Not All Auteurs Are Dictators: Or, Apple Is Steven Spielberg, and Google Is Robert Altman

In last Sunday's New York Times, Randall Stross discussed a speech in which the blogger John Gruber drew a parallel between software designers and movie directors. In Gruber's version of auteur theory, the movie director makes all the decisions, and his employees carry them out. Steve Jobs was Gruber's exemplary case of designer as auteur: at Apple, Jobs makes all final design choices, and others execute them.

This analysis misrepresents both auteur theory and the nature of creativity. For in film there are two very different types of auteur. Both types produce distinctive bodies of work, and both can reach the highest levels of creativity.

One type of cinematic auteur is Gruber's dictator. Steven Spielberg is an example. He personally develops the ideas for his films: "The conception of the story is the most exciting part about making a picture." His actors receive precise instructions: "You know what you want, it's like painting by the numbers." Making the movie is a chore: "Because I've got such a clear picture in my head of what the final film should look like, the actual process of making the movie is kind of laborious and sometimes boring." Directing is a struggle: "Making a movie, any movie, is like fighting hand-to-hand . . . Every filmmaker is a commanding office."

But there is also another, very different type of auteur among movie directors. The late Robert Altman was a prime example. He named his production company Sandcastle, because he believed making a movie should be like getting a group of friends together for an afternoon at the beach. He encouraged his actors to improvise: "What I want to see is something I've never seen before, so how can I tell someone what that is? I'm really looking for something from these actors that can excite me." Altman considered collaboration the essence of creativity: "If the vision were just mine, just a single vision, it wouldn't be any good. It's the combination of what I have in mind, with who the actor is and then how he adjusts to the character, along with how I adjust, that makes the movie." For Altman, the magic of movies lay not in the initial idea or in the script, but in the act of making them: "I know I'm going to learn something. There's a sense of discovery that, I hope, the audience will be able to share."

Spielberg is an archetypal conceptual innovator, while Altman was an archetypal experimental innovator. Neither type has had a lock on artistic or commercial success in movies: Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, and Jean-Luc Godard were all great conceptual directors, whereas John Ford, Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, and Clint Eastwood were all great experimental directors. All of these directors were auteurs, who left their own stamp on everything they did. But only the first group, the conceptual directors, were dictators, who privileged their personal vision above all. The second group made great art through collaboration.

And so too in design. Apple has been successful as a conceptual firm, but Google has succeeded with an experimental model. Neither type of company has a lock on financial or creative success.

Apple is Steven Spielberg, and Google is Robert Altman. Vive la différence.