Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Return to Oz

Writing the Middle: The Story of All the King’s Men

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My recent discussion of writing the middle reminds me of one of my favorite Hollywood war stories, which I owe to the great Walter Murch, frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, director of Return to Oz, and dean of American film editors. I first came across this anecdote in the book Behind the Seen, which lovingly details Murch’s use of Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain—not a great movie, to be sure, but a fascinating case study, resulting in the best available book on what a modern film editor does. I expect to be talking a lot more about Murch, and this book, in the future, but for now, I want to share just one story, which involves the making of the classic film All the King’s Men. (The 1949 original, mind you, not the terrible remake.)

Murch relates a story from the autobiography of Robert Parrish, the editor of All the King’s Men, who says that the first cut of the film was a disaster—it was three hours long, boring, and made no sense. Subsequent cuts only made things worse. Finally, after six months and seven disastrous preview screenings, the movie’s director, Robert Rossen, came up with a desperate idea. According to Parrish, Rossen said:

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

The result, amazingly, worked: it got the movie down to ninety minutes and, according to Parrish, “it all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way.” After screening it for an enthusiastic test audience, they cut a final print with all the imperfections and jump cuts intact. The result won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As I see it, there are two lessons here:

1) The opening and closing beats of a scene are usually unnecessary. The middle is what counts. Write, or film, the middle. And if a sequence isn’t working, try cutting the first and last paragraphs—which is essentially what Rossen and Parrish did. (If Steven Zaillian, the director of the remake, had tried the same thing, he might have ended up with a salvageable movie, rather than a notorious bore.)

2) Audiences and readers are pretty smart. If they’re plunged into the middle of a scene—or story—it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happening. And if you pay them the compliment of assuming that they’ll be able to follow you, who knows? They may even like it.

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