Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walter Murch

Quote of the Day

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My own rule of thumb for this is if I have an idea and I propose the idea, and the director does not like it, I will retreat—okay. But then, at the right moment, maybe a week later, I will say, “You know, because of what we have done in the last week, maybe we could look at that idea.” And if the director says no—okay. And then, at an extreme case, I will pitch it one more time. Again, it has to be at the right moment. And if the director still says no, then I drop it forever. I won’t—I can’t make a pest of myself about this idea. If I’ve been turned down three times, I will abandon the idea. Anthony Minghella had a phrase for that, which says, “If three Russians tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” Because they’re the experts. Not two, but three.

Walter Murch, in an interview on Web of Stories

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

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.

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 14, 2017.

A while back, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode for a medium like radio, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

I’m particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminds me of something that the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition. (It also reminds me a little of the work of the philosopher Andy Clark, who notes, as Huston did, that the mind only processes a scene when something changes.)

Walter Murch

As Murch writes in In the Blink of an Eye: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. For instance, it suggests that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation—even if we usually don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

Editors care about these issues because they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a poorly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that all editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2018 at 8:23 am

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 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.”

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

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