A director’s job is to get the best possible performances out of their cast. That might mean pampering them, explaining motivations, or suffering through conversations with method actors who won’t break character. Sometimes, though, that’s not enough—to get a real reaction, filmmakers have to create uncomfortable situations.
Of course, most directors have certain lines they won’t cross. They won’t put actors in danger, and they won’t create scenarios that could harm the cast’s mental health…unless it makes for a really, really good scene.
We looked into some of the strangest tactics used on the sets of major films, then asked a crucial question: Was it really necessary?
1. The Blair Witch Project might not have been real, but parts of it were.
When The Blair Witch Project hit theaters, it did so with a revolutionary marketing campaign. Viewers were told that the film was actual found footage—not a scripted piece of art.
That was partly true. There’s no such thing as a real-life Blair Witch, of course, and the cast wasn’t actually missing, but the film didn’t have much of a script. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez planned out a few major plot points, but mostly let their cast run the show.
— Dr. Giallo (@Dr_Giallo) January 5, 2019
That wasn’t quite as fun as it sounds. Myrick and Sánchez sent the cast into the woods, then did everything they could to push them to their limits.
“All the weird kind of noises and stuff is just us running around in the woods,” Myrick told Vice of the film’s production. “When they wake up and there are rock piles outside their tents, we planted those, obviously. The stick figures—we hung them. We just led them around on a 24-hour-a-day stage play, really. We set up all the set pieces before hand, and they would just follow our directions.
“We shook their tent, we played sounds of little kids playing outside their tent, we made noises in the middle of the night, we led them to this crazy house at the end—we basically just played the Blair Witch.”
20 years ago today, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ opened in theaters. It grossed $248.6 million worldwide on a budget of $60,000, making it one of the most successful independent films ever.
Its found-footage format received near-universal praise & inspired many other horror films. pic.twitter.com/wA9AHvFGR1
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) July 15, 2019
To be clear, the actors never felt like they were in danger, but they certainly felt uncomfortable.
“It was actually cold, we were actually hungry, we were actually tired,” Joshua Leonard, who played Josh, said. “That certainly played into it.”
The directors also gradually cut back the cast’s food supply to make them “sort of grumpy.” That sounds unpleasant, but Myrick and Sánchez weren’t monsters: The cast members also had safe words they could use to halt filming, and every actor understood what they were signing up for.
The tactics paid off. The Blair Witch Project was one of the most successful indie films of all time, and it started the “found footage” horror subgenre.
2. The Shining was a masterpiece, but was it worth it?
Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel The Shining endures thanks in part to strong performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. Unfortunately, the production was incredibly difficult for Duvall, who spoke of some unbelievable working conditions.
“Going through day after day of excruciating work was almost unbearable,” Duvall told Roger Ebert in 1980. “Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.”
Jack Nicholson ve Shelley Duvall “The Shining” setinde. pic.twitter.com/42SnbEnkPC
— Beat Sinema (@beatsinema) September 10, 2019
According to Duvall, the work was exhausting, but she was able to find some positives in the experience.
“I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy, because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect. During the day, I would have been absolutely miserable.”
At the time, Duvall characterized her experience as incredibly uncomfortable, “but from other points of view, really very nice, I suppose.”
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) pic.twitter.com/VMy8lUw50h
— History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) September 18, 2019
The Shining is now considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unfortunately, praise is often heaped on Kubrick alone.
“After all that work, hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like,” Duvall said. “The reviews were all about Kubrick, like I wasn’t there.”
3. There’s a lot of crying in Stand by Me, which made conditions difficult on set.
Directed by Rob Reiner, Stand by Me is one of cinema’s greatest coming-of-age stories. It follows four young boys, played by Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman, all of whom play their parts perfectly—and that means quite a bit of crying. As Wheaton recalled years later, the kids had to turn on the waterworks during their auditions.
“A couple years before [Stand by Me], I had been taken to an actor coach, and I remember asking what you do if you can’t cry in a movie, and he said, ‘they’ll just put lemon juice in your eyes or onions,’” Wheaton recalled in an interview with Variety. “It was a terrible answer. It really freaked me out. I remember saying in one of the callbacks, ‘I’m not comfortable crying in movies.’ …I almost lost the role all because of that terrible acting coach.”
Stand by Me || 1986 pic.twitter.com/eMZz1MRT7B
— movies&stuff (@int0xicatedman) September 16, 2019
For the most part, the kids performed well on set, but they didn’t quite have the range of adult actors (nor should they, since, uh, they were kids). That frustrated director Rob Reiner.
“One time I lost it,” Reiner recalled. “I did it as kind of an act. There was the scene where they’re running on the trestle and the train is coming. The truth is the boys and the train were never on the trestle at the same time. I used such a long lens, and so the boys had jumped off the train track before the train even entered the trestle. It was so far away from them that they weren’t scared.
“We had some guys—it was very hot, 90 degrees out—and the guys were pushing this dolly down the track to follow these boys running and they were supposed to be hysterical, just crying and panicking. We did it a bunch of times and they kept not getting worked up.”
— Peter Crock (@aperturesplit) June 23, 2018
Reiner eventually decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Finally, I start screaming, ‘these guys, the crew, are exhausted because you guys keep messing up and if you’re not worried that the train is going to kill you, I’ll kill you.’ They started crying and we started rolling and then they ran off the track and gave me a hug and said, ‘we did it. We did it Rob.’”
STAND BY ME (1986)
— One Perfect Shot (@OnePerfectShot) November 15, 2018
That anecdote probably sounds a lot more heartwarming in Reiner’s head. For what it’s worth, the Stand by Me cast doesn’t hold Reiner’s outburst against him.
“It was magical to make,” O’Connell said. “Just being a kid up there with these guys. It was such a bond. It’s just like the movie says, you never have friends like you did when you were 12.”
4. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise made kids cry (which was kind of the point).
It wasn’t exactly a family-friendly movie. Hey, it stars a murderous clown; don’t let your kids watch it if you don’t want them to be traumatized (on the other hand, if you do want them to be traumatized, have at it).
Still, you’d think that the child actors featured in the movie would be safe from the evils of Pennywise. Not so, according to Bill Skarsgård, who played the clown in the 2017 film and its 2019 sequel.
“It’s a really weird thing to go, ‘If I succeed at doing what I’m trying to do with this character, I’ll traumatize kids,’” Skarsgård told his brother Alexander in a piece for Interview. “On set, I wasn’t very friendly or goofy. I tried to maintain some sort of weirdness about the character, at least when I was in all the makeup.”
— IT Chapter Two 🎈🎈 (@ITMovieOfficial) September 8, 2019
Pennywise had to stay scary, regardless of whether or not the cameras were rolling. Skarsgård refused to break character—even when he was working with young actors.
“At one point, they set up this entire scene, and these kids come in, and none of them have seen me yet. Their parents have brought them in, these little extras, right? And then I come out as Pennywise, and these kids—young, normal kids—I saw the reaction that they had. Some of them were really intrigued, but some couldn’t look at me, and some were shaking. This one kid started crying. He started to cry and the director yelled, ‘Action!’ And when they say ‘action,’ I am completely in character.”
— Deadline Hollywood (@DEADLINE) September 3, 2019
Skarsgård proceeded to do his thing (namely, giving the kids something to talk about in therapy for the rest of their lives). We can’t really argue with the results; It earned more than $700 million at the box office, and critics praised Skarsgård’s performance. In the moment, however, he realized that he’d gone too far.
“Some of these kids got terrified and started to cry in the middle of the take, and then I realized, ‘Holy s**t. What am I doing? What is this? This is horrible,’” he recalled.
— Giovanni J.M. (@MindOnFireBooks) May 9, 2017
As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, Skarsgård comforted the young actors, telling them that the scene was “pretend.” Still, the damage was done. To Skarsgård, it was worth it.
“Hopefully, there will be a lot of 10-year-olds who will be traumatized forever based on my performance.”
5. That Alien chestburster scene was just as horrifying as you’d expect.
When most people think of the landmark 1979 horror flick Alien, they think of the chestburster scene. It was one of the most shocking moments in cinema, both to the audience and the cast.
“All it said in the script was, ‘This thing emerges,’” Alien star Sigourney Weaver told The Independent. “Everyone was wearing raincoats—we should have been a little suspicious. And, oh God, the smell. It was just awful.”
— Alien (@AlienAnthology) October 18, 2017
According to screenwriter and executive producer Ron Shusett, the film’s script had a basic description, but director Ridley Scott wanted to go further.
“Ridley didn’t tell the cast,” Shusett recalled. “He said, ‘They’re just going to see it.’”
“If an actor is just acting terrified, you can’t get the genuine look of raw, animal fear,” Scott explained.
Test audience reacting to the Chestburster scene in Alien (1979) pic.twitter.com/1l3vgTf8Da
— 41 Strange (@41Strange) September 15, 2019
In the scene, actor John Hurt experiences a sudden seizure while eating dinner. At that point…well, hey, it’s called “the chestburster scene” for a reason.
“We had an artificial chest screwed to the table,” Scott explained. “John was underneath: it was an illusion his neck was attached to the body.”
The artificial chest was filled with not-so-artificial fish guts, which splashed out on the actors. Actors Veronica Cartwright (who played Lambert) and Yaphet Kotto (Parker) had it the worst.
“Veronica Cartwright—when the blood hit her, she passed out,” Shusett recalled. “I heard from Yaphet Kotto’s wife that after that scene he went to his room and wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott pic.twitter.com/lB6ZIPkhkM
— rachel rem (@rachel_remeny) September 15, 2019
Weaver, who played Ripley in the film and its sequels, genuinely believed that something had gone wrong (at least for a few moments).
“All I could think of was John [Hurt], frankly,” Weaver said. “I wasn’t even thinking that we were making a movie … You can act, sure, but when you’re surprised, that’s gold.”
The cast seemed okay with the trick (eventually), given that the resulting scene was a legendary moment in film history. Still, when directors push their actors using unconventional methods, they have to be careful not to cross boundaries—and for some filmmakers, that’s a difficult prospect.