With James Cameron’s Avatar shouldering aside George Lucas’s original Star Wars and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for second place on the all time movie box office rankings (behind only Cameron’s own Titanic), it’s a good time to note one of the odder twists in the evolution of popular film culture: the rise of the self-proclaimed do-it-all writer-director-producer.
Of the last thirty Best Picture nominees (2003-2008), ten had directors who also took screenwriting credits (including George Clooney for Good Night and Good Luck).
And of the top 30 box office hits of all time—a list dominated by recent films due to inflation—the director has also served double-duty as a screenwriter on 16.
The growing allure of the writer-director extends even to Lucas and Cameron, both of whom seem more intrigued by technological innovation than by fine-tuning dialogue. Lucas is notoriously tin-eared, while Cameron abstains from originality in plot and dialogue to—as he explains it—avoid confusing the audience.
After triumphing as the sole writer-director on the original Star Wars in 1977, Lucas took a public role for his 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back more like hypomanic producer David O. Selznick’s on 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Lucas handed the screenwriting credits to old-timer Leigh Brackett and young gun Lawrence Kasdan, and the directing credit to Irvin Kershner. Is it surprising that The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best of the five follow-ups?
Yet, when Lucas returned in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, the spirit of the age encouraged him to take sole credits for both writing and directing. And it showed.
Still, The Phantom Menace made plenty of money. People like the idea of the embattled genius coming back after 16 years away (or 12 years in Cameron’s case) with his deeply personal revelation. Ironically, a variant of the auteur theory—that dauntingly intellectual Parisian rewrite of Hollywood history intended to establish the primacy of the director as the “author” of the film at the expense of the actors, screenwriter, producer, and the rest of the crew—is becoming the standard way to make crowd-pleasing popcorn movies. The public adores identifying with megalomaniac filmmakers.