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)