Filmmaking is, occasionally, a labor of love. Mostly, though, it’s a labor of endurance, patience, and compromise—a lot of compromises—between directors and pretty much everyone else. When the system works, it’s nothing short of a miracle. When miracles won’t come, Alan Smithee steps in.
Alan Smithee is, arguably, the worst director of all time. He directed the television cuts of the 1984 Dune film, Catchfire, Woman Wanted, and even a Hellraiser movie. Pretty impressive...for a nonexistent human being.
Alan (or Allen) Smithee isn’t real. The name is actually a pseudonym created by the Directors Guild of America to help real directors distance themselves from particularly terrible projects. Before you start trying to sort out why Cats wasn’t credited to Alan Smithee, hold tight: the name can only be used if a director can prove to the DGA that the studio or producers didn’t allow a director their contractually-obligated days with the editor of the film, or if the final product is drastically different from the director’s intent. Basically, Alan Smithee can’t come to the rescue of a director who screwed up a project on their own accord.
The name “Allen Smithee” was invented for 1969’s Death of a Gunfighter. Two directors had shot footage for the film; the first, Robert Totten, had left the project after star Richard Widmark monopolized creative decisions, a second director, Don Siegel, also didn’t want his name on the project. So the Guild invented a name that was generic enough to be immemorable, but not so common that it was shared with anyone working in Hollywood. (Note: The Guild created a pseudonym for female directors, Alana Smithee, but it was never used. It’s important to remember the industry’s sexism punishes women directors far more harshly for missteps, real or perceived, and offers far fewer directing gigs to women in the first place.)
Smithee’s career spanned roughly 30 years before “retiring” officially in 2000. The name had become damaged goods after An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn blew up the secret. The film’s main character is a fictional director who wanted to distance himself from his work but can’t because his name is Alan Smithee. Ironically, Arthur Hiller, the real director of Burn Hollywood Burn, was allowed to use the Alan Smithee name after he was squeezed out of the edit room.
Above, take a look at a video that goes in-depth on David Lynch’s own experience with Smithee, and below find out more about his experience and learn about a few other Smithee career “highlights.”
Possibly the Smithee credit most familiar to sci-fi fans, Dune proved to be a nightmare for director David Lynch from the beginning. Although he rarely speaks of it, he once called the film a “huge, gigantic sadness” in an interview with the Manchester International Festival. Producers Dino De Laurentiis and Raffaella De Laurentiis approached Lynch for the gig based on his work on Oscar-winning The Elephant Man. However, they hadn’t watched Lynch’s surrealist, body horror film Eraserhead prior to hiring him for Dune. In short, they didn’t quite have the full picture of Lynch as a director.
Lynch, too, was not really prepared for a project of Dune’s scale. The production was besieged by crisis after crisis. A 1983 New York Times article described a total shitshow: “A shipment of 1,000 pounds of spaghetti was stuck in customs for three months. The bed of an ancient volcano that was to be used as a location turned out to be a dump for the carcasses of dead dogs.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a fun set.
When Lynch presented his very long cut of the film to Universal, he and producers were urged to trim the film to a more traditional two-hour runtime. The problem with that, as many Frank Herbert fans know, is the world of Dune is extremely complicated. So, when Lynch was forced to excise more than an hour of footage, then hastily reshoot the connective tissue of the film (including Dune’s infamous opening monologue), the end result was a film described by Roger Ebert as a “real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Universal must have realized it had a doozy on its hands because theatergoers were offered a glossary of major people, places, and things in the Dune-iverse.
Directors of movies funded by major studios rarely get what’s called “final cut privilege.” Essentially, the director will offer their version of a film, but the studio gets the final say. Dune was the same. Since the whole debacle, Lynch has insisted on final cut privileges on all of his projects. Universal attempted a re-cut itself, expanding Dune’s runtime by about an hour and adding even more expository monologues. That cut aired on TV, then was revised yet again for a DVD release in 2006. The studio approached Lynch for a director’s cut, but he refused further involvement. Thus, subsequent cuts of Dune, including the three-hour TV version, are credited to Alan Smithee.
This 1996 film was a mess from start to finish. Director Kevin Yagher was no horror rookie—he’s most famous for his SFX work, having designed the Chucky doll, Freddy Kreuger’s makeup, and the Cryptkeeper—but Hellraiser: Bloodline proved to be a surprising nightmare.
The film was reportedly greenlit by Miramax and subsidiary Dimension Films without requiring an outline—the first of many mistakes, as the studio would later be confused and alarmed by the plotline of the first cut they saw. Yagher told the Clive Barker podcast about the whole experience. According to him, producer Bob Weinstein felt the film would be more profitable if it had a PG-13 rating—a friend of Weinstein had a son who wanted to see the latest Highlander movie, but couldn’t because it was rated R.
This, obviously, led to a ton of confusion on set, as Pinhead’s trademark hooks and chains were considered too gory. Yagher explained, “If you take this away, it’s [like] taking Freddy’s glove away from him.”
For a horror director, knowing exactly how much blood n’ guts are allowed in a shot is pretty important! The studio ended up ordering more reshoots, and Yagher removed his name from the project, adding Smithee. Sadly, he hasn’t directed anything since.
This Smithee project is one of the rare few that isn’t really the studio’s fault. Upon release, Meet Joe Black was criticized for its long runtime and lumbering pace. (This wasn’t even real director Martin Brest’s worst project—the director of the acclaimed Scent of a Woman also gave us infamous turkey Gigli.)
So where did Smithee come in? Airline cuts of Meet Joe Black cut out a full hour of subplot involving the business dealings of Anthony Hopkins’ character. Since Brest didn’t sign off on the changes, Smithee took the credit. While we couldn’t get our hands on these airline versions, we suspect the cuts may have actually improved the film. Roger Ebert wrote of Meet Joe Black: “Less is more.”
Even though Alan Smithee is officially retired, the issue of conflict on films hasn’t disappeared: 2019’s Wonder Park arrived in theaters without a credited director—animation directors aren’t represented by the Director’s Guild, but that particular situation was even more complicated—and more directors every day are discussing studio interference on social media.
It’s unclear if another pseudonym has replaced Smithee, though it would be a lot harder to fake an entire human being in the days of consistently publicized press tours. The DGA did not respond to io9's query about Smithee’s replacement, but we’ll be sure to let you know if we spot a mysterious new director in town.
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