It’s not that uncommon for a director to take their name off a film, and to leave the moniker Alan Smithee or whatever the current equivalent is behind. However, what’s considerably rarer is when a film is released under the name of one director, but it’s later revealed or rumored that, actually, other hands were at work, either for a solid chunk or even the entirety of a production. That a film was, for want of a better phrase, “ghost directed.”
Granted, some of these stories that we’re about to tell have little chance of ever being fully confirmed, but here are some examples of where the helmer of a film has been called into question. They range from instances of the whole film being reportedly ghost-directed to just large swathes on uncredited helming work being done.
Name director: George P. CosmatosBut was it actually: Kurt Russell
A popular and successful telling of the Wyatt Earp story that thoroughly trumped Kevin Costner’s attempts to cover the same ground a few months’ later, Tombstone brought together a majestic cast led by Kurt Russell for a film that enjoys regular respins on disc. However, a few years ago it emerged that the late George P. Cosmatos, hardly the most visionary director who walked the earth to be fair, might not have been the man calling the shots on the project after all. The real director? The film’s star, Kurt Russell.
The story first surfaced in an article in True West magazine by Henry Cabot Beck, who visited the set during the film’s production and made the discovery, only to promise Cosmatos that he wouldn’t tell the story while the director was still alive.
Cosmatos died in 2005, and Beck subsequently revealed the secret: namely that after Kevin Jarre–the film’s original director and screenwriter–left the project, Russell agreed to direct with Cosmatos hired to basically do what the actor told him to do. As the article quotes Russell saying, “I’m going to give you [Cosmatos] a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.” It’s unclear what hand Russell had, if any, in the director’s cut of the film that was released on DVD back in 2002.
It’s a fabulous and fascinating article, and one that tells the story better than we ever could. You can find it right here. More recently, Val Kilmer has also addressed the issue as to who actually directed Tombstone. You can read more about that here.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Named director: George P. CosmatosBut was it actually: Sylvester Stallone
George again, and this actually ties into the situation with Tombstone above.
Back when the Tombstone production was having trouble and the idea was put forward to get a front man in to shoot the shots he was told to, Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone–who worked together, of course, on Tango & Cash–had a phone conversation. As reported in the article we’ve linked to at the end of the Tombstone entry, Stallone revealed to Russell that Cosmatos served a similar function on the set of First Blood: Part Two. Or, to put it succinctly, that the second Rambo moviewas apparently ghost-directed by Stallone, even though he didn’t take credit for it. As with most of these stories, there’s more smoke than firm fire to it, but we’ve seen little to refute this particular story either.
Named director: Tobe HooperBut was it actually: Steven Spielberg
A long-running contentious one, this, with arguments for either side. Certainly the lack of too much director involvement in the assorted disc releases of Poltergeist has poured some fuel on this particular fire, but the basis of the debate is this: Tobe Hooper, when directing Poltergeist, was basically interpreting Steven Spielberg’s instructions.
The rumor started back when the L.A. Times visited the set during production and noticed that Spielberg appeared to be directing the shots. It’s little secret too that the pair didn’t get along on the film. Furthermore, talking to AintItCool, one of the film’s stars, the late Zelda Rubinstein, told the site, “I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments.”
A more recent interview with Spielberg certainly gives that impression too. He said that “Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.”
There was certainly enough smoke around the time of release for the Director’s Guild of America to look into the matter, and one suggestion is that Spielberg was contractually blocked from directing another movie at the time due to making E.T. for the same summer of release, and thus brought Hooper in to be the face of the film.
Furthermore, an article in the L.A. Times published in May 1982 gave Hooper the chance to defend his position. “I don’t understand why any of these questions have to be raised. I always saw this film as a collaborative situation between my producer, my writer, and myself. Two of those people were Steven Spielberg, but I directed the film and I did fully half of the story boards. I’m quite proud of what I did,” he said.
Poltergeist was, by several accounts, a very, very heavily storyboarded movie, and the story runs that Spielberg was the guiding force behind these. It’s also been suggested that once Hooper had finished shooting, he wasn’t involved in the editing process. However, on the other side of the coin, it’s been stated since that the whole Spielberg-directed-Poltergeist rumor was deliberately leaked to the press as the studio was wary at the time of having a movie from the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
For far more debate on the matter, here‘s a terrific link, from which we sourced the above L.A. Times quote.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Named director: Richard MarquandBut was it actually: George Lucas
There’s a compelling argument that suggests that George Lucas works best when he’s in partnership with another strong filmmaker. As such, bringing in Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back, under his stewardship, delivered results that are still talked about more than 30 years later.
But what of Return of the Jedi? It was credited to Richard Marquand, who would go on to helm Jagged Edge before his premature death. Yet before Star Wars entered his life, he had a low-key resume. Furthermore, the Welsh director was rumored to not get on particularly well with the actors on Return of the Jedi, and according to an interview back in 2004 with Irvin Kershner, Lucas and Kershner’s assistant director actually took over in that department. Since then, Lucas has played down the suggestion that the two had a poor working relationship. Marquand’s side of the story, however, was never told, given that he died at the age of just 49 from a heart attack, back in 1987.
Incidentally, Lucas was rumored to have asked the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), an organization he’d had spats with in the past, to adjust the credits of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for the later editions to give him a co-directing credit. The credits remained unchanged, although there was never convincing corroboration to back the story up.
We have a previously lost interview with the late Richard Marquand, where he talks about Return of the Jedi, right here.
The Thing from Another World
Named director: Christian Nyby
But was it actually: Howard Hawks
An acclaimed thriller from 1951 starring Margaret Sheridan and Kenneth Tobey, The Thing from Another World is based on a story by John Campbell about scientific researchers in the Arctic who discover a spaceship in the ice. What’s more, they find the pilot of the craft too, take him back to their base, thaw him out, and mayhem inevitably ensues.
The film was credited to Christian Nyby, a director with TV shows such as The Fugitive, I Spy, Perry Mason, and Rawhide littering his CV, and who also edited Howard Hawks’ pictures for a while. The Thing from Another World was his first directorial credit, however there’s a strong core of opinion that suggests it was actually Howard Hawks calling the shots.
Hawks is credited as being producer of the film, but there have been heavy suggestions that he took a far more hands-on role. Nyby himself was said to have conceded that Hawks was influential on set, while Kenneth Tobey reportedly said that the latter was definitely in charge. James Arness, meanwhile, who played The Thing, apparently refuted this and was adamant it was Nyby directing. The general argument is that the style of the film is more in keeping with the Hawks’ back catalogue as opposed to what Nyby would go on to make. Yet as an article at B Monster argues, given that Nyby was schooled in the Hawks way of making films, that’s arguably not much of a surprise. That article is here.
As things stand, this one’s never been 100 percent cleared up. IMDb backs out and lists them both, but we will never definitively know whose hand was at the helm. Whoever it was, it’s still a terrific film though.
Tango & Cash
Named director: Andrei KonchalovskyRumoured directors: Albert Magnoli, Stuart Baird
Andrei Konchalovsky was always an unusual choice to direct what turned out to be a much-loved ’80s action vehicle for Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. Yet the production itself was fraught with problems. Konchalovsky eventually took directing credit, but amidst the walkouts and changes in personnel that plagued the film, he was fired by producer Jon Peters. He was in good company: original director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to direct the Men In Black movies, was sacked, reportedly at the behest of Stallone.
The film was still in production when Konchalovsky got his marching orders, and it was Albert Magnoli who was brought in to finish the shoot. Even then though, the job of cutting the movie together went to someone else, with Stuart Baird reportedly overhauling the film in the edit suite (a service he’s provided to other productions too). With further rumors about more cooks spoiling the broth, it’s difficult to come up with a single name as the director of Tango & Cash. And while it’s not unusual for a director to lose control of their film in the edit suite, it’s far rarer for it to happen while cameras are still rolling.
As such, Konchalovksy gets the credit, but it’s hard to say that it was ultimately he who directed the end product. We looked at the movie in more detail here.
A Night at the Roxbury
Named director: John FortenberryBut was it actually: Amy Heckerling
A fairly forgettable comedy (although those amongst us who love it, really really love it), A Night at the Roxbury was one of a procession of spin-offs from Saturday Night Live that utterly failed to ignite the box office
We’ve read in more than one place that Amy Heckerling, the director of the likes of Clueless and Look Who’s Talking, did some directorial work on the picture, although it’s hard to ascertain the scale of it. Our best guess is that she did uncredited work on some scenes in the film, which would still make it Fortenberry’s movie. Wherever the truth lies though, the end result doesn’t quite have the fanbase for a detailed DVD digging into the real story…
Named director: Gregory RatoffBut was it actually: Orson Welles
The 1949 adaptation of the Alexander Dumas novel, Black Magic starred Orson Welles, and if you read the credits, it was directed by Gregory Ratoff. Ratoff was best known for appearing as Max Fabian in All About Eve, and the Russian-born filmmaker was also one of a pair of producers who originally bought the rights to the James Bond series.
In Black Magic, Welles plays 18th century hypnotist, scammer, and magician Joseph Balsamo, in a generally forgettable mix of mystery and romance. This, however, is one of a couple of projects that Welles was reported to have been calling more shots on than the credits may have you believe. At the very least, it’s pretty well known that Welles directed several scenes in the film (and this was a project that had gone through several directors by the time cameras rolled). Ratoff retained the directorial credit for the final cut, even though his overall influence across the project is hard to ascertain.
Welles’ hand was also rumoured to be more prevalent than declared in other projects too. Also in some degree of contention was La Decade Prodigieuse, a French movie from Claude Chabrol and the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre that was supposedly helmed by Robert Stevenson.
Super Mario Bros.
Named directors: Annabel Jankel, Rocky MortonBut was it actually: Dean Semler, Roland Joffe
The very first big screen movie based on a videogame, Super Mario Bros. set a trend that pretty much every film based on a game has followed since. It’s also a film that has more directors than it may at first appear. The pair credited with helming the big screen Mario Bros. outing are Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, most famed, of course, for Mr. Max Headroom.
However, one of the film’s producers, Roland Joffe, is widely believed to have done a solid amount of directing work on the film without credit, and likewise its cinematographer Dean Semler has been reported as taking on some helming duties too. Neither got a directing credit for their work, and you’d imagine neither has been particularly keen to get one either. It’s known that Jankel and Morton were locked out of the editing room. They also weren’t involved, according to reports, in the additional photography that was subsequently required to get the film finished.
A Prairie Home Companion
Named director: Robert AltmanBut was it actually: Paul Thomas Anderson
The influence that director Robert Altman had over Paul Thomas Anderson can be clearly seen when you put the likes of Nashville and Magnolia side by side. Altman was 80-years-old and in a frail state when he tackled what would turn out to be his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, and apparently unable to undertake much of the physical side of directing the film.
Reports around the time of the film’s production suggested that Anderson was ultimately brought on board to ghost direct the film, but at the very least, he was on set as a back-up. Still, the suggestion was that Altman watched what was happening on monitors and gave out orders, but that Anderson was tackling the hands-on work, and dealing with the actors themselves. Other reports argue that, as is quite common with directors of advanced age, Anderson was actually on stand-by to take over the film if Altman couldn’t. As it stood, Altman got sole directing credit for the film in line with DGA rules.
Named director: Tommy WiseauBut was it really: Sandy Schklair
A regular favorite at London’s Prince Charles Cinema is 2003’s The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s movie that’s earned a reputation for, well, not being one of the finest films of all time. Wiseau is credited as writing, producing, and directing The Room, and he stars in it too, of course. But back in 2011, there was some doubt as to whether he’d been calling all of the shots behind the camera.
As Slashfilm reported, Sandy Schklair had told Entertainment Weekly that Wiseau hired him to be script supervisor on the movie. But by Schklair’s account, the following conversation too place:
Schklair: “Umm…you want me to direct your project?”Wiseau: “No! I am director!”Schklair: “Yeah, you’re the director, whatever. But you want me to direct your movie for you?”Wiseau: “Yes, please.”
Wiseau denies this happened, and has refusted Schklair’s claim to directorial credit. But Slashfilm also quotes an anonymous actor from the film, who argued that “the script supervisor ended up sort of directing the movie. Tommy was so busy being an actor that this other guy directed the whole thing.”
Wiseau remains credited with the picture.
Psycho: The Shower Scene
Named director: Alfred HitchcockBut was it actually: Saul Bass (No.)
There’s little doubt that Psycho is the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but what about its signature scene? The authorship of the shower sequence was thrown into doubt when legendary titles designer Saul Bass–a long-time collaborator of Hitchcock’s (also taking on some storyboarding work for the great director)–claimed to have directed it. Since then, the general consensus seems to be that Bass was certainly a contributor, having helped design the scene, but it was absolutely Hitchcock calling the shots (Janet Leigh being among the many who have confirmed this).
Myths & Further Rumors
This 1978 thriller was a pet project for its star Dustin Hoffman, who was originally down to direct the film. He did, in fact, take charge for the first few days, yet there was a conflict with the studio over the final cut, and Hoffman ultimately brought in Ulu Grosbard to direct the film instead.
Dances with Wolves
As Kevin Costner’s directorial debut, Dances With Wolves was reaping acclaim and box office gold, rumors surfaced that a sizeable chunk of the film had actually been steered by Costner’s old friend, Kevin Reynolds. Reynolds, who went on to helm Costner in Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, did direct a few sequences, including the terrific buffalo hunt scene, but it was still Costner’s picture. Kevin Reynolds talked about filming that scene in some detail when we had the chance to interview him.
While we’re talking about Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds, it’d be remiss not to mention the spat between the pair that saw the latter quit the film. As such, it was reportedly Costner who supervised the editing stages of the movie, with no input from Reynolds whatsoever. More on Waterworld here.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
During the film’s production, it was rumored that one of its producers, Richard Donner, was more hands-on than might have been expected. However, Fox moved to nix such rumors, and to make it clear that Gavin Hood was very much in charge. We have more about the saga of X-Men Origins: Wolverine right here.
Dig into the world of Bollywood movies, and stories of ghost directors are equally apparent. Take, for example, action thriller Acid House, where rumors were so rife that director Supern Verma came out and flatly denied that producer and established director Sanjay Gupta was, in fact, calling the shots. Other stories of similar ilk are not too tricky to find, either…