Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walter Murch

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

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

A few weeks ago, 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, 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.

As I read this, I grew particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminded me of what 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 thought 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.

Walter Murch

As Murch writes: “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. It’s also evident 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 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.

What makes these issues important to editors is that 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 badly 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 editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2017 at 9:08 am

Return to us

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Walter Murch and Fairuza Balk on the set of Return to Oz

Yesterday, I was leafing through my copy of The Conversations: Water Murch and the Art of Editing Film, in which the novelist Michael Ondaatje interviews the movie editor whom Lawrence Weschler has called “the smartest person in America.” Murch, who worked on many of the films of Francis Ford Coppola and directed Return to Oz, has long been one of my heroes, and it’s worth listening to just about everything he says. (When my wife recently asked me if I could stand to hear anyone talk for four hours straight, I mentioned Murch first, followed by David Mamet and Werner Herzog.) As I was browsing through the book last night, however, I came across a line that I didn’t remember reading before:

As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old.

I was very moved by this, because I’ve often thought the same thing. In the past, I’ve said that my ideal reader is myself in fifth grade—which doesn’t mean that I’m writing for kids—and that I judge my life by how closely it lives up to the hopes and expectations of that eleven year old. And although I haven’t always met that high standard, it’s still the closest thing that I have to a reliable moral compass.

Murch evidently agrees, but he also goes much further in identifying why this would be true. He continues:

At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions of things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you “should” be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself. It’s certainly been true in my case. I’m doing now, at fifty-eight, almost exactly what most excited me when I was eleven.

And I think he’s getting at something immensely important here. The ages between nine and eleven strike me as a precious island of rationality, in its deepest and most meaningful sense. A boy of ten is a miniature adult in a lot of ways: it’s an age at which he is able to systematically follow up on his interests without much in the way of outside guidance, which may explain why the obsessions that he acquires around that time can be so lasting. For a few years, he’s thinking independently: he’s old enough to know that there’s more to the world than the toys and television shows that his schoolmates happen to like, and still young enough that he hasn’t started to feel anxious about his own preferences. In the language of biology, which obviously plays a central role here, it’s the narrow window of time in which the brain has achieved a certain structural maturity, but it hasn’t been taken over by puberty yet.

The Conversations

As Murch implies, it’s the choices that we make in that relatively objective life stage that reflect who we really are. A lot of complications are around the corner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—they’re the individual experiences that make us special, even if they assemble themselves in ways that we can’t control. I’ve noted before that I’m essentially the product of a handful of books, movies, and other media that I happened to encounter around the age of thirteen, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the connection with the more profound turning point that occurred a few years earlier. By the time I was ten, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but for the specifics of how that would look, I had to wait until the world had given me a unique set of material. Elsewhere, I’ve described this process as a random one, but that isn’t really true: you’re exposed to dozens or hundreds of discrete influences in your early teens, and if five or six of them survive to shape who you are as an adult, that isn’t arbitrary at all. The result is such a useful source of insight about what truly matters to us that we probably should try to access those memories of ourselves more diligently. I haven’t accomplished everything I’ve tried to do, and I’ve got my share of regrets. But if I’ve been relatively happy in my work and life, it’s because I combined the goals that I set for myself at the age of ten with the pieces that stuck in my head when I was thirteen, as refined by the perspective of an adult. The closer I’ve kept to that standard, the happier I’ve been, and whenever I’ve strayed, I’ve been forcibly corrected.

The trouble, of course, is that the ages between nine and thirteen are exactly the ones that our culture tends to neglect. We’ve never been able to figure out what to do with kids in middle school, in part because they present such a wide range of development that there’s no single approach that makes sense, and perhaps because we’re still too traumatized by our own memories to look at it very closely. It’s also possible—and while I don’t want to believe this, I can’t rule it out entirely—that the neglect is intentional. Adolescence enforces conformity and undermines a lot of dreams, and I doubt many people get out of high school with their childhood ideals still intact. (If anything, it takes a conscious effort, in college and afterward, to go back and retrieve them.) But there’s an incentive for society to allow it to happen. Middle school and high school are particular kinds of hell that are designed to produce functional adults, and individual happiness isn’t a priority. At best, when we grow up, we’re allowed hobbies and side interests that appeal to who we were as children, even if our adult lives take us ever further away from those values. For most people, this isn’t a bad compromise, but it tends to separate the two halves, when we should be trying to bring them together. Our culture only becomes infantilized, paradoxically, when we no longer take our childhood selves seriously, or if we underestimate what we wanted for ourselves as grownups. And if it’s important to return to those dreams whenever we can, it’s not for the sake of the children we once were, but for the adults we could still become.

Written by nevalalee

November 4, 2016 at 8:29 am

The Coco Chanel rule

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Coco Chanel

“Before you leave the house,” the fashion designer Coco Chanel is supposed to have said, “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” As much as I like it, I’m sorry to say that this quote is most likely apocryphal: you see it attributed to Chanel everywhere, but without the benefit of an original source, which implies that it’s one of those pieces of collective wisdom that have attached themselves parasitically to a famous name. Still, it’s valuable advice. It’s usually interpreted, correctly enough, as a reminder that less is more, but I prefer to think of it as a statement about revision. The quote isn’t about reaching simplicity from the ground up, but about taking something and improving it by subtracting one element, like the writing rule that advises you to cut ten percent from every draft. And what I like the most about it is that its moment of truth arrives at the very last second, when you’re about to leave the house. That final glance in the mirror, when it’s almost too late to make additional changes, is often when the true strengths and weaknesses of your decisions become clear, if you’re smart enough to distinguish it from the jitters. (As Jeffrey Eugenides said to The Paris Review: “Usually I’m turning the book in at the last minute. I always say it’s like the Greek Olympics—’Hope the torch lights.'”)

But which accessory should you remove? In the indispensable book Behind the Seen, the editor Walter Murch gives us an important clue, using an analogy from filmmaking:

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

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

This principle, which Murch elsewhere calls “blinking the key,” implies that you should take away the most important piece, or the accessory that you thought you couldn’t live without.

Walter Murch

This squares nicely with a number of principles that I’ve discussed here before. I once said that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed, and when you follow the Chanel rule, on a deeper level, the missing accessory is still present, even after you’ve taken it off. The remaining accessories were presumably chosen with it in mind, and they preserve its outlines, resulting in a kind of charged negative space that binds the rest together. This applies to writing, too. “The Cask of Amontillado” practically amounts to a manual on how to wall up a man alive, but Poe omits the one crucial detail—the reason for Montresor’s murderous hatred—that most writers would have provided up front, and the result is all the more powerful. Shakespeare consistently leaves out key explanatory details from his source material, which renders the behavior of his characters more mysterious, but no less concrete. And the mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made a similar point a few years ago to The New York Times Magazine: “Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., ‘I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.’) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.”

This is a piece of advice that many artists could stand to take to heart, especially if they’ve been blessed with an abundance of invention. I like Interstellar, for instance, but I have a hunch that it would have been an even stronger film if Christopher Nolan had made a few cuts. If he had removed Anne Hathaway’s speech on the power of love, for instance, the same point would have come across in the action, but more subtly, assuming that the rest of the story justified its inclusion in the first place. (Of course, every film that Nolan has ever made strives valiantly to strike a balance between action and exposition, and in this case, it stumbled a little in the wrong direction. Interstellar is so openly indebted to 2001 that I wish it had taken a cue from that movie’s script, in which Kubrick and Clarke made the right strategic choice by minimizing the human element wherever possible.) What makes the Chanel rule so powerful is that when you glance in the mirror on your way out the door, what catches your eye first is likely to be the largest, flashiest, or most obvious component, which often adds the most by its subtraction. It’s the accessory that explains too much, or draws attention to itself, rather than complementing the whole, and by removing it, we’re consciously saying no to what the mind initially suggests. As Chanel is often quoted as saying: “Elegance is refusal.” And she was right—even if it was really Diana Vreeland who said it. 

“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…

The thumbnail rule

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Book covers by Chip Kidd

In his charming book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, the legendary cover designer Chip Kidd writes: “Here is a very cool, simple design trick: If a piece of visual information looks interesting when it is small, then it will look even more so when you make it big.” More recently, in an interview with the Longform podcast, he expanded on the origins of this insight:

Even when I was in school, pre-computer, there’s a reason that thumbnail sketches are called thumbnail sketches—because they are small, and they are distillations, and they are supposed to be a simplification of the idea that you have. So that hasn’t changed. Most graphic designers that I know sketch stuff out small…I’ve been mindful of how this stuff looks like as a postage stamp pretty much from the beginning, and part of that was also because—probably before you were born—there was something called the Book of the Month Club. And the Book of the Month Club used to buy a group ad on the back page of The New York Times Book Review every week, where they showed as many of these goddamned books—all, you know, current bestsellers—at postage stamp or sub-postage stamp size. And so it wasn’t like I was ever told to design with that in mind, but it was always interesting to see how one of my designs would be reconfigured for this ad. And sometimes it would change it and take away some of the detail, or sometimes they would keep it.

As a general design rule—if it looks good small, it’ll look good big—this isn’t so different from the principle of writing music for crappy speakers, as memorably expressed by the record producer Bill Moriarty:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

A reduction in scale, in other words, is a kind of editing strategy: by forcing you to remove everything that doesn’t read at a smaller size or at a lower resolution, you’re compelled to simplify and streamline. It also allows you to see patterns, good or bad, that might not be obvious otherwise. This is why I often do what I call a visual edit on my work, reducing each page to a size that is almost too small to read comfortably as I scroll quickly through the manuscript: sections or paragraphs that seem out of tune with the overall rhythms of the story jump out, and I’ll often see things to cut that wouldn’t have struck me if I’d been reading as I normally would.

Ad for the Book of the Month Club

Navigating changes in scale is central to what artists do, particularly in fields in which the intended user could potentially experience the work in any number of ways. It’s why smart theater directors try to watch a play from every section of a theater, and why film editors need to be particularly sensitive to the different formats in which a movie might be viewed. As Charles Koppelman describes the editor Walter Murch’s process in Behind the Seen:

The “little people” are another one of Walter’s handmade edit room tools. These are paper cutouts in the shapes of a man and a woman that he affixes to each side of his large screening monitor. 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.

And such considerations are far from theoretical. A director like Tom Hooper, for example, who got his start in television, seems to think exclusively in terms of composition for a video monitor, which can make movies like The King’s Speech unnecessarily alienating when seen in theaters. I actually enjoyed his version of Les Misérables, but that’s probably because I saw it at home: on the big screen, all those characters bellowing their songs directly into the camera lens might have been unbearable. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Quentin Tarantino, a much more thoughtful director, will be releasing two different versions of The Hateful Eight, one optimized for massive screens, the other for multiplexes and home viewing. As Variety writes: “The sequences in question play in ‘big, long, cool, unblinking takes’ in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. ‘It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.'”) And we’ve all had to endure movies in which the sound seems to have been mixed with total indifference to how it would sound on a home theater system, with all the dialogue drowned out by muddy ambient noise. We can’t always control how viewers or audiences will experience what we do, but we can at least keep the lower end in mind, which has a way of clarifying how the work will play under the best possible circumstances. An artist has to think about scale all the time, and when in doubt, it’s often best to approach the work as if it’s a thumbnail of itself, while still retaining all the information of the whole. At least as a rule of thumb.

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