Now you were approached to edit Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis' Hollywood satire "The Canyons" by a producer who was unhappy with Schrader's early cut. Schrader refused your help and the film's since been turned down by both SXSW and Sundance. What did you make of what you saw?
I don’t know if what I saw was final. I really like what they did. I like the way they did it. I think it’s fascinating and there’s a spectacular sex scene it. The big controversial sex scene is fantastic. I never wanted that to go beyond Paul. When that sort of came out I just went, “Oh god.” I don’t want people viewing the movie through that lens, you know? That’s not what I was hoping for. Hopefully people will just go see it and that’ll become a non-issue.
I’m really glad they said, “Let’s just go do this. Let’s get this guy and let’s cast her.” That’s my whole thing. Don’t wait for permission. When young filmmakers come up and are like, “What do I do?” Don’t wait for permission. And now the good news is, Fincher says with technology, there are no more excuses anymore. They don’t even need to come up to us and ask us “What should we do?” They can just go do it.
What would you have carved out of the material had you actually done it?
It wasn’t really that. It was more just riding around the block. But it either hit them the wrong way or, I don’t know, I’m wrong. All of which is possible. Or both. It’s something that I have done for other people and it’s something that other people have done for me. So for me to have had that discussion wasn’t unusual at all. I have had other directors sit in my editing room and go through my movie with me, a lot. And I have sat in the editing room with other director friends at their request and walked through their movie. That’s a very normal occurrence in the circle of directors that I’m friends with.
I’ve had huge solves come from friends for free who’ve come to a screening and said, “I think you’ve got a problem. Do you want to sit down and go through it?” And I’ve said, “Yeah! Let’s go!” They’re willing to roll up their sleeves, not just say “I think you’re in trouble,” and then walk away. They’ll come in, and these are the best people at this kind of shit, and they’ll go, “I think you’re missing a scene. Here’s what I think it would be.” And they’ll sit down and start writing it. I was just behaving the way I normally behave with a friend.
It just happened to make the press runs.
Which like I said, was unfortunate. It’s not that interesting of a story at the end of the day.
Are there any specific instances you can recall when somebody came in at the last minute to offer advice that in turn completely changed the movie?
There have been a couple. I had a friend come in on “Contagion” to look at the movie. We were having trouble finding the shape. It was resisting all of our attempts to structure it properly. And he said, “Let me make a suggestion that you go home today and do a 90-minute cut and see what survives. And if it works at all then sit down and write some new material to make that work.”
And that’s what we did. We did a 90-minute cut, the movie suddenly popped, we did a couple of days of shooting to bridge some cuts that we had made. So we shot eight minutes of new material to make that 90-minute version work and then we were fine. That’s a big idea to throw at somebody, but that’s what it needed. I think our mistake was thinking that the problems were incremental when in fact we needed to hack some limbs off this thing and then restitch like a new limb.
Again, that was an example of a smart friend coming in, looking at the movie, and having a very blunt conversation. I had another friend on another movie, a director, basically grab me by the lapels after a screening and going, “You need to throw that entire score out. It’s killing you.” And this was a finished score. It’s putting the audience in the wrong headspace. And he was right. And that was a tough call, man.
Was that “The Good German?”
[nods] That was a hard call to make. It was the right call, but again, I invite those people because they’ll say that. And if they’re not gonna say it somebody else will say it later when it’s too late. Again, that’s the SOP for me and my friends. So that’s how this all happened. I forgot I wasn’t in my house.
Well, even if you stop making films hopefully your artistic input can live on via other people’s work.
I’ve still got enough friends who invite me to early screenings and it is fun. It’s fun to fix things. It’s so different. There’s always something to do -- no matter how many movies, I’ve never not done reshoots. Even on “sex, lies.” So I’m always assuming there are going to be some solves in post that we’re going to have to figure out, and when it’s your friends you know that it’s coming from a different place. Unlike when somebody’s financing a movie, they’re not coming from a place of anxiety. They’re rooting for you. They want you to win. And they’re trying to help you win as opposed to being like, “Oh my God, this movie’s scaring me.” So it’s a very different context in which to have a creative discussion. It’s much more open, and like I said, they have no concern about how the result is going to play out, they’re just trying to help you make the best version of what it is. They’ll just sit there and go, "I really think you should consider x, y, and z. Because I don’t understand what’s going on here and I think you’re confusing people." And that’s helpful.
You have test screenings and those are helpful in a macro level. The movie’s too long, I have a problem with some of the music, I didn’t understand that they were brothers -- that kind of stuff. But in terms of the micro solves, like how are you actually going to address that, I’ve never gotten anything out of a test audience that was useful or that I didn’t get out of one of my friends. That’s a necessary evil. It’s only been a couple movies that I just never previewed because I knew there was no point.
The funny thing is “Magic Mike” didn’t score well at all. If you had a studio financed movie and you got that score there would be a lot of, “So, what are we going to do about this?” conversations. And to Warner Bros.'s credit they didn't. Because the movie played, it wasn’t that! The movie played great. But the scores would come back and we’d go, “What the fuck is this?” And Danny Fellman goes, “I heard how the movie played, I’m ignoring these. I don’t what the explanation is. I don’t know if they’re embarrassed because they’re sitting next to someone and they don’t want to give it... I don’t know. But I’m literally ignoring this. I just don’t believe them.” It’s nice when you have people who can look at it for what it is, as a tool as opposed to a hammer to beat up on a filmmaker. I thought that was interesting.
I’ve made a point of that, whenever I’m talking to other filmmakers who are going through the preview process and telling them we didn’t score well. It’s not all about that. And there are a lot of movies that score well that tank.
That experience might serve you very well on Broadway.
Yeah! And what’s great about that is you really get to see the whole thing done, overall, and you can just stay at it until you fix it. The question at that point just becomes resources: do you have enough resources to keep fixing it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to workshop it to not be in a situation where we’ve produced the whole thing and put it up somewhere and people just reject it. Even with my film experience I feel confident. I’m not gonna pull the trigger on the big money until I feel like this thing’s in really good shape. So we’ll see if that’ll be the case. That’s a year away.