Perhaps the defining medium through which we analyse films is the lens of a director: the auteur theory in other words, the idea that the director is the main authorial voice in a film. First propounded in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema in France by a generation of critics who would go on to form the bedrock of the French New Wave – Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and more – it was brought over to Anglophile film criticism by Andrew Sarris. This kicked off a long-running debate between critics about precisely who is responsible for a film, with Pauline Kael being particularly vociferous against the idea of a single ‘auteur’ at the heart of a film.
After all, film is a collaborative art. A novelist can hammer out words locked away on their own for years. An artist can do the same with a canvas, but a film needs actors, editors, cinematographers, production designers and funders. There are but a tiny handful of people who have managed to create films entirely off their own back, most of them within short-form animation, and those that have managed longer-length work tend to be of a rare singular obsessiveness.
The dust has mostly settled on the auteur theory debate; the consensus today seems to be that it sits somewhere in the middle, that a director is often primarily responsible for a film but not without the choices, decisions and interpretations of the cast and the crew. The world of European arthouse cinema and American indie is still largely driven by director-writers, your Michael Hanekes and your David Lynches, but the studio systems both in Hollywood and throughout the world operate on a different basis. A Tom Cruise vehicle, for example, is more likely to have creative input from its leading star than whichever director is drafted in to keep the production smooth.
One of the benefits for short film makers of course, is that with smaller budgets and smaller risks, they are freer in their choice of collaborators, freer to mould the film in their own image. That benefit can also be a curse, for some. Too much freedom can result in too much choice, too many decisions to make, too many potential avenues left unexplored. Some filmmakers opt instead to limit themselves from the get-go. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a film set entirely in one room and constrained by the protagonist’s point-of-view, or the Dogme 95 movement, which set out a series of strict rules for its filmmakers to follow.
It’s when faced with making these choices that filmmaking as a collaborative art is at its most powerful, and most risky. External collaboration with people outside of the immediate circle of cast and crew can go one of two ways. Hollywood abounds with infamous tales of studios reshooting, re-editing, and ruining perfectly fine films for the sake of a wide market appeal, sometimes even after audience previews of a rough draft.
One of the most famous cases being Alien 3, directed but later disowned by David Fincher, frustrated at the presence of studio execs meddling with the script and forcing more blood, guts, and gore into the film for the sake of dollars. One can still see a great film hidden away in there, but it’s buried under unconvincing special effects and narrative contrivance.
It’s true too that in the wrong place and at the wrong time, audiences have entirely misunderstood films that went on to become hailed as classics. Everything from Citizen Kane to The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop on release, but they gestated over time with audiences. They are, after all, the most essential element in a film: art is not art without an audience. It’s not that a filmmaker has to create work they are disinterested in, but that it ought to be communicating with an audience beyond just themselves.
Of all the collaborators that take part in making a film, the audience are the most vital. They are, after all, the ones whose emotions and thoughts you are trying to manipulate and provoke. To quote from another article in this magazine, Brian Mulholland, who runs Film Devour in Belfast, a showcase for films that are newly-finished or even works-in-progress said, “show [your film] as it is and then the audience will tell you if you need to make changes. Don’t treat it almost as an ending, as a destination. It’s a rung on the ladder of its journey.”
Films morph over time. Written screenplays rarely correspond shot-for-shot with the finished product, with input from others at each stage of the process. Sometimes the most influential members in this process are the directors, the actors, the producer or the cinematographer. The most important collaborators, of course, are always the audience.