Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Koppelman

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 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.

The first assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

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