Editing Your Own Films

14 03 2008

Occasionally I like to veer off the path of this blog and head into media reviews. Just because I can. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

One of my pet peeves, as an editor, is the director who decides to cut his or her own film. I rarely see that work. Most of my students at USC do it because “only I can really understand what I want for my film.” There’s so much wrong with that statement. On almost every level.

First, that word understand. I’ve worked with directors who can’t understand their own films on levels that differ from their original conceptions. But the key to having the film accessible to many people, as opposed to a masturbatory self-involved work, is to realize that the best films appeal to people on multiple levels — levels beyond their author’s original conceptions. In order to do that, the filmmaker needs to be challenged. He or she needs to be helped to see other points of view. In classical terms, it’s the thesis/antithesis/synthesis flow. An original thesis, when challenged by an antithesis, creates an idea which is better than either one individually — a synthesis of ideas that can bring the film to a higher level.

Peter John Ross, over at sonnyboo.com, wrote a piece in American Movieworks which tackled this issue and started with this introduction:

If you are one of those director that can look at the raw footage, or even edit a scene together, look at it in the context of the movie & make a decision to cut out one of the best moments the actor gave because you realize that the scene is erroneous THEN SKIP THIS ARTICLE. Or if you have what you thought was one of the funniest jokes on paper, and even if it’s not 100% great delivery, but you choose to use it anyway because it “might” be good, then please READ ON.

I could argue that John Sayles’ best movies are those in which he did not edit. I think that James Cameron is a better director of editing than he is an editor (when I worked with Milos Forman I was always impressed with his editing acumen, but equally impressed that he worked with other editors to get the best picture). I certainly feel that Robert Rodriguez has long needed an editor (and a cinematographer, but I’ll let people better versed in that art to take up this arguement).

And, even though I really liked the film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I continue to feel that the Coen Brothers would have done better work if they had had someone to work with.

Now, I’ve never felt the strong pull that most people feel towards the Coen brothers’ films. I have enjoyed a few of them — BARTON FINK and THE BIG LEBOWSKI — but I normally found them too clever by half and, even in FARGO, more distanced from their characters than involving. I’ve enjoyed the laser penetration of Peter Stormare in FARGO, but I can’t say that I found any of the characters in their films worth spending much time with, aside from John Turturro’s tortured writer character in FINK, and the fun of The Dude in LEBOWSKI.

Now, NO COUNTRY comes along and I’m almost ready to jump over to their side, thanks to some amazing performances completely in tune with the story and filmmaking of the piece. But there is enough holding the film back that I doubt that I’ll ever jump over to the side of director/editors.

The shape of the lead characters in NO COUNTRY is particularly fine. Javier Bardem, well-deserving of his Academy Award, plays a character who is consistently driven, but seems well-understood by the filmmakers. Josh Brolin, while much more enigmatic and slightly drawn, manages to build a steady, interesting performance, even against Bardem’s juggernaut of a role.

I’m less entranced by Woody Harrelson’s and Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, however. I don’t believe that I need to have everything explained to me in order to like a film. Far from it. But I like to have characters who, in the words of a director I once worked with, “earn their moments.” To put it in another way, I want a character’s behavior in a film to grow out of what we know about him or her, not just because it says so in a script.

But that is one of the hardest things for writer/directors to do. They live inside their characters heads for so long, and have had so much discussion and interaction with the actors playing those characters, that it is extremely to see connections when they don’t really exist. It is way too easy to ascribe more to a look or a body movement then a normal audience would.

Even editors are prone to falling into this trap, though it’s one that we train ourselves to fight. In order to freshen our view of our films we use preview screenings. They help to ground us. When I worked on the movie HAIR, we had a screening in which someone, in the discussion group afterwards (we didn’t call them “focus groups” back then, and we didn’t have NRG Research to run them for us), mentioned that he “really like the part where Claude’s sister watched Treat Williams dance on the table.”

The problem was that Claude didn’t have a sister in the film. This audience member was confused. And while we’d never recut a movie based on one comment, if enough people can’t follow plot or character, then it’s time to look at what we know about our film.

The real problem for writer/director/editors is that there is precious little opportunity to have someone say “Wha??” There is less day-to-day input from the world outside the director’s mind.

And, even with some preview screenings and good producers (Scott Rudin may be the most interesting producer in the world today, along with Christine Vachon, in terms of the variety of projects he brings to the screen), the world of filmmaking just gets too insulated. Where was the person who asked the Coen Brothers to step back and see if Harrelson’s character went for caricature and plot, instead of real contrast to Bardem’s? Where was the person who discussed the shaping of the Brolin death scene, and how it impacted the rest of the film’s energy and emotion?

[As an aside, even though I didn’t like the choice, I’m not going to fault the film for its choice to hand off the film from Brolin to Jones two-thirds of the way through. But I am going to note that, the way in which was done, replaced one character’s more interesting search with another less developed one. It was an imbalance that the film never recovered from.]

In the best of all worlds, who would have been able to ask those and other questions about the choices being made? Who would have advocated for the audience’s side?

It would have had to been an editor. And that is what a good, honest, direct editor can bring to a project, that a director cannot. Not possible, not even close. Even with really really great directors.

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8 responses

15 03 2008
Directors shouldn’t edit their own movies: Norman Hollyn « Indie 2.0

[…] 15 March 2008, 11:16 pm by Dan Carew Interesting argument on this subject by Norman Hollyn, who talks about “No Country for Old Men” and how the film could have been improved by […]

15 03 2008
Govert Janse

Right you are! There’s nothing worse than a director editing his/her own movies. In my opinion there has to be an ‘idea-filter’ in the process of making a movie and that is an important contribution the editor can make. Directors, just like every other profession in this business sometime fall in love with their own creations and lack the distance that would benefit a movie. Not just on a story-telling level but also on raw footage level. The editor is the first person that gets to see the footage as it was actually shot. No knowledge of the shooting conditions, not aware of things that happened on the set that day, no emotional attachment to the shot or people in it, etc. This ‘lack of history’ is something that is very much needed in the process of making a movie. As an editor, I don’t care what time you had to get up to make a shot, or whatever. My only criteria are “Does it work” or not. If it doesn’t contribute anything, it has no place in this movie.
BUT… I don’t have all the answers either, and that’s were the combination of people really starts to add up. (Which is where the true power of cinema lays, the right combination.) In a healthy editing process, the editor and director are continuously challenging each other in a positive way, which takes the movie to a next level. The brilliantly edited movie ‘Il Conformista’ (Bertolucci 1970) is a beautiful example of this. Challenged by the phenomenal cinematography (by Vittorio Storaro) and of course the great directing by Bernardo himself, editor Kim Arcali had a tough job ahead. He came up with a brilliant story structure that wasn’t there in the original script! The combination of these three brilliant minds created a true masterpiece in cinema.
Leads me to one last thing. Whoever invented that “director’s cut” thing on dvd’s? What’s the deal with that?

15 03 2008
Norman

“Directors Cut” is, as far as I can tell, a marketing gimmick. In most cases (not all, not all, so you can put down that splicing block) scenes that appear in the “Deleted Scenes” section, and alternate cuts, are clearly inferior to the original.

But, having said that, it is true that filmmakers sometimes have had their films taken away and re-edited. In that case, it is interesting to see what the original filmmakers wanted. It’s not always better, but it is interesting.

So… marketing gimmick, with some value.

24 03 2008
Les frères Coen sur Final Cut « Au royaume de la salle 7

[…] Coen (couronné meilleur film aux Oscars de cette année) qui montent avec Final Cut. Un post de Norman Hollyn vient d’ailleurs faire écho à leur démarche, leur reprochant de monter eux-même leurs […]

28 03 2008
Peter John Ross

I very much appreciate being quoted in your blog. It is an honor, sir.

29 03 2008
The other side of editing « Editing organazized

[…] other side of editing Over at Norman Hollyn-Wood, Norman wrote about how directors aren’t usually the right people to edit their films. Scenes aren’t usually the problem. It’s […]

31 03 2008
The Furious Romantic

Great post.

I have been expressing some similar opinions regarding No Country since I saw it in December: http://www.thefuriousromantic.com/2007/12/21/no-country-for-old-men-disappoints/

It’s a relief to see someone else pointing these weaknesses out.

Regarding your points about writer/directors etc…

Although I still don’t consider myself fully a filmmaker, I have written/directed/edited one short film on my own – and am working on a second – and there was one simple thing that I ending up doing half by accident which helped me immensely in terms of gaining some form of objectivity at each stage of the production process. I just took my time.

Maybe it’s one of the few advantages of being a struggling independent filmmaker working with a limited amount of money and with a much smaller crew (I can see how it wouldn’t work under most other circumstances), but I found that by taking a small amount of time off from my project 1) after the script was “complete” 2) after the shot list and the shooting schedule were “complete” and 3) between the end of photography and the start of editing…I was able to engage each major task from somewhat of a distance.

I wasn’t happy seeing certain “beloved” lines not come off correctly (whether a fault of the actor or, more commonly, the writing) in dailies, or to discover that I had left myself unable to edit one shot into the next in quite the way that I had planned because of a directing mistake…but the time off allowed me to accept such facts quite a bit more easily than if I had dived straight in. It also allowed me to discover new things in the footage and recognize improvements or contributions that came not from my “grand ideas” but from some small, subtle decision made by a cameraman or suggested that day by my DP.

Anyway, thanks for sharing these observations. Between this post and several others that I have read over time on other editing blogs…I think I’ll be looking into working with an editor next time around if I can find the money to do so.

3 04 2008
François-Xavier Noulens

What would be nice : some advices to directors who HAVE to edit a film of their own. Like editing a documentary during 3 months with no money for an editor…

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