The Wide Margin: The Writer’s Most Unkindest Cut of All

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I have a friend who makes his living as a film editor – he’s quite good and it’s likely you’ve seen his work – who can look you straight in the eyes and declare in a stentorian voice:  “I don’t do velvet ropes.”  It’s a common sentiment among grizzled industry veterans.  If you are standing in line, you are on the outside.  Both literally and figuratively.

The line at 7:30 am for a film editor panel discussion that wouldn't start for another 3 hours.

The line at 7:30 am for a film editor panel discussion that wouldn’t start for another 3 hours. We were a well-orderly bunch of extreme movie-geeks and hugged the wall, just as requested by the event organizers.  And no one cut in line.

But one day each year my friend makes an exception.  And that’s the reason we were standing on Hollywood Boulevard at 7:30 AM on a Saturday.  The unusual continuous torrential rains, that had drenched Los Angeles over the past several days, abated for a few hours and thwarted our original plans to stand outside in a line while watching the sewers back up and flood famous Hollywood tourist traps.  Instead, our little group of editors (plus one scribe) were treated to a spectacular azure sky that had been scrubbed clean of all emissions from three million tailpipes.  If we had to wait in line, it was better this way.

On the Saturday before Oscar Sunday, American Cinema Editors puts together a wonderful panel discussion by the editors who are nominated for the ultimate film industry award that year.  In recent years, this event has been held at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, a stunning and historic, but rather smallish, venue.  And so, to ensure we actually got the required number of first-come-first-serve seats, our merry group of cutters (plus one scribe) have traditionally descended upon the Egyptian hours before the event.

A good writer must not only think outside the box but also live outside of it.  If you want to understand something, you must have multiple perspectives.  Faithful readers of this column (and my sincerest gratitude to both of you) know that I have literally acted outside the box.  Now I was becoming a box cutter as well.

Let’s take it as a given that nothing exists without the writer.  The world would be a blank page, or at least a passel full of white pixels, without him.  He writes and writes and rewrites and rewrites.  He gets notes.  And rewrites.  And more notes.  And more rewrites.  Then, at last, he sells the script.  And it’s given to someone else.  For more rewrites.  And then, as they say on the shampoo bottle:

Rinse.  Repeat.

(Which is really just a secret ploy to get you to buy more shampoo.)

Film Editing TableBut somewhere after all that effort, from all those people, with all that experience, the script is finally done; no more rewrites.  And therefore you might believe the script is perfect. Or, instead, you can talk to my film editor friend.  Who will tell you (in a stentorian voice):

“The last rewrite is done in the editing room.”

Yes, fellow writers.  Like actors, we are viewed as mere bits of pre-pre-embryonic material, the enzymatic building blocks that the director will cull and collect and correlate and then, with arms full of the stuff, dump it all into a pile in front of his film editor and together they will pick through it and they will assemble it and they will create the movie.

In fact, my friend’s comment was dramatically illustrated throughout the panel discussion that morning by the very folks who were smart enough about the process to be competing against one other for the 2014 Oscar for Film Editing.  Here is a summary of what they said:

American Hustle (Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, and Crispin Struthers):  All the principle actors were allowed into the editing room and were allowed to give feedback.  Bradley Cooper (who not only acted in the film but also executive produced it) was in the room for 7 hours one day.  When was the writer in the room?  Um…. who?  The writer?  Mind you, Eric Warren Singer’s script was ranked #8 on the 2010 Hollywood Black List.  Seriously: Argo – which won the 2013 Oscar for Adapted Screenplay – was ranked behind it at #9!  Doesn’t matter!  Once director David O. Russell got his hands on what had to have been a great script, it was game over:  toss a bunch of carefully written stuff out and then backfill with improvisation. As Russell told Christian Bale, “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.”  (Note to self: Another reason to write for performance.)

Captain Phillips (Editor: Christopher Rouse):  Remember how we writers are told over and over how a proper ending is crucial?  Well, supposed you are writer Billy Ray and set up a final scene where Captain Phillips returns home and is fêted for his bravery.  Director Paul Greengrass shoots the scene and Christopher Rouse – a veteran editor who knows his craft – just can’t get the footage to work.  What do you do?  Well, if you are Paul Greengrass, you decide to spontaneously shoot a new scene which Tom Hanks improvises on the spot.  You turn the footage over to Rouse, who pulls it together so well that you, as director, give it a thumbs up, don’t change a thing, and that’s how your movie now ends.  Please note:  the writer was never consulted during any of this process.

Dallas Buyer’s Club (Editors: Martin Pensa and [Director] Jean-Marc Vallée): It was a real pleasure to listen to Pensa who pretty much made a major motion picture on the micro-indie budget of $5M.  In fact, Pensa worked without any assistants at all; he couldn’t afford them!  With a budget that small, there’s no wiggle room:  you really have to shoot your script.  So how did this script, which writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack had bouncing around Hollywood for 20 years, finally get made?  On the strength that the film’s star, Matthew McConaughey, wanted to star in it.  (Note to self: Just another reason to write for the actor.)

Gravity (Editors: Mark Sanger and [Director] Alfonso Cuarón):  At last!  We finally have a case where one of the writers for the film was allowed into the editing room.  But only because the writer also happened to be director and executive producer.  Since Gravity won the 2014 Oscar for Film Editing, perhaps we can argue it’s good luck to have the writer around in post?  Regardless, it was fascinating to listen to Sanger talk about how the first scene – you know, the one where there seems to be no cuts for 18 minutes – originally had over 200 cuts in it.  Until it was pared back to just something like 130 cuts.  What?  You didn’t see any of those cuts?  Hmmm… maybe we need to rethink our writer-in-the-room-is-good-luck theory for why this picture won the Oscar for editing.

12 Years a Slave (Editor: Joe Walker):  For the second time that day, we heard how an editor changed the as-written ending of a film. In fact, Walker began his remarks on this subject by saying: “I love dialogue… but….” and got a good knowing laugh from the audience of editors.  On page 116 of the shooting script (the same one that won writer John Ridley the 2014 Oscar for Adapted Screenplay), you can see how the scene was supposed to unspool while the slave, Solomon Northup, waited for his friends up North to confirm his freeman status.  Instead, Walker completely removed the dialogue and inserted last-minute footage shot of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in a parking lot(!) to express all that writing with just one über-long (and silent) tight close-up of his face.  Of course, it’s hard to argue with Walker’s choice when the emotional wallop of this key scene helped the film win the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture.

So there you have it.  The film editor has more power over the story than the writer.  As we filed out of the theater, I remembered the old joke about the dumb film actor who thought they needed to sleep with the writer.  True, no sensible actor would sleep with an editor either… but at least there isn’t a joke about it.

If you write for film, resign yourself to being cut like film.  If you want to move up the artistic pyramid, remember the art form of playwriting.  Or become a director.  (There are no jokes about dumb actors sleeping with directors.)

But regardless of your artistic path, make friends with lots of film editors.  As a writer, you have more in common with them than you think.  They love to tell stories, too.  And the good ones have an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema.  That makes them excellent company.

Musso and Frank GrillWhich is why, on the one day of the year where we editors (and one lowly scribe) deigned to wait in line, we continued our yearly tradition by crossing the street and heading over to the famous and seriously old-school Musso and Frank Grill, an ancient 95-year-old establishment where the collected flatulence of Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Louis B. Mayer, and Mary Pickford still floats suspended within the seat cushions.  Sure, it is a convenient walk from the Egyptian, but the Musso and Frank Grill also boasts the most generous pours this side of a 1950s studio executive’s office.  And if there’s one perception that film editors have yet to cut from us writers, it’s our tragically romantic relationship with whiskey.

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2 thoughts on “The Wide Margin: The Writer’s Most Unkindest Cut of All

  1. NoniB17

    Aw, man! My nerves are twanging. First, I just found myself using the same trick to read this interesting nugget that I employed to get through English Lit; you know, get into the rhythm of William Shakespear’s voice. Your voice is quite as distinctive but admittedly a lot more fun. More accurately, first I had to get past the title; it brought my quick skim of the articles in this week’s newsletter to a struck-dumb standstill. MIT eh? So I’m a grammar nut. It’s okay; I’ve come to terms with the affliction and accepted myself as I am but your “Most Unkindest” nearly destroyed decades of rehab. Thanks for a peek into the editing room. Thanks a lot. Aw, man….

  2. Pingback: The Edit: The Writer’s Most Unkindest Cut of All | FilmmakerIQ.com

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