Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The first assembly

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In film editing, there’s a concept known as the first assembly, which the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman—one of my favorite works on creativity of any kind—defines as “all the scenes, as shot, put together in order, as written.” In many cases, the editor starts putting it together using the available footage even as the movie is shooting, and, in a perfect world, he or she would be done with it the week after the production wrapped. It usually takes a lot longer in practice. But the key takeaway is that nobody involved expects it to be any good. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a source of insight into how long the movie will ultimately be and how long it will take to wrestle it into its final form. This information is so valuable that the editor will often make an effort to forecast it during the shoot itself. In describing the process by which Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain, Koppelman writes:

As Murch later explains, “It’s in my job description. I should be able to tell a director—Anthony [Minghella] in this case—that at this pace of shooting the assembly will be over five hours long.” The length of the assembly matters because it may determine whether the director, who is responsible for delivering a film on time and on budget, fulfills his or her contractual obligations. Other crew members and production executives can keep track of production costs and scheduling issues, but only the editor can predict with any certainty if the schedule for editing is accurate, given the amount of work and footage to come. Moreover, the amount of time it takes to edit a motion picture relates, in large part, to the length of the first assembly. The more footage an editor and his or her crew have to begin with, the longer it will take them to assemble it all, and then the longer it will take to pare it all back down to a releasable length.

Film editors are used to thinking in these terms, but it doesn’t always come naturally to writers, although maybe it should—which is one reason why I reread Behind the Seen whenever I start to revise a manuscript. I doubt that many authors think of their rough drafts as first assemblies, but it’s a useful approach. For one thing, it emphasizes the provisional nature of any draft. When you’ve finished your initial pass on an extended writing project, the result is less meaningful in itself than as a source of data about the stage to come. What finished length should you target? How long will it take to get there? These are questions that you should be asking throughout the process, but it isn’t until you have a first assembly that you can get at meaningful answers. (Like Murch, I often find myself uneasily predicting how long the draft will be while I’m still writing, based on how big each section ends up being in relation to the outline, and, like him, I usually find that I’ve underestimated it.) Just as important is the emphasis that it places on reducing the overall length. Writing is cutting, as I’ve said many times before, and thinking of your manuscript as a first assembly reminds you that your primary responsibility is to extract the core of the story out of the deadwood of the draft. As Koppelman vividly puts it:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

And even if you don’t have a contracted length, it helps to impose one on yourself, simply as a reminder to scrutinize every sentence as critically as possible.

In Murch’s hands, the notion of a first assembly leads to two related concepts that are worth bearing in mind for any kind of narrative work. One is the crush ratio, which refers to the relationship between the footage that comes out of the shoot—which can amount to hundreds of hours—to the length of the first assembly:

[Murch] refers to this volume reduction—compelling the first assembly from all the raw footage—as “the crush ratio,” a term in winemaking that measures the first pressing against the original volume of picked grapes. A second pressing will get the first assembly down to a release print. Much already looks beyond the first crush to the second pressing: getting a five-hour-plus assembly to a releasable length…

From here on out, editing is, for the most part, all about story, structure, character, and length. There were hints, clues, and portents about these big issues as the dailies flew by over the last six months. But now the material has been “crushed” (first assembly), so the process of revision and reordering can begin in earnest. In film editing, however, unlike the winemaker process, none of the raw material is ever really discarded.

In writing, particularly in nonfiction, the equivalent is the proportion between the amount of raw material that you’ve gathered, in the form of primary sources, and the wordage that ends up on the page. A sense of this ratio can be helpful in the dusty middle innings of a project, when you’re trying to figure out how long the work will be, based on the volume of the subject matter. And it can clue you into the organic length that the story wants to take, which you can embrace or resist to various degrees.

Nearly every literary work, like every movie, ought to be as short as you can make it, and Murch’s other major concept has important implications for the second pressing:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

I’ve used the thirty percent factor as a guide for everything I’ve written, along with the admonition—endorsed by Stephen King and Calvin Trillin—that every rough draft should be cut by ten percent. Ideally, the amount that I cut from first draft to the last will fall somewhere between those two extremes, although I often find myself engaging in the sort of open-heart surgery that Murch describes. The numbers are slightly arbitrary, but not entirely. They match well with my experience of practical revision. And when you’re staring at that first assembly and wondering how you’re ever going to cut it down, you’ll take all the help that you can get.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant art or thought.

Theodore Roszak, “In Search of the Miraculous”

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

Hubbard in the wild

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Last week, I found myself in the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, where the cruise ship on which I was traveling with my wife and daughter called briefly into port. We were on shore for just a few hours—it was a short stop on a weeklong trip that also took us to Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park—but I was eager to look around, for reasons that probably hadn’t occurred to most of my fellow passengers. On August 30, 1940, L. Ron Hubbard and his first wife Polly wandered into the port of Ketchikan on their boat the Magician, the crankshaft of which was broken. It was an undignified end to a voyage that Hubbard had commenced with high hopes. He had planned to sail his little yacht, which he had bought with the proceeds from his novel Buckskin Brigades, up the West Coast to Alaska. The Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition was supposedly conceived with the aim of updating outdated navigational guides and testing new models of radio and camera gear, and he would be flying the flag of the Explorers Club, the exclusive New York society to which he had contrived to be elected earlier that year. It also gave him an excuse to fit out his boat, and he wrote letters to manufacturers, on a special letterhead, asking them to send him free equipment to test. After submitting a handful of stories to John W. Campbell and leaving his two small children behind with his aunt, he sailed out of Yukon Harbor with Polly in July. Almost at once, they ran into trouble. The engine died on the second day, when they were caught in a fog eighty miles from home, and it conked out again in Chatham Sound, off the coast of British Columbia. They just barely made it to Ketchikan, where they would be stranded for months.

On his arrival, Hubbard told the local paper that he had come to Alaska to win a wager—a friend, he said, had bet him that his boat wasn’t big enough to survive the trip—and to research a novel about salmon fishing. He didn’t have the money to fix the Magician, so he wrote letters instead to his friends, including Campbell, who gleefully informed the readers of Unknown that Hubbard had suffered “a slight case of shipwreck.” Hubbard mailed film and navigational notes to the Hydrographic Office in Washington D.C., and he pestered the Regal Company in Bremerton to send him a replacement crankshaft. He also befriended the owner of the town’s radio station, which I visited on my trip, becoming a regular presence on the air with stories about his travels. Among other things, he claimed that he had tracked down a German saboteur in Alaska, and he described an encounter with a swimming brown bear that he had lassoed from his boat with a noose. (The bear allegedly clawed its away on board, forcing Hubbard to flee into the cabin, where he managed to cut the rope. After the boat beached itself, the bear sniffed around, devouring all the salmon in the hold, and finally lumbered off. In Hubbard’s later retellings, it was transformed into a polar bear.) According to Russell Miller, author of the biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Hubbard also “reorganized the station and wrote new programming schedules with all the confidence of a man who had spent a lifetime in broadcasting.” He took every opportunity to mention his busted crankshaft, and when a new one arrived, he was convinced it was because his program had been heard in Bremerton. Once the boat was repaired, he and Polly left Ketchikan, leaving behind an unpaid loan to the Bank of Alaska, and finally returned to Washington on December 27. He hadn’t seen his children in nearly half a year.

The expedition hadn’t exactly been a success, but Hubbard, characteristically, spun it into the kind of colorful story that made him seem larger than life. (Campbell wrote in a letter: “Ron, I think, is in for some kidding when he comes east again.” And he was teased by his friends John Clark, Fletcher Pratt, and L. Sprague de Camp, who sang a satirical song in his honor, but it was the kind of affectionate ribbing that he enjoyed.) It’s usually seen as just another instance of Hubbard’s inflated notion of himself, but there’s a little more to it. Hubbard was only twenty-nine at the time, and he was far from the first or last person to be drawn to Alaska for what he thought it represented. Here’s what an electrician named Jim Gallien recalled of a young hitchhiker he once met outside of Fairbanks with similar dreams:

Gallien wondered whether he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.

“People from Outside,” reports Gallien in a slow, sonorous drawl, “they’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush—well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitoes eat you alive. Most places, there aren’t a lot of animals to hunt. Livin’ in the bush isn’t no picnic.”

The hitchhiker, of course, was Christopher McCandless, whose life and death was memorably chronicled by Jon Krakauer in the book Into the Wild. Krakauer notes that McCandless was representative of a type that frequently turns up in Alaska, quoting a critical letter sent to Outside magazine by a schoolteacher living in a remote village on the Kobuk River:

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve run into several McCandless types out in the country. Same story: idealistic, energetic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble. McCandless was hardly unique; there’s quite a few of these guys hanging around the state, so much alike that they’re almost a collective cliché. The only difference is that McCandless ended up dead, with the story of his dumbassedness splashed across the media.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, although the two men differed in important respects. Most notably, Hubbard didn’t go alone: he left behind his children, but he brought his wife, to whom, by most accounts, he could be horribly abusive. (Polly’s thoughts on the trip have gone unrecorded.) Hubbard also survived to shamelessly embellish his adventure to his friends, and he went on to have a career that naturally inclines his critics to seek out unflattering readings of his earlier life. But there’s an equally legitimate interpretation that takes his wanderings—the trips to Guam and China with his parents, his stint as an amateur pilot, the “expeditions” to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico—and acknowledges their affinities to those of other restless but urgent seekers in their twenties. If we’re more likely to make fun of his failures than to admire his audacity, his own tall tales bear most of the blame. His exaggerations were rooted in truth, but in the long run, they had the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of impressing others, they trivialized and distorted what was a genuinely colorful youth, the only flaw of which was that it wasn’t romantic enough by the standards that Hubbard, and no one else, had set for himself.

Quote of the Day

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A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns…The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up…In the destructive element immerse.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The faults in our stars

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In his wonderful conversational autobiography Cavett, Dick Cavett is asked about his relationship with Johnny Carson, for whom he served as a writer on The Tonight Show. Cavett replies:

I did work for Carson. We didn’t go fishing together on weekends, and I never slept over at his house, the two of us lying awake in our jammies eating the fudge we had made together, talking of our dreams and hopes and fears. But I found him to be cordial and businesslike, and to have himself well in hand as far as the show as concerned…He is not a man who seems to seek close buddies, and, if he were, the staff of his own television show would not be the ideal place to seek them.

It’s a memorable passage, especially the last line, which seems particularly relevant at a time when our talk show hosts seem eager to seem accessible to everybody, and to depict their writing staffs as one big happy family. When asked to comment on the widespread notion that Carson was “cold,” Cavett responds:

I know very little about Johnny’s personal relationships. I have heard that he has been manipulated and screwed more than once by trusted associates, to the point where he is defensively wary to what some find an excessive degree. I see this as a perfectly reasonable response. It is, I suppose, the sort of thing that happens to a person in show business that makes his former friends say, with heavy disapprobation, “Boy, has he changed.”

Cavett could easily let the subject rest there, but something in the question seems to stick in his mind, and he continues:

While I’m at it, I’ll do a short cadenza on the subject of changing. If you are going to survive in show business, the chances are you are going to change or be changed. Whatever your reasons for going into the business, it is safe to admit they form a mixture of talent, ambition, and neurosis. If you are going to succeed and remain successful, you are going to do it at the expense of a number of people who are clamoring to climb the same rope you are climbing. When you suddenly acquire money, hangers-on, well-wishers, and ill-wishers; when you need to make baffling decisions quickly, to do too much in too little time, to try to lead a personal and a professional life when you can’t seem to find the time for either; when you have to kick some people’s fannies and kiss others’ to get to the point where you won’t need to do either any more; when you have to sort out conflicting advice, distinguish between the treacherous and the faithful or the competent and the merely aggressive, suffer fools when time is short and incompetents when you are in a pinch; and when you add to this the one thing that you don’t get in other professions—the need to be constantly fresh and presentable and at your best just at the times when you are bone-weary, snappish, and depressed; when all these things apply, it is possible that you are going to be altered, changed, and sometimes for the worse.

This is one of the best things I’ve ever read about show business, and if anything, it feels even more insightful today, when we collectively have so much invested in the idea that stars have inner lives that are more or less like our own.

It’s often been said that the reason that television actors have trouble crossing over to the movies is that we expect different things from our stars in either medium. One requires a personality that is larger than life, which allows it to survive being projected onto an enormous screen in a darkened theater; the other is a person whom we’d feel comfortable inviting on a regular basis into our living rooms. If that’s true of scripted television that airs once a week, it’s even more true of the talk shows that we’re expected to watch every night. And now that the online content created by such series has become so central to their success, we’re rapidly approaching this trend’s logical culmination: a talk show host has to be someone whose face we’d be comfortable seeing anywhere, at any time. This doesn’t just apply to television, either. As social media is increasingly called upon to supplement the marketing budgets of big movies, actors are obliged to make themselves accessible—on Twitter, on Instagram, as good sports on Saturday Night Live and in viral videos—to an extent that a star of the old studio system of the forties would have found utterly baffling. Deadline’s writeup of Alien: Covenant is typical:

RelishMix…assessed that Alien: Covenant has a strong social media universe…spread across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube views and Instagram followers…The company also adds that Covenant was challenged by a generally inactive cast, with Empire’s Jussie Smollett being the most popular activated star. Danny McBride across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook counts over 250,000. Michael Fassbender is not socially active.

I love the implication that stars these days need to be “activated,” like cell phones, to be fully functional, as well as the tone of disapproval at the fact that Michael Fassbender isn’t socially active. It’s hard to imagine how that would even look: Fassbender’s appeal as an actor emerges largely from his slight sense of reserve, even in showy parts. But in today’s climate, you could also argue that this has hampered his rise as a star.

And Cavett’s cadenza on change gets at an inherent tension in the way we see our stars, which may not be entirely sustainable. In The Way of the Gun, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who knows more than anyone about survival in Hollywood, the character played by James Caan says: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Similarly, the only thing you can assume about a movie star, talk show host, or any other figure in show business whose face you recognize is that he or she possesses superhuman levels of ambition. Luck obviously plays a large role in success, as does talent, but both require a preternatural drive, which is the matrix in which giftedness and good fortune have a chance to do their work. Ambition may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary. Yet we persist in believing that stars are accessible and ordinary, when, by definition, they can hardly be other than extraordinary. It’s a myth that emerges from the structural assumptions of social media, a potent advertising tool that demands a kind of perceptual leveling to be effective. I was recently delighted to learn that the notorious feature “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” originated when the editors at Us Magazine had to figure out how to use the cheap paparazzi shots that they could afford to buy on their tiny budget, like a picture of Drew Barrymore picking up a penny. Social media works in much the same way. It creates an illusion of intimacy that is as false as the airbrushed images of the movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age, and it deprives us of some of the distance required for dreams. Whether or not they want to admit it, stars, unlike the rich, truly are different. And I’ll let Cavett have the last word:

Unless you are one of these serene, saintly individuals about whom it can be truly said, “He or she hasn’t changed one bit from the day I knew them in the old house at Elm Street.” This is true mostly of those who have found others to do their dirty work for them. All I’m saying is that your demands and needs change, and if you don’t change with them you don’t survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

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The word “show” suggests that you’re revealing something. It doesn’t suggest finding. And because I do what I do every day, I have to make sure that the showing of things is in itself the seeking for things.

Es Devlin, on the television series Abstract

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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The darkness of future past

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Note: Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of the third season of Twin Peaks.

“Is it future, or is it past?” Mike, the one-armed man, asks Cooper in the Black Lodge. During the premiere of the belated third season of Twin Peaks, there are times when it seems to be both at once. We often seem to be in familiar territory, and the twinge of recognition that it provokes has a way of alerting us to aspects of the original that we may have overlooked. When two new characters, played appealingly—and altogether too briefly—by Ben Rosenfield and Madeline Zima, engage in an oddly uninflected conversation, it’s a reminder of the appealingly flat tone that David Lynch likes to elicit from his actors, who sometimes seem to be reading their lines phonetically, like the kids in a Peanuts cartoon. It isn’t bad or amateurish acting, but an indication that even the performers aren’t entirely sure what they’re doing there. In recent years, accomplished imitators from Fargo to Legion have drawn on Lynch’s style, but they’re fully conscious of it, and we’re aware of the technical trickery of such players as Ewan McGregor or Dan Stevens. In Lynch’s best works, there’s never a sense that anyone involved is standing above or apart from the material. (The major exceptions are Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, who disrupt the proceedings with their own brand of strangeness, and, eerily, Robert Blake in Lost Highway.) The show’s original cast included a few artful performers, notably Ray Wise and the late Miguel Ferrer, but most of the actors were endearingly unaffected. They were innocents. And innocence is a quality that we haven’t seen on television in a long time.

Yet it doesn’t take long to realize that some things have also changed. There’s the heightened level of sex and gore, which reflects the same kind of liberation from the standards of network television that made parts of Fire Walk With Me so difficult to watch. (I’d be tempted to observe that its violence against women is airing at a moment in which such scenes are likely to be intensely scrutinized, if it weren’t for the fact that Lynch has been making people uncomfortable in that regard for over thirty years.) The show is also premiering in an era in which every aspect of it will inevitably be picked apart in real time on social media, which strikes me as a diminished way of experiencing it. Its initial run obviously prompted plenty of theorizing around the nation’s water coolers, but if there’s anything that Twin Peaks has taught us, it’s that the clues are not what they seem. Lynch is a director who starts with a handful of intuitive images that are potent in themselves—an empty glass cube, a severed head, a talking tree. You could call them dreamlike, or the fruits of the unconscious, or the products, to use a slightly dated term, of the right hemisphere of the brain. Later on, the left hemisphere, which is widely but misleadingly associated with Lynch’s collaborator Mark Frost, circles back and tries to impose meaning on those symbols, but these readings are never entirely convincing. Decades ago, when the show tried to turn Cooper’s dream of the Black Lodge into a rebus for the killer’s identity, you could sense that it was straining. There isn’t always a deeper answer to be found, aside from the power of those pictures, which should be deep enough in itself.

As a result, I expect to avoid reading most reviews or analysis, at least until the season is over. Elements that seem inexplicable now may or may not pay off, but the series deserves the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t to say that what we’ve seen so far has been perfect: Twin Peaks, whatever else it may have been, was never a flawless show. Kyle MacLachlan has been as important to my inner life as any actor, but I’m not sure whether he has the range to convincingly portray Dark Cooper. He’s peerless when it comes to serving as the director’s surrogate, or a guileless ego wandering through the wilderness of the id, but he isn’t Dennis Hopper, and much of this material might have been better left to implication. Similarly, the new sequences in the Black Lodge are striking—and I’ve been waiting for them for what feels like my entire life—but they’re also allowed to run for too long. Those original scenes were so memorable that it’s easy to forget that they accounted for maybe twenty minutes, stretched across two seasons, and that imagination filled in the rest. (A screenshot of Cooper seated with the Man from Another Place was the desktop image on my computer for most of college.) If anything, the show seems almost too eager to give us more of Cooper in those iconic surroundings, and half as much would have gone a long way. In the finale of the second season, when Cooper stepped through those red curtains at last, it felt like the culmination of everything that the series had promised. Now it feels like a set where we have to linger for a while longer before the real story can begin. It’s exactly what the Man from Another Place once called it: the waiting room.

Lynch and Frost seem to be reveling in the breathing space and creative freedom that eighteen full hours on Showtime can afford, and they’ve certainly earned that right. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, Twin Peaks may have benefited from the constraints that a broadcast network imposed, just as Wild at Heart strikes me as one of the few films to have been notably improved by being edited for television. When Lynch made Blue Velvet, he and editor Duwayne Dunham, who is also editing the new season, were forced to cut the original version to the bone to meet their contractually mandated runtime, and the result was the best American movie I’ve ever seen. Lynch’s most memorable work has been forced to work within similar limitations, and I’m curious to see how it turns out when most of those barriers are removed. (I still haven’t seen any of the hours of additional footage that were recently released from Fire Walk With Me, but I wish now that I’d taken the trouble to seek them out. The prospect of viewing those lost scenes is less exciting, now that we’re being given the equivalent of a sequel that will be allowed to run for as long as it likes.) In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. When I look back at the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, I’m startled to realize how little of it I remember: it comes to about three hours of unforgettable images, mostly from the episodes directed by Lynch. If the first two episodes of the new run are any indication, it’s likely to at least double that number, which makes it a good deal by any standard. Twin Peaks played a pivotal role in my own past. And I still can’t entirely believe that it’s going to be part of my future, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2017 at 10:32 am

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