March 12, 2015

A Complete Guide to Auteur Theory

Certain filmmakers are know as auteurs because their artistic sensibilities are so apparent on the screen. But what is Auteur Theory?

Who decides which directors become one?

What are the criteria?

Why is it only for directors?

Where did this whole auteur theory come from?  

And why does any of this matter? 

Let's answer that last question first. Learning from the past, and the classics, is one of the very best ways to master visual storytelling. Don't believe us? Just ask Steven Spielberg: 

Wow. I wish Steven Speilberg would pay me 10 bucks to watch Red River.

So as you can see old films can teach us a lot. This popular theory and questions about it are pretty core to understand some of the greatest older movies, and the people who made them. 

All this gets covered pretty heavily in film school. But here at No Film School we'll save you some tuition money and give you a comprehensive understanding of auteur theory for free.

Let's start at the top. 

What is Auteur Theory and What Does Auteur Mean?

The auteur definition is author. The word is French for "author". Which gives you an idea about where auteur theory comes from. 

The auteur meaning when it comes to film and cinema is a specific kind of director who has such a strong signature sensibility that you know immediately who's film it is. 

The director's fingerprints are on everything. 

Filmmaker IQ released a video hosted by John P. Hess to explain the auteur theory, where it came from, how it affected the cinematic culture, and why it's still important today.

It might seem like a silly thing to talk about -- "Just go out and make movies and stop arguing about who's responsible for what," but this topic can still ruffle plenty of feathers. In fact, one of the most explosive arguments I ever witnessed in college was over whether the director really is the "author" of a film, or if the other artists (DPs, writers, editors, etc.) are equally responsible for its success.

And all that is to ignore that ACTUAL author of a film... 

Isn't A Screenwriter The Auteur By Definition?

Yes and no. 

I mean, sure. The screenwriter, or screenwriter(s) as is often the case in Hollywood, is the author of the movie. 

Consider this: Casablanca, often considered one of the top three movies ever made, had 5 credited writers. At least one more was uncredited. 

So it's a bit hard to call those named and unnamed folks the authors when we're looking for someone to give credit to.  

Studios used to have a bigger influence on what a movie was. Producers and moguls like Irving Thalberg, had their hands in every element of the process. 

Thalberg, who barely is credited on any movie at all, practically built what a movie is. He helped forge model that we still use to this very day.

He wasn't even a producer. He was the whiz kid head of production at MGM, back when MGM had "more stars then there were in the sky." Thalberg famously said about his lack of credits "a credit you give yourself is not worth getting." 

He was the prime mover behind the biggest hits of the early 1930's, and he groomed the biggest stars. He was a kind of "auteur."

Eventually, the idea of the studio and studio mogul defining the movie drifted away. 

So who was the one steering the ship? The person that all the other collaborator's efforts were synthesized through? 

Auteur Directors

Yep, you knew we were headed here eventually. 

The auteur is the director. That's what people are talking about when they define auteur. 

But wait... not every director is an auteur. They have to fit into a special box as outlined by the... auteur theory. 

Over time some of the original details on auteur theory have been set aside or forgotten. But we're going to get back to the very original concept so you know the whole picture.

The Humble Origins of The Theory

It started with a French publication in 1954 of Cahiers Du Cinema. Of course, "cahiers" definition in English is "book". 

It all started when groundbreaking director to be Francious Truffaut railed against the current state of French cinema, and pointed to the work of certain American directors as being a model for better work. And yes, Truffaut also starred in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

That's where this idea about a movie having an auteur really comes from. It was a rallying cry for directors as artists to say "we can influence what these movies are."

In his writing, he zeroed in on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. 


Because these directors signature qualities came through in every movie they made. Hawks arguably more than Hitchcock. 

What made Hawks such a perfect auteur definition? 

Well, he made every kind of movie. When you think about Hitchcock, he made a particular kind of movie. You know a Hitchcock movie from the moment it begins, and from almost any moment even out of context. But aren't they all suspenseful thrillers? 

Hawks, on the other hand, slipped between genre with ease. Let's go down the list of Howard Hawks movies and you'll see quickly what makes him king of auteur filmmakers. 

Scarface (1932) is one of the earliest and most influential gangster movies. Yes, it's the original for THAT Scarface

Bringing Up Baby (1938) is the quintessential screwball comedy, which would later morph into the romantic comedy, starring Cary Grant and resurrecting the career of Katherine Hepburn.

A year later he made Only Angels Have Wings (1939) a classic adventure movie about flying aces. Then His Girl Friday, a fast-talking newsroom comedy. Both also starring Grant.

Sergeant York, a war movie and true story. 

The Big Sleep, one of the great detective film noirs starring Bogart.  

Red River, a John Wayne western. 

In the 50's he'd made a few Marilyn Monroe vehicles. 

Hawks made movies in every genre, with every major star and icon spanning Hollywoods golden era. And yet they were all easily identifiable as Howard Hawks movies. 

When you stop and consider all that, it's pretty crazy. Consider how much POWER a star had back then over their projects or a studio. Yet this director managed to make all those movies his own. 

That's where this idea about a movie having an auteur really comes from. It was a rallying cry for directors as artists to say "we can influence what these movies are." 

We can make this an artistic expression. 

And so they did.

The Man Behind The Theory

We'd be remiss if we didn't get into a little more granular detail on this. 

Andrew Sarris provided the official definition auteur definition:

"A Filmmaker who's individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp."

Sarris also gave us some rules. 

"A great director has to at least be a good director." Wrote Sarris. Which means you can't be considered an auteur if you directed Manos The Hands Of Fate. You have to have all the basic competency, as he called it, down. 

Sarris added, "Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style which serve as his signature." 

Okay, all this means is that you need to know that it's the director's movie by stylistic choices. Is JJ Abrams an auteur because of his use of lens flares


Nope, but that's for other reasons we'll get to later. 

Last rule from Andrew Sarris? 

"Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a directors personality and the material." 

Ok whatever you say, Andy. 

What we think Sarris is after here is the idea that the director really must come through in his or her work. The way to determine this would be the challenges faced in the process. If the director put their own personality on the screen even if it wasn't the right thing for the movie. 

Which maybe even hurts the movie. So what are we even celebrating anymore? 

Yeah, this all gets weird and complicated. And it leaves us in a strange place. We don't always really know what is from the director and what is from say the cinematographer, or a writer, or a producer. Or a comment card from a test screening. 

Film is collaborative. 

But we are all still left to ponder and argue about... 

Which Filmmakers Are Considered Auteur Directors? 

On guiding principle is that a TRUE auteur in the strictest sense of the auteur definition would be a director who is not also a writer on the project. 

This is a weird one and it takes a lot of the greatest talents out of the conversation. Many people would put Billy Wilder, or Quentin Tarantino atop a list of auteur directors. 

But the problem is we know those directors have a profound influence over every element of their movies because they wrote AND directed them. And in many instances also produced them! 

Billy Wilder managed to ace every genre just like Hawks. So should he be any less celebrated? 

The answer is probably that we shouldn't be too strict about how we apply this term, or who we celebrate and why. After all, the original goal of the thing was to celebrate great movie making, and movie making artists. 

We should celebrate and honor the contribution of people who become invisible to the process just as much, if not more in some cases, than those who get all the credit. Fair or not. 

Auteur Theory Fallout and Reactions

Understandably some people don't like this whole thing at all, chief among them was critic Pauline Kael. She and Sarris went at it for some time over the value of this idea.

The end result? 

Probably doesn't matter because it's of course inconclusive. A lot of young filmmakers came up around this conversation: Lucas, Speilberg, Scorsese, and Coppola to name a few. This debate had a big influence on them, and they had a big influence on how we make movies now. 

It all did sort of lead to an era of the director, which resulted in some crashing and burning in the late 1970's when directors like Michael Cimino and Peter Bogdanovich were perhaps given too much control. 

The reality is directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks were somewhat blue collar. 

They were just trying to tell good stories efficiently. They weren't trying to be artists who shaped the culture. In every interview with them, you can tell as much.

Ford almost comes off as insulted that anyone would waste time asking such questions about movie making. 

Maybe their focus on simply doing a good job and trying to entertain people is what made them artists in the first place. It's what helped them elevate the craft. 

Wrapping Up 

Without wanting to start WWIII right here in an article on an indie filmmaking website, I'll just say that of course directors have an incredible influence in their films, and of course they couldn't do it all on their own. 

Of course a director is an artistand of course the writers, cinematographers, and editors are too.

Perhaps at the end of the day, it's not directors, necessarily, that make great movies, but artists. That's the spirit of the auteur theory -- it's not to put a crown on a hierarchical figure but to celebrate and honor those who love, respect, and create movies.      

Your Comment


I like to sometimes knock some thoughts in my head around concerning auteur theory. I don't know.

Sometimes I think of John Huston. He was responsible for some great movies, but not all of his movies are that good. He seems like he could "get" some stories so well. I think he honestly made "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" better than the book. "Maltese Falcon" is awesome. "Key Largo", "Asphalt Jungle", "The Dead", "Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean", "Red Badge of Courage" (even though it's crippled), "Fat City", "African Queen", "The Misfits", and "The Man who would be King" are all such amazing stories. Most are adapted from literature. I think he might have had one or two original screenplays, but they aren't among his hits. He made a few other movies that just don't seem to have much redeeming value at all. He was most of the time a very perceptive reader of stories, good at getting the essence into the final film product. But I can't imagine trying to shoehorn him into an auteur. He lived a crazy larger than life sort of life. He made some of the best movies ever made. But he isn't big enough to fit into the auteur theory. That's more or less why the theory doesn't work for me all that well. But John Ford makes it. Yeah, he made some great movies, but so many of them have stupid contrived tacked on love stories, where you wish you could excise it from the meatier part of the story. Huston didn't allow that most of the time. Just made the story as entertaining as he could. His "The Killers" stays true to an essence of Hemingway. Hawks "To Have or Have Not" has absolutely no relation to Hemingway's version, other than taking place in the Caribbean. Still a fine, fun movie, but I like to imagine how Huston might have done it. I bet it wouldn't have sacrificed the plot so much. I don't know. I have mixed thoughts on it.

March 13, 2015 at 3:29AM

Daniel Thoen

Sorry, I should add that Huston just did uncredited writing on "The Killers" with Robert Brooks (I love some of his work too) and Anthony Veiller was credited with screenplay, Siodmak directed. I think I got some of the my ideas from the Criterion booklet essay, which I no longer own, so I'm unable to quickly reference it.

March 13, 2015 at 3:39AM

Daniel Thoen

Before anyone else gets the chance, I'm going to point out that I'm an idiot. I didn't realize Criterion has a bunch of those essays available on the internet. Here is the one I was talking about.

Huston has pride for being called a dirty word by Hemingway. Good stuff.

March 13, 2015 at 2:33PM

Daniel Thoen

Here's a link to an interview of Walter Hill that kinda gets to some similar thoughts about Huston. Whole interview is good. Scroll down (or command f) to Huston / Peckinpah comparison that pretty well illustrates some of my difficulty in taking auteur theory too seriously.

March 13, 2015 at 4:19AM

Daniel Thoen

Fuck the auteur theory. It inflates egos and takes credit for an army of workers.

March 13, 2015 at 9:22AM, Edited March 13, 9:22AM

Taylor Russ
Director of Photography

Takes singular credit*

March 13, 2015 at 9:22AM

Taylor Russ
Director of Photography

The last 2 minutes of this Outstanding passionate presentation by John ( Please take a Bow ) makes a lot of sense in a team environment

March 14, 2015 at 3:54AM

Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making

of course with a few exceptions like Mr. Alfred Hitchcock

March 14, 2015 at 3:57AM

Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making

Definitely, the Auteur Theory is far better than the producer-based one. But, it's ways incomplete when we talk about all that's going on in the process of writing, planning, filming, editing and releasing a movie, as it is obvious that no one can do it alone.

March 15, 2015 at 6:21AM, Edited March 15, 6:21AM

Alfredo Anton