Television’s Very Own Auteurs: Showrunners

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Part 1
by Diana Black

Television auteurs? Can that be? Doesn’t the medium of TV by its very nature force everything presented on it to be “collaborative,” with the collaboration totally controlled behind the scenes by TV executives?

And yet – does anyone remember a fellow by the name of Gene Roddenberry? He certainly ruled the original Star Trek with an iron fist. And what about Joss Whedon and his control over Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more importantly, the ultimate genre classic, Firefly?

Think about it. Both Star Trek and Firefly went ‘cult’ on a global scale. Star Trek has not only become deeply entrenched in pop culture over the last forty-five years, and the ‘Prime Directive’ is, according to Aaron Miller, recognizable in current US foreign policy.

Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma supports this view, reporting anecdotally that the ‘Prime Directive’ is informing policy on drone warfare. Firefly ‘speaks’ to a broad, multi-national demographic; peeved with Government bureaucracy and the malaise of mainstream the world over. Of course both fan bases also happen to like ripping good yarns and strong characterization.

Does the reverence with which Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon are held qualify them for ‘Auteur’ status? Are the tenets of ‘Auteur Theory’ demonstrated in their work? Gene probably wouldn’t give a damn about being labeled such and perhaps Mr. Whedon’s sense of professional accomplishment doesn’t rest solely on the reception of his work in that manner either. Both no doubt, were/are just pleased to be able to work and through their gifted and impassioned writing, make a difference.

So what constitutes an ‘Auteur’, ‘Auteur Theory’ and/or ‘Auteur-ship’? It might be useful to recall the elementary grammar exercise we all did as children when exploring ‘word families’; a useful skill when having to decipher unfamiliar text. ‘Auteur’ is French for ‘Author’ and originally associated with French Avant-garde film of the mid-twentieth century. Alexandre Austruc formulated the concept of ‘Auteur Theory’, in which the Director could and should wield the camera as the Writer does a pen. Shortly thereafter Francois Truffaut and colleagues took a poke at what they considered to be a conservative French film industry.

They, like all aspiring screenwriters were keen to ‘break in’ and make a difference. Truffaut & Co maintained that American cinema was the product of someone’s ‘unified, organizing vision’’ but this was in reference to the Director, not the Writer. In their view, a Director/Filmmaker such as Alfred Hitchcock for example, was an Auteur because he was able to rise above the constraints of an industrialized ‘Studio system’.

Review1-Firefly

Few would deny that Hitchcock placed an indelible ‘stamp’ on his films, making them instantly recognizable; not only in terms of the film narrative and/or genre choice but also in the manner in which the narrative was explored and presented – lighting, staging and editing etc. (Pearson and Simpson, 41- 42). After Truffaut, Andrew Sarris formulated a version of Auteur Theory for America via his text, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968.

This became an unofficial ‘bible’ of Auteurism, with an Auteur being a Director (not Screenwriter) who demonstrates competence and a recognizable style to his/her work which they can repeat time and again. Sarris was criticized as being elitist and subjective but it did ‘set the tone’ for the American film industry for quite some time thereafter. Doree Shafrir argued in 2006, “Why can’t a Screenwriter be an Auteur, too?” Good point don’t you think? But let’s back up a tad…

In 1965 Pauline Kael, a renowned film commentator, maintained that film critics in their blind loyalty to particular Directors, created the notion of ‘a film canon’ around these Director’s works; which of course only added to their status and clout in relation to the Studios. Sounds almost like ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and in a way it may well have been with the adoring insecure keen to be seen as ‘having seen’ (and loved) the Director’s latest film, regardless of its artistic merit.

This begs the question, “Are Auteurs self-made or manufactured by the viewer/s?” Is popularity analogous to ‘Auteur-ship’? Kael stated that the status associated with the ‘Auteur label’ for ‘Kings-in-waiting’ goes way beyond intellectual squabbling and garnering the popularity of the masses. When no one dares question a Director who is fast gaining or has gained the status of ‘Auteur’ that Director can make whatever film they bloody-well like.

While this might all sound rather ‘old-school’, the notion of Auteur, particularly in Europe, is not to be taken lightly. European Union Law considers the Director as being at least one of the authors, if not the primary author in terms of copyright…wtf? Hopefully writers in Europe are well paid for their original ‘blue-print’ – because in the eyes of the Court system, that’s all a screenplay is.

Those of us trying to break into feature film writing have been told ad nauseum that we are powerless, with the creative work we have slaved over for months if not years, merely a ‘blue-print’. We’re also told that the Director as a matter of course will ‘modify’ the original, quite possibly to such a degree that the we, as the original author, may not even recognize or want to be associated with it.

Coming into the ‘now’, should this notion of Auteur-ship be of any concern to us as aspiring television writers? Well yes, because it is all about power – who has it and how much. No matter how much we would like to think that we are the sole creator of our masterpiece, what comes to the screen – large or small, is only there because of collaboration and on behalf of many. Doree Safrir makes the point that a film is not a book and what we see and hear in front of us is the culmination of a team effort.

Our esteemed leader at the TVWriter™ helm, Larry Brody, seems to agree. However, he also raises a prickly question, “Do changes improve the piece and make it possible to be produced?” This is something we must come to terms with; the fact that writing a story is one thing, but writing a story that will sell, may be a different animal. How many of us write with the ‘business model’ firmly in our minds? By embracing the mighty dollar does it compromise our wondrous sense of creativity or, are we able to be highly creative and have a commercial ‘product’ in our hands? Well, I guess the onus is on us as writers to prove that we can demonstrate both.

In relation to ‘the suits’ whether we love them or hate them, they are essentially there to make money and not just for themselves; everyone involved stands to benefit if our television series is green-lit. However, just like their clients, ‘the suits’ are driven by fear; hence their paranoia over ratings and their desperate desire to garner advertising dollars.

It is generally and begrudgingly accepted that they do have a ‘Ferengi’ eye for business; except for when they stuff up and pull down a highly popular program who has the misfortune of being embraced by only a niche market… ‘Hell hath no fury…” I am sure none of us have to think too hard to recall a beloved program that’s been trashed; due to their lack of faith and foresight, not ours.

While television writers may enjoy substantially more control over their work than their feature film buddies, the manifestation of power via polite consultations with the Director of a particular episode, can only occur if the writer has been retained once the television series is green lit by the Studio Execs.

Even then, that level of clout will only get one so far. Both Star Trek and Firefly were cancelled by the suits. No one outside of the inner circle is likely to recall who those henchpersons were but we all know and love those who created these great Sci-Fi shows and it is these folk and the quiet achievers who provided them with the necessary logistical and creative support that we choose to remember.

Sadly ‘The Great Bird of the Galaxy’ is no longer with us but I am sure many would agree that the hallmark pertaining to Gene’s and Joss’s work is passionate and compelling writing as it is with any writer worth their salt. However, these guys did more than that; they took on the unenviable task of being the ‘go-between’ between the dreaded suits and the rest of the team and ‘running the show’ as bet they could. They are not the only brave stalwarts of TV Land – we now call them Showrunners.

To Be Continued!