How They Did It: Editing Five Stories into One Startling, Concise Documentary, The Russian Woodpecker

I served as producer, director and editor for my feature documentary The Russian Woodpecker, but by far the most difficult task of the three was editing.

For what started as a short and straightforward film about a Ukrainian artist and Chernobyl disaster victim, Fedor Alexandrovich, seeking to understand a secret Soviet antenna named the Duga, we ended up with a surprisingly complex and unruly collection of more than 100 hours of footage: interviews with scientists and retired Soviet officials, footage from deep within Chernobyl, archival material from the Cold War, reenacted dreams of our protagonist, battles from the Ukrainian revolution, hidden camera footage of Soviet officials and our own team, and much more.

I was lucky to have the high-level guidance of doc veteran Alan Berliner, as well as the technical skill and excellent story sense of Devin Tanchum, my assistant editor (eventually promoted to co-editor). But most helpful were my years working as a dramaturge and story consultant in the theater.

As we filmed the documentary, we did rough edits of many scenes on a Macbook Pro using Final Cut Pro X. We conducted dozens of lengthy interviews, and as soon as the translations arrived, we would cut out the boring bits and edit together scores of mini-stories.

But preparing these “scenelets” was simple compared to the task of bringing scores of them together into a workable assembly—that process would highlight weaknesses in our structure and force us to make tough decisions. I knew that if we failed in this, the film would be an unwatchable disaster.

Our biggest problem was how to combine five seemingly separate films into one compelling narrative:

  1. The story of the Duga, a secret Soviet antenna, and Fedor’s investigation of its history, purpose, and potential connection to the Chernobyl disaster
  2. The dream visions of Fedor, the artist, filmed across Ukraine in ancient fortresses and over radioactive seas, symbolizing his journey from a radiated child of Chernobyl to the man he is today
  3. The history of Ukraine in the 20th century (This was added after several test screenings made clear that Western audiences needed more context.)
  4. The 2013-2014 Maidan protests and consequent violent revolution against the pro-Russian government in Kiev
  5. And finally, the story of the making of our documentary, which included secret filming of the crew by each other, sniper attacks on our cameraman, and other unexpected events

For months, the attempt to weave these stories together looked hopeless, especially since I wanted the film to have the pacing of a thriller and come in around 80 minutes. I seriously considered cutting entire storylines or releasing separate films, and until the last minute was sure that this would be required. But any time I peeled off one story, it became clear that the other four were relying on it. Without the history of Ukraine, Fedor’s dream quest and the revolution made no sense; without the revolution, Fedor’s investigation and predictions of war had no satisfying conclusion; and so on with each permutation.

Fedor Glass Theory

Alexandrovich writes his incendiary conspiracy theory about the Chernobyl disaster on a glass pane

One day not too long before our deadline, I was looking at our chart of various storylines, color-coded and graphed by emotional intensity. It hit me that the most powerful moment in the film was when Fedor overcomes the ghosts of the Soviet past that had been haunting him and his family for generations. I decided then that Fedor’s psychological journey would be the sole narrative train of the film.

This idea seems obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t clear until the very end. After all, we set out to make a short film about a Soviet radar.

We then combed through each of the five stories and kept only those portions that advanced the audience’s understanding of Fedor’s inner journey. If it didn’t, no matter how interesting or expensive the shot, it was cut.

With this clarifying idea in hand, the structure quickly came together. And wonderfully, we didn’t have to cut any of the five storylines. We simply chose the elements from each that illuminated Fedor’s story. The investigation of the antenna is a symbol of Fedor’s need to understand Chernobyl, the key tragedy of his childhood; the dreams give insight into his state of mind; Ukraine’s history is essential to providing context for Fedor’s life-altering decisions; the revolution provides a stage upon which he makes his most fateful choice; and the secret camera footage powerfully reveals to the audience the ways that the Soviet ghosts still have the power to infect even friends with paranoia and fear.

But much was cut. Hours of technical information about the Duga antenna—a miracle of engineering for the time—never made it into the film. Whole chapters of Fedor’s conspiracy theory, including a potentially damning detour to Cuba, were removed. And from Fedor’s hour-long dream, just a few minutes remained to add a hint of the hallucinogenic.

Fedor torch

Hints of the hallucinogenic: Alexandrovich in an abandoned building near the epicenter of the Chernobyl disaster

Once we had our basic structure, we followed standard storytelling rules: Each scene and each act contained a value change and ended on the highest emotional peak. Each scene turned from one state to another; if an interview didn’t provide a surprise, we cut it and found another way to present the same information. We made sure to have our theme stated clearly in the first few minutes and the inciting incident in the first 10. We avoided all manner of effects: dissolves, zooms, pans, or anything extraneous that did not add to the story.

We also avoided repetition. If two scenes carried the same information, we kept the stronger. We made an exception for the explication of Fedor’s theory, which is repeated three times: once through a quick montage of interviews, once visually, and a final time in polished form and to the public as Fedor shares his ideas with the world. Each telling clarified what is a complicated conspiracy and added layers of meaning.

In the end, even after following all of these rules, there were still dozens of places that didn’t feel right. Often we couldn’t put our finger on what was causing the problem. So we simply embarked on hours of trial and error, swapping alternate cuts, camera angles, reorganizing scenes, etc., until the film achieved the flow that we all had hoped would eventually appear.

When I first met Alan Berliner for advice about how to edit this film, I had a list of specific questions and was hoping for quick answers. Instead, he paused and stared at his library of thousands of newspaper, film, and other clippings, photos and sound recordings, the infinite flotsam he masterfully edits into films such as First Cousin Once Removed and Nobody’s Business. Then he spoke:

“Chad, I can’t answer your questions. Only your film can. Right now, it’s early, and it is whispering to you. Watch your material over and over and listen to that whisper. Eventually, the film will speak. If an edit causes a cry of pain, back off. Move forward slowly, listen closely. And when your film starts to sing, quietly at first and off key, you are getting close. And when it sings clearly and harmoniously, your job is done.”

These words did not solve my immediate problems; those required the application of time-tested rules of storytelling (particularly helpful were Robert McKee, Sheila Bernard Curran, and Karen Everett). But they did give me patience and the courage to let the story rise organically from the footage. And in the end, during that magical climb to final cut, The Russian Woodpecker did in fact sing, at least to my ears. MM

The Russian Woodpecker opens in theaters and on VOD on October 16, 2015, courtesy of FilmBuff. For more information, visit the film’s website here.

2 Comments

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