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The Four Types of Filmmaker

To start with, let me say that this is just some completely unscientific observations. I’m not saying these are the only models for filmmakers. (We are all unique snowflakes!) But I think it’s always useful to study successful archetypes.

The categories are not silos – imagine these like cell membranes: porous. Still, I hope this will provoke some discussion about what traits tend to clump together in filmmakers. Okay, that’s said. I now present my first attempt at filmmaker phenotyping…

1. The Meticulous Master

In a word: Kubrick. This type of filmmaker is content to let a project sit on the backburner for years or perhaps never get made if it can’t be done properly. Often criticized for coldness, nonetheless these filmmakers have cult followings who appreciate precision and fastidious detail. They are devoted to their art in a way that sometimes causes them to withdraw from society, become reclusive. Micro-managers, control-freaks, geniuses — these filmmakers are like chess players who have already seen twelve moves ahead and are irritated that you can’t see it too. Their films reward multiple viewings.

Others of the type: Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Paddy Chayefsky, Tim Burton, Karyn Kusama, The Coen Brothers, Robert Bolt, David Lean, Walter Murch, David Mamet, Michael Haneke, Abbas Kairostami, Jean Renoir, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tarsem Singh, Kenji Mizoguchi

2. The Prolific Pro

Everything this type of filmmaker does is part of a film. There is no wall of separation between life and filmmaking. They are always rolling the camera, or preparing to roll the camera. All of their own experiences are potential fodder for storytelling. They will switch genres, budget sizes, political parties — whatever it takes to keep on making movies. Their personal obsessions leak into their films at every cranny. There’s a strain of Prolific Pros who focus on creating whole worlds within a film, and sometimes the story is just an excuse to go and build this world in which they are a god. Another strain gets bored unless pushing the limits of the film medium itself, often testing the limits of audiences as well. Their films tend to be bipolar — spectacular successes and massive failures. They believe in going big or going home.

Examples: Werner Herzog, Steven Soderbergh, Agnes Varda, Federico Fellini, Peter Jackson, Spike Lee, Spike Jonez, Roman Polanski, John August, Tyler Perry, Judd Apatow, Stanley Kramer, D.W. Griffith, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Wright, Lars von Trier, Ingmar Bergman, Gus Van Sant, Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell, Maya Deren

3. The Irrepressible Entertainer

This type of filmmaker is a populist. He or she just wants to tell you a good story – make you laugh, make you cry. While this type of filmmaker may pay great attention to detail, what separates The Entertainer from the Meticulous Master is that the only details that are emphasized are those that effect how the audience experiences the film emotionally — or even just viscerally — while other aspects of the film can be under-developed. If it doesn’t goose the viewer immediately, it’s not important. They can be dopamine fiends, addicted to excitement, getting their fix with an explosive climax. More darkly, many of the horror maven Entertainers see themselves as puppet-masters, orchestrating the breathing of the viewer, even the nightmares he or she will have when sleeping that night.

Examples: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Bay, Preston Sturges, John Ford, Walt Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ron Howard, Ron Bass, Wes Craven, Jay Roach, Sam Spiegel, Daryl F. Zanuck, Cecil B. DeMille, Kathryn Bigelow, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, Zhang Yimou, Sidney Lumet, Penny Marshall

4. The Reverent Referentialist

Movie geek first and filmmaker second, these culture vultures know how to gobble up the history of cinema and regurgitate it back in stunning new forms. They view their own films from outside themselves, constructing them as if responses to a conversation consisting of films that have come before. The generous among them manage to give us a window on this conversation, introduce us politely to the great filmmakers of yesteryear who began it. Others simply expect audiences to be ‘in the know’ – using specific, obscure references that appeal to the secret film geek tribe, intentionally excluding the masses. Films don’t have footnotes, but now that there are film schools and DVD bonus features, this type of filmmaker has been able to cross over to wider audiences.

Examples: Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Bryan de Palma, George Lucas, Edgar Wright, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, Zack Snyder, Kevin Smith, Julie Taymor

What kind of a filmmaker are you? What categories are missing? Who is sorted wrong? Leave a comment.

UPDATE: Thanks to the flood of comments from the IMDb readers (see below), I’ve added more filmmakers to these categories, and reclassified Kurosawa.

Image credits: Library of Congress LOOK Magazine Collection (PD), erinc salor (CC 2.0), Siebbi (CC 3.0), U.S. DoD (PD)

91 Comments

  1. Where would you categorize Ridley Scott?

    • That’s a good question. Up until Blade Runner, perhaps in the Entertainer camp. Since then, I think the aesthetics of the film has often been more important to him than audience response. I think, like Peter Jackson, he likes creating entire worlds as much as telling stories. I think I’ll add something about that to the Prolific Pro.

  2. Where would you place David Lynch? I’d place him in Category 1 but there are elements of 2 and even 4 that suite.

  3. WHy isn’t kevon smith in number 4. He is definatly one of the guys who invented that genre

  4. Sam Fuller? ROger Corman?

  5. I hate Werner as an actor

  6. Also, where would Darren Aranofsky be?

  7. christophercantos

    May 4, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    i think you should have put PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON on The Reverent Referentialist. Boogie Nights is his most obvious “referential” film, but his best friend QT will tell you that PTA is as much as a film geek as QT himself. it’s just that PT Anderson’s recent fare is more of obscure reference to other movies.

    Boogie Nights is Scorsese/ Altman
    Magnolia is pure Altman
    Punch Drunk Love is Jacques Tati-ish with a musical vibe and Kubrick Lighting
    and There Will Be Blood is a Kubrick western.

  8. J. Wassermann

    May 4, 2011 at 4:03 AM

    I’d list Woody Allen under the Prolific Pro, and Ridley Scott under the Irreprensible Entertainer

  9. robert rodriguez in the referentialist category

  10. Baz Luhrmann goes where? I’d say Meticulous.

  11. Ridley Scott is definitely a meticulous master. His idol was Stanley Kubrick.

  12. Kudos on a riveting article!

  13. Very nice post! Great examples!

  14. uhh chris nolan.. league of his own

  15. What about De Palma? I think he would be… a reverent entertainer? He really seems to fit well in both camps.
    Or maybe, like with Scott, it depends on what period of his career you’re talking about.

  16. As a filmmaker I’d say that I’m a Reverent Referentialist with a nice dose of Irrepressible Entertainer tossed in for good measure.

    Also, I think David Lynch and David Cronenberg would fit snugly under the “Prolific Pros” category. Good piece.

  17. Consider Paul Thomas Anderson under the master category. After ‘There Will Be Blood,’ even if it wasn’t your specific taste, from one film geek to another it was genius.

  18. I would not include Burton in Group 1. He’s become a prolific peddlar of schlock, lately, hardly a Meticulous Master…

  19. Akira Kurosawa seems misplaced to a certain degree. Yes, he always said that films were meant to entertain and that a good film should always be entertaining, but he was also very meticulous.

    I don’t know, I feel that some filmmakers are combinations of multiple groups.

    James Cameron is a mixture of 2 and 3 (world builder, but always wants to entertain), Akira Kurosawa is a mixture of 1 and 2 (meticulous to detail, but always wants to entertain), and then there’s Charlie Chaplin…he’s almost a mixture of 1, 2, and 3.

    You’ve come up with a great groundwork, but I feel that it could be expanded upon.

  20. Sam Peckinpah is considered a populist now? And Zhang Yimou too? Have you never seen anything pre-Hero? Not trying to be rude but he’s about as cut-and-dry of a Prolific Pro as anyone on that list, right down to shifting political allegiances in order to continue making movies (allegedly).

  21. I think Hitchcock better fits the bill of Prolific Pro and Irrerpressible Entertainer than Meticulous Master. He made 50+ films and only a fraction of his output (say 10 -20%) are masterpieces that hold up to multiple viewings. He also wasn’t a control freak, instead trusting that his actors and crew would perform their jobs well. He was a genius for generating suspense but I think his films that have subtext owe much to their screenwriters.

  22. I’d put Sidney Lumet in the Prolific Pro category. First off he did all types of genres. 12 Angry Men, The Verdict (Courtroom Drama), Network, Family Business, Find Me Guilty (Comedy/Satire) The Wiz (Musical), Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A, Night Falls on Manhattan (Crime Drama), Running On Empty, Dog Day Afternoon, The Pawnbroker (Drama) Murder on the Orient Express, Deathtrap, The Morning After (Murder Mystery) Fail-Safe (Docudrama-style) Equus, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Sea Gull (Play Adaptations), King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (Documentary), etc. Second… Kept the cameras rolling? From ’57 to ’93 he made 39 films. That’s better that one film a year. He only made 6 from ’97 to ’07. I’d say that’s prolific.

    Hitchcock… while he was certainly appeared the Meticulous Master, he was more likely an Irrepressible Entertainer. He stated his films were all about manipuling the audiences feelings. Particularly in Psycho by his use of dynamic music, first person camera angles and even setting the tone during the title sequence (also see Vertigo, North By Northwest), Also in an unprecidented move he had signs outside the theater telling the audience not to give away the ending and instituted a “no late admission” policy for the film so the theater goer would not miss any of the film. This best describes him… “many of the horror maven Entertainers see themselves as puppet-masters, orchestrating the breathing of the viewer, even the nightmares he or she will have when sleeping that night.” Wouldn’t you say that was Hitch? Heck he loved the entertainment side of it so much he hosted his own show and was such a ham he had to have a cameo in almost every film.

  23. Got a category for Lynch? Seems like he fits best with #2.

  24. Nick Castronuova

    May 4, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    Peter Jackson is prolific? Guillermo Del Toro? David O’Russell, who made about five films? Kurosawa is an entertainer and not a meticulous master (who did full scale paintings as storyboards, and some would consider a greater micro manager than even Kubrick)? Clint Eastwood, the guy who directed Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby is an entertainer and not a prolific director (having basically a movie a year)? I disagree with so much of this.

  25. Paul Thomas Anderson is as perfect an example of a meticulous master as anyone since Kubrick. I think Spielberg probably falls into both Prolific Pros and Irrepressible Entertainers. I love Tarantino and Wright as referentialists. Wright’s co-writer/actor/partner Simon Pegg would fall into that group as a writer. Scorsese as a referentialist is an interesting choice. In my mind, he doesn’t really seem to fall into any of these categories too well. Can him and Kubrick have their own category called “Fathers of American Cinema”?

  26. Nice!

  27. Christopher Nolan?

  28. What about Sam Mendes and Michael Mann? Mendes = Prolific Pro? Michael Mann = Prolific Pro or Irrepressible Entertainer?

  29. What happens when a director crosses the boundries between styles? Look at Spielberg with his movies like Indiana Jones in the Entertainer category and then he goes outside that mold with a movie like Schindler’s List diving headfirst into the Prolific. Also, when dealing with worlds within the film under the Prolific, isn’t that what Cameron is known for? His worlds are so fleshed out that we happily dive into them and ignore reality for hours on end. The Titanic, Pandora, the space station turned alien hive… is he really the entertainer or something more?

  30. and you dont mention pt anderson. come on.

  31. Where does Paul Thomas Anderson fall into all this? Also, how the hell could you leave Paul Thomas Anderson off this list?

  32. I think JJ Abrams could be added to the Irrepressible Entertainer list… and for shame, excluding Paul Thomas Anderson (Meticulous Master is arguable, even though his films pulse with raw energy). Also Robert Altman (Prolific Pro).

  33. Chris nolan? paul greengrass? marc forster?

  34. I would think Tim Burton would be more along the lines of the irrepressible entertainer rather than the meticulous master. Would you think Kevin Smith is the reverent referentialist or the prolific pro?

  35. Stranger_in_Heaven

    May 4, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    I don’t see David Lynch. I guess you either dislike him, or thought he doesn’t fit any of the categories /which is a good thing… I guess/. “Film as a dream” is among the most beautiful experiences a cinephile could have. This is a category I would suggest although I can’t think of a proper title for it. I would put Lynch, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky, Buñuel and Fellini.

  36. Excellent observations. Where would you categorize Michael Mann?

    • @Chad,

      Mann is one of those that’s hard to categorize. He experiments and entertains but I guess I think of him more as a Meticulous type in the end.

  37. How about non-narrative filmmakers like Eisenstein. Granted I never read much on his process but he was brilliant nonetheless. Where would you classify poet visualizers like Buñuel?
    I would think Eisenstein would fall under meticulous masters, but in his creative years, he wasn’t very patient when it came to making his films.

  38. Oliver Stone? The archetypal Prolific Pro, surely!

  39. The fact that you spelled “Steven Spielberg” wrong makes me not take this very seriously.

  40. I was wondering about Greg Motolla? My guess is Entertainer. I was curious what you thought though?

  41. I didn’t see Orson Welles. Personally I would put it in the Meticulous Master category.

    As for James Cameron, I think he could also belong in the Prolific Pro category as much as in the Irrepressible Entertainer category. Creating whole worlds and pushing the film medium is what he has been doing (or tries to do) since Titanic.

  42. I guess Woody Allen is more of an Irrepressible Entertainer than a Reverent Referentialist.

  43. Definitely add Kevin Smith to the list of Reverent Referentialists.

  44. What about Darren Aronofsky, or Christopher Nolan?

  45. I think I am all 3. I enjoyed this – good read. But what about Paul Thomas Anderson?

  46. the first Referentialist would be De Palma to me. Not only for Hichcock, but also Powell, Warholl…

  47. How about Robert Altman?

  48. What about Paul Thomas Anderson?

  49. If Woody Allen is anything… he’s a Prolific Pro. He makes multiple films a year, almost non-stop, and he’s always incorporating his own life experiences and beliefs into his works. You list Fellini and Bergman, but why not Allen in this category? After all, he’s heavily inspired by both of those filmmakers.

    And the Coens are definitely Reverent Referentialists just as much as Tarantino. All of their films are heavily inspired by film history and the history of film noirs. I disagree with Scorsese in this category. He deserves to be listed as a Meticulous Master.

  50. I guess I’m a Reverent Referentialist — Scorsese, Godard and Truffaut are among my favourites. I’m also a massive fan of David Lynch and Wong Kar Wai, but I’m not sure where I would catogorise them.

  51. I haven’t quite formulated a premise, but I think I’d include a fifth type. And give me a little latitude here for laughter’s sake. I’d argue for a fifth, “spiritual filmmaker”. NOT a religious or dogmatic filmmaker. I think perhaps it’s even an emerging type of filmmaker still in its infancy. Filmmakers interested in telling challenging stories that speak to a growing audience, and not likely a populist, but more a humanist.

    The first name that comes to my mind: Andrei Tarkovski for a large body of his work. Darren Aronofsky for films like The Fountain and Pi. Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line, and I get the sense, Tree of Life. Expansively minded, humanist filmmakers not reductive filmmakers which is more the realm of the “faith-based” filmmaker.

    Granted, each of these filmmakers you’ve already accounted for in your “four types”, largely in the “Meticulous Master” field, but as I’ve indicated, I think this is an emerging field, for an emerging human mytho-type. I’ve actually written previously on artists of this emerging type. You can google “New Era Artist Manifesto” and find other writings on my slightly dormant Signal>Noise blog.

    Like I said, it’s a fluid idea, but definitely one that I think is an emerging type of filmmaker.

    Thanks for the thought and inspiration!

    • @Darshan
      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it seems these categories still need developing and defining. A lot of filmmakers seem to move between two or more of these types still.

  52. Where is Paul Thomas Anderson?!?

  53. Nice Article. I would like to know where would you categorize Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Iñárritu ?

    • @Cobb,

      Linklater seems to be a prolific pro. The other two I just addressed in other comment replies.

  54. i would throw kurosawa into the meticulous master category. but barely enough to say it.

  55. I would put Chaplin as a Meticulous Master.

  56. chocolateislove

    May 4, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    I’d say Christopher Nolan would fall under The Meticulous Master. He’s already been compared to Kubrick with the “cold” directing style.

  57. What type of directors would exploitation and b-movie type directors be (Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Al Adamson, Russ Meyer ect ect).

    And please don’t give some answer like “Bad Directors” LOL

    • @Muta,

      I don’t think exploitation movie directors are bad if they make great movies within that genre. I don’t know the filmographies of the directors you list well enough to comment on them, but Peckinpah, for example, seems to focus on visceral audience experiences like many other filmmakers in the Irrepressible Entertainer category. I imagine other great exploitation artists are the same.

  58. Great article.
    Where would you put Danny Boyle under?

    Stephen[sic] Spielberg…?

    • @E.Harris

      Boyle is definitely concerned with audience emotion now. He’s still got a bit of an experimental streak, but probably would put him in the Entertainer category.

  59. I am definitely “The Meticulous Master.” I tend to not settle for anything less than ‘perfection.’

  60. kurosowa should be in the prolific pro category. its spielberg and lucas who misconstrued his style of filmmaking and turned it into crowd pleasing.

  61. Kurosawa should be in The Meticulous Master category, the man used to paint his own fucking storyboards by hand for god-sake.

  62. And chrispher nolan?????? You missed him…..!!!

  63. What about David Lynch?

    • @Maggi,

      David Lynch has elements of a lot of these but I’d say he’s gone from more Meticulous Master to Prolific Pro in recent years.

  64. Walt Disney could be a double entry in both the entertainer and meticulous master. Especially in the early years of Walt Disney Animated Studios, Walt had his hands in almost every aspect of production from start to finish, and he never released a piece either short or long that he wasn’t proud of.

    A case could also be made for James Cameron as a meticulous master. Not because he is on the same page as Kubrick or Hitchcock, but because he too makes sure that everything is right and if the film can’t be made properly (i.e. Avatar), he will wait. I do agree that he is an entertainer first.

  65. Where would you categorize Robert Rodriguez, Terry Gilliam, Paul Thomas Anderson & Darren Anorofsky?

    • @Zack,

      Rodriguez – Entertainer
      Gilliam – Prolific Pro
      PT Anderson – Meticulous Master
      Aronofsky – Prolific Pro – probably…

  66. Nice Article. May I know where would you categorize Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Inarritu?

    • @Cobb,

      Iñárritu is definitely a prolific pro. He favors grand, sprawling narratives and more ‘in the moment’ type of shooting as opposed to precision imagery. See my response to Arjuna about Nolan.

  67. I see you didn’t put Christopher Nolan in any catagory, where would you place him, post Inception.

    • @Arjuna,

      I haven’t seen any Christopher Nolan post-Inception movies :)

      On the basis of Memento, The Prestige and Inception, I’d definitely classify him as a Meticulous Master. The Batman movies are more populist, although there were some cerebral, philosophical elements to Dark Knight.

  68. Michael Bay should have a category all by himself.

  69. I guess I’m a follower of Meticulous Master. But where does Mike Leigh fall into?

  70. I request a placement for Almodovar.

  71. Tallsonofagun

    May 8, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    Ummm. Ang Lee anyone? Seriously, no mention of him.

    Probably fits #2 the best, but could qualify with 1 and 3 as well (absolutely prolific though: drama, western, comedy, hippy biography, Chinese sexual melodrama, gay western, martial arts action, English period piece, food based allegory, superhero fantasy, foreign gay romantic comedy, historical lifestyle, etc.). For me, the best director working today with the widest range of themes of the last 20 years of any director. Has anyone done as many different types of films as him – and have they been so consistently successful?

  72. @mike tarigan,

    Probably would put Mike Leigh under Prolific Pro, since his method of building films is more organic and open to improvisation.

    @Tallonsofagun,

    You’re right Ang Lee is hard to categorize. And don’t count out #4, since he has a strong respect for the grammar of the genres in which he works.

  73. @R,

    Almódovar is a Reverent Referentialist with Meticulous Master elements.

  74. Phanindra Narsetti

    May 10, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    jean pierre jeunet?

  75. The flip side of the Irrepressible Entertainer is a strain of filmmaker I call the “ProvocAuteur”. The ProvocAuteur specializes in subjecting his audience to films that are Endurance Tests.

    Examples: Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe, Lars Von Trier.

    The ProvocAuteur often assumes an air of moral superiority; sometimes against the general moviegoing public, sometimes against his own arthouse audiences. Some are agenda driven, others simply use provocation as their means of self expression.

    [I just corrected a Freudian slip/typo. I’d accidentally typed “Irreversible Entertainer” in my opening sentence.]

  76. What would you consider Cronenberg?

  77. The Meticulous Master – I want to be a Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan

  78. I guess I’m 1: for a love for art, 2: for trying to build a world, and 4: because I love film (I’m probably more of this).

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