Nine Filmmakers Who Were Murdered

Adrienne Shelly

By and large, "filmmaker" is a pretty safe career choice. Most live long, healthy lives, remaining both creative and well-respected into old age. But history is still peppered with the occasional violent death of a prominent director. Most of these people you've probably never heard of, but as they say, behind every murder is a great story.

  1. Theo van Gogh. This Dutch filmmaker would have only been known for being a descendant of the famous painter's brother, had it not been for a documentary he made called Submission about the mistreatment of women in Islam. A Muslim extremist didn't think highly of this film and shot – then stabbed – van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam.
  2. Adrienne Shelly. Currently the best-known, and perhaps the most senseless, murder of a film director, indie actress Shelly was killed in 2006 while editing her first feature as director, Waitress, after an altercation with a construction worker who was making too much noise working on the apartment below. The worker, an illegal immigrant, struck Shelly in the head, knocking her unconscious. If he had walked away, Shelly would still be alive. But, mistakenly believing that he killed her, he tried to cover his tracks by staging a suicide, hanging Shelly from a shower rod. And that's what caused her death.
  3. William Desmond Taylor. It still pains people to talk about the murders of Theo van Gogh and Adrienne Shelly because they're both recent and topical (Muslim extremism, illegal immigrants). But Taylor's death has sunken so deeply into the murk of Hollywood lore that all tragedy has faded and the story now reads like an Agatha Christie novel. Whodunnit? And why? What we know is that the successful director was found dead in his apartment, shot in the back. The year was 1922. His murder has never been solved, though it's long been rumored that teenage starlet Mary Miles Minter and her mother were behind it.
  4. Thomas Ince. Two years after Taylor's death, another great Hollywood mystery was born when director-turned-producer Thomas Ince was declared dead. Ince was a guest on a weekend boat trip hosted by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. According to legend, another guest, one Charlie Chaplin, was having an affair at the time with Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies. Hearst, insane with jealousy, loaded his pistol and attempted to kill Chaplin – only he accidentally shot Ince instead. However, the official story remains that Ince took ill on the boat and then died of a heart attack after being taken ashore. The world will never know what really happened.
  5. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini was one of the great Italian directors of the '60s and '70s. He was also an accomplished novelist, playwright, and poet. In 1975, shortly after the release of his controversial last feature Salo, Pasolini was run over several times by his own car. His killer has never been found, though he had made so many enemies because of his political views and his connections to the Rome demimonde that nearly everybody was a suspect.
  6. Francis Boggs. Nobody knows the name Francis Boggs today, but he is credited with having brought the movies to Los Angeles, back in 1909, by establishing the first permanent studio here. Two years later, the actor-director, who made over 200 one-reel films during his short career, was shot by "a mentally disturbed employee" and soon forgotten.
  7. Helen Hill. No less tragic than Adrienne Shelly's death, but much less reported, experimental animator Helen Hill was shot in her New Orleans home by an intruder in early 2007. Here, too, the person who murdered her has not been found. Hill had attended my program at CalArts shortly after I graduated. I never knew her, but we share many friends. She was 36.
  8. James Miller. This Welsh journalist, cameraman and filmmaker was shooting a documentary in Palestine in 2003 when an Israeli soldier ignored Miller's white flag and his colleague's cry ("We are British journalists!") and opened fire, killing Miller. British courts ruled that this was technically murder, and Miller's family is still pushing to have the soldier prosecuted. The documentary was later released with the title Death in Gaza and covers the death of Miller, credited as its director.
  9. Joan Root. It is rather disturbing that, of the only ten filmmakers I could find who were murdered (the tenth, Russian documentarian Yevgeny Zorin, is too obscure even for this list – all that is known is that he was cut up and found in a toilet pipe in Moscow), three of them are women. Root was a white, Kenyan-born conservationist who had made a number of wildlife documentaries with her husband Alan; one of them was nominated for an Oscar. After joining a controversial anti-poaching group in Kenya, she made some enemies in this hostile region, and as many as four men invaded her home in 1996 and shot the 69-year-old filmmaker to death. (Two were arrested.) As of this writing, Hollywood is trying to turn this story into a Julia Roberts vehicle. And so it goes.