Accidental Love stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, James Marsden and Tracy Morgan, yet it is directed by an unknown. This isn’t unheard of; even in 2014 Hollywood was rocked by a first time director with a stellar cast in Whiplash. Accidental Love’s director takes anonymity a step further, however, by not actually existing. Stephen Greene does not exist, his credit is a fiction – so why is his name stamped firmly on the film?
Accidental Love’s production history reads as if it were cursed, doomed to fail from the start. The film started life as Sammy’s Hill, a novel by Kristin Gore about a waitress (Alice, played by Biel in the film), who is involved in an accident with a nail gun (an everyday occurrence) but is unable to be treated due to insufficient health insurance. She campaigns for a change to this bizarre anomaly, and innuendo and hilarity ensue. David O. Russell picked the story up after his I Heart Huckabees high, and the film began production as Nailed, a saucier title for sure.
Within weeks of principal photography starting in April 2008 the film lost its first star, with James Caan playing the classic “creative differences” card. Then the production ran out of money. Movie-making, like all business, revolves around money, and when there’s no money, there’s no showbusiness. After a month of shooting, the producers could no longer afford to pay the cast and due to Screen Actors Guild regulations, Gyllenhaal, Biel and co. were unable to work. On the back of this, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees boycotted the production. No cast, no crew, no movie, but Russell was still attached as director.
Two years later, and still five years ago from time of writing, Russell left the film. The financial strife could not be reconciled, negotiations couldn’t reach agreements, and legal complications were racking up. With the film unfinished, without a cast, a crew, a director or financing, it seemed certain that Nailed would never see the light of day. Well, it didn’t. When production (predominantly of the “post” variety) restarted, the name was changed to the uninspiring Politics of Love. With Russell no longer involved, he obviously didn’t want whatever product came out of the rebooted production to be credited to (or blamed on) him. The credited director is instead Stephen Greene, a pseudonym.
As it happens, you may actually have heard of Stephen Greene before, but by another name. Alan Smithee has traditionally been used by directors as a scapegoat of sorts for situations where they wish to be consciously uncoupled from the released film they originally directed. This has been used most often in cases where directors were unable to retain creative control, perhaps due to an over-powerful producer forcing their hand, and as such were uncomfortable with the film bearing their name. Unsurprisingly, Alan Smithee films have become synonymous with shit.
Thanks to the Directors Guild of America having robust rules for a director withdrawing their credit from the film (including legal sanctions on even acknowledging that they were ever involved with the production), these films are rare. The most interesting Alan Smithee cases have been after general release, where creative control has been wrestled from the director ahead of television and aeroplane viewing: Meet Joe Black, Heat and Dune were initially credited to Brest, Mann and Lynch respectively, but the major edits needed at a later stage came without the approval of these directors.
Al Smith was deemed a common enough name for a pseudonym, while the added “-an” and “-ee” made it simultaneously unique. The name was originally invented in 1969 as a stand-in name when a dispute arose between the star and two directors of Death of a Gunfighter, a film famed as the first on the list of Alan Smithee films and for being better than the films which would join the faux-director’s resumé. The tactic appeared to work, with Roger Ebert reviewing the film without reference to the directorial dispute and even seeming to buy that this was a debut filmmaker. Such luxury will not be afforded to David O. Russell this time though (like Ant-Man and Edgar Wright, Russell is unlikely to escape this release untarred), but you’ll be hard pressed to find him recently talking on the subject.
Accidental Love may bear the scars of a near decade-long struggle for existence, and these may be all too apparent in the finally-finished film, but regardless of this it has provided an opportunity to see what happens when production spirals so badly out of control that the director, the big boss on set, decides it’s best they have nothing to do with the film, to the extent that they disown their own contribution to it. It is the creative equivalent of nuking a project from orbit, but the cast, ever visible on screen, may not escape so easily. Whilst release dates say differently, this is Gyllenhaal pre-Nightcrawler, End of Watch, Source Code, and Prisoners, with Southpaw and Everest to come. Don’t judge him on Accidental Love, okay, however Smithee it may be.