Becoming Alan Smithee - Mistakes Screenwriters Turned First-Time Directors Should Avoid

Warning screenwriters! Making a movie isn't as simple as you might think. Paul Peditto opens up about his first directing experience so screenwriters turned first-time directors learn from his mistakes.
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Warning screenwriters! Making a movie isn't as simple as you might think. Paul Peditto opens up about his first directing experience so screenwriters turned first-time directors learn from his mistakes.

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alan-smithee

Alan Smithee was an official pseudonym used by film directors who wish to disown a project, coined in 1968.”- Wikipedia

Leave it to the Wikipedia elves to have detailed every Alan Smithee project with a known director in every medium on one of their pages.

Quite a list, some great directors who have disowned their projects including Michael Mann, William Friedkin, David Lynch, and Arthur Hiller. These films are usually train wrecks that the director bails on, as was the case with the Hiller film.

From Wikipedia: "In 1998, the film An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn was released, in which a man named Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) wishes to disavow a film he has directed, but is unable to do so because the only pseudonym he is permitted to use is his own name. The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who reported to the DGA that producer Joe Eszterhas had interfered with his creative control, and successfully removed his own name from the film, so "Alan Smithee" was credited instead. The film was a commercial and critical failure, released in only 19 theaters, grossing only $45,779 in the US with a budget of about $10 million, and the Rotten Tomatoes web site reports an aggregate critical rating of only 8% positive."

I’ve bemoaned Jane Doe too often here on Script Mag and my own site Script Gods. It’s the single feature-film I directed with a 250K budget, a doomed movie that somehow ended up making a couple million bucks (Calista Flockhart, our lead, becoming Ally McBeal a year later might have had something to do with it), landing on Entertainment Tonight and in a shitload of Blockbuster video stores, back in the prehistoric days when there were video stores.

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The source material was a strong play I’d written, A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New Year. It had three productions in Chicago and Los Angeles, nine months of full audiences. This would seem to indicate that the source material worked, the piece was strong.

So what went wrong and why should you care?

As usual here at Script Magazine, I’m happy to pull down my pants and reveal my own screw ups, if it benefits the common good. Good Reader never, EVER do what I did here on your own movie. Here's how to avoid becoming Alan Smithee...

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  • CABS RUN ON GAS AND BATTERIES

We need to shoot inside a taxi. My instinct is to grab one and pay the cabbie for a couple hours of time. Producers say no, unacceptable, so they pay three times the price to get a professional “movie taxi” brought in. It takes a long time to load off the flatbed. They try to start it up and it doesn’t start. Try again. Nothing. Pop the trunk. Aha… Dead battery. 90 minutes later, producers hail a cab and pay the driver for a couple hours of time. We lose two hours of shooting time which translates into cutting two scenes and butchering a third. If you're directing, trust your instincts. And if you rent a cab, check the damn battery.

  • DIRECTOR IS WITH CAMERA OR ACTORS, NOT SHOOTING DICE
  • My friend Rich Cotovsky paid his way to Atlantic City to be in the movie. I wanted to spend time with Rich, so during a break shooting on the Boardwalk, we cut loose and ducked into the Sands Hotel to shoot some dice. Came out about 30 minutes later, nobody even noticed I was gone! Check that… the AD asked where I went. I said I felt like shooting some dice, so… “Director is with camera or actors, Paul” she mumbled. Alas, was so right… nobody to blame but me on this one. While we're on the subject, try to get yourself on other people's movies in any role possible. Not only did I never direct before, I had never been on a movie set IN MY LIFE before directing Jane Doe. Guaranteed formula for becoming Allen Smithee...
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  • BEWARE WHO YOU GET INTO BED WITH

Any good writer knows, nothing is as it seems. You misjudge the people you’re working with. This is not to attack producers, by the by. I’ve had terrific experiences with producers. I’ve also had experiences like on Jane Doe. Be very, very careful who is producing your movie. It might be the single-most important decision you make. On Jane Doe, the lead producers were Unapix Entertainment, who were responsible—I kid you not—for such wondrous movies as My Brother The Pig, and Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowmen. How did we agree to work with such hacks? Well, it started when they handed us a check for $150,000...

We actually had a good initial relationship, but their trust and hands-off approach lasted only about two days into shooting. Then multiple producers landed on set and starting giving orders one would traditionally consider in the director’s domain. Like dictating specific cuts in scenes, or full scenes we wouldn’t be shooting. Or cutting the single-line role of an actor friend who came three hours to be in the movie, who was promised a part, and to save a hundred bucks, wanting to cut him. “He can’t be in the scene.” “Yes, he can.” It only escalated from here…

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Producer Credits: The Pig Pile

Bringing me into an office to face a daily inquisition; signing papers for petty expenses with no clue where those thousands of dollars were going; wanting me to fire people they had issue with, and I had none; reading the first Press Release to find my name, the director/writer, had been misspelled (Perditto), omitting my brother Chris (Producer/Lead actor) and my father (Exec Producer); hearing through the grapevine for plans of a hip-hop soundtrack but never once being consulted or even asked for my opinion on music. This is how you go from “I’m here to help you, Paul. Anything you need, Paul!” to “You should be on your knees thanking me! I’m saving this movie!” Good Reader, for pity’s sake, be careful who you get into bed with!

  • HIRING A CREW THAT ISN’T PROFESSIONAL OR ALL-IN ON THE PROJECT

Four AD’s in 18 days? For a first-time director? Not ideal. Or the Line Producer and Locations guy never talking so we schedule a Sunday shoot at Steel Pier to discover that Steel Pier is closed on Sundays. And we don’t find that out until 20 people descend on a locked gate? Not ideal. Or the Casting Agent promising The Baroness, our Transvestite #2, the role of Transvestite #1. Shooting paused as The Baroness calls her agent to sort out the discrepancy, threatening to walk. Someone in Art Department jamming a bagel in a toaster to create smoke for a deli scene and starts a small fire. Hanging a lighting grid over a bathtub where your two lead actors will be getting into a bathtub and will likely die a swift death should it break free of its gaffers tape or WHATEVER THE HELL you’re hanging it with! Not hiring a stunt coordinator which directly leads to a radio flying into Calista Flockhart’s head, she reaching up to her hair and pulling out a handful of blood. Not ideal.

Warning screenwriters! Making a movie isn't as simple as you might think. Paul Peditto opens up about his first directing experience so screenwriters turned first-time directors learn from his mistakes.
  • DON’T MAKE AN ENEMY OF YOUR DP

Toshiaki Ozawa (Toshie) and I ended up on poor terms. I was clueless. I was the first one to admit my limitations as a film director but I also had a serious responsibility to my father. He had anted up $90,000 dollars for this enterprise, and I was going to get this film in the can, no matter what it looked like. Remember, this was pre-digital days, shooting on Super 16. There are AD directors and DP directors—those that will “make their day” at the expense of the film’s look, vs. those that will give the DP as much time as necessary to light the shot, making the schedule second to the shot. The key, obviously, is to find the happy middle where you’re making your day and shooting everything you’re supposed to, while coming away with the best possible coverage and film look, making both the DP and AD happy. That didn’t happen with Jane Doe.

From the Lens: Breaking Down A Script As Director Of Photography

I pushed Toshie, but he was fully capable of pushing back. “Do you want me to go, Paul? And you can shoot it.” The producers nearly swallowed their tongues. Toshie was given additional powers behind my back, ending up having final say on camera coverage, how many takes, camera angles, etc. I wouldn’t have minded ceding that power, but not with threats and back-room handshakes.

‘Paul treats me like a dog,” Toshie told my brother. Meaning relentlessly driving him to the next shot. Toshie, I apologized then, and do it here again. It was only to get the movie in the can. Which leads us to the next red flag…

  • MAKE SURE SCHEDULE AND BUDGET AREN’T FANTASYLAND

Upon further review it was estimated we’d need 20 days to shoot this movie with script requirements, actors, and production needs. The initial estimate was 11 days. If you’re thinking that’s a hellava discrepancy, you’d be right! The first budget was a complete joke—but I didn't know that. Being the Atlantic City craps dealer/writer, I was utterly clueless about the production side. So when it came time to shoot we were on pace to run out of money by Day 11, about halfway through the script. The Unapix producers gave enough cash to shoot 18 days, not a penny more. Great! Got an extra 7 days budget.

Scheduling and Budgeting Film and TV for Beginners – Breaking Down a Script

But… not so great… we really did need 20 days to shoot it. No problem, two days of script would have to be cut. And if Paul was unable to do so or unwilling, it would be done for him.

I don’t blame Unapix for this. They didn’t create the first Fantasyland budget/schedule. So much of tension flowed from this miscalculation. Lesson learned: Get the best possible person you can to run the budget and schedule numbers. Crunch numbers until you're sure it’s doable for the money and time you have committed. Do this, or prepare to loose the dogs of war.

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  • BEWARE OF CROOKED TREES FROM STRAIGHT ROOTS

The last tell that you’re on your way to becoming Allen Smithee?

True story. I opened a fortune cookie the night before our first day of production. It said: Beware of crooked trees from straight roots.

And tha -tha- that's entertainment!

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