It is often said that a movie is written three times:
once, when the screenwriter commits the story to paper; again, when
the director and actors commit the story to film; and finally, when
the editor constructs the story in time. This crucial final telling
of the storythe editingis no less important than the
other two, but is often the least discussed. As an independent moviemaker,
I edited my own first feature film. As I prepare to direct my second
feature, one in which I will be working with an editor, I thought
it would be instructive to talk to some of the masters of the craft.
MM afforded me the opportunity to pick the brains of three renowned
Academy Award-winning editors: Walter Murch (Oscar winner for The
English Patient and Apocalypse Now); Anne Coates (Oscar
winner for Lawrence of Arabia and editor of over 50 films);
and Glenn Farr (Oscar winner for The Right Stuff).
The following is a distillation of their comments and observations, with a special focus on the collaborative relationship between editor and director:
SELECTING A PROJECT
Walter Murch: An editor needs to approach a
project just the way an actor does, which is to say, Is this
material something that resonates within me? And, at the same
time, Is this material going to draw something out of me that
I havent explored before? Whenever Im thinking
about taking a job, I read the script and then type six to 10 pages
of notes, and I give them to the director. Writing these notes is
a kind of declaration of collaboration. If the director is allergic
to that, were probably better off not working together.
Anne Coates: I first read a script as
an audience member. I dont take notes, I just read it and
enjoy itor not enjoy it. But you have to be careful. When
I read the first few pages of The Elephant Man I thought,
I cant work on this! It would be too upsetting.
But by the time I had read to the end of the script, I was in tears
and thought, I must cut this movie.
Glenn Farr: Before I decide to do a picture,
I time the script. By doing this, I have a good idea whats
going to be cut out before even seeing a shot. Then I have to decide
how free I can be in terms of offering that perspective to the director.
Then I evaluate what I feel about the director and how serious the
person is. I look at as many of their films as possible. I have
worked with first-time directors, and there you can guide their
path and be very helpful.
WORKING DURING PRODUCTION
Walter Murch: The reasons for editing
while youre shooting are twofold. One is simply to save time.
If you have a fully edited version of the film two weeks after the
end of shooting, youve saved that many months of assembly.
The other is to discover any problems that there might be in the
coverageor some opportunities that might occur to you once
youve put the stuff together, things that might not occur
to anyone else.
Anne Coates: On the rare occasion when
the director has you in on rehearsals, I love it. Then Im
really able to glean what the director is aiming for. I also spend
a lot of time on the floor watching the shooting, because I think
you learn a lot about what the directors thinking by watching
him direct and how he changes the artists performances.
Glenn Farr: I like to become very familiar
with the director of photography: I want to know how hes going
to approach the piece; if there will be multiple cameras, stacked
cameras; what kind of lenses hell be using. I make notes.
I soak it in. That helps me understand how these scenes are going
to be covered.
Walter Murch: During dailies I will have a
laptop with the screen dimmed and I just type in the dark, trying
to capture what Im feeling as Im seeing these issues/45/images
for the first time. Months on down the road I may forget the initial
effect of something, so I write those things down because it cements
those ideas in my mind in a way that just sitting there doesntand
I then can read them at any point in the editing process. I then
create my own storyboards by selecting one to seven representative
frames from every set-up, what I call key moment frames.
I have them printed up and mounted on boards. Then, when Im
editing the scene, I have these put on the wall where I work. Its
a storyboard in reverse. Its not what you intended, its
what you got.
Anne Coates: Like my script, I sit back and
enjoy the dailies and get the impact from them: the emotions, the
storytelling and the acting. But I dont take notes; I really
just sit and enjoy them. Then I get to know the material very well.
I run it several times, and I look at the script, if it bears any
relationship to the scenewhich sometimes it doesnt.
Glenn Farr: I try to watch the dailies with
the director. I generally like my assistant to take notes. The assistant
sits in front of us and can hear what the directors saying.
Even one word that a director says about a scene can make all the
difference in the world. It may just be a word like nervous
or I like the take where the characters more apprehensive.
It may be about just one performance in one take, and that helps
me understand what the directors going for.
COLLABORATING WITH THE DIRECTOR
Walter Murch: The directors method
of working with the editor should be very similar to the way the
director works with actors. In general, you dont give line
readings to actors. Its similar with editors. With some exceptions,
I would hesitate to tell an editor Take 10 frames off the
end of that shot, because how you interpret pace can be different.
An editor can think, This shot looks like its on for
a long time, but it only looks that way because of things that happened
earlier in the scene, so Im going to accelerate those earlier
things and that will allow this shot to hold on the screen longer.
Anne Coates: I dont care if a
director tells me to take 10 frames offbecause I dont
take 10 frames off. I take off what I think would be appropriate.
Most directors have no idea what 10 frames looks like. If you work
with Sidney Lumet, he knows what 10 frames are. Milos Forman does,
too. But most directors, when they say take 10 frames off,
theyre just kind of showing off to you. Ive learned
through the years you just do what you think is right. And theyll
think thats great because theyll never count the frames.
Glenn Farr: Ive had some directors ask
for seemingly endless variations of a scene, and usually thats
because the scene is not very well written. So they go through this
agonizing process, trying to get to some result with a scene. And
thats the most dangerous time for an editor, I think. Because
the editors a really easy target, and a lot of us are in this
unpleasant situation where you become the scapegoat.
Walter Murch: One of the other duties of the
editor is to provoke the director. Not in any bad way, but to say,
You could do this, or you could do that. Because no
matter how good you are as a director, filmmaking is so complex
that its just impossible to keep everything in your head at
the same time.
Its one of the functions of the editor to propose
things that may or may not be the answer, but may provoke some resonance
with a memory or idea that is latent in the directors mind
which will leap into consciousness once it sees what the alternative
Anne Coates: You have to have a lot
of patience to be an editor, which I think is one reason why women
are quite good at it. I always say its because theyre
mothers first. Most directors are like kids, so you need to have
the patience to deal with them. You have to stay cool so that if
the director doesnt like what youre doing, you can work
it out between the two of you.
Glenn Farr: The clichéd analogy is that
its a marriage. The director is the alpha-male; the editor,
no matter gender, is the wife. Its absolutely the case. As
editor, youre there to make that relationship work so that
the best possible result can come out of the editing room: which
is the child, the movie, the final writing of the screenplay.
THE FIRST CUT
Walter Murch: I like to think of the first
assembly not as the film but as the lens through which you can glimpse
the film. Youre not putting the film together; youre
constructing an apparatus through which it is possible to glimpse
the film. And the better you do that, the more high quality the
lens, the better youll see it.
Anne Coates: Showing the first cut to
the director is nerve-wracking, particularly if you havent
run scenes for the director during shooting. Im now working
with Adrian Lyne and he didnt want to see anything during
shooting, so he didnt see a single frame cut together until
I showed him the first cut.
Glenn Farr: I had a director get physically
ill after showing him a first cut. I used to take it personally,
but he told me, Its okay, I do this whenever I see a
first cut. Because theyre so worried. Its a scary
time for me, too, because Im on the spot. Is he or she going
to like this stuff? But you know, its really just the beginning
of the process. I dont even like to call it a cut.
Its the first assembly. I know that this is just
the departure point.
Walter Murch: There is going to be an expansion
between your first cut and the script... Its like a tailor
making a suit: the first time you put the suit on its baggy
and the job of the tailor is to now fit it exactly. You hope that
the first assembly of the film is 10 to 30 percent longer than what
you intended the length of the film to be; if its less than
10 percent, you dont have any flexibility. If its over
30 percent, you can only get down to the length that you want by
sacrificing the film equivalent of muscle and bone.
Anne Coates: In the first cut, I like
to leave in interesting bits that you know arent going to
be in there eventually. Then when you go in, you start cutting the
beginnings and ends of scenes downyou dont need those
little grace notes. But I think in the first cut you should have
those there because then you know youve got them if you should
Glenn Farr: With a lot of first time directors,
every scene has a beginning, middle and an end. One of the challenges
is to figure out what can start in the middle, or what can start
at the beginning and end in the middle. Its boring to have
every scene have a beginning, middle and an end, like a little play.
So I think its critical to try to remove anything thats
extra, anything that feels like a stage wait or thats keeping
the story from moving forward.
JOINING THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION
Anne Coates: I always say I went kicking
and screaming, but I knew that I would have to do it. Initially,
when I heard about [digital editing] I thought, Well it probably
wont catch on quickly. But when other editors in my
age group started doing films on the AVID I knew I would have to
learn. I always advise young people to learn to cut on film first,
because theres a precision about cutting on film thats
lacking when you cut digitally. To be able to actually handle film
and look at the pictures is wonderful. Although I would never want
to go back there now, because Ive advanced.
Glenn Farr: Non-linear editing systems are
greatbut the downside is it makes it look so easy, like anyone
can be an editor. But its just a tool.
ADVICE TO DIRECTORS
Walter Murch: Why do you need an editor? If
you have a film in your mind, why cant you edit it yourself?
One of the joys of moviemaking is that a film is not a foregone
conclusion, but comes out of the chemistry of all the various people
who bring their own life experiences to the process. There are also
a lot of demands on a directors time, and for the film to
be the best someone has to be focused on it exclusively, 14 hours
a day. The director is at the beck and call of a lot of other forces
that take away from an almost pathological level of concentration
you have to have if youre a film editor.
Anne Coates: Years ago, I worked on
a film where the lead actor was also the producer, and I told him
that I didnt think a particular scene played in one shot,
that it needed coverage. It was a big comedy scene. And the director
and this actor looked at me as if I was an idiot, as if to say,
well if you cant see thats funny, theres
something wrong with your sense of humor. Well, six months
later they came to me to shoot the shots that were always needed
in the first place. Because, of course, the shot didnt hold.
It did on the set, when they were all laughing, but it didnt
on film. So if youre ever in doubt about a shot: Shoot it.
You can never have too much.
Glenn Farr: Too many directors stay in what I call the video village. They stand back with the video monitor and the playback guy. If there was one thing I could say to the director it would be get your eyes as close to the lens as you can and just be there for your actors. Its amazing how secure that makes an actor feel, aside from the most important reason, which is that the director can see whats going on in their eyes. I find that when the director is with the playback they miss something thats going on with the eyes. MM