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An Orgy of Filmmaking

An Orgy of Filmmaking

Articles - Editing

Carol Littleton

Carol Littleton

Some people plan and scheme for years about how to
forge a career in the film business. For a lucky few, it’s almost
a divine accident. Such is the case with editor Carol Littleton. 
Her husband, cinematographer John Bailey, was a film student at
USC not long after they met, and he used to wrangle his good-natured
girlfriend into helping out with his student projects on the weekends.
"I guess I was the free labor,"Littleton laughs. Soon
she got the film bug herself and began seeking other opportunities
to get involved. "I got a series of odd jobs that led me to
cutting rooms and I just learned on the job,"she says simply.

The first feature Littleton cut was an AFI project
called Legacy in the mid-’70s, which garnered its share of
good notices and effectively gave the young editor an entry to the
mainstream. That early success was the jumpstart she needed, and
she hasn’t slowed down since. Her outstanding career has seen a
solid run of collaborations with a number of brilliant moviemakers,
including Lawrence Kasdan, Robert Benton and Jonathan Demme.

Littleton just finished Demme’s new picture, The
Truth About Charlie
, (her third pairing with the director),
and is currently in the cutting room sculpting Kasdan’s winter release, Dreamcatcher. She recently took a breather to talk with MovieMaker about how editors "cut to genre,"serve the story, and
how her experience on The Truth About Charlie gave her a
new kind of freedom in the cutting room.

Phillip Williams (MM): Jonathan Demme said
that he was trying to shoot
The Truth About Charlie in the
style of the French New Wave- making the picture in the cinema verité
style. How did you deal with the miles of footage that arrived every
day?

Carol Littleton (CL): You just start cutting.
I learned a long time ago, it’s just like everything-it’s just like
writing-the more you think about it, the more of a stew you can
get into. It’s better just to start working. The footage informs
you and then you feel confident. It was just a different experience
because the material that we were getting every day was just so
free from all of the fetters of [film convention]: we’ve got to
have the close-up, the long shot, etc. There’s a language of film
that we are used to now and you think that everything is covered
that way, but Jonathan said "Forget about that. Some [scenes]
will have conventional coverage and others just won’t."

MM: Because of the circumstances he chose
to shoot under?

CL: He just said, "I’m going to make up
my mind that day."But he thinks about all of this ahead of
time, who does he think he’s kidding? [laughs] That was the
feeling that he wanted in the film, though. There were a lot of
jump cuts. We broke all the rules the New Wave broke-and then some.
It was kind of an orgy of filmmaking, at least in editing. Most
of the movies I’ve worked on have been so carefully crafted and
this was the time for me just to try a lot of stuff that I’ve always
wanted to try. The footage was there and we had fun.

MM: You say that the conventions of film
were dispensed with. What were you bringing to that?

CL: I remember the first day that Jonathan
wanted to see the film. I decided to show him the first scene he’d
shot-the interrogation scene of the Thandie Newton character by
the French police officer. He had said, "Don’t follow the book.
Just go for the moments that work and put them together."As
I got into it I got wilder and wilder-I just jump cut the thing
to death. Luckily, his reaction was, "I love it!"

After that I felt that I had permission to do just
about anything I wanted, and that the editing became a long process
of trying different things until the parts became harmonious with
each other, even if they seemed to be chaotic at first.

MM: Bringing things into harmony with each
other-it sounds like it was an intuitive process.

CL: I guess it’s kind of hard not to be intuitive
when you’ve done this for so long. [laughs]

MM: What are the sort of mental notes that
you carry with you as an editor that became most relevant on this
picture?

CL: I just think the fact that I was a college
student around the time the New Wave was at its height. Being able
to create my own homage to that style of filmmaking was, to me,
amazingly liberating.

MM: Since cutting the film, have you come
away with any new ideas or thoughts about editing?

CL: I learned to allow myself more freedom
to just go after the moment. If there is a wonderful moment, don’t
try to reconstruct it in the editing-just let it play, let it go.
I know that that is the heart of the style of the great editor,
Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde). She brought the lexicon
of the French New Wave into American filmmaking and, of course,
scandalized Hollywood. So I just felt like I was walking in Dede’s
shoes in doing this movie and discovered how much fun it can be
to totally liberate yourself. [laughing] I’d like to bring
a bit of that courage to all the film experiences that I have. The
fact that we are able to work digitally makes that even easier.

MM: In general, as an editor, do you tend
to identify the genre you’re dealing with and have that inform the
way you cut the picture?

CL: In some ways it does. If you’re doing a
film noir like Body Heat, you want to keep within that tradition.

MM: What sort of considerations were there
with
Body Heat?

CL: The relationship between [William Hurt]
and [Kathleen Turner]-you really had to understand the sexual manipulation.
That’s a hallmark of film noir: It has to work on an emotional level.
You have to believe it. But it’s not about being explicitly sexual.
It’s about being suggestive.

If you are doing a western, like Silverado-which
I also did with Larry [Kasdan]-you had to acknowledge historical
context. He wanted it to be about the beginning of the era, not
the closing of the era. It had to be optimistic and about the conflicting
agendas of the time. In [The Truth About Charlie], we had
to acknowledge certain givens of the movie that inspired it, [Charade].
But from the very beginning Jonathan said, "This is going to
be different.”

MM: How do you choose your battles when
you don’t agree with a director?

CL: That’s part of the fun. Every day is an
encounter with the film and an encounter with each other. You talk
and you battle and you discover what’s best. I have to say, neither
what the director brings to the editing room nor what I bring to
the editing room usually triumphs-it’s a combination of the two.

Jonathan is such a pleasure to work with because he
knows how to manipulate material. He’s committed to the use of music
and he has a strong sense of both images and sound. For me it’s
like going to graduate school every time I do a picture with him.

MM: With The Truth About Charlie, what were you most proud of?

CL: Just how it all came together because everybody
was given a certain amount of freedom. Jonathan is an extremely
generous guy. There’s always a lot of exchanging of ideas. With
this film we used the freedom Jonathan gave us to explore our own
craft. And that sense of freedom was contagious. We recognized it
in each other, and allowed each other to do that. That’s what I’m
proudest of.

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