Over on my other blog I long-windedly answered a question that someone sent me on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago: “How do you deal with directors who ask you to do stupid things?”
The short version of my answer was that, if each of you are doing your job right, then there really aren’t any stupid requests because each one is a window into what the director really wants, even if he or she isn’t capable of communicating it well.
But that led me to start thinking about two times when I’ve seen editorial collaboration help enormously in the editing room.
I was an assistant editor and assistant music editor on the film HAIR, way back in the Editorial Stone Age. We had two great editors on the film – Lynzee Klingman and Stan Warnow – as well as a director (Milos Forman) who really knew editing. But there was once sequence that none of the three could quite figure out how to edit. It was a song called “Black Boys/White Boys” in which a row of Army medical examiners decided whether a line of inductees were healthy enough to march off to Vietnam. Choreographer Twyla Tharp had designed this clever set of homoerotic dance moves for the two trios of examiners to be intercut with two trios of women who sang and made eyes at the boys around them in Central Park. The idea was that the juxtaposition of these very straight military men, the naked inductees in front of them, and the trios of seductive women in the park would make the entire medical exam seem absurd and somewhat surreal.
It was supposed to be clever and funny and it absolutely didn’t work.
So Milos and the producers hired Alan Heim with the specific goal of having him edit that sequence. Alan had been Bob Fosse’s editor for quite awhile and had cut films like ALL THAT JAZZ (still one of the most amazing biographies in Seventies cinema – and way ahead of its time), LIZA WITH A Z and LENNY. He was hired one day and disappeared, with an assistant, into a room at the Trans Audio Building on 54th Street in New York (above the famed Studio 54) and came out a week or so later with a first pass that blew everyone away. It wasn’t perfect and underwent many changes between then and the final cut of the film. But it so clearly pointed Milos and his other editors in the correct direction, that Alan was convinced to stay on and work on the film in its entirety.
It by no means belittles the editing contribution of Lynzee and Stan to say that the scene could not have been shaped as well without the outside viewpoint that broke the logjam of their preconceived ideas.
The second example came the second time I worked with director Michael Lehmann. We had previously worked on the film HEATHERS together and it was a fantastic experience for me. When he asked me to move onto his next film, MEET THE APPLEGATES (a satirical farce starring Ed Begley Jr, Stockard Channing and Dabney Coleman, about large Brazilian bugs who get sick of humans destroying their habitat and turn into humans and move to Ohio to blow up a nuclear power plant terrorist-style) I jumped at the chance.
The film came together relatively easily, considering its low budget nature and high ambitions, but it still didn’t feel like the movie that we wanted to make in places. There were areas that weren’t funny enough. Other scenes had great moments, but didn’t propel the story forward enough.
So we brought in a mutual friend, editor Barry Malkin, to look at the areas of the film that most concerned us (and any others that he wanted to work at). We put Barry, who had worked with on THE COTTON CLUB and had been an editor with Francis Coppola for years, in a room with a Moviola, an assistant and a ton of film. In a few days he did two things. The first was, he told us that he understood perfectly why we had edited the individual scenes the way we did. He would have done it the same way. But he had some ideas on rethinking scenes in ways that we hadn’t really thought about. We let him go back into the room and, a few days later, he started showing us a few scenes that had been subtly or greatly revamped.
Like on HAIR, the changes weren’t perfect, and they went through many changes before we locked the film a little while later. But they opened up thought processes and brain synapses that we hadn’t used before. It helped to bring us out of our mindset. (Barry got a credit as “Editorial Consultant”. He should have been credited as “Logjam Breaker”)
Every project needs a place where its creators can step back and re-evaluate what they’ve been doing. Most of the time, there’s neither the time nor the money to do that. What is most painful is when you could do it, but don’t because you’re locked into a conception of your project that can’t move.
The Greeks, I’m told, talk about it this way. Every idea (a “thesis”) needs to meet up with a second different idea (the “antithesis”). When they are allowed to work off of each other, they create a third, usually better, idea (the “synthesis”). The key to making this work in both HAIR and APPLEGATES was to allow the new editor to actually sit and work the material, as opposed to simply giving notes. Sometimes great ideas can come from a comment, but often those ideas just don’t work when they’re exposed to the light of day. You can’t find a character’s smile, or there is no close-up when you’d need one. But with enough time and freedom, a good editor will work towards that alternative goal.
The goal of good collaboration is to allow good new ideas to bubble to the surface without distracting the leader from the overall spine of the project. It’s not easy sifting through thousands of ideas over the course of the day-to-day work on a film. But that is what distinguishes a good director from a mad or mediocre one.