Explaining The Horrifyingly Unexplainable

6 05 2008

One of my classes is editing a feature film that is simultaneously being finished by its actual director, producers and editor out in the Real World right now. It’s a really adorable indie film about dating and turning thirty, and before you run for the hills, let me also say that it has (at its core) a really neat, somewhat science fictional, concept that I’d tell you all about if I weren’t sworn to secrecy by the filmmakers.

The problem, though, is that you’ve got to explain the rules of this concept so the audience can go along for the ride.

The class struggled with how to do that — without slowing the movie down and without drowning the audience in details all at once, so the film’s comedy could come through. It was a tough balancing act and one which the actual filmmakers ultimately solved much better than the class did.

Still, the interesting point about all of this is “how do you explain the horrifyingly unexplainable?” Or, to be more precise, the “horrifyingly difficult to explain.” The rule of thumb in feature-length films is that you have about ten minutes to do whatever you want with the audience before they start demanding to know just what kind of movie they’re watching. If you spend too much of that time explaining, that’s what they feel the movie is going to be like the whole way through. And that, in general, is poison.

I’ve spent many weeks in editing rooms trying to get to the script’s inciting incident more quickly, collapsing the first 30 minutes down to 15 or 10 minutes. For some reason, scripts always are written without thinking about that (or, if the writers do think about it — and I’m actually sure they do, I’m just being catty here) and then we get to speed everything up in editing. Sometimes well, and sometimes not so wel..

These thoughts come to mind on reading John August’s blog post yesterday called “A somewhat derivative challenge.” August is a screenwriter and director (of THE NINES) who has been publishing this dynamite blog for a few years, in which he gives a great tour of what it means to be a working filmmaker in Hollywood. Along the way he has published tutorials on screenwriting which are, often, much better than anything McKee or Truby have put in their books (his post on How To Introduce A Character is, in my mind, brilliant).

Yesterday he gave his readers a writing challenge, and it’s a doozy:

Have a character explain derivatives, as used in the financial industry. (The thing that’s like a stock, not the thing that you learned in calculus.)

The speaker should be knowledgeable, and the listener should be a layman, i.e. a proxy for the audience. What are their names? What’s the story? What’s the genre? You decide, to the degree it matters. My suggestion would be to create a scenario in which the term needs to be explained — but only to the degree necessary. Metaphors and similes are powerful tools.

You’re welcome to write as much of the scene as you want, but the focus is on the explanation. The winning entry might be one sentence long.

How many times have you had to sit through a scene in a film where there is a long, boring explanation from a scientist to a reporter about some scientific concept which will become important later in the film. Or watched as the coal miner explained to someone (anyone!) how coal was removed from the earth and how there were plenty of safety measures to make sure that no one got hurt doing it (because you knew that someone was going to get caught in a mine collapse later in the film)?

In short, how do you explain the difficult to explain? And, parenthetically, still make it interesting to watch?

The dealine for his competition is this Thursday, May 8th. So I’ll be interested to see how people solve the problem.

And then I’ll shut up about having to do all of this heavy lifting in the editing room.

Death Comes In Twos

18 03 2008

Last year, when both Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, it felt like more than a coincidence. It was as if some uber film critic was making a cosmic ironic comment on the state of movies today.

What, then, are we to make of the deaths of both Arthur C. Clarke and Anthony Minghella today? There is no cosmic joke here, just a sad realization that the man who gave us the book of 2001:A Space Odyssey and the man who gave us TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY and THE ENGLISH PATIENT will create art no more.

Ben Kuchera, in a column in Ars Technica today, quotes the three laws that Clarke was famous for.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The last of the three is famous, in and of itself. I often wonder, imbued with the good ol’ sensawonda, just how someone merely 100 years old can hope to internalize all of the changes in his or her lifetime. I know that when I emerge from the editing of a film and look around, it seems like the editing technology has drastically changed. A mere five years ago, a mention of the acronym DI would have gotten you stares of incomprehension (unless they thought you were talking about drunk driving). And that’s just in my small little neck of the woods, and in five years time.

Clarke (who has written “Against The Fall of Night”, “Childhood’s End,” “Rendezvous With Rama,” and “Islands In The Sky” in addition to the novel he wrote with Stanley Kubrick) has been writing since 1937 and, in that time, has created some remarkably detailed and plausible future worlds. Remember, when he started writing, the concept of launching anything into space was incomprehensible. The Internet? Not even a gleam.

Yet Clarke, and a few other science fiction writers at the time, managed to conceive of all of this, at a time when the magazines that published science fiction were more concerned with Bug Eyed Monsters and women in the clutches of monsters.

Now, that is a visionary.

Still, I’m particularly entranced by that second law, that one needs to go beyond what we consider possible in order to discover reality’s true limitations.

Speaking narrowly, there are two types of directors in the reshaping process in editing. There are those who will make big, broad changes early on and see what breaks. They will remove entire scenes, rearrange whole sections of the film, drop favorite moments and excise great lines Then they’ll see what absolutely needs to go back to the way it used to be (or, to be more precise, go back a little ways to what used to be).

There are also directors who will work in smaller incremental changes, slowly chipping away at problems until they arrive at a comfortable resolution.

Neither approach is right. Both of them work (though the second method takes longer).

My own preference is to make broad changes — to push past the possible into the impossible — and to see what works. It is axiomatic that once you take a scene out of a film, no one misses it. When you do, you know you’ve got to keep it in the film in some form. So, plenty of things that I’ve resisted changing for what I thought were very good reasons, turn out to be quite expendable in the long run. You never know what is going to work and what won’t (within reason). It’s a cliche, but, really, you never know.

So, Clarke’s second law has ramifications everywhere.

Anthony Minghella didn’t have Clarke’s same speculative fiction side of things, but he managed to blaze a few paths in storytelling and character development. The people in TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (the awesome Alan Rickman, years before the caricature he plays in the Harry Potter series) felt blindingly real. The story of a woman who cannot let go of her husband, after his death at an early age, the emotions that Juliet Stephenson portrayed were touching. Not because they were telegraphed, but because they weren’t.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT was a different canvas altogether. Those of you who have taken my Intermediate Editing course know that I play the Caravaggio interrogation scene to demonstrate the use of silence and sound contrast. Walter Murch is given credit for the concept but, as we all know, nothing gets put in a film without the director’s permission, and I’m sure that Minghella enthusiastically was aboard the beautiful use of sound and music to create the horrifying mood of the scene.

It’s that kind of collaboration that we all seek in this business. I know that Walter Murch admires Minghella almost as much as Thelma Schoonmaker admires Martin Scorsese. That comes from a respect for talent, of course, but it also comes from a realization that their directors allow them to do good work. These directors have the ability to step back and let their collaborators come up with ideas.

Not every director can open up that easily. The ones that do are worth their weight.

I will certainly miss the art that Anthony Minghella and Arthur C. Clarke created, even though it will live on — past my own death, I’m sure.

Edit At Home — Without Talent!!

13 01 2008

John August, a screenwriter who has a fantastic blog about writing, talks about the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray smackdown.  Conventional wisdom now has Blu-Ray winning, since Warners became the 4th of the six big distributors to choose the format.  So, John went out and bought his first Blu-Ray disk and a PS3 to play it on.  He talks about how he is most excited about the enormous amount of disk space on a Blu-Ray disk and then goes on to say…

Most of all, Blu-ray discs are big. My dream — which I pitched at last year’s Sundance Film Festival — is to use the extra capacity to include compressed clips of all the original source material, so ambitious viewers could recut the movie on their own systems. That’s a big thing to ask for Sony to support, so reasonable success with this month’s DVD release will be a major factor.

Frankly, I can’t imagine that anyone, aside from a few film students and some geeks with too much time on their hands, would really want to spend the months necessary to do an alternative edit of the movies.

Still, it’s an interesting concept and one which I cannot believe will ever come to pass.  I can’t imagine directors and actors willing to give up the control over every edit, and let a bunch of 12 year olds with iMovie take over.  One of the classes that I teach at USC is called Advanced Editing and we do something in the class that, to my knowledge, no other film school does.  We get the dailies from an entire low budget feature film; the class then divvies up the dailies and, over the course of the semester, we edit a different version of the film, taking it through the actual process of editing, re-editing and re-editing again — four or five times.  It’s a huge undertaking, and the class has done some enormously difficult and interesting work.

But my point is that it is very very difficult to get filmmakers to part with their dailies.  They are petrified of it — and for good reason.  There are an enormous number of things that get laid down on film/tape that you wouldn’t want anyone to see.  I’m not talking about the blooper reel material — that ends up on DVDs anyway.  I’m talking about experiments that the actors or directors do with the material.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.  If I were them, I wouldn’t want to have to think that a wildly bizarre take might someday be seen by anyone who buys or steals the DVD of my film.  I would worry about a chilling effect on the set.

So, while I’m interested in the concept, I can’t but think that it’s a terrifying idea.

[In all fairness to John, he himself posts early version of some of his screenplays on his site for download.  Not all of the drafts, I’m quite sure.  But some early ones.]

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Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84

11 04 2007
Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut died yesterday (read his obit here), reminding me mightily of my college years.  The obit says that he was “a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and 1970s” and it’s hard to disagree with that.  His short, punchy style, with his wry observations, and strong sense of cynicism, was totally appealing to me and my roommates.  He definitely seemed to have the best sense of what was wrong with the way the country was going, a cynical sense that has proven to be completely correct.  His book, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, was made into one of the best filmed adaptations of any book.  And his other books, a combination of journalism and science fiction (a term he always abhorred being used to describe his works — even though it fit them), mixed with a healthy and rare dose of comedy, propelled him into my pantheon.
I’ll miss him, even those his best work was years behind him.