Cinematic Discourse Notes 8:
Cinematic Authorship

A) Some basic points of observation

Authorship is one of the major problems in film studies and the analysis of cinematic discourse. As a contrast, it is not a major concern in linguistics and discourse analysis, except for forensic stylistics, where author identification is an important practical consideration.

Collective authorship

The concern with authorship in cinema studies often results in the interest in the nature of collective authorship, rather than a concern with single authorship, as the cinematic author is not a sole entity. Another way of looking at this is to say that authorship becomes a concern in cinema studies because it is a collective effort, unlike the single authorship of a good number of other texts.

Stages of authorship

The authorship of the cinematic text should be viewed in stages over a period of time. Film authorship should not be viewed as one undifferentiated whole which is unaffected by time. The respective contributions to the authorship of a film vary at different stages of its production. In general, it can be said that the individual is important in the early stages of filmmaking. The film may begin as a text written by a single author, for example, or the potential director or producer shows an interest in a particular story or topic. But in its later stages, filmmaking is more of a collective effort.

Authorship and language

Language is important in the early stages of filmmaking: the film may have its origin, for example, in a written text. In the later stages, language becomes less important. One pertinent question that should be asked here: should cinematic authorship be largely seen as an ultimately trans-linguistic phenomenon, as the importance of language is progressively reduced during the process of filmmaking? The reduction in the importance of language, and the concomitant enhancement of the visual dimension, can be contrasted to the performance of a dramatic production, where language remains relatively important.

Isn't the director the author?

One question that is often asked at the onset, in any discussion of cinematic authorship, is whether the director is the author. This is perhaps the most important question when considering cinematic authorship, and will discuss further later in this document.

B) Contrast with drama

The concept of the authorship of drama is relatively more straightforward than that of film. There is usually no split between the script writer and original author in drama, unlike the complex entity known as the cinematic text, which, if it is derived from another source, begins with a text written by its original author. For most dramatic performances, no full-fledged script writer is appointed, as the original playscript is used, and changes are directly made by the director, actors and other persons involved with the performance, without the need of a separate writer-intermediary. These changes may not even be written down, or if they are written at all, may appear in the form of rough notes.

Arguably, the director's contribution to authorship in a theatrical performance is usually not as great as the director's contribution to the authorship of a film. The director of a dramatic performance, unlike the director of a film, should be more cognizant of the original script, which may also be known by the audience. The screenplay of a film, as a contrast – which may be rather different from the original text that the film is based on – is almost invariably not known by the cinematic audience in advance of the commercial screening of the film.

However, there are some exceptions with regard to the reduced authorship of the theatrical director, as the director's authorship may be considerably enhanced in some forms of experimental theatre. An experimental theatrical performance may dispense with the script, hence the ‘author’ of the dramatic text is not there to begin with, consequently enhancing the authorship role of the director and the other persons involved with the dramatic production. However, it should be noted that the increased audience involvement in experimental theatre may result in the audience ‘authoring’ the performance as well, thus reducing the authorship role of the director, in spite of the fact that the ‘author’ of the dramatic text  may be absent. Experimental theatre can be compared to experimental cinema, some examples of which also dispense with the script. But it should be noted that due to the nature of the medium, the audience of an experimental film cannot ‘author’ the film in the way that the audience of some forms of experimental theatre can.

C) The original author

Authorship can be traced back to the time before the movie is produced. The original author usually does not know that a film will be made out of his or her original work. Except for films based on other films, different media are used. Because of the different media being used, there are bound to be differences between the sources and their realisations as films.

D) Script writer as author

The script certainly has a more direct contribution to the movie than the work of the original author. However, there are various interventions on the script before the final realisation of the film. Also, for works based on other sources, the original authors may be more ‘authorial’ than the script writers, as some of these works are well known, and it is difficult for the films to deviate too much from their sources. But there are exceptions to this, such as Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, where there are a number of directorial and other interventions on the script, thus eroding Shakespeare's ‘authoriality’. But this does not leave the authority of the script writers intact, as the director has made several changes to the script, thus reducing their authorship, although it must be noted that Luhrman himself was one of the script writers, thus blurring the distinction between script writer and director.

E) Director as author

The director is usually given importance as the voice or ideological centre of a film, in spite of several factors intervening to prevent the director from being a straightforward ‘author’.

Some directors resort to watermarking their films, such as Hitchcock, who appears in most of his movies. But this may be a superficial attempt at watermarking or rubber-stamping one's films with an ‘authorial’ mark. Indeed, there are more profound indicators of Hitchcock's authorship, such as his style, or more specifically, the creation of suspense in his movies, amongst a number of other important considerations. The changes brought about by the director to the script, mentioned in the previous section,  may be a more substantial attempt at ‘authoring’

But does the view that the director is the author only apply to major, ‘good’ or highly regarded directors? Some minor directors' films may be mechanically or perfunctorily realised. So the director's vision in each film may not be realised, if at all, or, at best, it is poorly realised. It has been noted that ‘A good director makes sure that all parts of a film are creatively produced and brought together in a single totality’. This ‘single totality’ may elude a minor director, or indeed, this may also be true of major directors who perform below form for some of their movies. In this regard, the director's aesthetic intent or vision is a variable factor from film to film. So the degree of the director's authorship may not be constant in all his films.

It may be argued that the claim that the director is an author depends on the director's personality. The more authoritarian the director is, the more of an ‘author’ he is. Thus a strong-willed director may achieve greater control over the film, and hence the film will bear the director's mark. But this is more complex than simple dictatorial control, which may perhaps be best put by Roman Polanski (cited in ‘The Film Director’ article on FilmMakers.com):

Directors are like generals, political dictators, aggressive people. You don't have to be aggressive in a malevolent way, in a hostile, disagreeable way. Actually, you have to be the opposite way. You have to be a real leader. That's to say that you have to let those who are doing their work do their work. You are a guide, and you're a 'tell-it-to,' and you're a prophet, and you're a boss, and you're a slave, and, in the end, it's your fault. And everyone in the film is always grateful if you tell them what to do.

However, some directors, such as Wong Kar Wai and Spike Lee give more leeway to their actors and other film crew members to improvise and to give suggestions, but most of their films do not lack their authorial stamp.

It should be mentioned here that there is historical variability in the extent of the director's control over what he or she wants to do, which may have an effect on the extent of his or her authorship. In Hollywood, the studio system became more important in 1924, and it is generally acknowledged that directors in America had greater control over their films before 1924. The studio system was dominant until well into the 50s. In more recent times, independent film companies allow their directors greater control over what they want to make.`

F) The auteur

The idea of the director's authorship is given greater impetus with the concept of the auteur. The term auteur was introduced in the 1950s by some French critics associated with the journal Cahier du cinéma. The French critics who introduced the term believed that auterism was quite widespread, and not just limited to art film directors.

However, not every film director can qualify as an auteur. To be recognised as an auteur, a director must be able to stamp his vision on his works, and there must be some stylistic and thematic links between them. Another question, whether only dictatorial directors are auteurs, has, in a sense, been dealt with in the previous section, although we looked at the question of authorship instead of auteurship. In spite of the fact that these are not the same question, we can say that some directors do not, or do not want to, assert full control over their films, but they still qualify as auteurs. The directors mentioned in the previous section, Wong Kar Wai and Spike Lee – although too young to be called auteurs by the original writers of Cahier du cinéma – could easily be described as auteurs, even if they frequently relax their control during the process of filmmaking.

Another factor that needs to be mentioned here is that the auteur's vision may not always be fully realised. There may be a falling off in some of his works. A director is usually considered an auteur on the basis of some, not all, his films. The team involved, which usually differs from film to film, may help or hinder the realisation of the auteur's vision. One thinks of the collaboration between the cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar Wai here: that many of Wong's films have his own personal stamp because of Doyle's contribution, to the extent that the question can be asked ‘whether Wong Kar Wai is still Wong Kar Wai without Christopher Doyle’.

G) The cinematographer as author

The cinematographer has a definite bearing on cinema. Without the cinematographer, there is no film. However, the importance of the cinematographer is relatively overlooked in the history of film and in discussions on film in general. The cinematographer is clearly important in the presentation of the visual aspects of film. In this light, the cinematographer has an important contribution to make to Metz's conception of image discourse, which is one way by which we perceive the discourse of cinema in visual terms. Nonetheless, the cinematographer does not have complete control over the visual aspects of filmmaking, as the scenographer contributes as well, and the director, through storyboarding, may visualise some of the scenes in a film for the cinematographer.

The cinematographer's work is not only restricted to the visual non-linguistic aspects, as spoken language and the response to it are also presented visually. How these are to be shown in the film, in order for the speech to be well contextualised and comprehensible, rely quite a lot on the expertise of the cinematographer.

With reference to cinematography, it must be noted that the cinematographer does not work alone. This complicates the notion of the cinematographic ‘author’, as the cinematographer is not a single person, but works in a team. There is also a certain level of anonymity and diffuseness in the attribution of cinematographic authorship, as not everyone in the cinematographic team is acknowledged or even named, and even if all of them are named, how each contributes to the film remains largely unspecified.

H) The editor

Part of the artistry of film depends on editing. Most so-called 'camera tricks' have more to do with editing than with what is taken directly by the camera. Editing tricks – such as sequencing shots taken at different times, in order for an action to appear continuous – could be found even in the early history of cinema. Slow and fast motion photography are also done by the editor. Montage effects, such as cross-cutting between two different locations in the narrative discourse of the film, are also created by the editor.

Unlike cinematography, only one editor does much of the job in most feature films. If other people help the editor, they are, more often than not, involved in mechanical tasks, after the editing decisions have been made by the editor. However, editing is still a shared responsibility that goes through more than one stage, with the role of the editor being increasingly lessened in the later stages (cf. the decreasing role of the individual in the later stages of filmmaking above).

For most feature films, the first task of the editor is to assemble what is called the editor's cut. The editor does much, if not all, of the work at this stage, with minimal inputs from the director. This is followed by the director's cut, where the director gives more of his or her inputs for the final product. Among the inputs given to the editor here, are the extent that the editor's cut is acceptable, and what should be included, excluded, and how the various parts of the film are to be assembled. This is followed by the final cut. For some film directors – prestigious or artistically respected film directors who are described as having final-cut privilege – the final cut is tantamount to the finalised version of the director's cut. But for other film directors, there are other inputs from the producers and production companies, before the final cut is arrived at.

Thus editing is finally a rather diffused task with inputs from several persons, even if only one editor is officially appointed. We can also see that artistically respected directors have more say in the final cut, thus enhancing their contribution to the authorship of the films they direct.

I) Actors as authors

Cinematic actors appear to perform a more authorial role than theatrical actors, as they are frequently the only actors who perform their roles as these characters (see relationship of characterisation and acting in Notes 9). Some stars, such as John Wayne, have an authorial stamp on the films they appear in, as viewers expect them to behave in a certain way in all their films, thus partially determining or predetermining what each film is about.

Some actors have a say in the script. Orson Welles' lines in The Third Man may be a famous example of an actor contributing his own lines to the film, but some actors' contribution to films may be more extensive. In addition to Wong Kar-Wai and Spike Lee, mentioned in the section on Director as author above, Ingmar Bergman increasingly allowed his actors to improvise in his later films, a practice which is also adopted by Woody Allen in his later films.

J) The producer

The producer adds to the complication in the attribution of cinematic authorship. The producer is usually entrusted with the employment or deployment of various people who are involved in a cinematic project. These people, of course, in various ways and in varying degrees, contribute to the 'authoring' of the film, but they would not be able to contribute to the film without the prior involvement of the producer. The producer is also generally involved with the equipment, sets, materials etc. for a film, based on a given or projected budget. Just like the people involved, these factors will determine how the film is made, which translates to how the film is, or can be, ‘authored’. The producer sees the film through to its final stages. He, or his team, may be responsible for the film as a final product:. They may continue working after everyone else has finished working, for example, editing or re-editing the film to make it more commercially viable.

K) Commercial considerations and authorship

Commercial considerations are important in cinema, and cannot be neglected. These considerations have an impact on film direction. In this regard, directing does not operate in a financial vacuum, and the salability of the final product is usually an important factor. With commercial considerations in mind, the producer assesses the commercial viability of a cinematic project throughout its production lifespan.

But one question that needs to be asked here is whether commercial considerations can work in coordination with the aesthetic aspects of the film. There have been producers who are aware of aesthetic considerations. But this is in more recent times, and this is partly due to an increasingly sophisticated audience with an interest in the aesthetic aspects of cinema, which producers have to take into account. In this connection, it must also be mentioned that film awards, which are at least partly based on aesthetic criteria, may have an effect on commercial success

Although commercial considerations cannot be described as directly ‘authoring’ a film, it has an influence  – as embodied by the audience and their wallets – on the authorship of most films.

L) Back to the director

The best candidate for authorship still remains the director. Some directors are also the scriptwriter, editor, actor or producer, thus increasing his or her control over the film. Even if the director does not perform any other role in the filmmaking process, he or she is still dominant.

Nevertheless, commercial considerations usually have an impact on the director's vision in the final product. The director's authorial claim to the film is thus lessened. In spite of this, the director of a highly regarded movie may eventually have the final say, many years later, with the marketing of the director's cut of the film, which allows the director to re-assert his control over the film, overriding the interventions of the producer and the production company in the earlier more commercial version of the film.

But still, the director as author does not give us a complete picture of the authorship of films. The director's authorship is certainly not as complete as that of the writer of novels, whose control over the text is more comprehensive.

M) The collective author

We must thus go back to the collective author, as we can't remain with the director alone when it comes to the authorship of films. However, the collective author is not a stable concept. The extent of the contribution of each 'author' is different from film to film, even if the director and some of the crew members remain the same.

Among the terms used for the collective author is that of the grand imagier who controls what we see in a film. The term grand imagier, which was introduced by Albert Laffay and promoted by Metz, may be useful, as it concentrates on the visual aspect of film making. However, the linguistic aspect of authorship is still quite important, but appears to be left out in this concept.

The success of teamwork in the making of a film may not be entirely conscious and controlled, but may depend on luck. It is therefore not easy to pin down. Teamwork may also be systemic, or what Bazin calls ‘the genius of the system’. This idea may make the collective author appear more organised, but it does not make it easier to pin down.

N) Poststructuralism and deconstruction

Pertinent to the question of authorship is the disappearance of the subject in poststructuralism and deconstruction (cf. NT 1.15). Perhaps ‘disappearance’ is not the appropriate word here, as the subject isn't even there to begin with. The non-existence of the subject also means that the author isn't there, or is an inconsequential entity, a mere historical factor; the Foucauldian subject becomes a function that can be filled in by various individuals, so long as they fulfill certain conditions, and the author may not even needed. One important question to ask: why should we look for authorship in cinema when it is less of a consideration in the intellectual climate today?


Much of these notes are a variation of 11.15–11.19 of Chapter 11 of NT. You may want to refer to these sections of the chapter to get different or extra insights.

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Last revised: 20 October 2018.