Taking Down the Auteur Theory

1 Apr, 2017 | Auteur TheoryFilmFilm CriticismTdp

The auteur theory comes from Film Studies (although it can be applied to any creative work).

Digging out my copy of Pam Cook’s The Cinema Book it suggests that the theory was popularised by film critic Andrew Sarris in the 1960s, building off earlier work in French film criticism, notably by Francois Truffaut.

Essentially, what it espouses is that a film’s direct is the singular artist who controls the movie and can stamp a recognizable style on it, at least where certain directors are concerned.

In terms of modern directors, people like Kubrick, Scorsese, certainly Tarantino and Fincher, would all be leading lights if you wanted to present an argument in its favour.

I have an issue with a lot of film theory, in no small part because it invariably written by people who have never made a film (with a few notable exceptions). Without going through the process, how can you say what was deliberate and what was chance?

I’ve been a long time listener of Jeff Goldsmith’s interviews with screenwriters, which are very informative when it comes to understanding just how many people have an influence over what we see on screen.

The thing that got me thinking about this again was a site I stumbled across, a site called Kitbashed.


I found it because it’s a project by Michael Heilemann, who I remembered when we were both a bit more involved in the WordPress community. (Incidentally, his famous theme was called Kubrick.)

The title comes from a “technique of using bits from off-the-shelf model kits to detail custom-built models, perfected during the production of Star Wars.”

Essentially it’s a very deep dive into the creation of Star Wars. There are articles and interviews that dig into the history of aspects of the movie. For example, the design of the legendary Millennium Falcon, which was going to look totally different until very late into pre-production.

Not only that, but it shows how other art and stories released ahead of the movie clearly influenced the final look of many characters and how conceptual artists impacted the look and feel of the final production.

These sit alongside other stories of how the actors, or necessity, impacted not just the first movie, but the whole universe built around it.

Check out the Credits

Anyone who has seen a movie recently will have noticed the list of credits that roll at the end is getting ever-longer. Saul Bass claimed to have directed the shower sequence in Psycho, most movies now have second (and even more) units, each with their own director, plus stunt teams and now multiple effects houses that will produce sequences.

The argument is that, while the director often won’t be there when these units do their work, they are present in the editing room when they’re all pulled back together.

I’m not sure that argument holds up too well. Changing an effects sequence isn’t a cheap or quick undertaking. So isn’t something that will be done unless absolutely necessary.

It’s also hard to do a hundred takes with a CGI character, as some directors are known to have done with some actors.

Then you have the collaborators. Fincher has worked with a number of cinematographers, for example, but he’s stuck with the same one on his three most recent films.

‘Auteurs’ appear to work with quite a few of the same people, from writers to actors. So who is to say any similarities are not simply down to working with the same people?

Anyway, I think we can see from Kitbashed – a work of love and dedication – that what we see on the screen has a longer and far more complex journey than anyone realises.