Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Behind the Seen

My ten creative books #9: Behind the Seen

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For reasons that aren’t too hard to figure out, the most comprehensive accounts that we have of the creative process tend to focus on mediocre works of art. Since the quality of the result is out of anyone’s hands, you can’t expect such extensive documentation to coincide with the making of a masterpiece, and the artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium are often too busy to keep good notes. (One possible exception is the bonus material for The Lord of the Rings, although you more typically end up with the endless hours of special features for The Hobbit.) This is why the most interesting book that I’ve ever seen about writing and publishing is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which tells you more than you would ever want to know about his justly forgotten bestseller The Prize. It’s also why my single favorite book about filmmaking is Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which centers on Walter Murch, an undeniable genius, and his editing of the film Cold Mountain. Even at the time, the movie found few passionate defenders, and watching the first half again recently didn’t change my mind. But the book that resulted from it is amazing. The critic David Thomson called it “probably the subtlest and most tender account of what a craftsman brings to a motion picture ever written,” but it’s also much more. From the moment that I first learned that it existed, I knew that I had to have it, and ever since, my copy—autographed by Murch himself—has occupied an unusual role in my writing life. It’s the book that I read whenever I need to revise a draft, get editorial feedback, or do anything else that frightens me as a writer. This is partially because I value Murch’s perspective, and because the craft of film editing has surprising affinities to what a writer does during the revision stage. Above all, however, it’s because this may be the most complete chronicle in existence of any act of creation whatsoever, from start to finish, and its wisdom is inseparable from its accumulation of ordinary detail over three hundred dense pages.

Behind the Seen is an unforgettable experience in itself, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Yet it also contains detachable pieces of lore, advice, and insight that anyone can take to heart. There’s Koppelman’s discussion of the “little people,” the tiny paper silhouettes that Murch attaches to his television monitor to remind himself of the size of the movie screen. Or there’s Murch’s lovely analogy of “blinking the key,” in which a lesson drawn from lighting a set tells you what happens when you take away what seemed like an indispensable element. And then there’s this:

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.

Perhaps best of all, there’s the shiny brass “B” that Murch hangs in his office. Koppelman explains: “Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a ‘B.’ Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how.”

The magic window

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Last week, the magazine Nautilus published a conversation on “the science and art of time” between the composer Philip Glass and the painter Fredericka Foster. The entire article is worth a look, but my favorite detail is one that Glass shares at the very beginning:

There are many strange things about music and time. When I’m on a tour with the dance company we work in a different-sized theater every night. The first thing the dance company does when we arrive is to measure the stage. They have to reset the dance to fit that stage. So you also have to reset the time of the music: in a larger theater, you must play slower. In a smaller theater, you have to play faster. The relation of time and space in music is dynamic. I have a range of speed in mind. If the players don’t pay attention to that, it will look really funny. You can see the stage fill up with dancers because they are playing at the wrong speed.

And a few lines afterward, in a more contemplative mood, Glass continues: “I was reflecting on the universe expanding. We know that it is and can measure it, by the way time is operating, or by the way we see a star exploding far away. For various reasons, when a physicist tells me that the universe is expanding, I say ‘Okay, let’s go back to the dance floor.’ The dance floor is getting bigger, what does that mean? It means that time has to slow down.”

The relationship between the pacing of a work of art and the physical space in which it occurs is an intriguing one, and it reminds me of a trick employed by one of my heroes, the film editor Walter Murch. In his excellent book Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes the “little people,” a pair of tiny paper silhouettes—one male, one female—that Murch attaches to the screening monitor in his editing room. Koppelman explains:

They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale…As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in…The solution for Murch is to have these two human cutouts stand sentry on his monitor, reminding him of the film’s eventual huge proportions.

And Murch writes in his book In the Blink of an Eye: “Why don’t we just edit in large rooms with big screens? Well, with digital editing and video projection, we could, very easily, be editing with a thirty-foot screen. The real estate for the room would be expensive, however.”

And while the problems presented by a live performance and a projected image on film might seem rather different, the underlying issue, in both cases, is the audience’s ability to receive and process information. On a purely practical level, a big stage may require the tempo of the choreography to subtly change, because the dancers are moving in a larger physical space, and the music has to be adjusted accordingly. But the viewer’s relationship to the work is also affected—the eye is more likely to take in the action in pieces, rather than as a whole, and the pacing may need to be modified. A similar phenomenon occurs in the movies, as Murch writes:

I have heard directors say that they were were disappointed when they finally saw their digitally edited films projected on a big screen. They felt that the editing now seemed “choppy,” though it had seemed fine on the television monitor…With a small screen, your eye can easily take in everything at once, whereas on a big screen it can only take in sections at a time. You tend to look at a small screen, but into a big screen. If you are looking at an image, taking it all in at once, your tendency will be to cut away to the next shot sooner. With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen.

Murch notes that the lack of detail on a small screen—or a compressed video file—can mislead the editor as well: “There may be so little detail that the eye can absorb all of it very quickly, leading the careless editor to cut sooner than if he had been looking at the fully detailed film image…Image detail and pace are intimately related.

And the risk of editing on a smaller screen isn’t anything new. Over thirty years ago, the director and editor Edward Dmytryk wrote in On Film Editing:

Many editors shape their editing concepts on the Moviola, a technique I consider decidedly inferior. One does not see the same things on a small Moviola screen, or even on the somewhat larger, though fuzzier, flatbed screen, that one sees in a theater. The audience sees its films only on the “big screen,” and since every cut should be made with the audience in mind, the cutter must try to see each bit of film as the viewer in the theater will eventually see it. (Even a moderate-sized television screen offers far more scope than a Moviola; therefore, it too presents a somewhat different “picture” for the viewer’s inspection.)

Today, of course, viewers can experience stories on a range of screen sizes that Dmytryk might never have anticipated, and which no editor can possibly control. And it’s unclear how editors—who, unlike Philip Glass, don’t have the luxury of measuring the space in which the film will unfold—are supposed to deal with this problem. Taken as a whole, it seems likely that the trend of editorial pacing reflects the smallest screen on which the results can be viewed, which is part of the reason why the average number of cuts per minute has steadily increased for years. And it’s not unreasonable for editors to prioritize the format in which movies will be seen for most of their lifetimes. Yet we also give up something when we no longer consider the largest possible stage. After the editor Anne V. Coates passed away last month, many obituaries paid tribute to the moment in Lawrence of Arabia that has justifiably been called the greatest cut in movie history. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it weren’t for the fact that the next shot is held for an astonishing thirty-five seconds, which might never have occurred to someone who was cutting it for a smaller screen. Even viewed on YouTube, it’s unforgettable. But in a theater, it’s a magic window.

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 secondary lights

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Note: This post discusses plot details from the most recent episode of Twin Peaks.

When I first heard about the return of Twin Peaks, I have a feeling that I was picturing something pretty much like last night’s episode. There are some undeniably strange scenes, including Dark Cooper’s deadly arm-wrestling match and another extended interlude with Dougie Jones, but their weirdness is mostly contained, and they serve a fairly obvious purpose in moving along the story, even as these subplots continue to advance at drastically different speeds. But the second half is unusually devoted to giving us the kind of quiet updates on familiar characters that the revival has so far resisted, including Sarah Palmer, Nadine, Big Ed, Norma, Shelly, Bobby, Dr. Jacobi, Audrey, and James. None of these vignettes are particularly memorable or dramatic. As Big Ed says to Bobby at the diner: “Nothing happening here.” Yet after all we’ve been through this season, there’s something oddly comforting about watching the series pause, regather itself, and offer a homeopathic dose of nostalgia before it plunges into whatever the hell it has in mind for its last five episodes. And it may not be a coincidence that it focuses on characters from a corner of the show that hasn’t always been fondly remembered by fans. Two of its storylines from the second season—James’s dalliance with the widow and Nadine’s transformation into a high school girl with superhuman strength—have become proverbial for the show’s loss of direction. But we still care about these people, and when a graying James sings “Just You and I” at the end, it’s both an uncharacteristically specific piece of fan service and the closest the show has yet come to Mark Frost’s promised meditation on aging and time.

If the third season of Twin Peaks had been content to give us just this and nothing else, I think that a lot of fans, possibly including me, would have been more than satisfied. (I was curiously touched to see Nadine and Dr. Jacobi meet again, mostly because I haven’t thought about them much at all over the last two decades, and Big Ed’s solitary meal of soup and coffee underneath the closing credits may be the purest stretch of simple emotion that the season has allowed itself.) But if this had been all that the show had provided, we wouldn’t have known what we were missing. Instead, the series has repeatedly gone into strange, haunting, and frustrating places, and while I hesitate to attribute any motive to David Lynch and Mark Frost before seeing the big picture, this episode felt like both a breather and a nod at what else this season could have been. It’s like a piece of an earlier draft that somehow survived all the revisions. This doesn’t make it better or worse. But it also serves as a baseline to remind us of how far the show has strayed from whatever we thought it was going to be. When Norma’s new business partner advises her on franchising her brand—he tells her that the new restaurants are following her recipe to the letter, but have discretion over the ingredients—it’s tempting to read his words in the voice of a network executive: “Norma, you’re a real artist. But love doesn’t always turn a profit. It’s just about tweaking the formula to insure consistency and profitability.” It isn’t even clear if this new season of Twin Peaks is profitable, and it’s only consistent on its own terms. And while many of the ingredients are the same, the recipe has changed.

This applies as much to its leading man as to anything else. If you had asked me a few months ago how I would feel about a revival of Twin Peaks in which Dale Cooper never actually returned, I probably would have responded with something unprintable. But today I’m almost okay with it, and it’s no longer a theoretical consideration. Now that we’re well into the season’s closing stretch, it’s clear that whatever “return” the subtitle promised won’t take the form that we were expecting. (The fact that so many of us continued to hope otherwise, long after the series had demonstrated that it wasn’t going to be like anything we had anticipated, is a testament to the power of wishful thinking.) By stretching out Cooper’s transformation for so long—to the point where it feels less like a transition than a destination in itself—the series has complicated our response to it in fascinating ways. The Dougie Jones subplot has unexpectedly grown into the show’s emotional center, and it’s hard to imagine Cooper giving up his surrogate family. This dilemma is clearly intentional, but it’s thanks less to the writing than to Naomi Watts’s quietly dazzling work here. If this one seemingly minor part had been miscast, or if Watts didn’t approach even her reaction shots with so much commitment, the whole edifice of the show would start to seem shakier. It’s possible that Lynch and Frost simply lucked into the performance that they needed, but it’s more likely that they knew exactly what Watts would bring to the role, revealing aspects of herself as an actress that have remained all but unexplored since Mulholland Drive. By taking Cooper away, they’ve forced every other part of the show to work harder to compensate for it.

And that’s the primary difference between this version of the show and whatever else we might have been expecting—and also the reason why the rest of us aren’t Lynch or Frost. I’ve said elsewhere that it can be a valuable exercise to remove one crucial piece of a work of art to see see how it affects what remains. In Behind the Seen, the film editor Walter Murch refers to this as “blinking the key,” in an analogy drawn from lighting a film set:

In interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

Which does as good a job as anything of explaining this season of Twin Peaks. Cooper may or may not return. But even in his absence, we’ve been left with the secondary lights.

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2017 at 8:55 am

The inconceivable figure

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Whenever I’m working on a project longer than a short story, there comes a point where something strange happens: I find that I’m suddenly writing it in my head all the time. And it tends to occur at a very specific stage in the process. It’s after I’ve written a complete rough draft, but before I’m totally happy with it, and only once I’ve done enough cutting to bring it down considerably from its initial length. The first assembly of any book is too large to hold in my brain all at once, and I tend to see it as a collection of individual pieces that I’ve researched, outlined, and revised separately, bound loosely together by the plan that I had at the beginning. Cutting it down, as I’ve said before, brings all these parts closer together, which leads to new resonances and connections, but it also allows me to finally grasp its shape as a whole. It’s as if my mind has a limited amount of storage space, and a file has to be under a certain size to fit. (In Behind the Seen, which recounts the editing of the film Cold Mountain, Charles Koppelman speaks of the turning point that comes when the rough cut is short enough to be viewed as a single sequence in Final Cut Pro, rather than split into two parts.) Once that threshold is reached, it feels as if a switch has been flipped, and I can mentally edit, write, and rearrange large sections without being at my desk. Even more useful is the fact that if a phrase or sentence occurs to me when I’m washing the dishes, I can usually think of a place to put it, assuming that I remember to write it down. Eventually, it becomes continuous, like a program running in the background, to the point where I have trouble turning it off when I go to bed at night.

And this only happens, at least in my experience, when I’ve finished the entire manuscript, which is a good argument in itself for trying to get it all down on paper as soon as possible. A draft acts like a kind of magnet that draws the iron filings of your stray thoughts and arranges them in a pattern, or like a massive set of pigeonholes in which items can be filed for later use. Without the draft, which exerts a gravitational pull of its own, those ideas have a way of just drifting off into space. (That’s three different analogies in a row, but they all seem right to me.) As I’ve stated elsewhere, there are a lot of reasons for wanting a complete draft as early in the process as you can. A line on the last page can help you solve a problem on the first, and you’re more likely to end up with something publishable if you rough out the whole thing first as a crude sketch and then revise it, instead of obsessing over a tiny slice of the beginning. But the way in which it provides you with a place to organize your passing thoughts may be the most compelling argument of all. There’s a limit to how long you can sit at your desk each day—my own upper bound seems to be about three or four hours. The rest of that time, including sleep, goes unused, even though you’re most likely to come up with useful insights when you’re doing something else. Having a finished draft opens up the remaining five-sixths of your life for productive thought, which feels like a huge practical advantage. I’ve often speculated as to why so many good ideas seem to come in the shower or on the bus, but it may simply be that such moments account numerically for the bulk of our time, and the existence of the draft is what activates those otherwise wasted hours.

This state is also enormously pleasurable. When we speak of the joys of revising, we’re often talking about the mechanical process of looking at an existing sentence and tinkering with it until it reads better. That can be a significant source of satisfaction, but I think that the real joy comes from studying the project as a whole in your head, as a sort of hyperobject that has suddenly become comprehensible. There’s a line from Jorge Luis Borges that I’ve quoted here before: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” Writing a book is the closest most of us will ever get to seeing that “inconceivable figure,” and that heightened sense of awareness is only temporary. For me, it seems to last for a few months, after I’ve finished the first round of cuts and before I’ve delivered the final version. (If you don’t have a deadline, this phase can drag on indefinitely, and the desire to extend it partially explains why some authors can work on a novel for decades. Given the choice, many writers would prefer not to wake up from that dream, which intensifies their experience of the world until everything seems relevant. It’s a wonderful feeling, but you also have to be ready to give it up if you ever want to see your words in print.) After the book is finished, the sensation fades, and for good reason—it would be painful to feel so attuned to a project that has become effectively unchangeable. You could even argue that the amnesia that sets in shortly after a book is delivered is a survival mechanism that prevents writers from breaking under the tension between the changes that they’d still like to make and the fixed nature of the work on the page.

This also leads to another apparent contradiction, which is that a writer is most likely to be making countless small changes at the exact moment when the work is ready to enter the world for the first time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because if all goes well, a full draft of my book Astounding will be going out to readers for comments later today. I’m pretty happy with my manuscript, which is more or less where it needs to be, since it isn’t due at my publisher for another four months—and I deliberately gave myself an earlier deadline, in part to extend the fertile period that I’ve discussed above. Even as I format the printed version of the file, though, I find that I’m making numerous edits, some small, some significant. This might imply that the draft isn’t ready, but on a deeper level, it indicates that it’s going out at just the right time, or so I try to tell myself. Ideally, you want to solicit notes after the draft can stand on its own, but before you’ve become psychologically attached to it. You want it to be alive, malleable, and amenable to cuts and changes, and the longer you put it off, the more painful any revisions become. Inevitably, this means that it goes out right when you’re likely to see dozens of things that need to be fixed, which is how you know, paradoxically, that it’s time to let it go. This is why the final days of any project have a way of feeling like a mad scramble, no matter how protracted the process has been. In Behind the Seen, we witness director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch making substantial edits to Cold Mountain on the very last night of postproduction. Minghella says: “Enormous changes at the last minute.” And Murch replies: “Our specialty.”

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

The act of cutting

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In a recent article in The New Yorker on Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik evocatively writes: “The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.” He explains:

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

Gopnik concludes: “The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions.” Following Hemingway’s own lead, Gopnik compares his practice to that of Cézanne, but it’s also reminiscent of Shakespeare, who frequently omits key information from his source material while leaving the other elements intact. Ambiguity, as I’ve noted here before, emerges from a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been ruthlessly cutting the first draft of my book, leaving me highly conscious of the effects that can come out of compression. In his fascinating notebooks, which I quoted here yesterday, Samuel Butler writes: “I have always found compressing, cutting out, and tersifying a passage suggests more than anything else does. Things pruned off in this way are like the heads of the hydra, two grow for every two that is lopped off.” This squares with my experience, and it reflects how so much of good writing depends on juxtaposition. By cutting, you’re bringing the remaining pieces closer together, which allows them to resonate. Butler then makes a very interesting point:

If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his works liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect and the more talk increases the more necessary does this art become.

I love this passage because it reveals how two of my favorite activities—taking notes and cutting—are secretly the same thing. On some level, writing is about keeping the good stuff and removing as much of the rest as possible. The best ideas are likely to occur spontaneously when you’re doing something unrelated, which is why you need to write them down as soon as they come to you. When you’re sitting at your desk, you have little choice but to write mechanically in hopes that something good will happen. And in the act of cutting, the two converge.

Cutting can be a creative act in itself, which is why you sometimes need to force yourself to do it, even when you’d rather not. You occasionally see a distinction drawn between the additive and subtractive arts, but any work often partakes of both at various stages, which confer different benefits. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman says of editing a movie in postproduction:

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.

We shouldn’t disregard how challenging that mental switch can be. It’s why an editor like Walter Murch rarely visits the set, which allows him to maintain a kind of Apollonian detachment from the Dionysian process of filmmaking: he doesn’t want to be dissuaded from the need to cut a scene by the knowledge of how hard it was to make it. Writers and other artists working alone don’t have that luxury, and it can be difficult to work yourself up to the point where you’re ready to cut a section that took a long time to write. Time creates its own sort of psychological distance, which is why you’re often advised to put aside the draft for a few weeks, or even longer, before starting to revise it. (Zadie Smith writes deflatingly: “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do.”) That isn’t always possible, and sometimes the best compromise is to work briefly on another project, like a short story. A change is as good as a rest, and in this case, you’re trying to transform into your future self as soon as possible, which will allow you to perform clinical surgery on the past.

The result is a lot like the old joke: you start with a block of marble, and you cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. When I began to trim my manuscript, I set myself the slightly arbitrary goal of reducing it, at this stage, by thirty percent, guided by the editing rule that I mentioned here a month ago:

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.

There’s no particular reason why the same percentage should hold for a book as well as a film, but I’ve found that it’s about right. (It also applies to other fields, like consumer electronics.) Really, though, it could have been just about any number, as long as it gave me a clear numerical goal at which to aim, and as long as it hurt a little. It’s sort of like physical exercise. If you want to lose weight, the best way is to eat less, and if you want to write a short book, ideally, you’d avoid writing too much in the first place. But the act of cutting, like exercise, has rewards of its own. As Elie Wiesel famously said: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.” And the best indication that you’re on the right track is when it becomes physically painful. As Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That’s also true of books.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2017 at 8:38 am

Cruise and control

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Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a long interview that the writer and director Christopher McQuarrie gave to The Empire Film Podcast after the release of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s over two and a half hours long and loaded with insight, but it also has a somewhat different tone when you come to it after the recent debacle of The Mummy. McQuarrie, predictably, has nothing but good words for Tom Cruise, whom he describes as the ultimate producer, with a hand in every aspect of the creative process. Now compare this to the postmortem in Variety:

In the case of The Mummy, one person—Cruise—had an excessive amount of control, according to several people interviewed. The reboot of The Mummy was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures. But instead, it’s become a textbook case of a movie star run amok…Several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on The Mummy, essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set…Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.

To put it another way, between Rogue Nation and The Mummy, absolutely nothing changed. On the one hand, Cruise’s perfectionist tendencies resulted in an excellent piece of work; on the other, they led to a movie that most critics agree is nearly unwatchable. This might seem like a paradox, but I’d prefer to see it as proof that this level of obsessiveness is required to make any movie whatsoever, regardless of the outcome. It may come from a producer or director rather than from the star, but in its absence, complicated projects just don’t get made at all. And the quality of the finished product is the result of factors that are out of even Tom Cruise’s control.

If you work in any creative field, you probably know this already, but the extent to which you’re willing to accept it is often determined by where your role falls in production. At one extreme, you have someone like the editor Walter Murch, who hangs a shiny brass “B” in his office. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a “B.” Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how. It’s an Eastern-oriented philosophy, as expressed by the American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

At the other extreme, you have the star, who has been groomed to attribute everything good in a movie to his or her irreplaceable presence. And it’s no accident that you find these two attitudes at opposite ends of the production process. The light that strikes the star’s face is captured on film that works its way down the chain to the editors, who have little choice but to be pragmatic: they can only work with the footage that they’ve been given, and while they have lots of good tricks for manipulating it, they’re ultimately the ones who deal with what remains after all the fond hopes that went into a film have collided with reality. They know exactly what they do and don’t have. And they’re aware that superhuman technical control doesn’t represent the high end of craft, but the bare minimum required to do useful work.    

The screenwriter lies somewhere in the middle. In theory, he’s the one who gets paid to dream, and he isn’t constrained by any outside factors when he’s putting ideas down on the page. This isn’t quite how it works in practice, since there are plenty of externalities to consider at every point, and a screenwriter is often asked to solve problems at every stage in production. And we should be a little skeptical of what they have to say. Our understanding of cinematic craft is skewed by the fact that writers have traditionally been its most eloquent and entertaining expositors, which provides just one perspective on the making of the movie. One reason is the fact that screenwriters need to be good with words, not just for the script, but for the pitch meeting, which is another sort of performance—and it encourages them to deliver a hard sell for the act of writing itself. Another is that screenwriters have often been critically denigrated in favor of directors, which obliges them to be exceptionally funny, insightful, and forceful when they’re defending the importance of what they do for a living. Finally, there’s a kind of cynicism about the idea of control, which makes it easier to talk about it afterward. No screenplay is ever shot or released as written, which means that screenwriters exist to have their visions betrayed. If you believe that movies are made up largely of the contingent factors that emerge during production, that’s how it should be. But it also leaves screenwriters in a strange place when it comes to questions of control. Terry Rossio says of formatting the script so that the page breaks come at the right spot: “If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.” He’s clearly right. But it’s also the kind of meticulousness that will be seen by only a handful of insiders, before your ideas pass through the hands of a dozen other professionals on the way to taking an unrecognizable form onscreen.

This may be the real reason why the screenwriters who serve as public advocates for craft—William Goldman, Robert Towne, Tony Gilroy, McQuarrie, and a few others—are also the ones with reputations as fixers, coming in at the very end to work on “troubled” shoots, which, as I’ve argued before, describes nearly every studio movie ever. These writers may well be legitimately better than most of their peers at solving problems, or at least they’re perceived that way, which is why they get those assignments. (As McQuarrie recently said to John August, when asked about the use of writers’ rooms on franchises like Transformers: “I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe…When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me.” And he’s probably correct.) They’re survivors, and they’ve inevitably got good war stories to share. But we’re also more likely to listen to writers whose contributions come at the end of the process, where their obsessiveness can have a visible impact. It allows them to take credit for what worked while implicitly washing their hands of what didn’t, and there’s an element of chance involved here, too: every screenwriter wants to be the last one hired on a movie, but where you end up on that queue has a lot to do with luck and timing. I still find McQuarrie impossible to resist, and I learn more about storytelling from listening to him for ten minutes than by doing anything else. I’ve been talking about his interview so much that my wife joked that it’s my new religion. Well, maybe it is. But given how little anyone can control, it’s closer to John Gardner says about writing novels: it’s a yoga, a way of life in the world, rather than an end in itself. As McQuarrie himself says to Empire: “Never do anything to effect a result. Do something because you want to do it, or because you have to do it.” And he would know.

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