February 3rd, 2009
11:57 AM ET

Do you have to be a jerk to be a director?

Recently a friend and I were having a philosophical discussion about movie directors: Is it necessary to be mean and nasty to be a good director?

I’d like to think the answer is no. As long as you’re firm and focused, there’s no need to demean your cast and crew and shout at everyone like a crazy person. That said, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me - and Hollywood has had its share of on-set tyrants.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m on the red carpet at the Directors Guild Awards. It was a great opportunity to go right to the source. So, after asking a number of directors about the event and their nominations, I couldn’t resist getting their take on the big question, “Is it necessary to be an S.O.B. to be a good director?” Here are some of their responses:

Veteran TV director Paris Barclay: "You know, actually, it's not and you'll see that from the directorial nominees this year. It's probably going out of favor. Now people really want directors who are calm, patient, understanding and deeply manipulative,” he said with a chuckle. “I mean that's basically the new kind of director that's happening. People who have a certain suaveness like Christopher Nolan, but at the same time you know he gets exactly what he wants. You just don't know that he's squeezing it out of you. I think that's what happening now: That old yelling, screaming, throwing things down is becoming rarer and rarer. In the age of Spielberg it's sort of fallen out of favor."

“John Adams” director Tom Hopper: "I had breakfast this morning with Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle and David Fincher and I was thinking, 'God, these guys are all so charming and lovely and such friendly guys,' but I think we've all become good actors because I think we're all pretty tough underneath. But we wouldn't get our jobs if we revealed that too much on our first meeting, so we're also able to be very charming - but charming with steel underneath."

“Milk” actor Josh Brolin, who’s been directed by the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant, among others: "No, absolutely not - and I've experienced that and I don't respond to it well. And actors, also, the same way. Actors who are throwing tantrums that don't need to. It doesn't belong on the set. It's not a part of the creative process. That's my experience and I've seen amazing performances come out of these guys, and amazing directors create incredible movies, so we're all pretty calm. There's a lot of humor, there's a lot of humor."

“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle (who won the DGA’s top prize): “You always try and be encouraging to everybody that you're working with because … it's selfish in the end, because they just work harder. You know, they do. They turn up earlier, they do a bit more for you, they stay later. So actually in a funny kind of way it's basically like your mom always tells you, you should treat people how you want to be treated yourself, you know?”

“Frost/Nixon” director Ron Howard (who, in my view, is the poster boy for the nice director): “You need to have a point of view and be willing to enforce that point of view. I think you have to be prepared to have unpleasant conversations and say 'no' to people when they want to hear 'yes' and all of those things, but if you've hired people because you respect them … and you sustain that respect and offer it, it doesn't mean you have to say 'yes.' It means, 'We're working on a problem.’ …

“I've earned particularly the trust of actors over the years and that means a lot to me. I love that collaboration. But sure, once in a while you're gonna annoy the hell out of them,” he added.

- Douglas Hyde, CNN Entertainment Producer

Filed under: movies

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soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. rtyecript

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

    August 25, 2011 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  2. LeriOwele

    Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It's very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.

    May 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Indigo

    Who [explative deleted] cares? Really, honestly... who cares?
    So the guy shot off his mouth – big deal. If this is really all there is to talk about, maybe it's time to shut up and think for a while.

    February 5, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. terri

    oh boy, I totally agree with what LBW just said. No one admires people who act like that!!! Didn't their parents teach them manners?

    February 4, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LBW

    Ther is nothing cool about being a jerk. Look at Christian Bales's behavior as an actor. What a brat! Do these people actually think that people admire that? Manners are manners and yes, some people still have them.

    February 4, 2009 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
  6. mdegge

    Look at directors like Peter Jackson who is a very nice guy and also a successful director. Plus like the article pointed out we have Ron Howard who is also a very nice guy. I think the whole jerk director idea is a throwback to the past. Even then it's probably blown out of proportion. I think nowdays with as many spoiled and nasty stars as we have, such as Christian Bale as of late, that they would probably walk off set if the Director was too much of a jerk.

    February 4, 2009 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  7. Kelly

    Brandon: Michael Bay is your shining example? Really?!?! Have you seen his movies? Great special effects but everything else is pppllllbbbttt.

    February 4, 2009 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  8. Gunner

    John Ford was arguably the best director of his generation. He browbeat Duke Wayne mercilessly and punched Henry Fonda once. Did it make him a better director? Absolutely not. Did it establish his complete domination of a movie set? Without question. However, in my opinon, I think Ford's tactics weren't necessary to get good performances out of his actors. I think he did what did to hide a massively insecure personality at the expense of talented people. But even still, he made some great movies.

    February 3, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TJB

    What's funny is I thought how spineless the director was for not doing or saying anything. The assistant director is a kiss ass. It's hard to believe tha Bale has that kind of power. It's also funny because myself and and alot of people I talk with find it hard to accept Bale's Batman with that lisp of his.

    February 3, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tim

    As a pro-amatuer moviemaker I agree with Danny Boyle. I've been doing all sides for the military and more recently local projects. When you follow the golden rule people will want to work for you. Thats not to say, you should let them stomp on you. A directer has to be "direct." He has to know what he wants and convey that. But there's no need to be a jerk about it. He has to be a leader. A good leader can get things done better through insperation rather than persperation.

    February 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. CHuckles

    Two Words...Christian Bale

    February 3, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. buef

    Anything that can be done acting like a jerk can be done without acting like a jerk. You may think it more speedy to be a jerk, but once the passive aggresive 'delays' are calculated over the entire production it is not faster. Treat people with respect and convince them to your vision and you will be faster overall. And not a jerk.

    Homage to Steve.
    "Stay away from the cans, he hates cans!"

    February 3, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bruce

    I would imagine there are some parallels between being a film director and a pro football coach. You got to get everyone to follow your vision, get them on the same page and get everyone in synch. At the end of the day, you either win (make a hit) or lose (bomb at the box office). A good director/coach is one who knows how to deal with different personalities. Some talents require a jerk to keep them in line or get the best out of them – while others need a softer approach. A good director knows what method and message to deliver to each personalities.

    February 3, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. E Hernandez

    Theres no need to be that way at all iv notice when i work with people on the set and you treat them with the same kind of respect you would like to get and kindness they will always respond and work hard for you because they will become a friend to them more than a boss and people will always do more and work harder for a frien rather than a boss

    February 3, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bob Warner

    Danny Boyle got it right....the Golden Rule TRULY IS the best way to get the most out of a cast and crew. Screaming at and publicly humiliating people simply is not the way to inspire anybody, particularly some usually innocent low ranking crew person who needs his paycheck too much to give the offending bully the ass kicking so richly deserved. Essentially, the directors and the actors who are inclined to throw their little hissy fits are very careful to direct their tirades at people who can't or won't fight back. That's what bullies do be it in a schoolyard or on a movie set. The fact that they're "making art" makes it no less reprehensible.

    February 3, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Gregory Doucette

    Directing is the craft of convincing a cast and crew of about one hundred people to do exactly what you want them to do while – at the same time – convincing them that it was all their idea in the first place.

    And a damn good idea it was!

    February 3, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  17. rfjason

    What about having to be a jerk to be a Director of Photography? Apparently the DP (dir. photography) on Bale's movie set decided to be a jerk and screw with the lighting and get in the actors' sight lines WHILE THE SCENE WAS FILMING. And the DP didn't do it just once, he did it several times even after Bale politely asked him to stop.

    Bale and his co-star Bryce Howard were filming the scene that is the emotional core of the film and they needed to deeply concentrate on the scene. That's all but impossible when you have an arrogant little DP screwing with lighting while filming and getting in actors sights.

    So when Bale went off on the DP, it was very much deserved. I stand behind Bale and think the DP absolutely should be fired for being incredibly unprofessional and disrespectful to the actors.

    February 3, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Gary

    As a director I think it would be better to remain calm and keep the set as light as possible. A happy actor is an actor willing to do more, but I am not going to paint a rosy picture. There are times you have to be tough. Sometimes people will do things without discussing it with you first and that can get the blood boiling.

    Have I ever had a David Russell moment? No, but I have been upset with Actors who have changed lines without talking to me first.

    February 3, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Mike

    Good directors need to adapt and manipulate a situation – as was mentioned earlier- there's crews, suits, actors, budgets and of course – the director's vision. I think that the director like any boss or leader needs to be clever in dealing with a wide range of personalities. Perhaps in most cases, being nice just works better than most other tactics.

    Look at Kubrick, arguably one of the best. With George C Scott in Strangelove, Kubrick tricked him into Buck Turgidson's best moments by telling him the camera was off. I've also heard stories of the two playing chess between takes. Scott considered himself a master – Kubrick was one – and the director was able to earn the notoriously unruly actor's respect by routing him in chess. Scott famously refused to ever work with him again, but credits the role as his best.

    If you've ever seen Kubrick's documentary, you'll see him going CRAZY on Shelly Duvall between takes of the Shinning- it's very uncomfortable (same tempo as Bale!) but again, the result was a fine performance.

    In Clockwork, he treated Malcolm McDowell like a son – he was nurturing, and supportive and coaxed an amazing performance from him. McDowell has said that he thought he would have a life-long friend in Kubrick. After filming rapped, Kubrick completely severed ties with him – much to McDowell's surprise and chagrin.

    So, he lied to Scott, abused Duvall and pretended to be a father to McDowell. While he may have treated most of his staff differently, these are arguably all manipulative tactics but considering job, tasking people who specialize in emotional manipulation (acting), it would seem par for the course. considering what he produced, does anyone ever ask if he was 'nice'? Does anyone really care?

    February 3, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  20. thompske

    How much does the director work with the screenwriter? I hope respect is extended to them as well.

    February 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Brett Eichenberger

    In order to get the best out of your actors and your crew, it's best to leave the attitude off set. Being a jerk is just intimidation and people don't respect it. Collaboration in the arts is about each artist respecting one another. Understanding the needs of the people working with you and respecting their opinion and perspective is what ultimately translates into a successful production.

    February 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Jimmy Legs

    Not in the acting biz, came across this article. Leadership doesn't require someone to be a jerk. Everyone is a jerk now and then, but having the repuation of one is probably not good. A characteristic of a jerk is someone who wants to get something done with a total regard to anyone but himself. Maybe they do well in business, but I guarantee, their relationships suffer greatly. It also helps to get both sides of the story, if someone is lazy, or are dfficult, of course people get pissed, and if this comes off as being a jerk so be it! I'm going to guess that many actors are completely full of themselves and truly think that they are the reason for a movie's success, lord knows it takes an entire village to make these selfish people look good.

    February 3, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Fred

    If an actor/actress starts getting puffy or adds some heavy bass in their tone then yeah the Director has the obligation to give that out-of-line actor/actress a fresh-five to show them who's running the show.

    February 3, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Jim

    An insider friend of mine said that an Eastwood set is completely low key, that not only does the director not rage, but he often won't even shout "roll" loud enough for the camera to hear.
    As to C. Bale's onset scream test, we here in this culture of celebrity make demigods out of these people, showering them with money and accolades, then wonder why they act like them, like little tyrant kings storming around their little fiefdoms. I'm only surprised he didn't threaten to beat up the guy's mother and sister.
    If putting up with that is what it takes to work as a professional director of photography in Hollywood, I'd rather pump coffee at Starbucks.

    February 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Rachel

    Whats even worse then jerk-y directors, are jerk-y production in reality t.v., i.e. directors, "writers", make-up. Come on, your not curing cancer people!!!

    February 3, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Bubba

    You are on a tight deadline, fighting for daylight while you try to explain exactly how far you want someone's mouth open in this crucial shot. You are paying thirty people a lot of money to stand and wait while you talk to an actor. So you apologize later.

    February 3, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Brandon

    2 words: Michael Bay. Sometimes abrasive, but gets the job done right.

    February 3, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  28. carly

    omg no. i dont think that you have to be mean and a jerk to be a director. aside from being greedy and sometimes cheap some directors are really nice. what about the director of the Lord of the Rings series? if you are going to be wiht them for three years and be a jerk then i dont think the product would have been a sucess like it was right?

    February 3, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Chris Kirkpatrick

    I am glad to hear that one can be successful and assertive without conjuring the spirit of a late Russian Dictator. Just because someone is not a jerk does not mean that they fudge on quality...they simply have a more humane way of getting it.

    February 3, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  30. L.Kurt Engelhart

    Being able to direct is not a quality one has but an opportunity one is allowed. One needs to demonstrate that one has the necessary resources behind one to do this successfully. Proof consists of being able to be a jerk and get away with it. If you cannot do this, you are perceived to not have the necessary authority. This will be tested for early in any engagement.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  31. K. Sherman

    Do you have to be a jerk to be a director? YES!!!
    However, you can be a POLITE jerk!

    February 3, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  32. James H. Christ

    Directors need to direct. Humanity has dealt us with an abundance of ignorance and the ignorant need to be directed. Being a jerk is most definitely a requirement for directors. As well as being synical and brutally honest. I am an art director and I owe my success to being able to efficiently and effectively 'direct' my ignorant staff.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  33. ryan

    why did you write this? this is the most pointless article

    February 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  34. C York

    Do you have to be a jerk to be an actor? Perhaps we should ask Christian Bale.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Paula

    It's funny, because a friend asked me once, when I was producing a film, whether I should be running around like a crazy person, shouting at people too.

    I think that because film production is such a high-stress environment, people assume that tempers flare. While I have worked with plenty of jerk directors, first assistant directors (the worst, IMO), and DPs, I don't think being a jerk is a necessity. What is necessary is that you make informed choices, hold true to your decisions, and get your crew to respect you, which means you have to first show them respect.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  36. eric

    Well, think about it... you have a vision, you want to get something done on screen and you want to accomplish it all while being under time and financial pressures from the real jerks (studio execs, producers, 3rd party interests, etc) and on top of that, you've got TONS of skeezy personalities on set AND you've got to deal with prima donna actors... in order to fulfill my vision as a director? If I couldn't get it done being nice and COULD get it done being a jerk, you bet i'd be a jerk. I bet you would too.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  37. Dave

    You don't have to be a jerk to be a director. There are however drectors who are jerks, as there are actors, PA's, editors and the list goes on and on. A director, like any other key player on a set has to have a very specific vision and be willing and commited to make it happen. If disagreeing with cast and crew and insisting on them doing their job right is being a jerk, then I wouldn't like a NICE GUY running a movie set.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  38. KCM

    I find the responses of these directors refreshing. It's unfortunate some actors/actresses do not share their views.

    February 3, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  39. sean brizendine

    aside from being greedy and cheep, i am sure being a jerk is a requirement also.

    "sean in santa rosa"

    February 3, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |

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