The other day, I overheard someone say that Steve McQueen's cinematography in 12 Years A Slave was brilliant. As a huge fan of Sean Bobbitt (the actual cinematographer of that film), I wanted to say something, but held my tongue because avoiding the argument that would have ensued seemed like a better option. Despite my inaction, this instance got me thinking about our shared cultural view of film directors, and about whether or not that view needs to change.
On film sets, the director is often the head honcho, the creative decision-maker, the be-all end-all in the creative process. As such, the director tends to get all of, or at least a vast majority of the credit. They're almost always viewed as the sole creative force behind a film, especially by people who aren't involved in (or have knowledge of) the filmmaking process.
However, filmmaking, by its very nature, is a collaborative medium. Creating a convincing and compelling narrative feature can take hundreds of dedicated individuals working towards a common goal. Many of those individuals -- the art directors, the makeup artists, the cinematographers, the VFX artists, the editors -- are true artists in their own right, and their contributions to any given film are substantial at the very least. This raises a question that I'd love to toss out to the No Film School community for discussion: Do directors get too much credit in the filmmaking process?
Before we get to the discussion, I'd like to elaborate on some of my thoughts regarding this complex question. I certainly don't claim to have any answers, but having thought about this a lot, I can at least point out a few different facets that might swing an answer in one way or another.
First up is the notion of the auteur, or the idea that a film is the sole creative vision of the director, as if he were the "author" of the film. This is the theory that permeates not only the vast majority of the filmmaking community, but also the entirety of our society. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's go see a collective work of art made by a group of talented creative professionals." They say, "Let's go see that new Tarantino flick," or "I just loooooooove Steven Spielberg movies!" Film directors, at least the monetarily successful ones, are celebrities.
But let's talk for a moment about what directors actually do in the filmmaking process. In the most basic sense, the director is a creative manager. They work with department heads in order to create a unified vision throughout all of the various facets of filmmaking. So in that sense, the director is the glue that holds everything together. As such, it stands to reason that they deserve some serious credit for being the driving force behind the film's vision. There's no doubt in my mind that directors serve an absolutely essential function on a film set. Perhaps even the most essential function (although there's a strong case for producers).
Here's the catch. Not all directors manage to the same extent. On one hand, many of them try to micro-manage every single department in an effort to maintain their "artistic vision." On the other, some of them are primarily concerned with working with the actors in an effort to maximize performance. The issue here is that, without an in-depth knowledge of the director's involvement in the pre-production, production, and post-production processes, it's impossible to determine the extent to which a director's "personal vision" has actually been translated to the final product that makes it to the screen.
That's not to say that some directors aren't artists in the truest sense of the word, and that some films don't inherently portray the artistic vision of their director. Folks like Tarkovsky, Malick, Godard, Wenders, Fellini, etc. are (were) exceptional artists whose films are often deeply personal works of art. There's no doubt in my mind that auteurs exist, but the notion that every person who directs a film is the sole author of that film strikes me as absurd.
Then there's the issue of whether or not the director actually wrote the script that they're directing. There's a much greater case for directors being considered an auteur when they've also written the script. (It doesn't hurt when you also produce, act in, and edit your own content like Louis C.K. or Shane Carruth.) However, can a director who didn't write the script (or participate in the editing) be considered an auteur at all? Frankly, I don't think so.
So where does this leave us? It's obvious that directors play an absolutely crucial role in the filmmaking process. However, the notion that directors are the sole creative force behind any film seems like an outdated one, at least to me. Filmmaking is an amazing collaborative art form, but we continue to treat it as if it were personal art form like painting or sculpting. In my opinion, we, as a society, need to focus more on the fact that filmmaking is inherently collaborative and eschew the outdated theory of auteurism.
I'd love to hear everyone's opinions on this question. Do directors get too much credit in the filmmaking process? Is it important to shift societal focus towards the fact that filmmaking is purely collaborative? Let us know down in the comments!