Early filmmakers showed the world that a movie director could be an artist.

But not every movie director…

Because part of auteur theory is knowing how to define auteur directors.

Before auteur theory, Directors were important, but the other factors were still more significant.

Stars. Studios. Producers

People referred to a ‘Clark Gable movie’ for example, because in the 1930’s stars ruled the day.

There aren’t too many stars in recent years who have had that distinction.

Movies were once also identified by the studios. The Warner Bros brand meant gangster movies with tough guy stars.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Warner Brothers

Before auteur cinema, genre and studio were a bigger force in helping audiences identify movies they wanted to see

MGM meant sprawling epics like Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. 
Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Gone With The Wind

Epic mega-hits like M-G-M’s Gone With the Wind predated auteur cinema. It had two directors.

Auteur theory came in the early 1950's, and it changed all that. 

It shifted some power away from actors, producers, and studio moguls.

It shifted power towards directors. Towards specific types of directors.

And it ultimately led to a kind of director-crisis. We'll get to that later...

First, let's define auteur and auteur theory.

What is Auteur Theory?

Auteur Theory is the idea that the director is the author and primary creative force behind a movie.

At first, it seems strange to call the director of the film the "author."

After all, Didn't someone else write it? Why isn't the writer considered the film's author?

Well... we all know how Hollywood treats its writers…

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Sunset Boulvard

The auteur definition doesn’t include screenwriters, like this fictional one. His fate is more typical of a screenwriter.

Another reason is that scripts often change. So writers come and go.

Casablanca, considered one of the greatest movies of all time, has five credited writers. At least one more uncredited.

Film credits can be their own minefield to navigate, so if you want to know more on that check out this post on understanding film credits.

Back to “authorship”...

As much as everyone depends on the quality of a script the end product of a movie is a result of the execution.

And the execution?

That often comes down to the director. The director will be the one helping each department execute the script.

So if you ask who made a movie, the answer will invariably be:

The Director.

Not just any director... an auteur director

Auteur theory states that the director is more than a conduit for the script. More than a conduit for the project.

The auteur director shapes every part of the movie. Their fingerprints are visible on every aspect.

Many directors, in fact, most, are NOT auteurs. Not according to Auteur Theory, anyway.

There is a particular set of rules for defining a director as an auteur.  

The auteur of a film is the film's true artist. The visionary behind it. The prime mover.

But you can't have that credit just by being the movie's director.

Before we get into the rules, let's back up a moment. Who created all this thing in the first place?

Where does auteur theory come from?

Auteur theory comes from a French publication in 1954 of Cahiers du Cinema.

Cahiers definition is "book", or "notebook". The title loosely translates as "notes on cinema."

The publication had been around since 1951. Then in 1954 Francois Truffaut, yes the soon to be legendary French director, wrote a scathing piece on the state of French movies at the time.

He held up as a far superior example, certain American films, and their directors.

In particular, he championed Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

It's no accident that a future filmmaker was the one to get the auteur theory ball rolling.

Peter Bogdanovich would later spend years interviewing the great directors, celebrating auteur theory. He went on to make his movies.

American critic Andrew Sarris was the one who referred to Truffaut's manifesto as "Auteur Theory."

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Sarris

Film critic Andrew Sarris helped create the auteur definition

Truffaut famously claimed "there are no good or bad films. Only good or bad directors." 

Why?

The theory is that a director isn't necessarily a film artist. But an auteur is.

What is an auteur?

While the auteur definition in french is literally “author”, in the dictionary it now reads: 

“A filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp.”

Creating meaning that only he can, using the tools of filmmaking, through the lens of his mind and personality.

A bad movie from an auteur was at least the work of an artist. The excellent film from an average director was not.

Good news Tommy Wiseau!

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Tommy Wiseau

So why Hitchcock and Hawks? There were plenty other prominent name directors at the time. 

Bigger, in fact. Even more celebrated.

The quick answer:

Hitchcock and Hawks seemed to have signature elements to all their movies.

In many ways Howard Hawks was the prototypical auteur.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Howard Hawkes

Howard Hawks is one of the original film auteurs

Which brings us to this question:

What are the rules of Auteur Theory?

When Andrew Sarris took the auteur theory to the next level, he laid out some rules. 

Basic competency

"A great director has to at least be a good director." Which is to say that the director's movies must be technically competent. 

You can't have an auteur who's movies fail to clear some of the fundamental hurdles.

Sorry, Tommy Wiseau...

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Tearing Me Apart Lisa

Signature style 

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

This one is pretty self-explanatory.

You need to know it's Howard Hawks just by looking at it.

If a director isn't doing this, then he's not an auteur.

Hawks is a great example because he made movies across genre. Hell, he practically defined every genre.

The gangster genre with the original Scarface.

Romantic comedy with Bringing Up Baby.

Westerns with Red River.

Adventure with To Have and Have Not and Only Angels Have Wings...

Hawks' oeuvre is one genre-defining classic after another. The common thread to each? The Hawks signature elements.

It’s also interesting to note that Howard Hawks was not celebrated by his peers, this piece goes a little deeper on how auteur theory changed the perception of Hawks and why. 

Interior meaning

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

Hmm. Huh?

It seems what Sarris meant here was that the director's innermost soul must come through in the movie.

One of the only ways to know that is what the director went through to get the movie made.

Did he have to fight hard against a studio for certain things? Or against the script?

Are there specific moments that go beyond a familiar stylistic flourish? Moments that feel more like a little piece of that filmmaker up on the screen?

An example of this might be a moment distinct to the director, but that doesn't belong in the movie.

An odd thing to celebrate... but more on that later...

Interior meaning is a tricky thing to get at with a director. How do we know what strange elements they came up with… or where odd little accidents?

That's the LAST rule, or guideline, to defining auteur directors.

That vagueness is what leaves open the great debate that can rage on and on...

Who are Greatest auteur directors?

Think of it as a debate over who is the greatest one-on-one basketball player. Some people will say it's Michael Jordan. 

Some younger people might say Lebron James.

But the problem with those types of debates is that they cross an uncrossable distance of time and space.

We can never see prime athletes matched up against one another across eras.

We can judge great movies, from great directors at the height of their powers, against one another.

How does Spielberg stack up against Hawks? Scorsese vs. Ford?

Let the debates rage on!

Who's the better auteur Hitchcock or Tarantino?

Well if you ask me, a writer director doesn’t really fit within the auteur definition.

Why? Isn't a writer-director a much more obvious choice for an auteur? It's TRULY that individuals film right?

Maybe. But the strictest auteur definition requires that the director be the auteur. Regardless of the script.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Animated

Auteur directors?  Kubrick, Fellini, Welles, Ford, and Hitchcock

So who are the auteur directors again?

An auteur director uses only his skill as a director to create meaning.

So Quentin Tarantino really isn’t an auteur. But Steven Spielberg could be.

This sort of goes against the assumption that an auteur is artsy. Not someone who churns out the audience-friendly mainstream fare.

So why is Spielberg an auteur?

Because whether he starts with a script about Dinosaurs or the Holocaust, his stamp will be all over it.

Tarantino conceives of all his films on the page first. So, of course, his stamp is all over it.

This probably won't make Tarantino very happy. But it's the truth.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Quentin Tarantino

It’s okay Quentin! We still love you even if you’re not a film auteur!

It's also part of the auteur backlash. Because this distinction is a bit silly. 

Billy Wilder is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He made movies in every genre, same as Hawks. His films have his signature qualities.

Wilder co-wrote most of them, if not all of them. In fact, he started out as a writer.

This is part of why he was such a great filmmaker.

Maybe he was a more complete storyteller than Hawks.

What about Paul Thomas Anderson? Or Wes Anderson?

Hmm. Maybe this whole auteurism thing is… kinda silly...

How can Hawks and Spielberg be on the list that excludes Wilder and Tarantino!?!?!

This type of endless debate is the gift of auteur theory.

Auteur theory haters

Many people are not fond of the reductionist qualities of the auteur definition, or any similar theories. 

Critic Pauline Kael led the charge against auteur theory. She and Sarris went back and forth over the subject.

Not before she poked some large holes in it.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Sarris
Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Pauline Kael

Sarris vs. Kael! The ultimate auteur theory essay grudge match!

John Huston, for example, was an excellent director of Hollywood's golden age who "gets no love" from the auteur theories and theorists.

Instead, he's passed off as having made actors films. Kael dismisses this as being arbitrary.

Other problems with the theory are that it seems to champion lesser films. A bad movie by a great director is notable because it has some of his signature elements.

Another quality that has come under fire is the idea of the interior meaning.

If a director forces his 'style' upon a movie where it might not belong, is he a "good" director?

The auteur theory says yes. 

Auteur theory endgame

The auteur theory was part and parcel of the first generation of cinephiles. 

The study of film and film directors became more and more popular. Film schools sprung up.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - John Ford

This is John Ford. Does he look like he cares about auteur theory examples?

Early directors like Hawks and John Ford, saw what they did as something of a trade. Not an art form.

When Peter Bogdanovich followed them around with a notepad, they thought he was crazy. 

The generation of movie fans that became directors started churning out the movies of the 1970's that would become classics.

Scorsese. Coppola. Friedkin. Altman.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Spielberg Dinner Friends

A new generation of film-obsessed filmmakers was spawned...

Auteur theory consequences?

Things reached a breaking point. Studios started handing these auteurs huge budgets, and some of the results were catastrophic. 

After The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino got a blank check from United Artists.

The auteur theory was starting to pay big.

But Cimino's attention to detail left the production in ruin. It bankrupted the studio. United Artists was sold to MGM.

Cimino's career never recovered.

Meanwhile, something else was happening in film. Other members of that generation made the first true blockbusters...

Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977 showed Hollywood a better way to make money.

Auteur Theory - The Secret Behind the Best Auteur Directors - Jaws Spielberg Letter

It’s always nice when billionaire auteurs to congratulate each other.

Wrapping up

The auteur theory changed the way people think of directors and movies.

It went to some extremes at times, but the fundamental notion that a filmmaker is an artist comes directly from auteur theory.

The idea that studying a director and his or her work can make you better also came out of it.

But there is a limit to what the Director's power should be. Without checks and balances in place, things can veer into disaster.

A production is a group effort. The finished product is the result of coordinating many artists and technicians.

Boiling it down to one person and to placing their influence above everything else makes for bad movies.

The original auteurs themselves would agree.

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