With auteur filmmaking, we look at the works of directors, their lives and how their movies came to be. We look back into the past to analyze how these directors shaped their visions into a coherent movie. In doing so, we are transported back to a time when the Hollywood studio era created some of the best film directors ever known along with some of the finest films.
It was also during this time period that the term “auteur theory” was created to champion the purity and transparency of filmmakers’ style. In 1951, a group of French critics founded Cahiers du Cinema (Notebooks on Cinema), a magazine that became influential in the world of filmmaking. They became so influential that, in 1954, one of the magazine writers, Francois Truffaut, proposed the simple idea that a director is the author of a given film. Since then, a lot has been discussed about the “auteur theory.” They focused on the director’s job, usually referred to as the mise-en-scene (the composition of everything that appears in front of the camera and its arrangements, and cinematography), themes and a tendency to favor psychological stories in social settings.
The theory proposes that even though the director has a cinematographer, a set designer and an editor, they’re all collaborating with the director’s point of view, which is, to stamp his vision and style onto the film.
If that is what it takes to make the director the “author” of his or her work, similarly to an author of a novel, then, all directors should be considered authors. However, their idea of Auteurism was to make a distinction between films and the films that are worthy of serious study, making them unique in style and voice. After all, as Truffaut stated, “There are no good or bad films, only good and bad directors.”
The theory resulted in the reevaluation of films and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Huston, Charles Chaplin, John Ford, to name a few, from the 1950s onwards during the Hollywood studio era.
What about now? What to say about the more recent filmmakers? Can the same theory be applied today? If so, would the modern day auteur filmmakers be more secluded to film festivals and art house cinemas, for example, or can they also manage to make films within the studio system that will also appeal to wider audiences?
The following directors are names that came up in a recent, casual conversation. We both agreed that, in order to be considered an auteur today, the director should also be involved in the writing process. The first half of this list comes from this conversation and the other half is based on my humble opinion. I’m not going to offer you any deep analysis of their work here, but just how they fit into this theory. Here is a list of a few directors that deserve some recognition as auteur filmmakers of our times.
10. Paul Thomas Anderson
Let me start with the man who got me thinking about this list. So much has already been said, analyzed and discussed about his work. Anderson had his directorial debut in the mid 90s. Since then, he has made films of serious study. Anyone could try to claim that his movies are more artistic than commercial. Regardless, his work is so meticulously created that the big movie studios are willing to finance him, because they know the general audience will watch his films, while the niche audience will still enjoy the profundity of his content. He is one of the most respected and solidified directors that we have now. His biggest inspiration was Hollywood director Robert Altman, and these two worked together on Altman’s last film, A Home Prairie Companion.
Now that Mr. Anderson is famously known for writing his own movies probably comes as no surprise. This skilled filmmaker knows how to write powerful characters with intelligence and taste, and a tendency to favor psychological stories in social settings, similar to another Hollywood director William Wyler from the B&W era. We can see this tendency in movies such as Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master. Anderson is famous for lengthy shots that can be noticed in almost every film (the opening of Boogie Nights is a good example) and the complexity of characterization. The soundtrack and score also have a big impact. In Magnolia, for example, when the camera starts to follow characters heading to the TV show, the score accompanies the camera movement and intensifies in dramatic moments, or plays low key in the background, almost unnoticeable in others.
9. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson creates his own visual style, giving a mixed look of animation and reality, and narrative tendencies. Every Anderson film sports highly original framing and chatter filled screenwriting. The man is a visionary. His comical tone and timing are sharp with at least one character in each being obsessed with their current project or mission. His particular aesthetic can be seen in films like Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenebaums, Rushmore, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
In his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the colorization feels like a beautiful storybook that is hypnotizing. Anderson stamps his signature with well dollied cinematography that some tend to call “challenging shots.” Anderson has also added his signature to create imaginary worlds in his stories. Moonrise Kingdom takes place in “New Penzance” while the Grand Hotel is located at the Republic of Zubrowka. Anderson seems to be paying homage to foreign films. European directors come to mind such as Godard, mainly because of the color palette he chooses.
8. Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino has always given me the impression that he promotes gratuitous violence. I’m not suggesting that violence should be justified in order to happen. I have been more under the assumption that Tarantino was more efficient in writing scenes than stories. Putting my feelings aside, and taking a closer look at his work…
First, the man creates remarkable, stand alone characters. Who can forget memorable characters such as the ones played by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, or Shoshana Dreyfus in Inglorious Basterds? Yes, Pulp Fiction has great characters too! The complexity of characterization, the motif and style become visible and constant throughout his movies. Westerns, Japanese Anime and Martial Arts have largely influenced Tarantino.
7. Terrence Malick
Over the period of 40 years, Malick has only directed six films. Perhaps that may explain why people may not be that familiar with him. He is known for being a reclusive director and avoids the press like the devil avoids the cross. His private life comes first. Regardless of his decision, Malick has contributed some great films. I was first introduced to his cinematic world with The Thin Red Line (1998), and have admired his work since then. Movie studios deal with deadlines, but Malick is known for “wandering off and experimenting with film” and not being so considerate of these deadlines. Over time, the modern Hollywood studio system and Malick have learned how to handle their differences.
Nonetheless, when the auteur theory is applied to his cinematic work, he is a master. He prefers the cinematography be of natural light over that created in a studio. He loves the “magic hour” (sunrise or sunset) to shoot scenes. In retrospect, throughout Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, the sounds of nature have made a prominent footprint in his films. The sounds of birds, crickets and other various animals are almost constant and represent man’s connection with nature. And, one of his biggest signatures throughout his films is certainly the prevalent use of voice-over. An advanced screenwriting portal he has slowly abused over time.
6. Martin Scorsese
“You talking to me?” Scorsese has invited audiences to the other side of New York City. Taxi Driver (1976) is a thematic homage to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which marks the beginning of characters who are social misfits (protagonists as antagonists). Although Scorsese does not tend to write his own films that much (he co-wrote Goodfellas and Casino), he is a master showing how gifted he is through crime dramas or the superb romance, The Age of Innocence (1993).
What makes him an auteur, then? The theme and style are constant throughout his films and he is usually focused more on male characters, in a world of violence where the strong ones will survive. For Scorsese, it’s the law of the (concrete) jungle! His mise-en-scene is noticed in slow motion (to heighten a moment of psychological duress) and the use of long tracking shots as seen in Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Additionally, the use of pop music is constantly present in most of his films.
5. Todd Haynes
One of the things that Haynes has done well is to put the new wave of gay cinema in a better light during a time in Hollywood when homosexuality wasn’t seen in films much. Not every Haynes film is a big hit, but his unique voice and style are noticeable. He has the sensibility to capture the struggles of life through his simple style of mise-en-scene.
The story of Safe (1995) is shot from a distance through a lot of detachment with his camera being distant from the character with rarely any close-ups. Elements of fear and paranoia embody the film. The editing only helps create that sense of fear and eventual breakdown. Velvet Goldmine (1998), about the crazy days of glam rock in the 1970s, is considered a misstep. Inspired by director Douglas Sirk (1950s films filled with melodrama and lush colors), he writes and directs Far from Heaven (2002), which deals with repression, a theme that becomes current, and the use of the saturated Technicolor palette here marks his style too. I’m Not There (2007) is another story about musical figures. Recently, he adapted “Mildred Pierce” for HBO and his theme of repression and disconnection are also present. Some may argue that it might be too soon to add Haynes to such a list, but I’m definitely keeping an eye on his work.
4. David O. Russell
Russell is working his way up as an auteur. His directorial debut, Spanking the Monkey (1994), deals with family struggles; a theme that becomes consistent in his films. The tone of his films is marked with dark humor and satirical social commentary.
In The Fighter (2010), the consistency of his themes becomes established: with messages that family can save you from problems. The complexity of characters and his work gain notoriety. His characters are torn between family, career choices and love interests. His following works will support his tendencies. Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a dark romantic comedy that deals with love can save you from mental illness, while American Hustle (2013) shows that if you are an honest person, you won’t end up alone. Russell also gets notoriety with his mise-en-scene when the camera moves toward characters, away from characters and even circles around characters.
3. Woody Allen
What to say about one of the greatest American collaborators nowadays? He is among our most influential, controversial, and prolific filmmakers. Having said that, his themes explore the meaning of life and love with an explanation mark on death. He has also created great roles for women. His most recent film, for example, Blue Jasmine (2013), gave Cate Blanchet an Oscar for best performance in a leading role.
The use of subtitles in Annie Hall (1977) and split screen became an instant signature to his directing style. The noir style of Manhattan (1979) gives a magical quality to the romance. This genius has also become one of those cases where people either love or hate him. And it’s not related to his private life made public. It is because Allen used to act in his movies and played neurotic characters that drew that line very clearly. However, more recently, he chose to work behind the camera only and continue to write.
2. Christopher Nolan
Nolan has shown a significant amount of work and solidified himself as a writer/director. There is no doubt that his films are definitely Hollywood blockbusters. What brings him to this list is when his work is analyzed, his signature starts to become evident, making him an auteur and reflecting the commercial success of his films.
His characters feel detached from their environment, not part of this world. Perhaps that helps us understand the fact that most of his films are mostly adaptations of some kind. These characters deal with self-doubt and moral ambiguity. His themes are about fear, sacrifice, chaos and pain with dark and somber tones due to heavy issues. For example, the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the most disturbing and intriguing characters on the big screen.
1. Gus Van Sant
Gus is more known to the general public as a director, but My Own Private Idaho is one of the earlier and more daring of his screenplays. From early on in his career, he established common themes such as the creation of alternate families and personal journeys, friendships and mentor-student relationships. Even though he worked for the Hollywood studio system, he is most influenced by European filmmakers.
Good Will Hunting (1997), an exploration of man’s soul, Finding Forrester (2000), explores the friendship between an African-American accepted to an important private school while befriending a novelist, and Milk (2011), a man fighting for civil rights for the gay community in the 1970s. These films were commercially successful and Gus had the opportunity to show the world his signature. He is also known for being a master collaborator, which can bring the best out of actors with the characters they portray; he also prefers to shoot his films mainly on location instead of on sets.