Revised “Catchfire” Evinces DGA Revoked Hopper’s Pseudonym
Dennis Hopper's Credit Mystery, Plus: Linton, Cronenberg and Araki.
It’s official: following a long absence from post-VHS home video formats in the US, the 116-minute director’s cut of Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack (1991) is finally arriving on Blu-Ray via Kino Lorber on April 25, 2023. In addition, the disc will include the film’s 99-minute ‘theatrical cut.’ The labeling, however, is deceptive, as the so-called ‘theatrical cut‘ is not the 1991 Alan Smithee version that was released under the title Catchfire in British and Australian cinemas.
Instead, Kino Lorber admitted that it is putting out a nearly identical, yet slightly revised version that has been circulating in the US on home video since 2001. Despite having the same editing as the Smithee Cut, which Hopper disowned, it actually retains the original title Backtrack and restores Hopper’s name to the “directed by” and “a film by” credits, in lieu of the pseudonym Alan Smithee.
Thus, it’s the version Dennis Hopper disowned, but with all onscreen traces of his having disowned it missing!
Why was this version released? And how is it possible that it came to exist in the first place? I can only provide a theory, which is that this is ultimately the result of Hopper badmouthing the Smithee Cut in the press, which led the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) to revoke his pseudonym.
To illustrate this, I will delve into the distribution history of this revised version, which I will refer to henceforth as the “Backfire Cut” to distinguish it from both the director’s cut and the Smithee-credited international theatrical cut, and discuss what it implies for filmmakers’ ability to use pseudonyms on alternate cuts.
Finally, in a short post-script following the Backtrack essay, I will highlight a few recent director’s cut-related stories that I find interesting.
P.S. Director’s Cut News and Views
The Itunes Snafu
I want to begin by first explaining how I realized that the only version of Backtrack currently available on DVD/Blu-Ray and Streaming in the US was neither the Hopper cut, nor the Smithee cut, but actually a third version that nobody really talked about as a unique variant.
Back in 2021, I became interested in seeing Backtrack and Catchfire back-to-back after discovering that the latter version was available for free streaming on Amazon Prime. Even though the Amazon version didn’t have the Smithee credit and the Catchfire title, it had the right duration, so I didn’t make anything of it. I then started searching for a streaming copy of Backtrack and it popped up on Itunes/Apple TV. Apple’s preview menu listed the film under the title of Backtrack, credited Dennis Hopper as the director, and advertised its runtime as 115 minutes.
And it looked pretty cheap – just 7 dollars – so I decided to purchase it, as no other digital streaming platform appeared to have the director’s cut.
When I hit play, however, I was taken aback, for I realized that, rather than getting the director’s cut, I had instead received the exact same 99-minute cut that was available on Amazon. Indeed, when I checked the entry for the film inside my Apple TV movie library page, its poster title became Catchfire, even as the database entry continued to list it as Backtrack. Naturally, I had some questions, such as : “Why was the same cut showing up under both titles? Were the folks at Apple TV not aware of which cut of the film they actually had? Was the distinction deliberately obfuscated to trick cinephiles interested in the director’s cut into buying the disowned version?”
Clearly, something weird was going on here. I got curious and started digging.
And I discovered the film had a rather bizarre distribution and revision history, one that I’ve previously documented up to the point where the Backtrack Director’s Cut arrived on VHS in 1991.* I’ve concluded that Apple didn’t intend to trick anyone. Rather, the root cause of this snafu was a decision made over 20 years ago by the film’s previous owner Artisan Entertainment.
*This essay assumes you’re acquainted with the BTS shenanigans plaguing Backtrack and how Dennis Hopper appealed to the DGA to remove his name from it after it was retitled and re-edited. I highly recommend reading my earlier article, if you haven’t already.
Artisan and The DVD Backfire
Throughout the 1990s, it was relatively easy to tell apart Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack from Alan Smithee’s Catchfire. In addition to the differences in length, film title and director credits, the two versions were geographically separated from one another, with the director’s cut being the only version of the film circulated in the US on VHS.
I don’t really know why this was arranged in such a way.
LIVE Entertainment, having assets of Carolco and Vestron, now should have owned the rights to both versions and so presumably been able to release the Smithee Cut on domestic video alongside the Hopper Cut. Perhaps this wasn’t seen as commercially viable at the time. Perhaps there was some sort of rights agreement with Hopper when it came to the production and distribution of the Backtrack director’s cut. Perhaps there were leftover deals from the days of Vestron. In any case, LIVE allowed the director’s cut to have VHS exclusivity in the American video market.
In 1998, Live was rebranded as Artisan Entertainment following a 1997 acquisition “by an investor group led by Bain Capital of Boston and Richland Gordon & Co.”
In 2001, Artisan quietly dropped the Backfire Cut on DVD.
The digitally mastered release, to my knowledge, seemed to not have much if any publicity and went unnoticed by film and home video publications. I’ve looked for interviews with Hopper from around that time, but I’ve never found any mention on his part of Artisan’s Backtrack DVD, despite the fact that it had reinstated Hopper’s credit to a cut he’d disowned.
Artisan thus effectively erased any evidence of the DVD release as being a disowned version and marketed Catchfire as a Dennis Hopper film, rather than an Alan Smithee film. In 2003, Artisan was bought out by Lionsgate Entertainment, which continued Artisan’s policy. I’m not sure whether it simply ported over Artisan’t master of the Backfire Cut to new platforms or crafted a new HD master from the same print but around 2018, the Backfire Cut started to appear on digital platforms like Itunes.
This means that since 2001, only the Backfire Cut was available to watch on post-VHS platforms in America. I don’t know if Hopper ever became aware of this. But if he did, then he’d probably be pretty livid, given everything he had done to ensure that his cut of the movie received a release back in 1991 and that the studio cut would not bear his name. In effect, his cut was delegitimized, his vision re-replaced by that of Vestron.
The How of the Backfire Cut
So, how does the Backfire Cut even exist? How could it have been produced and/or released? Unless Lionsgate or someone else involved with the film’s video release provides an official statement, one can only make speculations based on available information. After doing some research, I’ve arrived at two potential explanations.
The first is that this was an oversight on the part of Artisan when it came to maste-ring the Backtrack DVD. This seems to be a recurring theory on the internet among those who have noticed the discrepancy between the Smithee and Backfire Cuts. According to a 2015 article on the film by Marc Edward Heuck, for example:
“Bloody Artisan mastered a pre-Smithee print to DVD, and Lionsgate has never done a damned thing to correct it!”
Supporting the oversight theory is the fact that the back cover art for the picture repeats the erroneous running time information of the preceding LIVE/Vestron video releases, listing it as 102 minutes, though in this case it’s actually 99 minutes!
In other words, it is possible that somebody at Artisan found an old Backtrack print before the title and credit change and created the DVD master by mistake and Lionsgate simply kept repeating it. However, there are several reasons why I believe this explanation to not be very probable.
First of all, this would have to be a rather LARGE oversight on the parts of Artisan, Lionsgate, and others, given that the awarding of the Alan Smithee pseudonym is supposed to be legally binding. In other words, given the potential trouble the companies could find themselves in with the DGA, I don’t believe they could’ve released the Backfire Cut accidentally.
Second, there is the fact that Catchfire was issued on DVD by Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment in the UK. The Region 2 DVD release, at least based on the cover arts I’ve been able to find, apparently is the Catchfire version, with the Smithee credits intact. Artisan was still listed as a Copyright Holder on this DVD, indicating that it had licensed the title to Columbia for homevid distribution in the UK. This indicates that Artisan must’ve been aware of the title and credit issues pertaining to the movie.
Finally, if this were a mistake, then it would mean that somehow in the many years since the Backfire Cut’s release in 2001, nobody had pointed out the mistake to Artisan and got them to reissue a proper release. Again, I don’t know if Hopper ever learned of this before he died in 2011, but I find it difficult to believe that he didn’t. Given his history with this film, it’s unlikely he would’ve allowed the continuous circulation of the new version, if he could’ve prevented it.
More likely then is the second explanation, which is that Artisan released the Backfire Cut deliberately, and Hopper couldn’t do a thing about it. What this means is that Artisan would’ve had to find a way to legally reissue the film with Hopper’s name, despite the DGA’s ruling that granted Hopper use of the Alan Smithee pseudonym. How would the company be able to do that?
Well, according to DGA rules, if granted permission to use a pseudonym on a film, a director essentially agrees to refrain from publicly criticizing said film and discussing the reasons for requesting a pseudonym in the first place. This is why David Lynch virtually never talks about the Alan Smithee-credited broadcast version of “Dune” (1984).* This is also why the DGA denied director Tony Kaye his appeal to use the Smithee pseudonym on American History X after he had taken out ads in newspapers openly criticizing the movie and its re-editing by New Line Cinema.
*For more information on the specifics of the process, please read the section “The Silence of the Pseudonym” in my article “David Lynch Announced a 4-Hour Version of ‘Dune’ in 1986.”
In the case of Backtrack, Hopper in fact violated the conditions of replacing his name with the Smithee pseudonym by publicly disparaging the studio cut and discussing his usage of the Smithee pseudonym in multiple interviews, some before and some after he was granted approval to take his name off the picture by the DGA.
In particular, his participation in the “Moving Pictures” documentary, where he openly discusses the fact that he replaced his name with Smithee’s, just a couple of months before the film was due to be released theatrically in the UK, would qualify as the grounds to dispute his being granted permission by the DGA.
Admittedly, I’ve not managed to find any news story confirming that a pseudonym once granted by the DGA could be revoked or other instances of distributors reissuing a film under the director’s real name. But this is logical, given that pseudonym arbitration is a two-way street. Hopper was contractually bound by his DGA Basic Agreement to uphold the terms of his pseudonym. By breaking the Smithee embargo then, he provided Artisan with the means to have the DGA revoke it.
Given all this, I think it is almost certain that Artisan intentionally reissued the Smithee Cut under the Backtrack title with Hopper’s name reinstated. The company certainly had the means to do it. But what would be the motive?
That is, assuming Artisan could do this, why would it? Why couldn’t it just release the Hopper Cut or a combination of both the Hopper Cut and the Smithee Cut on disc?
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The Why of the Backfire Cut
I’d say the most likely and sensible reason is the commercial one.
In other words, Artisan believed releasing only the Backfire Cut would allow them to maximize revenue from the movie’s DVD release.
First of all, it is quite likely that Artisan had access to complete film prints of Catchfire, which received distribution in UK and AUS theaters, but no complete prints of Backtrack, a cable and video release. The various interviews with Dennis Hopper that I’ve located reference Vestron cutting the original celluloid negative of the picture. If true, this would mean that there would be no celluloid negative print for Hopper’s original 130-minute cut of Backtrack. Hopper then may have created the final 118-minute director’s cut using videotape copies of the source materials.
This, coupled with the fact that until 2021 the director’s cut has been mostly available on VHS, suggests that the celluloid sources of the new director’s cut footage may have been missing or non-existent around 2001, in which case they would have to be reconstructed and restored before the director’s cut could be remastered for DVD.
Keep in mind, there was little incentive until the DVD era for things like film prints, such as the original negative or interpositive, of deleted or alternate footage to be preserved. In the VHS era, videotape copies of such footage were often available and so could be used to create alternate cuts for cable and/or VHS. But this could create complications when it came time to reissue such alternate cuts for later formats because you would have different sources for different scenes. And celluloid sources always provide for higher quality transfers than video sources.
Imagine watching a beautiful high definition transfer of a director’s cut, only for select scenes and shots to suddenly drop into lower-quality standard definition video, because the source material for the deleted footage was only available on VHS, while the theatrical footage was sourced from a high-grade film print. (This was a key issue with the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of Manhunter (1987, dir. Michael Mann).)
Such back-and-forth alteration has the potential to easily take viewers out of the picture and ruin the viewing experience. Moreover, it can lead to negative reviews and word-of-mouth, diminishing the potential value of the asset. This, alongside the potential time and cost of a restoration, is a factor that affects the decision of a distributor, as to which cuts to include in a release.
I would be willing to bet then that Artisan was either unable to locate the original celluloid source materials necessary to properly remaster the Backtrack director’s cut for DVD or did not believe it was financially feasible to go through the trouble of restoring those materials and so chose to not reissue the director’s cut at all.
Check out “Hollywood's Most Infamous Director“ by The Ringer for more information on Alan Smithee.
The second factor to consider is that by 2001, the ‘Alan Smithee’ pseudonym had essentially been exposed to the public. In 1997, director Tony Kaye’s public battle with New Line Cinema and Edward Norton over the editing of American History X had brought a lot of media attention to the existence of the Smithee pseudonym. This was followed by the controversy over Arthur Hiller’s mockumentary An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
Coupled with the rise of the Internet, these events resulted in greater cultural awareness of the fact that “Alan Smithee” did not really exist and was simply a name used by directors that have disowned their movies, due to not being able to realize their vision. Thus, by the end of the 90s, the Smithee name was now viewed as a sign of poor quality and could cause a film to fail commercially. Unsurprisingly, the Smithee pseudonym was consequently retired.
Artisan must’ve realized that if they reissued Catchfire in its unaltered form, few would want to purchase the DVD just because of the Smithee credit. At the same time, they probably thought going through the trouble of issuing the Backtrack director’s cut was not worth it. Under these circumstances, reissuing the Smithee cut with Hopper’s preferred title and his name in the credits was a way to make the most of what they had and maximize return on investment. Hence, the Backfire Cut.
Assuming Catchfire indeed constitutes the rare instance when the DGA has revoked a previously approved pseudonym, Hopper’s situation may very well be a cautionary tale for Hollywood filmmakers wishing to both remove their name from a film (or version of a film) yet also speak out about the how and why of their pseudonym.
But I should reiterate that much of this is speculation on my part. Perhaps, there is a different explanation for everything. Maybe the Backfire Cut is just the result of complicated rights issues that we are not privy to. Maybe it’s something else entirely.
Regardless of what the actual case is though, the release of the Backfire Cut to DVD by Artisan and later its porting to high-definition digital streaming by successor company Lionsgate constitutes a huge slap in the face to Dennis Hopper. After everything he had gone through with Vestron, to have the cut he disowned regain his name AND become the only one available on the newest video format must’ve been devastating, to say the least. And even if he somehow weren’t aware of what had happened, it doesn’t change the fact that his vision for the movie has been misrepresented for 20 years in the domestic market.*
*Across Europe, all three cuts of the film have appeared on DVD and/or Bluray. The most recent release appears to be a French Blu-Ray by Carlotta Films, which includes the entire Director’s Cut in a high-definition digital video master alonsgide the Backfire Cut with some notable special features that are not scheduled to appear on the US Kino Lorber Blu-Ray.
I am happy that after so long the director’s cut of Backtrack is finally coming to Blu-Ray in the US, so Hopper’s insane, at times unintentionally hilarious vision can get more visibility. But in my opinion, in lieu of the Backfire Cut, Kino Lorber should include the Smithee-credited version with the Catchfire title.* Its differences might seem negligible, but they carry a message about the picture’s internal history, one that the Backfire Cut means to sweep under the rug.
*Update: I doubt this will happen unless Lionsgate makes the choice to put it out as I’ve learned that Lorber is using Lionsgate’s 2018 HD Masters for the Blu-Ray. This indicates that Lionsgate is deliberately withholding the Catchfire version.
P.S. Director’s Cut News and Views
Daughter of God - unreleased director’s cut
Critic James Kenney has recently published a very detailed article on the restoration of Daughter of God, which had a similar history to Backtrack. I had never heard of this picture, which stars Ana de Armas and Keanu Reeves, before this but am very interested in seeing the director’s cut, which is set to premiere on April 15 at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
The Lionsgate Cut of the film aka Exposed (2016) came out with the pseudonym “Declan Dale” listed in the credits as director, with director Gee Malik Linton having apparently picked it from a list in the course of DGA arbitration.
So, I have to wonder if, by virtue of speaking out about the film’s history now, he is risking Lionsgate reissuing Exposed under his name.
Infinity Pool - Uncut
Earlier this year I saw Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool. It was a disappointment. Not a bad film, but one that ultimately never quite lives up to the expectations it sets for itself. What I found interesting though was that the movie that was reviewed by critics was not exactly the film that came out in theaters.
Pre-release reviews and tweets about the picture praised it for having unrestrained sex and gore, with multiple references to a full-frontal shot of a man ejaculating. But the version I saw in theaters seemed nowhere near as explicit. The act of ejaculation was in there, but it occurred off-screen. As it turned out, the critics had apparently seen the “Uncut” or “Unrated” version of the movie, which would’ve garnered an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. This is because that’s the version director Brandon Cronenberg brought to the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered.
Meanwhile, the version that was actually released was a softer, advertisable R-rated Cut. Admittedly, I don’t know if ALL reviews were based on the Unrated Cut but I’d say much of the initial conversation surrounding the film was generated by it. To an extent then, the film was falsely advertised.
I really hope Cronenberg refrains from doing this in the future.
Sure, one can argue film marketing is all about misleading audiences anyway, but having critics review one version while you’re intending to mass release another is, imo, unethical. Because you’re basically cheating your prospective ticket buyers by making them think they’re getting something they’re not.
For anybody interested in checking it out, the Unrated Uncut version is now available for rent directly from distributor Neon Cinema and is going to come out on Blu-Ray on April 11.
The Doom Generation - Restored and Uncensored:
A trailer has been released for the restored director’s cut of The Doom Generation, a cult 1995 indie film by Gregg Araki, which is set for reissue on April 7. I haven’t seen the film but am quite intrigued by the trailer, which suggests this is a stylish, atmospheric piece of work.
Having read up on it, I found an interesting quote by Araki, who states that there are 3 different cuts of the picture currently in existence:
“There are three versions of The Doom Generation,” explains Araki. “One is the edited version which was released in theaters and on video. The second is a ridiculous R-rated version made without my approval for Blockbuster Video, which has over 20 minutes chopped out and makes no sense (and I hope disappears forever after this re-release). The third is the version shown at the film’s world premiere at Sundance in 1995, which was subsequently censored per the distributor’s request (primarily in the climactic reel). This new 4K remaster is the first time this Uncensored Director’s Cut has been seen since 1995….”
To clarify, it seems that what Araki describes here as the ‘edited’ version is, in fact, an Unrated Version that had too much explicit sexual and violent content for the MPAA to secure an R rating. This indicates that the “Uncensored Director’s Cut” is even longer and even more explicit. My curiosity is piqued.