Wednesday, November 30, 2011


           This is my first post in six months.  I’ve been hard at work cutting Josh Radnor’s new movie, LIBERAL ARTS, and my intention was to write first about why it’s impossible for a feature film editor to engage in extracurricular activities such as blogging while working on a picture.  But I’m inspired, instead, to sing the praises of Martin Scorcese’s HUGO. 

           Mr. Scorcese’s new film is a profoundly moving, impeccably executed love story.   With a twist:  the love object is cinema itself.   Appreciation of the movie, indeed, may be enhanced if viewers are as passionate about motion pictures as the director.  But HUGO is so specific and detailed that its theme becomes universal; people who truly love anything will recognize their own fervor for what stirs them, and be deeply affected by the work. 

          The film’s central characters, Hugo Cabret and Georges Melies, are enthralled by the magic of filmmaking in the same way that baseball fanatics, for example, are captivated by the sport.   Thus when Hugo introduces his young friend, Isabel, to the pleasure of afternoon movie-going, the scene is so sensuous and joyful that it transcends literal content.  To be sure, the director and the actors deftly convey the heightened state we associate with viewing big screen movies in the dark.  But the scene might also evoke, depending on the viewer, memories of an early childhood trip to the ballpark, a first visit to the seashore or even a first rock concert.  Cinephiles, sports fans, beach lovers, audiophiles -- indeed, all of us who are fortunate enough to remain awestruck by things -- will feel a strong connection to HUGO.

           Martin Scorcese’s collaborators on the film, of course, contribute a great deal to this sense of magic and wonder.  Howard Shore’s brilliant hour and forty-five minute score, for instance, is deeply emotional without ever being manipulative.   The composer uses period instruments such as the ondes Martenot (an electronic keyboard invented in 1928) and the musette (a French accordion), as well as guitars and pianos from the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  But such choices never feel self-conscious; rather they lend authenticity to the movie.

           Mr. Shore is just one of many whose work on the picture seems Oscar worthy.  Bob Richardson’s 3-D camera work and lighting are astonishing, as is Dante Ferretti’s impeccably detailed production design.  Thelma Schoonemaker’s film editing is brilliant, as always.   Sandy Powell’s period costume design is inspired, and Tom Fleishman’s innovative sound mix (which keeps background dialogue low and principal dialogue relatively hot in order to enhance the effect of 3-D) feels groundbreaking. 

           Mr. Scorcese, to be sure, deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.  The picture itself should also be nominated.  And Sacha Baron Cohen has to be singled out for blending bits of Jacques Tati and Peter Sellers with his own acting genius to create HUGO’s memorable Station Master.

           Such recognition, for one and all, would be a boon to the picture’s box office.  What’s unfortunate is that it may need the help.  Opening weekend turnout was not strong.  And with a film as great as this, we have to ask why.

          The answer is simple and I could see it coming from a mile away:  HUGO, which is truly a love story, was promoted as a children’s movie.  The strategy -- sell a film about a child to kids -- was based on the absurd notion that viewers only want to see stories about people like themselves.  This idea seems to have taken hold in movie marketing in recent years.  But here’s no evidence to support it.  In fact, both common sense and actual data tell us that the opposite is true. 

          When my generation fell in love with American cinema in the 1970’s, we were not Sicilian mobsters, beat cops chasing transnational drug-dealers, or satanically possessed pre-adolescent girls.  We weren’t sex-addicted Beverly Hills hairdressers, ‘30’s-era L.A. detectives, shark-obsessed marine biologists, or Bay Area policemen with a penchant for vigilante justice.  Movie-going gave us respite from our quotidian concerns.  And that respite is the very thing that draws us to fiction.

           Which is why we also loved -- and continue to love -- Italian, Swedish, French, German, Japanese and Indian cinema.  It’s why the great John Hughes, Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe “high school” films of the ‘80’s appealed as much to pre-teens and adults as they did to teenagers.  It’s why television viewers kept a show about Ozark Mountain yokels in Beverly Hills running for 11 years, why tens of millions of people tuned in to the travails of a Minneapolis news team each week, and why the tale of a physician falsely accused of murder drew almost all TV watchers to its final episode.

           HUGO is appealing for the same reason our favorite motion pictures and television programs become classics:  they transport us from the routines of our daily lives.  The romance of Paris in the thirties, with its beautiful train stations and cafes, the magic of the dawn of cinema, and the exciting life of a movie-loving boy who lives with a robot inside a clock -- that’s right, a movie-loving boy who lives with a robot inside a clock -- will attract adults, just as the story of Truffaut’s young Antoine Doinelle drew older viewers to THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS.  Kids will love HUGO, too, and should see it.  But it’s a romantic, artful film, rich in detail and profound in ways that make it a truly grown-up experience.

           So the picture’s high quality will win out over its ill-conceived marketing campaign.  People will see HUGO because of its great reviews, because of its stellar word-of-mouth and because of the award nominations it will garner.   And perhaps studio executives will move past the folly of trying to sell mirror-gazing to the public when that’s the opposite of what most filmgoers want.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Waiting for Comfort

June 30, 2011

     A few weeks ago I had the kind of hellish day that seemed to call for a stiff drink.   But I needed more. Something better than booze or comfort foods like mac and cheese or meat loaf.  What the doctor ordered was a comfort movie

     We all have such films -- dvds we’ve watched dozens of times and will watch many more, because they cheer us up or so engage us that no matter how often we view them, they provide consolation.  The content of my comfort movies is eclectic, and it’s not always lighthearted.  To wit, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, JFK, Chinatown and Dog Day Afternoon all have prominent places on my cinema of solace shelf.  But so do Bull Durham, A Room with a View and Stop Making Sense.  
     I could have watched any of these.  Yet I craved the special soothing that only a comfort comedy can provide.  Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman called out to me as it has many times before.  In fact, if Guffman were a vinyl lp, I’d have “played the grooves off it” by now.  Yet somehow I’d never viewed the “special features.”  So that night,  seeking an adult dose of comfort, I watched deleted scenes from the film, as well as its  insightful commentary track by Eugene Levy and Mr. Guest, for the first time.  And the bonus material proved to be quite healing indeed. 

     The film’s wit, warmth and intergalactic flights of imagination came across even as Levy and Guest chatted away.  But listening to their dialogue about making the movie and watching the excised material also affirmed the power and beauty of film editing.  

     Everything a lover of cinema or budding filmmaker should know about the process is here.  One just has to listen carefully.  First, the director refers repeatedly to 58 hours of raw material he ultimately turned into an 82 minute picture.  As he worked on Waiting for Guffman over a period of many many months, he and editor Andy Blumenthal created numerous iterations of the movie.  In an early one, around 10 weeks into post production, Corky St. Clair (Guffman’s protagonist, played by the writer/director) had actually become a minor character.  Producer Karen Murphy talked Guest into rethinking that choice.  Fine tuning individual scenes, reworking the order of others and dropping some altogether -- lots of careful work -- resulted in a seemingly effortless and side-splitting yet deeply affecting comedy.  

     What is likely to feel counterintuitive to non-filmmakers is the fact that Guffman was vastly improved by the deletion of a dozen or so truly great scenes.  Some were removed to enhance the flow of its story, others to make a given character or relationship less dark.  How hard to believe but true it is that one often has to take out great material in order to make the movie as good as it can be! 

     The first delightful Guffman outtake is an alternate version of Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey)’s audition for “Red, White and Blaine,” Corky’s amateur theatre piece celebrating Blaine, Missouri’s 150th anniversary.   Posey delivers a two page monologue, speaking to a stuffed doll she holds while standing over her hospitalized brother.  He’s had a nervous breakdown and is also (inexplicably) on life support.  When Libby and the brother were younger, she tells her doll, he overpowered her and made her do things she “did not like and that made (her) sick.”  The bit is brilliant.  Brilliant!  But so is “Teacher’s Pet,” the song and dance audition that remains in Guffman.  And that  scene is much more concise and lighthearted; it also establishes that Libby can, in fact, sing and dance.

     Another fine moment which the director and editor cut from the final version shows how Ron (Fred Willard) and Sheila (Katherine O’Hara) feel when Corky quits the production.  Such a scene seemed integral to the story when Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy wrote it.  What’s more, Fred Willard and Katherine O’Hara perform the material brilliantly.  Sheila is hung over to the point of catatonia.  Ron, wiffle bat in hand, recalls two landmarks in sports history that inspire him to keep going with the show.  The first is mediocre hitter Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning homerun for the Pittsburgh Pirates in frame seven of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees.  The second is Joe Dimaggio’s batting successfully in 17 consecutive games immediately after his record breaking 56 game hitting streak was snapped.  

     Had I been editing Guffman, I confess, I might have urged Christopher Guest to leave this scene in the movie.  The Pirates upset in the 1960 series (the Yanks outscored their opponents 55-27 over the course of 7 games) is, I think, my first childhood memory of baseball in all its dramatic glory.  Willard and O’Hara give memorable performances, conveying perfectly how Ron and Sheila feel.  

     Yet as cut, going from the cast learning that Corky has quit to a shot of the group marching up to his apartment and begging him to return, the film’s final version doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything.  Viewers know exactly how the characters feel: they want their director back.

     A scene in which Corky is hospitalized after a nervous collapse was also excised from the final cut of Waiting for Guffman.  His breakdown occurred after Blaine’s town council denied a request for $100,000 to finance his one night only community theatre production.  While writing Guffman’s script, the need to show how its protagonist was affected by rejection seemed obvious to Guest and Levy.  But a simple shot of Corky brooding in his bathtub -- picked up during 3 days of post-production shooting -- addressed this dramatic requirement elegantly and succinctly.

     Again, there is much to be learned here.  First, as Woody Allen has pointed out, an audience will never miss a scene of which it was unaware.  It’s hard to imagine viewers wishing Guffman included a segment with Corky in a mental hospital without having watched that bit in a rough cut.  So if the movie feels slow to the director and editor, and one shot conveys the character’s emotional state as well as pages of dialogue might have, there’s no reason not to enhance the pace by lifting the longer scene from the picture.

     Movie buffs and budding filmmakers, by the way, should also take note of the fact that good films do indeed shoot additional material during post-production.  Although Woody Allen is most notorious for extensive “reshoots,” picking up new material while editing has always been a mainstay of high quality filmmaking.  Howard Hawks shot new scenes of Lauren Bacall during a protracted post-production period on The Big Sleep, for example, to enhance her performance and to capitalize on the the fact that To Have and Have Not made her a star while he was editing Sleep.  Robert Flaherty even reshot on the classic documentary, Nanook of the North.  (long story for another post.)
     Of course, much of Waiting for Guffman’s commentary has nothing to do with editing.  One of the joys of the play-by-play is Eugene Levy’s description of Dr Pearl’s performance of a particular joke as “Pearl doing Carson doing Gleason while delivering a Pat McCormick joke.”  It’s a wonderful “inside” moment, revealing the passion and intensity with which  a contemporary master of comedy has studied the work of great comics who came before him. 

     One more fascinating remark from Christopher Guest is that “in another context, ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ (a musical number he performs with Parker Posey) would be moving.”   Doesn’t he know that it is moving?  It is deeply so.  To quote Woody Allen on filmmakers and viewers seeing the same work differently, “It’s amazing how subjective those things are.”  My very strong feeling is that “A Penny for Your Thoughts” should have earned an Oscar nomination for Guest and his co-writer Michael McKean.

     The idea of subjectivity is a good place to conclude this piece, because what one finds comforting is itself quite subjective.  Discussing this topic with crew members in Ohio last week (I'm editing here), The Shawshank Redemption was named by many as a comfort movie.  So when we discovered that Mansfield Prison, where that film was shot, was a short drive away, we took a field trip to the facility.  Disconnected from the motion picture, conditions were as far as one could imagine from comfort  But movies are magical.  Watching Shawshank, one is far more deeply affected by the comradery and the triumph of the “good guys” than by the brutality of penitentiary life. 


Tuesday, May 24, 2011


May 24, 2011

     A busker in Central Park named Peter Ferarra used to introduce “Like A Rolling Stone” by saying, “This should be our national anthem.”  If Peter was right, and I think he was, then May 24th, Bob Dylan’s birthday, should be a national holiday.  He is, after all, a national treasure. 

      It’s not just that Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of the last century and an astonishing rock performer, he’s a true Renaissance Man.  Accepted even in adademic circles as a genuine poet (“Boots of Spanish Leather” appears in The Norton Anthology of Poetry), Dylan is also a painter, a novelist (Tarantula), a memoirist (Chronicles, Volume One), a peerless radio host, a delightful actor and a film composer and director.

     Quite a few Bob Dylan songs show him to be a film buff as well.  In “Desolation Row” he pays homage to Bette Davis, in “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” he mentions a “a movie called Gunga Din,” and it’s said that “The Might Quinn” is about Anthony Quinn in The Savage Innocents.  

     There’s also a scene in the first film Dylan directed, Eat the Document (1972), in which he reels off movie star names like Tyrone Power, Ronald Coleman and J. Carroll Naish.  Document is a cinema verite feature photographed by D.A. Pennebaker (director of Dont Look Back, which itself is a record of Dylan’s1965 tour of England).  Dylan’s piece captures more surreal aspects of touring than Pennebaker’s.  Its “pet groomer” scene, in which the director/star turns dozens of words into abstract found objects and quickly reassembles them into a surreal word collage, is simply astonishing.   

     In both Eat the Document and Dont Look Back, the folk rock icon seems to be acting, creating a character called Bob Dylan.  Viewed in the context of film history, his performances belie the commonly accepted notion that portable 16mm. cameras were so unobtrusive that they were unperceived by documentary subjects.  On the contrary, Dylan seems hyper-aware that he was being filmed.  (Today -- with literally pocket-sized cameras like the Canon 7D -- such a view of 1960’s verite films, made with noisy 30 pound rigs, seems almost nonsensical.)

     Even though Bob Dylan documentaries were shown in commercial movie houses when they were released, they are decidedly not “Hollywood” pictures.  And Dylan’s other directing project, Renaldo and Clara (1978), is equally “art house;” it mixes concert footage and a dreamlike narrative, both performed by Dylan in white face make-up.  

     Of course, Dylan never intended his films to be “mainstream.”  His neighbors, when he lived at the Chelsea hotel in the 1960’s, included such underground experimental cinema luminaries as Taylor Meade (Lonesome Cowboys) and Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures).  If Dylan-directed movies have been more widely seen than those of visionary avant garde filmmakers, it’s simply because he’s a superstar. 

     But Dylan has, of course, toiled in the trenches of Hollywood.  “Rainy Day Women” is used to great advantage in Forest Gump (1994).  And “Things Have Changed,” written for Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (2000).

     Dylan’s most ambitious Hollywood venture, though, was his stint as both actor in and composer of the score for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).  His highly stylized portrayal of a character named Alias is -- at least for his fans -- one of the best things about the movie.  His Tex-Mex tinged score is extremely moving and the song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which he wrote for the film, is nothing less than classic.

       Indeed, Bob Dylan’s singing and songwriting do come to mind first when thinking about his contributions to film.  In addition to all of the above, for example, songs are the centerpiece of Martin Scorcese’s PBS special “No Direction Home” (2005).  In fact, Scorcese seems to build the entire first half of the show around a performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

     Which brings us full circle.  I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe that “Like a Rolling Stone” is important for filmmakers, because the song is rife with editing lessons.  Its unforgettable four verses and choruss are, according to Dylan, cut down from the 50 (!) he originally wrote.  The lesson:  cut ruthlessly.

     On the other hand, the song’s 6 minute duration is an object lesson in not cutting, and in not compromising.  When Columbia released it as a single in 1965, radio stations wouldn’t play any record longer than 3 minutes.  A year earlier, AM disc jockeys had chopped The Rolling Stones’ 3 verse hit, “Satisfaction,” by a full third to make it fit the format.  And two years later, they deleted 4 minutes of virtuoso playing on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” for the same reason.  But in 1965 Bob Dylan and Columbia Records stood their ground.   The artist wanted a record out there that he’d listen to, and that was unlike any he’d ever heard; only with the equivalent of “final cut” could he have gotten that.
     So today, we celebrate a milestone for an uncompromising artist from whom we’ve all learned and by whom we’ve all been entertained and uplifted.  Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan!

Thursday, April 28, 2011


APRIL 28, 2011

     Reponse to Part I of this interview has been overwhelmingly favorable.  Thank you, one and all.  

     Before continuing, I want to remind readers that the picture we’re discussing is Alexander Revisited: The Final Version," not the "director's cut."  The iteration known as "director’s cut” was made in 2004, at the time of the Alexander’s theatrical release.  Only after years of deep reflection and hard work in his editing room did Oliver Stone release the extremely moving Final Version, exclusively on dvd, in 2007.  It is now available on iTunes and "on demand."  Make sure you see the right one.

      Prior to the end of this post's first part, Alexander’s director spoke about the great pre-1960’s “road show” movies, which were exhibited with intermissions.  Such breaks, he pointed out, enabled viewers to digest what they’d seen in the first two hours and, thereby, have a heightened experience of the end of the film.  Mr. Stone remarked that this was before Hollywood studios were gripped by “incessant screaming about grosses and running time.”.  He continued:

     Because of the flexibility of the dvd format,  I could add an intermission. No one at the studio could object to the length of a film viewers would see in their own homes.  And you need that breather in order to absorb a complex narrative with so many characters.  In the first part of the movie,  Alexander gets all the way to the Himalayas, to the Hindu Kush, and he sees that Aristotle’s map is wrong; these mountains are not “the end of the world.”   His response is, “We must get to the end.”   He didn’t know where or what that was, he just knew he had to get there.  This was Alexander’s nature.  He was always going further out.  But the end he sought was really inside -- in himself.  Anyway, he gets to the Hindu Kush, and that’s the moment to pause and walk out.  You can walk out for a week, for an hour, or for just 20 minutes, which is what I suggest.  But you can definitely view it a day or a week later.
     Yes, taking a break there feels very organic.
     If I’d had the guts, which I didn’t -- this is all in hindsight -- I would have gone to Warner Bros. and said, “I want to make a two part movie, like Tarantino did with Kill Bill.  Just trust it.”  But I didn’t.  That would have been the gutsy thing to do.  2 hours for the first part, an hour and 34 minutes for the second part.  Or put them in separate theatres at the same time, since they didn’t want to do road shows anymore.
     I should have done it with JFK, but I wouldn’t have won that battle either.  The intermission would have been right after the scene with Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in Washington, D.C., which is chock full of byzantine, new information, all of it coming at you very fast.  There’s a natural break there.
     There is.  I rewatch JFK a lot and often stop there for a breather. 

     The film was released that way in Holland and a few other countries, but not in the U.S.  Yet it makes sense.  We should have the road show back.  That’s why I actually put an “intermission” card on the dvd.
     Which is great.  You even have music accompanying the card. 
     It’s a protest against the studio system.
     And an entertaining one...  Now, since you brought up JFK, I want to ask about something that links it with Alexander, and with Nixon and Natural Born Killers  -- namely, horse symbolism.  These animals seem to have a deep meaning for you.  In JFK, there’s a racetrack scene with Jack Lemon and thundering horses.  In Nixon, there’s another powerful, violent and frightening scene at the track.  And in Alexander...    
     There’s the power of Bucephalus (Alexander’s steed).
     Yes.  Do equines have a specific and consistent symbolic content for you?

     I can’t say that they do in that way.  Subconciously, of course, they do mean something to me.  There’s certainly the aspect of “the beast” in the power of horses.  Nixon, because he’s scared, views the beast as something inside himself and something inside the state, inside the country.  The same thing is true for Jack Lemon’s character.  He’s terrified when he’s talking to Costner.  The pounding of the horses hooves reflects that.  It’s a sinister thing.  There’s tremendous, fearsome power in the horse.

     In Nixon, at the end of the scene in which the he chats with student demonstrators, Anthony Hopkins refers to the system as "a beast" -- one over which he has no control.  It’s a shocking moment.  You realize Nixon’s not running the system, it’s controlling him...  and he knows it.

     Whereas Alexander seems to conquer the beast.  His fear of Bucephalus at the beginning of the story was very important.  When he gets on the wild, bucking horse as a young boy, he wins his father’s approval for the first time.  And it’s a wonderful scene, based on history.  He could see that the animal’s wild behavior came from fear of its own shadow.  So he rode it toward the sun, preventing it from seeing its shadow, and calmed it down.  I love that scene.  Alexander rises above the Jack Lemon character and above Nixon in that moment.
     Through astute observation...
     And by overcoming his fear.  The whole movie is about the conquest of fear.  Alexander believed that if you could conquer fear, you could conquer death.  So he did subdue his own terror.  I think he was one of the most courageous men who ever lived, for that reason.
     In the movie, Bucephalus is killed at the end, during the battle of Multan -- in a scene where the horse rises and, for a breathtaking moment, holds his own against an elephant.  In reality, Bucephalus was killed earlier in Alexander’s life.  But the film takes some artistic license.  It seemed poetic to show  that the grievous wound from which Alexander never recovered was inflicted by an arrow that hit and passed through his steed.  This beautiful animal, which connects him to his father and to overcoming fear as a child, dies, of course.  Only then is Alexander, finally, ready to go home.  His troops are happy to return and get rich.  But Alexander himself is a dead man at this point.  He’s ready to go back to Babylon; his death is foretold.
     The shot of Bucephalus and the elephant facing each other is one of the most stunning in the movie, with the horse relentlessly moving forward and rising against a towering, gargantuan beast.  I get chills thinking about it.  

     That shot was amazing.  And it wasn’t digital.  It was real.

     The horse was astonishing.  So was the elephant.  It was as though we willed the moment, with both animals rising on their hind legs.  The horse was a Spanish breed, which we found in the Netherlands.  We brought four of them to Thailand for that shot.  And Colin was actually riding the horse.  Amazing!
    At this point, unfortunately, the interview had to break off.  Oliver Stone had graciously given me more time than had been scheduled, and people with whom he had to meet were waiting.  During our dialogue, it was clear that his willingness to share carefully honed, fascinating ideas as well as his precious time reflected a  great generosity of spirit -- one that infuses his work.  Mr. Stone clearly loves his actors, his crew members and the very process of filmmaking.   His unstinting nature and his passion have made Alexander Revisited: The Final Version a stunning, rich and deeply moving film.    

Monday, April 25, 2011


April 25, 2011

     On Friday, April 8, I had the privilege of discussing Alexander Revisted: The Final Cut with director Oliver Stone.  This ultimate version of the film, which played on the big screen for the first time last month at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, is now available on iTunes.  A Los Angeles big screen event, I’m told, is in the works.

     Mr. Stone undertook a major overhaul of Alexander more than two years after its 2004 theatrical release.  He restructured the film, made it longer (by more than 40 minutes) and added an intermission.  The result is an epic motion picture with much more clarity and resonance than either the theatrical release or the original “director’s cut.”  

     By editing strictly for home entertainment media, Mr. Stone avoided the costs and constraints that come with wide studio distribution.   Not only was he able to make Alexander as long as it needed to be  -- 3 hours and 34 minutes plus a break between acts -- he could restore explicitly sexual material that would otherwise have resulted in an NC-17 rating.

     Mr. Stone explained:  “The extra scenes and the intermission were added to make the film more clear to the public.  It was always difficult to understand.”  

     But the final version of Alexander isn’t just easier to grasp; it packs a more powerful emotional punch than the first two cuts.  I was moved to tears several times while watching it.  So the first question I asked Oliver Stone was, “Do you see a relationship between narrative clarity and emotional impact?”   His response:
     Of course.  Very much so.  The older films I studied as a young man surely gave me that insight.  By cutting pieces of film together, you trigger emotions in viewers.  As you know, actors sometimes rise to the occasion, in part, because you make them look good with the cutting you do.  Their emotion is manufactured; you create it on the stage -- with lighting, with the script, with their craft...  But it’s a simile of what happened in life, just a version of it.  We see it, respond to it and go back to our routines.  Yet when a great story is told with clarity and focus, it can become a model for your life.  The other night, for example, I was looking at what you could call a classic, The Best Years of Our Lives -- a very well-made film, very well-edited by (director) William Wyler and his editor (Daniel Mandell).  (The film won 7 Academy Awards in 1947, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing.) It manipulates some very strong emotions, and it works as a film.  It always has.  You mentioned crying.  You cry when you see it the first time.  As you get older -- 20 or 30 years go by -- you cry about other things in the film.  It’s all manipulated.
     At this point in reading the interview transcript, my inner Kevin Costner/Jim Garrison admonishes, “Ask the question, ask the question!”  That being, “Are you considering an adaptation of this classic about three World War II veterans and their painful return to civilian life?”   But I merely commented, “Today, studio executives would cosider The Best Years of Our Lives’  3 hour running time excessive and would probably pressure Wyler to trim the movie."  Oliver Stone continued:

     Dana Andrews’ character gets screwed over by his shallow wife.  Does he “get the girl” who will love him in the end?  You might not  even remember, and it’s not important.  Because the movie’s not about that.  It’s about the return of the veteran and the heartbreak of not being accepted... and it’s about not understanding the new life; to which they’ve returned that's the keynote of the movie.  
     Alexander’s life, to me is one of the great stories.  I’m very touched that you were moved to tears by it because that’s exactly the emotional effect  I wanted.  When I saw the movie at the Museum of the Modern Image (in Astoria, Queens) last month, with an audience of 300 people -- it’s the first time I’ve watched the final version on a large screen with great sound -- we could see the agony, the difficulty, the sheer tenacity in his life.  Alexander is one of the few movies today that, because of its length, can fully explore the journey of a man’s life.  And, of course, even there, I left out many events.  There were 15 to 20 more battles... just an enormous amount of things that had to be cut.  Probably the greatest military defeat he suffered was coming back from India through the Gedrosian desert, and we dispensed with this in 7 or 8 shots  The idea being, as Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) says, he should have died in India.  And when I watched the movie, even in its reconstructed form, I thought, “What a great exit point!”  You could wrap it up there and have1 movie instead of 2.  Because he achieved his greatest goals in India and, in a sense, he did die there -- at the battle of Multan, where he sacrificed himself for his men, sustaining greivous wounds.  
     But we had the issue of going on.  And that ,to me, is where the movie really has to work from the beginning.  Because you have to care about the man and his fate.  Emotional attachment has to be built up througthout the movie.  Alexander’s journey was one of the most original and amazing ever made by a human being -- he went to unexplored lands with a fucking mobile empire!  Given my limited budget, I could only hint at the enormity of it  Yet I think we were successful.
     But we didn’t succeed with the original release of Alexander.  Frankly, that version was badly cut by me, badly structured.  I had time limitations in editing because Warners wanted the movie for November 2004 and we didn’t finish shooting until early that year.  So it was a rush to get it together and to make it under 3 hours.  And I was limited in what I could say about Alexander’s sexuality because of rating constraints. 
    When did you realize these limitations resulted in a cut that was less clear and, therefore, less emotional than you wanted it to be? 
     That took time.  Editing, as you know, can be very self-deluding.  You work your ass off and, sometimes, the more you work, the less you see. You become blinded by the fatigue, the hours and the pressure.  We were rushing just to make the release date.  
     I had spent a long time on the script, much of it doing research, because I loved Alexander.  And you fall in love with so much of the detail.  The research guides you on questions of what to leave out of the story and what to keep in.  What ended up in this final version is pretty much what we decided to shoot back then.  But when we had to whittle it down to 3 hours, we seemed to have too much movie... too much story.  That’s when I came up with the disastrous idea -- not in the script, which opened with the Battle of Gaugamela -- the disastrous idea of cutting from a truncated version of Ptolemy’s description of Alexander as Promethean to Alexander’s birth in Macedonia.  I was so in love with Alexander I thought the audience would just go with watching this kid grow up... that they would go with his lifestyle.  I was so “into” the story I forgot that viewers weren’t knowledgable about the mores of this pre-Christian era -- about the general acceptance of homosexuality or the kind of mother/son relationship in the movie .  Not to mention boys wrestling!  I was just a lover of history making a movie about what he loved, trusting that I could tell the story in a chronologically narrative form.  But my script started with the battle.
     So in the final version of Alexander, you restored what was in the script?

     I not only restored the script, I went further.  By the time I began to work on this cut, I had clarified, for myself, the idea of the story as a twofold journey.  There’s the “outer” part, where he goes to the edge of the world as it was known then -- what Aristotle called “the end of the world.”   And there was, at the same time, Alexander’s “inner journey.”  The idea was to pace it so the journeys were parallel.  He’d go out, then go into his source -- his origin -- which was his mother/father.  And mother/father would be explicated.  Was Alexander the son of a god, as Olympias told him, or was he his father’s son?  Was there a harmony available to him?  Could he unite his (inner) father and mother?    
     The script evolved with that in mind.  But I don’t know if it was all there in that form.  When to go back and forth in time is crucial to the movie.  For instance, when do you go to the revelation that Alexander’s mother may have paticipated in his father’s murder?  It's a big issue.   We do it very late in this version.
     Maybe that’s why this section of the film is so moving now.  Right before Philip is murdered, he turns and tells his son he wants the people to like him.  It’s quite poignant.  Seconds later, you see Olympias watching with a subtle look of approval, as Philip is killed.  So it does seem she was complicit. 

     The idea is she had to be... well, maybe not complicit, but she was exalted and she benefited from the assassination, and so did Alexander.  And because of his mother’s behavior and attitude, he had to live with that stain on his honor; he didn’t want to benefit from his father’s death.
     You’ve said that the classical, Oedipal mother/son relationship was difficult for Alexander’s early audiences.  Let’s discuss the other tricky subject you mentioned: homosexuality.  You’re no stranger to exploring homosexuality and political power...  
     (Laughs.)  They’re tied. 
     You make that point in Nixon, in the scenes with Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover, and in JFK, which depicts some of the conspirators as part of a 1960’s “homosexual underworld.”

     It’s just the way life is.  Alexander definitely had “a thing” with Bagoas (a eunuch, played by Francisco Bosch).  We know this from history because of what he willed to Bagoas.  We’re less sure of what Alexander’s relationship was with Hephaestion (Jared Leto), but we know they were close.  “Soul mates,” I call them.  You never see them together in bed, whereas you see Alexander in bed with Bagoas and with several women.  I would say Alexander was tri-sexual.  Bagoas was transformed into another gender altogether; a third gender -- a man/woman -- which was done in those days to make great lovers.  Their relationship makes me think of Alexander as being close to the “god state.”   Because he was willing to travel to where Prometheus went and, at the same time, he treated Bagoas well.  In Mary Renault’s fictionalized account, The Persian Boy, you see that relationship.  
     But the Bagoas sub-plot was completely bowdlerized in the original versionWhen I showed a cut of the film with those scenes to Warners executives they were aghast.  They couldn’t stand that part of the movie.  So I wound up showing Bagoas only minimally in the 2004 release, which undercut the whole concept of Alexander’s love for mankind.
     The relationship is a powerful part of Alexander Revisited.  Bagoas and Alexander’s kissing scene -- passionately and unselfconsciously played by both actors -- was stirring...

     The kissing scene was great.  So was the scene at the end -- which really moved me -- where Bagoas tends to his dying lover, propping him up, holding his hand.  Alexander says, “You have given me all, Bagoas.” Bagoas responds that Alexander has given him his happiest times.  The great warrior reflects on how fleeting those moments have been and Bagoas says, “Still, you have given me much happiness, Alexander.”  I’m a sucker for this stuff because I love the old “road show” movies.  I love Hephaestion’s death and Alexander’s, too.  And I hacked away at both of them in the original version beccause I thought I was overdoing them -- because of the running time element.  But you have to allow these kinds of scenes to unfold and to breath... to oxygenate themselves.
     In the final version, Hephaestion’s death is cut differently.  It’s an interesting editing exercise.  In the theatrical release, I cut to Alexander at the wrong time, and I showed Hephaestion in the background dying too overtly.  Also, the music was too sentimental.  Each change was subtle, but all together, they made a huge difference.  Audiences watching the earlier cut would snicker, but there was no snickering the other night (at the Museum of the Moving Image).
     I also went full out with Alexander’s death in this version, restoring everything that had been in the earliest assemblies.  The death was elaborated.  In reality, it took 9 days, so I wanted to give a sense of a man lingering on the edge.  I did everything I wanted to do with Alexander’s death, which, to me, was great.  
     Another thing I feel good about was that I let loose with Ptolemy in the final version.  Critics had slammed the theatrical release for using Ptolemy as a narrator, saying this was an old-fashioned technique -- stodgy and boring.  But Anthony Hopkins’ performance, for me, was absolutely stunning.  Only by allowing him to speak what was written could I finally make that come across.  By cutting the words, or trying to find ways to make it less grandiose, I inadvertantly created the impression that I was ashamed of or embarassed by this tour de force.  So in this new version I used all of what was written.
     With complete success.  The new version of the epilogue, in which Ptolemy eulogizes Alexander, is the third instance, for me, of being moved to tears while watching the film. 

     I love that, too.
     In the final version, you feel a genuine personal connection between Ptolemy and Alexander.  And there’s a sense of deep regret, on Ptolemy’s part, that readers of historical accounts will never really know Alexander. 

     Yes.  The scene is about how history gets transmitted.  And about Ptolemy’s own role in things.  He implicates himself, saying, “I was partly responsible for the murder.  I consented by silence.”   He was Alexander’s chief body guard, you know, and they did divide the kingdom... they did get rich.  So there was a lot of motive.  It was like the JFK killing; at the end of the day, you have to ask, “Cui bono?”   We know who bono’d here. (Laughs) 
     At the same time, Ptolemy does put the lie to it.  He recounts this lengthy, complex and glorious history to a scribe and then says, “Oh, throw all that away, Cadmus.  Write that he died of a fever, in a weakened condition.”   And on top of that, as we point out in a title card at the end of the film, Ptolemy’s library -- containing his memoirs of Alexander -- were destroyed in a fire.  So we don’t really know what he wrote.
     The scene with the scribe resonates for editors.  It’s always a bit of a shock -- even when it improves the narrative as a whole --  to delete an entire scene, as the scribe is more or less told to do.  

     Also, an editing student can see the huge difference in the Ptolemy scene because of dozens of small changes made after the first 2 versions.  And, of course, that’s true for the whole film.  Obviously, the theatrical release bothered me for years.  I feel like an ancient Greek talking about it.  It wasn’t what I set out to achieve, what I paid so dearly for.  And on top of it, to be ridiculed and mocked, or have Alexander ignored in biographies...  it was a stain on me.  So I had to go back in there and do it the way I thought was right.  And I could do it on dvd in a way that was impossible on film because of MPAA restrictions and all that.  It was gonna be an unrated, full-length road epic in the best tradition of DeMille.  Which is to say shameless.
     It’s been decades since the studios released 31/2  hour motion pictures with intermissions.  Did you approach Warners’ with the idea of an act break while editing the theatrical version?

     They wouldn’t have done it.
     And yet you rightly point out that Alexander is the kind of film that needs an intermission, because of the complexity of its story and its large number of characters.  You need a pause, at an appropriate midway point, to digest what you’ve seen.  It’s a delightful way to watch Alexander, the way you watched the road shows you loved as a kid.

     They did allow that with the old movies.  There wasn’t the incessant screaming about grosses and (how they’d be adversely affected by added) running time.  I grew up in New York, and we had beautiful elaborate movie palaces, and many, many shows with intermissions, up until the early sixties.  With a well-made movie, you really do need that second part.  
     Oliver Stone and I continued to talk about the importance of Alexander’s intermission, about the dvd format per se, about thematic elements that connect many of the director’s films, and more.   But since this post is already twice as long as most on Filmmaker’s Diary, we’ll pause here to digest the above.  Be back in a day or so with more of the insights Oliver Stone so graciouosly shared about his work we fimmaker's diary!


Thursday, April 14, 2011


April 14, 2011

     Sidney Lumet, one of the truly great directors, died on April 9th.  His passing caught me off guard.  A colorist at Deluxe Labs in New York told me that while finishing Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Mr. Lumet (who I never heard referred to as anything but Sidney) familiarized himself with digital internegative color correction in less than a day.   He directed Devil, a very hip "'perfect murder' gone wrong" story, when he was 82 years old!  It just seemed like he would go on forever.

     Everyone currently making movies has learned much from his work.  Whenever I start a new editing assignment, I watch Dog Day Afternoon and marvel at how cinematic this essentially one-set movie is.  Of course, I'm always dazzled by Dede Allen’s cutting.  But everything about the picture is amazing -- Frank Pierson’s script, Mr. Lumet’s  staging, the sense of heat he conveys... and the performances!   Pacino, Cazale, Sarandon, Broderick, Durning, even the bank tellers!!  Wow!!!

     Then there’s Network -- with Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliant screenplay, Allen Heim’s pitch-perfect editing, the inspiring acting... you name it.  And it doesn’t end there, of course.  The list of Mr. Lumet’s towering  achievements in film direction seems endless:  12 Angry Men, The Verdict, The Pawnbroker, Murder On the Orient Express, Fail Safe, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and on and on. 

     In addition to being a consumate filmmaker (as if that weren’t enough)  Sidney Lumet was a great teacher.  His dvd commentaries -- on which he shares thoughts about lens choices, color schemes, rehearsal strategies and countless other aspects of filmcraft -- are graduate level cinema studies classes.  And his book, Making Movies, is a must for anyone who’s serious about the art form of which Mr. Lumet was a master.

    On a personal note, I can’t think about the late director without recalling a “golden age” of filmmaking in New York’s Brill Building in the 1980’s.  At that time, while I edited pictures there for Paul Schrader and Joel and Ethan Coen, Mr. Lumet was a tenant alongside Martin Scorcese, Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Elaine May, Warren Beatty and a “who’s who” of editors, sound designers and re-recording mixers.  Occasionally I’d run into him at a third floor coffee station or waiting for an elevator, and he always had a kind word and a ready smile.  It seemed like he not only loved making movies, he loved everyone who shared his passion. 

     Deepest condolences, of course, to Sidney Lumet’s friends and family.  He will be missed.   


Monday, April 4, 2011


April 4, 2011

     I only have time for a few short entries, as I busily prepare for two exciting projects.  The first of these is a Filmmaker’s Diary interview with groundrbreaking auteur Oliver Stone, to be conducted this coming Friday.  Mr. Stone is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living directors.

     The second project is a music video I’ll direct for the incredible Amanda Jo Williams this coming Saturday and Sunday.  Ms. Williams was named “one of the Top 10 bands to watch in 2011” by the L.A. Weekly.   Deservedly so.

     Getting ready for the Oliver Stone interview has already begun to entail extensive editing, because there are countless subjects into which I’d love to delve with Mr. Stone.   But I know our dialogue will be more effective with a sharp focus.  While his cutting edge work on films such as JFK, Nixon and The Doors has inspired me and continues to give me insight into my own craft, he and I will probably discuss one motion picture: Alexander Revisited.  As an editor, I’m fascinated by the fact that he re-cut the film years after its theatrical release, restructuring and lengthening it in a fashion that, as he says, “will make those who liked the original like it more and those who hated it hate it more.”

     Preparation for directing a music video has been a huge learning experience.  It’s not that I’ve ever underestimated how much work goes into “helming,” as the Hollywood trade papers call it.  I’ve watched Truffaut’s Day for Night  (repeatedly), read  books on the subject and edited films for many talented practitioners of the craft.  But bearing ultimate responsibility for every pixil of the finished product is quite different from merely knowing a director does so.    

     So... exciting stuff going on!

     I just want to mention one more (unrelated) thing before slipping further into preparation mode and not posting another piece until the interview appears.  Angelinos transplanted from the east coast often complain (justifiably) about how much more live theatre there is in New York.  But there are good plays here -- just not as many.  I highly recommend The Actors’ Gang’s Tartuffe, currently running at their theatre in Culver City.  The company’s commedia dell’arte approach is perfectly suited to the Moliere comedy.  Jon Kellam’s direction and the whole cast are excellent.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011


March 23, 2011

     I can’t shake the idea that Elizabeth Taylor has majestically (if drunkenly) swept past St. Peter and, while gazing upon heaven, made her pronouncement:  “What a dump!”  Those words -- her character Martha’s first in Mike Nichols’ production of Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- were originally spoken on screen by Bette Davis in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest.  It's a mark of Ms.Taylor’s greatness that her reading has all but eclipsed Ms. Davis’s.

     Elizabeth Taylor combined movie star beauty with amazing depth as a character actor.  So, while she was as much of a Hollywood “sex symbol” as Marylin Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, she tackled rich, complex roles those icons would never have attempted.  Her Maggie in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Kate in Franco Zefferelli’s Taming of the Shrew and Catherine in Joseph L. Manciewicz’ Suddenly Last Summer were mulitidimensional characters who spoke in poetry penned by the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare.

     What’s more, Ms. Taylor held her own among truly heavyweight actors.  In Manciewicz’ picture, she stood out in a cast that included Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge.  Her portrayal of “Maggie the Cat” was as moving as performances by cast-mates Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Dame Judith Anderson.  And, of course, her work with Richard Burton in Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was astonishing. 

     Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Elizabeth Taylor's career, though, was its longevity.  From Lassie Come Home, National Velvet and Life With Father in the 1940’s; Father of the Bride, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  and Suddenly Last Summer in the ‘50’s; Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Taming of the Shrew in the ‘60s -- and right on through voice work on The Simpsons in 1989, Ms. Taylor’s work was known and embraced by generation after generation.

     In 1981, I got to see her on stage in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.  Live theatre is always the test of whether or not an actor is truly skilled; there are no re-takes, no editing, no tricks.  Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor truly “had the stuff.”   And, as in her films, she shone brightly in a stellar cast.  

     Austin Pendleton contributed a piece to The Los Angeles Times about directing Ms. Taylor in the play.  “I never met anyone more generous than she was,” he wrote.  “She was generous in every way -- emotionally, artistically.  She shared every moment on stage with the other actors -- she didn’t act like the star, which she was.  I never met anyone of her celebrity who could so instantly put people at ease.  I think she (was) known for that.”

     Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor was one of those rare Hollywood luminaries about whom no one ever had anything bad to say.  Even Carrie Fisher, who was two years old when Eddie Fisher left her mother to marry Ms. Taylor, issued the following statement:  “If my father had to divorce my mother to marry anyone, I’m grateful that it was Elizabeth.”



Sunday, March 13, 2011


March 13, 2011

     Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival and which opens theatrically at the end of April, is as powerful as any film I’ve seen.  Leaving a recent screening of the 3-D documentary and gazing upon a Wilshire Boulevard bathed in smog-refracted sunlight, I felt unsettled.  It was the same busy throroughfare I’d been on 90 minutes earlier, but it looked different.

     I was reminded of seeing movies on the big screen as a young child.  After watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Merrick Theatre on Jamaica Boulevard in Queens -- I might have been 4 or 5 years old -- I could never look at my mother’s sewing kit, or apples for that matter, as I had before the show.   Similar experiences as an adult film-goer have been rare: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog,  Bergman’s Persona... a mere handful of exalted masterpieces have been truly transformative for me. 

     Herzog’s documentary belongs in that elite group.  Its intensity is emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual.  Using 3-D, the director makes viewers feel at once claustrophobic and exhilarated.  Stalactites and stalagmites in the Chauvet Cave he explores -- discovered by spelunker Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994 -- seem within reach, even though they’re literally untouchable.  (The French government has imposed many restrictions on access, in order to preserve the site.)
     A visual strategy that one tends to associate with “tentpole” special effects movies Is perfectly suited to convey the wonder of Herzog’s exploration.  As his 4-person crew (director, cameraman, sound recordist and production assistant) go deeper and deeper into the cave, viewers feel themselves moving further and further into pre-history.  Filming only a few hours a day from narrow metal catwalks, with lights that emit no heat, Herzog’s team show the paintings in vivid detail and in relation to their environment.  

     Looking at these artifacts far from the mouth of the cave, it becomes clear that the paintings in these deep recesses were made by torchlight.  Exigencies of production result in an approximation of that same kind of illumination.  Small lights on crew helmets moving with each head turn, reflected by wet rock formations, set the ancient paintings aflicker.  And seeing them in this state -- close to the way their makers had seen them -- somehow enhances the awe-inspiring nature of the works’ very existence. 

     Goosebumps, arm hair standing on end, mouth agape in wonder -- all induced by Herzog’s imagery!  People... made pictures... 35,000 years ago!  Some were made with charcoal from the burnt torches (and, therefore, easily carbon-dated), some with red ochre.  All were preserved because a rockslide 20,000 years ago sealed the cave hermetically.  And this fortuitous act of nature enables us to connect to our progenitors with an intimacy unimaginable before watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 
     Interviewed by Herzog, Dominique Baffier, archaeologist and curator of the Chauvet Cave, draws viewers’ attention to something revealed by red ochre handprints on one of the walls:  their maker had a crooked right pinky.  Thus, looking carefully, we learn something about a man who walked the earth millenia ago that we mighn’t even notice about a co-worker or neighbor.  Wow!

     Particularly exciting for filmmakers and cineastes is the fact that a number of the charcoal paintings reveal artists’ attempts to create the illusion of movement, 350 centuries before our time.  Three such stabs stand out:  

    A bison illustration shows the animal’s four legs and, faintly, another four; clearly this is meant to suggest the creature in motion.  Even more sophisticated, though, is a succession of bison images, each with the beast’s legs in a different position.  It’s as though the pre-historic artists made animation cels eons before Disney, Fleischer and others we think of as motion picture pioneers.  And Herzog unites film and cave art by playing a delightful clip from Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire dances with shadows on the wall.

     The third attempt to depict movement on the cave’s walls isn’t referred to by Herzog as such:  A painting of two rhinos facing each other in battle brings to mind the “collision of opposites” formulated by Sergei Eisenstein in his theory of cinematic montage.  Viewers feel the same sense of dynamism from this picture that they get from the Soviet director’s films or those of D.W. Griffith.

     Indeed, Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a whole brings to mind classical film theory.  Andre Bazin, groundbreaking scholar and guru to several French New Wave directors, wrote, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1958), that the origin of representational art  lies in the quest to live on after death.  “By providing a defense against the passage of time,” he argued, “it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time.”  Heady stuff!

     But the scholars Herzog interviews are not “all in their heads.”  Quite the opposite.  Archaeologist Gilles Tosello, for instance, was a juggler before he began to study prehistoric art.  Wulf Hein, also an archaeologist, is known for his reconstructions of Ice Age flutes and figurines.  And Maurice Maurin, who knows as much about the Chauvet Cave as anyone, is a master perfumer.

     In one of the documentary’s more visually arresting scenes, the director shows a laser genrated map of the site.  But instead of being wowed by the spectacle, he questions its value.  It reminds him of the Manhattan phone directory, the filmmaker says.  “4,000,000 people listed.  But do we do we know if they cry when they’re alone at night?  Do they dream?”

     Which brings us back to the title, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.   Like all artists, viewers realize, these pre-historic painters were dreamers.  We’ll never know precisely what was in their subconscious minds.  But Herzog makes us wonder if they dreamed about what we might think of them, long after they left their mark. 

     In a memorable epilogue, the director suggests how people thousands of years from now might perceive us.  Twenty miles from the Chauvet Cave, superheated water from a nuclear reactor is pumped into a nearby greenhouse where, now, there reside “radiocative albino crocodiles.”  Herzog films and discusses these mutants with the same sense of awe he brings to the cave paintings.  It’s as though he's visiting from the future, seeing the strange artifacts twenty-first century humans will have left behind to reveal who we truly were. 


Friday, March 4, 2011


March 4, 2011

     Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease, winner of the 2010 Sundance Audience Award, opens today in New York and Los Angeles, then goes wider on March 11th.  Editing the film with Josh was a genuine pleasure, despite budget constraints often (and rightly) associated with independently financed productions.  It was also a learning experience.

     Of course, one learns while working on any motion picture, as each presents an array of unique circumstances.  What I gleaned from cutting happythankyoumoreplease was that digital camera technology, used primarily to lower shooting costs, has aesthetic  advantages, too.  Before discussing them, though, l should say a word about the economic boon that comes from using gear like the Red Camera, Panavision’s Genesis and the Canon 5D.

     Savings accrued from shooting digitally are staggering.  Even with the best deals on film stock and lab processing, and hour of film costs around $3000.  60 minutes shot digitally is $25, less than 1% of that!   The chief selling point for eschewing celluloid, then, is price.

       And there are economic benefits of digital cinematography besides lower footage and lab costs.  For instance, filmmakers using the latest cameras can shoot for an hour without reloading.  A magazine of 35mm film, on the other hand, is empty after 10 minutes.  Thus less time (and, therefore, money) are spent changing camera rolls when shooting electronically.  What’s more, running out of film in mid-take  -- a frustrating, costly and not infrequent occurrence when shooting analogue -- is unlikely when using digital cameras.

      The abilitly to record for an hour before “rolling out” is precisely the financial advantage Josh turned into an aesthetic one while making happythankyoumoreplease.  Ironically, this directing breakthrough was first presented to me as a descent into lunacy.  Phoning from the film’s New York location, one of our producers exclaimed, with great consternation, “You’re gonna get a 40 minute take in tomorrow’s dailies!  For a two minute scene!!”

     But there was a method to Josh’s madness.  He wasn’t just shooting compulsively.  Rather, the director used long takes as a rehearsal process.  He refined performances while the camera was rolling.  As a veteran Broadway and television actor with an MFA in theatre, of course, Josh knew the value of rehearsing, and had to address the fact that low budget indies like happythankyoumoreplease don’t provide time for it.  

     He also wanted to restore the cut corner of rehearsals because of what he’d learned during his thoroughgoing study of filmmaking in the run-up to principal photography.  In addition to picking the brains of seasoned crew members and grilling How I Met Your Mother director Pamela Freyman, Josh read extensively about cinema.  One of the texts that inspired him was Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies, which begins with a memorable chapter on rehearsing for film.  Perusing this material convinces the reader (who is somehow left craving fresh rye bread, danish and strong coffee) that the rehearsal period is indispensible.

     So Josh Radnor incorporated rehearsing into each take, refining performances while the camera turned.  Yet with sound and image being recorded non-stop, unrehearsed moments of brilliance were never lost.  The work method was similar to that of jazz producers who, when making a record, roll tape even during warm-ups in order to capture any and all inspired playing.

     Undoubtedly, this production strategy changed my editing modus operandi, because the concept of a “take” no longer applied.  Working with film, a director and editor might agree that Malin Akerman’s “more please” monologue was best, say, in the third take of her close-up.  Shooting with the Red Camera, though, Josh could have 10 or more readings of that monologue (and sections thereof) in the digital entity slated “Take 3.”  So the old vocabulary ceased to apply.

     Using digital editing technology, I placed “locators” (colored markers) in a visual timeline of the material indicating starts and stops -- takes within takes.  Thus I could combine the fifth reading of the first part of a line in “take 6” with the third reading of the second part from “take 4” easily, mouse-clicking on well-labelled dots to move those sections into an assembly of the movie.  (Both Avid and Final Cut Pro have locacator “tools.”) 

     In addition to facilitating construction of happythankyoumoreplease, this work method lightened the mood in our editing room:  my speed-typing was so bad, it often gave Josh something to laugh about.  Locators guiding us to “Close-Ips of Ammie” or “Folly Shots of Nississippi” kept the director amused -- always a good thing during the intense process of cutting a film.