Author of the Film

I found the point raised in Arnhein’s piece, the question of who might be considered the “author” of the film, to be especially timely because of a debate I had at a party a few weeks ago. Talking to a somewhat snooty friend of a friend, I mentioned that I wasn’t thrilled about the latest reboot of The Great Gatsby because I’m not a big fan of Baz Lurhmann, the director. She replied that she just loves all the sweeping shots that he uses. “You know,” she continued, “the cinematography! I mean, I work in media, so I notice that sort of thing.” (She works for a radio station. Psh.)

I swallowed back a deep desire to deliver a textbook definition of the difference between a director and cinematographer, but it did actually get me thinking about how much credit we give to the various people who work on a film. We nearly always attribute a film to the director, first and foremost. You know, “Tim’s Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”, etc. But hundreds of people can work on one film.

Arnhein reflects on the prevalence of that mindset today, that the director is the “sole responsible author of a film,” especially in cases of massive rewrites on the part of the director, in spite of possible objections by the screenwriter. He looks to the differences between theater and film as the reason for the shift from “the playwright is author” to “the director is author” as the popular opinion. I had never considered that the main difference between the theater and film is, as Arnhein puts it, that “the theatrical play is a work of art produced by a writer in one medium, namely, the literary word, and made visible and audible secondarily by means of two other media.” Meanwhile, film is imagined as a visual piece of art rather than a literary one from the start, and does not require a script at all. This point basically completely blew my mind and confirmed for me that we probably have it right, looking at the director as the primary author of a film, because (s)he could create a film without a single character or line of dialogue, while a screenwriter would be incapable of producing anything helpful in that situation. (Obviously a novelist, poet, etc could write a piece without characters or dialogue, but it would not translate to stage or screen.)

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4 Responses to Author of the Film

  1. Laura Callei says:

    It is interesting too, Brigitte, when you watch the end credits to a movie. While most people probably leave the theater at the conclusion of the movie, I actually like to stick around and read the hundreds of names listed. It is unbelievable to me how many people it takes to create one two hour movie, many which go unnoticed. I like your point that Arnhein’s argument may be correct in stating that the director is the primary author of the film, but I also believe that the screenwriter as equal if not more authorship to the film than the director. I think that without the guide and written work of the screenwriter the film could never be, although the same could be said about the director as well. It is so tough to choose a side when it comes to the true authorship of a film so I will choose to argue that both of them are just as equally important, at least to me when I watch a film!

    • I totally agree- I always try to stick around for the end credits of the film, and I’m consistently amazed by the sheer volume of names listed there.

      As for the writer-director argument, I should add that I do think an argument could be made in which this depends on a case-by-case analysis. There is a film by Godrey Reggio called Koyaanisqatsi that contains not a single word of dialogue (to my memory). In that film, the only conceivable author is the director and no argument can be made for the screenwriter as author. Meanwhile, I think of a film like 12 Angry Men (which was, tellingly, originally a play) and think that all the directing in the world doesn’t change the fact that the dialogue is what keep you enthralled, since it’s just 12 men in a room for 2 hours.

  2. I don’t know — reading this piece made me angry. I feel as if the author is always, always, always, the scriptwriter, while the director just deals with the scene and actors. Though, I like the distinction between film and theatre, where the director just tries not to mess up the writers vision. Film is about images, but of that’s not true. How can it be? Words are the most important thing in a movie. I can enjoy a movie with terrible…ummm…scenes?….right…(you know what I mean), but if the dialogue is bad, ugh, my ears bleed.

    Ricky Gervais made a job, I believe at one of the Golden Globes events, where he said everyone notices the actors, so beautiful they are, and the directors, but without the writers, it would all be shit.

    I don’t know, I had such a visceral reaction to this piece. I wonder if film could have existed without literature? If, in human history, literature didn’t exist, would we still have movies?

    I think that there is something special about how much work goes into producing a piece of literature — words working side by side, like the beautifully written piece by Woolf we read, that movies can’t do. I feel as if my brain has to do more work when reading, than when watching a movie.

    • Literature is a precursor to movies, but it’s not the foundation of movies. It goes way back to cave painting, the inherent need to translate the narrative of life and reflect it back to us. Words are not the sole conduit of expression.

      I do agree with you about the special significance of the scriptwriter. The scriptwriter is the one creating the story which is what all the technical work essentially revolves around. The story is what’s been passed along all these years, so naturally that is the soul of the whole thing.

      But film has transcended words before. There are films whose beauty and meaning comes entirely from the visual. Some of them have no dialogue at all. Some have an aesthetic brilliance that co-exists with the writing. Darren Aranofsky movies come to mind, like Requiem for a Dream. The story, dialogue, and visual rendering are all extremely powerful.

      I think there’s an aspect to film that takes on a life of its own, and exists outside of the writing and story, even if those are its roots. But when we say film, we’re not just talking the words because film is not just words and story, it’s words and story visually rendered.

      Like Brigitte said, a director can direct without words or even characters, and the screenwriter would be ineffectual in that situation. That’s because, while they are symbiotic when they come together, they’re dealing in different domains… I don’t think the director is necessarily at the service of the screenwriter. There are films where this is the case, of course, it’s just not something inherent in the process.

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