It Takes a Village of Filmmakers
Growing up I fell in love with the movies. Of course they are a far cry now from what they used to be. I don’t like to consider myself old, but let’s just say that when I was a kid movies were a big deal. I idolized the larger than life characters and action, just like everyone else, in movies like The Matrix, Titanic and There’s Something About Mary.
One of my first jobs in the industry was as an agent’s assistant. Among my duties was covering writers’ screenplays who were looking for an agent. Reading thousands of scripts at the agency, I was sometimes drowning in a sea of protagonists, car chases and love scenes. They all started to bleed together and it soon became an experience of movies drained of color and motion.
It was a big revelation the first time I read a script that then became a movie. I think it was Independence Day. Just to see everything that the set designer and the costumers and of course the actors brought to the screen was eye-opening. It requires real imagination to read a script and know what it will look like in the end.
I had the same eye-opening experience when I edited my first feature Pastor Jones in 2005. When I first got the dailies I remember wondering how all the shots would fit together. I wasn’t sure if I needed to even use all the shots. It can seem like a big jigsaw puzzle without a picture as a reference, only a 12 point courier script as a guide.
What I eventually learned was that after I read the script for the scene I was cutting, I put it away. There are inevitably shots that don’t exist in the script. Actors ad-lib. The director adds scenes along the way that end up being the best thing about the movie. In Pastor the director Jean-Claude LaMarre improvised a series of scenes in which he plays multiple characters in heavy makeup a la Tyler Perry. I had to literally write the scene using lines made up on the set. The close-ups had different lines than the wides. The cutaways were reactions to other lines. It was the awakening of my inner screenwriter.
The movie always gets rewritten in post. This is the opinion I share with my friend and producer Ray Miller. And he should know. As partner of ARCHETYPE a production and management company in Hollywood, he represents writers directors and actors. Ray makes the point that “The director’s job is to maintain the consistency of the overall product. Very few directors want to micromanage. The best way to look at it is that it gets reinterpreted in post.”
He goes on to say that a good example is Annie Hall which was supposed to be a totally different movie. It was supposed to be linear, but in the edit room it changed. And that may have been possible because it was made in the tradition of the great auteurs where the co-writer was also the director – the great Woody Allen – who was also instrumental in the editing process. But the truth is that once the film is done with editing it will not be what it was on the page.
I’ve spoken with so many people who just aren’t that familiar with what happens in the edit room. Some of them are even in the Film and TV business. Some of them even call themselves editors. They believe that all the creativity resides with the director. And that all decisions extend from him or her. This is only partially true. The more accurate take is that all decisions end with him or her. But many – if not most – of the thousands of decisions that go into making a great movie start with the cast and crew. So the sound editor contributes his genius. The visual effects editor calls upon her experience. And so it is that the picture editor is the setter of the timing and tone – the story’s equivalent to the heart and soul – of many movies and TV shows that you watch.
It may be a cliche to say that movie-making is a collaborative experience. But cliches are born out of truths. And the reason I’m writing this blog is hopefully to give you an insight to what actually happens in my edit room, and the creativity and flexibility and imagination that is required in post-production. Ray said it best that sometimes editors make the best directors. I would also add that a great movie owes a lot to its village of artists who filter their inspired choices through their visionary chief.