It seems that Stephen Greene is the new Alan Smithee. Greene is the credited director on a so-called comedy called Accidental Love starring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal that’s available on VOD this week. But no one named Greene ever called, “Cut!” on the set. That distinction belonged to David O. Russell, who at the time was still smarting from the box office failure of I Heart Huckabees and several years away from his triumphant Silver Linings Playbook/American Hustle comeback. On Accidental Love, then called Nailed, Russell struggled with a very high-concept script (a pre-Obamacare parable about the need for health-care reform by former First Daughter Kristin Gore!) and a first-time producer who reportedly failed to secure all of the film’s $26 million budget by the time cameras rolled. Production stopped and started about a dozen times before shutting down for good in 2008, before all the scenes had been shot. (He apparently had no hand in editing whatever footage existed.) Two years later, Russell exercised an option in his DGA contract to remove his name from the project and insert a pseudonym. Stephen Greene was born.
For years, the Directors Guild had a go-to pseudonym for helmers disowning their babies: Alan Smithee. The name was attached to a wide range of clunkers over the years, from The Birds II: Land’s End to Kiefer Sutherland’s 2000 directorial debut, Woman Wanted. But even A-list directors exercised the Smithee option for unauthorized versions of their work, typically TV and airline-edited cuts they deemed to have strayed too far from their auteurist intentions (Michael Mann’s Heat, Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black).
Smithee’s career lasted 32 years — longer than many an actual Hollywood career — but the DGA abandoned the name in 2000. The insider joke had lost its insideriness thanks to a 1998 film that proved an ironic and iron-clad nail in Smithee’s coffin: An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, starring Eric Idle as a director named Alan Smithee who wants to remove his name from his own film project, only to be told that the only pseudonym available is Alan Smithee. The documentary-style satire was scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls) and directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story), who was so disenchanted with the final product that he too decided to sub Smithee’s name for his own. Take that, Alanis Morissette!
But Eszterhas’ box office bomb was high-profile enough to let the industry secret out of the bag for the general public. So since 2000, the DGA has allowed directors to come up with their own pseudonyms when they disown a production. Walter Hill chose “Thomas Lee” for the 2000 sci-fi horror film Supernova. Michael Polish, an indie filmmaker who works with his twin brother, Mark, forsook two films that both debuted at festivals in 2009: He took the name “Larry Smith” for The Smell of Success, a comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a 1960s manure salesman, and “Ted Smith” for the John Hughes homage Stay Cool with Winona Ryder.
And now there’s Stephen Greene, a name so generic that you’d never guess that an Oscar-nominated helmer was attached to it. That’s the point, of course. But I do miss the days of Smithee, which at least offered a red flag to informed filmgoers that not all’s completely right in this particular movie world.