Alec Nevala-Lee

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The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

The Ratner Pack

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Yesterday, the director Brett Ratner joined the depressingly long list of powerful men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault. The charges leveled by the Los Angeles Times are both damning and horrifyingly familiar, but one detail in particular might ring a bell for attentive readers. One of the women who share their stories is Eri Sasaki, who claims that Ratner dangled the prospect of a speaking part in Rush Hour 2 in exchange for sex. In response, Ratner’s attorney, Martin Singer, called her charges “absurd” and “nonsensical,” explaining to the Times: “The movie was obviously already cast and shooting, so the notion that there would be a discussion of getting her a speaking role in the middle of a movie shoot is ridiculous.” Let’s table that argument for a second, and turn to the even more sordid case of James Toback, who supposedly used a similar line on dozens of women for decades. Four days before Toback was the subject of his own exposé in the Times, the reporter Hillel Aron asked him about the allegation “that you approach women on the street and offer them film roles, and talk about how you want to be involved with them, working in movies, and then the conversation quickly switches in some way to sex.” Toback replied:

Lemme be really clear about this. I don’t want to get a pat on the back, but I’ve struggled seriously to make movies with very little money, that I write, that I direct, that mean my life to me. The idea that I would offer a part to anyone for any other reason than that he or she was gonna be the best of anyone I could find is so disgusting to me. And anyone who says it is a lying cocksucker or c—t or both…Anyone who says that, I just want to spit in his or her fucking face.

In both cases, the reasoning, evidently, is that no real director would ever offer a woman a part in a film in exchange for sex if he weren’t completely serious about following through. Why aren’t people convinced by this?

If Ratner and Toback trade in the same line of garbage, either directly or through a surrogate, that shouldn’t come as a surprise—the two of them have been close for years. There was talk a while back of Ratner directing Toback’s screenplay about John DeLorean, which never got off the ground, while Toback has referred to the younger director as “my friend and L.A. housemate.” Ratner, for his part, said to Variety earlier this year: “My closest friends are James Toback, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Bob Evans—these are the guys who have helped me and given me the best advice.” Even if we leave out Polanski, that’s quite a list. Over a decade ago, Vanity Fair ran a glowing profile of Ratner that included a quote that I’ve never forgotten:

When I screen a movie, before I show it to anybody, I show it to one of three people: Warren [Beatty], Bob Evans, or Bob Towne, because they’re the smartest guys in the business. They tell me the truth, they’re not kissing my ass.

At the time, I’ll confess that I did little more than give credit to Ratner for seeking out interesting mentors—even if Beatty and Evans seem now like models for something other than good manners toward women. (As for Towne, he’s mentioned in the recent coverage only because Ratner is accused of making “an aggressive come-on” years ago to his daughter Katharine, whom he allegedly followed into a bathroom at a movie star’s house in Los Angeles, saying: “I like ’em chubby sometimes.” Singer, Ratner’s lawyer, who is really doing his client no favors, replies: “Even if hypothetically this incident occurred exactly as claimed, how is flirting at a party, complimenting a woman on her appearance, and calling her to ask her for a date wrongful conduct?”)

But the roll call of Ratner’s buddies is striking for other reasons. Beatty, Evans, Towne, and even Toback are undeniably smart guys, but they’ve also had a rough stretch in Hollywood. Beatty’s recent career has consisted of a long retreat punctuated by an embarrassing failure, Evans and Towne’s travails are the stuff of legend, and Toback hasn’t been in a position to direct a movie on more than a shoestring budget in more than a decade. (The most pathetic detail in the Toback exposé has to be his favorite pickup line, which he delivered in locations like the Kinko’s on the Upper West Side: “My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?” And if the woman in question hadn’t, he was happy to pull out a copy of the DVD.) You could argue that the ups and downs of their careers have turned Beatty, Evans, and the rest into unusually interesting sources of advice, and you’d be right. And their recent setbacks have made them more available to swap war stories with an eager young protégé than, say, Steven Spielberg might be. But I don’t think that Ratner was really looking for such insights, at least not when it came to making movies: I think he was seeking out the aura of Hollywood in the seventies. Ratner’s filmography consists of some of the least memorable or personal movies of the last twenty years, but it’s in his unproduced projects that you start to get a sense of his inner life. One was the DeLorean movie, which Evans was rumored at one time to be producing. Another was a film with a lead character—to which Johnny Depp was attached—clearly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in New York. And as the latest accusations broke, Ratner was developing a movie about none other than Hugh Hefner, with Jared Leto set to star, which fell apart over the last twenty-four hours.

It isn’t hard to see the pattern here. Ratner may sign up to direct X-Men: The Last Stand or Hercules, but his heart obviously lies with biopics about a certain type of man. They may never get made, but in the meantime, they allow him to daydream. A lot of us contemplate such lives with a certain sick fascination—I’ve listened endlessly to Evans’s audiobook of his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture—but Ratner seems to have done everything he can to put it in into practice, first in the circle of older men with which he surrounds himself, and second in the way he evidently treats many of the women who cross his path. (His production company, incidentally, is called RatPac, which evokes yet another glamorized era of bad behavior.) It’s the sort of perverse nostalgia that we can glimpse even in Harvey Weinstein, whose abuse of women seems modeled after an even earlier period, in which studio moguls treated human beings as their personal property. Some of these men also made great works of art, which doesn’t excuse their actions, but Ratner seems content to imitate and reenact their legacy in every way except the one that really counts: by making films that viewers would admire and remember. You can get surprisingly far by paying lip service to a set of cultural values that you have no interest in realizing yourself, except as a pretext for the acquisition of sex, money, and power. And it doesn’t stop in Hollywood. I can’t overlook the fact that one of Ratner’s movies, Tower Heist, originally had a different title before it was changed in preproduction, and while I can’t say for sure what drew him to the project, I can venture a good guess. As Ratner mused earlier this summer to The Hollywood Reporter: “In retrospect, it would have been a bigger hit if it had been called Trump Heist.”

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

On the paper trail of the assassins

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At the climax of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a movie that has obsessed and exasperated me for the last quarter of a century, Kevin Costner, as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, delivers what by some measures is the longest courtroom speech in movie history. It goes on for something like forty minutes, interspersed with vivid recreations of the scene in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the closing argument, which ends with Costner looking directly at the camera, includes the following odd passage:

There’s a simple way to determine if I am paranoid. Ask the two men who profited most from the assassination—former President Johnson and your new President Nixon—to release the fifty-one CIA documents pertaining to Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby. Or the secret CIA memo on Oswald’s activities in Russia that was destroyed while being photocopied. These documents are yours. The people’s property. You pay for it. But as the government sees you as children who might be too disturbed to face this reality, or because you might lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I’m in my forties, so I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then. But I’m telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in 2038, he can go to the National Archives and learn what the CIA and FBI knew.

As Costner makes his appeal, we cut to the young actor playing Jasper Garrison, who is actually Sean Stone, the director’s son. And there’s little doubt that Stone is speaking here with his own voice. (In fact, the date for the release of these records was 2039, not 2038, which raises the tragicomic image of eighty-year-old Jasper eagerly showing up one year early at the National Archives, only to be turned away.)

In the most surprising twist of all, JFK upset its own timeline, and the film’s success inspired the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which released the vast majority of the files related to Kennedy’s death and stipulated that the rest be disclosed within “twenty-five years after the date of the enactment of this act, October 26, 1992.” Well, that’s today. So what exactly does this mean? For answers, we can turn to the biggest book in the world, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is so physically huge that it includes a thousand pages of endnotes in a separate bonus disc. Freed up to talk about whatever he wants at length, Bugliosi spends close to fifteen pages of small type discussing the JFK Records Act, and he takes pains to debunk the notion that these records were deliberately “sealed” by the Warren Commission. In reality, at the commission’s last meeting on September 24, 1964, a motion was made and carried that “all of the remaining materials and records of the Commission shall be delivered to the National Archives to be held in perpetuity for the use and benefit of the people of the United States.” Two months later, over three hundred cubic feet of documents and numerous boxes of physical evidence, including Oswald’s rifle, were transferred to the archives. At the time, materials related to all investigations conducted by the executive branch were kept classified for seventy-five years, and the Warren Commission itself had nothing to do with it. In an interview with the New York Herald-Tribune toward the end of that same year, Dr. Robert Bahmer, the deputy archivist, explained that this period was chosen “because it is considered to be the life span of an individual…to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.”

The interview with Bahmer prompted the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to write a letter to President Johnson protesting the classification of “off-the record testimony and exhibits” from the investigation. (Bugliosi points out that all of the testimony before the Warren Commission was actually on the record, and everything had been released in the fifteen volumes of the full report.) Johnson looked into making an exception, and Earl Warren himself advocated for “the fullest possible disclosure.” In consequence, as early as 1966, about eighty percent of documents from federal agencies had been released. Yet the notion persisted that the unreleased files would provide important evidence for the existence of a conspiracy. Bugliosi has some choice words for this notion:

In the first place, the belief that any alleged conspirators who plotted Kennedy’s assassination would commit to paper anything that expressly, obliquely, or in any other way referred to the murderous plot is ridiculous on its face. Moreover, even if we make the assumption that one or more of these documents did exist, the only reason why anyone would want to suppress their existence would be if they were involved in the conspiracy to murder Kennedy…But you see, if that were the case, these people would simply destroy these documents, not leave them in any file. If they were immoral enough to murder Kennedy, or do whatever they could to cover up for those who did, surely they would eliminate an incriminating document. To suggest otherwise is to say that they would have, in effect, the following state of mind: “It’s one thing for me to be a part of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy or to be an accessory after the fact to his murder, but don’t expect me to throw away any incriminating document. That’s just going too far. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. How immoral do you think I am?”

Bugliosi concedes that it might be possible for incriminating information to be overlooked and uncovered by a diligent search, but at the time that he wrote his book, ten years ago, virtually all the documents had already been released. His source at the National Archives estimated that about five thousand pages remained, which were withheld because they contained such information as the names of intelligence agents or details about investigative methods. Bugliosi concludes:

Three things are very clear: First, after an unprecedented and historic four-year scavenger hunt by the [JFK Assassination Records Review Board] for all documents “reasonably related” to the assassination, no smoking gun or even a smoldering ember of conspiracy was found. The reason is that no such smoking gun or ember ever existed. Second, if it did exist, it would never have been left in any file for discovery. And finally, assassination researchers and conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, not even when the cows come home.

But the real punchline, as the New York Times has pointed out, is that after all these decades, an accident of timing means that these files will be released “by the administration of a president who dabbles in conspiracy theories himself.” (One of the categories of documents specifically exempted from the JFK Records Act, by the way, is income tax returns. I don’t really have anything to say about this—I’m just pointing it out.) And in at least one respect, the fears of the truly paranoid might turn out to be justified. It’s hard to imagine a moment in history when these documents would seem less interesting. The obsessions of aging conspiracy theorists can only seem quaint compared to the outrages unfolding in plain sight every day. Trump has inadvertently done what no genuine coverup could possibly have accomplished. He’s made all of the old conspiracy theories seem boring.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2017 at 8:21 am

The fifteen missing pages

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In 1972, after the massive success of The Godfather, the director Francis Ford Coppola announced that his next project would be an original screenplay that he had been trying to make for years. It was a curious blend of paranoid thriller and character study—Coppola would later describe it as a cross between Blow-Up and Steppenwolf—about a surveillance expert named Harry Caul. Paramount was anxious for him to get to work on the sequel to his first big hit, but Coppola optimistically hoped to squeeze in this more personal project between the two Godfather films. As the editor Walter Murch told the novelist Michael Ondaatje in their great book The Conversations, that isn’t quite how it worked out:

A good ten days of material [on The Conversation] was never filmed—Francis and the production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do preproduction on Godfather II. His advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for. I’d say there were about fifteen pages of script material that were not shot.

To make matters even more fraught, with Coppola effectively gone, the film was left in the hands of Murch and his assistant editor Richard Chew, neither of whom had ever edited a movie before. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes their unlikely plan: “Coppola would show up every month or so…The three of them would screen [the film], spend a couple of days together going over ideas and making lists of things to try out. Then Coppola would disappear for another month.” It went on like this for an entire year.

More recently, another movie found itself in much the same situation, complete with a protagonist with a trademark raincoat and an oddly similar name. This time, it was the adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, about the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. On paper, it looked great: the leads were Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, and Tomas Alfredson of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was directing. Even before its release, however, there were rumors of trouble, capped off by a remarkable interview that Alfredson gave to Norwegian public broadcasting, which was quickly picked up by the Independent. For a film that has been in development for most of the decade—Scorsese was announced as the director way back in 2011, only to be replaced by Alfredson three years later—its actual production seems to have been untidy and rushed. As Alfredson revealed:

Our shoot time in Norway was way too short. We didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing…It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture…[The reshoots] happened very abruptly. Suddenly we got notice that we had the money and could start the shoot in London.

Alfredson estimated that “ten to fifteen percent” of the script was never shot. And while it isn’t clear how this happened, if we’re talking about a screenplay of average length, the unshot material amounted to more or less what it was for The Conversation. Postproduction is always an exhausting, stressful stage, and both films went into it with fifteen missing pages.

Faced with this sort of situation, an editor has no choice but to be a genius, creating structure, connections, and entirely new scenes from the footage that he or she has available. As Murch says drily to Ondaatje, with considerable understatement: “We had to be pretty inventive.” He provides one example:

For instance, in one scene Harry pursues Ann—the young woman who was his surveillance “target”—to a park, where he reveals to her who he is and what her concerns for her are. Francis shot the park material, but the material leading up to it, including a chase on electric buses, was never shot…Since we had no fabric with which to knit it into the reality of the film, it floated for a while, like a wild card, until we got the idea of making it a dream of Harry’s, which seemed to be the way to preserve it within the film…When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.

Much and Chew were novices, working independently, by trial and error, which was extraordinary even in the early seventies and would be utterly unthinkable today. With The Snowman, Universal did the obvious thing and brought in a ringer—they already had editor Claire Simpson, a veteran of such films as Platoon and The Constant Gardener, and to supplement her work, they hired none other than Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and arguably the most acclaimed editor of her generation. (Murch himself was recruited to do similar duty for the remake of The Wolf Man, which implies that this sort of repair work is a good side gig for legendary editors in their twilight years.) The result, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have been as inspired as it was for its predecessor. As Den of Geek writes of the opening of The Snowman: “The scene’s editing is full of jolts and strange elisions. Was the sequence originally much longer, but later cut down? Why does it all feel so disjointed?”

In the end, after seven years in development, The Snowman was dumped into theaters over the weekend to negative reviews and poor box office, and it seems likely to endure as one of those fascinating case studies that never get told in the full detail that they deserve. You could argue that it came down to the underlying material—The Conversation emerged from the creative peak of the most important American director since Orson Welles, while The Snowman, despite its elegant veneer of Nordic noir, was ultimately just another serial killer movie. But I think that the more accurate takeaway is that you never can tell. I’ve argued before that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a movie as being saved in the editing room, because every movie is saved in the editing room, but the conditions under which The Conversation and The Snowman were made certainly tested their editors’ ingenuity to the limit. It’s a situation that can produce great inventiveness and brilliant technical solutions, but a lot of it depends on luck, and we naturally remember the successes and forget the failures. At one point, Coppola considered halting work on The Conversation entirely, which prompted Murch to recall to Koppelman: “If we had postponed, The Conversation would have probably come out in late 1975, but with a cloud over it which would have been blamed on me—a rerecording mixer who had never edited a feature before.” Murch might well have never edited a movie again, and the history of film would be subtly different. Everyone involved with The Snowman seems likely to emerge unscathed, while the movie itself will live on as a cautionary tale of how all the skill in the world might not be enough to turn Harry Hole into Harry Caul. As Boris Lermontov says in my favorite movie by Michael Powell, Schoonmaker’s late husband and the idol of both Scorsese and Coppola: “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

The man with the plan

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Reservoir Dogs, a film that I loved as much as just about every other budding cinephile who came of age in the nineties. Tom Shone has a nice writeup on its legacy in The New Yorker, and while I don’t agree with every point that he makes—he dismisses Kill Bill, which is a movie that means so much to me that I named my own daughter after Beatrix Kiddo—he has insights that can’t be ignored: “Quentin [Tarantino] became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.” And there’s one paragraph that strikes me as wonderfully perceptive:

So many great filmmakers have made their debuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run to Michael Mann’s Thief to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail.

And while you could nitpick the details of this argument—Singer’s debut was actually Public Access, a movie that nobody, including me, has seen—it gets at something fundamental about the art of film, which lies at the intersection of an industrial process and a crime. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how Inception, my favorite movie of the last decade, maps the members of its mind heist neatly onto the crew of a motion picture: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was unconscious, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Most of the directors whom Shone names are what we’d call auteur figures, and aside from Singer, all of them wear a writer’s hat, which can obscure the extent to which they depend on collaboration. Yet in their best work, it’s hard to imagine Singer without Christopher McQuarrie, Tarantino without editor Sally Menke, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson, not to mention the art directors, cinematographers, and other skilled craftsmen required to finish even the most idiosyncratic and personal movie. Just as every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, every movie is inevitably about making movies, which is the life that its creators know most intimately. One of the most exhilarating things that a movie can do is give us a sense of the huddle between artists, which is central to the appeal of The Red Shoes, but also Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise told McQuarrie that he wanted to make a film about what it was like for the two of them to make a film.

But there’s also an element of criminality, which might be even more crucial. I’m not the first person to point out that there’s something illicit in the act of watching images of other people’s lives projected onto a screen in a darkened theater—David Thomson, our greatest film critic, has built his career on variations on that one central insight. And it shouldn’t surprise us if the filmmaking process itself takes on aspects of something done in the shadows, in defiance of permits, labor regulations, and the orderly progression of traffic. (Werner Herzog famously advised aspiring directors to carry bolt cutters everywhere: “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!”) If your goal is to tell a story about putting together a team for a complicated project, it could be about the Ballet Lermontov or the defense of a Japanese village, and the result might be even greater. But it would lack the air of illegality on which the medium thrives, both in its dreamlife and in its practical reality. From the beginning, Tarantino seems to have sensed this. He’s become so famous for reviving the careers of neglected figures for the sake of the auras that they provide—John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Keith Carradine—that it’s practically become his trademark, and we often forget that he did it for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Dillinger and Born to Kill, had been such a menacing presence both onscreen and off that that he was effectively banned from Hollywood after the forties, and he remained a terrifying presence even in old age. He terrorized the cast of Seinfield during his guest appearance as Elaine’s father, and one of my favorite commentary tracks from The Simpsons consists of the staff reminiscing nervously about how much he scared them during the recording of “Marge Be Not Proud.”

Yet Tarantino still cast him as Joe Cabot, the man who sets up the heist, and Tierney rewarded him with a brilliant performance. Behind the scenes, it went more or less as you might expect, as Tarantino recalled much later:

Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time—he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic. He was personally challenging to every aspect of filmmaking. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney—it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blowout and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.

But the most revealing thing about the whole incident is that an untested director like Tarantino felt capable of taking on Tierney at all. You could argue that he already had an inkling of what he might become, but I’d prefer to think that he both needed and wanted someone like this to symbolize the last piece of the picture. Joe Cabot is the man with the plan, and he’s also the man with the money. (In the original script, Joe says into the phone: “Sid, stop, you’re embarrassing me. I don’t need to be told what I already know. When you have bad months, you do what every businessman in the world does, I don’t care if he’s Donald Trump or Irving the tailor. Ya ride it out.”) It’s tempting to associate him with the producer, but he’s more like a studio head, a position that has often drawn men whose bullying and manipulation is tolerated as long as they can make movies. When he wrote the screenplay, Tarantino had probably never met such a creature in person, but he must have had some sense of what was in store, and Reservoir Dogs was picked up for distribution by a man who fit the profile perfectly—and who never left Tarantino’s side ever again. His name was Harvey Weinstein.

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