For better or worse, just as the proscenium arch is often seen as a writer’s medium, film is often seen as a director’s medium. The auteur theory posits that in the best films often there is one intelligence, one guiding individual who makes the majority of the decisions and is essentially responsible for the film’s … well, everything. Think Godard, Hitchcock, Kurosawa.
That theory is complete bullshit.
In movies you’ll sometimes see the title, followed by the oft-repeated words, ‘A Film by’ so and so. I can’t think of a more pure form of masturbation aside from just going into the bathroom alone and just making it happen. There are fewer attempts at communication that have less meaning. Most any live-action movie not directed by the weirdly-obsessive Stanley Kubrick is actually a film made by at least several, if not many, people. Countless decisions (thousands?) are made by the participants, only some of which are performed by the director. The rest are made by the so-called ‘crew’ — the ones who don’t get ‘a film by” next to their name.
These are the wardrobe folks, the stunt guys, the hair people, the cameramen — who alone make any number of in-the-moment decisions that account for the ‘look’ of the film. And this does not include the incredibly important — even globally crucial (in film terms)– contributions of the writer.
Its tragic that writers often get the short shrift in film, because as we all know, without a script there is no movie. Without the ideas behind the images, there’s no story. Without a story there’s no content. Filmmakers like Ridley Scott, David Fincher, even Tim Burton — incredibly talented directors who are often claimed as visionaries — don’t write their own scripts. The projects are essentially originated by someone else. The ideas come from elsewhere. Auteurs? Not even close.
Writer-directors like Kevin Smith or Paul Thomas Anderson are probably closer to auteurs, though Smith famously eschews the ‘a film by’ credit as well. He recognizes that even the ‘cable-pullers’ (as he calls them) contribute to a film. PTA does include the ‘A film by’ tag on his movies, but where does that leave his Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit? Was PTA responsible for that wonderful, almost hallucinogenic imagery that went along with There Will Be Blood? Did he choose the F-stops and the lenses and the way the afternoon sun illuminated the dust just so? Probably not. Its fair to say that PTA didn’t shoot the film himself, thus accepting help from another creative contributor. Thus ‘A film by PTA’ is simply a misnomer. Is Inglorious Basterds ‘a film by’ Quentin Tarantino? Where does that leave the sublime Christoph Waltz, not to mention my buddy Manny Millar, who created Waltz’s hairstyle?
At best, directors guide, act as a stylistic mentor or point the right way for the countless craftsmen on a team to follow. But hardly any micromanage so much as to make every decision. Even Steven Soderbergh, the rare director who lights and shoots his own movies, must rely on countless others to make choices about how their own departments should run smoothly. Even micro-budget movies (which I know all-too well) are full of decisions being made by the few other filmmakers on staff. The actors alone are making countless on-the-fly decisions which ripple out to affect the entire movie.
Few art-forms are as collaborative as film. That’s why most filmmakers like it — if we were truly interested in only our own vision, we’d be writers, who actually do chase a singular vision in their heads. The rest is self-aggrandizement, ego and self-promotion. The rest is, as John Campbell’s artwork at the head of this column so succinctly explains, a great big ‘Look at me.’