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When a director's dream turns into a nightmare

The movie Dream House, starring Daniel Craig as a writer who moves into an attractive but dangerous home, might be a metaphor for the seductive trapdoors of the movie business itself. Something was mysteriously wrong with the movie, which the studio released without advance critics' screenings, despite its six-time Oscar-nominated director Jim Sheridan and an A-list cast including Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz. The box office was anemic; reviews were harsh.

A week after its release, the L.A. Times reported that Sheridan ( My Left Foot and In America) had, at one point, asked the Directors Guild of America to remove his name from the film. Dream House was shot in Toronto back in January of 2010 and was scheduled to open last February. But, first, reshoots were called for and the production company, Morgan's Creek Productions, took the film away from Sheridan, who then petitioned the DGA to have his name removed.

Eventually a compromise was reached, though the creative schism seems to have ruined the film. The movie's official trailer, attempting to focus on the horror angle, casually gives away the central psychological plot twist. It's no surprise that Sheridan declined to do any promotion for the film.

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Could Sheridan have taken his name off Dream House? Probably not, without a protracted lawsuit.

Back in the nineties, he could have asked that Dream House be credited to Alan Smithee. That pseudonym (which was sometimes spelled Allen) was first used on a 1969 Western, Death of a Gunfighter, and soon caught on as a way that filmmakers could signal the film wasn't their responsibility. Over the next 30 years, the Smithee oeuvre included about two dozen feature films and numerous television productions, including work by John Frankenheimer, Dennis Hopper and David Lynch.

All that changed with the 1997 satire An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, which exposed the convention. Written by Basic Instinct's Joe Eszterhas, the movie starred Eric Idle as a director who wants to disavow a movie, but, unfortunately, his real name is Alan Smithee. Subsequently, the DGA retired the name. Filmmaker Tony Kaye unsuccessfully tried to disown his 1998 film American History X by crediting it to Humpty Dumpty. Walter Hill, who lost control of 2000's Supernova, settled for the less obvious Thomas Lee.

This is the sort of artistic humiliation that would be unimaginable for authors or painters to face – but in most cases, directors simply have to suck it up when someone else finishes their film. Examples include the comic-book adaptation Jonah Hex, or the Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig sci-fi thriller The Invasion, where the films were finished by different directors than those listed on the credits. Unless they're as prominent as Jim Sheridan, most directors won't risk scuttling a movie's box office with bad publicity.

Hard on the heels of the Sheridan controversy last week came reports that another director, Pete Travis, was sacked from his upcoming comic adaptation, Dredd, with screenwriter-producer Alex Garland taking over editing and possible reshoots. On Wednesday, Travis and Garland released a damage-control statement, calling their film an "unorthodox collaboration" that had been misinterpreted. "To set the record straight, Pete was not fired and remains a central part of the collaboration, and Alex is not seeking a co-director credit."

The character of Judge Dredd is a one-man judge, jury, policeman and executioner – in other words, not unlike the lethal Internet gossip machine. That's why the filmmakers are begging for leniency, for a film that won't even see theatres until September, 2012: "We are all extremely proud of the film we have made," the filmmakers said, before suggesting that the film not be judged until it's released.


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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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