The Hauteur of the Auteur

In Sunset Boulevard William Holden’s screenwriter complains that ‘audiences think the actors make the words up as they go along’.   In time audiences became more sophisticated and dropped that silly idea – only, it seemed, to start believing the director made it up as he went along (and it usually was a ‘he’ back then.)

Few things irk writers more than the Cult of the Director.  William Goldman in his second volume of memoirs, Which Lie Did I Tell? has a good moan about it.  As I recall he blames Truffaut for spreading the rumour that Alfred Hitchcock was God, and blames Alfred Hitchcock for believing it.   Goldman cites North by Northwest as an example: apparently Hitchcock proposed the baddies should try and kill the hero with a tornado.  When screenwriter William Lehman pointed out that humans can’t control tornadoes, and came up with the famous cropduster sequence, Hitchcock used that instead and took all the credit.

The ‘director as auteur’ nonsense gained credence because it made the critic’s job easier if they could pretend every idea on the screen came from one person rather than from a team.   Even though critics and audiences are a little better informed these days, and understand that film drama is a collaborative rather than a solo effort, directors still sometimes get the credit for your good ideas. But then, sometimes you get the credit for theirs.

Directors have an enormously stressful job.  They have to marshal a huge and incredibly expensive army to create, within a limited time, a film where everything appears to happen spontaneously.  Often this is the result of long and careful planning, and sometimes it’s the result of a desperate scrabble to get something into the can before the light goes.  (There’s a great story about Orson Welles’s version of Othello, where the murder of Roderigo takes place in a Turkish bath.  Reviewers raved about the clouds of steam symbolising the passion and intrigue that impairs human judgement.  Asked how he came up with the idea, Welles explained that shoot had run so short of money by then they’d been forced to send all the costumes back to the hire company.)

Anyway… what directors don’t do is make up the words and the story as they go along.  The cheapest stage of any film shoot is the period the writer, or writers, spend in one room with a heap of paper, constructing, writing, and revising the screenplay so that every scene has a function and the story makes sense.  You can try to make a movie without a solid script, but you’ll usually end up with an extremely expensive mess.

Sometimes directors merely execute what the writer has put on the page, in which case you’d better hope your writing is as good as you thought it was. Sometimes they utterly mangle your work, because they didn’t understand it, or because they resented the fact that they didn’t write it.  Or indeed both.

And sometimes a director will add visions you never saw, evoke meaning and resonance you’d sort of hoped was there, and draw performances from the actors that make your story come alive in ways you never expected, to the extent that you feel surprised and proud to see your name on the finished work.  And if you’re lucky, and the director’s really good, it will look as if the actors are making it up as they go along.

Whatever happens, remember there’s one thing worse than your script being realised badly: it’s your script never being realised at all.

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