10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Making movies can be a dangerous business. Here we take a look at 10 notorious shoots that in some cases, because their directors were nearly killed in the process, have become more famous than the films themselves.

10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

While dangerous stunts have left actors injured or even killed over the years, the process of filmmaking has, it appears, many demons making the lives of directors – at times – a living hell.

Sometimes it isn’t as obvious as a dangerous action sequence bringing a director closer to his maker. Action-scenes-gone-wrong are undoubtedly one of the contributing factors to films nearly killing their directors but challenging shoots can have a damaging cumulative impact on those at the helm.

Indeed, there are examples of films that did actually kill their directors. The following ten films, however, look at, in many cases, well known films and directors who came close to death trying to bring their cinematic vision to life. These directors survived. Just.

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron

James Cameron - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Ask Ed Harris about filming The Abyss and don’t be surprised if he suddenly becomes a quivering wreck. Apparently, he had such a traumatic experience making the film he refused to talk about it for years afterwards. In fact, he allegedly punched director James Cameron after he continued to film even when Harris believed he was drowning. That fate then nearly took the life of Cameron when his diving suit malfunctioned when he was weighted down at the bottom of a giant water tank.

Deliverance (1972)

John Boorman

John Boorman - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

John Boorman dared to clash with Deliverance’s fiery writer James Dickey on the set. The film marked Dickey’s only experience of the film industry having written the book from which the film was based. Stories from the set noted Dickey’s alcoholism being the cause of several arguments with the director. One of which allegedly saw the World War II ad Korean War veteran break Boorman’s nose and knock out some of his teeth.

CrossBones (2005)

Daniel Zirilli

10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

CrossBones, a horror film about killer pirates and reality TV, suffered the ultimate tragedy when cinematographer Neal Fredericks was killed after a small plane he was flying in crashed off the coast of Florida. The director was on board too along with the pilot and two crew members but they were able to escape the stricken Cessna which crash-landed in water. However, Fredericks was unable to free himself from his harness and sadly died.

The Tournament (2009)

Shero Rauf (Assistant Director)

10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

It was assistant director Shero Rauf who was nearly killed when an action sequence went wrong. A semi-trailer truck was to be turned over during a chase sequence but the air cannon used to complete the crash sent debris towards the production crew. A piece of iron hit Rauf, breaking both his legs. The damage was so severe, it took him two years to walk normally again.

The Sword Of Tipu Sultan (1989)

Sanjay Khan

10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

If you thought American films such as Sorcerer, Apocalypse Now or Twilight Zone: The Movie (which took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen) were horrifying shoots, consider the Indian made-for-tv movie, The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Released in 1989, the film is remembered for the tragic events that took the lives of 62 people. The deaths occurred when a fire broke out in the studio. Poor fire safety standards and the unavailability of firefighting equipment were contributing factors behind the death toll. Director Sanjay Khan survived the fire but suffered major burns which required 13 months on hospital and 72 surgeries.

The Bear (1988)

Jean-Jacquez Annaud

10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Animals and children are notoriously difficult to work with. Jean-Jacquez Annaud found that out the hard way in The Bear. Based on the 1916 novel by James Oliver Curwood, the film tells the story of an orphaned bear cub who joins an adult grizzly as hunters pursue them through the wild of British Columbia. Animatronic animals were used but so were live dogs, horses, honey bees and, of course, bears. One near miss saw the director clawed by a nine-foot Kodiak bear. The director survived to deliver a film that has been lauded by critics and loved by audiences ever since.

The General (1926)

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

The General had its fair share of incidents – there was a foot-crushing, explosions that hurt extras, and a blank charge hitting assistant director Harry Barnes. And director Buster Keaton wasn’t immune when he was knocked unconscious after standing too close to cannon firing.

Fight Harm (Unfinished)

Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Harmony Korine has shown throughout his career he’s a director willing to mine his own debauched fantasies. This came together particularly well in Spring Breakers but not so in his unfinished – and believed to be lost – film Fight Harm. Here, the director pre-empted reality TV with a film crew following him around picking fights with random real people. He believed the cumulative effect of several fights would eventually have comic value. Korine later admitted to being on a lot of Quaaludes which both hindered his judgement and made him somewhat resistant to pain. He eventually came to his senses and quit making the film (after ending up in jail twice). He claims to have shot nine fights before stopping the shoot but his health had temporarily suffered as a result.

Sorcerer

William Friedkin

William Friedkin - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Sorcerer’s shoot has been compared to the hellish production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s therefore unsurprising to hear its director William Friedkin could quite easily have lost his life making it. The production was riddled with conflict – Friedkin fired his director of photography, feuded with the Teamsters, and got rid of five production managers. Perhaps most daring – and dangerous – was his hiring of an arsonist (“Marvin the Torch”) from Queens, New York to blow up a tree for better “authenticity” because the professional special effects crew member (Marcel Vercoutere who had worked on The Exorcist with Friedkin) could not achieve the desired result. If messing around with high explosives and underground criminality wasn’t deadly enough, Friedkin was stricken with malaria too.

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola - 10 Films That Nearly Killed Their Directors

Francis Ford Coppola would later – famously – admit: “We had access to too much money and little by little we went insane”. It was a combination of an arduous shoot in the Philippines, terrible luck, and a mutiny amongst the crew that led to the director to his brush with death. He first suffered an epileptic fit, which he said was the result of guilt over actor Martin Sheen’s heart attack, and then had a nervous breakdown which prompted him to consider suicide.

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. CineGirl Reply

    I knew Apocalypse Now was bad but it’s interesting to read about some of those others.

  2. John Bentley Reply

    Sorcerer was tough on Friedkin. Couple that with Apocalypse Now and you’ve got to think great artistic endeavour comes from, as Coppola would say, a little bit of madness.

  3. Callum Reply

    There’s a great documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now called Hearts of Darkness.

    • Dan
      Dan Reply

      Excellent doc.

  4. Mark Fraser Reply

    Didn’t Kinski pull a gun on Herzog during the shooting of Aguirre?

    • Dan
      Dan Reply

      If he did then – damn – I should have included it! 🙂

  5. Dan Grant Reply

    Fascinating read, Dan. I just recently got a chance to watch Sorcerer for the first time and that bridge scene looked like it was incredibly difficult to film. If they didn’t have proper protection on that film, it’s no wonder it affected the production.

    The Apocalypse Now stories are stuff of legend.

    So many interesting stories here.

    Another one is that Jason Statham almost died while making Expendables 2. A stunt went wrong and he ended up in the water with a military truck almost pinning him to the bottom of the river.

    And on a lighter note, there’s the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Harrison is running from the boulder at the beginning and when you see him almost fall, it was real. The boulder was made of paper mache, but it was big enough that it might have hurt him.

    • Dan
      Dan Reply

      Thanks Dan. A bit of a macabre list but I was inspired to write it after reading Friedkin’s book which details the difficulties he faced making Sorcerer (and the hiring of the arsonist) in addition to watching Apocalypse Now and recalling the various tales that emerged from a very challenging shoot.

  6. Rodney Twelftree Reply

    I still think the best documenatary film ever made was Eleanore Coppola’s Hearts Of Darkness (available on the Apocalypse Now BluRay set in most markets, I think) about the making of Apocalypse Now. A fascinating and never-topped look at the making of a movie, what drives the filmmaker to complete it, and the lengths people will go to for their art.

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