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Filmmakers turn to end-credit pseudonyms out of modesty, mischief, politics

Film director brothers Joel Coen, left, and Ethan Coen, look on during a hand and footprint ceremony for actor John Goodman in Los Angeles, on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

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Film director brothers Joel Coen, left, and Ethan Coen, look on during a hand and footprint ceremony for actor John Goodman in Los Angeles, on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

TORONTO - It's well-established that Alan Smithee has been the go-to pseudonym for film directors wishing to disown stinkers they'd rather not be associated with.

But fake credits abound among beloved movies, too — an admittedly rare phenomenon in which filmmakers willingly give up credit out of modesty, politics or just plain mischief.

It's all well and good until awards season rolls around, when venerable institutions including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are put in the strange position of announcing nominations for contenders who may not even exist.

Skeptics suspect that may be the case with this year's best film editing category, which includes a nod for someone named John Mac McMurphy for "Dallas Buyers Club."

Within hours of the nomination, speculation ran rampant online that McMurphy was actually "Dallas Buyers Club" director Jean-Marc Vallee, although McMurphy's co-nominee — Montrealer Martin Pensa — would reveal nothing about his partner's identity.

One story said the Academy had confirmed McMurphy was actually a pseudonym for Quebec's Vallee, but Oscar officials could not verify that report for The Canadian Press.

One Academy publicist said nominees are based on film credits submitted by the studio and "it is immaterial whether the name is a pseudonym or not."

"Often we aren't aware of the use of a pseudonym until years later," the publicist — who requested anonymity — said in an email.

If Vallee did submit a pseudonym to the Academy Awards, he certainly wouldn't be the first to do so.

Joel and Ethan Coen earned an Oscar nomination for best editing for "No Country for Old Men" under the moniker Roderick Jaynes. At the time, it was the second nod for "Jaynes," who also drew attention for editing "Fargo."

And Donald Kaufman, the fictional alter-ego of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, shared a writing credit with the real Kaufman on 2002's "Adaptation" and was subsequently nominated for a best adapted screenplay trophy.

It was generally known at the time that there was no such person as Donald Kaufman, said the Academy publicist, noting the reference was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the film's plot about a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman and his cocky twin brother Donald.

"Since Charlie Kaufman is credited under his own name we decided to treat Donald Kaufman as an extension of that name rather than as a stand-alone pseudonym. So the entire statement (i.e. both names together) is just another version of Charlie Kaufman's name."

In cases where a nominee used a pseudonym and won, records show that the filmmaker showed up to accept the award. These include writer Hans Sz�kely (who used the name John S. Toldy) in 1940 and blacklisted scribe Nedrick Young (who used the name Nathan E. Douglas) in 1958.

The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which administers the Canadian Screen Awards, refused to reveal its policy on handling pseudonyms for this country's biggest film and television awards.

But the phenomenon occurs, here, too.

Toronto-based editor/director Reg Harkema, for example, has been credited as Hans Lucas.

"There's a bit of the media prankster in every director, right?" he said.

Harkema explains that many multi-hyphenated filmmakers — who may work simultaneously as a writer, director, editor and/or producer on one project — use a fake name to avoid dominating the credits.

"It just looks like rampant egomania," Harkema said of the alternative.

"James Cameron looks like a (jerk) when he does 'Avatar' and he takes an editing credit when he's directing ... when he's got two other editors."

Earlier instances were based on more political reasons.

In the 1950s, pseudonyms were commonly used in Hollywood to hide the names of suspected Communists during the McCarthy era — writers such as Young who couldn't work under their own names.

And of course many actors have taken new names to boost their star appeal or hide their ethnicity.

The situation is different for filmmakers working in the more technical categories, where fake names are used to disguise identities for all sorts of reasons.

Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh has said he prefers to have his name on a movie just once, believing that "every time you put your name up there, you're actually diluting it."

It's the reason he routinely uses the pseudonym Peter Andrews for his work as a cinematographer and the name Mary Ann Bernard for his work as a film editor.

The habit put him in an odd position come Emmy time last year, when his work on the Liberace drama "Behind the Candelabra" netted him three nominations under three different names — for best director as Soderbergh, best cinematography as Andrews and best single-camera picture editing as Bernard.

Harkema says it just looks bad to have too many title cards attached to one name.

"Everytime I see 'directed by,' 'written by,' 'produced by,' 'edited by', 'shot by,' 'starring,' it's just like, 'This movie better be good because this guy is an egomaniac,'" says Harkema, who gave the fictional Hans Lucas credit for his own post-production work on "Hardcore Logo" and "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" and music editing on "Last Night."

When Harkema edited the hockey comedy "Goon," he says director Michael Dowse would regularly join in, but refused to be credited.

Harkema operates the same way. He relied on another editor for his directorial efforts "Leslie, My Name is Evil" and "Monkey Warfare" but there were "lots of times" he did his own tweaking.

"It's like, 'Well, this is just going to be easier if I do this rather than explain what I'm trying to think about' and I would just sweep my editor aside and jump on and do some work," he said.

"Same thing with Mike — he does that to me all the time when I'm working for him. But I would never dream to suddenly take an editing credit."

Canadian uber-producer Don Carmody said in an email that he was surprised the Academy would allow pseudonyms at all, but can understand why some filmmakers use them.

"I have never used a pseudonym but believe me there's a few stinkers out there (where) I wish I had," says Carmody, whose lengthy film roster includes "Goon," "Chicago," the "Resident Evil" franchise and the upcoming "Pompeii."

He noted that the Directors Guild of America invented the name Alan Smithee specifically for that purpose, allowing directors unhappy with a film's final outcome to cut their creative ties.

Harkema says he's never had to battle a producer about giving Hans a movie credit, but "they have rolled their eyes a lot," he admitted.

"To their credit, I kind of agree with them now," said Harkema, whose fake name is the pen name Jean-Luc Godard adopted when writing film critiques.

"The last movie I worked on I made sure I got every damn credit because I was sharing the directing credit and did most of the editing, or at least half of the editing."

That was for the upcoming documentary "Super Duper Alice Cooper," which Harkema co-directs with Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen. Harkema is also listed as an executive producer on that film, an added credit that he says pretty much fell into his lap.

"They had three non-Canadian executive producers and only two Canadian and they needed another Canadian. So I said, 'Yeah, I'll take that credit'," he said. "That's how credits happen a lot."

As soon as he was made an executive producer on "Super Duper Alice Cooper," Harkema said he made executive decisions about other credits for the film — in one case putting the spotlight on a hard-working visual effects artist who otherwise would have been buried in the final titles.

Working closely with the cast and crew in his other roles gave him good insight into who really did what on the film, Harkema said, and having the producing title allowed him to make sure talent was recognized.

But he noted that's not always the case.

"There's people out there taking credit for stuff that they have underlings doing," he said. "I remember being in on a meeting for a rewrite of a movie and the director and I were waiting for the writer to come in and the writer's assistant came in and had the meeting with us."

Harkema admitted he now wishes he was more diligent about acknowledging his own film history, noting that hiding his identity has almost worked too well.

"I didn't even take writing credits," he said, noting that "Monkey Warfare" doesn't have a writing a credit at all. "I didn't want to give credit to that part of the process because my films are so much about the editing. Which is B.S. Now, I'm trying to get jobs as a writer."

Harkema said he doesn't hold much stock in awards shows to begin with, but he'd gladly accept an accolade on behalf of Hans Lucas if his work was ever recognized.

"If Hans Lucas ever got a trophy I'd put it on my mantel proudly."

The Oscars take place March 2.

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