Does it Really Matter Who Authors a Movie?

Have you ever taken a second to think just what it means when you read the words A _______ ________ Movie, with the blanks being filled in by the director’s first and last names?

If you pick up a novel and read that it is A Stephen King Novel, aren’t you pretty sure that just about everything word and idea in the book came from the mind of just one man, Stephen King? Do you ever stop to think that every word and idea in a movie came from the mind of the director?

Up until the late 50’s and early 60’s the average moviegoing American could probably name only one film director. That man was Alfred Hitchcock and many of those who could name him probably knew him better as the host of his own TV anthology show than as the director of one of their favorite movies.

For the first 50 years of filmmaking the director was probably about as well known among most of his audiences as the cinematographer, editor or writer of his movies. This began to change in the late 50s and early 60s as a result of what came to be known as the auteur theory.

The auteur theory was born in France in the 50s as a collection of film critics began to rebel against the French view that the screenwriter was the author of the film. This was a literary view widely held among French critics of the time. The “new wave” of critics sought to establish that since film was a moving image, it was actually he who was in control of the image who was the real “author” of the film.

They turned their attention to Hollywood and lauded such film directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as true visionaries who were the authors of their film despite not having a hand in the actual screenwriting.

The auteur theory was born in an attempt to establish the director as more than just another hired hand, but as the true guiding light behind the entire filmmaking enterprise. It should come as little surprise that these critics would move beyond mere criticism and actually become directors themselves.

How valid is their reasoning that the director should be called the one true author of a film? After all, most directors do not write their own scripts. Some never even have a hand in script development, coming onto the scene by the tenth rewrite of the original.

Why is it not proper to credit the person who actually developed the idea and spent the hard work it takes it committing that idea to actual words on paper as the “author” of a film? The person who writes a novel is credited with being the author despite the fact that an editor may have played a major part in reshaping the ideas.

The concept of a man who was hired to direct an already written script as being the one true author of the final film seems somewhat unfair and even ridiculous.

But what about the director who directs his own screenplay? Can Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, among others, truly be credited as the “author” of their films? Or is there still the question of whether a film can ever actually be called authored.

After all, there are the actors to be considered. Actors play a huge role in shaping the final appearance of a film and they can certainly be said to “create” their characters despite those characters having actually been “created” by the writer. I am a huge Bergman film, but I would hesitate to call him the author of his movies. He is the writer, certainly, and he is the director, but his choice of actors plays a huge role.

He is not the kind of director who single-mindedly develops the characters in the play. He allows his actors a huge amount of latitude in coming up with their characterizations. His cinematographers, most notably Sven Nykvist, also play a huge part in creating the final look of his films. His films do indeed have a certain look about them, but can this be located as resting on his shoulders or on Nykvist?

It may be easier to say a writer-director is the author of his film and it may be closer to the truth than the hired hand director, but even there other aspects of filmmaking collaboration rise up to question the validity of sole authorship.

The two-time Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman has written that he has never come across anyone in Hollywood who actually believes in the auteur theory. In his experience, people working on a film realize that it is a collaborative effort and that it would demean everyone involved-including the director-to say that the one true author of the film was the director.

According to Goldman there are seven artists who are crucial to the making of a movie: the actor, the cameraman, the director, the editor, the producer, the production designer and the writer. All are under contract and all are being paid handsomely for their talents and what bean-counting studio executive is going to pay good money for any one of them unless they are, truly, crucial to the movie?

To the best of my knowledge there doesn’t now exist in Hollywood or even outside of Hollywood one single person who has taken on all seven of those roles and made a mainstream film all by himself. If he ever does, then yes we can say with certainty that that person is the one true author of his movie. But I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

So, then, can we say that the writer should be called the author of a movie before the director? Probably not. By the time the director says his final “cut” on the soundstage, the script has probably gone through countless rewrites and the original writer is probably already at home banging out what he hopes will be his next screenplay to actually get green-lighted by a studio.

Hollywood is teeming with “script doctors.” Script doctors are writers who come in to punch up an already existing screenplay. Goldman himself is one of the most accomplished of script doctors. Therefore it is just as unjustifiable to say that the screenwriter is the author of the completed movie because many times his original words never even arrive on the screen.

The real question being asked is why the auteur theory at all? Why is it so important to pick out one person as being the author of the movie?

Just because we can claim that one person wrote a book or one person wrote a song does that mean we have to allow that one person created a movie? The whole concept of the credit A ____ _____ Film seems unimportant. We know who the director was and we know who the producer was, as well as the actors and the editors. Everybody involved in a movie gets their full share of screen credit so why insist on calling the movie a film by one person? What is this need to tag just one person as the sole creator of a work of art? Is it borne strictly out of ego?

Does the ego of the director inflate to the point where he can’t accept simple screen credit for his job? Does the audience really believe that the director is solely responsible for what he’s seeing up on the screen? Obviously not, even the most vapid of moviegoers realizes that what they’ve just witnessed is creation through collaboration. Take away any one component of the filmmaking process and the film falls apart. Without the director there can be no film.

Similarly, without the actors or the cinematographer there can be no film. We must stop looking toward one person to whom we give the credit as it being their movie.

The auteur theory is outdated even in the words of one of its progenitors, Jean Luc Godard. In several interviews late in his life he admitted that the whole concept of the auteur theory was intended to draw attention to the film critics.

The auteur theory is hurtful and harmful to the entire concept of moviemaking. It demeans everyone who is not the director and it even demeans the director by putting on his shoulders several jobs that he’s not qualified to take credit for. This is not to say that there aren’t several directors who take a hand in every aspect of their movies. And it’s not mean to deflect the rightful attention they’ve gotten as the fabulous directors they are.

But to say that the director alone is the author of a film is just not right. Was Victor Fleming really the author of Gone With the Wind? If anyone was the author of that movie it was its producer, David O. Selznick and even he can’t really be called the author of it any more than Fleming.

Filmmaking is the most collaborative of all the arts and it should be known to the moviegoing public that this is the case. There are many talented editors and screenwriters and cinematographers who have never gotten proper credit for their part on the films they’ve worked.

Michael Chapman and Thelma Schoonmaker deserve just as much credit for their work on Raging Bull as cinematographer and editor as Martin Scorsese has gotten for his work as director. And this is coming from a huge Martin Scorsese fan. So if I can admit that Scorsese isn’t the author of Raging Bull, then anyone can.

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