Does the auteur theory hold in the era of big television?
The reality of creative control is increasingly muddy in what is a large team sport
The Wizard of Oz: an authorless masterpiece. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty
Because we now live in the Age of Perpetual Anniversaries, prepare to be bombarded in a couple of weeks’ time by articles noting the fact that it’s been 80 years since the release of The Wizard of Oz. It’s not the worst cultural milestone to mark; the vivid 1939 musical version of Frank L Baum’s book offers rich pickings: Judy Garland! Flying monkeys! Munchkins! As a cultural artefact it echoes down the years with more resonance than many of its contemporaries from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, like the now almost unwatchable Gone with the Wind.
Who actually made The Wizard of Oz? It is, to a large degree, an authorless masterpiece. Or at least, it’s certainly not the product of a single creative mind. Victor Fleming, the credited director, came in late and left early (to salvage the aforementioned Gone with the Wind). The fingerprints of MGM’s head of production, Mervyn LeRoy, producer Alan Freed, a dozen or more screenwriters and three other directors (King Vidor, Richard Thorpe and Norman Taurog) can all be discerned. It is, essentially, a product of the studio system in its pomp.
When a cabal of young French film theorists developed the auteur theory in the 1950s, they argued that a range of directors, working within that studio system in genres including the western, the gangster movie and the female melodrama, had managed to circumvent its limitations by investing the films they made with their own unique aesthetic and thematic concerns, raising them to the status of true art.
The template was set for a shorthand, used to this day, about how the creative process works, a dialectic between film-making as the creative vision of one person (the director), and as industrial product, honed for maximum commercial return within a corporate structure (represented often by the producer). It was always a grossly simplified version of a highly fluid set of relationships, but it continues to have its uses. But the implications for the current Golden Age of Television are still being teased out.
Last week as the second series of HBO’s Big Little Lies approached its finale, a story broke about the treatment of series director Andrea Arnold. The British director of critically acclaimed independent films such as Red Road and American Honey had been brought in to take over from Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of the first series. If the report is to be believed, Arnold was informed at the end of principal photography that her services would not be required in post-production. Adding further insult to injury, she had to carry out 17 days of reshoots and pick-ups under the instruction of Vallée.
The story of a director being brutally removed from a project is hardly new – although this one has some very contemporary gender politics baked in. But it does raise the question of where the auteur theory stands in the era of big television. On the small screen, the director has rarely been the main creative force. That role has been taken by, at different times and in different contexts, the writer, the producer and, these days, the showrunner. Elsewhere in today’s Ticket, Brad Pitt tells Donald Clarke that the upside of the new streaming industry “is more interesting directors, writers and actors”. Perhaps, although the sheer practicalities of filming long-form episodic drama mean that directing becomes a team endeavour, leaving overall creative control in other hands.
Responding to the controversy over Arnold’s treatment, HBO programming head Casey Bloys said: “As anybody who works in television knows, a director typically doesn’t have final creative control. So the idea that creative control was taken from the director is just a false premise.”
With commercial cinema increasingly dominated by long-running franchises with interchangeable directors, and episodic television hoovering up more and more of the talent, directors may be starting to feel they’re not in Kansas any more.