This time last year I was scrambling to get a rough cut of LIBERAL ARTS in shape for submission to The Sundance Film Festival. Things turned out well. The movie became an Official Sundance Selection and received standing ovations at every one of its Park City screenings. It was acquired for distribution by IFC Films, which will bring it to theatres in New York and Los Angeles on September 14.
One of the nice things about having time between the completion of a motion picture and its theatrical release – over 9 months in the case of LIBERAL ARTS – is that it provides an opportunity to reflect on one’s work. Looking back at the production period, which began in June 2011, it’s clear that being on location with the cast and crew was extremely valuable to me as an editor.
Of course, shooting on location was, in and of itself, essential to telling writer/director Josh Radnor’s tale. The movie is about an admissions counselor at a large New York City university who returns to his alma mater, a small Midwestern college. So filming in the Big Apple and at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio gave LIBERAL ARTS an authentic look and feel.
But while it might seem obvious that a movie should be made where its characters live, a screenplay’s setting doesn’t always determine its shooting venue. In recent film history, location selection is based as much on exchange rates and tax rebates as it is on narrative exigencies. Film crews flock to Vancouver, Toronto, Louisiana and Michigan for economic advantage rather than scripted geography. THE LAST SHOT, a 2004 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin, captured this phenomenon well: it’s about a filmmaker who’s convinced to shoot a southwestern desert story in Rhode Island because of the state’s tax incentives.
So LIBERAL ARTS was wonderfully “old school.” Like a John Ford western made in Monument Valley, a war epic shot in Southeast Asia or a Woody Allen movie set in Manhattan, Paris, Rome, Barcelona or London, it was made where its story takes place. The advantages of doing so were numerous.
First, Kenyon College looks just like what it is: a small Ohio institute of higher learning founded in the early 19th century. Perfect for a film that tales place at a small Ohio college founded in the early 19th century! In addition to providing the right mise en scene, the campus, no doubt, gave the cast a sense of place in a way that a studio back lot wouldn’t have.
And as I said earlier, being on location was a boon to editing as well. It always is, because the give and take between director and editor becomes so easy. During principal photography on LIBERAL ARTS, Josh Radnor dropped by my editing suite several times a week to review dailies and cut material, and to give me notes. Such communication facilitated delivery of a rough assembly that was much closer to his vision of the film than it might otherwise have been.
There’s a sequence – one of my favorites – in which Josh’s character (Jesse) and Lizzie Olsen’s (Zibby) correspond via “snail mail” while listening to classical music she’s selected. It’s a “getting to know you/let’s fall in love” montage of considerable length.
When I’d edited the scene that precedes the montage, I had to cut in the first bit of score to kick things off. The director had already given me recordings he wanted to use, which were loaded into my Avid editing system. Because the montage begins with shots of bucolic landscapes, I chose the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th, his “Pastoral Symphony.” Josh loved it.
Watching this sequence begin to take shape while LIBERAL ARTS was still being filmed, I believe, informed directorial choices made while shooting letter writing (days later) and New York street scenes (weeks later). Also, seeing how important a role the classical music CD itself played in the sequence convinced Josh we needed an insert (close-up) of the disc going into Jesse’s deck. During post-production, this was always referred to as “the greatest insert ever shot;” its perfect fit into the cut and cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s rock star lighting of the prop are, indeed, remarkable.
Wild tracks -- audio recorded without picture – were also vital to construction of the letter writing montage. Sometimes, in a pinch, editors assemble scenes using “temp” voice-over recordings of cutting room personnel, in order to make critical judgments about the timing of shots. Having actors perform their character’s lines is decidedly more effective. But with tight production schedules it’s sometime hard to fit such wild track shooting in.
Because I was on location I was able to nag the director, first assistant director and line producer often enough to get what we needed… on the last night of principal photography. Using a makeshift recording booth built by sound mixer Jim Morgan, Josh and Lizzie, essentially, acted out the eight-minute sequence as a radio play. Much of what was recorded that night remains in the picture.
Along with recording “wild tracks,” shooting inserts and “pick-ups” is always important to editors during the production period. And being on location, we become aware of the need for such additional material sooner than we would have if we were thousand miles away in Hollywood. What’s more, working near the crew, the cutter can simply go to set (or lunch) with a laptop and show the director why new setups are necessary. Several transition shots in LIBERAL ARTS – a café exterior, a chapel exterior and students chatting on campus, for instance -- were added to the production calendar as a result of such interaction. Like the voice-over, they appear in the final cut.
Advances in digital imaging technology enhanced the value of being on location by enabling me to view and edit what was shot the previous day first thing every morning. Before motion pictures were photographed digitally, film dailies were processed in a lab (most likely in New York or Los Angeles), shipped back to location and then synchronized, coded and catalogued in the editing room. What was shot Monday was cut-able on Thursday afternoon at the earliest.
Until recently, digital processing entailed a similar time lag. But on LIBERAL ARTS our brilliant Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), Patrick Neri, ran what amounted to an on-set lab. At the end of each day, he brought a dailies drive to the cutting room with Seamus Tierney’s color correction built in. This material was transcoded on the Avid overnight and organized each morning by assistant editor Becca Berry while I was still on set. The amazingly efficient "work flow" made me realize that not being on location would have delayed the editing process.
What's more I would have missed daily trips to the set. These visits were so valuable! And not just because of the ease of in-person dialogue with Josh. Watching him compose and stage shots, then go over dialogue and blocking with the actors gave me deeper insight into his intentions for each scene. Being there as an observer as well as an occasional consultant helped me truly “get” the movie we were working on.
Finally, there are certain intangible advantages to editing on location. Producers have always benefited from moving film crews away from the demands of their everyday lives. In a small town without family, friends and quotidian responsibilities, one is more likely to be focused on work more of the time. This is especially true because filmmakers on location spend most of their time with fellow cast-and-crew members.
As a result, deep friendships are formed. And that, too, is good for the film. I always fall in love with the cast of films I work on, developing something akin to real movie star crushes. (I think most editors have the capacity to do this.) Then it becomes second nature to be diligent about finding actors’ best work inside a hundred hours of dailies. How easy that was on LIBERAL ARTS with the affable Lizzie Olsen living two doors away! With Richard Jenkins telling great, funny stories over dinner! And with Josh Radnor being a kind, witty, generous Kenyon neighbor.
This was my second film with him, and I must say that as a director, actor and friend, he’s easy to love. To see Josh when fans of “How I Met Your Mother” approach is to see a real mensch; he knows that meeting him is the high point of their day and always behaves accordingly. He’s ingenuous, curious, funny, smart and, again, generous. On location, I mentioned Patti Smith and her memoir, Just Kids, showed up in a gift bag shortly thereafter. Also, to paraphrase Dean, a character in the movie, “we have the same favorite writer,” about whom we speak often.
It was easy, too, to love the film’s production crew. We all lived in the same housing complex and spent most evenings eating and drinking together. Many of us, including actors and producers (Josh’s producer, a friend from childhood named Jesse Hara, is a genius at making sure his crew is happy) regularly sat around a fire at night, playing music and chatting. (It was eventually dubbed The Ring of Fire.) We hung out together on weekends – tube rafting, bike riding, even visiting Mansfield Prison where THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (a company favorite) was shot. So it became easy, while still focused on story and performance, to want the film to look and sound its best, too – for one another as well as for Josh.