Chloe Sevigny is doing the rounds for her new movie, Love & Friendship, and while promoting it she gave an interview to The Guardian in which she says that working with auteurs has given her “a total disdain for directors” that is “very strong, very deep”. “Auteur” is one of those words—like “gritty”—that has almost lost all meaning because of overuse. Originally it described filmmakers who managed to put a singular stamp on works produced in the restrictive Old Hollywood studio system, like Howard Hawks and Orson Welles. Then for a minute it described visionaries like Jean Renoir and Francis Ford Coppola, people reimagining the boundaries and limits of film and producing singular visions out of it. Now it’s just any director you can identify by a signature move—Michael Bay and his 360-degree pans, or Paul Greengrass and shaky cam.
Yet the more that word has gotten tossed around, the more revered auteurs have become. Directors with “vision” get away with a ton of bad behavior—look no further than Alejandro González Iñárritu and the notoriously sh*tty experience of shooting The Revenant. There was no f*cking reason for that production to be such a nightmare, except that AIG was chasing his vision and damn the consequences—and he’s REALLY lucky there weren’t any serious consequences.
What Sevigny is getting at, though, is the sort of toxic atmosphere that can—not always, but more than anyone likes to think about—arise on a set run by an unchecked director. (The writer of the article, Xan Brooks, calls them “tinpot dictators”.) Duana recently referred to Woody Allen’s treatment of Kristen Stewart on Café Society as “negging”, but honestly, that’s mild, and actors are rarely the worst treated people on a set. If Allen is treating his leading lady that way, imagine how he’s treating the fifth assistant on the production staff who might happen to be a twenty-two-year-old nobody fresh out of film school, excited to have her first real job in the industry. (Here’s a horror story for you.)
Sevigny’s comments expose the side of the women in film discussion we’re not really having. It’s not enough to create more opportunities for women in film—we also have to make film an industry that is welcoming to women, and all other minorities. One way we can do that is by not mistaking egomaniacal artists for auteurs. Being talented isn’t the same thing as being good at your job. Talented directors are plentiful, but good ones are rarer. (The best director I’ve seen up close was extremely patient and never lost his cool no matter what went wrong, and he was unfailingly kind to everyone on set. I’ve been cheerleading him pretty hard recently—Taika Waititi.)
Another is to include dialogue about the working conditions on film sets and in production offices when we talk about obtaining equality in film. Equal pay and better representation are just part of the conversation—respectful, safe work environments is another. That tone is set by the director, the person charged with leading a staff of hundreds through a technically challenging job. But the way the system works now, you just have to cross your fingers and hope you’re working with one of the good ones, because there’s very little in the way of recourse for a bad situation on set. “Suck it up,” is the most common advice given, whether what you’re expected to “suck up” is mild verbal abuse or blatant, aggressive sexual harassment. And Sevigny must already be feeling a pinch from that system because she’s on Instagram making up to directors.
Good directors know it takes maximum effort from every single person, no matter how lowly, to accomplish their goal, and they don’t put their vision above their leadership. They don’t berate and belittle, they communicate. A good director is like an enthusiastic camp counselor, making sure everyone is having a good time while still sticking to a schedule and ensuring no one has drowned in the lake that day. It sounds like Chloe Sevigny has worked with a lot of talented directors, but maybe not so many good ones.
Attached - Chloe in Cannes this week.