No one should ever die because of the production of a film. However, mistakes happen, and with the moviemaking workforce sometimes going to great lengths to bring us sensational entertainment, lives may be lost in the process.
Whether it’s due to horrific on-set accidents, or from illnesses contracted from film productions, or from the filmmaker’s own insanity, not even directors are safe from the fatalities that can arise due to carelessness, bad luck, or lack of preparation and safety.
A few of the directors listed below managed to evade disaster, sometimes by their own sensible decision making, but not all filmmakers are as lucky.
1. Andrei Tarkovsky (“Stalker”) – Possible radiation poisoning
The artful and very European Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who arguably had the most influence on European cinema, died early at 54 of lung cancer, just a few months after the release of his last film “The Sacrifice”, which (as revealed in its accompanying documentary, also directed by Tarkovsky) he was working on in its post-production stage from his bed. He was also too ill to attend the film’s premiere in Cannes earlier that year, where it won a number of prizes.
Mostly due to his young age at his death, a rumor began spreading that he was assassinated by the KGB (the security agency during the Soviet communist era), because they viewed his films (especially his last two outside of Russia) to be anti-Soviet propaganda.
However, a more reasonable explanation for his sudden death comes from sound designer Vladimir Sharun, of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film “Stalker”, who claims that since Tarkovsky, the film’s actor Anatoly Solonitsyn, and assistant director (and Tarkovsky’s wife) Larisa Tarkovskaya all succumbed to the same rare type of lung cancer, he hypothesised that they were all poisoned by radiation during the filming of that movie.
They were all doubly exposed as they had to shoot a large portion of the movie twice, as a good deal of the filmed footage was rendered unusable during its processing stage. “Stalker” was filmed just seven years before the Chernobyl disaster, so unfortunately for the crew, there was not enough awareness of the poisonous materials that were in the environment, and the deadly potential that they evidently had.
According to Sharun, they were filming in Tallinn near a half-functioning hydroelectric station. He said, “Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in ’Stalker’, snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces.”
These subsequent deaths were the final blow of what was already a massively troubled production, but “Stalker” (like with all of Tarkovsky’s seven films) has since been praised as a landmark and quintessential arthouse film. This notion of dying for your art was mused over by Erland Josephson’s character in “The Sacrifice” when he says, “Every gift involves a sacrifice. If not, what kind of gift would it be?”
2. Harmony Korine (“Fight Harm”, unfinished) – Almost died from injuries from fights
The young writer/director/enfant terrible from Nashville tried to make the ultimate comedy film, even one he was willing to get hurt and die for, after having success with his first screenplay (“Kids”) and his directorial debut (“Gummo”).
In the late 90s, Harmony Korine had the idea for his new film “Fight Harm”, which would’ve simply been compiled of real-life footage of him picking fights with different people on the streets (and often losing). Korine later claimed he was on a lot of Quaaludes at the time and it hindered his judgment (but also seemed to make him resistant to pain).
This sort of premise must’ve seemed very bizarre and upsetting in these pre-”Jackass” days, but he was convinced it would’ve been a “gutbuster.” “I figured the essence of comedy is tragic,” he told Interview magazine in 2008. “So I thought the simplest thing would be to get into a series of fights. If it was just one fight, it wouldn’t be funny, but I thought after the 15th, because of the repetition, the humor would start to kick in.” He even had the idea that this avant-garde Dadaist collection of fights would even be able to play in cineplexes in shopping malls.
We’ll never know how it would’ve done, as the film was never completed, with Korine seemingly coming to his senses and realizing the cumulative effect these disastrous fights could have on his health (especially if he was picking fights with bouncers). He claims he managed to get nine fights shot, which was edited down to 15 minutes, meaning he would have to do another few dozen fights to make up a feature-length 90-minute film.
Since he’d already suffered a few injuries and had been thrown in jail twice for these shenanigans (with a warning that a third time would result in a harsher penalty), Korine decided he’d have to give up his dream project to keep himself alive (or at least out of prison).
The footage that was shot apparently burned down in a house fire, so there’s no likelihood of any footage of the project coming to life, and it remains a curiosity, even in Korine’s already very curious film career.
3. Theo Angelopoulos (“The Other Sea”, unfinished) – Killed by motorcyclist
The great Greek filmmaker, who crafted some of the most poetic films ever made, came to a tragic yet rather anticlimactic demise whilst in production of “The Other Sea”, the final film in his trilogy on modern Greece.
On January 24, 2012, while filming on location in Drapetsona, Angelopoulos was accidentally struck by a motorcycle driven by an off-duty policeman when he tried crossing a busy intersection, which resulted in his death a few hours later in the hospital.
The incident was regarded as a misfortunate accident, with the policeman not charged and the cinema world left with one fewer genius in its midst. Angelopoulos had worked on four trilogies in his filmmaking career, on History, Silence, and Borders, though his final trilogy will remain incomplete, which has upset world cinema fans all around the globe (especially the obsessive compulsive).
Although this tragedy received lukewarm mourning in film and journalism culture, Angelopoulos is debatably the most important film director to come from his country, having directed the Palme d’Or winning “Eternity and a Day” (1998), which came after his masterpiece “Ulysses’ Gaze” (1995); he also helmed the very lofty 222-minute “The Travelling Players” (1975), which documents a moving theatre production as they move across war-ravaged Greece.
Angelopoulos was 76 at the time of his death, yet had no known illnesses and very likely could have continued his influential and inspired filmmaking career for a bit longer.
4. Barbet Schroeder (“Barfly”) – Almost severed finger (purposefully)
Only a film written by alcoholic novelist Charles Bukowski could have a story this crazy attached to it. Director Barbet Schroeder had spent seven years trying to get “Barfly” funded, the first (and only) screenplay written by Bukowski, which was to star Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, the autobiographical literary alter ego of Bukowski that had appeared in most of his novels and short stories.
The screenplay was commissioned in 1979, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that its funding with the infamous Cannon Productions came to a halt and it ended up losing its green-light status, with the company believing its limited funds would be better spent on a different film that featured a more prominent actor.
Luckily for “Barfly”, Schroeder knew exactly how he could convince the studio’s boss, Menahem Golan, to allow them the funding; he showed up in his office, along with Bukowski and a chainsaw, and threatened to cut off his finger if he did not receive the funding. He said he would continue to send Golan a piece of his body for every day the film didn’t get made.
This was obviously a metaphor that Cannon Productions was cutting away a piece of the director when they wouldn’t allow the film to get made (at least that’s what the director says). According to Bukowski, Schroeder was very serious about this threat and injected his pinky finger with novocaine right there and then in front of Golan.
The head honcho of Cannon Productions had been witness to many crazy antics of the many crazed (and dedicated) filmmakers that had come to the studio to finance their films, but he believed at this point that things were too heated this time; before Schroeder could make the incision, Golan reinstated the film’s $3 million budget as he had initially promised.
The film got made, under Schroeder’s direction, and it didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, though it was a one-off curiosity as a Bukowski-penned film about his life and times spent in dive bars and cheap apartments (and made one of the many tales to end up in Bukowski’s novel about this experience, simply titled “Hollywood”).
Many Bukowski fans would claim that it is better than any of other film adaptations of his novels, and it’s gone on to cult success as one of Cannon Productions’ most endearing films.