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15 Directors Unceremoniously Fired Or Replaced On A Movie

by The Playlist Staff
March 22, 2013 10:59 AM
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Director's Fired feature

Getting fired, quitting a job hastily, "mutually agreeing" to matter how it's phrased, being removed from any project is never fun as almost anyone who has ever worked a day in their life can attest. The recent debacle with “Jane Got A Gun” -- director Lynne Ramsay was a no show for work on the first day of filming apparently having clashed with the producers -- is an unfortunate peg with which to take a look back at filmmakers who were fired, replaced or walked off a film, but history is full of interesting tales of films gone awry thanks to the regrettable loss of a film’s director.

Studio conservatism, wild filmmakers, battling producers, actors and directors not seeing eye to eye, “creative differences,” etc. -- there’s myriad reasons why a director may fall out, fall off, abandon ship or get pink slipped off a movie. It’s life, people are extremely passionate, and it happens.

Let it be said, and just to be clear, we are not suggesting Ramsay got fired or that she is at fault here. The director herself has yet to speak on the events of the past week, while the reported story seems to change daily as to what actually went down, depending on the sources. But those in the midst of the situation may be mildly comforted to learn that this isn’t the first time this has happened (nor is it the last). Here’s 15 such examples.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
"Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" (1998)
Original director: Alex Cox
Replacement: Terry Gilliam
What happened: Yes, Terry Gilliam, ironically a director with his fair share of storied problems on films thanks to his unwaveringly quirky vision usually clashing with the powers that be, did direct this adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal gonzo-journo roadtrip nightmare. But he actually came onboard very late in the game because Alex Cox, the filmmaker behind "Repo Man" and "Sid & Nancy," apparently did not see eye to eye with the film’s producers and eventually was fired. It didn’t hurt that he had managed to alienate Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson, who hated Cox’s screenplay and ideas about animated sequences. "Alex had some dream that he could make Thompson's work better,” Depp said in an interview. “He was wrong. He had this idea about animation in the film.” Thompson can be seen ripping into Cox’s script (and some of the animated ideas) in Wayne Ewing's 2003 documentary "Breakfast With Hunter” (ironically, Gilliam’s version has animation in it as well). Cox surprisingly never brought it up in many interviews afterwards though he briefly talks around it in this 2001 interview -- but considering where his work went afterwards (“Repo Chick” is just a painful nadir), it's difficult to argue that the dismissal didn't damage his career. An draft of Cox’s version of the script can be read here. “It was a piece of crap,” Gilliam said of that script at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. Gilliam and writer Tony Grisoni banged out a new script in 10 days.

Terence Stamp General Zod
"Superman II" (1980)
Original Director: Richard Donner
Replacement: Richard Lester
What happened: One of the more infamous cases of a director being replaced during production, the first two "Superman" movies were originally intended to be shot at the same time (at the insistence of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind; questions persist as to whether or not he broke contract with this plan), with original "Superman" director Richard Donner getting through about 75% of the sequel before having to turn his attention to the arduous post-production process on the first film. Donner assumed he would return to finish the sequel, with additional funding from Warner Bros. (who had stepped up considerably when "Superman" went over-budget and were making a pretty penny off of that film's success). Instead, Donner was summarily dismissed, due to what he perceived as not only budgetary concerns but also the producers' intent on making the second film lighter and campier. For the task they brought in "Hard Day's Night" auteur Richard Lester who, due to DGA regulations, had to personally film at least 51% of the movie in order to receive sole credit, so he went back and reshot much of what Donner had already completed. (Gene Hackman, as Lex Luthor, sided with Donner and refused to return for reshoots; all of his scenes in "Superman II" were from the original Donner shoot.) Much later, for the deluxe DVD and Blu-ray reissue, a "Richard Donner Cut" was assembled, using as much of his footage as possible (some Lester stuff remains as connective tissue); while not radically different from the finished project, it is a more coherent, cohesive piece, very much in tune with the first movie (the nuclear detonation from the end of the first film is what frees the villains from the Phantom Zone, the Marlon Brando footage was reinstated, etc.). The "Richard Donner Cut" righted many of the wrongs made by the Richard Lester version, but still exists more as a curiosity than anything else (because it remains unfinished and scattershot). Somewhere between the two there's a pretty decent "Superman" sequel.

Piranha II: The Spawning
"Piranha II" (1981)
Original Director: Miller Drake
Replacement Director: James Cameron
What happened: This sequel to director Joe Dante's estimable cult classic, a kind of smart-ass rip-off of "Jaws" that featured visitors to a Texas water park getting snacked on by killer fish, was far dumber and plagued with production woes. Drake was, along with Cameron, a protégé of filmmaker and cult icon Roger Corman, who produced the original "Piranha." Drake got his start, like Dante, cutting trailers for Corman before moving on to become Corman's unofficial head of post-production. Drake's version of "Piranha II" concerned Kevin McCarthy, who had miraculously survived getting eaten in the first movie and was now set up at an abandoned oil rig, creating piranhas that could fly. Because. You know. (He also had loosely committed to bringing back Barbara Steele from the first movie, if only to kill her off in spectacular fashion.) The film's new executive producer, Ovidio G. Assonitis, fired Drake unceremoniously and replaced him with Cameron, who was already working on the movie as a special effects supervisor (Cameron also heavily rewrote the script). Things didn't fare any better with Cameron, who was fired two weeks into his stint. Cameron was supposedly locked out of the editing room, to the point where, when the producers were at Cannes trying to sell the movie, Cameron physically broke into the editing room and pieced together his original cut (a version that was released in some foreign markets years later). Since then Cameron has distanced himself from the film even further, first claiming that he didn't really direct it, and then taking some halfhearted pride in his accomplishment on what he described as "the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made." Cameron would have greater success later on in his career with the unparalleled "Aliens" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." He is currently at work on "Avatar 2." Maybe the seas of Pandora are filled with flying killer fish?

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  • John C | May 27, 2014 6:09 PMReply

    Interesting article but the writer should learn the difference between 'it's' (it is) and 'its' (possessive).

  • The Seeker | March 27, 2013 11:37 PMReply

    What about the Romanek/Wolfman fiasco? Many people though Romanek's career was over after dropping the movie (although in the end it was more of a bless to Romanek)

  • MFD | March 24, 2013 4:50 PMReply

    Other examples:

    Dick Richards didn't exactly get fired from the Burt Reynolds-Las Vegas vehicle "Heat" (not to be confused with Michael Mann's "Heat") but ended up leaving the project and being unable to return after being severely injured when Reynolds sucker-punched him as part of an ongoing series of disputes while Richards was shooting the picture. Reynolds' "autobiography" contains his version of the incident.

    Philip Kaufman began directing "The Outlaw Josey Wales" but clashed with star Clint Eastwood, who fired him and took over the direction, for which he is solely credited. Kaufman, who had re-written an earlier script by Sonia Chernus, retained received co-writing credit as "Phil Kaufman."

  • Tom Sutpen | March 24, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    Several I can think of:

    Erich von Stroheim is perhaps the first notorious example of a director being fired from a film ('Merry Go Round'; 1923) and replaced (by Rupert Julian).

    Josef von Sternberg was fired from 'The Exquisite Sinner' (replaced by Phil Rosen)

    Frank Capra was fired from several films in the twilight of his career; most notably 'Circus World' (replaced by Nicholas Ray who, after a heart attack, was replaced by Henry Hathaway). 'The Best Man' (replaced by Franklin Schaffner), and 'Marooned' (replaced by John Sturges)

    John Ford was bounced off the set of 'Pinky' (replaced by Elia Kazan)

    Akira Kurosawa was dismissed from 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' (replaced by Kinji Fukasaku)

    Billy Wilder was fired from 'The Bad Seed' (replaced by Mervyn LeRoy)

    Bruce Beresford was fired (by Clint Eastwood) from 'The Bridges of Madison County' (replaced by Guess Who)

    John Huston got handed his pink slip on 'Quo Vadis?' (replaced by Mervyn LeRoy), 'A Farewell to Arms' (Charles Vidor took over), and 'The Last Run' (replaced by Richard Fleischer).

    Robert Aldrich directed virtually all of 'The Garment Jungle' before Harry Cohn fired him and appointed Vincent Sherman to shoot the few days left on the schedule.

    Tony Richardson was fired from 'Mahogany' by aspiring Mogul Berry Gordy, then replaced by aspiring film director Berry Gordy.

    That's all I can think of offhand.

  • Steve | March 23, 2013 12:13 AMReply

    Matt Damon was going to make Promised Land his directing debut. However, another film he was acting in ran over schedule, and he wanted to spend more time with his family. So he decided not to direct, and got Gus Van Sant to direct, while Damon still starred and produced.

  • Stephen B | March 22, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    The only other incident I could think of that was missing was the rumored Spielberg takeover of Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper wasn't fired but rumors persist that Spielberg at the very least co-directed the film and has been called the "de facto director" by some of the cast.

  • Alex | March 22, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    What about David O. Russell replacing Darren Aronofsky on The Fighter?

  • Wasp | March 22, 2013 6:51 PM

    And he stayed on as producer afterwards.

  • Face | March 22, 2013 2:36 PM

    Darren dropped out on his own accord. Not fired or dimisssed, etc.

  • Jax | March 22, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinnati Kid after three or four days of shooting, replaced by Norman Jewison. Scorsese was fired from The Honeymoon Killers after a few days of shooting. Kubrick was fired from One-Eyed Jacks, replaced by Brando. Dennis Hopper took over from some other director on Out of the Blue while it was already shooting. Dustin Hoffman started directing Straight Time but then replaced himself with Ulu Grosbard after watching the dailies.

  • TC | March 22, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    I remember reading that Kevin Jarre was fired from Tombstone and George P Cosmatos was then hired on as a sort of "puppet director" for actual-director Kurt Russell. There's a whole story there I bet.

  • Andrew | March 22, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    John Ford left Mister Roberts mid-shoot after punching Henry Fonda.

  • Andrew | March 22, 2013 12:22 PMReply

    John Ford left Mister Roberts mid-shoot after punching Henry Fonda.

  • yer | March 22, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    How can you not include Arthur Miller/John Frankenheimer and The Train??

  • yer | March 22, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    How can you not include Arthur Miller/John Frankenheimer and The Train??

  • yer | March 22, 2013 1:39 PM

    Oops I'm reading Elia Kazan's autobiography right now and he mentions Arthur Miller a lot so the names in my head.

  • yer | March 22, 2013 1:39 PM

    Oops I'm reading Elia Kazan's autobiography right now and he mentions Arthur Miller a lot so the names in my head.

  • yer | March 22, 2013 1:38 PM

    Oops I'm reading Elia Kazan's autobiography right now and he mentions Arthur Miller a lot so the names in my head.

  • Jax | March 22, 2013 12:51 PM

    Arthur Penn, not Miller.

  • Pedro Tavares | March 22, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    Repo Chick rules. So Searchers 2.0 and Revenger's Tragedy.

  • Jezzer | March 22, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    "Piranha" wasn't set in a water park.

  • Noah | March 22, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    Vincent Ward was booted off River Queen but was brought back later in the middle of post-production. Like all of his films, it has the makings of a masterpiece but the problems that went into making it show.

  • Robert Hunt | March 22, 2013 11:21 AMReply

    Depending on what stage you want to place their involvement (how far along did Cimino get on "The Dogs of War" or "Footloose" before being dropped?) , you can add Nick Ray on a handful of films, most famously "55 Days at Peking", Nicolas Roeg on "Hammett", John Ford on "Young Cassidy", Martin Scorsese on "the Honeymoon Killers", Robert Altman on "Ragtime" .

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