Will the Real Author Please Stand?
By Jamie Paszko | 19-Jul-2010
With so many players involved in the filmmaking process, from the actors, writers and directors, to the editors and cinematographers, not to mention the studio executives throwing in their two cents, it's hard to tell who is responsible for the finished product of a film. So who is the true author of a film?
For many years it has been considered the director, or what's commonly known in film criticism as the auteur theory, first introduced by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and other French critics in the 1950s. Most of these critics, incidentally, went on to become directors themselves and lead what's known as the French New Wave.
In his 2004 book, "The Schreiber Theory," (Schreiber means "writer" in Yiddish) veteran film critic David Kipen argues against the director as the author and proposes the screenwriter as the true author of a film.
"The Schreiber Theory is thus an attempt to explode the director-centric farrago of good intentions, bad faith, and tortured logic that goes by the name of auteurism, and to replace it with a screenwriter-centered way of thinking about film," Kipen explains in his book.
And the reason for this injustice, argues Kipen, is the Hollywood practice of giving out multiple credits, or giving credit where credit is or isn't due, when it comes to the screenwriter. "In other words never mind who's the auteur of a film; it's hard enough to figure out who's the author of a screenplay," Kipen writes.
According to Douglas Schultze, Director of the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and an accomplished director in his own right, the answer isn't that simple.
"Words like 'final' and 'author' don't really apply to a motion picture," Schultze said. "The studio head has final say on most studio films, unless you're James Cameron. The screenwriter is the author of the scripted work but not the author of a film. A film doesn't have an author and it's not a work of literature. A film has a creator and that creator is the director who works from a screenplay that he/she may or may not have written."
Imagine walking into a book store in search of your favorite author and only finding names of the book editors on the cover? Or, the next time you see a copy of U2’s "Under a Blood Red Sky" it's by producer Jimmy Iovine, and not U2. There would be revolts -- and rightfully so. Yet, we accept the director as sole author of a film without question.
Or as Kipen writes, "Yet if auteurists ruled the world, the master producer George Martin wouldn't just be the fifth Beatle. Because he had the sole, unshared producing credit, Martin would be the only Beatle."
Take into account the legendary work of screenwriters Robert Towne ("Chinatown") Buck Henry ("The Graduate"), Paddy Chayefsky ("Network"), or more recently Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich"). Their voice, vision and power with the written word are just as potent as the directors of the films they wrote. Yet, when these films are referenced the credit is given to Roman Polanski ("Chinatown") or Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"). Only in screenwriting magazines and professional circles do these writers get the proper credit and respect they deserve.
Independent Spirit Award winner and writer/director of "Easier with Practice" Kyle Patrick Alvarez also has a unique point of view on the debate.
"The auteur theory started out as a way to simplify film theory, now it's become a marketing tool, and the byproduct of that has been that screenwriters have been understandably insulted in the process," said Alvarez.
There's no doubt, however, when you look at the work of Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and many other legendary directors, a true vision starts to emerge throughout their careers. Maybe they're not always the official "author" of their work, but their visual eye and unique style stand out in a sea of Hollywood mediocrity.
And no matter who audiences and critics decide is the true creative force behind a film, when it comes to movies – to paraphrase the legendary screenwriter William Goldman – "nobody knows anything."