while snorkeling in Mexico, riding horses in Ireland, and hunting iguanas with Papa Hemingway himself. The man had quite a life.
But Huston’s life wasn’t all adventure stories. The man married five times, had a tumultuous relationship with his kids, and drank enough alcohol to pickle a man’s liver twice over. Also, he accidentally killed a woman. The date was September 25, 1933, and Huston was driving down Sunset Boulevard. The light was green, he wasn’t speeding or drunk, and a woman stepped out from between two parked cars.
Her name was Tosca Roulien, and she went flying over Huston’s windshield. When authorities arrived on the scene, they found Roulien lying cold on the street, her head crushed. Huston was arrested, but a grand jury decided the young writer wasn’t to blame. However, the court of public opinion felt quite differently. Newspapers across the country ripped Huston to pieces, and to escape the negative publicity, he moved to Europe for several years before moving back to California and starting his successful career as a director.
7Wes Anderson, Criminal Mastermind
One of the most stylistic directors working today, Wes Anderson is in love with lateral tracking shots, pastel colors, and Bill Murray. He also has an odd affinity for thieves. For example, The Grand Budapest Hotel hinges on the theft of a priceless painting. Fantastic Mr. Fox follows the exploits of a professional bandit. Even Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, centers on three crooks who plan the ultimate heist.
Maybe it’s because Anderson once staged a break-in himself.
In 1989, Anderson befriended Owen Wilson at the University of Texas, and the two roomed together in an Austin apartment complex. They were lowly college graduates and couldn’t exactly afford the swankiest digs in town. Their apartment had its fair share of problems, and the duo was particularly ticked off about the window cranks.
The cranks were stuck, which meant their windows were halfway open. In the winter, things got pretty icy, and in the summer, their room turned into an oven. Even worse, a thief could just crawl inside anytime and make off with their goods. Frustrated, Anderson and Wilson asked their landlord to fix the cranks, but the old man never got around to it. In protest, Anderson and Wilson refused to pay their rent. In turn, the landlord refused to fix the cranks until the boys paid their bills.
Anderson and Wilson devised a plan to break into their own apartment, mess up the room, take some stuff, and call the cops. Hopefully, the apparent burglary would pressure the landlord into finally fixing the windows. But the old man was no dummy. He knew it was an inside job, and instead of falling for Anderson’s scheme, he tried to take their belongings hostage. The landlord and Anderson got into a violent tug-of-war over an 8 mm camera.
Eventually, Anderson and Wilson had enough and skipped out in the middle of the night. Incensed, the landlord hired a private detective to track the kids down, and soon the duo returned to the apartment, apologizing profusely. The story has a happy ending. Wanting to make amends, Anderson offered to film a documentary about the landlord and play it on public access TV.
The old man agreed, and Anderson filmed the landlord telling stories about his life, most notably about how his beloved pet python had died in his arms. By the end of the day, the man was in tears. However, he was also pleased with the film and paid young Anderson $600 for recording his tragic tale.
6The M. Night Shyamalan Hoax
There’s no sadder cinematic tragedy than the career of M. Night Shyamalan. Once a promising director with three hit films, Shyamalan lost his mojo and started directing garbage like Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. Where did it all go wrong? We can all probably agree M. Night mania started to die in 2004 with the release of The Village . . . and one incredibly bizarre documentary.
Produced by the Sci-Fi Channel, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan was allegedly a puff piece gone wrong. The documentary was hosted by filmmaker Nathaniel Kahan, and at first, Shyamalan was perfectly fine with the film. However, as Kahn dug deeper into the director’s back story, Shyamalan grew angry and defensive. Soon, the director was telling reporters he opposed the documentary. He said Kahn and the Sci-Fi Channel were invading his privacy and threatening to reveal a secret he’d tried to keep hidden.
And what was this buried secret? According to the three-hour-long documentary, when Shyamalan was 11, he nearly drowned and was technically dead for over 30 minutes. When the boy was resuscitated, he’d developed a “sixth sense” and could speak with the dead, just like Haley Joel Osment. The documentary also featured a strange scene when Shyamalan’s presence causes the microphones and camera to go haywire, like the man was surrounded by some supernatural aura.
The whole thing was a hoax, and Shyamalan was involved from the very beginning. However, Sci-Fi never sold the film as a mockumentary. In fact, the filmmakers convinced the Associated Press they were working on a real documentary that contained real secrets. Eventually, Sci-Fi was forced to confess the hoax was a “guerrilla marketing campaign” gone too far and were quick to insist that M. Night was equally to blame.
5Frank Capra Had A Thing For Mussolini
Before he retired from moviemaking, Frank Capra directed some of the greatest feel-good films of all time. Best remembered for his Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra also created gems like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night. The man won three Oscars and was the highest-paid director in the 1930s. He knew how to make movies.
But when it came to politics, things get a bit trickier. In the words of film historian Mark Harris, Capra “was incredibly reactive to whatever the last thing was that had been convincingly yelled at him. Or whatever the last thing was that he had been accused of.” In other words, Capra was one confused fellow.
For example, Capra hated unions but was the president of the Screen Directors Guild. His films often portrayed bankers and big businessmen as villains, but he was a die-hard Republican who loathed Franklin D. Roosevelt. The director often ranted about how he hated the rich but spent his afternoons playing golf with Gerald Ford.
Things got especially messy when it came to Fascism. Capra was a big fan of Benito Mussolini. He believed the dictator represented the common man—like many of his own cinematic heroes—and would save Italy from communism. Capra was so enamored with Mussolini that he allegedly hung an oil painting of the dictator in his bedroom.
The bromance went both ways. Mussolini was proud of his fellow Italian for making it big in Hollywood and even offered to fund Capra’s next film for $1 million . . . providing he direct a biopic on the dictator himself. That didn’t pan out, and when Il Duce joined forces with Der Fuhrer, suddenly Capra’s attitude shifted. When he released his famous Why We Fight training films, he painted his former idol as an idiotic stooge squarely under Hitler’s thumb.
4Orson Welles Hated His Nose
In addition to directing Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest film of all time, Welles directed masterpiece like The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai.
Welles was also quite the actor, and more often than not, he played central characters in his own movies. Sure, you could say the man had an enlarged ego, but like a lot of big stars, Welles was incredibly insecure when it came to his physical appearance. And no, we’re not talking about his ever-expanding stomach. We’re talking about his nose.
For some inexplicable reason, Orson Welles absolutely hated his nose. He once declared it hadn’t “grown one millimeter since infancy,” and he did everything possible to hide his tiny schnoz from audiences. With a few exceptions, every time Welles stepped in front of a camera, he was wearing a prosthetic nose. And as he got older, the noses got bigger and uglier. Just check out The Tartars or Touch of Evil.
According to British journalist David Cairns, Welles kept his noses in a special collection where each was labeled with a nickname like “Sandra” or “Sloane Junior.” The noses posed quite a few problems while filming. During Ferry to Hong Kong, the actor panicked when his false nose kit didn’t arrive on time, and 20 crew members were sent to every post office in Hong Kong to find his precious prosthetics.
It was hardly worth the effort. After the film was finished, the editors noticed Orson’s nose changed its size and shape throughout the entire movie.
3James Cameron, Superhero
Before Guillermo del Toro directed Pan’s Labyrinth or Pacific Rim, the Mexican director was working on Mimic, a monster flick about killer cockroaches. Thanks to overbearing producers, del Toro lost his creative control over the movie, which is probably why it’s his least favorite film.
That and because he was directing the movie right around the time his father was kidnapped by gangsters so yeah, lots of bad memories there.
Del Toro’s father was living in Mexico when a group of thugs took him hostage. The crooks demanded $1 million, but del Toro didn’t have nearly that much money. He’d invested most of his cash into Mimic, and there was no way he could pay the kidnappers.
James Cameron showed up to save the day.
Del Toro and Cameron are pretty close friends. Cameron helped Guillermo on films like Cronos and Blade II, while del Toro helped edit True Lies and Titanic. Cameron once gave del Toro a private lesson on 3-D in preparation for Pacific Rim and even let the Mexican director stay in his guest house for a while. So when Cameron heard his friend was in trouble, he gave del Toro a million bucks.
Armed with the cash, del Toro went to Mexico to deal with the kidnappers. With the help of several hostage negotiators, he and his brothers took turns communicating with the crooks. Del Toro compared the whole incident to the movie Fargo and spent a few hours each morning writing fantasy stories to cope with the stress.
After 72 days, the kidnappers finally released del Toro’s dad. The situation had a huge impact on the director. Del Toro moved his family out of Mexico, and he today lives in voluntary exile from his homeland. Del Toro thinks Mexico is just too dangerous, especially since most of the culprits are still loose. He says a little part of him died after the kidnapping. Thankfully, he had a friend like James Cameron, or things could’ve ended a lot differently.
2Richard Linklater Lives With A Murderer
Richard Linklater is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. Whether it’s weird animation, nonlinear narratives, or experiments that last for years, it’s hard to pin Linklater down as he’s always trying something new. Sometimes he’s incredibly commercial; other times, he’s an artist’s artist, but the man is always interesting.
He also has a convicted murderer living in his garage.
In 2011, Linklater directed Bernie, a dark comedy based on a real-life murder in the town of Carthage, Texas (which your humble author, a native Texan, thinks is the most accurate depiction of the Lone Star State ever put to film). The movie follows Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral director who knocks off his abusive partner (Shirley MacLaine) after she pushes him too far. The real Bernie was sentenced to life in prison, but things took a Thin Blue turn thanks to an Austin attorney named Jodi Cole.
After watching Linklater’s film, Cole did some digging and learned Bernie was sexually assaulted as a teenager but felt too ashamed to bring it up in court. According to one psychiatrist, the abuse was a mitigating factor because it had a major impact on Bernie’s psychological and emotional state. Armed with the new evidence, Cole teamed up with Linklater and district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (the man who originally put Bernie behind bars) to spring Tiede out of jail. After 17 years in prison, he was finally a free man—free with certain conditions. Bernie has to work for Jodi Cole, regularly visit a counselor . . . and live with Richard Linklater.
The killer is currently camped out in Linklater’s garage in Austin, where he’ll spend out the rest of his parole with the Golden Globe–winning director.
1Errol Morris’s Ed Gein Obsession
Ed Gein is one of the most famous murderers in American history. This Wisconsin killer butchered women, robbed graves, and turned his victims into furniture and freaky articles of clothing. Gein also inspired movies like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and caught the attention of director Errol Morris.
Before he directed films like Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, Morris was a philosophy student at the University of California, Berkeley. He was planning on writing a PhD on the insanity plea when he became obsessed with Ed Gein. Intrigued by a man he found “naive and appalling,” Morris dropped out of college to learn as much as he could about “The Plainfield Ghoul.”
Determined to discover what went on in Ed’s brain, Morris packed his bags and moved to the killer’s hometown of Plainview. In fact, he became friends with Gein’s next-door neighbors and even moved in with the couple. During his stay in Wisconsin, Morris visited a crime lab to get a firsthand look at Gein’s taxidermy work and eventually even interviewed the killer himself.
Now, this was all pretty normal compared to what happened next. Morris began to wonder if Gein had perhaps dug up his own mother and turned her into a chair or lampshade. Curious if she was really still in her coffin, he teamed up with a psychiatrist named Dr. George Arndt, and the two spent an afternoon exploring the local cemetery, literally putting their ears to the dirt, trying to find hollow spots in the ground. The duo never determined if Mrs. Gein was actually down there.
Then Morris made a big mistake. He mentioned his theory to friend and fellow director Werner Herzog. If you know anything about Herzog, then you’re probably aware that he’s the great madman of cinema. Intrigued, the German director proposed getting a shovel and digging up the woman’s grave to see if she was still there. The two directors even set a date, but Morris wised up at the last moment and decided not to go. That was probably a good move because Herzog was perfectly serious and totally ready to do some digging.