By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The practical aspect of what you were talking about, though, is very potent. The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn't. To actually look at all the film the director has shot, and review it and sort through it, to rebalance all of that and make very specific notes about tiny details that are sometimes extremely significant, this falls to the editor.
As it's happened, I've always done the initial assembly of the film myself. I sit with the director when we watch dailies. If he or she has something to say about a particular moment, I note it. But if I were to add up the director's- comments column on my database, I wouldn't find a tremendous amount of information there. What's there is significant, though, and leads to other decisions. The smallest suggestion can help guide my eye to see the film the way the director is seeing it.
In the end, the editor of a film must try to take advantage of all the material that is given to him, and reveal it in a way that feels like a natural but exciting unfolding of the ideas of the film. It's really a question of orchestration: organizing the images and sounds in a way that is interesting, and digestible by the audience. Mysterious when it needs to be mysterious, and understandable when it needs to be understandable . . .
What's your "state" when you first start to edit the material you've been given? How strict are you? How quick to decide?
There's an interesting phenomenon I ran into early on in editing The Conversation. As you're putting something together for the first time, you have your own ideas about how it is supposed to work. You see the material that is being shot, and you are simultaneously reacting to it and gently shaping it. Of course the film has dramatic ups and downs, peaks and valleys, but the script indicates an overall shape. When you detect what you think is a deviation from that shape, your first impulse is, Well, I'll get to work and fix that now.
Let's say the dramatic slope seems to be going up too fast. Your tendency will be to do things editorially to compensate. Then when you think it's going too slow, you will shorten things or boost the intensity.
If you let that impulse completely loose out of its cage, what you'll find is that you may have pushed down a bulge at point A, but unbeknownst to you, later, at point C, there's going to be a compensating lift that you don't know about yet -- no one may know about it since films are usually shot out of sequence. So by pushing down on A you will have an overreaction at C.
It's a stage in the process I call "editing with eyes half closed." You can't open your eyes completely, which is to say, you can't express your opinion unreservedly. You don't know enough yet. And you're only the editor. You have to give everything the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, you can't be completely without opinion, otherwise nothing would ever get done. Putting a film together is all about having opinions: this not that, now not later, in or out. But exactly what the balance should be between neutrality and opinion is a very tricky question. The point is, if you squash this down, then you push the whole curve of the film down, whereas it might have righted itself by its own mysterious means. If you try to correct the film while putting it together, you end up chasing your own tail. . .
Actually, when you stop to think about it, it is amazing that film editing works at all. One moment we're at the top of Mauna Kea and -- cut! -- the next we're at the bottom of the Marianas trench. The instantaneous transition of the cut is nothing like what we experience as normal life, which seems to be one continuous shot from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night. It wouldn't have been surprising if film editing had been tried and then abandoned when it was found to induce a kind of seasickness. But it doesn't: We happily endure, in fact even enjoy, these sudden transitions for which nothing in our evolutionary history seems to have prepared us.
What do you think is going on?
Well, many things -- not least of which are the visual dislocations that happen all the time when we dream. I believe that one of the secret engines that allows cinema to work, and have the marvelous power over us that it does, is the fact that for thousands of years we have spent eight hours every night in a "cinematic" dream state, and so are familiar with this version of reality . . .
. . . I think cinema is perhaps now where music was before musical notation -- writing music as a sequence of marks on paper -- was invented. Music had been a crucial part of human culture for thousands of years, but there had been no way to write it down. Its perpetuation depended on an oral culture, the way literature's did in Homeric days. But when modern musical notation was invented, in the 11th century, it opened up the underlying mathematics of music, and made that mathematics emotionally accessible. You could easily manipulate the musical structure on parchment, and it would produce startlingly sophisticated emotional effects when it was played. And this in turn opened up the concept of polyphony -- multiple musical lines playing at the same time. Then, with the general acceptance of the mathematically determined even-tempered scale in the mid-18th century, music really took off. Complex and emotional changes of key became possible across the tonal spectrum. And that unleashed all the music of the late-18th and the 19th centuries: Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler!