Let's Talk about Auteur Theory
What is Auteur Theory? Technically, it’s just the idea that a director’s vision is more important to the creative identity of a film than the script. When it comes to the culture of cinema, however, auteurism has evolved into the philosophy that directors with a creative vision powerful and clear enough to define every other element of production will likely make better movies, and are generally more worthy of success and acclaim. Branding is everything in the business of breaking into Hollywood, and a contemporary auteur’s work is defined by well-branded stylistic cues that make their work very easily identified by audience members.
If auteurism has made a positive impact on our industry, it’s through the ease with which a single, financially empowered individual can introduce new ideas into the zeitgeist. Like with the production design of Tim Burton, the compositional approach of Quentin Tarantino, or the digitally informed cinematography of the Wachowskis, getting a clever idea up on the screen is a lot easier when the person expressing that idea has a higher degree of creative authority. Should those ideas take hold in the public’s imagination, they can change how we make movies.
So, that’s a good thing. Is it the best thing that cinema has to offer? Is it genius, in the same sense that Mozart was a genius? Let’s have ourselves a talk about the consequences of idol worship, of overvaluing clever ideas, and of undervaluing our craft and our collaborators in the relentless pursuit of becoming Hollywood’s next great auteur filmmaker.
Orson Welles, the original filmmaking auteur, in "Citizen Kane" 1941
Personally, I don’t like directing material I didn’t write myself. Is this because my ideas are so precious that they can’t be entrusted to anyone but me? Every day for several years, I posted a “free movie idea” on my Twitter account - specifically to develop my brainstorming skills, and to prove the worthlessness of ideas in the entertainment industry. No, I’m not precious about intellectual property. My ideas aren’t strictly worthless, but I very deliberately placed their market value on a curve that’s infinitely approaching zero. Run a search for #FreeMovieIdea on Twitter, and you’ll find a few thousand of them.
As my career grows, those people lacking a refined grasp of the language of cinema will come to understand my work through ideas and hooks. To someone with more training, my skills are defined by the habits I’ve built. My audience can think of me as an “idea guy,” and that’s fine. So long as they have a great experience at the movies, and so long as they benefit from the community we’re building, the way they grok my daily labors won’t matter much. When it comes to my collaborators, I really am only looking to impress the people who have enough craft and competence to keep up with me.
Finding actors and crew who excite and understand me is hard. If there’s an element in my filmmaking that I can’t entrust to other screenwriters, it’s them. When I develop an idea for myself as a director, it’s an idea I believe will empower the most thrilling, most challenging, most rewarding work from my collaborators. Being there to support them in that work begins with the script, and that’s not a responsibility I can hand to some eager writer who’s looking to make their own mark on the industry.
Is it ego that keeps me writing my own material? Certainly, but it’s an ego born of selflessness. My people are too precious for me to take any extra risk when it comes to their success. At some point, every creator does need to start delegating work. In my case, that point comes after the script is written.
In my article on “WHAT IS SPECTACLE IN FILMMAKING?” I explain that a film’s level of excellence comes down to the specificity with which that film is rendered. From the nuances in the performances to the layers of design, cinematography, and editing that go into the composition and the experience of cinema, delving into detail is how we impress our audience. Once we get past the fundamentals of our craft, which are essential, our identity as storytellers - even our brand - comes from the specificity with which we communicate.
If you pound any one person’s brain for specific details long enough, that brain gets lazy out of pure fatigue. If one person is the architect of every performance in a film, those performances will inevitably start leaning on stereotype. If one brain is coming up with all the production design, those designs start getting recycled. Nobody has a whole movie inside their brain, people. Populating an entire universe with enough detail to make it convincing, even when that universe is very small, requires more processing power than the human brain is capable of putting out.
When we look at filmmakers who seem to break this rule, we see that their very best film was always one of the early ones. Back when they didn’t have the ego or the authority to tell everybody else how to do their jobs, they made a uniquely fantastic film. If that filmmaker was very lucky, they got away with two. In time, either the auteur themselves or just the industry around them begins to trust the “creative vision” over the team itself… and sitting in the movie theater, we start seeing worse and worse versions of films these directors have already made.
Seeking out the best collaborators, and then supporting and challenging those people to offer more specificity and to expand their craft with every project, is how we live on the frontier of our own creative potential as directors. Movies aren’t excavated from the mind of one brilliant person by teams of pick-wielding laborers. Excellent movies live and grow in the space between excellent people. Your movies are the product of a family business. Great directing means making sure the family is united in their creative intent, and empowered to fulfill their own creative potential.
Maybe you happen to be the one reader scanning this article and thinking to themselves “Ok, but all of this applies to people who aren’t me. With the ideas I have and the approach I’m taking, I’m going to change the world! You’ll understand when you see it, buddy!”
Maybe you will change the world. Maybe you’ll get your one or two super influential films. Is that the extent of the career you want, or do you want to keep surprising and challenging your audience beyond that one big idea?
Plenty of filmmakers manage to communicate big ideas to their creative teams, and to build on a shared understanding of why those ideas are useful, instead of ramming those ideas down a production’s throat. Take responsibility for the environment everyone else is working in, and build a culture of trust through empowerment and support. So long as everyone’s working on the same movie, this practice is always a director’s core responsibility.
Bring just enough of your creative fixations into a production to hold your interest. Give yourself enough creative investment to keep your passion alive and help you finish what you start. I promise you, such an investment will be more than enough to clarify your aesthetic and your brand. Beyond that, don’t do it for yourself. Make the movies that will unite your cast, your crew, your producing team and your audience as a community. Being selective about our creative input forces us to pick the very best and most specific impulses we have, and it forces us to rely on the strength of our team to build out the world of the film.
Making sure a clever idea shines on screen is never as important as making a great movie. Thinking otherwise is always a big red flag when it comes to our ego management. None of us are geniuses in the Mozart sense. Literally every single one of us needs one another too much, or we would never have been attracted to a career in cinema. Making great films is always the goal, and putting the cast and crew first is how a director gets there.
Picking the right people to work with, and then consistently empowering those people to do deeper, richer, more challenging work than they’ve ever done before, gives you the specificity that defines cinema of significance. Invest in the success of those around you as if that success were your own. If you don’t feel any ownership over the success of your team, why are you keeping those people around in the first place?
Looking up to directors who have made their mark on the industry is a fine thing to do. Modeling our careers after them, on the other hand, is not always productive. Whatever contributions those people made were inevitably a reflection of the people they worked with. Find your heroes among the people with whom you are collaborating, or go find some collaborators you admire. Design your career around what it will take to show the industry and the world what those people are capable of.
After all, we’re directors. That’s our job. That’s the “vision” we need to be investing in.
About the Author
Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...