You’ve seen his movies, but you may not be aware that they are his. You’ve heard his name, but you may have missed it. You have read his credits but didn’t know it was him. Welcome to the movies of Alan Smithee, the greatest director that never was.
Alan Smithee made his directorial debut with 1968’s Death of a Gunfighter. From there, he has had more than five decades of craptacular movies that are so bad that some have become iconic. And it’s more than just movies. He has his share of television work as well.
But here’s the thing… he doesn’t exist.
As Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption: “He’s a figment, an apparition. Second cousin to Harvey the Rabbit. I conjured him out of thin air.”
Alan Smithee is the throwaway name that directors use when they don’t want their own name attached to a creative work, normally movies. Using this name began with The Death of a Gunfighter, when director Robert Totten clashed with the star of the movie, Richard Windmark.
Totten left the film and a replacement director finished the movie. The new director didn’t want his name on the film as well. A compromise was reached between the Director’s Guild of America and the studio so that the name Alan Smithee would be used.
And that’s how Alan Smithee’s career began.
1983’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie includes an Alan Smithee credit as that is the movie where a freak on-set accident killed two child actors.
1995’s National Lampoon’s Senior trip is an Alan Smithee production.
Kevin Yagher, the makeup-effects-artist-turned-director, changed his credit to Alan Smithee for 1996’s Hellraiser: Bloodline (AKA “Pinhead in Space”), the fourth installment in the rapidly declining Hellraiser franchise. The experience must have been scarring since he never directed another movie.
1984’s Dune is credited as an Alan Smithee film, but only the cut that was presented for television broadcast. The original movie still carries the original director’s name, David Lynch.
A director uses the name Alan Smithee when he has “artistic differences” from those in charge. That can be a whole host of issues. This gives directors a lot of leeway to disavow themselves from a particularly bad film. Or a good film that has been distributed in a different media that requires an edited version.
Thus, Alan Smithee has quite a few credits for movies shown on airlines, such as Meet Joe Black and Scent of a Woman. Even the airline cut of those movies has to better than some of the other films. Woman Wanted is the last film credited to Alan Smithee, who in this case was Keifer Sutherland.
But Alan Smithee still has a robust career in music videos, comics, and even video games.
The most famous fight for Alan Smithee may have been on the movie American History X, where the director Tony Kaye attempted to use the name. He claimed that both the studio and star Edward Norton meddled too much, and therefore, the film wasn’t his vision.
But since Mr. Kaye had already gone public and filed lawsuits, there was no way to distance himself from the film.
Ironically, the best of the Alan Smithee films may have been his first. Death of a Gunslinger still sports an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There is some karmic justice in that.
So here is to the best director that never existed, Alan Smithee. May your work continue for generations.