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10 Misdirections Directors Used to Manipulate Actors

by Alisdair Hodgson
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Screen actors can be a tough bunch to wrangle, and more than a few directors have reached the end of their tethers attempting—and often failing—to do so. Small surprise then that some directors go rogue and use unconventional methods to score a specific reaction, force an actor’s hand on the production, keep a secret under wraps, and get the shot they want. These 10 used some ingenious and underhand misdirections to get actors to do what they wanted.

Related: Top 10 Famous Directors Who Were Fired

10 Sidney Lumet: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (7/11) Movie CLIP – Try to Look Normal (2007) HD

Sidney Lumet was responsible for some of the most significant movies of the 20th century, including Twelve Angry Men (1957). While he only made two films in the 21st century, both were worthy of the director’s reputation. His final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, saw Lumet bring together two contrasting talents—Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke—to play brothers caught in a web of debt, crime, and embezzlement.

Neither Hoffman nor Hawke have ever needed prompting to deliver career-best performances, but that didn’t stop Lumet from playing his games behind the actors’ backs, pushing their efforts to the next level, and going out with a bang.

Lumet brought Hawke to set every morning to look over the dailies and told him how good Hoffman was doing and how he reminded him of Marlon Brando (who Lumet directed in 1960’s The Fugitive Kind). It wasn’t until after filming had wrapped that Hawke discovered the director had been doing the same to Hoffman, playing them against each other throughout the shoot to make them act like their lives depended on it.[1]

9 Irvin Kershner: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I Am Your Father Scene [4k UltraHD] – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Fight Scene (2/2)

Long before plot details for the next franchise films were more closely guarded than the crown jewels and Disney had actors signing NDAs, Hollywood had other ways of keeping its cards close to its chest. Such is the case for the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father in the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.

Director Irvin Kershner and producer, writer, and head honcho George Lucas opted not to tell British bodybuilder David Prowse, who was the physical side of Darth Vader, that this plot point was coming. Thus, when it came to filming, Prowse delivered alternative dialogue, and James Earl Jones later overdubbed the iconic “I am your father” line. The only cast member who actually knew what was coming was Mark Hamill, who had been told by Kershner in order to get the right reaction on set.

While Prowse wasn’t happy about the lack of trust, the gambit paid off, and one of the greatest twists of all time made it to the cinema without being leaked.[2]

8 Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr.Strangelove ..Has he got a chance? Hell yeaah !!!

Few directors are as known for clashing with their actors as Stanley Kubrick, but given the results, it’s difficult to argue with his methods. This is certainly the case for the apocalyptic political satire Dr. Strangelove, which saw Kubrick plow ahead with his vision and reap critical acclaim at the end of it all.

George C. Scott, who plays General Buck Turgidson in the film, took umbrage with what Kubrick wanted from his character. Kubrick found Scott in the theatre at the time, playing in The Merchant of Venice, and this was the kind of gravitas the actor hoped to bring to the role despite the director asking for an intentionally over-the-top performance.

James Earl Jones (co-starring as Lieutenant Lothar Zogg in his film debut) reported that they reached an impasse. So Kubrick conceded by asking Scott to do some “warm-up takes” that were slapstick and outwardly comedic, promising they would never be seen by anyone else. But the director intended to use them all along. He did so, and Scott swore never to work with him again.[3]

7 Debbie Isitt: Confetti (2006)

Confetti (2006) Official Trailer # 1 – Martin Freeman HD

In the film industry post-#MeToo, there is an array of new norms designed to make cast and crew comfortable with anything potentially sexual, or that might make anyone feel vulnerable, including a whole new professional class of Intimacy Coordinators. And while many in the industry think that much of this is a little overextended, some films from the past could really have done with better protections.

Enter Debbie Isitt’s British improv movie Confetti, in which an ensemble cast of comedians and comedy actors play three couples competing to win a bridal magazine competition for the most original wedding.

One couple, played by Robert Webb and Academy Award winner Olivia Colman, are nudists. While the actors were initially tentative about playing most of their scenes in the buff, Isitt got them to agree by saying they would be covered in-camera for the most part and pixelated when not. It wasn’t until the movie premiered that the pair realized they had been duped, and their fully naked bodies were on display for the world to see.[4]

6 Ridley Scott: Alien (1979)

Alien Chestburster – Art of The Scene

Shortly after the release of Star Wars, Ridley Scott revolutionized space cinema again, crafting an intense space horror that would be the cornerstone of a cinematic empire: Alien.

One of the most revered aspects of the film is its gritty realism, which stands in stark contrast to the glamorous, epic sci-fi movies of the time (Star Wars included). With a cast packing heavyweights like John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Harry Dean Stanton, it wasn’t a challenge for Scott to elicit some well-studied performances. But that didn’t stop him from pulling a few tricks to generate some “raw, animal fear” when it came to his most horrifying scenes.

The Chestburster sequence saw the cast primed with only the information that there would be some sort of creature emerging from Kane’s (Hurt) chest. They rigged him up away from the others, and when it came time to shoot, Scott and his crew blew up a fake cavity that was stuffed with the creature and organs from the butcher’s shop, pumping out gallons of stage blood. The cast was genuinely surprised and revolted, and Veronica Cartwright even passed out.[5]

5 Ridley Scott: Prometheus (2012)

The Hammerpede (Xeno-Cobra) – Alien Species Explained (Prometheus)

Three decades later, Ridley Scott was still playing the same old tricks. For his Alien prequel, Prometheus—which, like most films in the franchise, follows an ill-fated mission into the reaches of space—Scott did his best to keep things fresh. He wanted to give his cast and audience a few scares they weren’t expecting.

More akin to the original Facehugger than the Chestburster, Prometheus introduced us to the Hammerpede, a worm-like creature with a hideous, vaginal face, which seems hell-bent on maiming everyone it meets. Already scary stuff, but Scott made a scene in which the ship’s medic (played by Kate Dickie) and other crew members discover one of these creatures inside a body all the more terrifying.

Again, Scott wanted the most genuine reaction possible and instructed his set crew not to inform the actors of the scene’s mechanics, which had the Hammerpede rigged to shoot out of the body’s mouth unannounced. So, when the camera was rolling, Dickie leaned in to get a better look, the alien came flying out, and her authentic screams and reaction were caught on film.[6]

4 Jim Sharman: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

RHPS Dinner Scene

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is camp cult cinema at its best, adapted from a raucous stage musical and injected with all the wackiness and sexuality its eclectic cast and crew could muster. At the head of it all was director Jim Sherman, who ran the production with a tongue-in-cheek approach using a mostly inexperienced cast—all the fun of which translated well to the resulting film.

Throughout production, Sherman played pranks on his cast to loosen them up and get them involved in the spirit of the film while gently coaxing them into better and more authentic performances.

One scene—in which the corpse of Dr. Frank N Furter’s (Tim Curry) previous squeeze, Eddie (Meat Loaf), turns up, brutally disfigured, in a casket beneath the dining table—caused Sherman to get the best of his cast in both senses of the phrase. Prior to shooting the scene, the director told only Curry that the body would be there. So, when the actor whipped the tablecloth off, everyone gathered gasped and screamed and stumbled away from the table for real.[7]

3 Paul Verhoeven: Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct – Detective Interview Scene 1080p HD

While the director of Confetti tricking her actors into starring nude is bad enough, what with the general embarrassment and regret that followed, the results from Paul Verhoeven’s treatment of Sharon Stone on Basic Instinct are something else entirely.

The infamous scene in which Stone’s murderous Catherine Tramell is brought in for questioning has her cross and uncross her legs to reveal, explicitly, that she’s wearing no underwear. While the scene was a dream come true for teenage boys, it was anything but for the actress.

Verhoeven asked Stone to remove her underwear on the day, during the scene, claiming the white of their material was reflecting light where it shouldn’t—and he promised nobody would see anything on camera. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth, but Stone chose not to challenge it. The film went to theatres, and the scene gave her an inescapable reputation. Unfortunately, it wound up playing a key element in her divorce battle a decade later when it was “weaponized against her,” and she lost custody of her son.[8]

2 Sydney Pollack: Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa (3/10) Movie CLIP – Lions Attack Karen’s Ox (1985) HD

Director Sydney Pollack was known for getting great performances from his actors, especially in a run of collaborations with Robert Redford that included the romantic drama Out of Africa, which sees Redford’s big-game hunter Denys Hatton come into the orbit of wealthy Baroness Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep). However, Pollack found he had more of a challenge on his hands working with Streep and his four-legged stars.

In a pivotal scene, Streep faces a lion using only a bullwhip. But no matter what the actress did, she couldn’t get the lion to react; tethered to a post, it remained docile, complacent, and comfortable around all the noise and bustle of the film set.

Pollack, who needed the lion to fight his leading lady in order to get the shot he wanted, was all but tearing his hair out. With an already long shoot dragging on, he instructed his crew to untie the lion and not tell Streep. Thus, in the next shot, when Streep brandished her bullwhip, the lion—aware it was off the leash—lunged at her snarling. Streep reacted with a scream, and the director got his scene.[9]

1 Bryan Singer: The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects – Ending scene, Keyser Soze | Legendary Clips

The film that made Bryan Singer a familiar name on the international film scene, The Usual Suspects, is a perfect ’90s crime thriller with a slick style, snappy writing, an impressive cast, and one of the best twists of the decade.

Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint unfurls the tale of mythic crime lord Keyser Söze to the police after he is found to be one of the only survivors of a multi-million dollar heist that concluded with a major explosion in the San Pedro Harbor. Little do the police know, Kint is not a nervous, small-time hood, but the very crime lord he is pretending to expose.

Not only is the viewer kept in the dark throughout the film, but the cast was, too. Singer didn’t want anyone to know the twist ending—that Kint is the villain—as he feared the actors would reveal something in their performance. Thus, during production, he worked to convince every single member of the primary cast (Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, and Kevin Pollak) that they were the real Söze.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen