By William Boyd
Howard Hawkes defined a successful film in this way: ‘Three good scenes. No bad scenes‘. If only it were that easy, you think. Your name is Alan Smithee1 and you want to be a film director.
‘Film director’ is a catch-all phrase and many sub-groups are contained within it. They include those directors who also write their own scripts (Mike Leigh, Eric Rohmer, Wong Kar-Wai, for example), as well as those directors of immense money-generating power and/or acclaim (Spielberg, Scorcese, the guy who directed Avatar, or Christopher Nolan for example); or directors working at the leading edge of the medium where budgets are minimal and all rules are broken – in these cases these random notes won’t necessarily apply.
Writer-directors, however, are an interesting hybrid – you have both creative and executive power, particularly before you start filming. Once the cameras begin to turn, however, all the old constraints and problems come into play. Nobody involved in making films — writer, director or producer — has the freedom and autonomy of the poet, the novelist, the painter, the sculptor or the composer. In film no one person can be exclusively responsible for the work.
But, in any event, these exceptions to the rule only tend to illustrate how pervasive and implacable the rule is. For the thousands of films, maybe tens of thousands of films, made each year all over the world, for cinemas or TV channels, most film directors, however well intentioned, however hard working, however clever and motivated, will share the same experiences as you, Alan Smithee. Let’s examine the essential components of getting a film on a screen in a cinema. The whole long process begins with words.
If you’re not a writer-director you will find out, as your career advances, that most film directors are attached to a film when a script has already been written. Very often you will be hired when the writer and the producers feel the script is in good shape, or in good enough shape to act as a lure – to a director, to investors, to actors. This is the case, for example, of four of the last five films I’ve written2. When the director eventually comes on board we will normally produce two or three further drafts or polishes. The point being that the changes made are usually and necessarily fairly minor as a schedule and a budget may have already been drawn up on the basis of the script. Wholesale revisions and fresh ideas cost money. When the script is deemed to be in good shape there is a natural reluctance to go back to the drawing board, not least on the part of the writer. We enter the territory of change-for-the-sake-of-change – always frustrating and counter-productive. The script is very often presented as something of a fait accompli for a director.
You may not only find a fully developed script when you come on board the film – you may also discover that one or two of the principal roles have been filled prior to your arrival. This is rare, but tends to happen at both ends of the film spectrum. At one end is the ‘Untitled Brad Pitt Project’ and at the other extreme of the food chain the struggling independent producer swiftly learns that having some kind of a ‘name’ already on board is the only kind of evidence leery and timid financiers want to see. This is exactly what is happening on one of my low-budget projects: the script is written and the producer is actively seeking a bankable female star in her early 20s. If we find her and attach her then we’ll start looking for our director.
On the other hand, Stephen Frears has said, and I paraphrase, that casting is the key creative decision that a director can bring to a film. More often than not the cast is the director’s prerogative. In conflicted decisions the director’s call will usually be listened to – the director has the veto, also. However, your cast is only as good as the people you get to see and here the casting director plays a largely unsung role. The better the casting director the wider the net is thrown. The clout the casting director has is vital in attracting bigger names. You will learn that not every actor you desire may want to be in a film directed by Alan Smithee – a good and powerful casting director can persuade a recalcitrant star otherwise.
It’s only recently that I’ve become particularly conscious of the director’s role in this area of film-making. It seems routine: ‘We need a flat on a run-down council estate’; ‘We need an old rectory in a picturesque village’. A good location manager will provide you with, say, a choice of three and one will be chosen. However, the selection is often determined by the film’s schedule. The closer locations are to each other the less travel-time there is to factor in. Line-producers will inevitably push for the easier option: no need to move the unit-base; no need for an overnight stay, and so on. A determined director, unsatisfied with what’s on offer, will ask for more, will have the schedule reorganised to accommodate the perfect location. Good locations are subliminal contributions to the finished effect of a film, like good sound editing. However, you will often be overruled by force majeure; once the behemoth of a film starts moving that perfect rural lane you found in Herefordshire will be dumped for a buddleia-badged patch of concrete behind the sound-stage. Necessity is always the brutal mother of invention.
Here you are the master of your own domain. Surely? It certainly looks like that: all decisions, major and minor, seemed to be referred to the director. But, as a director, you are only as good as your crew. Even a role as comparatively minor as 2nd assistant director can be crucial. This person acts as the liaison between the film in production and the cast. A good 2nd AD can cajole and humour the most spoilt and demanding of actors. It’s not so much a question of bonhomie as trust. One of the best 2nd ADs I ever met was straightforward to the point of taciturnity. Yet the major Hollywood stars he worked with all wanted to be his special friend. He was invited to their marriages, he went on holidays with them, he was presented with splendid gifts.
It’s also possible for a totally inexperienced director to make a successful film if he (or she) is surrounded by the best possible people. The first-time director of a film that was highly praised, won awards and made lots of money on its release turned up on the first day of the shoot and whispered in the ear of his 1st Assistant Director: “What the fuck do I do now?”3 The 1st Assistant and the rest of the crew effectively made the film for him, covering up his lack of experience. He has gone on to enjoy a very successful career.
Before I directed my film, The Trench, I asked a director friend what to watch out for. Wardrobe, he said, and Hair and Make-up: all potential trouble in films starts there – all gossip originates there, all disgruntlements are first expressed there, all malevolent rumours can be sourced there. This is the first place actors go when they arrive on set, they can be there for hours, the relationship between actor and make-up artiste and actor and costumier is unusually intimate. All kinds of vulnerabilities and insecurities are exposed. The more happily professional that costume and hair and make-up are, then the happier the film.
You have shot your film, it’s in the can, the hard work is over. Actually the hard work is often just beginning and you may find your imperial position as director swiftly diminishing, if you’re not careful. Now, in the editing suite, other hands can play with your footage. This situation has been massively accentuated by the digital revolution. Now that films are edited on computer, rather than actually cutting and pasting film together, and looking at the edit on a flickering Moviola, alternative versions of a scene can be mooted, viewed and discarded or selected in seconds rather than days. An Oscar-winning editor friend of mine4 who has been working in the industry for decades told me that in the old days he would never see the producer until the film was cut together and the director was satisfied and ready to screen it. Now the producer is very likely to be sitting beside you, the director, in the editing suite. Or the lead actor.
Some years ago a director I know made a film with the pre-eminent Hollywood actor of his day. The film was shot, all seemed to have gone smoothly, but when the director turned up at the editing suite one day and punched in the code into the security lock on the door — it didn’t open. The code had been changed. He was locked out. The end of the film was being re-shot and that was the extent of his contribution to the movie. Thanks, we’ll take over from here, was the message he received. He is credited as director on the finished film. It was a flop, inevitably.
Another friend had temporarily to leave the editing of his film to fly from LA to his daughter’s wedding in Australia. He was away for five days. When he came back to work his entire film had been re-cut by the producers. ‘We wanted you to see the way we like it,’ he was told. He quit.
Again, you may find there’s some directorial autonomy here. The director will usually chose the composer and will ‘spot’ the moments in the film where he wants music under the action. But here, also, you’re only as good as your composer. I remember a producer who had won an Oscar for his film telling me that he was convinced the film would fail because he had seen it unscored – the music changed everything.
Your film is made, post-production is over – and so too is your moment in the sun. Other experts and other influences now begin to dominate. If you are a very powerful director, or if your film is very low budget, you may have a say in how the film-poster looks and how the film is marketed and released. Very often it is out of your hands. The film may be released two years after you finished it or may go straight to DVD or TV – or not at all, or at least not in the way you ever imagined5. There are many secret movies out there languishing on dusty shelves.
You may have guessed by now where all this is heading. Imagine everything that can go wrong — the worst-case scenario — that you directed a film based on a script you didn’t contribute to, starring a leading actor you didn’t cast, that you were locked out of your editing suite and a different score was added and that the film was never released. In consolation, however, the film is nonetheless dubbed ‘A FILM BY ALAN SMITHEE’ or ‘AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM’ or ‘ALAN SMITHEE’S FILM’ – one or other of these formulations is usually applied.
This credit is known in the film industry as the ‘possessory’ credit. It was used long before the 1960s – Frank Capra and Hitchcock, for example, had negotiated possessory credits on their movies, so had some producers – but in 1967 things came to a head. This ‘film by’ credit has always been contentious in the film business. Not surprisingly, it is particularly resented by screenwriters and producers and in 1966 an agreement was reached and ratified between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) that there should be no possessory credit on a film ‘unless the person accorded the credit is a writer entitled to a credit on the screen or the author of source material’. With hindsight this seems almost incredible: the only person who could justifiably claim a ‘film by’ credit was the writer. A writer?
The Director’s Guild of America mobilized in a way never seen before or since. On May 16 1967 a special meeting of the DGA was held to vote for strike action. Hitchcock was there, Fred Zinnemann was there, Frank Capra and George Stevens were there. The mood was inflamed and passionate, further stirred by a cable sent by David Lean. Lean wrote:
‘We directors who have possessory credits have hard-earned them over many years for good reason. We are paid big money because we can bring audience-pulling star quality to our films as a whole… As a typical example take my own case ‘David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago‘. I worked one year with the writer [not named, but it was Robert Bolt]. Unlike him I directed not only the actors but the cameraman, set designer, costume designer, sound men, editor, composer even the laboratory in their final print. Unlike him I chose the actors, the technicians, the subject and asked him to write it. I staged it. I filmed it. It was my film of his script which I shot when he was not there. If a director, writer or producer cannot claim such overall responsibility it should not be called his film. If he can, it truly is his film. Sincerely, David Lean.”
Thus rallied, the DGA called a strike and in the face of it the AMPTP backed down. It was agreed in new negotiations in 1970 that the director’s right to negotiate for a possessory credit would be recognized “as an inalienable right which shall not be abridged in any manner”. John Frankenheimer commented, “It was a very big victory for all of us. It’s a credit that directors are entitled to negotiate for. It’s a credit that cannot be treated lightly.”
As the shrillness of Lean’s tone indicates, and as the pointed omission of his friend Robert Bolt’s name underlines (not to mention Boris Pasternak), this was seen by film directors in Hollywood as a fundamental struggle for authorship between writer and director. The Writers’ Guild lost and has never recovered the ground it had gained in the original AMPTP agreement of 1966. If anything, the situation today is worse. No director ‘negotiates’ for his possessory credit these days or makes a case for his or her creative contribution: now, almost without exception, every film carries the same rubric. ‘A film by Alan Smithee’ is the industry norm.
CUTTING THE CREATIVE CAKE
As you will have noticed from the above, film is — unarguably, immutably — a collaborative art form. Everybody contributes in all departments. When Jim Clark re-cut Midnight Cowboy (he was not credited as editor but as ‘creative consultant’) the new version of the hitherto unreleasable film went on to win Oscars for its director, producer and writer. Needless to say it was a ‘John Schlesinger Film’. What slice of the creative cake did Jim Clark deserve? Or is the film made enduringly memorable by Dustin Hoffman’s performance or Harry Nilsson’s haunting song ‘Everybody’s talkin’’6?
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
Let’s take this 1965 ‘film by Martin Ritt’ as a convenient template. Solidly if unremarkably directed, the film is astonishingly faithful to John le Carré’s seminal 1963 novel. Screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper barely depart from the narrative of the book – only at the very end do they clarify the author’s teasing ambiguity (film can never be as subtle as the novel). So, by any remotely logical assessment, if I were going to slice up the cake of creative contribution in the film of The Spy then John le Carré would probably deserve at least 70%. Some might argue that he deserves more as almost everything that is on screen derives clearly and directly from his novel – one looks vainly for any other influence in the characterisation, the shape, textures and pacing of the story. Except that the one rogue factor in the film is Richard Burton’s incredible, mesmerising performance as Alec Leamas, Le Carré’s world-weary protagonist. If anyone ever doubted the magnetism of Burton’s screen presence then The Spy is the answer. So perhaps it is Burton’s performance that makes the film resonate today, nearly 50 years later, that makes it live on in our minds. But, even given that, how preposterous would it be to make it ‘Richard Burton’s film’ of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold? The argument here is not about who should claim authorship but the fact that, given the nature of the way films are made, the so-called ‘authorship’ of a film is both an irrelevance and inapposite.
Interestingly, when the Writer’s Guild won their concession in 1966 from the AMPTP, they were not wanting to claim exclusive authorship on behalf of writers alone – it wasn’t, from their point of view, a writer versus director battle. They merely wanted to put in place a process that could decide who merited the claim to authorial possession of the film – if such a claim were sought. If Frank Borzage made a film of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms then someone had to arbitrate over who gained the possessory credit – Borzage or Hemingway. But the directors felt very threatened in the face of this reasonable demand – none more so than our own shrinking violet David Lean — they vowed to strike and, in winning the brinkmanship battle, they thereby perpetrated a system of spurious authorship of films that everyone who has worked in the film business knows is – with a very, very few rare exceptions7 — completely absurd.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Imagine a world where this sort of announcement would be possible. You are going to a concert to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. On the poster outside the concert hall you read: ‘A Symphony by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, written by Ludwig van Beethoven’. Or, standing in Shaftesbury Avenue outside a theatre, you see, high on the building in red neon, ‘The Cherry Orchard – a play by Peter Hall, written by Anton Chekhov.’ Farcical! Nonsense! Ludicrous! Yet this is exactly the system that pertains in the film industry – authorship is routinely claimed where authorship is both impossible and unmerited. You will argue that the film director is a massively important part of the film-making process, absolutely vital — and this is entirely true: a vital part alongside your other absolutely vital colleagues and contributors. Rest assured, the credit ‘directed by Alan Smithee’ – like the credit ‘written by’ — is both a fair and just reflection of your indispensable work and, more importantly, a highly honourable one as well. Everyone will know what you have done – everyone will know what you have suffered – everyone will know what you have achieved.
Article for Areté Magazine. 2010
1. For many years Alan Smithee was the accepted pseudonym used when directors removed their name from a film. The Internet Movie Database credits ‘Alan Smithee’ with over 30 productions. Use of the name was officially discontinued in 2000.
2. I have written 45 screenplays over my career, so far. 15 of them have been made into films, the first in 1982; the latest in 2010. One of them I directed: The Trench (1999).
3. I heard this from the 1st assistant himself.
4. This is Jim Clark – a legendary editor – the man who ‘saved’ Midnight Cowboy by re-cutting it entirely and who won his Oscar for The Killing Fields. He also cut Stanley Donen’s Charade and my film, The Trench, I’m proud to say, amongst dozens of others. His recently published memoir, Dream Repair Man, is the best book on film editing I know.
5. This happened with the film I wrote based on my novel Stars and Bars (1984, starring Daniel Day Lewis and directed by Pat O’Connor). The film was made, great plans were afoot for its release, the Hollywood studio – Columbia Pictures – was full of confidence. And then there was a total regime change at the studio. Everyone was fired. The new head of production wanted nothing to do with the films of her predecessor. Stars and Bars was released in two cinemas, one in Los Angeles, one in New York. The poster was in black and white.
6. Adding Nilsson’s song was Jim Clark’s idea. He stuck it in over Ratso’s trip south to Miami as a temp track. It stayed. It defines the film in most people’s minds.
7. It has been argued that the only true ‘auteur’ in contemporary cinema is Russ Meyer, purveyor of classic soft-porn movies of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and SuperVixens. On his films Meyer credited himself as director, writer, producer, cinematographer and editor.