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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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Queen Kelly
“Queen Kelly” (1929)
Original Director: Erich von Stroheim
Replacement Director: Gloria Swanson
What Happened: In 1928, Gloria Swanson was one of the biggest stars in the silent movie world, and Erich Von Stroheim was one of the biggest directors. So you would think that a film that teamed them up would have been a giant hit, but in fact, it was never released in the U.S. The story of a prince who kidnaps a convent girl, who ends up in an unhappy marriage in Africa, and eventually running her own brothel, the film was intended as a vanity project for Swanson, financed by her then lover, Joseph P. Kennedy (the father of John F. and Bobby). But the film went over budget, and Swanson started to object to the racy material that she claimed von Stroheim was trying to sneak in -- later saying that the brothel had been a dance hall in the script. As such, the director was fired, and the entire part of the storyline set in Africa scrapped, with Swanson herself directing an alternate ending where her character kills herself. But due to a clause in von Stroheim's contract, the film couldn't be released in the U.S., and Swanson and Kennedy could only release it in Europe and South America. Swanson's star faded as the talkies became more and more prevalent, while von Stroheim mostly gave up directing after being fired from another project, "Walking Down Broadway," mostly focusing on acting, most notably in Renoir's "La Grande Illusion." But their paths would cross again: Billy Wilder cannily cast them both in "Sunset Boulevard," with Swanson playing faded silent star Norma Desmond, von Stroheim cast as her butler (and ex-husband and ex-director). Supposedly, von Stroheim himself suggested that they use a clip from "Queen Kelly" as an extract from one of Desmond's film, and Wilder agreed; it was the first time that U.S. audiences had seen a frame of the film (which was finally shown on TV in the 1960s and is now available on DVD).

Promises Written In Water
“Promises Written In The Water” (2010)
Original Director: Pete Red Sky
Replacement Director: Vincent Gallo
What Happened: Uglier than most examples on this list -- though many of them aren’t very pleasant -- is the “Promises Written In The Water.” It was touted out of nowhere as Vincent Gallo’s first directorial effort since “The Brown Bunny.” When it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, renaissance man/jack of all trades Gallo was listed as the writer, director, producer, star, editor, music composer and art director (and it actually drew laughs from the audience), but reports (that have never been refuted mind you) surfaced in 2010 that alleged that Promises Written In Water started out as “The Funeral Director” made by filmmaker Pete Red Sky (“The White Horse Is Dead”). Evidently Red Sky was unsure of himself throughout, and the more experienced and obviously frustrated star gave the producers an ultimatum: make him director or he’d walk. So Gallo essentially made the project his own and then? Well, he shelved it. The reaction at Toronto was mixed and the film’s website says it is “not currently planned for release.” Gallo told the Danish Film Institute in 2011 that he had no desire for an audience to see the film. “I do not want my new works to be generated in a market or audience of any kind,” he said. The filmmaker actor also said he had started working on a new film and the fate of ‘Promises’? “This film [should be] allowed to rest in peace, and stored without being exposed to the dark energies from the public," he said. Unless you caught it at TIFF or Venice in 2010, chances are you’re never going to see it, period.

"Moneyball" (2011)
Original director: Steven Soderbergh
Replacement: Bennett Miller
What happened: Apart from this Ramsay situation, the Steven Soderbergh/"Moneyball" fiasco of 2009 is probably the most recent and well-known case of director dismissal. We covered this story closely over the years and heard a ton of dirt that's probably not best to repeat here -- though if you look through the old archives, you'll find plenty of things we heard -- but suffice it to say at the very best this was a case of left hand not talking to the right hand. Soderbergh had already started going about his version of the film the way he wanted it -- a documentary-style drama of sorts that was more realistic and would feature actual life athletes playing themselves (interviews with reals pros were even shot) -- and evidently not making the studio and producers happy in the process, but no one had the cojones to say anything. You'll recall Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian, who was first hired to write the script, was replaced Aaron Sorkin, only to be called in to work on the film again. Suffice to say, this is just one example of the exorbitant development money that was (ironically) spent and wasted on the film. "Moneyball" made it out fine in the end because Bennett Miller knocked the movie out of the park, but two directors and three screenwriters (Zaillian twice) got paid, and the plug on the Soderbergh production was pulled three days before crew was ready to shoot and then rescheduled for months later. You do the math on what was spent before a frame of film was shot and it’s staggering (we’ve heard the figures and it was painful). A Vanity Fair profile documenting the behind-the-scenes dirt was rumored and then reportedly killed when a certain A-list actor didn’t want his name besmirched in print, but this has never been 100% proven. Suffice to say when someone wants to print the behind-the-scenes story, give us a call, we'd be happy to help.

Rumor Has It
"Rumor Has It..." (2005)
Original Director: Ted Griffin
Replacement Director: Rob Reiner
What Happened: Having won acclaim for his screenplays "Ravenous," "Best Laid Plans," "Matchstick Men" and, above all else, the huge hit "Ocean's Eleven," screenwriter Ted Griffin was granted the chance many writers dream of: his own directorial project. And that project was "Rumor Has It...," an original screenplay by Griffin that focused on a young woman, soon to be married, who discovers that her grandmother may have been the basis for Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," and ends up sleeping with the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character, who's now been with three generations of the same family. Griffin's "Ocean's Eleven" director Steven Sodebergh agreed to executive produce it through the Section Eight company he ran with George Clooney, and the project attracted a starry cast, including Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine and Mark Ruffalo. But almost immediately, there were problems. Aniston was unhappy with the film's look and tone, Costner was reported to have led a mutiny against Griffin on set (this was denied by the director's agent in the New York Times, saying that the actor hadn't started filming on the project yet). DoP Ed Lachman was fired by Griffin two weeks into shooting. And in general, the film was running behind, and Soderbergh in particular was unhappy with the dailies that were coming in. So, on August 6th, Soderbergh fired Griffin from the project, with Rob Reiner brought in to replace him (the filmmaker went on to make cast changes, with Charlie Hunnam, Lesley Ann Warren, Tony Bill and Greta Scacchi all fired and recast). Regardless, the film turned out to be a train wreck, picking up savage reviews, though whether Griffin would have done a better job is a harder question to answer -- he did a fine job of directing on his TV series "Terriers," but the damage may already have been done on the miscast, tonally odd "Rumor Has It..."

And Many More: Again, it’s unfortunate, but other examples do exist. Nicholas Jarecki got the boot from “The Informers,” but that turned out to be for the best. The Bret Easton Ellis adaptation was reviled at Sundance in 2009, while Jarecki bounced back fine with last year's “Arbitrage." Martin Brest got kicked off the Matthew Broderick ‘80s drama “War Games.” “I remember talking to the original director, who was going to be Martin Brest. Hell of a director and a hell of a guy, but they fired him after a couple of weeks,” Dabney Coleman said in 2012. Brest would go on to direct “Beverly Hills Cop,” "Midnight Run," and "Scent of a Woman," only to eventually have his career iced by "Gigli." “The Outlaw Josey Wales” was supposed to be directed by Philip Kaufman, but it’s star Clint Eastwood eventually took over. “Clint decided we had some creative differences. He was the producer. He was the biggest star in the world. One of us had to go,” Kaufman laughed self-depricatingly in a 2008 interview.

The firing apparently promoted the Director's Guild to institute what became known as the "Eastwood Rule," prohibiting a star to replace a director on a film (whether that still applies is doubtful, that was 1976). John G. Avildsen, the director of "Rocky" was the original director for both “Serpico” (1973) and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), but was fired over disputes with producers Martin Bregman and Robert Stigwood, respectively. “Waterworld” may have been directed by Kevin Reynolds, but it’s star Kevin Costner famously took over and did the film’s final cut. Pete Travis was reported to have been kicked offDredd” by the Los Angeles Times (as an exclusive no less in 2011), by the writer Alex Garland. While something seemed to be amiss, Garland and Travis released a joint statement insisting all was well and Travis kept his director’s credit in the end when the film was released. Howard Hughes’ 1943 Western “The Outlaw” was directed and produced by the tycoon, aviator-turned filmmaker, but Howard Hawks evidently served as an uncredited director on the film. Hawks alleges he quit to go make "Sergeant York" with Gary Cooper, but the cinematographer on the movie, Lucien Ballard said he and Hawks were fired by Hughes who took over himself (some of Hawk’s ideas for it allegedly surfaced in “Red River”).

Trivia note: Anthony Mann (replaced not only by Kubrick on “Spartacus”) but also on “A Dandy in Aspic” but not for any creative reasons...he passed away in the middle of production. The pic was finished by lead actor Laurence Harvey. Max Ophuls also died halfway through his last film “The Lovers of Montparnasse.” But we suppose that’s and idea for another feature...

As usual, feel free to sound off. – Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth

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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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