March 12, 2015

Auteur Theory: What Does it Mean and How You Can 'Author' Your Films

Auteur Theory
Auteur Theory came about to describe the impact a director can have on a movie. What does it mean, does it need to be updated, and how can it help you on your projects?

A lot of questions come with the idea of auteur theory, but we feel the most important one to answer is how can it make you better at making movies. It's a term used to articulate how the great directors molded their films on every level to reflect their perspectives and visions. Sure, it needs some updating and a little background, but the idea of it can still help guide the modern "one-man-band" filmmaker to getting their projects seen.

How?

Well we know there is one thing festivals, executives and industry gate-keepers harp on time and again. A story with a unique POV; a vision specific to the storyteller. We hear people in development, as well as programmers, talk about this a lot.

How you develop your POV is one thing. How you implement it into your work... well that in large part comes down to understand auteur theory. 

So let's start with the basics, but by the end of this post you'll not only understand auteur theory, but you'll be well prepared to "author" your own films. 

What is Auteur Theory and What Does Auteur Mean?

The auteur definition is "author"; it's just the French term for it.  

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 his or her film without seeing their name on it. They authored the film. 

The director's fingerprints are on everything. 

Auteur Theory Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino is the perfect modern example of an 'Auteur'. Or is he?

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:

The topic has ruffled plenty of feathers over the years.

Why?

Because it suggests that a director has more responsibility for the quality of the movie than anyone else. That doesn't always leave cinematographers and editors feeling very valued. As we know from countless anecdotes, but also personal experience, a great editor can save a scene. A great DP can bring visual magnificence where none existed. And these are just two of the many critical artists and craftspeople working on a project.

Let's not ignore the technical author of a film... 

Isn't A Screenwriter the Auteur By Definition?

Yes and no. 

I mean, sure. The screenwriter is the author of the script. But...

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

Auteur Theory Casablanca

Not to take away from the excellent work of those writers, credited and uncredited, but the reality is that attributing the final result of a movie to a writer is complex. They often have their work overwritten by others before it even gets greenlit.

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

Writers, producers, studio moguls... add them all to the list of people who help shape what a movie is. 

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 because that's the closest thing the filmmaking process has to a singular dominant voice. 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 details that define this idea have been set aside or forgotten. So we're going to get back to the very original concept so you know the whole picture. 

The Origins of The Theory

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

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, Truffaut zeroed in on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. 

Why? 

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

Auteur Theory Hitchcock and Hawks

What made Hawks such a perfect auteur by 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? 

auteur theory north by northwest

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(1940), a fast-talking newsroom comedy. Both also starring Grant.

Sergeant York(1941), a war movie and a true story. 

The Big Sleep(1946), one of the great detective film noirs starring Bogart.  

Red River(1948), a John Wayne western. 

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

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 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

*RECORD SCRATCH*

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 straightforward in their efforts. 

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. 

A Modern Approach, or Auteur Theory 2.0

So now that we know full well what this theory is all about, who is considered an OG auteur and who isn't and why... let's talk about updating it. Because cinema has changed a lot since Truffaut and Sarris were writing about this idea. 

If we use Howard Hawks as the template, we can take a look at filmmakers and storytellers who aren't just directors to see if they fit into the box as well. After all, maybe there are some cinematographers who have this type of impact. Maybe some producers. 

We're all about inclusiveness and highlighting the work of the collective on a project. Let's make a new list of what might qualify someone for being an auteur. And then after we do this we'll talk about why it might actually be helpful. 

Let's propose that to be an auteur you should have 1. at least 5 projects within different genres that also 2. employ varying key collaborators AND YET... here comes the tricky part... 3. feature a consistent world view and style. 

Let us know in the comments if you can think of any good examples (non-directors). 

One possible example would be the screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky. 

Chayevsky is perhaps best known for the prophetic newsroom/media epic Network. But looking at the rest of his career, it does seem like as a screenwriter he had enough impact that you could make a case that he is an auteur. Network, Altered States, Marty, The Americanization of Emily, and The Goddess all had different directors and stars within different genres. 

How about producers? Does Jerry Bruckheimer qualify? 

How about cinematographers? Roger Deakins? Robert Richardson? 

How about editors? Walter Murch? Arthur Schmidt? 

The list could go on. The idea being that at various high levels in the process and creative person can have a personal impact on the project that becomes their fingerprint. 

Auteur Theory and You

What does any of this have to do with someone shooting a project today?

It's a valid question. The truth is that being an auteur is a lot more realistic now that it ever was before. The technology available has made it that way. 

We now talk about a filmmaker as a 'one-man-band'. On this site, we've covered all manner of tech for years that allows ONE storyteller to use very little money to craft visual stories at a pretty high level. 

In the early days of auteur theory, such a thing was truly unthinkable. 

You'd need a massive group working together to create the cinematic works of Hawks and Hitchcock, to say nothing of the required budget. 

Now you need a smartphone and an idea. Do you have both of those things?

The value in understanding this theory in its origins is in understanding how the elements of cinema come together to reflect a singular vision, and point of view. 

How can your ideas be reflected in your work? From lens choices to costumes to backgrounds. 

Can you be intentional in what you do? 

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. 

Whether you are working as a one-man-band or working with a substantial crew, as a director or as a PA, you'll need to align the work to some intentionality, some point of view, for it to impact audiences and leave a lasting impression that counts.      

Your Comment

10 Comments

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 12:29AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
380

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 12:39AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
380

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.

http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/505-the-killers-1946

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

March 13, 2015 at 11:33AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
380

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.

http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2009/09/walter-hill-hollywood-...

March 13, 2015 at 1:19AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
380

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

March 13, 2015 at 6:22AM, Edited March 13, 6:22AM

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Taylor Russ
Director of Photography
654

Takes singular credit*

March 13, 2015 at 6:22AM

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Taylor Russ
Director of Photography
654

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 12:54AM

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Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making
489

of course with a few exceptions like Mr. Alfred Hitchcock

March 14, 2015 at 12:57AM

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Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making
489

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 3:21AM, Edited March 15, 3:21AM

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Alfredo Anton
Student
74

It's quite a complex theory here! In France "film d'auteur' just means that the director also wrote the script. That's it. Which is quite common in France (filmmakers sometimes work with a co-author), for good films and very bad films too.

October 17, 2019 at 3:00AM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
633