An early big break for me as an editor happened when Joe Hutshing (“The Doors,” “JFK,” “Jerry Maguire”) invited me to co-edit “Almost Famous.” Joe is an editor who loves the editing room and never expressed to me interest in directing. However, I had aspirations to make my own films. Most days we would travel to the set to project dailies for Cameron Crowe, which was what people did in the days when people still shot film. Joe found the set to be a place full of hazards and stress, whereas I was giddy with excitement. The prospect of getting close to the actors, cameras, lights and crew was a great opportunity for me to learn.
On one of those days we drove together to Calabasas where Cameron was shooting the aftermath of a concert scene. I maneuvered to get closer behind the camera, where I could see Cameron direct. With so many crew members legitimately vying to be close to the playback monitor and director, I was worried that at some point a person with “authority” would notice me and yell: “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my nut sack?” At which point I could retort: “I’m the editor,” in which case, he would shout out to no one in particular: “Why the fuck is the editor on set?” But I avoided getting into trouble and remained mostly invisible, stuffing myself with endless treats from Craft Services (another amazing concept to me at the time: free food constantly!)
After this feast, naturally, I looked for some relief. I spotted a herd of those plastic portable toilets lined at the edge of a field. I entered one, sat down and proceeded with my business. After a few moments, I noticed something very odd: This was absolutely the cleanest portable I had even been in. Impeccably scentless! Like… brand new. And then it hit me: this was not a portable bathroom, but in fact a prop. When one sets up a fake concert with a fake band and fake fans, I guess one would also need some fake facilities for realism’s sake. But I had crossed the Rubicon: what was done was done and it was time for escape. I exited cautiously then saw a man running toward me from across the field. I can’t really remember what he was yelling, but it may have been: “If you just did what I think you did I’m going to fuck you up” or maybe: “For Jesus’ sake I hope you only pissed in there and didn’t …” I doubled up my pace and slipped into a crowd of extras waiting for wardrobe, like a purse-snatcher blending into rush hour pedestrian traffic.
Now, I had to tell someone about this, so I told Joe, who told Cameron, and from there, it trickled down to most of the crew. (Seems that someone can’t keep a secret.) The next evening, we were watching dailies again, and the first shot projected on the screen was one that commenced with our lead actor, Patrick Fugit, and tracked as he exited that same portable bathroom (there were at least 6, I think, so what are the odds) and follows him as he walks over to Penny Lane to tell her she had been sold to another band for a case of beer.
This was followed by the roar of laughter. That was followed by weeks of ridicule.
Why am I telling you this?
Because Joe was right: the set is a place of hazards and chaos while the editing room is a place of safety and control, where one can think clearly and calmly, create and even undo things when they don’t seem to work. And with the advances in digital editing, editors have even more control. One can basically cut a film alone. Music, basic visual effects, color correction, sound editing. You can manipulate a single frame, change an audio frequency of a voice and design your own titles all by yourself. You are a God!
But when you’re directing there is another God. Primarily…God. Or whatever you want to call that entity that decides to make it rain buckets on your head when you wanted sunshine.
You thought you were going to shoot at the bowling alley from 6 am till 2 in the afternoon, but at 11am the octogenarian bowling team walks onto the lanes. They have been doing this for 15 years straight and they are going to bowl right now dammit, despite your plea for “just two more hours.” (Or your attempts to bribe the manager, for that matter).
You want a trained coyote for a crucial scene, but your UPM tells you all you can afford is a dog called Nacho who has actually never worked before. But his trainer says Nacho is a very well-behaved boy, so…
You arrive to shoot an intimate confession scene in the desert, but the winds are blowing at 50 MPH throwing the steady-cam operator all over the place, refuting this camera rig’s descriptive brand name while blinding the cast and the crew with flying sand.
You want your actor to hit a mark on a certain line and he/she struggles with it (and with you) and wants to try it in a different way, but you are running out of precious time.
What I describe are all true incidents from the filming of my film “After The Fall.”
So what do you do? You can scream and yell at everything and anyone, but that won’t change a thing. You can despair and curse yourself for your shitty luck or lack of funds or undermanned crew, but that won’t help either. Or you can say to yourself: how do I salvage this situation or even benefit from it? What is the essence of the scene and how do I achieve what I need with what’s now available?
And perhaps you may realize that the rain and clouds you have been presented with are actually more interesting than the perfect sunshine that you had planned for: foreshadowing a certain unease that you wanted in the first place, but never imagined that you would have the good fortune or that you could afford to wait for dark clouds to gather.
And that actor who was resisting delivering a certain line, who has a different take on it, his interpretation is actually more interesting and honest than what you wrote for him at a coffee shop eight months previous, before you had even cast him.
If you learn to let go of some control you will be surprised how it can empower you and elevate what you are doing. The unknowns, whether of the climate or human kind, can nourish the film and make it fresh. I’m not saying totally let go of control. But ski down the hill a little faster than you are used to and then happy accidents will occur and you can exploit them. At times they are so great that you will try to recreate them.
Take your knowledge of structure and performance that you have hopefully learned in the calm of the editing room and use it to help you think fast and adjust when the physical does not bend to your needs. Find the core of a scene in another way if need be when the world does not abide. Trust your cast and crew and empower them: they will do much of the hard work. But also keep your vision clear and remind them of what you’re trying to say when things are not going where you want them to go.
Okay, this is starting to sound like a commencement speech.
But basically: take your lemons and make lemonade.
And that bowling alley situation, well there’s nothing to learn from that: I got fucked.
As for Nacho… he was a damn good dog.
eOne Films will release AFTER THE FALL in NY and on VOD December 12th and in LA on December 19th.