The Correct Perspective

by Michael Armstrong

For too long now film directors have been placed on pedestals to which they have no right and to which they do not belong. 

Directors did not put themselves there. 

Critics, journalists and academics put them there by conveniently attributing work to them which is not actually theirs and for which they are not responsible.

It is ridiculous. 

It is, frankly, insulting.

It is time it stopped

And it is time that actual creative roles in film-making were put into the correct perspective.

The Auteur Theory and others:

Since the 1940s, French determination to evaluate film as an art form had precipitated a running debate as to whose personal creative vision gave them the right to be accorded credit for the work as the original creative artist.

In 1951, a new magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, founded by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca entered the debate, totally challenging what was then the accepted French critical evaluation of film-making.  Edited by Éric Rohmer, it included amongst its writers, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut. 

In 1954, the magazine published an article written by Truffaut, Une certaine tendence du Cinéma français  in which he attacked  "La qualité française" for being entirely script ledand championed, instead, a director led evaluation, "La politique des Auteurs".

The article accused screenwriters (in particular, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost) of having next to no originality and doing little more than dumbing down classic French literature for the screen. 

This, Truffaut argued, denigrated the director to being considered a mere"metteur en scene", dutifully following the script he had been handed and designated to telling actors where to stand and move in a series of framed pictures.

Continuing this argument, he and his fellow writers proceeded to develop the idea further. Totally minimising the work of the screenwriter, they elevated the director's role into that of the true creative artist of a film. Their reasoning being that this was achieved through the personal decisions employed within the mise en scène.

While accepting the fact that the very nature of movie-making involved many diverse creative and technical minds, Truffaut and his fellows at Cahiers du Cinéma singled out the work of certain directors who they could fit to this perception of "auteurs" making films based on a personal vision:  Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Max Ophuls, Jean Cocteau, Fritz Lang and the Americans, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Don Siegal.

Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol then exemplified this auteur theory by making highly personalised, often idiosyncratic, films themselves in the 1960s under the banner of the French Nouvelle vague.

It  heralded a change in the basis of film criticism and theory right up to the present day as critics and academics leapt on this new means of exploring the inner meaning of films by studying  them as the work of their "auteurs".

In 1962 as ownership of Cahiers du Cinéma was going through major changes and alterations in policy, the U.S. The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris initiated the term "The Auteur Theory" in an essay,"Notes on the Auteur Theory", later publishing "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968", which was adopted as the definitive work concerning "auteurism".

It cemented the "auteur" theory completely, making the director the absolute creator of the film and, in European law, the original copyright owner.

In defence of the collaborative effort involved in film making, this "auteur theory" did not occur unchallenged.  The critic Pauline Kael lambasted it in her "Circles and Squares" and feuded publicly with Andrew Sarris in The New Yorker and other publications.

Understandably, numerous highly respected Oscar winning screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman and William Goldman and others voiced their indignation publicly at the idea as did the film historian, Aljean Harmetz who argued that it was a nonsense when viewed against the Hollywood studio system of making movies.  It was also challenged by the influencial New Criticism.

In 2006, David Kipen, Director of Literature at the US National Endowment for the Arts returned to championing the screenwriter as the creative mind of a film in his book, “The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History”, thus coining the phrase, "The Schreiber Theory".

He was, in turn, attacked by Diane Garrett in Variety and film writer, Michael Fox saying it was no more than a move to shift auteurism away from the director to the writer.

Nevertheless, today, the director is still universally accepted by critics and academics everywhere as being the artist personally responsible for a film's content and realisation.

And I am saying the whole thing is a total and fanciful myth.

The Reality and Not a Theory:

First, it is necessary to understand that there are intrinsically two kinds of Artist:

  • The Creative Artist
  • The Interpretative Artist.

The Creative Artist: 1

Amongst these people are painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, prose writers, designers and anyone else whose work is completed solely by themselves right up to the finished product.

They are originators who start with nothing except what's in their mind and end up with something that is physically complete in itself: a poem, a novel, a painting, a sculpture etc.

There is also a second type of Creative Artist:

The Creative Artist: 2

Amongst these people are composers, architects and writers of stage plays and screen plays.

These Artists are originators who start with nothing except what is in their mind and end up with something that is a completed physical entity in the form of the written word.  They then intend for it to be taken one stage further and be physically realised before an audience by Interpretative Artists. 

The Interpretative Artist:

Interpretative Artists start with the Creative Artist's original written creation and using their own creative minds and acquired skills, physicalise the work for an audience and in so doing, fulfil the orginal Creator's intention for all to experience.

These people are musicians, actors, singers and similar performers.  They also include conductors and directors.  

The Reality:

None of the above particularly matters to Artists, themselves, of any denomination, who are well aware of the particular role they each play in the creative process. 

Nor does it particularly matter to the public, whose only real interest is in experiencing the results, emotionally and intellectually.

It does matter, however, to critics and academics whose living is earned by passing on their opinions to the rest of us concerning their evaluation of artists and their work.

It is predominantly for them, therefore, that I would like to clarify precisely who does what in the process of film-making and so, hopefully and finally, put the "auteur", "Schreiber" and all other such creationist theories to bed forever.

And even more importantly, have credit given to the correct people regarding the actual work they do as opposed to that which they do not.

The Facts of Life:

The simple clue to achieving clarification into whose sole creative responsibilities could constitute any kind of  "personal" vision is to look beyond film in isolation and rather to the creative process as a whole in the allied arts.


In music: The composer is the originating Creative Artist, taking a musical idea as a starting point to create a personal artistic statement which culminates in a written work.

This written work is then taken and note for note, physicalised in sound by instrumentalists or singers as the Interpretative Artists and frequently co-ordinated by another Interpretative Artist, the conductor, whose role is to unite all the individual creative skills involved into a single illuminating vision of that Creative Artist's written work for a listening audience.

Such, in broad terms, is the case when evaluating the creative roles involved in Music.

Even closer than Music to Film, however, is Theatre.

Plays for the Stage or Screen:

A Stage Play is, precisely that:  a play written to be physically realised on a stage. 

A Screen Play is precisely that: a play written to be physically realised on a screen. 

The creative function and end purpose of both are identical.

How then can one work be appraised as the personal vision of its original Creative Artist: and the other as the personal vision of someone who isn't?

First let us clarify terminology.

Although writing for the stage and for the screen requires a difference in approach and storytelling technique, they are both creatively conceived and executed pieces of original dramatic writing.

They are responsible for the plot, setting, structure, characters, character relationships, psychology, dialogue, action, ideas, universal themes, human observation, social comment … everything, in fact that constitutes the creative whole. 

The "playwright" and the "screenwriter" are consequently both, in reality, one and the same thing: a "dramatist"

And it is the "dramatist" who is the unequivocal originating Creative Artist whose completed work be it for stage or screen is the personal artistic statement to be appraised. 

It is also, as with music written by a composer, the work its audience wishes to experience emotionally and intellectually.

Ideas and source material: 

To clarify another point:  The root source that inspires a created work does not invalidate that work if the result is an entirely new creative statement in its own right.   

In music, a composer will often take a folk tune or musical phrase or idea that he/she has heard and use it as a source of inspiration for the work they subsequently create.  Because Puccini came across a Chinese melody in a music box and referenced it into Turandot does not make his opera any less of an original personal creative vision any more than the use of a melody by Paganini does with Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme by Paganini or Beethoven using Schiller's Ode to Joy as a climax to his Ninth Symphony.

Similarly in drama, a play may arise from any number of sources.

An idea or story source, be it fictional or fact, does not in itself constitute a work of Art. 

Romeo and Juliet started as an Italian tale, referenced by Masuccio Salernitano's Mariotti e Gianozza  in 1476, more clearly defined as Giuletta e Romeo by Luigi da Parta in 1530, by Matteo Bendello in 1554 and Pierre Boiastuau in 1559, translated in verse by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and which was sourced along with William Painter's 1567 prose version in Palace of Pleasure  by "dramatist" William Shakespeare.

So, who is the original Creative Artist in that line-up? 
The answer is all but one.  Each created a different work based on the same story idea as an end in itself … except the last by William Shakespeare, which is not an end in itself but a play written for Interpretative Artists to physicalise on a stage.

It is a work that has seen Interpretative Artists create countless productions of it on stage over the centuries.

Production concepts will have varied between them but the text, characters, themes, dialogue, relationships etc. will all have remained steadfastly those of its original creator and each production would be assessed not as an original created work but as to its validity in providing illumination in performance of the original created work of its "dramatist".

This applies to a performance of Shakespere's Romeo and Juliet text on a stage, for which it was originally written.  When on screen, however, it is an adaptation.

When an adaptation from one medium to another occurs, the play (or novel) from which it is adapted still remains the original creative work.  The role of its adaptor is not that of "dramatist" but as Interpretative Artist.

Often, these differences can be viewed incorrectly.  West Side Story is not an adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.   It is nothing to do with Shakespeare's play.  It is a completely different creative work in its own right: being an original stage musical inspired by the same story source from which Shakespeare wrote his play and later physicalised for the screen.

Creative input:

Plays, be they for the stage or the screen are often written by more than one writer: Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps, being one of the most famous historic examples. 

A director or anyone else, for that matter, choosing to have creative input in a play, be it for stage or screen, is therefore not being an "auteur" but adopting the role of a co-"dramatist".

This does not mean, however, that anyone contributing ideas can lay claim to being a part of that creative role.  Too many films fail because of a free-for-all approach to the creative process. 

Ideas, in themselves, do not constitute a work of Art.  Art lies solely with the creative mind that skilfully weaves everything together into a single coherent personal vision.

Once that has been achieved, the "dramatist" may then choose to take on the role of Interpretative Artist and perform and/or direct in the physicalisation of that work:  Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Frank Capra, Mel Brooks, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Charles Chaplin etc. 

It should also be borne in mind that a screen play, like a new stage play being performed for the first time, is still a work in the process of making changes to aid its physicalisation.  This often means modifications, cuts, re-writes etc. before it finally proves workable for the Interpretative Artist. 

But this refining its physicalisation should still be the right of the "dramatist", not provide an excuse for a general free-for-all to meddle with its creative whole. 


The current studio obsession with re-makes further confuses the situation and needs to be clarified.

As an example: the 1958 and 1986 films, The Fly.  One is not a remake of the other.  Both are entirely different original creative works inspired by the same idea.

That idea originally took the form a of a short story by George Langelaan published in Playboy in 1957.

In 1958, James Clavell took the story idea and from it created an original Screen Play.  As Interpretative Artist, the director, Kurt Neumann was then hired to physicalise that work on the screen as a feature film. 

In 1986, Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg took Langelaan's story idea and from it created an original Screen Play.  As Interpretative Artist, David Cronenberg then took on the director's role to physicalise that work on the screen as a feature film.

Similarly, when Roman Polanski directed Macbeth,  he was not "re-making" the earlier Macbeth  directed by Orson Welles.  They were both, as Interpretative Artists directing William Shakespeare's Macbeth; Shakespeare being the original Creative Artist.

Although quite what creative role Gun van Sant thought he was performing by re-filming Psycho shot for shot but in colour - I have no idea!

As far as critical and academic evaluation  is concerned, character, storyline, plot, setting, themes, dialogue etc. are all exclusively contained within the Screen Play and are not created by what proceeds after that, irrespective of modifications that may take place during a physical production of that text.

 … and that should be evaluated in the same way as would the production of a play on stage.

The Correct Perspective

Stage Plays are written by Creative Artists for the stage.

They are then physicalised in a production on the stage by Interpretative Artists.  Each production will be a different "interpretation" of the Creative Artist's work. 

Screen Plays are written by Creative Artists for the screen.

They are then physicalised for production on the screen by Interpretative Artists.  Each production will be a different "interpretation" of the Creative Artist's work. 

The Director's Role:

For music:

Without a composer having written music, the conductor would simply be a person standing up there waving a baton about to little purpose before a bunch of instrumentalists who have no idea when or what to play. 

His appraisal is based upon how successfully he is able to physicalise that written music into actual sound so that it will stir our hearts and minds in the way the composer intended.

The conductor is responsible for the way we hear it but he did not create the score.

For the Theatre

Without the written stage play, the director is simply a person sitting staring to little purpose at a group of actors on an empty stage with no idea what to do or say.

His appraisal should be based upon how successfully he is able to physicalise that written word through the medium of Theatre: design, lighting, co-ordinating the actors speaking the dialogue etc. so that it will stir our hearts and minds in the way the dramatist intended.

The director is responsible for the way we see it but he did not create the stage play.

For the Screen

Without the written screen play, the director is simply a person pointing a camera to little purpose at a group of actors on an empty sound stage with no idea what to do or say.

His appraisal should be based upon how successfully he is able to physicalise that written word through the medium of film: camera angles, editing, co-ordinating the actors speaking the dialogue etc. so that it will stir our hearts and minds in the way the dramatist intended.

The director is responsible for the way we see it but he did not create the screen play.

In all three cases, the Interpretative Artist should be appraised only for the physicalisation of the Creative Artist's personal vision.  Not for the vision itself.


  • The creative impetus behind a drama written for the screen should be evaluated and assessed in an identical manner as that accorded the "dramatist" of a Stage Play.
  • Assign the creative original to the work's originator/s - the "dramatist".
  • Critical and academic appraisal of an artist and his/her work should now follow the same criteria as that of their counterparts in the Theatre when evaluating their creative work.
  • The completed Screen Play, like the Stage Play is the written word and, as such, the copyright should remain with the creative originator as it does with Stage Plays.   It is discrimination to exclude screen writing from copyright law that applies to all other forms of writing.
  • Like stage plays, screen plays should be licensed for production by companies in return for an agreed royalty.  Any monies paid up front being a non-returnable advance against those royalties. 
  • Copyright for the particular physicalised rendering of the licensed Screen Play would remain the property of the producing company. 
  • Rights to the original written Screen Play as the written word, however, would still remain with the "dramatist" and be available for further licencing to other companies wishing to produce it. 
  • As in the Theatre, were a company licensing the Screen Play for production then an agreed exclusive time-frame could be negotiated as a protection for production companies to avoid any sales conflict resultant from two or more produced versions appearing in the marketplace simultaneously.

I conclude by insisting it is finally time for auteur believers to let go of their creationist thinking and accept the Truth with a rational mind and evaluate those creative identities correctly for the real roles they play within the complex process of film-making.

I leave the last line to actor and dramatist, William Shakespeare (who better?):
"The play's the thing …"

… be it for the stage OR THE SCREEN.