What Happens to a Film When it Has No Director?
Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon have a lot riding on Wonder Park. The film, which has a rumoured budget of $80 - 100 million, has topped its competition in terms of T.V. ad spending over the past couple of months. Variety estimates that they even outspent Captain Marvel this past week. Nickelodeon are already in production with a television series spinning off from the movie, the third of their movies to receive this treatment, and you can buy the licensed mobile game now. Critics have been less enthusiastic about the film, calling it a weak rip-off of better titles like Inside Out and My Neighbor Totoro, but it’s not the film itself that’s raised the most eyebrows. It’s the lack of director. Yes, Wonder Park has no director. Or, to be more accurate, it has no credited director. Dylan Brown, the guy who did that job, was sacked by Paramount over ‘multiple complaints of ‘inappropriate and unwanted behavior.’ This came after the film had already removed Jeffrey Tambor from the voice cast for similar reasons of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
It’s not exactly common for directors to be fired from their own movies, especially when the work is all but done, but it’s not unheard of either. We saw this problem unfold when Bryan Singer got the boot from Bohemian Rhapsody and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher. However, Singer still received sole directorial credit, an issue that remains thorny to this day for very obvious reasons. So, why did he get his credit and Dylan Brown didn’t? And what happens when a movie has no credited director?
To answer the former question, this is a problem related to the Directors Guild of America. Feature animation directors are not allowed membership in the DGA. This goes a long way to explaining how there have been no Best Director Oscar nominees for animated movies. It’s an archaic rule that doesn’t give the medium or the artistic and managerial work required of it the credit it deserves, but it also explains how Wonder Park can officially have no director. Bryan Singer, unfortunately, had his guild in his corner. The DGA requires that film have a director, whether the studio or even said director likes it or not. Enter Alan Smithee.
Before 1968, the DGA forbid directors from being credited under a pseudonym, mostly to protect the directors from shady producer dealings or any studio meddling that could hurt their future career prospects. This notion was also rooted in auteur theory and the DGA’s commitment to the idea that the director is the major creative power behind a film and every decision made for it. Sure, making a movie is a collaborative effort, but it’s the director steering the ship (and approving its paint job). However, sometimes a director doesn’t want that credit. It may be that the ship went greatly off course thanks to producers overstepping their bounds, or perhaps they were called in to take over for someone who wouldn’t do what they were told and you were just there to dot the Is and cross the Ts. Or you just made a bad movie and wanted nothing to do with it.
In that case, you can use the pseudonym of Alan Smithee. This helpful directorial strawman was created in 1969 for the film Death of a Gunfighter. After the original director Robert Totten was replaced by Don Siegel, the latter did not feel that the film was his true vision or that he deserved the sole director credit, given that Totten had done most of the shooting. Eventually, the DGA agreed that they could use ‘Alan Smithee’ in place of either of their names. Funnily enough, some critics, like Roger Ebert, were quite taken with the work of Mr. Smithee. Since then, Smithee’s filmography has titles as illustrious as Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Birds II: Land’s End, Hellraiser: Bloodline, and, rather ironically, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. Some films also have the Smithee credit for T.V. and in-flight viewing edits, like David Lynch’s Dune.
Nowadays, the name is seldom used. Everyone knows it’s a pseudonym and audiences are now more aware than ever of both auteur theory and entertainment gossip. When a production falls apart, we find out about it almost instantly. It’s tough to use this puppet of Alan Smithee in an age where we obsessively follow every step of a movie’s creation, but especially when we’re more aware than ever of what Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock call the ‘fetish’ of ‘announcing anxieties around directorial authorship, which is also traditionally figured as masculine.’ Smithee highlights the near-deified image of the director, an almighty creative force who wholly defines every aspect of a movie, an adored leader who is probably a bearded white dude in a baseball cap. They are the unmovable force who cannot and should not be replaced, regardless of their misdeeds or ineptitude. Of course, it doesn’t apply equally to every director. Animation doesn’t count as ‘real directing’, and if you’re a woman, there’s always another scrappy white boy around the corner ready to take over if you don’t shut up and get on with your job. Hell, it took the Coen Brothers until The Ladykillers before they could share directorial credit on their films because DGA rules only allowed shared credit for an ‘established duo’.
Sometimes a reshoot director will share the credit, per DGA rules. This happened when Joe Johnston took over from Lasse Hallström for reshoots of Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. When it comes to this impossible to ignore turkeys, however, it seems like most directors today would rather take the hit than run away from it. It doesn’t hurt that sentences in the infamous director jail of old are getting shorter by the day (at least if you’re a white dude with the right people in your corner). Josh Trank survived Fant4stic and can now play off that disaster as a minor oopsie on his road to greatness.
For a film like Wonder Park, the notion of auteur greatness was never on the table, so that made getting rid of an accused sexual harasser a whole lot easier than it would have been for some films. The questions of authorship and intent will always remain, but it wouldn’t hurt for audiences to distance themselves from the unshakable notion of the director as the one true artist. It would probably help us deal with a whole lot of other issues in a healthier manner.
Header Image Source: Paramount // Nickelodeon
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