Box office disasters probably rank highly among most directors’ regrets. Others might regret reports of less-than-professional antics on set leaking out to the press. But some highly-successful directors have reached a status where they do not have to worry about box office failures or insubordinate actors.
Yet a surprising number of these superstar directors have expressed regret at some famous scenes and films they have made because of unintended side-effects or featuring things that later became socially unacceptable. In no particular order, here are ten major filmmakers who had regrets about their famous films.
10 Jaws–Steven Spielberg
It might not be unreasonable to say that Steven Spielberg, considered one of cinema’s greatest storytellers, could change the world from his director’s chair. But it might not change for the better. His 1975 classic, Jaws, has been blamed for causing the North American shark population to shrink by an estimated 50 percent.
Some experts say the movie encouraged a shark hunting frenzy, and Spielberg admitted this might be the case in a 2022 interview. He reported that he still regrets the situation today and jointly blames the book and his film. However, Spielberg need not be so hard on himself, according to the head of the Shark Trust. He thinks the film’s influence is overstated, and the true culprit is overfishing.
9 Midnight Express–Oliver Stone
Stone won an Oscar for writing this 1979 classic. Why does he regret it? The answer is over-dramatization. The movie tells the true tale of Billy Hayes, an American locked up in Turkey for drug smuggling. While imprisoned, he is subject to some unsavory treatment by the locals. The trouble was Stone’s script was so successful it imposed an unwelcome stereotype upon Turkish people in real life.
In the decades after its release, Turkey accused the movie of exacerbating racist attitudes toward the country. Americans came to believe Turkey was a country with a medieval justice system ignorant of human rights. In reality, however, foreigners were treated better than Turkish prisoners, and the country was making strong human rights progress at the time.
Stone did not deny this when he met with Turkey’s Culture and Tourism minister in 2004 and admitted to over-dramatizing the script. Turkey said the filmmaker’s apology was important but would not heal the wounds they suffered from criticism by artists.
8 Terminator–James Cameron
Known for blockbusters like Titanic and Avatar, moviegoers are unlikely to consider James Cameron an excessively violent director. Yet that is how he sees himself, especially in his earlier films like Terminator and True Lies. He claims these movies trouble him because they have too much gun violence, which has no place in moral moviemaking in the current century.
Cameron has questioned whether he would make films like Terminator today, which he worries fetishizes guns. This led him to cut 10 minutes of surplus violent action from Avatar: The Way of the Water. Being an action director, he admits his movies still need conflict, but he strives to keep it purposeful rather than gratuitous.
7 Sabotage–Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock also regretted unnecessary violence. No, not Psycho, but a scene from his 1936 movie Sabotage. The plot sees an anarchist trying to bomb London’s Picadilly Circus. The finale is filled with Hitchcock’s characteristic suspense as an undercover detective tries to find the terrorist without giving himself away. To avoid the detective, the terrorist passes the bomb—disguised as a parcel—to a little boy, who then boards a bus. “Surely he would never,” audiences would likely have been thinking at this point.
Spoiler alert—Hitchcock did. The bomb explodes, presumably killing everyone on board. Did I mention the boy was sitting next to an adorable puppy too? The ending received heavy criticism, and Hitchcock contributed to it later and admitted he regretted the scene. He said the bomb should have been thrown out and described killing the child as “close to an abuse of cinematic power.”
6 The Great Dictator– Charlie Chaplin
The Great Dictator was Charlie Chaplin’s most successful film and has been cited by experts as his most important. The film sees Chaplin taking on the role of Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler, making little effort to conceal the subject. Today, we might see little harm in lampooning one of history’s most evil men, but Chaplin regretted making the movie after the horrors of the concentration camps were revealed.
In his autobiography, he wrote that he would not have made fun of the Nazi’s “homicidal insanity” had he known about it sooner. The film came back into public consciousness in 2014 with the controversial release of The Dictator, which features a parody of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It raised the same question Chaplin grappled with about whether it is okay to mock such maleficent leaders.
5 The Evil Dead–Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi probably has some regrets about 2007’s Spiderman 3, but long before Peter Parker was dancing in the streets of NYC, Raimi made his name with a legendary low-budget horror flick called The Evil Dead. Cheap on special effects but rich in blood and gore, Raimi’s 1981 debut inspired four more movies and a TV series. But there is one infamous scene Raimi thinks he should have left on the cutting room floor.
It involves a demonically-possessed tree branch and a vulnerable woman. This author thinks it is probably unnecessary to say more. Those who have seen the movie will remember, and those who have not can easily imagine. Upon reflection, Raimi found the scene too gratuitous and offensive. He said in an interview that his goal was never to offend, only to entertain, thrill, and scare people. That said, a 2013 remake produced by Raimi included a similar scene.
4 The Godfather Parts II and III—Francis Ford Coppola
“There should have only been one” was the surprising response of this Oscar-winning director when asked if he would make more Godfather movies. Even more strange considering it was Part II that won him Best Director. Why would he regret creating one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history? Coppola believes it led to the scores of remakes and sequels that studios put out today, stifling originality and experimentation.
He laments the loss of good studios, which he defines as those that let directors make one film likely to be a hit and another, more experimental film with less chance of success. He worries the businessmen in charge of studios today, having seen the success of trilogies like the Godfather, only want to produce movies likely to make money.
3 A Clockwork Orange–Stanley Kubrick
Who would have thought the “most effective censorship of a film in British history” would be enacted by the movie’s director? In 1974, Stanley Kubrick stopped allowing this famous flick to be shown under any circumstances, going so far as to force cinemas out of business for screening it. However, Kubrick did not censor the famously violent movie because he believed it encouraged viewers to be violent. He banned it because others believed that, and he could not stand to see his film blamed for crimes.
Kubrick did not believe art caused real-life violence; complex social and economic factors did. Kubrick was insulted by the association politicians and film reviewers were making and believed they misunderstood the movie’s message. One newspaper even predicted the movie would inspire a teenage cult that would terrorize society. The movie was re-released in the UK in 2000, a year after Kubrick died. No copycat cult emerged, and the movie is now considered a classic, proving the legendary director was right all along.
2 Animal House–John Landis
There is only one specific prop that John Landis regrets including in this 1978 National Lampoon flick: a Confederate flag adorning a dorm room wall. The movie was shot in a real fraternity house where the controversial flag was already hung on the wall. Although it was not put there by the director, in 2021, the director admitted regretting his “who cares?” attitude, which led him to leave it in the frame. Landis said he cares today, acknowledging the flag as a symbol for racism and slavery as much as southern pride.
However, the flag is the only thing he would change in the movie, which he believes would not get made today. Landis admits that the sexual politics and characters in the movie are outrageous but also says it is clearly an exaggerated and parodied version of reality that really connected with viewers. This allowed the film to overcome the initial negative critical response and become a comedy classic.
1 Vice–Adam McKay
Adam McKay agreed with some of the criticism leveled at his 2018 movie Vice, which saw Christian Bale satirizing the life of former-Vice President Dick Cheney. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but critics could not overlook how McKay avoided blaming Democrats for their role in the Iraq war. In a 2022 interview, McKay admitted he thought that was a fair criticism and said he regretted not putting more blame on the Democrats for going along with the invasion.
But in general, he thought the movie was a force for good. Although the Cheney family hated it, he believes it might have influenced Liz Cheney’s change of heart about gay marriage, which she was previously strongly against despite V.P. Cheney’s other daughter being in a same-sex relationship.