Wednesday, 17 November 2010

LSF 3: Editing and the Script

Not long before the festival I was speaking to last years Ustinov winner, Clare Tonkin, who works for an Australian broadcaster. She mentioned how access to the production side of things, especially being able to observe the editing suite, was a real insight that she could learn from and bring back to her own writing. So this session, given by Eddie Hamilton and Chris Jones, was an absolute must for me. And I think from an educational point of view, it was the one I got the most out of.

I know lots of writers, a few directors, and a fair few producers. But no editors. And Eddie was clearly a very smart and enthusiastic one. He began by talking about how he broke into the industry. He made student films but got turned down for three film schools. He ended up doing a job he hated and decided he had to give it up and really go for what he loved doing. And he discovered at a young age, messing around with videos etc, that the combination of the technology, the storytelling, and being able to spend hours working at it on your own, meant he really fell in love with editing film. So he got a job as a runner in Soho, asked the editors hundreds of questions, and taught himself to use Avid etc.

Eddie had read Chris's filmmaking book, discovered via his website that he was making a film, and asked whether they were looking for an editor. He lacked experience but had a great attitude and enthusiasm, and it was ultimately this that got him the job. After that he hustled for work, met Matthew Vaughan, which led to work on Mean Machines, Kick Ass and now the latest X-Men movie. Eddie admitted to working on films that haven't always been great (see Swept Away) but nevertheless was always able to learn something from the experience. And if you do good work, stay professional, and don't fall out with anyone, you can get recommendations and a leg up for the next job. And basically that is how the industry works.

Eddie has read tons of scripts. If it's for a job, and he knows the director well, he might read it quite early in the process. But he'll also read scripts from friends etc and approaches screenplays differently to writers or even directors. The first questions are who is the target audience? Who will pay money to see this? Because at the end of the day it's a business. And if you make films that no one wants to see and lose money, it's going to be harder to get the next project off the ground. Eddie trusts his instincts when it comes to script, how it's working, and how developed a project is. And you ask questions like how dense is it? How sharp is the dialogue? Is it clear who the main character is? And these are the same questions writers, readers and script editors should be asking.

But film is created in three stages - written, shot and edited. It's three steps where the film is re-invented and made. However one common question is why does a finished film often look so different from the finished script? And Eddie's answer was quite revealing. By the time the film reaches the edit suite, the script no longer matters in a way. Because all you've got to work with is what's been shot. And if for some reason things went differently on the shoot than expected (and that can be anything from the weather forcing an interior shoot rather than an exterior one, or an actor having a bad day, or co-stars lacking chemistry,) that's still all you've got to work with. What may have been on the page is gone. So you have to try and craft the best film possible from the material.

It's not the technology available that matters. For Eddie, all that matters is story and character. When he's looking at the material that's all he's thinking about. And if for example something hasn't quite worked in the shoot, an actor didn't deliver or whatever, then you may have to find a way to minimise the focus on that character. It can happen that whole characters get cut out of the finished movie. Sometimes a relationship isn't there in the material. Can you help this in the edit? If the answer is no, you may have to re-shoot scenes or shoot additional material.

By the same token, it's only fair to say that good actors and good performances sometimes means dialogue gets cut. For example working with Toni Collette, she's such a good actress, and there's so much going on with her, that she can convey something in one line instead of the half a dozen that were in the script. But writers shouldn't necessarily feel bad about that. The dialogue sometimes has to be written out like that for the reader, and then ultimately the actor, to understand the intention. But if this intention can then be conveyed in less dialogue, so much the better. (I would add a caveat to that, as a script reader, that writers shouldn't fall back on this as an excuse for writing reams and reams of long winded dialogue. It should still be as sharp as you can possibly make it. But just be aware that good actors can bring something extra to the table.)

Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, Eddie repeated what Tim Bevan said, that producers will often greenlight a movie too early because they need the production fee to survive. And I'll repeat what I said then. That I believe this is the single biggest reason movies fail in this country. I have no idea what, but we must do something to try and change this.

Eddie sees his job as holding the hand of the audience from the very first shot. What is the tone, character and story? Tone is so important because audiences want to know very quickly what story they are settling in to watch. How can I best elicit the emotional responses you want from the audience by choosing what shot you want and how you cut them together. (Music is also really important in this respect.) This also felt similar to what Bevan had said and keeping the audience and what you want them to feel at the forefront of your thinking is a lesson many writers still need to learn. And a lot of films don't work because the tone is not right or unclear.

There are many tales of films being completely re-conceived in the edit - most famously Annie Hall. But if the writer, director and editor are working well and functioning as a team, all anyone wants is to make the right choices to make the film as good as possible.

A couple of final comments from Chris to close. In the creative process everybody filters through their own life experience. When you ask for opinions some might say no way would anyone say or do that, whereas others will say that's exactly what I'd say or I know someone who has done that. I think writers have to trust their own voice and be true to their vision, as long as it's not at the expense of narrative logic and plausibility.

By the same token, when thinking visually, it's important to remember that human beings are meaning making machines. And when we see something on screen we can make it mean a huge amount in a second. But it's really hard to do that in a script. Because all you have available to do that are words. It's not exactly new but I don't think I've heard a better description of film as a visual medium than this. That is what, ultimately, it is all about. And it's the writers who are best at using their words, as economically as possible, to create the visual images in the director's mind, so that they find their way into the shoot, that means that when the material reaches the edit suite, what you want to achieve is still there.

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