Feb 24, 2022
When speaking about film and video, there is no term more revered than the word “auteur” as a director. Many directors and filmmakers aspire to be an auteur, but only true visionaries can walk the walk.
But what is the term “auteur,” and what does the phrase “auteur theory” even mean? Let’s go over some basic definitions, and also trace the origins of auteur theory from the earliest days of cinema history into the modern conversation.
From Orson Welles and classic Hollywood films, to François Truffaut and French cinema, to Wes Anderson and modern film, here’s everything we can learn from the auteur filmmaker. And how you can strive to be one…or at least take elements of auteur theory to use in your projects today.
So first and foremost, let’s go over some basic definitions. “Auteur” is a French word which simply means “author.” And as you can guess, when used in the context of cinema and film directors it is referring to a film director as the “author” of a film.
Since it was first introduced as part of French film criticism in the late 1940s, this term “auteur” and the phrase “auteur theory” has been a way to describe the distinctive approach of certain film directors who have so much control of a film that they can’t help but make it about them personally.
You’ve seen auteur theory in practice both in classic and modern cinema, but as an abstract concept you might not have been able to put a name to it. While we’ll explore some of these examples below, a good one I like to start with is director Wes Anderson.
If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film, then you’re familiar with what a Wes Anderson film looks, sounds, and feels like. From the script to the cinematography to the production design and all of the other nuanced elements of Anderson’s personal films, you really notice the director’s personality influencing every part of the project from start to finish.
While the term “auteur” wasn’t introduced until the 1940s, this style of directing has been around for almost as long as filmmaking itself. Early directors were quick to distinguish themselves with their masterful control, trying to stand out against some of the auteur-esque playwrights or other creatives of the past (like a notable German theatre director or two).
For example, Orson Welles has been praised as the “ultimate auteur,” despite his films coming out in the years before the term was coined. He also is a great example because you can see how his “authorship” style can be traced through his radio plays and theatrical productions as well.
And while it’s not an exact requirement of being an auteur, many of the most famous examples are notable for being both writers and directors (and often editors as well). These filmmakers distinguish themselves from other directors who are simply there to do a job and direct a project, but are not usually a part of the pre-production or post-production processes.
Some other notable auteur directors from early film history include Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and John Ford.
However, there are a few names we haven’t mentioned yet which have become almost synonymous with auteur theory as it is taught in film schools (and in YouTube video essays).
French cinema and The French New Wave is often thought of as being the true birth of auteur theory. And in regards to the personalized and stylistic approaches of many of the filmmakers, it’s absolutely true. Early French filmmakers like André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc helped to form some of the groundwork for directors to take on more control of their projects.
Other technical innovations in camera and the filmmaking process also reduced the need for bigger budgets and more complex productions, allowing filmmakers to shoot more run-and-gun as a way to explore their art with more depth.
By the 1950s, French film critics — many of whom were associated with the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma — would criticize modern film directors for being too faithful to the script and not authoritative enough.
Some of this Cahiers du Cinéma criticism would go on to launch the careers of some of the most famous names in French New Wave and auteur theory itself with the likes of film critic-turned-director François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard (another film critic), Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy.
After its explosion with The French New Wave, the concept of auteur cinema would become a worldwide phenomenon as filmmakers across the globe took on stronger roles in their projects to tell more personal stories, explore recurring themes in their films, and develop a consistent artistic identity as well as an overall director's artistic vision.
We’re obviously missing many names on this list, but to give you an idea of the style and careers of several famous filmmakers who could be considered true auteurs and some of the auteur filmmaker requirements, here are some of the most notable modern auteur filmmakers:
Still, when we start looking at auteur filmmaking and auteur theory from a modern lens, it’s clear that the terms have shifted a bit in how they are used in popular culture. For example, while it’s not a tenet of auteur theory for the filmmaker to also be the writer, we often see the term auteur applied to any filmmaker who does both.
There are also many issues to address in terms of how auteur theory can be problematic. Just look back at film history and its lack of inclusiveness, or think about how auteur theory could empower filmmakers to put their visions above everything or everyone else on the project.
In short, there are elements of auteur theory that are certainly worth re-examining. That’s especially true as we transition into modern cinema and content creation.
So, what does auteur theory in film mean today, and what does the future hold for aspiring auteur filmmakers?
I’m a fan of the idea that we’re living in a new golden age of auteur filmmakers who might not be making “movies” at all. Instead, modern content creators — from YouTubers to TikTokers to even just corporate video professionals — are following most closely in the auteur way.
For those who are looking into specifically making films in the classic cinema style, there’s something to be said about using at least elements of auteur theory in your process. Writing your own scripts and owning your creative decisions throughout the process can go a long way to developing your own cinematic voice.
It’s really up to you and how you want to develop as an aspiring filmmaker, content creator, or — of course — auteur.
If you’d like to read more about some of the principles of film theory, or check out any other helpful video production tips and tricks, check out some of these additional articles from the Soundstripe blog: