Letting Go on the Cutting Room Floor: A Post-Production Conversation Between David Lowery and Shane Carruth

Editing begins when I’m writing, continues while I’m on set, and then blossoms into its own alchemical element once production is over.

The editing room is my comfort zone and my safety net. Slamming two shots into one another and seeing what happens is my favorite part of making a film, and I can attribute much of what I know as a director to my work as an editor on other films.

This brings me to an interesting dilemma. On Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I chose to work with other editors for the first time, a process that wound up being both exciting and frustrating. I welcomed the new perspectives, but had trouble inviting others into what had always been a very singular process for me. So, rather than ruminating on post-production by myself, I turned to Shane Carruth—with whom I worked on his most recent feature film, Upstream Color.

David Lowery and Shane Carruth

David Lowery (DL): As a director, can you ever conceive of not editing your own work?

Shane Carruth (SC): Not easily, no. It’s hard to imagine it. In a perfect world, editing would take place in writing, but the more I realize that the world isn’t perfect or that I’m not as smart as I’d like to be, I realize that can’t be the case. But I still think it’s something to strive for: To make a script that is edited so strongly that it provides a framework to inform the rest of the process.

DL: In that case, how much discovery do you allow yourself on set, and when does discovery transform into second guessing?

SC: My best stab right now is that when filmmakers have internalized the story well enough to make improvisational choices that are still pointing in the same direction or carrying the same message, for lack of a better word, that’s an ideal state. But when improvisation replaces having a strong plan, things can get really dangerous.

DL: How easily are you able to let go? Does hindsight plague you, or do you feel you’ve realized your ideas with some degree of accuracy?

SC: So far, yes. I would say that if my execution wasn’t precisely what I planned in the beginning, the most important aspects of the thematic and subtextual elements are still coming across—although in a different, and hopefully stronger, way. Actually, I would say the execution of Primer is weaker than the ideas in the script, and the execution of Upstream Color is stronger.

Upstream Color (2013)

DL: Have you ever read any books on film theory? I’m thinking specifically of Eisenstein and Walter Murch…

SC: No, I haven’t, and I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. I know what I tell myself, which is that at the end of the day, we’re creating media that is meant to be experienced by the layman—not someone immersed in theory. I know that we’ve all culturally learned how film works. Without knowing it, everyone out there understands that you don’t cross the line when you’re shooting. They don’t know that they know that, but they know it because they’ve been taught how the geography of film works. That defines the vocabulary of film. I guess it’s best to know those elements of the theory, but the way a film is received by the viewer is still the most important thing to me.

DL: On the technical side of things, how much time do you spend paying attention to new software?

SC: Too much! Especially now.

DL: Do you feel that it’s important to edit while you’re shooting?

SC: Yes, I do think it’s absolutely important. At the minimum, I need to have an assistant who can assemble according to the script, and I make sure to have a part of the schedule devoted to that assembly. I mean, it’s not a new concept, watching dailies, but now we have the ability to watch dailies in a more organized fashion and make sure that everything is still working visually the way it did when it was just words on the page. So I think it would be silly not to edit during principle photography.

DL: We had someone doing an assembly on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but I made the choice not to look at anything until after we wrapped production. I think I knew that once I started going down that path, I would be up all night editing rather than shooting the next day. But I still regret not editing, for several reasons.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

SC: I just think watching footage is too valuable. I think of it as someone trying to paint something without the ability to look at their subject. It’s possible, but why exactly would anyone want to do that? It leaves no room for understanding or correction. We’re still subjective creatures that deal constantly with feedback. We can’t walk without getting some feedback from the ground as to whether our weight is shifting properly.

DL: In Upstream Color, there is a significant number of cuts per minute. I don’t know if we ever figured out what the actual ratio is.

SC: It’s like a cut every three seconds, so about 20 cuts per minute.

DL: As I recall, what led to that rapid cutting was that you told me the first act needed to be no more than 25 minutes in length. So, I looked at the number of shots for each scene and assumed that each one of those shots had a purpose. Those two rules—the time limit and the raw material—begat the pace. But I remember you being surprised when you saw how quickly it was moving. Is that accurate?

SC: My recollection is that I was surprised that you were keying into it so quickly, and so closely to my original intent. And it was so thrifty. I shouldn’t use the word surprise, but it was only because you and I were still getting to know each other and I didn’t know what to expect. I was just really pleased that the film was working at all, and that you knew exactly what the final product was supposed to be.

DL: When you have that many cuts and the film itself is so fluid, the style becomes more cumulative. It’s less about the content of each shot and more about how those fragments of content can stick together in an almost centrifugal fashion: Together, they accumulate mass, and out of that mass the story and the emotion and everything else emerges. That’s a manner of storytelling that I love, and am excited by, and in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I tried to do that for the first 30 minutes of the film. But after the first act, I wanted to slam on the brakes and slow everything down, and transition into a style where each individual shot is doing a lot more heavy lifting and things aren’t quite so fleeting.

SC: I think before Upstream Color, I had a very specific aesthetic that I liked and thought was appropriate, and which I thought would be appropriate across all stories; something where the composition is very strong, every shot is purposeful, and the edit is figured out in the writing. It’s precise, and that’s the way I wanted everything to be. With Upstream, we quickly got into this more fluid sense of things, and because of that, it started—and I felt we had permission to do this—to switch between cinematic modes. We have one film, but it can contain six different ways of telling stories. If we need to switch it up and be more precise or more controlled or do a 90-second long shot right up against 30 cuts in a minute, we can do that because we’re playing with the lead characters’ perception of things. To be honest, that’s something I should have figured out theoretically before I was forced to figure out physically. Cinematic modes are tools. They aren’t aesthetics that define a director’s personality. I want to think of them not as signatures of an auteur but as tools that can be used when needed. I want to use all of them. MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2014.

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