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The risks and rewards of 'auteur' filmmaking

November 29, 2012|By Randee Dawn
  • Films like "Arbitrage," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Cloud Atlas" were both written and directed by the same person, a.k.a the auteur approach to filmmaking.
Films like "Arbitrage," "Beasts of the Southern Wild"… (AP / Fox Searchlight / Warner…)

Nicholas Jarecki was in trouble: He couldn't come up with the perfect line for Susan Sarandon to say to Richard Gere for a particular scene in "Arbitrage." He needed a catchphrase a business tycoon would have invented. But as a film writer and director (and producer), rather than a tycoon, he just didn't have it.

But he did have his actors. "What takes me a week alone in a dark room can be built in an hour by an actor," he says. "I had all this garbage, trying to come up with that line — 'confidence equals contracts' — and I said, 'Susan, can you come up with something?' And boom: She had it, and it's in."

Going out on a limb as a writer-director — otherwise known as the auteur approach to filmmaking — is a risk. Many combo writer-directors couldn't imagine doing it differently — Benh Zeitlin, who adapted Lucy Alibar's play to make "Beasts of the Southern Wild" for the screen went the auteur route for his first film, noting, "Words and visuals to me are so connected it would be hard to do a movie any other way. I couldn't imagine making a film I didn't write."

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Veterans such as Michael Haneke ("Amour") have spent virtually their entire career as auteur. "The professional director is sometimes overvalued," Haneke said through a translator. "If you're a director for hire, working on other people's screenplays, you're sometimes forced to work on projects that don't touch you personally."

The auteur may be most closely identified with European cinema, but the writer-director has made strides into American filmmaking as well, particularly during awards season, when tent poles are replaced by smaller, more intimate films. (Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" is a rare example of a film that is both blockbuster and written and directed by the same person.)

But it's not easy: Jarecki had challenges with getting investors to sign on to "Arbitrage," and an agent refused to represent him after being shown the script as a writing sample. But not all writer-directors face such obstacles. Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," adapted from the book he also wrote. He wrote three drafts, and, he says, got lucky, swearing that distributor Summit Entertainment "never gave me a single script note."

Not that the shoot was problem-free: "There were times I wish there was someone who knew the story as well as I did, because it got exhausting," he says. But he's hooked on the process: "Now all I want to do is write books and make movies of them."

A deep, personal connection to the story is often a driver behind writers wanting to direct their own material. David Chase drew on some personal memories for his feature debut, "Not Fade Away," and says his TV career with "The Sopranos" molded his future directing choices. "I just evolved into the kind of filmmaker who wants to do his own creations. I feel like I can inhabit them better than with other peoples' ideas. It's a fictional universe that's all mine, for better or worse."

"Silver Linings Playbook" writer-director David O. Russell tried being a writer for hire, but though he got meetings for his "political horror movie," he got no commitments until he changed tack. "When I wrote something really personal, people sat up and paid attention, he said. " 'Spanking the Monkey' and 'Flirting With Disaster' [both of which he wrote and directed] only clicked because it was like, 'These are my Bronx relatives.' You dial into the music of the people. That taught me a lesson: The more personal you can make it, the better it is going to be. Do it like you mean it. Bleed a little."

And in the process of bloodletting, do as Jarecki learned — rely on the resources you do have, like actors. Wes Anderson writes and directs his own films (collaborating often with Roman Coppola, as on "Moonrise Kingdom") and sometimes directly with actors (Coppola, Anderson and star Jason Schwartzman co-wrote 2007's "The Darjeeling Limited").

"I like to have a collaborator in making the script," Anderson says. "I usually have more fun making up a story with someone who's invested in it with me."

Siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski invited Tom Tykwer in on their writing-directing partnership for "Cloud Atlas," and, with all three on board, seemed to have supersized the auteur concept. They got into one another's heads and say the whole process of who did what segment of the film is a bit blurry now.

"Directing doesn't start when you start filming," says Tykwer. "It's about choosing the scenes and writing the page and choosing the design — that was all three of us on every part of that, not even thinking about who was ultimately going to shoot. And it gets muddled in my memory who shot what."

"With one director, you have a monologue, and that monologue is in his own head," says Andy Wachowski. "That process is a dialogue with me and Lana; it's externalized. It became much more of an easy experience to then have Tom join the conversation — it was fairly natural to us."

In the end, those who go the auteur route often find it hard to shift into any other gear. Like "Wallflower's" Chbosky, Jarecki says he's been spoiled for any future films after "Arbitrage."

"Writing was a way to become a director initially," he says. "Now that I've started doing it, though, it's the crack pipe. I've got to do it. I don't have a choice."

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