The method and the madness of film directors

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Infamous obsessive James Cameron spent £180m on 'Avatar', which opens this week, making it the most expensive movie ever shot. Andrew Johnson and Rachel Shields look at the giants – and tyrants – of the film world

In film circles he is known as "Attila" and it is not a compliment to his conquest of the box office. James Cameron has given the world The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic.

Now he is about to seal his place in film history with Avatar, which goes on general release this week after its premier in London last Thursday. At $300m (£184m), it's the most expensive film ever made. Its 3D effects are so revolutionary the camera had to be reinvented to film them. It is already being hailed as a "game-changing movie". While his friends regard him as a genius, Cameron's detractors say that, like Attila, he doesn't care what it takes to succeed.

Nor is he alone. Hollywood has produced a slew of monsters who lurk behind the camera. Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson all have their detractors, usually people who have worked with them. Dr Ed Gallafent, who teaches film at Warwick University, said that once a director has enjoyed a hit it's easier to attract stars and money – and to wield power. The bottom line, however, is always money.

"There's still a lot of cachet in bringing in movies on time and on budget," he said. "But you only see the arrogant directors who are successful. If you're an executive at a big studio you might want to wheel out James Cameron to make a splash. But the people putting up the $300m to make Avatar want their money back. If the film isn't successful, then these directors are no longer allowed to indulge themselves."

Rosie Fletcher, news editor of Total Film magazine, added that the egomania that drives the most successful directors is found less often in their female counterparts: "If you're going to be a successful director, you've got to be very confident and bold and outspoken, and be willing to fight, and those aren't traits that are encouraged in girls when they're growing up."

James Cameron

"The ultimate dictator" and "furiously tempered", according to Titanic star Kate Winslet, who also described working with him as "an ordeal". Three stuntmen on Titanic broke bones. Winslet chipped a bone and said she nearly drowned. Cameron dismissed that as "a little spluttering and coughing". As a director, he is one of the most successful.

Method: 3/5

Madness: 3/5

Box Office: 5/5

Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino is obsessed with the word "Nigger", which he used liberally in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, prompting the black film director Spike Lee to call him "ignorant", adding: "What does he want? To be made an honorary black man?" He also has a well-documented foot fetish.

Method: 3/5

Madness: 2/5

Box Office: 5/5

Stanley Kubrick

The actress Shelley Winters said he was "elusive". He was, in fact, extremely shy. When he died in 1999 it was said that only his closest friends and family knew what the director of The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut looked like. Kubrick, an American, spent 40 years in England because he was scared of flying and rarely ventured beyond his manor house in Hertfordshire.

Method: 5/5

Madness: 3/5

Box Office: 4/5

Tim Burton

Burton decorates his Christmas tree with models of dead babies and slime, according to his partner, Helena Bonham Carter, whom he lives next door to in London. The Corpse Bride director's home, she added, is decorated with "dead Oompa-Loompas and multicoloured fibreglass alien lamps".

Method: 5/5

Madness: 5/5

Box Office: 4/5

Mary Harron

Mary Harron is a rare Hollywood beast – a female director. She has given us I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, about the 1950s soft-porn pin- up. She's currently adapting The Moth Diaries, a novel about obsession in a girls' boarding school. The student girlfriend of Tony Blair likes exploring the nether regions of the mind, with sex and violence a running theme.

Method: 4/5

Madness: 3/5

Box Office: 2/5

Wes Anderson

"I think he's a little sociopathic," Anderson's director of photography on Fantastic Mr Fox said. Anderson directed the film by email.

Method: 4/5

Madness: 3/5

Box Office: 3/5

Alfred Hitchcock

The master of suspense tied real birds to Tippi Hedren for the attack scene in The Birds. And then threw others at her. Hedren says no famous actress would have put up with him. He carried out his threat to ruin her career when she decided to stop working with him.

Method: 4/5

Madness: 4/5

Box Office: 4/5

Orson Welles

When Rita Hayworth divorced Welles, she said she couldn't "take his genius any more". He directed Citizen Kane – about the perils of megalomania – when he was 25 and went on to be a megalomaniac and troubled genius who lost his battles with the studios and himself.

Method: 4/5

Madness: 3/5

Box Office: 2/5

Lars von Trier

Bjork would greet Von Trier every day during the shooting for Dancer in the Dark with the words "I despise you," and spit at him. He called Roman Polanski a "dwarf" for giving him only a runners-up medal at Cannes in 1991. This year he described himself as "the best film director in the world", and says the best way to prepare for sex scenes is to direct naked. Von Trier has suffered from depression and his many phobias include flying, underground structures and hospitals.

Method: 3/5

Madness: 4/5

Box Office: 3/5

Oliver Stone

The Washington Post described JFK, his take on the Kennedy assassination, as a "three-hour lie from an intellectual sociopath". The liberal Mr Stone certainly splits opinion. Sarah Palin revealed in her recent autobiography that she was proud not to shake his hand.

Method: 3/5

Madness: 1/5

Box Office: 4/5

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