The Duality of Indie Film Authorship

A quote from Jeff Nichols on collaborative filmmaking

Curator's Note

Three indie filmmakers had a very good year in 2016.  Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Damien Chazelle (La La Land), and Jeff Nichols (Moonlight Special, Loving) all received numerous accolades, critical acclaim, and in the case of the first two filmmakers, Academy Awards.  And yet, as much as we celebrate indie writer-directors as singular auteurs, many of them (including the three just mentioned) are slowly building collaborative filmmaking units of cast and crew members that continue to grow and solidify with each film.  These units bring their own specific set of talents to each film and make countless decisions that a writer-director realistically doesn't have the time to make.  We also can't ignore that these three writer-directors do, in fact, have their own unique style and personal vision for their films, as both writing and directing a film does realistically stake a larger claim of authorship in the finished piece.  This is what I refer to as the duality of indie film authorship, acknowledging a writer-director as a primary authority on an indie film, while also detailing the collaborative nature of indie filmmaking and the tendency for writer-directors to build filmmaking units that contribute their own style to the vision of the film. 

Thomas Schatz speaks to this duality with respect to the indie film movement of the 1990s and the success of indie writer-directors perpetuating this notion that indie cinema is a “fundamentally director-driven movement” that is “particular amenable to an auteur approach.”  Schatz warns of the perils of “dogmatic auteurism” and delineates these perils as “the failure to recognize the industrial context for its enabling as well as its constraining factors; the failure to adequately acknowledge the collaborative nature of feature filmmaking; and the failure to consider the complex ‘work flow’ in which certain individuals other than the director are vital creative contributors to successive stages of the filmmaking process.”  However, Schatz goes on to call the director the “primary authority” over everything from writing, production design, costumes, makeup, performances, sound, camera work, lighting, and other areas, adding that this “authorial designation [is] only if the director is actively involved in the writing stage and presides over pre- and post-production as well, thus maintaining creative control of the enterprise.”  

There is no doubt that, as writer-directors in charge of pre- and post-production such as the ones Schatz describes, Jenkins, Chazelle, and Nichols are the “primary authority” of their films.  But all three of these filmmakers also depend heavily on their growing units of cast and crew members to create their work.  Nichols brought 52 cast and crew members with him from Midnight Special to Loving.  Chazelle brought 56 with him from La La Land to First Man (2018). And Jenkins brought 25 with him from Moonlight to If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).  Considering the small budgets of these films and thus the smaller crews and contributors hired, these are relatively large filmmaking units. And yet despite the immense contributions of these growing filmmaking units, we can’t ignore that the writer-director’s vision is the consistent driving force behind all of it.  As the quotes by Schatz suggest, the duality of indie authorship is that working in conjunction with the “vital creative contributors” of the filmmaking unit is the “primary authority” of the writer-director “maintaining creative control of the enterprise.” 

As the “primary authority," indie writer-directors have also become the center of the media and critical discourse.  It can be argued that this selective attention with respect to indie auteurs has always been a part of the industry.  As Alisa Perren notes, “A key consequence of this heightened attention on a certain strand of ‘American indie auteurs’ was that critics, journalists, and industry executives began to conceptualize the low-budget film scene within ever-narrower terms.”  Perren also lays out how indie companies like Miramax relied on this strategy of marketing auteurs after theatrical disappointments like Reservoir Dogs (1992) caused it and other studios to acknowledge that “the director should have been foregrounded more extensively in the film’s marketing” and they should increase promotional press tours that present the director as the singular voice of the film.  Thus, while the concept of a duality of indie authorship between a “primary authority” writer-director and a filmmaking unit’s “vital creative contributors” may have emerged in academic scholarship, this nuance is largely missing from the output of indie film marketing departments and industry discourse.    

In fact, it can be argued that filmmakers that center their public discourse around collaborative filmmaking, as Jeff Nichols does, suffer the results from it with respect to industry recognition.  In interviews, Nichols says things like, “That’s how much I depend on these people,” “We’ve developed together,” “We’re getting better,” and “(I’m) locked with them.”  And while referring to his unit as “family” and saying things like, “My success is theirs” may sound like modesty, it’s important to note that both Nichols and his producer Sarah Green conceived of the need for a filmmaking unit from the beginning of their relationship and have gone about constructing it into a reality with each successive film. 

But has that mix of honesty and modesty helped or hurt Nichols?  He was largely excluded from the marketing blitz leading up to the 2017 motion picture awards season and wasn’t even nominated in the categories from which Jenkins and Chazelle took home Oscars. Whether these differences in reception between Nichols and filmmakers such as Jenkins and Chazelle are due to Nichol’s Southern aesthetic or the quiet nature of his films is impossible to know, but the differences may also be due to the fact that Nichols has always produced and promoted his films as a team effort. An interviewer once asked him, “So I take it you’re not out to build a brand as some kind of idiosyncratic indie auteur?”  Nichols responded saying, “Anyone who knows anything about making movies knows that that’s not how it works.” 

That may not be how it works, but that’s how indie films are still marketed, as the creation of a singular writer-director (and usually a man) with a vision, despite the contributions of the cast and crew.  Examining the contributions of these specific below-the-line crew members is something John T. Caldwell states is a way to ask “to what extent can ‘authorship,’ aesthetic ‘control,’ and ‘expressive creativity,’ be said to function below the level of management?”   Caldwell notes that while these crew members are indeed under director and producer oversight, “once production is underway, many of these same workers inevitably face many openings and gaps—unanticipated in the control schemes of producers and directors—into which they inject their own stylistic ideas and technical solutions as part of workplace habit.”  Thus, while the aesthetic and vision originates with the writer-director, the execution of this vision by the cast and crew members helps fill these gaps and shows how the duality of indie film authorship, which seemingly sounds like a contradiction, is the reality of indie filmmaking, where collaboration to realize a vision is paramount.   


Works Cited

Schatz, Thomas. "Film Industry Studies and Hollywood History." Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method (2009): 50.

Perren, Alisa. Indie Inc. University of Texas Press, 2012: 79 & 90.

Levine, Jonathan. “Episode 16: Midnight Special with Jeff Nichols And Jonathan Levine.” The Director’s Cut. Podcast audio. March 24, 2016.

LeRoy, Jason. “The Binge Interview: Jeff Nichols on ‘Midnight Special’.” The Binge Movie Podcast. Podcast audio, April 1st, 2016.

Yoshida, Emily. “Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols: ‘I think plot is very overrated’.”  The Verge. March 13th, 2016. Online.

Caldwell, John T.. “Authorship Below-the-Line.” Ed. Gray, Jonathan and Derek Johnson. A Companion to Media Authorship. John Wiley & Sons, 2013: 349.


Thank you for starting us off with this insightful post, Casey. As you indicate, the auteur framework has been perpetuated largely as a marketing strategy, and since (in these neoliberal times) it’s the brand called “you” rather than “them” that suits individualist ideologies and policies, it’s dismaying yet hardly surprising that the filmmakers who decline to be inscribed as solo auteurs are less successful.

In considering alternatives to this tendency of publicity campaigns’ valorizing (mostly white cishet male) individuals as indie auteurs, I was reminded of the all-women crew that writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones compiled for Band Aid (2017), which featured prominently in the film’s promotional discourse. While this sound bite-friendly strategy avoids the typical elision of below-the-line crew that Caldwell notes, and also encourages more gender-inclusive hiring in positions traditionally dominated by men, it may ultimately play back into solo auteur-worship by crediting (however deservedly) the progressive values and activist hiring practices onto the writer-director.

Hi Casey. Thanks for the super well articulated discussion about manufacturing the auteur. I am so reminded of how little people care, or can afford to care for anyone but a select few names in a production when the credits come up while I'm in a theatre and everyone just leaves. It's a shame, but I guess I also get it. Having a name, a short-hand for a style that's produced by, in actuality, more than that one name can encompass is just convenient... for marketing, for the consumer, for citations. 

The prestige or convenience behind having an auteur brand (as Maria above has called it) is also kind of present in the world of games. This week we got the latest game from the industry's biggest auteurs, with Death Stranding, a Hideo Kojima game. Auteurship in games is kind of uncommon, and maybe because games are so obviously (at least on the triple-A scale) an effort of many, many people, but also maybe because games have only just recently obtained some kind of prestige art status, and only in some circles of discourse. I see auteurship as mostly a marketing thing, like a way to orient expectations, or at worst just a certain signature on a bottle of wine meant to make it more pricey. Manufacturing an auteur brand with any game developer still has to contend with the fact that games don't have the artsy prestige of film, so branding Death Stranding as "A Hideo Kojima game" comes across as a little pandering, a little insecure? Small-teams or indie devs seem more likely to have auteurs emerge from them, but I don't know. I wonder if games will ever start manufacturing auteurs like film has. 

Thank you, Casey, for starting off this week's conversation with not only a solid reminder of the collaborative effort that goes into filmmaking, but a refresher of the complexities of both the "auteur" director persona and the "indie" production label, which even in the 1990s was already a muddied distinction. I have grappled with the marketing context of the director persona as auteur in my own work, but bringing the cast and crew as collaborators into the conversation is a necessary perspective! Although an ensemble cast and repeat castings can certainly sell a film, now I'm starting to wonder about the marketability of production teams. 

As I read your piece I kept thinking about Mark "Markiplier" Fischbach's newest endeavor, A Heist With Markiplier--A YouTube produced series that just came out at the end of last month. A video game reactor with an immensely popular YouTube channel (perhaps bridging the gap here between filmmaking and the game industry mentioned by Braden above), Mark has commented in interviews how the project depended on the collaborative process and efforts of his cast and crew (many of whom are fellow YouTubers or from the gaming industry). And yet the title bears his name, he is the star, he is the director and the writer, and part of his public narrative of the collaborative process is that his team trusted him implicitly throughout as the cretive core with the mantra "Mark knows." I've been mulling over A Heist for the past week (and also thoroughly enjoying it!), but your piece has helped reframe my thoughts. Thank you!

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.