The first time I told some friends that I was working on a film about a man in an iron lung trying to lose his virginity, I got looks that were somewhere between incredulity and pity. I could tell they thought that watching it would be more like politically correct homework than a movie anyone would want to see. But Ben Lewin’s script, The Sessions, was far from that. It was a compassionate, humorous story about a disabled man’s journey to adulthood that was surprisingly universal.
The story of an immobile polio victim living in a big metal box has its own editorial challenges to say the least. For one, it has very little inherent movement. There’s an old editor’s adage that says to make a cut invisible, cut on movement. And I had a main character that could barely move. Big problem.
In keeping with the straightforward nature of the piece, Ben’s approach was to shoot it simply – keep the camera from being intrusive and focus on the characters. This was great for performance, but we ended up working the material over and over until we found a way to cut within the confines of our story.
Beyond that, there was the tricky issue of getting the tone right. We wanted the audience to be moved by Mark’s journey and touched by the fullness of his life without falling into melodrama. That meant we needed the humor in the script to work without betraying the reality of his disability.
None of this was easy. Fortunately, Ben said on day one that he considered the script a taking-off point – that there was no obligation to stick to it as written. There were fantasy sequences we moved to a dozen different places before finally eliminating all but one. Late in the process, we decided to add a voice-over of Mark’s poetry in the beginning of the film. That was key to setting up Mark’s self-deprecating sense of humor.
One of our biggest problems was finding a structure. Ben used time ellipses in the script – right in the middle of an embarrassingly awkward moment with the sex surrogate, we would cut to Mark describing his feelings to his mortified but intrigued priest. We realized we could use this device both sooner and more often. As long as we were advancing the story, we could flash forward or back without confusion.
When I interviewed with Ben for the job, he said he wanted a female editor. He felt a woman would be more sensitive to the emotionality of the story. I don’t know if that’s true – I like a good gunfight as much as any guy. But right or wrong, I think women are perceived as being more nurturing. Whatever their gender, the editor sees everything – that means all the mistakes as well as every flash of genius. There needs to be a level of security between director and editor so neither censors their thoughts before speaking. It’s often the crazy bad idea that turns out to be brilliant.
I love to cook in my time off and once, I foolishly set out to make Chicken Mole Negro from scratch. It took an entire day and every pot I owned. The multi-page recipe called for nuts and dried fruits and all sorts of fabulous things including peppers so hot you had to handle them with gloves. Finally, after hours of work, the last item you add is chocolate. This sounds like a terrible idea that will ruin the entire thing. But it doesn’t — it’s the key. Just like editing, every little bit counts and sometimes the most unlikely ingredient turns out to be the thing that makes magic.
Lisa Bromwell, A.C.E. is a television and film editor. Her latest feature, The Sessions is now playing in theatres.