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Who Is the Author of a Film?
Film Culture, No. 16, 1958, pp. 88-95.
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The identity of the true author of a film concerns the legislator and judge, for it is their professional duty to determine who is responsible for the content of a film, who has the right to decide what a film shall be like and what shall be done with it, and also who shall profit, and to what extent, from the money it earns. At the same time, the question arouses the passion of filmmakers and film theorists alike: the answer that is given to it clearly defines a person's attitude towards film production and film art.
Specifically the controversy boils down to two points. First, is the scriptwriter or the director to be considered the real author? Second, is a film, and indeed a work of art, the conception of only one individual, or can it — and perhaps, should it — spring from the cooperation of a group of workers?
A clear decision in the case of scriptwriter vs. director might be of considerable practical importance. When, for instance, a director feels free to revamp a script completely, he assumes that the director is the sole responsible author of a film. Objection to such a procedure on the part of the writer may be based on the contention that the director is a mere executor of this work of art, which had its true birth on a writing desk.
The latter view carries little weight today. It derives from the theater, where the director will put on the stage a work created by the playwright as the true author. A good stage director will help the work, a bad one will harm it, but in no case has the director anything essential or indispensable to add to the written play. To apply the same notion to the new technique of the film is wrong not only in a relative but also in an absolute sense. It is more than a matter of giving too little importance to the director: this view ignores basic differences between the theater and the film. The theatrical play is a work of art produced by a writer in one medium, namely, the literary word, and made visible and audible secondarily by means of two other media. The performance — if it has been competently directed — will modify, but not essentially change, the work of the writer. A film, on the other hand, is conceived from the outset in the visual medium (plus that of sound, in the case of the sound film) and can either be produced directly, without the aid of a script, in the studio or described film in words on paper, just as all other things of this world can be described on paper.
This more recent conception implies an exaltation of the director, and since attitudes tend to sway from one extreme to the other, the director was proclaimed dictator. He alone was said to be the author of the film. He alone was truly able to give cinematographic shape the subject matter. The scriptwriter — unknown to the public, underpaid by his employer, and manhandled by the director — found that even the theoreticians of film art treated him as a negligible quantity.
From the very beginning of motion pictures there are examples of the type of film that is a mere staging of something thought up and written down beforehand; and there are also examples of the opposite, the film derived spontaneously and without written preparation from what happens to be available in front of the camera. The first type is found most clearly in sound films, even in those of the early Nineteen Hundreds when opera arias were sung into the horn of a recording machine and then synchronized with appropriate pantomime. The more elaborate sound film of today resembles its lowly predecessor in that it is based on pre-existent sound, that is, written dialogue, which is performed on the sound stage by actors under the coaching of the director. In such cases, the writer's claim to authorship is well-founded — but then, are we dealing with a true film?
At the other extreme we find in the pioneer day the reporter-cinematographer, who takes pictures of whatever interesting things he can capture with his camera and afterwards assembles his material suitably, without ever having relied on a script. He is the grandfather of our newsreel producers and documentarists. There may be a script for such a documentary film, but it is essentially a working schedule. Often the theme and shape of the film will derive from the material that has been shot. Significantly enough, the term "director" hardly fits the documentarist if we think of a director as someone who uses actors to translate a script into pictures.
But even the narrative film cannot put up with a limited, theatrical conception of its maker. An illustration from the early years is afforded by Mack Sennett, who would gather his actors in front of the camera in order to think up for them and with them the cheerful "gags" that were the substance of his films. This procedure, which leaves room for a good deal of improvisation, is found also in the later masters of film comedy, notably Chaplin and Keaton, who invented plot and action for the characters they embodied. Today the tendency to draw the content of the film from the available performance material survives in the practice of planning a film for a particular actor or actress. The short dialogue films of Karl Valentin and Lisl Karlstadt, the Bavarian comedy team, derived from conversations between the two actors, which are reported to have usually started with the words: "Well, I am going to play a man and you play a woman!"
Pantomime and documentary films are prime examples of genuine film since they stem from the means of representation rather than merely transmit the content of a script. These authors are not writers; they are "organizers" — to use a characteristic term of the Russian filmmakers — of the material collected by and for the camera. The conception of authorship that is implied here gains weight as the artistic use of the camera and of montage increases the difference between what was acted out in front of the camera and what finally appears on the screen. The more definitely film shapes up as a distinct and integrated art form, the more tempting it is to suggest that the scriptwriter is nothing but a furnisher of raw material.
Discussions of this problem have often been misled by the understandable assumption that two different jobs, distinguished by the names of "scriptwriter" and "director," must stand for two different occupations; since the director is in charge of making the picture, the writer's task must he purely literary. Actually, there is no room for any un-filmic work in the creation of a film.
Even the very germ cell of a film, the elementary idea, must suit the medium. The particular human problem or setting that is chosen as the theme may also be suitable for a novel or a stage play, but it must contain filmic possibilities. A film biography of Immanuel Kant, for example, would be a poor idea from the start since the subject, while rich in thought material, is deficient in external events. From the beginning, the effort is filmic, not literary, although the preparatory ideas can be put down and worked out in writing. Even the so-called "treatment," which may use the technique of the literary narrative to present the content of the film, is not a short story or novella but a blocked-out film. The writer must conceive the story visually and in some detail. It would be a mistake to assume that there is a translation into the film medium beginning with the shooting script. The creative process in films is visual from the start although stages of increasing concreteness can be distinguished.
The use of typewriters, desks, and paper must not mislead us. It is only for technical reasons that the preparations for the studio work are done in writing. The early miniature movies could do without them whereas the technical, organizational, and also artistic complexity of a modern film required careful planning. The number of collaborators became larger and larger, a detailed estimate of the cost was necessary, memory could not retain all the data — hence the need for written outlines. The film manuscript developed as a strictly filmic part of the production process.
As long as scriptwriting is considered a literary occupation, its intimate relation to montage is hardly realized. Montage is no more a matter of scissors and celluloid than scriptwriting is one of words. Both operations refer, rather, to the same visual object: the moving picture on the screen. The true meaning of montage becomes clear only if the rough overall grouping of the subject matter as sketched in the "treatment" is considered a part of it. Montage is the combination of events that are not contiguous in space and time, and in this sense, even the scenario of a stage play involves montage. A good deal of the work involved in editing individual scenes is done already in the shooting script although the actual print may suggest certain changes and determine the precise rhythm of the sequence and the harmonious coordination of black-and-white values and movements. The main point to be made here is that the operation of montage does not suddenly start when the scissors go into action but determines the structure of the film throughout the preparation.
It appears then that the work of the scriptwriter and that of the director are actually the same even though the two individuals work with different tools. Would this not suggest that the work should be done by one person only, namely, by the director? Should he not write his own script? Indeed, this is a reasonable request, and we may want to know how the profession of the scriptwriter ever originated since the nature of the work does not seem to call for any splitting up of function.
In practice, few directors write their own scripts although the great masters are almost invariably among the exception: Chaplin, Stroheim, Eisenstein, Clair. And in general, the better directors will often collaborate on the script to some extent. Historically, the curious division of labor developed because the director could not quite live up to all the demand that faced a film-maker. To create a film meant to find a good story, to develop it according to the rules of dramatic art, to make the reactions of the characters psychologically accurate — Aristotelian tasks that were hard on the average director. He was a man who knew how to guide his actors or to select a suitable lighting scheme or to indicate an attractive perspective or movement; but more often than not he was basically a photographer tossed by circumstance upon the shores of dramatics. His education, his cultural level, and his human sensitivity were not such as to equip him for tasks requiring more than a mere familiarity with what the eye could see.
The thing to do was to call in the intellectuals, the literary men, experts of the theater, explorers of the soul, able verbalizers, and owner of large bookshelves that abounded with suitable novels and plays, not easily did these men of literature come to feel at home in the studios — it was safer, actually, to keep them out lest they notice in time the "slight changes" that had been made in their conceptions. Even so, they learned the métier and perfected the technique of scriptwriting. By working out shooting schedules that prescribed every move of camera and actor, they became concerned with the very heart of the filmic process. They anticipated the activities of the director and definitely had a share in the authorship. Hence the many frictions between writer and director.
Undoubtedly the author of the shooting script is, to a considerable extent, the author of the film. Sometimes the writer's contribution is less explicit: he may have made no more than an outline or may have even limited himself to suggesting a certain subject. But whatever his share, he partially creates the film, and there is no difference in principle between his work and that of the director.
It is desirable, however, to discourage the practice of having the shooting script written by someone who is not the director of the film. If a man can write a good shooting script, he is a visual artist, capable of learning how to direct a film successfully — he should be given access to the studio. On the other hand, a director who only knows how to execute the filming of a script and is incapable of inventing a film and giving shape to ideas is likely to be more of a routine technician than a creative artist, even in his specialty. In the interest of film art, the union of the scriptwriting and directing functions in a single person should be advocated. This does not preclude the use of specialists who would not interfere with the work of the creative film-maker but would serve, rather, in advisory capacities. An explorer or an author of stories about seafarers could help to provide accuracy and local color; a skillful playwright might assist the film-maker with the dialogue. Such collaborators could hardly claim a substantial share of the authorship but they would have well-defined tasks, not interfering with other men's work.
Even though the various creative tasks do not overlap, is it really possible for an artist to do his work in partnership with someone else? Here we touch upon the second fundamental question mentioned above — the controversy between the individualists and the collectivists. Individualists maintain that solitary creation is demanded by the very nature of the work of art, which undertakes to reveal the world from a new, personal perspective. Also the necessary unity may well be achieved only when all the work is done by one mind. Since every person, and particularly every artistically gifted person, looks at reality in his own way, what a babel of confusion would arise from the work of a group of collaborators! At best there would be a frustrating compromise. Those who hold the opposite view, the collectivists, point out that no effort of the mind is isolated and that the artist's withdrawal from the society of thought will result in his producing works that are of no interest to anybody but himself. Thus, some disputants call for the dictatorship of the director, while others recommend collective teamwork.
There is no point, however, in mechanically applying these philosophies of life to methods of film production. Instead we need to find out which method is best suited to the nature of the task. Practically speaking, almost every film requires the cooperation of many people, most of whom serve distinct functions. There is the producer, the director and scriptwriter, the actor, the cameraman, the set designer, the musician — to mention only the most important. Experience has shown again and again that such a group can work harmoniously. Indeed, the value of teamwork derives precisely from the difference of perspective that comes with the difference of function, as well as from the variety of personal temperaments and outlooks. If the partners are well-chosen, they may do truly unified work, just as two parents can successfully educate the same child. Only the atomistic thinking of the dogmatic individualist could deny that a new, homogeneous whole rather than compromising patchwork may be the result. As a necessary condition, however, there must be a clear distribution of functions, not the kind of ambiguity that characterizes the relation between scriptwriter and director.
It is a mistake, on the other hand, to believe that only teamwork will produce great art. Granted that a genuine artist draws his feeling and thinking from the community, but precisely because this is so, he need not do his work in actual cooperation with others. Who would deny that a novel written behind locked doors may express the attitude of an epoch to perfection, and that, conversely, a collective work produced by a group of extravagant "outsiders" may be most esoteric? Instead of judging the procedure by the number of participants, we need to realize that even the product of a large group of people may actually be the personal work of an autocratic director; and we should also recognize that there is a difference between decision by unanimous consent or majority rule and the kind of hierarchy in which free but responsible people form a pyramid of dependencies, thus providing unity of conception at the top and maximum use of contributions from the various levels of the structure.
Our conclusion seems to be that the question of who is the author of a film cannot be answered in the desirable apodictic fashion. There are films that are actually the work of one person alone, although dozens of helpers were employed. Other films have two, three, four or more authors, who contribute in varying proportion. We remember that there are operas whose authorship we ascribe to the composer alone because the libretto has all too little substance; yet, what would Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and Salome be without the words of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Oscar Wilde?
The perusal of Carl Mayer's shooting scripts for films which he did not direct shows that even then he often came close to being the real father of the film. There are films where any given actor's performance is not an essential component: in other cases, the personality of a performer is a central feature of the work. What would Chaplin's films be without the figure of Charlie, or The Blue Angel without Marlene Dietrich, or The Champ without Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper? In the German and French versions of Anna Christie, three of the leading parts were played by other actors and even the director was changed, yet the film remained more or less what it was in the original. But had Greta Garbo been replaced, it would have been a totally different film. In this case, therefore, we have indirect experimental proof that the leading actress was the main author of the film. (In the movies it is incorrect to consider the cast a secondary addition to the "play"; there is no play, only the performance, and the important question is who contributed what to it.)
What would The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari be without the set designers, Warm, Reimann, and Roehrig? Or Clair's A nous la liberté without the music of Georges Auric, or Lubitsch's The Love Parade without that of Victor Schertzinger? And did not a number of Paramount products acquire a family resemblance through the photography of cameraman Lee Gannes, although some of them were directed by Josef von Sternberg and others by Rouben Mamoulian?
Certain films resemble animals and plants in that they have only one father. Others have a more intricate genealogy — which may be deplored by devotees of tidy setups and welcomed by anybody who enjoys the natural splendor of manifold creation.
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