LAST WEEKEND, directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams from a screenplay by Mr. Dolby, will have its world premiere on May 2nd at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It tells the tale of a mother (played stunningly by Patricia Clarkson) who, in the course of an eventful Labor Day weekend, comes to terms with the fact that she no longer plays a central role in the lives of her grown sons. I’m proud to have been the film’s supervising editor.
At my first meeting with Tom and Tom -- my job interview -- the directors said the tone of the piece was meant to be Chekhovian. Specifically, Tom Dolby’s story about a gathering of kith and kin at a family estate soon to go on the selling block evoked The Cherry Orchard. On the title page of Anton Chekhov’s text, the playwright tells us his piece is “A Comedy in Four Acts.” Famously, Stanislavski directed its first production, at the Moscow Art Theatre, as a tragedy. The challenge in editing, then, would be to keep both humor and pathos alive while still endowing LAST WEEKEND with a stylistic and emotional unity.
And indeed, the narrative unfolds with a comfortable mixture of comedy and drama. Combining levity and gravitas, of course, heightens an audience’s experience of each. I was reminded of this artful dynamic a few months ago after a screening of Brian Percival’s THE BOOK THIEF. Lead actor Geoffrey Rush arrived at the end of the movie for a question and answer session and asked, “Did we get the laughs?” While that might seem like an odd query about a sad story set in Nazi Germany, it was an important one for Mr. Rush. “If we don’t get the laughs,” he explained, “we don’t maximize the tears.” He’s right; emotional extremes keep the viewer’s guard down.
The Toms, as cast and crew came to call them, understood this from the start. So my interview became a work session. The directors’ vision -- the one to which an editor tries to remain true as a picture evolves -- was laid out. Comedy and drama were to play equal roles as LAST WEEKEND’s story unfolded; to succeed, the film had to maintain a delicate tonal balance.
It may surprise non-editors to learn that thematic and emotional values are what directors and editors talk about from the get-go. But really, what else is there to discuss? Nothing has been shot, so cutting rhythms and patterns are random abstractions at this point.
There’s no reason for an editor talk to a director about the software she or he will use at a first meeting… or ever. No matter how exciting editing students might find such a chat, discussing Avid or Adobe with a contemporary director would be as meaningless as telling Hawks, Hitchcock or Wilder what kind of splicer the cutter might use.
So, the screenplay is the focal point of the job interview. The director’s interpretation is paramount, to be sure, but the editor’s impressions are also quite important. And Tom and Tom wanted to hear about mine. I could see the Chekhovian nature of the writing, I told them. But it also evoked, for me, the feel of George Cukor’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. In that film, Jimmy Stewart’s character, Macaulay Conner, says more than once, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience!”
It’s not that Tom Dolby’s script defends oligarchy; it absolutely doesn’t. But the film does show affluent characters to be multi-dimensional and deeply human. And yet, unlike most contemporary Hollywood movies, LAST WEEKEND refuses to shy away from dialogue about socio-economic class. In one amusing scene, the family patriarch (Chris Mulkey) boasts that he’s not nouveau riche as are his “dot-com-er” neighbors. After all, you see, his fortune (from a chain of workout gyms) is over two decades old!
I guess the Toms were comfortable with my impressions and with the extent to which I understood and embraced their vision, because we did wind up, happily, working together. But there’s also subtext to the initial director/editor meeting – something beyond agreement about the substance of a script. Since directors and editors spend many hours a day in the editing suite for months on end, the question, “Is this someone I can abide in cramped quarters for a protracted period?” lies beneath the surface.
And the answer has little to do with whether the editor wears the right perfume or cologne (or none) to a meeting, or whether she or he likes indie bands, single malt scotches or the Dodgers. (Those things might come up, as text, to be sure, but they’re relatively unimportant.) Potential compatibility in the cutting room is really determined by how prepared the editor seems to be, how eager she or he is to hear what the directors have to say and by the quality of ideas she or he brings to the table.
What’s more, it’s imperative that those ideas relate to the directors’ vision. If I had suggested Tom and Tom that LAST WEEKEND needed additional one liners to become more of a broad comedy I might have had a point, but not one related to the Chekhovian film about families they set out to make and that, together with my co-editor David Grey and the whole cast and crew, we succeeded in making.
Recalling the successful meeting with the Toms, along with the lessons one can learn from it, somehow makes me think of my very first interview for an editing position – the exact opposite of my LAST WEEKEND experience. The word “disaster” comes to mind. At the time I was just graduating from assisting other cutters, and had a couple of editing credits on “afterschool specials” under my belt.
I'd read Ralph Rosenblum’s anecdotal feast, When The Shooting Stops (The Cutting Begins) and found it inspiring in all the wrong ways. Don’t get me wrong. There’s much for filmmakers to glean from the book -- indeed, Tom Dolby read and enjoyed it while we were editing LAST WEEKEND –- but the author’s tone suggests that he singlehandedly “saved” almost every picture on which he worked, including Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, ANNIE HALL and INTERIORS. Mr. Rosenblum's stories left me with the impression that the trait directors admired most in an editor was ruthless critical objectivity.
So I took the room by storm. I was smug, superior and didactic – a real charmer -- telling the writer/director about all the things, real and imagined, that were wrong with her screenplay. Her jaw and those of the producers dropped. They were speechless. As the silence became awkward and painful, I simply filled it with more hot air, continuing to insult an artist who has since received critical acclaim for her New Yorker short stories and other fiction. Not my shining moment!
Indeed, I’ve come a long way. When recommending When the Shooting Stops to Tom Dolby I did so with a caveat about its tone. I’ve long known that the most important contribution an editor can make to a film is to help shape it into the best version of what the directors envisioned in the first place. And I’m confident that we did that with LAST WEEKEND.