Several “talented” artists may contend for the title of the worst-ever filmmaker. There is Uwe Boll, an expert in failed adaptations of video game franchises, Ed Wood, a 1960s classic, and a self-taught amateur Tommy Wiseau, to name just a few. However, in terms of completed works, there is no match for a Hollywood legend – Alan Smithee. He made more than 60 very bad movies in his career. Who is this genius of bad taste?
Enormously powerful forces clash while making a movie. Theoretically, the director has the dominant power on the set, however in practice, s/he is subjected to the studio and producers. Film studios frequently try to influence directors to force a completely adverse vision of the movie. The director tries to make a gloomy work, whereas the studio wants the movie to receive a rating making it suitable for all ages. The director seeks flamboyance, but the producer wants to economize. Needless to say, some capricious actors may ruin the movie production. The director does his (or her) best to reconcile their vision with the requirements of others, however, sometimes even the best efforts are futile and the completed work has nothing to do with the planned movie. This is when Alan Smithee comes into play.
Death of a Gunfighter
Before 1968 the regulations of the Directors Guild of America did not make it possible to use pseudonyms. The aim was to protect directors against producers, who could blackmail this way the subordinates they find problematic. “If you don’t make the movie the way we want it, you’re out of the credits.” The situation changed in 1969, when the movie Death of a Gunfighter, directed by Robert Totten, was made. While the movie was being shot, the actor Richard Widmark forced an engagement of a new director – Don Siegel. Siegel spent 10 days on the set, whereas Totten as many as 25. Siegel concluded, then, that Totten should be credited as the director, however, the latter declined. The two men lodged a complaint with the Directors Guild, and the members of the board dealing with the dispute decided the movie does not represent the vision of either of the directors. For this reason, the solution of the Guild was to credit the movie to a fictional director, Alan Smith. However, when it turned out several directors bear this name, it was changed to Smithee. This is how a scapegoat was created, who was to take the responsibility for the movies whose authors did not want to recognize as theirs.
Ironically, the movie received critical acclaim. Even Roger Ebert, a famous film critic, was enthusiastic. Death of a Gunfighter proved to be one of the best-rated movies of 1969. Following the precedent, several directors requested the Guild to remove their names from the credits. Alan Smithee became an industry standard soon. Directors of dozens of movies used the name.
Although Smithee was supposed to be an industry secret, it soon became an elephant in the room. “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn” was made in 1997. The movie is about the director named Alan Smithee, who is so dissatisfied with the work that he decides to renounce it, however, the only solution the Guild offers him is his own name. The movie was directed by Arthur Hiller. What is really ironic is the fact that as a result of the studio’s pressure Hiller denounced the movie and the film about Alan Smithee was credited with the name of a fictional director. The confusion surrounding the film caused the name Smithee to become mainstream. For this reason, the Guild gave up its use. Since then the directors have been choosing a pseudonym to be used in the movie. The Supernova director, Walter Hill, chose to be Thomas Lee, and Accidental Love director, David O. Russell, left the product credited to Stephen Greene.