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August 25, 2022

What Is Auteur Theory?

When is a director not a director? The answer is when they are an auteur. This is a director who is said to be so influential that they have placed their mark upon the film; the film is their creation. But how do you become an auteur? Which films have ordinary directors and which ones are known as auteurs? Let’s dive in.

What is auteur theory?

The term auteur theory was first coined by ​​American film critic Andrew Sarris in the 1940s. It gained further traction during the French New Wave style of cinema in the 1950s.

Auteur essentially means director as the author; the director is the principal source from which the film derives its creative meaning. The director takes precedence over the scriptwriter, they may even have written the script themselves.  

An auteur is different from a showrunner. A showrunner is a job; the showrunner has creative control over the film or series as agreed upon in the contract. Very often the showrunner has a title in addition to the director such as executive producer.  

In contrast, an auteur exerts creative control merely because their style is so distinctive even if he or she is merely just the director and has no further contractual obligations.

In some jurisdictions, most notably the European Union, a film is treated as an artwork under copyright law with the director the copyright holder. This is the same as an author who holds the rights to their book and grants the publisher the right to reproduce it on their behalf.

Auteur theory definition

Auteur theory states that film is a visual medium and as such the positioning of the camera, the camera angles, lighting, and shot types are what create meaning and not the script itself.

Therefore it is those in control of those aspects of the film - ultimately the director - that is the true author or auteur of the film.

Auteur Theory suggests that when we analyze the film we should examine the background and cultural context of the director rather than or in addition to that of the writer.

Origins of auteur theory

The ideas behind auteur theory stem from an essay by French film critic Alexandre Astruc (1923 - 2016) titled ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra -Stylo’. It translates as the camera as the pen.

Astruc suggests that directors should use their cameras as writers use their pens, capturing the detail and defining the meaning of the film.

It is perhaps because of auteur theory that today we don’t see the director as just another operative on the movie or film set and as the most senior position on the set. In reality, meaning could just as easily be created by the cinematographer, the writer, or the director of the second unit aka the special effects team.

Examples of auteur directors

Not every director is considered an auteur. Today it is a term used to define directors with a distinctive style that becomes well-known and easy to spot.

Such directors become famous because we begin to know what to expect from their films. Some hardcore fans will go and see a film made by an auteur director whatever the content and whoever is staring in it, treating the director as they would a famous author of a novel.

Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino has made only a handful of films. He is known for his use of what he describes as cathartic - and often comedic - violence as well as his reimagining of historical settings and his outlandish fight scenes.

Some of his most well-known films include Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Inglourious Basterds.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock is known as one of the greatest auteur directors of all time. He is known for creating a sense of mystery and suspense in his films, often misleading his audience. In Psycho, widely regarded as his greatest film, he kills off the main character twice playing with viewers' expectations about the genre and tone of the film.

His other films include the thrillers North by North West, Dial M for Murder, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. He also ventured into horror with his classic: The Birds. On only a handful of his films was Hitchcock also the writer as well as director. From the 1940s onward Hitchcock generally produced as well as directed his films.

Alongside his film career, Hitchcock also had his television series - Alfred Hitchcock Presents - cementing his position as an auteur as it was named after him.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is best known for his films that center around masculinity, gang culture, and crime. His famous works include Wolf of Wall Street, The Color of Money, Goodfellas, and Casino.

His distinctive style often uses voiceovers and his major themes include corruption, betrayal, and the portrayal of immigrants in America including Irish and Italian Americans.

Scorsese also does not shy away from showing the brutal side of crime gangs in America including the stark reality of violence.

Tim Burton

Tim Burton is known for his gothic, steampunk style with his most famous films including Edward Scissorhands, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and his reimagining of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp as Wonka.

Like many auteurs, Burton has a host of actors with whom he collaborates regularly who become well known for playing gothic and dark roles: these include Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp.

Study auteur theory and develop your style

By studying auteur theory you can help understand what goes into crafting style as a writer and director.

Once you have a solid understanding of how meaning is generated you can start to experiment and figure out your style. This distinctiveness is what will help set you apart from other writers and directors and hopefully get you noticed.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team.


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What Is Auteur Theory?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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