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Chris Tellefsen’s New York Story

Chris Tellefsen’s New York Story

Articles - Editing

In 1988, early in my career, I received a feature script that excited and intrigued me. It was an odd, timeless story about New York debutantes and their escorts which offered a surprising take on the human condition, examining the virtually unexplored phenomenon of downward mobility among the upper class. It asked if privilege could be a curse to ambition and success by telling a story about people with whom we are rarely put in a position to genuinely empathize. This world was alien to me outside of the George Cukor films of Philip Barry plays like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. The fascinating script for Metropolitan was entirely different.

Its distinctive point of view felt as if it was written from direct experience. It wasn’t the usual depiction of wealthy stiffs versus implicitly virtuous others; the script was about 135 pages long and it read long. It was filled with outrageous philosophical and thinly veiled political speeches spouted by callow youths, in a plot of misguided attraction inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

I met Whit Stillman, the writer and director of Metropolitan, on the main set, a borrowed brownstone on the Upper East Side. There I also met the film’s cinematographer, John Thomas. With his particular knowledge of lighting, Thomas was able to give this Super 16mm film the black, white and gold look Whit was going for, imbuing it with the glamour it needed. When I walked in, a week and a half into filming, they were shooting the “truth or dare” scene. The group of young actors had been culled through an open call in Backstage and from a local girl’s school. They seemed so natural to me—like a group of kids who had been hanging out for years. To achieve this, some recasting had been done after shooting a scene or two. Whit had let a friend play a record producer to disastrous effect, and had clearly miscast one key role. So Chris Eigeman was inserted as “Nick” at the last minute, and was a revelation in the role.

Whit was inexperienced in post-production and came around with books on editing by Edward Dmytryk and Karel Reisz. His eager approach was charming, if not annoying. We theorized for a while and I suggested putting them aside so I could just shape the scenes. The challenge at hand was to make this talky piece “cinematic”—to find rhythm in the words, looks, gestures and atmosphere. It was clear to me that the film had much potential, but when I had a first cut to match the script, the film was running nearly two hours and 45 minutes—every verbose monologue in its origial length was shot entirely as written. So I sat Whit down and told him “Now we start.”

At first, Whit held tightly to the script. As I suggested lifts and cuts, he disagreed with me, at times claiming “You can’t do that—it’s grammatically incorrect!” Frustrated, I suggested asking a handful of trusted friends to view the film “as is.” By the third reel he had to relent. Being a fast learner, Whit snapped into the task, letting me shape the narrative. With his dry, off-kilter sense of humor, I enjoyed working with him. Throughout the process we continued to screen our latest cuts in order to feel how it was playing. Some people responded, others didn’t; the conversational nature of the film would always perplex some people. An assistant I had once worked under responded by saying to me “Maybe you should try cutting exploitation films.”

But we weren’t going to lose faith because of differing tastes, particularly when what was being shaped was so new and original and therefore bound to be challenging.

The editing of Metropolitan stands in contrast to a few subsequent films I have edited, more often studio, star-driven ones where the organic process of discovery and finding a film’s true voice was severely damaged by a slavish response to preview screenings. I have seen several situations where character was gutted out of a piece for reasons not integral to the film or to the best outcome.
Editing is the reciprocal of film acting. It is a privilege to have great performances to work with. Delving through takes with, well, love, supporting the heart of the actors’ interpretations and integrating their work into the body of the piece is a great pleasure. As versions of Metropolitan progressed, I fine-tuned the performances to make this earnest, unusual group of young characters likable (they weren’t much younger than me at the time), integrating the poignancy and youthful innocence of these people into the film. To do so, the right music was essential, but we still had the huge task of creating it.

We needed some realistic cotillion music á la Peter Duchin and Lester Lanin, which would have been impossible to afford. So I brought in Tom Judson, a composer who had written the music for an independent feature I had recently finished editing. Tom had a sense of melody; he could write catchy, memorable tunes. We listened to music he had already written and dug into his trunk of compositions. We chose three pieces, which became central themes. He played them on a piano and recorded them on a cassette tape (high 1980s technology). I placed these throughout, finding a party theme, an after-party theme and a wistful piece for underscoring the character of Audrey, a role heartbreakingly performed by Carolyn Farina.

We then needed to find an arranger to put the music into its cultural context. After much trial and error we met composer Mark Suozzo, who was able to arrange and cover the big band pieces, the palm court style, the sparer piano trio and a string quartet to cover all the classical pieces. He also wrote some new pieces, including the much-needed cha-cha, which ended up being a main theme. When I received the final recorded music I was thrilled by its quality and started moving it around, rethinking some placements to great effect. The cha-cha became a call to Tom, the reluctant main character, drawing him back into the fold whenever he pulled away. I cut the new music on a 35mm mag to get a fuller sound, found a 16/35 Steenbeck and edited at night as we mixed during the day.

There were still humps to get over—like screenings at festivals and finding distribution. We screened for a chilly representative of the Montreal Film Festival, whose sole comment at the end was, “You changed those reels very fast,” then showed it to the IFP who loved it. At our first public showing the actors were thrilled. It was sold to American Playhouse for future broadcast, and that week at the IFP there were lines around the block. New Line picked it up as the test film for Fine Line, their soon-to-be “classics” division. It was a hit at Sundance and Cannes.

When Whit was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay he called me. “They nominated the edited screenplay,” he said.
It’s interesting now to reflect on the core of the story: A young generation assessing the ideals of their post-WWII parents and regretting the loss of wealth amassed by previous generations. In Charlie’s speech, he proclaims them all doomed.

Whit’s was a remarkably fresh voice. The content, approach and ambition of this film were a vast departure from what had been explored in independent film before then.

The editing of Metropolitan was seminal in my career. We editors deal with content. We are interpreters of ideas written, directed, acted and photographed for the screen. Our goal is to engage the audience rhythmically and shepherd them into the intrigue that is the cinematic story. Film, at its best, is a living narrative, shaped and massaged by the work of editors into a watchable whole, projecting into the world this small piece of preserved time. The complex and rich narrative of Metropolitan gave me the opportunity to stretch and play with the structure of story and the intimacy of characters, testing my instincts and powers of interpretation.

Every film presents a new set of problems to solve… The excitement of fresh new scenes flying in after the first day of shooting, facing the deliciously daunting task of constructing a cohesive scene, building the whole structure, then reassessing my first instincts and discovering the ultimate shape of a particular narrative. Perspective and balance are always in my mind’s eye. It is odd how little is known or understood of this work, usually kept from sight for varying reasons. Sometimes people even ask me if I find my work to be boring and repetitive. Never. MM

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