Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Brent White

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 Judd Apatow paradox

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Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann

I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with a film editor that didn’t fascinate me from beginning to end, and Jonah Weiner’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of Brent White—Judd Apatow’s editor of choice—is no exception. Film editors need to think more intensely and exclusively about problems of structure than any other creative professional, and they represent a relatively neglected source of insights into storytelling of all kinds. Here are a few choice tidbits:

There are moments where [Will Ferrell] is thinking what the joke is, then he knows what the joke is, and then he’s saying the joke. Making the leap from one to two to three. What I’m doing is tightening up that leap for him: improving the rhythm, boom-boom-boom.

I reverse-engineer the scene to make sure I can get to the joke. Then it becomes bridge-building. How do I get to this thing from this other thing I like?

[Apatow will sometimes] 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.

Weiner’s piece happened to appear only a few weeks after Stephen Rodrick of The New Yorker published a similar profile of Allison Jones, Apatow’s casting director, and it’s hard not to take them as two halves of a whole. Jones initiates the process that White completes, looking, as the article notes, for “comedic actors who, more than just delivering jokes, [can] improvise and riff on their lines, creating something altogether different from what was on the page.” (As Apatow puts it: “Allison doesn’t just find us actors; she finds us people we want to work with the rest of our lives.”) White then sifts through that mountain of material—which can be something like two million feet of film for an Apatow movie, an amount once reserved for the likes of Stanley Kubrick—to pick out the strongest pieces and fit them into some kind of coherent shape. It’s an approach that has been enormously influential on everything from a single-camera sitcom like Parks & Recreation, which allows actors to improvise freely without the pressure of a live audience, to a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, which indulges Jonah Hill’s riffs almost to a fault. And although it’s been enabled by the revolution in digital video and editing, which allows miles of footage to be shot without bankrupting the production, it also requires geniuses like Jones and White who can facilitate the process on both ends.

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

Yet as much as I admire what Jones, White, and the rest have done, I’m also a little skeptical. There’s no avoiding the fact that the Apatow approach has suffered from diminishing returns: if I had to list The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This is 40 in order of quality, I’d end up ranking them by release date. From one minute to another, each can be hilarious, but when your comedic philosophy is predicated on keeping the camera rolling until something good happens, there’s an unavoidable loss of momentum. The greatest comedies are the ones that just won’t stop building; Apatow’s style has a way of dissipating its own energy from one scene to the next, precisely because each moment has to be built up from scratch. A Frat Pack comedy may objectively have more jokes per minute than Some Like It Hot or Annie Hall, but they start to feel like the comedic equivalent of empty calories, leaving you diverted but unsatisfied, and less energized by the end than exhausted. The fact that Anchorman 2 exists in two versions, with the same basic structure but hundreds of different jokes, can be taken, if you’re in a generous mood, as a testament to the comic fertility of the talents involved—but it can also start to look like evidence of how arbitrary each joke was in the first place. If one funny line can be removed and another inserted seamlessly in its place, it reminds us that neither really had to be there at all.

But if I’m being hard on Apatow and his collaborators, it’s because their approach holds such promise—if properly reined in. Comedy depends on a kind of controlled anarchy; when the balance slips too much to the side of control, as in the lesser works of the Coen Brothers, the result can seem arch and airless. And at their best, Apatow’s films have an unpredictable, jazzy charge. But a few constraints, properly placed, can allow that freedom to truly blossom. A movie like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye can’t be accused of sticking too much to the script: perhaps five minutes total is devoted to the plot, and much of the rest consists of the characters simply hanging around. Yet it uses the original Chandler novel, and the structure provided by Leigh Brackett’s screenplay, as a low-horsepower engine that keeps the whole thing moving at a steady but leisurely clip. As a result, it feels relaxed in a way that Apatow’s movies don’t. The latter may seem loose and shaggy, but they’re also characterized by an underlying tension, almost a desperation, to avoid going for more than a few seconds without a laugh, and it cancels out much of the gain in spontaneity. It promises us that we’ll be hanging out for two hours with a bunch of fun people, but it leaves us feeling pummeled. By freeing itself from the script, it turns itself, paradoxically, into a movie that can’t stop moving. The great comedies of the past could live in the spaces between jokes; the modern version has to be funny or die.

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