Alan Smithee is the fictitious name the Director’s Guild put on movies when the Director has been fired, or has been so badly recut he wants his name taken off. It becomes an Alan Smithee film. It says “Directed by Alan Smithee.” The Guild is a powerful union and does not want films going out with no Director. Producers might get ideas….
I was playing the eponymous Alan Smithee in An Alan Smithee Film (written by Joe Eszterhas) when the Director Arthur Hiller came up to me.
“I’ve just had a terrible thought” he said. “If they fire me this will become an Alan Smithee film.”
Joe Eszterhas removed Arthur Hiller, recut the movie and it became a genuine Alan Smithee film.
He changed the name to Burn, Hollywood, Burn!
The critics agreed it was one of the worst films ever and in 1998 it won a Razzie (The Oscars for Incompetence) for Worst Film of the Year.
I felt sympathetic to all concerned.
It is terribly difficult to cut documentary into successful narrative form. The consummate master is Scorsese, who has done it not once but three times: once with George Harrison, once with Bob Dylan, and once with The Band in The Last Waltz. He has an uncanny sense of form. To reveal the bones of narrative structure beneath the endlessly changing skin of random commentary, this is tough. And it is by no means inevitable. Sometimes, like Oakland, there is no there there. Certainly Joe Esterhaz was unable to find it, amidst the jumble of material he inherited, because he was trying to be funny as well. I know how hard this is because I think we managed it (just) in The Rutles, thanks to the co-directing skills of Gary Weis, the editing skills of Aviva Slesin, and a bit of me. To be funny, and to tell a story and be a documentary. Tough.
So perhaps it’s time for a little tip of the hat to The Rutles, the documentary that is still going strong since 1978. The little train that could, that came 76th in that week’s ratings, after an unnecessarily cruel mauling by a TV critic, Frank Rich, who as a favour to a friend panned it in The New York Times the day before it was shown. A guaranteed audience winner! And yet here we still are. And where is that week’s episode of Charlie’s Angels?
Now magnificently after 35 years it is coming to Blue Ray in a glorious package that includes tons of new interviews, and my follow up documentary Can’t Buy Me Lunch, which contains some of my favourite Gary Shandling gags ever.
Some brave Canadians have stumped up their last Looney’s to put this out and so you may find me shamelessly promoting it on Twitter.
It makes an excellent present. Nudge nudge.
(aka Alan Smithee.)
The Rutles Anthology is released in the US and Canada on November 19th.