An Alan Smithee Joint
Ryan Everett Felton
As press junkets go, this one was just anemic, Val thought. She’d been to smart phone video game tournaments, e-zine release parties, hell – even a Brad Garrett book signing with higher attendances. Judging by the other half-dozen reporters’ attire and appearance, she figured she could’ve gotten into the lobby without her freshly-minted Press Badge.
It hung prominently around her neck all the same, dangling lamely, its cheap laminate never really catching the light.
A PA or agent or somesuch – more glasses than face – leaned out of the door to the conference room. “Ms. Harris, we’re ready for you.”
Val nodded and stood, tucking a pencil behind her ear and smiling at the cluster of sad-sack bloggers who didn’t even have Press Badges.
At the door, Val squeezed past the PA or whatever, who stood unmoving with her mouth open just long enough for it to get weird before snapping out of it and saying, “Very good!” She showed Val to her seat and hugged a clipboard to her chest. “He’ll be right along,” she said. “Just snuck away for a little fresh air.” And she pantomimed puffing a cigarette.
“That’s fine,” Val said. “I won’t need long.”
“Perfect.” The rep or whatsit slipped out the back door, leaving Val alone with an idle camera and long vinyl banners that swung in the AC – banners emblazoned with garish typography that read: “DEEP SEA VENGEANCE 3-D: Come Up for Comeuppance… and Air.”
Val pinched the bridge of her nose. An advance media kit copy of the film sat in her purse, unwatched. It would remain unwatched.
The door clicked open so suddenly she gave a jerk.
Her subject came around her the long way, baggy khakis crinkling loudly, Hawaiian shirt tail brushing her shoulder. The man had big white eyes and bigger, whiter front teeth that he displayed with seeming pride. Silver hairs peeped out where he ought to have buttoned up one more time.
Before she realized it Val was shaking hands with him.
“Lovely to meet you,” he said, “just lovely.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Val said without moving her lips. “Mister…” She glanced down at the notepad on her lap. Blank.
The man swirled a knobby finger in the air. “Oh-ho-ho, I thought you nearly had it!” he said. “Not to worry, miss. The name’s elusive.”
“Your name…” Val reached for the pencil at her ear. “Eli… what – what?”
The man sat opposite her, making sure to grunt and flop his feet up and back down with a loud clap. “Never mind,” he said. “It’s Smithee. Alan Smithee.”
“Can you spell that?”
“Ah, you got it.” He waved her off. “So whaddaya’ say we have ourselves an interview, sweetheart?”
“Oh.” Val cleared her throat. “Um.” She tapped her pencil on the pad. Tapped her foot between the pencil taps. “Wait,” she said and held up a hand. “I’m a little, I’m a little confused.” It was strange. She felt this tingling, right around her sinuses. Almost like she were about to sneeze, but not quite. She talked through it, blinking more than normal.
“I thought,” she said, and breathed. “You’re the director of the picture, is that correct?”
Smithee nodded. “DEEP SEA VENGEANCE 3-D: An Alan Smithee joint!” he said. “You betcha’.”
“I could’ve sworn…” Val put her hand, fingers spread, at her clavicle and swallowed air. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But we’re here to talk about your film. I’m from Dash-Film Online, Mr. Smithee. We’re running a piece on this year’s crop of summer blockbusters, and…” From her satchel she removed Old Faithful, her trusty mini-recorder, and set it on the coffee table that separated them. “Do you mind?” she asked.
“By all means!” Smithee mugged. “Fire away, toots.”
Val snapped her fingers, as if recalling something. “Okay, first question. James Wan was initially brought on board to helm Deep Sea Vengeance 3-D. When were you brought in to replace him?”
“Oh,” Smithee said. “That ugly business. Let’s just say I only very recently inherited the project, and James is absolved of it in full. Eh?” He cocked his head, showed her his palms.
“And,” she used her knuckles to nudge the recorder closer, “can you speak to why Mr. Wan left the project?”
The hefty Mr. Smithee slid down the cushion, just a bit, and smiled under his mustache. “Here in Tinseltown we call ‘em ‘creative differences,’ babe. Happens alla’ time.” One leg went up, considered crossing over the other, then slapped back down. “I mean, nobody’s perfect. Take you, for example. What landed you here? I’m sure it was never your great, uh, journalistic dream to cover movies about mutant octopi or whatever the hell.”
There was that odd tingle in her eyes, her throat and nose again. Her vision blurred for just a second and she pressed on, now giving as good as she’d just gotten: “I, um, I do apologize, but some of our readership may not be familiar with your, uh, catalogue. Is this your first film, or…? What’s your background?” Val leaned in.
“Oh, oodles!” Smithee said and smacked his fat thighs. “Dozens of films, a smattering of TV episodes – hell, I gotta comic book or two under my belt!”
Then it clicked for her. As if a shred of cheesecloth had been pulled away from her eyes, the ticklish haze about her face cleared. Just long enough for her to think, and then say: “Alan Smithee. Yes, I have heard that name. But you’re… I mean, isn’t that just a pseudonym directors use when they don’t want their names associated with a lousy project?”
Smithee wetted his mustache with his bottom lip. “I don’t much feel like a pseudonym, lady.” He reached over the table, one hand upturned. “See?”
Val pushed the pencil eraser into her chin so hard she thought she’d burrow a hole into it. After a spell she lay her fingertips in Smithee’s palm.
The wooziness, stronger now – like a three-beer buzz – set back in.
“Oh, honey,” Alan Smithee said. “Oh, geez.” He leaned back and mopped his forehead with the back of his hand. “You wanna talk about it?”
“The Peters story.”
“How do…?” Val arched her back, shied away. “Did you Google me?”
“Tell me about the Peters story, Valerie.”
“I…” She held her pencil like an oar, in both hands, at her waist. “Peters was running for governor. I got a tip about some misappropriated funds in his camp and ran with it. I didn’t…” She snapped the pencil in two. “I didn’t corroborate. Rookie mistake. The story saw print anyway, got immediately debunked, and…”
“And now here you are, on the B-movie blog circuit.” Smithee fiddled with a tacky ring on his left middle finger. The opal in it reflected the light and turned it gray. He seemed to think, or at least, to pretend to.
“Y’know,” he said. “I could take that off your hands for ya’.”
Val shivered. “What?”
“Your, uh,” Smithee belched into his fist. “Your little boo-boo there. Your failure.”
“I don’t understand.”
But she did. And Smithee knew she did when she bent over to switch off the recorder.
“All you gotta do is say you want me to take it from you.”
Val said nothing.
“Go on,” Smithee said. “Say, Alan, I, Valerie Whittier, want you to take the Peters story.”
Val inhaled. Held it.
And after what felt a very long time she said, “I want you to take the Peters story.”
“Very well.” Smithee cracked his knuckles. He stood, shuffled large feet to stand behind Val and her chair. She could hear a low gurgle coming from his tank of a belly. She couldn’t bring herself to turn around, to face him. Whatever he was doing, she knew she’d rather not see. On the floor to her right, she thought she could see his shadow change somehow, go thin and insubstantial. Then a pair of fingers tapped her forehead and she her head went light. That sneeze that had been building up since the director entered the room finally came out in a mighty and noisy spray.
“Excuse me,” she said, and wiped her lip.
Her remark was met with total silence. She turned around, her heebie-jeebies forgotten, and saw no one behind her. Smithee was gone.
She stood up. “Mr. Smithee?” she said.
She picked up her recorder, queued up the audio from the past few minutes and hit play.
The recorder emanated only a faint, static hiss.
The door clicked open. She gasped and froze and saw the young PA or whatever lean in over the threshold.
The PA said, “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I goofed and took you into the wrong room. The senator’s ready for you down the hall, if you’d follow me.”
The PA smiled. “He’s yours for the next half hour. C’mon, we don’t want to keep him waiting.”
Valerie pocketed the recorder, slid the pencil back behind her ear. “Of-of course,” she said, and followed the young woman out into the lobby where the same band of dopey film buffs continued to wait, playing on their phones and snoozing.
As she walked past them, toward the professional suites, the Press Badge around her neck bounced lightly against her torso. It twisted with her gait, angled toward the overhead lights and bouncing them back toward the sky in a blinding gold flare.