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 story—the editing—is 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 received an Oscar for his work in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), starring Ralph Fiennes.

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 haven’t explored before?” Whenever I’m 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, we’re probably better off not working together.

Anne Coates: I first read a script as an audience member. I don’t take notes, I just read it and enjoy it—or not enjoy it. But you have to be careful. When I read the first few pages of The Elephant Man I thought, “I can’t 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 what’s 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 you’re 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, you’ve saved that many months of assembly. The other is to discover any problems that there might be in the coverage—or some opportunities that might occur to you once you’ve 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 I’m 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 director’s 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 he’s going to approach the piece; if there will be multiple cameras, stacked cameras; what kind of lenses he’ll be using. I make notes. I soak it in. That helps me understand how these scenes are going to be covered.
Watching Dailies

Walter Murch: During dailies I will have a laptop with the screen dimmed and I just type in the dark, trying to capture what I’m feeling as I’m 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 doesn’t—and 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 I’m editing the scene, I have these put on the wall where I work. It’s a storyboard in reverse. It’s not what you intended, it’s what you got.

 

Glenn Farr took Archives: Issue #44 an Academy Award for his work on Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983)

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 don’t 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 scene—which sometimes it doesn’t.

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 director’s 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 character’s more apprehensive.” It may be about just one performance in one take, and that helps me understand what the director’s going for.

COLLABORATING WITH THE DIRECTOR

Walter Murch: The director’s method of working with the editor should be very similar to the way the director works with actors. In general, you don’t give line readings to actors. It’s 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 it’s on for a long time, but it only looks that way because of things that happened earlier in the scene, so I’m going to accelerate those earlier things and that will allow this shot to hold on the screen longer.”

Anne Coates: I don’t care if a director tells me to take 10 frames off—because I don’t 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,” they’re just kind of showing off to you. I’ve learned through the years you just do what you think is right. And they’ll think that’s great because they’ll never count the frames.

Glenn Farr: I’ve had some directors ask for seemingly endless variations of a scene, and usually that’s 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 that’s the most dangerous time for an editor, I think. Because the editor’s 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 it’s just impossible to keep everything in your head at the same time.

It’s 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 director’s mind which will leap into consciousness once it sees what the alternative is.

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 it’s because they’re 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 doesn’t like what you’re doing, you can work it out between the two of you.

Anne Coates earned an Oscar for her work in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, one of more than 50 films she’s cut.

Glenn Farr: The clichéd analogy is that it’s a marriage. The director is the alpha-male; the editor, no matter gender, is the wife. It’s absolutely the case. As editor, you’re 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. You’re not putting the film together; you’re 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 you’ll see it.

Anne Coates: Showing the first cut to the director is nerve-wracking, particularly if you haven’t run scenes for the director during shooting. I’m now working with Adrian Lyne and he didn’t want to see anything during shooting, so he didn’t 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, “It’s okay, I do this whenever I see a first cut.” Because they’re so worried. It’s a scary time for me, too, because I’m on the spot. Is he or she going to like this stuff? But you know, it’s really just the beginning of the process. I don’t even like to call it a “cut.” It’s 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... It’s like a tailor making a suit: the first time you put the suit on it’s 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 it’s less than 10 percent, you don’t have any flexibility. If it’s 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 aren’t going to be in there eventually. Then when you go in, you start cutting the beginnings and ends of scenes down—you don’t need those little grace notes. But I think in the first cut you should have those there because then you know you’ve got them if you should want them.

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. It’s boring to have every scene have a beginning, middle and an end, like a little play. So I think it’s critical to try to remove anything that’s extra, anything that feels like a stage wait or that’s 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 won’t 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 there’s a precision about cutting on film that’s 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 I’ve advanced.

Glenn Farr: Non-linear editing systems are great—but the downside is it makes it look so easy, like anyone can be an editor. But it’s just a tool.

ADVICE TO DIRECTORS

Walter Murch: Why do you need an editor? If you have a film in your mind, why can’t 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 director’s 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 you’re 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 didn’t 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 can’t see that’s funny, there’s 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 didn’t hold. It did on the set, when they were all laughing, but it didn’t on film. So if you’re 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. It’s amazing how secure that makes an actor feel, aside from the most important reason, which is that the director can see what’s going on in their eyes. I find that when the director is with the playback they miss something that’s going on with the eyes. MM