It’s no secret that Lars von Trier pushes his actresses to the edge– and sometimes all the way over. A director’s commitment to wringing the most out of their actors dates back to another vainglorious Von: Eric von Stroheim (“Greed”) was notorious for using offscreen acrimony to get what he wanted onscreen, while the lengths Abdellatif Kechiche took to achieve the three-hour intimacies of “Blue is the Warmest Color” made Léa Seydoux and newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos the first actors to share the Palme d’Or with their writer-director.
Here are four directors who stop at nothing to wring performances from their actors.
1. Lars von Trier
From enslaving Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” taking the scissors to Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Antichrist” or fashioning Emily Watson the patron saint of selfless S&M in “Breaking the Waves,” the dastardly Dane asks a lot of his women. But that’s because they’re actually playing him, or some abstract version of his twisted Id. Women in von Trier psychodramas are the keepers of his gloomy worldview.
His latest film “Nymphomaniac” is no exception to the rule. Von Trier shoots Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who’re both playing detached sex addict Joe at various stages in her lusty life, from all angles: naked, shabby, bleeding, whipped, screwed, choked, what-have-you. But like all his female characters, the women have more agency than they’re given credit for. How could you argue that by the apocalyptic end of “Dogville,” for example, Nicole Kidman’s Grace isn’t calling the shots?
Aside from an appearance here or there in her partner Matthew Barney’s experimental films, singer Bjork famously called it quits from acting after completing “Dancer in the Dark,” where she was known to disappear from the set and, according to von Trier himself, tell him every day when she got to work in the morning how much she hated him and spit at him. She reportedly ate a sweater out of frustration.
But the film won both the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes — as von Trier’s leads often do at the French fest (Gainsbourg for “Antichrist,” Kirsten Dunst for “Melancholia”). And it would appear that von Trier has softened a bit, since Gainsbourg has thrice now been up to the task of embodying his misanthropic characters. Clearly she loves the work. In a recent New York Magazine profile, Gainsbourg seems worried about whether he will direct her again or not.
Quite a bit of actor/director sadomasochism also goes down on the set of Aronofsky films and you don’t have to read a New Yorker profile to get it. Aronofsky, who swings back and forth between indie maverick and studio auteur, also demanded much from Ellen Burstyn (“Requiem for a Dream”), Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) and Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”). Clearly the filmmaking was hard on their bodies, which become more emaciated, battered and bloodied as the films progress. The abuse shows, but the actors delivered. All three went on to Oscar nominations, and a win for Portman.
Aronofsky’s bravura camera, by operating tightly in eye-level close-ups and handheld tracking shots, is in its own way a kind of torture, capturing the emotional topography of his subjects down to the microlevel of the facial cue. Similarly, Lars von Trier shoots off the hip as in the largely handheld “Melancholia,” holding the camera off its axis and unflatteringly close to leads Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. When shots are that in-your-face, and when your director is that demanding of you, the methods of madness are torturous.
Details of onset actor-wrangling are well-documented in Tad Friend’s much passed-around profile of Aronofsky and the making of “Noah.” Stars of the diluvian epic were practically waterlogged onset. Explosives were used in close proximity to actors by Aronofsky and his crew without practice and with cavalier carelessness. In an Aronofsky film, what you’re seeing is real, because even in the distorted fairyland of “Black Swan” or the Biblical bombast of “Noah,” it’s always realism that he wants to achieve. In worlds as allegorical as those posed by von Trier and Aronofsky, where violent emotion is the bedrock, such tactile believability is, shall I say, paramount, in winning the audience.
3. Alfred Hitchcock
Amid their widely known feud, Tippi Hedren has Alfred Hitchcock to thank for starting, and then more or less killing, her career. In 1961, Hitch spotted the blonde beauty in a beverage commercial and immediately signed her on for a seven-year contract that yielded two psychosexual thrillers: “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964).
Hitchcock made a hell of Hedren’s life on the set of “The Birds.” She has called him obsessive and a stalker, as dramatized in HBO’s dour “The Girl.” For the film’s climactic scene, where Hedren heads, for reasons unknown, to the second story of the film’s Bodega Bay homestead, Hitchcock had his crew hurl live birds at the actress rather than the fake ones they’d been using all along. The cuts and scratches on her face? All real. Her raw terror throughout? That’s all real, too.
In “Marnie,” Hedren plays a compulsive klepto and habitual liar who gets tossed around like an object from one manhandler to the next. And brewing below the surface is her character’s history of rape and other sexual traumas. The film, now a cult oddity in Hitch’s filmography, flopped and though it didn’t do much for Hedren’s career, she regards the performance as her personal favorite.
4. Stanley Kubrick
Another legendarily antagonistic director was Stanley Kubrick, whose exacting methods many critics and viewers confuse for cold obsessiveness when, in fact, they are the labors of love. But his love was for the work, and not his actors. Watch his daughter Vivian Kubrick’s “Making of ‘The Shining'” and you’ll get an intimate sense of her father’s productions — long hours on locations that more or less became the actors’ homes, seemingly endless takes and verbal abuse from behind the camera.
Shelley Duvall, for one, was not happy. In Vivian’s documentary, you can see what a mess “The Shining” made of the actress, who plays the wife of a crazed, on-and-off-the-wagon murderer. Behind the scenes, Duvall’s hair is falling out, a crumbled tissue is stuffed in her nose, and she’s screaming mad at Kubrick. And for all her efforts, Duvall was slapped with a Razzie nomination and only a handful of editorial accolades. A pity, because she’s brilliant. The performance manifests all the fear, exhaustion and misery that was going on.
When such torturous professional relationships exist for the sake of a shimmering work of art, and when in the end the actress gives the greatest performance in her life — as many of these actors have admitted after the fact — maybe torture has its purpose.