'Fast 8' to 'Criminal Minds': When On-Set Feuds Go Public
A Facebook gripe between co-stars Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson blindsides Universal and a top CBS actor is fired as new media realities mean previously private spats become studio headaches.
On Aug. 8 Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was ready to shoot one of his final scenes with Vin Diesel on Fast 8, the next film in Universal's $4 billion-and-counting franchise. With the 90-degree Atlanta sun beating down, Johnson, director F. Gary Gray and the crew waited patiently for Diesel to emerge from his trailer. And they kept waiting. Throughout the 100-day shoot, the actor and Fast franchise producer often delayed his co-stars, which didn't seem to bother them. Well, no one except Johnson.
"Everything was running smoothly, and this was how Vin has run things for the past several movies," says a source who was on set.
With only days to go, tension between the two tough-guy actors — Johnson, a former professional wrestler, and Diesel, a onetime New York City nightclub bouncer — was no worse than usual. But for reasons unknown to anyone but Johnson, the actor took the taboo step of venting about Fast 8 on Facebook, a move insiders say came out of nowhere and "blindsided" everyone.
"My female co-stars are always amazing, and I love 'em. My male co-stars however are a different story," wrote Johnson, adding that "some" are "chicken shit" and "candy asses."
Though Johnson's words were cryptic, Diesel, 49, is said to have confronted Johnson, 44, the next day over the post and a joke Johnson said on his HBO show Ballers about being "better looking" than Diesel, leading to a heated exchange in Johnson's trailer. Hours later, Diesel was publicly fingered as the source of Johnson's ire. And Universal execs quickly found themselves in the middle of a public beef between two key players in the studio's most important franchise.(Universal declined to comment, as did reps for Johnson and Diesel.)
Insiders say studio chairman Donna Langley nixed the idea of her traveling to the set to make peace because the spat never escalated into a physical altercation. The film's lead producer Neal Moritz was in Rio at the Olympics. Instead, executive vp Mark Sourian, who was on set, was tasked with smoothing egos and keeping the remaining Diesel-Johnson scene on track, which he did.
"What happened is over, and no one expects there to be any lingering effects," says a studio source. "When it comes time to promote the movie, this will have no bearing."
In an era of aggressive press coverage and social media impulsivity, Universal finds itself in an irksome situation where a private on-set drama leaks into the public eye. And just two days after the Diesel-Johnson feud came to light, CBS TV Studios and ABC Studios were forced to address a July fight between Criminal Minds star Thomas Gibson and writer-producer Virgil Williams. Like in the Fast 8 fracas, Gibson, who was directing an episode, began squabbling with Virgil over a work issue (Virgil had written the episode Gibson was directing). But unlike on Fast 8, Gibson is alleged to have kicked Virgil in the shin, and while the studios kept the altercation under wraps for two weeks, Gibson, 54, was suspended and eventually was fired Aug. 12 after the incident became public. He has hired L.A. litigator Skip Miller to pursue a possible lawsuit, while the CBS procedural is writing his character off after 11 seasons.
With Fast 8, the stakes are perhaps higher. Fast & Furious represents Universal's one homegrown megafranchise that is not based on underlying intellectual property and thus is a profits machine. Diesel, who has appeared in all but one of the films, is seen as the cornerstone of the franchise and receives top billing. Johnson, who has become one of the industry’s biggest stars since he first appeared in Fast 5, also is seen as indispensable.
With a ninth and 10th outing planned, the studio took some steps to ensure the brouhaha was contained. Though execs stopped short of reprimanding Johnson for going public, sources say he was warned against any further posts, and he quickly lost good will from the tight Fast 8 team. After all, the actor broke a long-standing rule: What happens on set stays on set.
"Everyone was shocked that The Rock posted that," says an agent who reps a Fast 8 principal. "That was seen as kind of unacceptable."
On-set feuds and scandals are far from uncommon, but those that are exposed to public glare are rare. Most tend to center on mercurial directors venting on talent and crew, like David O. Russell engaging in a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, which Clooney later openly discussed. Russell also berated I [Heart] Huckabees actress Lily Tomlin in an infamous video that leaked online (Clooney has been rumored to be the culprit but denied culpability in a statement and offered $1 million to anyone who could prove it). Another leak proved to be bad publicity for Christian Bale, whose rant at a Terminator Salvation director of photography went viral. Megan Fox equated Michael Bay with Hitler in an interview and was promptly tossed from the Transformers franchise (they later made up). And Halle Berry and Bryan Singer went head to head on the set of X-Men 2, prompting Berry to say, “You can watch my black ass while I walk out of here,” as Singer later recalled. (Multiple sources say Singer had gone AWOL during production, angering the cast).
Studios and producers once worked diligently to keep a lid on potential leaks. But in today's media environment, all bets are off. "Now that every actor and crewmember can publish stories from your set right onto Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook, it is infinitely more complicated to maintain a lockdown," says producer Aaron Kaufman.
As Robert Rodriguez's producing partner, Kaufman was on hand when 2007's Grindhouse ground to a halt after the director's affair with star Rose McGowan went public, jeopardizing Rodriguez's marriage to the film's producer Elizabeth Avellan. Kaufman had better luck keeping Lindsay Lohan's erratic behavior on Machete from becoming common knowledge. When the day came to shoot an opening scene sequence, she was a no-show. At the time, Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush was on to the story, but Kaufman says he fended Bush off, assuring the TV personality that all was good with the actress.
"Every crewmember has a crazy story to tell but generally keeps it sacrosanct [during production] as part of the job," adds Kaufman.
On Criminal Minds, producers now may be forced to explain why Gibson's alleged previous outbursts, including shoving an assistant director, had been met with a slap on the wrist and "anger management" sessions.
Film and TV shoots put creative people in strenuous conditions — often working 15-hour days — so it's no surprise that tempers flare. At the same time, stars like Diesel and Johnson have become valuable to studios thanks to their social media activity. Johnson boasts 56.7 million Facebook likes and has promoted movies like his Baywatch reboot with shared pics and messages during production. Diesel, who has more than 100 million Facebook likes, was a key conduit for Universal to Fast fans in the aftermath of Paul Walker's death. But sharing can come at a price. Talent increasingly is willing to expose a side of production that the studio wants unsaid (think director Josh Trank and his disparaging Fantastic Four tweets on the eve of the film's release).
"If people behave poorly, they face being exposed in a whole new way," says producer Matthew Baer (Unbroken). "It's imperative for a producer to do everything they can to maintain the privacy of a production. But if someone wants information out there, it's hard to successfully control it."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.