Monday, January 4, 2010

I've been reading Fine Cuts and First Cut, two anthologies of interviews with film editors, as I edit WOMAN'S PICTURE. I can't remember where I got First Cut, back in 1992, but I guess I've probably read it a dozen times or so since then. I gave it away at some point, thinking I'd internalized the information and could do without it. Someone else seemed to need it more than I did at the time. I bought it again a few years later. Few books have been as pivotal for me. Hitchcock/Truffuat comes to mind. Definitely Masters of Light.

I pulled a long weekend, working full days with a head cold. People seem to hate editing. Friends who wish to be considered "filmmakers" complain about it as though it were a formality, a necessary evil. They see it as grunt work. Shooting, directing: that, I guess, is what they consider the creative part. Or maybe the responsibility makes them nervous. I understand the fear you bring to the raw material, that big blank nothing, but I love the editing process. Filming, the shoot, that's great--it can be--WOMAN'S PICTURE was like an extended, simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating slumber party--but what it produces is so vague, ultimately. It is by itself.

What I'm learning about editing is that it really creates the story. No one wants you to know that. Maybe because it assigns the editor too much authorship. Things you shot don't work the way they did in your head. That happens when you're filming, too: the script, however fantastic, however watertight, is suddenly redundant in certain ways which couldn't have been predicted. One of the most unnerving parts of filming is knowing you need to deviate from the script, and worrying you'll deviate in a way which screws you later on. So filmmaking isn't pristine in exactly the way people think, nor is it messy in quite the way they imagine, though of course it is a form of chaos most of the time.

Editing deals with what you have, essentially, and what you have is always all over the place. The performances in WOMAN'S PICTURE are the best I've ever gotten. One of the actors, the most experienced in the cast, performed each take with precisely the same gestures as the last, and just as much authenticity, meaning that now, editing, I can cut to him at any point I like. His hand will always be consistent. His head will always be turned the right way. It always matches. But the light changes, the sound is different, the tone fluctuates in various infinitesimal ways. A word is forgotten. A boom plays peek-a-boo. There are abundantly more subtle issues. The emotional tenor or feel of one shot is just irreconcilable with its counterparts.

What fascinates me about the interviews in First Cut is how often they confirm my experience. These are much more talented editors than I am, much more skilled. They work with fantastic directors. Anyway, they work with experienced directors, with big budgets, professional cast and crew. The obstacles that face me during the edit are the same they meet doing this year after year, and they use the same tricks, extending shots, changing the order of a story or a scene, abbreviating, eliding, amplifying, collapsing, faking out with the use of sound design. It dawns on me, reading these interviews now, that the challenges of editing are pretty universal. Even a movie with everything going for it can be doomed by an unsuccessful edit. Even a pretty mediocre one can be made more persuasive.

I feel totally energized by editing. Film editing is like nothing else I've done. Writers I know like to start telling me, the second I bring it up, that they know exactly what I'm talking about. Editing a film is the same as what they do. I'm a writer and I can tell you that's absolute bullshit. They'd be embarrassed to say it after putting a movie together. They'd find the process of storytelling on film about a million times more mercurial than the process of storytelling through the written word. I keep hoping I can explain the differences, because they seem important to me. That's hopeless, for the time being. Editing film and words are the same the way jogging and swimming are. They're all exercises. Writing is more like jogging, I would say.

I've made a lot of headway in the past week. The movie has gotten to a place, even this early, where it feels full. You can do this thing editing. Again, I don't know how to describe it. You abridge with sound or with image or even with a movement in a way which suddenly pops the material out. It's like those thin pieces of foam that explode into sponges when you submerge them under water. You're feeling around until you get there, so you don't always know exactly what made the difference. It's a house of cards, editing. When it isn't working, you're looking at a series of schematics. When it starts coming together, you're almost scared to touch it, afraid you'll knock it down. Whatever it is that makes the difference, what was inert becomes dimensional, it fattens up. You feel you're watching this thing that extends in all directions beyond the frame you're viewing. Already, WOMAN'S PICTURE has that quality in places, so I keep stacking, very carefully. I find it difficult to imagine how these editors worked without computers. I can save my house of cards in a folder. I can copy it, and to the copy I can add or remove a card here and there. When the thing collapses, I can go back to the original. I click a button and it's there, cross fingers.

Fine Cuts is handy but nowhere near as indispensable as First Cut. It interviews European film editors, arguing that there is a definitive difference between American and European film editing. I guess I agree. But the differences are all up and down the board, so everything different from conception. The interviews aren't really interviews either. They're transcribed without the questions the subject was asked. Like a European film, it can be pretty slow going.

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