Mon 4 Feb 2008
Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian director of “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener”, had written a blog chronicling the work on his latest movie, “Blindness“, an adaptation of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s novel. Meirelles shot the film last summer in Canada, with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in the leads (the film is a Canadian co-production, with the talented writer-actor-director Don McKellar responsible for the script and producing duties handled by Israeli ex-pat, Niv Fichman, both of whom are responsible, among many other credits, for the great “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould”).
Meirelles wrote 13 blog entries from August 24 to November 21 2007. Alas, all of them in Portuguese. Nathaniel R has provided translations for posts 1 through 10. And twitchfilm.net posted full translations for two of Meirelles’ posts (here and here). And now it’s my turn. Added below is the full translation for the 13th and final posting, which is like a crash course in editing (remember that Daniel Rezende, Meirelles’ editor, was nominated for an Oscar for “City of God”, his very first feature). Meirelles is writing about how he attempts to whittle his movie from 2 hours and 40 minutes down to 2 hours flat. And the way acting, story clarity and tempo can be improved on by the editor.
The translation was done by Cinemascope’s loyal readers, for whom I’m grateful: Rona Segal translated from the Portuguese into Hebrew, and Miri Cohen Translated from Hebrew into English. Interestingly, you say “Julianne Moore” the same in all three languages.
So here it is:
Post 13: On editing, assembly and frame fucking
We turned off the light to escape the fact that we are in a screening room, and turned off our phones. One of us went to the bathroom, another left to get a drink of water. Watching an edited version of a film for the first time is a harrowing experience, even when you know every line and the exact tone in which the line was said. Even if you know how each sequence was built, and even where the music comes in. In spite of all that, I was tense.
Everything seemed all right, but in our profession five plus five can equal three, and now was the time to do the final sum. Hard, but what has to be done, has to be done. When the filming of the movie wrapped I was a little sad. Maybe it’s a sign; I thought to myself, that something can still be salvaged.
Daniel Rezende has begun to cut the movie in July in Toronto, but for him this was not even a preliminary version, just a rough assembly, as he called it. This kind of assembly is just putting all the scenes together as they were written in the script. Even if a certain scene did not work out as we planned when we shot it, it will still appear in this rough assembly. (This does not include scenes that were embarrassing beyond all doubt; some things are better off forgotten). Of course, it is always possible to use interesting editing solutions even in such a first time assembly, and I like to be surprised, but in principle what we were about to see was a technical arrangement of things.
The cut was two hours and forty minutes. I don’t plan to waste so much of the viewers’ precious time, that’s why I strive to reach a maximum of two hours. So the goal was to throw forty minutes away, and to succeed in creating a story which will have the right rhythm with what was left. I love this stage in film making. It’s a condensed, creative stage, with no interruptions or exterior pressure. And at this stage, when you succeed in diagnosing and locating where the exact problems are in the script or its cinematic interpretation, you can work with the editing: change the qualities of certain characters, make the acting more precise and logical than it was in the actual filming of the movie. (That’s why the best advise I can give an actor who wants to develop his career: suck up to the editor. Bring him chocolate, or flowers – if it is a woman editor. Even expensive wine, if your acting was exceptionally weak this time).There are a million ways to make a scene better through editing. In a moment of embarrassing acting you can always cut away to the face of another actor, you can always re-record a line which was done badly over again, and to plant it over the stubborn actor’s back. It is very easy to fool the audience (I am sorry to say…) and I admit that I feel some pleasure when I manage to pull it off without leaving traces. But this time, judging by the version we’ve seen, we will not have to use any dirty tricks. The ensemble cast did a very consistent job. The editing challenge here will be to find the right tone to emphasize, to highlight the personality of each character in each stage of the film. To give this one another look, to lengthen the other one’s pause, to shorten a little bit from here, to add some from there. It is like seasoning a dish. We have decided, specifically for this movie, to heighten the Doctor’s arrogance in the beginning, to characterize his wife as being silly, and to strengthen the coldness in the appearance of the woman with dark glasses. All the characters go through a process, and create together what is called an “arc of a character”. Because in the end, ninety-eight percent of the movies are about that: development of characters.
To refine the assembly version is a delicate job. At the end, anything that is unnecessary, or repeats itself has to go. You have to turn the fat into muscle. After five days of work, we have gone down to two hours and twenty five minutes. To take off fifteen minutes in one clean cut is a good beginning, but an additional fifteen minutes still had to be cut. And here comes the truly difficult stage. This is the stage in which the scenes materialize into their final form, but the movie is still too long. If I take out a few scenes as they are, the movie will remain vague, unclear, it will harm its climate. If I won’t cut the whole thing, the movie will feel too chewed up. A slow movie is all fine and dandy, but a movie that stretches out endlessly is awful. And the worst thing is to hear people coming out of your film saying to each other “good movie, though I would gladly cut off fifteen minutes”. It makes you want to answer: “try cutting them off yourselves, wise guys”. Anyhow, because it isn’t really the audiences’ fault, we decided to take the first cut, two hours and twenty five minutes, and to send it to a third round of editing, which created a second version.
In the third editing round, after cutting out all that was surplus, the changes become almost invisible. You take out pauses between words and sentences said by the actors, you “accelerate” their lines (some actors tend to lengthen their pauses, whether it’s because they forgot their lines or because they fancy grabbing more screen time. Cutting to the other camera throws these pauses out). What else? You shorten a walk down a corridor, a shot of a key turning in a lock turns into merely the sound of a key turning in a lock, an actor’s two strides towards his car are cut, some talk providing an exposition to a certain scene is glued on as off-screen dialogue to the end of the previous scene. With the aid of these tricks, the movie gains its tempo, picks up speed. We have reached two hours and seventeen minutes in this version. Ten minutes still have to be cut off. This is the time to think which scenes still have to be taken out from the movie, and go straight to the DVD extras. This actually means cutting out good scenes, which work well, but the story can do without them. Their fate has to be decided upon now, and this is the exact stage in which I’m in. Cutting out good scenes.
Regardless of the movie’s pace and the task of cutting out the fat – many important scenes in themselves just don’t get to where they should. It is either because the directing is too transparent (what certain people call “classical directing”) or because of the acting, or because a certain line which was supposed to be said, was never written in the first place. These scenes demand an emergency surgery. My editor, Daniel, has taught me what is the right way to treat these scenes, scenes that don’t work, but the plot will not work out without them. I always want to re-record a few lines, which will explain the scenes better, or try to find groundless solutions which will add missing things in the scene. Daniel taught me that in such cases it is better to cut them to the max, to go through them, with the hope that the viewer just won’t notice… From him I have learned that to fix something in retrospect, to highlight some frames and to do what the Americans call “frame fucking” will never help a scene which wasn’t done right in the first place. Nevertheless there is an unlimited number of “regular” editing solutions, which can keep the basic honor of such “sick” scenes and it can still be that at the end one of those scenes will never totally recover, and will stay planted in the movie forever as a mark of disgrace. By the way, this always happens.
Except in this movie. Lucky for us, here we did not have to deal with such catastrophes. We used a trick of the trade which served as a bulletproof vest, a solution which can never disappoint you: Julianne Moore.
The scene sucks and nothing else works? Cut to a close-up of Julianne Moore’s face and stay there. Check Mate.