Thirty years in the business and 38 films amounts to a lot of cuts. Internationally renowned film editor Sean Barton has edited films in practically every genre: from psychedelic musical (Quadrophenia), to family (The Adventures of Pinocchio), to epic science-fiction (a little picture called Return of the Jedi). Yes, Mr. Barton can do, and has done, it all; consequently, he knows more than a bit about how film story works and today has some choice advice to impart to screenwriters.
Q: What makes for a good script?
Sean Barton: I have a very simple rule of thumb: if I can read it easily and I want to know what’s on the next page, it’s probably something worth doing.
Q: To what degree do you reference the screenplay when editing?
Barton: I reference it really just at the very first assembly. You’ll find scripts are written to be read. There always tends to be too much dialogue in films because they’re shot from scripts. Once you get the images, you’re always cutting back on the amount of dialogue. It becomes unnecessary when the “dialogue” is inside the environment or the images.
Q: You’ve worked in every genre there is. Why not focus on one particular genre?
Barton: That’s interesting. If I can do a thriller, which is work I like a lot, it’s very exciting to be able to manipulate the audience and lead them. And really, humor is another side of that; can you make people laugh when you want them to? Each genre has its own interests. What I’d love to do is a really good Western! It’s very interesting because genres have their own rules, which are not apparent when you first start them, so you find them mid-edit. I teach at the International Film School in England, and I’m always saying, “The American deal with comedy is you always preview it and you record the preview, because you want to hear the audience laugh and you want to hear what’s on the screen.” Here’s a perfect example: If you’re working on a comedy [as an editor], you’ve heard the same joke 25 times, so it’s not funny to you anymore, nor to the people around you. So, it’s important to play off the potential audience. I think, to some degree, with tension it’s the same thing. You get a very tense scene and you know it is, but because you and everyone around you see it everyday for weeks, you lose that faith in its tension and you need the outside audience to tell you you’re right. Each genre has its own way of working — the pacing changes all the time with what you’re doing.
Q: What makes for your ideal project?
Barton: Well, it’s visual effects now and again because one wants to know what’s going on. For instance, when I did Return of the Jedi, the process was all photographic. Now, it’s completely digital. I would cut scenes where I didn’t see the end product for months, whereas now, on Avid or Final Cut, I can get a rough idea of the full comp of a scene when I’m cutting, and then I can pass it on to the other people who are going to do the visual effects, which is a tremendous advantage. In some ways, [on Jedi] we were shooting in the dark where a lot of it was faith: An action would happen, but you wouldn’t have the creature in the background making the actor behave like that. My cut forced the [visual effects department] doing the creature to make it behave in a certain way. Now, we can actually pass on to those people a much more precise idea of what I want. Final Cut, on the Mac system, is wonderful for that because you can put layer on layer on layer.
Q: In terms of the writing, what makes for a good scene for an editor?
Barton: All scripts by necessity have more dialogue than they need because someone has to understand the film as a reader. Of course, once you have it visually, you don’t need all that [dialogue]. I think the thing that drives a film more than anything else is if the writer has a sense of pace. Pacing makes it easy for the actors to understand the story, for the director to understand the story, and that makes it so the story’s there for me.
Q: Any parting advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Barton: Brevity, honestly, is the thing. I’m very aware of what’s happening with the way people are taught filmwriting these days. When I as a film technician go to the movies, I can see the script sticking through, like seeing the bones under the flesh — they’re not hidden enough. When I’m really excited is when I don’t know what’s going to happen next, when I can’t predict the next scene or pick up a bit of action and realize that bit is important and it’ll carry down in the film further on. What I want to be is surprised. I think a lot of films now are very formulaic and one can get all the clues quite quickly. Filmmakers tend to be slightly isolated from the people actually watching the TV and buying the tickets who are extremely sophisticated these days. I’m at an age where television was new when I was a child, but now, my children, my grandchildren, they know so much without being aware they know it; they can read the information in an image to such a depth. I think we sometimes forget that and we give them more information than they need. I’ve been watching The Wire and what I love about it is that things aren’t explained, but we know what’s going on, yet we aren’t told clearly. Say there’s a man looking at a dead woman, he doesn’t say, “Oh, there’s a dead woman!” We know. [As filmmakers,] I feel we’ve got to catch up with the audience, for the audience is much more sophisticated on all levels because they understand the visual image so well these days.