An Auteur DirectorMore than half a century ago, the legendary film director and critic Francois Truffaut put forth in the legendary Cahiers du Cinema an equally legendary claim—the auteur theory. There he hailed the film director as the auteur and film as the venue for personal ideas. The director, in other words, is the author of the film. S/he is the artist and the movie is the masterpiece.

Truffaut was promptly faced with innumerable protestations and refutations; one such criticism was that the auteur theory diminishes the role of the other people involved in the film production and instead salutes only the director. Despite these critiques, the audacious idea has persisted and in fact went on to shape contemporary cinema. Perhaps this is because, despite all the controversy it has sparked, the auteur theory is a truthful reflection of every filmmaker’s ardent, if not selfish, desire to claim a work as truly, wholly, and personally his or her own. One can’t argue with the truth, even when it is relentlessly self-seeking and harsh.

According to the film critic Andrew Sarris in his seminal work “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” three things make an auteur—technique, personal style, and interior meaning. First, the technical competence of a director is a film’s criterion of value. A director is expected to exhibit aptitude in terms of script, casting and acting, cinematography, editing, and costume and production design, among other things. Second, the distinguishable personality of the director is of utmost importance.

The film must bear his or her signature. This consistency of style in the way the film looks and moves, seen across his oeuvre, must be in some way linked to the director’s person—to the way s/he thinks and feels. The final criterion involves “interior meaning,” which Sarris proclaims as “the ultimate glory of cinema as an art.” This tension between the director’s personality and the medium is the movie’s soul.

The director, according to the auteur theory, is the key figure in filmmaking, and so to critique a film is to critique its maker. A movie is studied not as an isolated piece but as a part of its director’s body of work. Not every director, however, may be considered an auteur. Ann extensive oeuvre of films is not sufficient. Each of the movies must bear a unique signature—that distinctive mark that the work is truly, undeniably his or hers.

The creation of this signature stamp is a task that a filmmaker must not take lightly if s/he has desires of becoming an auteur. It is, after all, his identity. Accomplishing this task can happen in many ways, as a survey of two figures from the industry’s pantheon of auteurs, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen, will show:

1. Owning the look of the film. A filmmaker may create a signature around the movie’s aesthetics—from the production and costume design, the cinematography, even to seemingly insignificant details like the opening credits font. A fundamental aspect of Anderson’s signature is the singular and consistent style of his production and costume design.  Anderson’s choice to have his films, including Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), among others, never follow the fashion of any period provides them with a kind of timelessness. His highly symmetrical camerawork, as well as his constant use of the font Futura, so effectively bind his work that the very moment the opening credits flash on the screen, the audience right away knows that it is a Wes Anderson film. The same can be said of Allen, whose loyalty to the font Windsor in both the opening and closing credits as well as in promotional posters has made it an indelible part of his signature. The filmmaker, if he is to become an auteur, must own the look of his film.

2. Owning the sound of the film. Another way a filmmaker can create a signature is through the musical score. Here, Allen serves as a perfect example. He was very young when he fell in love with music, and he loved classical and jazz most of all. This inclination and aptitude for music is evident in the way he creates his films. According to Florence Colombani, in Masters of Cinema: Woody Allen, “Beyond his minor talent as an instrumentalist, Woody Allen is a musical filmmaker, who thinks of his films as melodies, with rhythm and feeling.”

In his movies, music plays an integral role in the storytelling. Each piece is chosen carefully and thoughtfully so that it will be in perfect harmony with the story, bringing it to life. In the opening scene of Manhattan (1979), for instance, when the black and white montage of Manhattan’s spots is shown alongside Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the city has never looked more vibrant and exuberant on film.

As with other aspects of the production process, Allen takes an active role in scoring his films. The signature Woody Allen movie music is reflective of his personal preferences and mostly consists of New Orleans jazz, ragtime, and classical pieces.

In the same way, Anderson’s eccentric personality as well as his predilection for the old and the new are evident in his movie’s music. His musical score fuses classics with up-and-coming artists, and constantly makes use of the music of Mark Mothersbaugh, a personal favorite. The filmmaker, to become an auteur, must inject his film’s music with his or her personality.

3. Owning the heart of the film. The movie’s characters and themes, of course, are the most important aspect of the auteur’s signature. The themes and characters s/he explores, first of all, must be consistent throughout the body of work. Second, and just as important, they must be reflective of the person.

The distinctive flavor of Anderson’s movies may be largely attributed to his unique personal history and preferences. The Royal Tenenbaums, for example, is peppered with his and co-writer Owen Wilson’s childhood stories: the divorce of Anderson’s parents, the time when Wilson shot his own brother with a pellet gun, a brother’s childhood excavation trip, and interesting people they knew in grade school.

The movie is weaved from strikingly diverse influences—Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), E.L. Konigsburg’s novel The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a 1978 tennis match, and personal anecdotes–and the result is a work of art. Wes Anderson, in his commentary on the film, said that when he began to make The Royal Tenenbaums, he began to make it as a New York film. Indeed, the movie is distinctively New York, with gypsy taxicabs, houses on the Upper East Side, and the Statue of Liberty.  But in the end, what he had on his hands was more than just New York—it was a New York that was truly his.

Allen’s films, likewise, draw from a common pool of themes that are heavily inspired by his personal history and passions. These themes of self-examination, love, death, women, magic, cinema and the blurring of reality with fiction, celebrity, literature, and New York permeate his films and create a cohesive and expansive body of work that is distinctly his. He has also, throughout the years, built a pool of stock characters that have become an integral part of his signature.

His characters are often highly educated, upper middle class Caucasians who are both able to fluently converse about philosophy, literature, and the arts and heavily reliant on their psychiatrists. Allen has exhibited such an impressive propensity for injecting his movies with his personality—his Jewishness and psychological issues, for starters—that his lead character has become inextricable with his real life persona. According to Maurice Yacowar in Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen, the audience is often convinced that the typical main character in a Woody Allen movie—a sexually inadequate, well read, insecure, clumsy, and stuttering Jew—is, in truth, the director himself.

If a filmmaker is to become an auteur, s/he must make his film his own. Innumerable ways to create a signature are available to a filmmaker. For the legendary Orson Welles, authorship was about involving yourself in virtually every aspect of film production, from scriptwriting and producing to directing and acting. Alfred Hitchcock’s signature involved making a cameo in every film and casting, more often than not, a blonde for a leading lady.

Christopher Nolan is fast developing a personal style that involves a preoccupation with the human subconscious, dream sequences, and dark and ominous cinematography. His films Memento (2009) and Inception (2010) are noticeably re-appropriations of the same theme. Mike Nichols’s films, on the other hand, are distinct for their opening sequences, which are a work of art unto themselves.

Finally, to become an auteur, the filmmaker must regard him- or herself as an artist. The trick is to believe that filmmaking, as in art, is not an overcrowded, disinterested industry, but a very personal and intimate arena of self-expression. The most important part of all is that a filmmaker has just this type of disposition.