The Auteur Guise or: The Hand That Shakes the Money Tree

Since the day I hung up my shingle at this website, deep down I’ve felt like an asshole. Strictly speaking, I’m a traitor.

I’m launching the next Project soon about a man who’s never been considered much of a director but, holy shit, could he write. This guy cranked out screenplays like the Keebler elves made cookies, but per my rules those scripts are off limits, which is a big handicap in this case.

And that’s why I feel like a sphincter sometimes. I’m a writer. I’m not supposed to be glorifying directors, right? I graduated from film school with a degree in screenwriting. I’ve written dozens of scripts (some produced as micro-budget indies and some languishing out there in the Los Angeles sun.) When I review films, even heavily-visual works like 2001, I tend to focus on the script and story first. So why the hell should I concentrate only on directors? Why no Horton Foote Project? Where’s Paddy Chayevsky, or Robert Towne, or John August?

I recently stumbled across an old (2006) article at The AV Club about sex scenes that were actually sexy, tough to find in a medium where soft jazz and billowing curtains are shorthand for doing it. The article briefly mentioned the two sex scenes in A History of Violence and praised director David Cronenberg for “devising” them, especially the rough second scene that I won’t spoil here. Unfortunately, the film’s screenwriter Josh Olson—of this film, several others, and the viral article “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script“—had actually devised both scenes all on his very own. Olson: “For future reference, the credit “Screenplay by” will usually give you a clue as to who initially conceived a scene in a movie.” Ouch.

But Olson isn’t done. He escalates his rightly justified defense of his work into a blanket rant against the all-consuming auteur theory, the most ubiquitous idea in modern film criticism and a moustache-twirling super-villain in the screenwriting world. Simplified, the theory states that as a director oversees every stage of his film’s production and has the final say on what goes in the picture, his voice will naturally rise above his collaborators. He becomes the film’s true author.

Oh, do screenwriters hate hearing that, and with good reason: the theory was born as an assault on their power. The auteur theory dates back to 1954, where it first appeared in Francois Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” in the legendary magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut, working from Alexandre Astruc’s “camera-pen” theory, suggested that French cinema was being stagnated by “mere scribblers” who simply repeated familiar stories to please and pacify audiences. Truffaut believed that French cinema could only be saved if directors seized control from the writers and made their films more personal. Truffaut listed a batch of directors (including Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati) who had already done so and become true auteurs.

You might have heard of the result. Truffaut and his fellow film critics, challenged by French filmmakers to make their own damn movies if they thought it was so easy, released a few small, personal films that just happened to kick-start the French New Wave, one of the most important movements in cinema history. Films like Breathless and The 400 Blows became touchstones for young 1960s audiences weary of stodgy melodramas and aggressively happy musicals. When Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde—practically a photocopy of everything that the New Wave was doing—hit drive-ins, the revolution was on. Everything New Wave began crashing up onto American shores like some kind of reverse D-Day, including the auteur theory.

The theory got some backup as the first wave of American directors lit the 70s on fire and burned down the studio system, somehow still making everyone rich in the process. Names like Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin were the vanguard of the American New Wave, and names like Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas brought it home. When Spielberg cast Truffaut as a scientist in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was a sly wink towards the world Truffaut helped create—the land of the Yankee auteur. As the money poured in and the cinema enjoyed a renaissance, any lingering opposition to the auteur theory dried up and blew away (probably in a Malick close-up).

Today, it’s easy to see the mark of all this history. With the exception of a few special cases, American writers have lost their place at the big table. The director is king, not just in the studio halls, but also in modern criticism and even the public eye. How many average, non-cineaste Americans can name five screenwriters? How many can even name one? But we all know Spielberg and Scorsese, and we’re coming around to Fincher and Nolan (Chris, of course, not his go-to writer and brother, Jonah.) The auteur theory has poisoned Hollywood’s thinking about the collaborative process. To the studios, directors make money and writers make headaches.

So of course writers like Olson rage against the machine. David Kipen of the National Endowment of the Arts even went so far as to propose his own overreaction, the schreiber theory, which declares the author as, well, the frikkin’ author. And then there’s New Criticism, which looks only at the film and ignores everyone behind it. Nobody gets to be the auteur. Everyone out of the pool.

Then here I am, in the shadow of all of this history, a writer who writes about directors. How is it that I can sleep at night while running this little digital shrine to auteur-ism?

Simple. Because I think the theory is correct.

Most of the time.

The cold truth is that no matter how many writers refuse to admit it, directors generally do have the strongest influence on a finished film. They’re not working in a vacuum, oh no, but it’s still their show, and that’s partly because of the auteur theory, not proof of its validity.

A major belief in American film—from the beginning, but especially after the auteur theory took hold—is that anyone can write. This is sheer insanity. We might as well state that since there are ample tutorials online, anyone can build a house. Although most people wouldn’t hire a different carpenter to build every room, that’s pretty much exactly how many studio scripts are developed.

Since the rise of the auteur theory, studios have kept writers subordinate to directors. Therefore, since writers are always subordinate to directors, then the auteur theory must be true! Hey look, a perfect circle!

Please leave us out of this  -Maynard

Regardless of how we got here, this is where we are. As wonderful as, say, a William Goldman script might be, director Tony Scott can simply ditch it, or hire another writer, or tell the actors to improvise, or do whatever the hell he wants, then walk away to exert the same authority over the camera angles, costumes, and set design. Yes, Olsen wrote those sex scenes, but they’re only in the movie because David Cronenberg agreed that they should be. Even if you hand Uwe Boll a Charlie Kaufman script, he won’t suddenly be able to spin gold with it. The finished product will still be a Uwe Boll movie in its DNA, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to one of Kaufman’s Spike Jonze joints.

Ah, but then there is Kaufman, isn’t there? And what about Chayevsky, who made one hell of a career for himself as a mere scribbler. Or David Mamet, whose scripts are bigger stars than he is? Isn’t a David Mamet film always a David Mamet film, no matter who mans the camera?

This is where I think Truffaut has been misrepresented. He wasn’t trying to lay down any kind of cinematic law. He thought only of shaking up a French film community that he saw slipping into irrelevance. At the time, rightly or not, he blamed those specific writers, a crime which continues to victimize all writers 50 years on. The truth is that, even if the director really is most likely to author a film, a great writer can still be an auteur. So can an actor or a producer. Hell, so can a studio or even a fictional character. The auteur umbrella is wide enough for everyone.

Before you think I’ve gone off my medication, let your eyes wander to the side of the page, over to the “Projects” box, and try to guess who doesn’t belong. Let’s see… Cameron, Kubrick… James Bond?

Bond is the definition of the fictional character as auteur. A handful of directors and a barrel of writers have guided him over the years, but Bond is always Bond. The needs of his formula and his archetype—i.e., the need to make him recognizable to his fan base—dictates every decision made. Whenever a Bond movie goes wildly off formula, the fans wail and gnash their teeth and eventually he snaps right back into place. Bond supersedes the director. Just ask Marc Forster, a perfectly solid mini-auteur who somehow crapped out one of the worst Bond movies in the last 20 years, partly because he tried to make Bond into something he wasn’t.

Somebody else photoshopped this before I could.

The list goes on. Jackie Chan is an actor-auteur, and some would argue that Walter Murch is an editor-auteur. Tom Savini is a makeup designer-auteur. And studio-as-auteur? Pixar anyone?

You want to know what really guides a film? Here’s a hint: you might have a green wad of it in your wallet.

Studios believe in the auteur theory because it makes them money. If a studio hires a director, it’s because they think his vision of the project will produce the most salable film. If they lose confidence in him, the producer with the best track record stages a coup. If a writer’s name can somehow open a picture, his words become gilded steel and no director will have authority to screw with them. If Harry Potter can sell tickets just by being Harry Potter, then no director in the muggle world can change him. (Terry Gilliam was almost brought on to the first Potter picture, but dismissed the opportunity as a “factory job”.) In this age of studio executive/accountants, the auteur theory has become real, albeit far too narrowly defined.

The name is part of the problem. Who doesn’t want to be an auteur? It’s such a haughty, exclusive title that it’s no wonder directors fiercely protect it and writers lament its existence. I prefer to think of it not as a person or a job title but as an interested hand, pushing the film this way and that. Often that’s a director and sometimes it’s not, but every film has one, and that’s what I’m interested in. That’s why most of my Projects will be about a director, but I may occasionally add a James Bond Project, or maybe a Disney Animation Project, or Marx Brothers features, or whatever strikes me that week as a fun and cool idea. As long as I’m comparing apples to apples—for example, I still won’t compare a produced screenplay to a film a writer directed himself—a Project can go on the fire.

No, the “interested hand theory” won’t solve all of my problems and it won’t stop the debate. And yes, it’s arbitrary and scattered.

But, damn it, I’m the boss around here, and that’s got to count for something.

  1. #1 by Rae on 10/02/2010 - 8:55 PM

    AWESOME post!! I want to gush, but since I’m yo’ wife, it may not count for much ;) Ooh, slant rhyme.

    And, hey, Mr. Boss Around Here, I like the idea of a Marx Brothers project!! I think if they projected any louder though, they’d break the windows. All right, maybe it wouldn’t be a big break, god knows they need it ;)

  2. #2 by Rabbit on 10/03/2010 - 3:49 PM

    I love this article. Also, it’s sparked a discussion about what writers B and I can think of– there aren’t many.

    I was also thinking of Noir– it’s hard to tell in some of those who the Auteur is. Otto Preminger/John Huston? Raymond Chandler? Humphrey Bogart? Veronica Lake’s legs? Noir itself?

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