“In France, there is a tradition for one person to be both the writer and director,” says French writer-director Florian Zeller, whose drama “The Father” releases from Sony Pictures Classics this week. “It’s not always for the best. But for ‘The Father,’ it was not possible for me not to be the director of that story.”
Auteurism, in which a film’s director and writer are the same person, is no longer just a French thing. For years, award season has brought on prestige picture after prestige picture full of auteurs. Along with Zeller, this season includes Julie Taymor (“The Glorias”), Alan Ball (“Uncle Frank”), Charlie Kaufman (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), Francis Lee (“Ammonite”), Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”), Paul Greengrass (“News of the World”) and Armando Iannucci (“The Personal History of David Copperfield”). Some wrote original scripts, some worked with adaptations, but all are clear: They just had to be the ones to tell the story.
“The first thing I ever wrote was something someone else directed, and that experience taught me I had a set way of seeing my work and how I wanted to visualize it,” says Lee. “At that point, I thought, ‘You’re going to have to write and direct your own stuff; that’s the only way you’ll have a singular viewpoint in there.’”
It’s not unusual for lauded screenwriters to jump the fence into directing their own work, because — unlike Lee, who has been able to direct and write his first two feature films — they needed more industry traction before they could be trusted to helm a film. Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in 2005 and has directed three feature films (which he also wrote) since then, including “Ending Things.”
“There was no chance when I wrote my first screenplay that anyone would let me direct it, and that was reasonable,” says Kaufman. “Now, I know what I want and what I’m thinking by the time I direct a movie, so I’m confident I can answer questions with authority.”
For Taymor, her multilayered “Glorias” script, which she says had to be “visual and cinematic,” required someone who could imagine a device or leitmotif in the script, then carry it to conclusion. “As a director, it’s important to not just conceive of these ideas, but understand how they weave throughout a story seamlessly.”
Ball also picked up a 1999 Oscar for his “American Beauty” script, and “Frank” is his latest directing effort, this time considered a television movie on Amazon. But before that Oscar, his contributions post-scriptwriting were not exactly encouraged. “Twenty years ago, when ‘American Beauty’ happened, one thing I requested when we sold the script was to be on the set,” he says. “It was a great experience for me to be there — but if I’d had different ideas about what should be going on in the set, I’d have been banned.”
As it turns out, auteurs have also managed to take over at the Academy Awards, at least when it comes to the screenwriting categories. The last non-directing, solo screenwriter to win an original-screenplay Oscar was David Seidler for “The King’s Speech” in 2010; ever since then, every Oscar given in the category has at least partially been credited to the director. Adapted-screenplay writers fare better, but the last solo non-directing adapted-screenplay writer to win an Oscar was in 2014, when Graham Moore won for “The Imitation Game.” Had Kaufman and Ball been submitting solo scripts after 2010 that they didn’t direct, it’s unlikely they’d have earned Oscars.
But directors — even those heavily involved with writing their own scripts — recognize the importance of having independent voices, whether it’s those of writers or other crew. Reichardt’s “Cow” is based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel by the same name, and the two are friends and neighbors who are in “constant conversation,” she says.
“My filmmaking is better from working with writers,” she says. “I look at my first screenplay and think, ‘I wish I had a writer on it.’”
“Sometimes you want a writing partner when you direct,” agrees Greengrass. “You yearn for that cross-fertilization, because sometimes it takes you to a better place. A director may need someone to articulate what is un-articulatable for them.”
Yet the way the system is organized, while directors may piggyback on scripts they’ve adjusted in the collaboration with their writers, those who write the scripts do not have the option for a “codirecting” credit. The reasons are wide and varied, but it means non-directing writers rarely get to lay full claim to their own categories any more.
Part of it is that separating a finished film from its script — or expecting all voters to read a script and watch the film — are real challenges. “It’s hard for academy members to see through to a good screenplay if the film wasn’t good,” Taymor says.
“I don’t think that the Academy Award determines what’s a good screenplay,” adds Kaufman. “Their track record is fairly dismal. I read somewhere that the writing screenplay award in the academy is an also-ran, like, the film is critically well-received but they’re not going to give the award to them.”
Is any of this fair? Probably as fair as anything is in the highly subjective awards season world.
“Film is still very much a director-led form,” says Iannucci, who acknowledges it takes a village to make a film, no matter who gets the top-line credit. “That’s one of the reasons I love it. But directors are like orchestral conductors. I always think, ‘Why is his face on the front of the CD?’ You’re not listening to him; you’re listening to the 150 other people sitting behind him.”