Alan Smithee

It is the organization of moving images, that is the very art of cinema, and true authorship resides in the hand that wields not the pen, but the razor.
— Attributed to Roderick Jaynes, editorial alter ego of the Coen Brothers

The big problem is that it’s precisely this self-confident focus that is both problematic and attractive about Self-Authorship. It’s problematic because to be flexible and sensitive there needs to be limits on your self-confidence. When you believe you are 100% right, there’s no space for alternative ideas, you are closed-minded and although you can be persuaded it takes a huge effort. However, in many ways the heroic path is much more attractive. Life’s easier when you have a sense of deep clarity and conviction in yourself and your ideas. Being open to other ideas can take effort and time.
— Richard Wilson, Anti Hero

Can a leader inspire people to give their creative best, cooperatively? The question then arises how do we become realistic leaders of people who are; able to take responsibility and authorship to lead people into the future, as it emerges; capable of designing conversations and situations that foster effective stewardship of teams and organisations; able to prepare people and environments to absorb the dynamics of non-routinely changing situations; use an appreciative focus on lessons learned from unexpected drawbacks, while focusing on opportunities to make a difference, rather than targets?
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

We are enigmatic, contradictory creatures. We carry within us Whitman’s multitudes. The late Dennis Hopper is a case in point. An accomplished artist and photographer, he was also a poet and art collector who enjoyed a lengthy acting career and something of a maverick reputation as a film director too. For some, Hopper was the poster boy of sixties counterculture, directing and starring in Easy Rider. Yet he was also a supporter of and donor to the Republican Party.

Hopper cut his teeth as an actor in post-war television and Hollywood cinema, featuring in westerns alongside the likes of John Wayne. There was always a hint of rebellion, though. He is there in the supporting cast of James Dean’s brief cinematic career. Latterly, his iconic rebelliousness was used to fuel the fire of a nascent independent filmmaking scene in the eighties. His turn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a significant breadcrumb in a trail of psychopathic, stimulant-dependent roles he would be asked to play henceforth.

There is a tradition in US cinema of rebels with a cause. Figures like Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and John Sayles, willing to take the mainstream dollar for their turns as actors, directors or writers in order to fund more personal, meaningful work. Hopper’s own circuitous trajectory seemed to follow a similar pattern. Funds earned as an actor-for-hire were diverted to the acquisition of art, property purchases and personal projects. His acting successes were followed by an accomplished return to directing at the end of the eighties with Colors, which caught the zeitgeist of pre-riot tensions in Los Angeles.

His next two directorial offerings, both released in 1990, would offer radically different experiences for Hopper. The Hot Spot is an early entry in the neo-noir revival that would swamp US cinema throughout the 1990s. Indebted to both the B film and literary traditions of the 1950s, it is based on Charles Williams’s adaptation of his own novel, and was originally intended as a star vehicle for Robert Mitchum. It is infused with a jazz and blues soundtrack and, ultimately, is a formulaic, frothy and fun slice of cinematic entertainment. The type of film that inevitably divides both the critics and the audiences.

Catchfire falls in another category entirely. In his 2010 Guardian tribute to Hopper, Alex Cox recognises that the film was partially intended as an ‘homage to the Venice artists’ community of which he felt a part’. Cox had first-hand involvement in what was nominally an action thriller, starring Jodie Foster and Hopper himself as her would-be assassin. He worked uncredited with his partner, Tod Davies, on script revisions for Hopper during filming in 1988. What the studio ultimately released in 1990, however, Hopper the director disowned. Look closely at the directorial credit of the theatrical release, and you will note that the film is attributed to Alan Smithee.

So we unearth a tradition, overseen by the Directors Guild of America, that spans the years 1968 to 2000. Hunt down the filmmaking credits for Alan Smithee during this period and you will discover a prolific individual. Or rather a frequently deployed pseudonym flagging a director’s dissatisfaction with the impact, the interference, of others on their work. It is a name attached to both theatrical releases and, occasionally, to the repackaging of those films for television broadcast. Michael Mann suffered the latter fate twice in the nineties, removing his name from the broadcast versions of Heat and The Insider respectively.


It is an intriguing scenario. The film director serves as the conductor, setting out a vision, building common purpose, facilitating the artistic and technical efforts of a host of other people. They work closely with writers, actors, cinematographers, musical directors and editors to shape the work. Leadership within this network flows in context. People exercise their own mastery. They work with autonomy. Up to a certain point, that is. In fact, only until the right to interfere is invoked, the trump card of the financier. This is the fate that befell Catchfire and so many other films.

Which begs the question, how often does this happen in other industries, in other workplaces? How often is the bubble of autonomy punctured, leadership responsibility removed? How often does an apparent network, informed by fluid power and authority, suddenly reshape itself without warning into the pyramid of command-and-control? How often is ‘ownership and accountability’ nothing more than a trapdoor, a label without meaning?

If you are interested in developing leadership in others, you have to learn to get out of the way. You prepare the ground, inspire, guide and encourage. But the end goal of a transformational leader has to be their own redundancy, enabling others and ensuring their enduring self-sufficiency. How is that possible if entitled people are forever flexing their muscles, showing their power, looming over their charges and defending their self-interests all the time?

There is a happy twist to Hopper’s tale, in that he was able to release a director’s cut of his film on cable television, retitled as Backtrack. There are rumours that an even longer version lurks in the vaults somewhere, and may yet appear on a cinema screen one day. Have you ever seen a director’s cut of an annual report, though? Or a strategy reclaimed and distributed by its author after endless interference by executives and committees? Or a white paper, published as an extended version, after being mangled by the money men?

Responsibility means having a duty to deal with something, whereas accountability is more daunting, requiring you to justify decisions and outcomes.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri

Leaders create leaders by passing on responsibility, creating ownership, accountability and trust.
— James Kerr, Legacy

Asking permission, after all, is asking somebody else to take responsibility for your actions – no, take accountability for your actions.
— Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise

How can you identify the disruptive innovators and radicals in your midst and engage them in the core transformation work of your organisation? How can you create the space, support and encouragement to make a difference, beyond hierarchy? How can you activate and engage them yet avoid overburdening them with programme management and accountability infrastructure?
— Helen Bevan & Steve Fairman, The New Era of Thinking and Practice in Change and Transformation