Collaboration and Why The Auteur Theory Is Bull

10 08 2010

I’m going to admit right here at the outset that I know that I’m distorting the “auteur theory” here, but I’m just doing what most people think that theory says. Ask anyone, even our amazing film students at USC, what the “auteur” theory is, and they’ll tell you that it’s about the supremacy of the director in terms of guiding the vision of a film.

In fact, as I understand it, the auteur theory really says something much more interesting – that, over the course of a number of films, a good director imbues each film (no matter how different) with a recognizable point of view. The difference between an auteur and a journeyman director — common in Hollywood in the Sixties when that French theory came to prominence — is that each film of an auteur becomes inextricably intertwined with that director’s style, vision and personality. A “work-for-hire” director has no such distinctive stamp. In that theory, Michael Bay is as much an auteur as John Ford.

So, the auteur theory really talks about subtleties that are much more visible in retrospect. To some degree, they can’t be consciously added in at the outset. Yet, this theory has somehow become the torch by with which less talented directors tend to destroy their films, as they consciously attempt to force their “personal vision” onto each of their films.

That’s what I understand about the auteur theory. But now I’ll ignore that knowledge go with the second definition – that it’s about the directing imposing a vision on a work.

That auteur theory is bull.

These thoughts were raised by a question that someone asked me on Twitter a little while ago: “How do you deal with a director who has incredibly idiotic ideas?” the questioner asked. Implicit in that question was a second one: “And what do you do when that director forces those dumbnesses onto you?”

I’d like to address that question by looking at it from another angle.

Jeannette Catsoulis New York Times review of Robert Rodriguez’s film SHORTS is Exhibit Number One for me. This is a film in which a number of children live and learn in a town whose main company, Black Box Industries, manufactures one product – the Black Box – which she describes as “a strange, multipurpose gadget that resembles an ebony Rubk’s Cube and can serve as everything form a cheese grater to a solar panel.”

Catsoulis, who didn’t much like the film, boes one to say:

“Concocted by Robert Rodriguez, a kind of filmmaking Black Box (he wrote, directed, edited, produced, photographed, composed some of the music and supervised the visual effects), “Shorts” feels underwritten and overdressed.”

Aside from the fact that I have never particularly liked most of Rodriguez’s films (most of which seem to me to suffer from a love of technique and use shortcuts to character), it seems to me that Catsoulis is accusing the director here of falling in love with his own voice and his own work. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of story, in which no one wants to tell the King that he’s nearly naked.

[As an aside, Manohla Dargis — in the same paper — off-handedly (and quite nastily, I thought) makes a similar claim on Quentin Tarentino’s last film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, when she says:

“He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke,” a comment which manages to insult both the film and a fine editor at the same time (Menke’s been doing this long enough, and worked with enough people, to not take a job if she knows she is going to be treated like a mere pair of hands)]

Directors, listen to me hear — it’s impossible to make a film by yourself. Not every idea you’re going to have is good, and not all good ideas are going to come from you. The best comments I’ve gotten from directors are when they turn to me after viewing my Editor’s Cut and say “Wow, there were some things in there that I never would have thought of myself. Thanks.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to use those ideas, but it does mean that the director’s creative juices are going to be kicked up a notch and there will new and better ideas flowing very shortly.

And that is the ideal way to work with any creative person: come to the table with an idea (the “thesis”), let that person come up with a different idea (the “antithesis”) and then to let those two opposing notions contribute to a third, usually better, idea (the “synthesis”). Directors who feel that they are the sole auteurs of their work, and are too afraid or guarded to open up to other ideas, will generally miss out on those “third, usually better” ideas, and their work will suffer. (I talk about this in the latest episode of the podcast that I do with Larry Jordan — 2 Reel Guys — in the episode on Collaboration.)

That’s why the more roles that a creator takes on, the more the work will usually suffer. Being a writer/director is dangerous enough. When you become a writer/director/editor the combination is almost always disastrous.  I’d venture that John Sayles solo films, for instance, were never as good as when he worked with an editor. Even the vaunted Coen Bros have suffered when they edited their own work.

It’s a problem that I’m continually fighting among those talented students at USC. I’d rather they learned how to talk to an editor to bring their ideas to the fore, than edit their film themselves. Simplifying the communication process, in this case by eliminating the editor, doesn’t make for a better film. Creating a common language (such as the one I talk about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT) does.

So, to get back to the Twitter question, “How do you deal with a director’s stupid ideas?”

In my opinion, the first thing to realize is that those ideas might not be stupid ideas at all. The fact that they seem stupid to you may say more about you than about the director. You might be jealousy guarding an idea of yours that you’d be better off questioning. Just as we want our directors to be collaborative, it is important for us (as editors) to be open to those “antithesis” ideas.

The second thing to realize is that, even if the ideas are stupid (“Can’t we take every other shot and turn it upside down?”), most directors who have done their homework are coming up with ideas because they are missing something. They aren’t getting the emotional kick from a scene that they wanted. They might not understand a character’s motivation the way that they feel is necessary. Or they might not feel tension or energy or humor. Or, there is more confusion by the end of a commercial than they desire.

The problems are myriad (haha, a very subtle HEATHERS reference there) but the psychology is the same. Unless the director is a complete moron, every idea and question that they have comes from some place. It is the job of the editor to dig below the question/comment and figure out what it is that the director (or producer or showrunner or whoever is in charge of the vision) really wants.

And the third thing is that if the director really is a complete moron, I’d take a look at yourself and ask why you took the job in the first place. I know that there’s always rent that you have to pay, but if that’s the deal that you’ve made with the devil, then you’ve got no business complaining about idiot directors. Life is too short to be working with people who don’t fill you up with artistic and/or emotional fulfillment.

(adapted from an old blog entry on another site)



7 responses to “Collaboration and Why The Auteur Theory Is Bull”

10 08 2010
Randy Thom (15:06:29) :

Good stuff, Norman!

Nearly all great films have happened because several brilliant people working on them were wise enough to be influenced by each other’s ideas, thereby challenged to come up with even better ideas, and the director was able to keep it all reasonably coherent.

In my opinion collaboration is the least developed, yet most fertile element of film creation.

Randy Thom
Director of Sound Design
Skywalker Sound

10 08 2010
Sex Mahoney (19:57:14) :

People like to think that they’re in control of things, it’s what appeals to so many about the auteur theory. When in reality, power concentration leads to an even greater loss of control. It’s a fair assessment to say that studio films are very tightly controlled, and they’re mostly atrocious.

However, you use the Coen brothers as an example here; a pair that started out as editors and who go a good way toward showing how positive collaborative efforts emerge.

A good boss should be familiar with the particulars and practicalities of any delegated task, but not so heavy handed that they insist on doing everything themselves. People are hired for a reason, and it’s so they can do their jobs, an effective manager channels that, like a sluice in a dam, and does their best not to hinder it, like a fart at the opera.

Excellent article, sir.

11 08 2010
Norman (16:39:34) :


With the explosion of DIY filmmaking, collaboration is getting increasingly harder to teach as well as to find.

Almost every single successful person who I’ve ever worked with believes more in collaboration than in dictatorship. Interestingly, Pixar embodies that into their work philosophy as Ed Catmull as talked about.


11 08 2010
Norman (16:42:14) :


Thanks for the feedback. I completely agree that “A good boss should be familiar with the particulars and practicalities of any delegated task, but not so heavy handed that they insist on doing everything themselves.”

Interestingly, the Coen Brothers do their own editing. I don’t know if that falls under the category of doing “everything themselves” but it sure means that their editing process is colored by the material that they’ve shot, as well as diminished by the amount of time that they have to deal with the producing they’re doing on the film, as well as the producing and directing that they’re doing for their next film/s.


4 09 2010
Salvador Jaramillo (18:20:09) :

Hello Norman,

Director/editor relationships can be very tricky, especially on the first project that you work together. The director and editor are adjusting to each others styles and have not fully learned each others strengths and weaknesses.

That first cut(editors cut) is extremely important as you discussed. It’s one of the first opportunities to instill FULL confidence and trust in you. It pushes the director, who is exhausted after production, and re-energizes them creatively. It’s one of the few opportunities to really show the director that your input is going to be very important on the project. Full collaboration with you is going to be a crucial step in creating a successful film.

Down the line, a director will really want to listen to what you have to say because he trusts and respects you. The feeling must be mutual. When it’s not mutual, that is when the director(or sometimes editor) feels that he/she needs to be in complete control.

But sometimes, no matter what you do, the director/editor relationship will fail. Some people are just incompatible. Styles differ. Personalities differ. visions differ. Collaboration will feel difficult and sometimes impossible.

At that point, you have to let the negativity slide, remain professional and focus on doing the best work you can. Sometimes it means humbling oneself to get the job done.

4 09 2010
Norman (22:42:35) :


Very very well put Salvador. This is also why editing a second project for a director has very different dynamics than the first one. This generally works in the editor’s favor, though there are times when people just “get tired” of each other.

I always say that you usually spend more waking time per day with your director than your spouse, so you have to be super careful who you editorially hook up with.

27 02 2013
Aaron Weiss (01:18:50) :

The Auteur Theory, as coined by Andrew Sarris, is entirely wrong. However, theories of authorship in cinema is an worthwhile discussion, and the more advanced discussions (usually left out of theory classes) often times discuss how the auteur exists in many situations and vocations.

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