A Case Study on Film Authorship: Exploring the Theoretical and Practical Sides in Film Production

By David Tregde
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 2/4 |

III. Writer Theory

Holding generally the supremacy of the director in the construction of a film, auteur theory ignores the writers, the studios, and the collaboration that goes into completing a motion picture project. David Kipen considers his Schreiber—Yiddish for writer—theory to be worthy of the same consideration as auteur theory because it considers the party who creates rather than tells the story (17). In The Schreiber Theory (2006), Kipen lays out one of the most “radical rewrites” of authorship theory (19). Irving Thalberg said, “The writer is the most important person in Hollywood” (Kipen 13). Since Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on Auteur Theory” (1962), anti-auteur critics have espoused screenwriters as the authors for their contribution to conception and drafting of the story (Kipen 29).

In the silent film era, a director’s power over story was unquestionable due to a lack of any real screenplay (Macgowan 307). Early screenwriting obviously drew from theater, but it was also influenced by cartoons and slideshows (Azlant 228). In 1889, the Biograph studio separated writing as its own “branch of production” (Azlant 230). Around the turn of the century, filmmakers began to move beyond simple outlining to a more complex narrative structure (Azlant 231). For the first time, filmmakers began to see writing the story as an integral part of the filmmaking process. One of the first screenwriters, Roy McCardell, was paid a “princely sum” of $150 per week: an average $125 more than the average newspaper man (Azlant 233).

A narrative film must begin with a screenplay (Hatfield 2). Simply put, one cannot build a skyscraper without a blueprint. So who writes the story? As basic as it may sound, the individual or group who put the words to paper creates the story. A writer is the architect of the movie, while the director and his crew are the foreman and construction workers. Buildings are credited to their architect, not their builder. A critic cannot assume that the director’s contribution is “automatically of major significance” (Grant 111). The original French auteur critics began to find more interest in a film’s script than its direction once they began making films of their own (Grant 112). As they began writing and directing their own productions, the critics saw the importance a script had on the outcome of a film. Kipen even gives credence to director John Huston for his great understanding of novellas as premiere works from which to adapt films and names him a “schreiberist” filmmaker for his credit as a writer-director (Kipen 26).

In response to Sarris’s pantheon, critic Richard Corliss created his own list of great film writers. Corliss surveyed writers’ works for “themes and idiosyncrasies” that made each writer unique (Kipen 27). These “schreiberist” writers include classic names like Ben Hecht, with a filmography including Scarface (1932), His Girl Friday (1939), Monkey Business (1952) and Academy Award-winning Underworld (1927). Hecht infused his “trademark cynicism and racy vitality” in all of his work (Kipen 27). Hecht worked repeatedly with director and producer Howard Hawks because of their similar view on character and cinematic language (Liukkonen). Hecht would go on to work uncredited with Hawks on other projects. Hecht recognized the writer’s place in Hollywood movies when he said, “Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle. It gets him, however, more jobs” (Liukkonen). Hecht’s opinion represents the position of a writer in director-focused Hollywood.

However, writer theory breaks apart on the issues of creative control. Once a script is sold, the writer loses control of the final outcome of their idea. Directors are free to rework, edit, and interpret a screenplay “nearer to their heart’s desire” (Macgowan 307). Writers often have no control in the interpretation of their story (Sellors 266). In Blade Runner, once Ridley Scott was given the script, he was able to ask for rewrites and edits that fit his vision rather than the writer’s (Dangerous Days). Scott and producer Michael Deeley brought on another screenwriter—David Peoples—to continue work on Hampton Fancher’s original script. They wanted to simplify a concept that had become too “cerebral” (Dangerous Days). Fancher was adamantly against going “commercial” with Blade Runner, but he admits that the movie would not have happened unless he gave up control (Dangerous Days). Unless the writer is also director, he is at the mercy of the director to carry out the vision of the screenplay. As mentioned previously, Kubrick exerted heavy control over his screenplays, even to the point of discounting writing partners like Jim Thompson (Naremore 68). Another key example is The Searchers (1956), written by Frank Nugent and directed by John Ford. There are “sharp differences between what is in the screenplay and what we now see on screen” because Ford’s directorial vision took control of the process from the outset (Eckstein 3). “Crucial scenes” were deleted from the script on set and new ones were added (Eckstein 4).

Corliss notes that screenwriters suffer from being credited for no work, not being credited for work, and multiple writers being credited for the same work (Kipen 28). This confuses the idea of writer authorship because it becomes harder to analyze writers as authors when there is no consistency to their credited contribution. While Kipen claims “collaboration doesn’t preclude analysis,” it makes it significantly more difficult to “give credit where credit is due” (Kipen 29).

IV. Collaborative Theory

Paul Sellors claims that authorship—whether for novel, film, or fine art—is an issue of intention (264). He argues the causal party behind the communication of the media in question is the author. This concept is not exclusive to a single person, but rather, it can be applied broadly to the studio, the director, and the writer if they all play a part in producing the final product. The contributions of the cinematographer and the editor also cannot be ignored in bringing the moving image to the screen (Grant 111). Films are not created by a single consciousness (Grant 193). They come together as part of the collective effort by artists and technicians. Collective authorship comes from group intentionality moving towards a common goal (Sellors 268).

Sellors’ concept of authorship comes from studies across media and disciplines that avoid the complications that film authorship presents (263). To Sellors, the author intentionally creates an utterance (Sellors 264). He defines utterance as an action of expression or communication. As applied to filmmaking, movies communicate a story. Therefore, the author(s) of a film is the party(s) who possesses the most intentionality behind the making of a film. Sellors then presents the issue of control: whether or not intentionality covers control. Sellors believes an intentional party will exert control in a production, and therefore, control does not need to be explicitly stated in defining authorship because it is implied (266). As to issues of lost control, Sellors concedes we are unable to add mechanisms to evaluate to what extent control was lost (266). A studio executive’s power over a production is less tangible than an art director’s. In instances like Alien 3, where Fincher lost control of the final outcome of his film, his authorship is diminished due to the studio exerting control and intentionality over him (Swallow 60). Because anecdotal evidence can indicate issues of control versus intentionality, it increases the difficulty in assigning authorship because of the varying and disparate inputs a film can have.

Authorship comes from the “mutual interaction” between the world created and the creators (Gerstner and Staiger 12). While the writers, directors, and producers create the work, the cinematographers, editors, and animators create the world that we perceive as the work. It is through this interaction that we view a whole, and it is this whole that is authored by the talent and crew. Therefore, the perceived world of a film is a collaborative whole that is authored by multiple artists and craftsmen. Films have many components that come together in “some degree of coherency” (Sellors 268). This coherency is due to the audience’s perception of the whole rather than the parts. Rather than simply observing a camera angle, wardrobe choice, or an acting performance, the audience perceives the entire film as a single entity. This renders the director-centric theory of coherency hollow because the director’s contribution is only part of the whole we view (Sellors 268).

“The author is dead,” proclaims Michel Foucault (Caughie 282). Film is a primarily collaborative medium, so it would seem odd that theorists are constantly searching for the singular artist responsible for authorship (Gerstner and Staiger 5). Director-centric auteur theory could not even hold up Truffaut’s own films. The realization of Tuffaut’s vision in Four Hundred Blows (1959) “necessitated…the use of an experienced screenwriter, a leading cinematographer, and a youthful surrogate [actor]” to bring Truffaut’s biographical story to screen (Carringer 374). In fact, critics now recognize motion pictures having plural authors rather than a singular artistic force (Carringer 374). One must suspend the idea of single authorship in order to properly analyze a production from a collaborative standpoint (Carringer 377). This suspension allows the critic to explore performers, production staff, and even the studio backing the project as co-artists for the motion picture. It also directly contradicts both auteur and Schreiber theories of film authorship. However, collaborative theory prevents a critic from falling into the dogmatic pitfalls and harsh criticism faced by Sarris for being too narrow and simple in his assignment of authorship.

Collaboration theory also accounts for the contribution each artist or craftsman makes to the film, including above-the-line (director, producer, leading actors) and below-the-line jobs (grips, gaffers, extras) (Gerstner and Staiger 41). While certainly a motion picture’s personality can be linked to its major creators— director, producer, leading actors—all those who contribute play a part in its nuances that may go unnoticed by simple pattern analysis (Grant 80). While a visionary director like Ridley Scott may draw up his own set designs and be integral in the creation of those sets, he will certainly not build the entire set by himself (Dangerous Days). The producer can be considered the most responsible party in the production of a film because his or her role demands gathering the cast and crew necessary to pull off the production (Movie Staff). Once the necessary craftsman are in place, the producer becomes in charge of logistics rather than storytelling; this role falls to the director and to whom he choses to delegate certain tasks. However, the producer retains rights of the film; the crew does not (Movie Staff). The production designer delegates set, costume, and makeup design to the necessary departments in order to carry out the director’s and the producer’s vision (Movie Staff). The director of photography oversees the camera and lighting crews and makes what the director sees in his or her head work in the lens of the camera. Perhaps multiple writers collaborate on writing a film, like Hitchcock’s Suspicion (Worland 7).

Like a sports team, a film crew creates a collective intention when each individual joins the group with the same goal in mind (Sellors 268). This means that a film crew, including craftsmen and talent, can become an “author” for Sellors’s definition of authorship. Their intentionality renders them a “filmic author” capable of creating an artistic product. Sellors concedes that not all roles will be included in collective authorship, such as catering services. A member of collective authorship must be an “actual or potential member of a cooperative activity” (Sellors 269). Not only this, but authorship is dependent on contribution. To determine authorship in the collective, one must ascertain an individual’s contributions to the overall film and how it relates to the final product (Sellors 270). This relates back to the earlier concept of the interaction of the world created by the work and the work itself. While a single set-builder’s contribution may be physically small, the set piece’s impact on the film may be significant; therefore, the set-builder’s contribution is significant.

Of course, as we continue to break down the complexities of collaborative authorship, we begin to run into similar problems faced by Schreiber theory. It is easier to point to above-the-line cast and crew for authorship for their major contribution to a production rather than dig deep into the credits to explain collective authorship. While collective authorship is much more pleasing to a realist studying film, more specific authorship is needed to effectively discuss a film in literature such as film reviews. Auteur and Schreiber theory present much simpler ways of discussing authorship in the academic and public spheres because of their ease of understanding and lack of need for empirical research.

V. Confounding Variables

Schatz argues that films attributed to auteur directors are not “simply of individual human expression” but a product of studio executive and key crew influences (Braudy and Cohen 525). A film is a combination of talent, financial, and labor factors. Auteur critic Jean-Louis Comolli notes even “independent” films are subject to these influences (Braudy and Cohen 688). Therefore, films will always be subject to financial backers’ desires for stories to be told. If financiers don’t like a movie’s story, they will not fund it. This is inescapable. Sellors’s argument of intentionality then shifts to the position of choosing the financiers as the “authors” of a film, which few critics would recognize as an artistic force.

Just as unavoidable are the limitations of genre. Genres come from the action on which a film concentrates most of its attention (Braudy and Cohen 556). Early gangster films were defined as much by their genre as their writers and directors. The films followed given conventions and clichés in order to appeal to an audience and access a certain world in which the filmmakers wished to tell a story. Genre films have traditionally had very strong ties to the studios that produce them, making authorship very muddy (Braudy and Cohen 526). Pierre Kast, a contributor to the Cahiers du Cinema, says that “the distributors really control production and they display a complete lack of imagination” (Hillier 32). Studio authorship is evident in 1930’s gangster films predominantly produced by Warner Brothers (Grant 170). During this time, Warner Brothers produced a vast majority of the gangster films made, so their studio executives were able to control much of what went into the films to ensure they matched the studio’s brand. During the same time period, MGM was well known for big budget musical and dramatic productions. So, it is difficult to analyze authorship in this context because a major contributing factor is the studio’s niche. The mass production of films by studios can create a cookie-cutter effect, which blurs the lines of authorship between the studio and film crews.

Another limitation is the lack of data concerning filmmaker intention behind individual motion pictures. Noel Carroll wonders why critics would rather assume hypothetical theses rather than ask an author his actual intentions (Grant 173). Critics chose to limit themselves by not asking directors of their methods and concepts behind production. Truffaut and Schickel sought to remedy this by conducting interviews of Hitchcock and Scorsese, respectively. However, the depth of these analyses is rare, especially considering the number of directors in the industry. The Director’s Guild of America represents over 15,000 “members of the directorial team” (Director’s Guild of America). Comparatively, the amount of critical analysis of their directing methods are scarce to none.

VI. Methods

This research will look at filmmakers Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam through analysis of the feature length behind the scenes of documentaries Dangerous Days and Lost in La Mancha, respectively. It will analyze their methods using the above theories for a case study. Using these features, as compared to featurettes, allows a more comprehensive look at the film and the process. Summary of the production of these films also allows for a more in-depth and look at directors’ work, which is more in line with case study analysis.

Each case study will provide evidence for each director’s production methods. Interviews and scenes will be referenced to provide examples of auteur, Schreiber, or collaborative production methods. This evidence will then be compared to theory to provide practical support for said theory. Evidence will not be cited directly as it will draw from the documentary noted at the beginning of the section.

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