COME BACK FREE

There are days I can’t bring myself to read the news, and others I wish I hadn’t been able to. It might be irrational (or totally rational), but it feels like war, or at least violence, is right around the corner.

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Watching Ksenia Okhapkina’s documentary Come Back Free, dread was palpable, though clearly not the point. In her film it’s a ghost, an uneasiness that lives in their everyday. In this small town in Chechnya, war has already come and gone, and left its mark. They’re hoping for the best, getting married, swapping stories, shooing away unwanted livestock, but they’re preparing for the worst.

The opening is a wonderful example of what I call immersive film. It takes a moment to figure out what you’re looking at, then as you do it gets almost feverish: an organic, abstract smear flying across the screen, the sound building in intensity.

That’s as detailed as I’ll get by the way; you’ll just have to go see the film.

I met Okhapkina at the Below Zero pitching forum in Tromso, Norway, and got a look at her new work in progress, which seems to follow her atmospheric and thematic development. I told her I’m reminded of Pirjo Honkasalo’s The Three Rooms of Melancholia (high praise from me). She didn’t punch me in the gut so I guess I didn’t offend.

She did say my storytelling was probably strict. Strict!

“By saying strict, I meant that you don’t go much inside the atmosphere, which we in Eastern Europe and Russia love a lot. Sometimes this love for observing life like a flood drives totally away from storytelling. But building the film only on action without any place for the useless things must mean that you’re telling something really new and incredible. This is hard, cause then comes the question: what kind of a story can surprise? I believe only in fairytales. And in observation.”

What observation means when you’re making a documentary is up to the storyteller; are you waiting for the moments that unfold or capturing time in motion and in stasis? Understanding time was a challenge I really had to work with when I made the leap from fiction to documentary. The good thing about a film like Come Back Free is that time is built into the narrative. It’s practically a character.

Okhapkina says that the film is partly about “our constant attempts to come back to some time and place, where we were happy, facing the irreversibility of things. That’s what I felt making this story about the place, changed by the war reality at a very deep level.”

Indeed, the film is slices of life; little moments that might never have ben noticed by anyone inside the village for their very banality. How women walk away from the church, how one deals with a cow in the wrong place at the wrong time, how you clear the snow. All perfectly normal, but hanging behind it all is the specter of a not long ago war, and the noticeable absence of too many young men.

There’s something magic about how our minds can make those cognitive connections; how experience, assumptions, perceptions, prejudice, everything that makes us us, get triggered into a form of understanding, when all the puzzle pieces of a work of art line up. Okhapkina seems to have an impressive handle on those tools. The sort of narrative structure she works with would be a good how-to guide for young filmmakers.

I wish it could have curd my dread, but at least it’s the story of how a community came through the other side, battered but still kicking. Time will tell our story.

 

HAM-FISTED SUBTLETY

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During a doc interview, a subject says “I’m really shy.” Cut to the subject at a party, having a ball.

Or they say it in interview, but that doesn’t make it into the film. Instead you see them having a ball at that party, then get close enough to see that their eyes are nervous as hell, maybe they’re a little drunk, or maybe they’re a little startled when somebody bumps into them. Uncomfortable in their skin.

The first example tells me things, then it’s up to me to decide which I believe. Left to interpret the second example, I can reach my own conclusions about what’s really happening. I can relate to being at a party, to being out of my element but putting up a front. I’m making a hundred internalized connections that will stay with me. The first example will roll off my back, just like a duck.

Now that’s me, and it’s probably a bone head example, but hopefully it’s a functional one that cinema should be cinematic, the information should come through the context, not be stated. Tell me a story, only don’t TELL me the story.

Working with my own stuff I’ve been as guilty as anyone of telling instead of showing from time to time. It’s always a bit trickier when you know everything about your subject. Working with creators on their projects is, in a way, a bit of a cheat. Without their baggage I’m able to cut through material pretty quickly.

Grey Violet – Odd One Out, is a case in point. I met Finnish team Reetta Aalto and Liisa Juntunen (Finns really like doubling the letters in their names) when they pitched the film at the Baltic Sea Docs pitching forum a couple of years ago. It follows the journey of Grey, a complicated, “queer”, mathematician/art activist from Russia to Finland, where ze seeks asylum and some sort of meaning. I fell for the team right away, and the punk rock attitude of the material, coming as it does from the same environment Pussy Riot sprang from.

A couple of years later, and Reetta, in rough cut stage, has reached the end of what she felt she could do on her own, and mother hen Liisa calls me in to lend a hand. She sends me the rough cut.

“Too much of a good thing” is an apt description. Reetta clearly likes a lot of what Grey has to say, and I mean she really likes a lot of it. And it’s all in the film, and it, and Grey, are just too much. And we all know it. So again, the question (over a crappy skype connection because I don’t live in Finland) : “What’s your film about?”

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It turns out it’s sort of about all of Grey’s strange theories and hard to decipher political positions, but not really. It just so happens that one thing that makes Grey an interesting asylum seeker to follow instead of one of the thousands of others is that ze does have these thoughts. But more to the point, ze doesn’t fit the mold, ze’s very, very odd. And therein lay the beginning of the core we worked towards.

We talked about a lot of strategies on identifying one focal point and building around that. There were very concrete suggestions thrown around, as well as more subtle abstractions, and then off she went with her notes.

The rough cut I saw next was totally transformed. She’d run with some of our ideas, totally ignored others, and showed me a character and a film I suddenly felt things for. And for that simple reason, a lot of Grey’s ideas flowed through me, and the one core theme rams home. It’s openly stated, but it really sinks in because of the way Reetta put everything together before that moment. A whole new film.

I still had tons of notes for her (because I’m a nitpicker), but all pretty specific; with the structure and emotional beats laid out, what was left were details.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-14-11-40So does the information get lost in the story? Some people will always think so. Some will want more of that, and less heart, or more heart and less politics, or whatever. My mission is always to help creators to craft films that will linger, with unanswered questions, honest characters, and a unique spirit.

Does Grey Violet do that? You tell me.

FACIAL ANALYTICS : IDFA EDITION

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How much is too much?

At IDFA, Watching Pawel Lozinsky’s new film “You have no idea how much I love you” the question hung there, in every exchange, every cut. An experiment in form, the film is the simplest of concepts: a mother, a daughter, a therapist, 3 cameras, and extreme close ups only. 5 Therapy sessions filmed weeks apart chart the evolution of relationships, the heightening of tension, and tension’s release.

Each face that takes space on the screen is laid naked by the unforgiving close ups, every twitch, every movement of the iris telling a critical part of the story.

“That’s a nasty look,” says the therapist, when the mother involuntarily changes expression. “I’m juts trying to understand,” she replies. But true enough, under intense scrutiny, our faces can betray our real feelings, or be completely misinterpreted through the prism of our own experience.

With 3 camera angles to chose from, and such a subtly complex exchange of glances to play with, the editing, as Lozinsky himself said, was really, really difficult. Is it more potent to see a mother’s pain as she tries to explain her past behaviour, or the stoic, blank face of her daughter, as we wonder whether she’s interested at all? Or even the therapist’s intense, analytical stare, as he looks to interpret every syllable of every word.

The choices made, in the end, don’t edge towards that exploitative path. We don’t linger long on a reaction or an analyst while we hear the subject. Arguably we don’t linger there enough. At a given point, once the dynamic and language are established, I believe the editing could have veered further away from its matter of fact position. There was, in all likelihood, a wealth of possibility to explore that could have released another level. Like when someone you know is saying something publicly, and the person they’re talking about is there, and you find yourself much more interested in the person’s reaction than the person speaking. It’s not a clinical film by any stretch, but I think the form could have been taken further.

So maybe the question should be reframed as “how much respect is too much.”

TO THINE OWN SELF…

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-23-39It’s been a season of rough-cut screenings, trailer critiques, trailer building, and project tutoring. What’s nice about this more fractured pace, as opposed to spending long stretches editing a single film, is a reminder that, not only is there a huge variety of ways to tell a story, but that one of the most important bits of storytelling is the genuine honesty of the storyteller’s voice.

Any of you who have seen David Lynch’s Inland Empire might agree that it’s an opaque, mysterious film. I’m still not sure I understand… any of it. But, there’s not a second of screen time that I don’t firmly believe. Whatever Laura Dern gets up to feels absolutely genuine. Wherever the narrative takes us, weird, crazy and uncomfortable as it is, feels completely immersive and natural. The world Lynch creates is grounded in human experience, but it taps into the loony, subconscious way each of us, individually interprets the world. The performances, the editing, the cinematography all create a seamless weave, unique to Lynch’s vision.

 

What sucks about industry, is that formula is inevitable. In doc we sit around tables and talk about slots and 3 act structures, and the market. Sometimes we even talk about the audience. But there are only so many stations, so many broadcast hours in a day, so many docs we think audiences can stomach. So as an expert, I can gently coax creators towards the kind of structure and narrative that I know the BBC is in the market for, or that might work for Sundance. “You’ve got a good idea but for the sake of distribution you should X, Y, and Z.” That’s the market. That’s the whole shebang if you want to make your films for an audience of more than one. At IDFA this week, a massive part of the industry focus is on gearing creators to think that way.

In a mini-doc about Atom Egoyan I once made, he said “it’s absurd that a medium as young as film should already be so locked in form and content.” I agree, and it’s probably why I fell off the feature film wagon for quite a while. (until I saw The Lobster. Sensational!)

The danger in critiquing other people’s films is the risk that you might go past the questions that bring filmmakers closer to their own voices, and instead put your own stamp on it. Unlike the editing process, where your job is to influence the content and challenge assumptions, the development stage is more delicate; the film is slowly coming into focus and the filmmaker needs to get there more or less on their own.

Refreshingly, a couple of years ago Albina Griniūtė. was pitching her stunning Paradise Gowns at Lisbon Docs. Broadcasters didn’t know what the hell to do with a slow, contemplative, black and white doc where the main character was a place! But one of the sales agents at the table encouraged her to go farther “more of that! Build the cache and make it even more of what it already is.” (I’m paraphrasing. It was a while ago).

But then there’s life, and mortgages, and bills to pay and kids to feed, and cultivating an uber-creative voice in a flooded market is no guarantee of anything except frustration and struggle. There’s not any one answer. But asking the question on a regular basis keeps me honest. I hope.

HEALING THE HEALER

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editors are lonely in Malaysia too

“I could see you fighting yourself to keep from grabbing the controls and doing the editing yourself.”

The struggle in question: watching a somewhat new filmmaker making the exact opposite edits than I would make, on more or less every frame, and dialoguing in my head “if only I could… Why doesn’t he…But he’s trimming the wrong way…”

But, contrary to my colleague’s interpretation, I would never try and take over. I’m a professional. Besides, the guy was working on Final Cut X, and I can’t imagine anything that would motivate me to jump into a project built on Final Cut X.

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Somewhere in this mess: the venue

We’re at a pitch pilot workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, brought in especially by FINAS and MyDocs to work with regional talents shooting for the coveted international market, and building their pitch pilot trailers to do that. We have three days to pull four projects apart, and help their creators put them back together; better, stronger, faster. As my colleague put it, it’s about more than just a trailer or pitch, it’s about the film itself.

With no connection to the projects, no stake in them, we come in blind, knowing nothing except what we read in the proposals, and looking for clarity. Which, as is always the case, we don’t get from the first pitches.

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calm before the storm

“There’s this blind football team and it’s amazing to watch.”

“Great, what happens in the film?”

“…”

Or, after a 6 minute pitch that’s full of energy,

“So… It’s about?.. “

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Several hundred questions later we got to the heart of his story; essentially about a shaman being stalked by the spirit that blessed him with healing powers, and laying the equivalent of a restraining order on that spirit through a healing process run by another shaman. The kind of project that makes me rub my hands together like a b-movie villain, because nothing gets me going like a story the creator knows everything about but can’t put into words.

—–

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Pulling an idea apart to build it back up is a tricky thing; a process designed to help creators make a dynamic story, while remaining true to what they wanted to say in the first place. As my colleague said to the shaman director, ”I’m your worst possible audience. I’m as earthy as they come, and I’ll never believe what you believe.” But that’s fantastic. An opportunity, and a path towards the deeper corners of the story.

One of the first questions I tend to ask is what drew the creator to that project in the first place. In his case it’s because he believes, in shamanism, in spirits, and in his character’s story. However, if he pitched it straight-faced and matter of fact : “this shaman is trying to make peace with the spirit that blessed him with healing powers,” it would be easy to dismiss him as a crackpot.

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Our next question: “What happens in this world?” And as he discussed the practice and belief we only got more confused, still unclear about what the character really looks like (he’s shy), or any detail beyond what we imagine in our minds. Time to dive into the material.

We had to push him to show us footage of his main character, because he felt he hadn’t gotten close enough yet, that he needed more time to overcome the shyness. If we hadn’t pushed we wouldn’t have seen his character in the middle of a mad healing ritual, collapsing on the floor along with a bunch of others in a disorienting flow of camera work trying to keep up with the chaos. It’s a jumble, a mess, and a beautiful illustration of the wild, unpredictable nature of this ceremony.

And suddenly we had it.

As a pitch pilot trailer, that scene proved so much; that he has exclusive access to something totally unique, that he knows how to capture that material on the fly, and that there is a cinematic film there to be had. Leaving him with all that to stew in his head, we left him to dive back in.

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still confused

In the end, he figured out that he still had lots of work to do during the pitch. He clung to the matter of fact strategy in his verbal pitch, without answering the huge questions raised by the trailer. The audience had no idea what the film was about, but they were intrigued by what they’d seen. He had two choices then: to reign in the madness and make a more conventional trailer to better align with his words, or to do what I always encourage creators to do: use the trailer to ask a question, then answer that question in your words.

Pitching is an art, and how you convey information to your audience tells them a lot about how you do it in your films. If the pitch is all about information then it might be interesting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how your film will be put together. My own approach to this film would have been to frame it as an examination of faith through the story of one man tortured by his own. Acknowledge the skepticism in the room and give it a role in the film. Invite us to a zany place that just might make us question our own cynicism. Let us meet and listen to people who can articulate a faith that we have little to no understanding of. All we can really do is ask the creators questions, and hope that those questions aren’t too leading. They are after all their films.

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When we introduced ourselves my colleague and I showed a few examples of trailers that we thought worked well. One of my choices was the one discussed in my last entry, and it got a hell of a lot of discussion going; of how much information to push through, how to use the pilot in a pitch, how to tailor the pitch to the pilot, how to leave the audience hungry for more: how to be an entertainer when you pitch.

At the risk of sounding like a snake oil salesman, that is in one sense what you have to be. You have to take what you are curious about and believe in, and anticipate what others will want to know about it. You need to consider what you think will happen in the story and run with it. Go down the rabbit hole of your story world and mine it for the richest scraps you can. What drives the characters? What flaws do you see? How do you film someone who’s shy? How do you get us to understand what it’s like to play blind football?

If I’m doing my job my well of questions is bottomless. If the creator is doing theirs, they’ll answer those questions and more in the film.

 

 

WAR STORIES

 

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The scene: A small coastal town in North Africa; a deep sand beach, and across the street, a luxury hotel, complete with pool, outside lunch buffet, and ultra aggressive, dive bombing seagulls. They’d steal the croissants right from your hand.

But this isn’t mere idyll. We’re here to work intensely, helping creators to shape their projects during this, the last of three major workshops that drag films, kicking and screaming, from ideas to full fledged works in progress. This is project Greenhouse, and as contentious as it is for an Israeli organisation to be running an event designed to develop documentaries from the middle east and Arab Africa, once you get past the politics, you find that ultimately everyone just wants to tell their stories and make a difference, and help their peers to do the same. 16 Projects; Tunisian, Israeli, Arab Israeli, Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, Iranian, and all of them opening my eyes to stories I’d never otherwise hear about.

I’m one of 4 editors, brought in from across Europe to spend 3 days chained to our edit suites, working with 4 filmmakers apiece (actually I only got 3), swapping computers, software, operating systems, and of course stories.

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“You have how many hours of footage?”

“Aha. So it seemed like a good idea to put every shot in the same bin?”

“Undo Goddamit! Oh… it’s a PC. Pinky not thumb, pinky not thumb.”

“Match frame! MATCH FRAME! Why won’t the %*#@ match frame work?! Whoops, AVID, not Final Cut.”

“Where’s that great scene with the kid outside the tent? Oh… yeah, that’s from her project…”

I have a therapist, and I send her a special thank you across the cosmos every time I use the mindfulness exercise she gave me to help focus and heal. I was thanking her a lot.

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The scene: a luxury hotel suite, but the bed’s been hauled out in favor of a desk and makeshift viewing corner. It’s not the most comfortable chair in the world, but there’s a cactus shaded balcony overlooking the Atlantic. I’ve got a limited amount of time, a massive amount of footage, and a filmmaker who’s had her project dissected so many times that certainty is in rare supply.

We start with questions. Lots of questions. An abundance of questions, all geared towards reaching what they really want to say. I’ve found that my role is as much psychologist as editor. Hand-holder, friend, sometimes police (especially when time grows short). What’s actually happening in this village? What do you need to have happen to get your point across? If, in the trailer, you want this Bedouin woman to have more power in the film than she does in reality, will there be backlash that affects her, or your access? I know you love this scene, but how important is it really? Buckets of questions, often repeated. It’s the best way to lock in a creator’s convictions.

Of my three projects, the trickiest was by an orthodox Jewish woman, who grew up in New York and emigrated to Israel some years ago. I have to say it was awesome conversing with her, sounding like she just walked into a news vendor’s on Coney Island. This was the first of my two Bedouin stories, and the most challenging creator to work with. Mercurial, self-deprecating, prone to wild digressions, and passionate about her characters.

The first trailer she showed me had me convinced I knew the protagonist, described in detail in her proposal. … Not at all. A few hundred questions later I finally got out of her that it is in fact the “protagonist’s” sister whom she wants to build up into the lead character. It’s just too bad that in Bedouin culture it’s not so simple to either film women, or build them into leaders. But there’s enough footage of her to get by with, and if we show her as strong as possible, and diminish her opposition, then we can recreate an impression of her accomplishments. As always, that got us going on the “truth” question, and how honest it is to make it seem as though, for example, her character can walk freely around, when mostly she can’t. It’s damned honest, if 99.9% of Bedouin women can’t walk around at all, and she walks alone even once. It’s called context, and narratively speaking it’s a license to exaggerate.

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The scene: it’s 7:40pm, 20 minutes to the deadline for submitting trailers for tomorrow’s pitches. My third project, a very personal story (and Bedouin story number 2) has had me riveted since I firs read the proposal. The trailer she had didn’t do it justice, but that’s why we’re here.

We talked a lot. She smoked a lot. I thought a lot. And together we spent some extra time defining a strategy: what needed to be said in the pitch, what needed to be shown in the trailer, and how to put it all together. We did a paper cut of the trailer, deciding on a structure that would put all her elements in a good order before we made a single cut. I fought to keep certain shots that I thought were redundant out, she held her ground. She went to hunt for fresh material in her hard drives, Ai started assembling the structure.

So again, it’s 20 minutes to deadline, and it’s time to watch the 3 min piece and soak in the beauty. Hit play…

Fade to black, and we look at one another, each with an expression that says “what have we done?”

It’s 7:45.

She starts to say something twice but can’t get it out. I channel the adrenaline coursing through me towards the “t’aint” between my heart and my brain, squint, and cast a line out into the ether, asking for a solution.

She’s just about to finally get what she wanted to say out on the third try, when I get a flash and cut her off: “Let me try something!!”

It’s 7:50.

I hit play.

Fade to black.

We look at one another and smile. I’d taken a chunk of a shot I fought to toss away, and slammed it in the beginning. What I thought was scrap, was now the first shot of the trailer. The shot is raw, with harsh sound and lots of tension. And because it was there at the beginning, everything else in the trailer fell into place. We’d made a kick ass trailer together, that also helped her to prep her pitch. Our collective instincts were solid for the overall structure, her specific instinct in keeping that shot around was solid for the last minute save, and a moment of inspiration saved the day.

It was 8:00pm.

But a “deadline” in Morocco is exactly what you think it is: a suggestion. She took the trailer back to her room and worked some more on it overnight, then handed it in the following morning. The deadline became 8am instead. And the world didn’t end.

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At most workshops I don’t do any actual cutting. I’ll work with every project (anywhere between 15 and 25) and give them tips on what they can do to their trailers and pitches. Greenhouse was the first time I did limited projects with more involvement. I do love getting my fingers into lots of different pies, but I have to say, helping just a few of to actually bake is a hell of a rush. A schizophrenic one yes, but a rush all the same.

TRUER THAN TRUTH

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“I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?”

Eugene Smith

Dabbling in both fiction and doc, it’s fair to say that my thinking around both has gone all hybrid. After all, who ever said that techniques used in either of them have to remain mutually exclusive?

(Plenty of people, but that’s not important right now.)

We rearrange the order of events all the time, putting an incident earlier than it happened because it functions as a better trigger, or later than it happened because it generates catharsis. Maybe, in reality, an inciting incident triggered a character’s action, but maybe, putting an inciting incident AFTER a character’s action, reinforces the character’s decision to act as a righteous one.

We bury raw information in the middle of a piece, because maybe it calls back to something you saw earlier in the film, and seeing it again changes its meaning. For example on a film I edited on sexual abuse, a photograph of a victim with a friend was nice but banal at the beginning, then altogether more sinister later on after it’s revealed that the friend was the perpetrator. We could have put that earlier, or not shown the picture the first time, but then the realization, the shared outrage of betrayal is lost.

But those are examples or creative choices to heighten impact, not change the story; going “Tarantino” on what sequence events are shown in, repeating for deepening impact, or tuning memory to work the same way it does in every day life, the way you see a life event differently when you’re 30 than you did when you were 20, and so on.. Techniques in the edit suite frequently astonish me, and I still get a big goofy grin when unexpected surprises occur. It’s simply part of our craft.

Where it gets touchier though is when there’s a direct contradiction between what you want to say and what really happened. Put another way, if one misrepresents the principals or events in order to satisfy one’s own narrative desires, how far away are we from the territory of propaganda? If I claim that a character is, for example, continuing to build a dam, or speak out against injustice, or take care of their kids, when the opposite is the truth, then what is the point of that message? Am I just trying to give a happy ending? A sad one? Am I trying to make a person or a movement appear weaker or stronger than they actually are?

There’s a pretty neat article about Steve McCurry’s work that starts by examining allegations that his work is “touched up” and therefore “false”, goes through ideas about what truth and journalism and integrity are, and then goes a little deeper, by forgiving McCurry his technical trespasses, and instead targeting his cultural integrity; his tendency to exoticize other places and peoples, turning them into artifacts instead of men and women. I guess it’s the price he pays for fame. I guess he wipes his tears away with his awards.

Though I can think of plenty of artists guiltier than McCurry of those tactics, it’s an interesting argument : that he mis-represents India by making it seem totally old world: dudes in turbans, girls in saris, spices everywhere and pre-steampunk technology. He’s not saying that that’s the one and only picture of India, but he is perpetuating a particular idea, or an outdated “truth.” Is that in fact a falsehood? A dangerous stereotype?

draft-23d68cac-5b44-4f63-bb67-013b24d78615Personally I’m way less interested in the beauty of a perfect image of a “native” with deep eye lines and hands worn from manual labor, than in an image that surprises. Same as in a film I feel far less need to see the good guys win, than a genuine arc that transforms a character, or those around them, for better or worse. It’s a document, one that allows us to reflect on our behavior and decisions, and to maybe make better decisions in the future.

Speaking of decisions, I started this piece with the bit about McCurry. Then started scrawling about some of the things editors do, then stepped back to consider how that fit with the McCurry bit. Was I trying to change the narrative? I think I was just trying to put all the data into a context that (hopefully) makes more sense to people besides myself. Combinations and connections that edge us closer towards a deeper understanding.

For everyone else there’s Trump.

 

STORY MASONRY

 

20160417_163715A very interesting thing happens when you’re coaching, or consulting, as opposed to doing the work yourself.

If you’re editing a project, and a thought occurs to you, you can simply say “what do you think of this?”, then dazzle the client with your blurry-fast key strokes. Voila: the suggestion played back, to be rejected or accepted.

But if, on the other hand, you’re not the one executing the moves, the challenge becomes how to articulate your ideas in a clear and concise manner. Sometimes it’s easy, but the deeper you get into the emotional content of the work, the more that articulation becomes difficult. I recently worked with a filmmaker and her editor, mainly on restructuring some elements of her film. Moving scenes around is relatively simple, but then what? How do you marry the scenes together? It’s delicate, and far more complex that simple transitions.

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The most comprehensible metaphor I’ve found is “you’ve got the bricks all laid out, now you need to mix the mortar,” the mortar being its own art. Does the audience need to breathe a little after the previous scene? Do we need to establish the new scene with an exterior shot, or is that redundant? Is there some key you can insert between the two that calls back to something, or foreshadows something else? Is what’s called for a dizzy montage? The mortar is more than just glue or tape, it’s an intrinsic part of the whole, and can make or break a project. It often comes down to the frame, and ending or starting on the right one, that can tell people what to feel, or let them come to their own conclusions. In the narrative structure of a piece, the mortar helps set the pace and timing, as well as the language of the film.

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I’ve been more grateful than I can express at the opportunities I’ve had to work on projects and events at the level of consultant, or coach, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s made me a better editor, and it’s helped my clients better understand what I see when I look at their projects, whether I’m coming in late or early. Even if it does sometimes make me sound like a new age dude.

POWER VS AUTHORITY

2016-04-13 14.07.30-1.jpgHad a hell of a conversation with a director-editor team in Serbia last weekend. The two of them had been eyeball deep in the project for a long time, and I was there to help sort out some story hurdles; pick apart scenes, question why some things were in and some were out, find the strongest dramatic structure; that sort of thing. There came a moment when the editor started wondering aloud to the director whether taking too many suggestions from a consultant was tantamount to relinquishing power over her own project. Does the act of asking for and listening to counsel amount to giving up your voice?

It’s a very film-y question, applying the notion of a singular voice to what is, above all, a collaborative process.

However, from the point of view of leadership the question is valid. Being open minded and welcoming input is a great boon in a ship’s captain. But the ultimate decisions come from a central figure. The problem starts when that captain either can’t communicate their long view to the crew, or can’t at least exude mighty resiliency in their decision-making. Sort of like :I don’t give a damn what you think, I know what I’m doing.” Even if that’s disastrous in the long run, it can calm the crew in a moment of crisis.

Good leaders, captains, directors, whatever, tend to do surround themselves with talented people, happily being generals, commanding and listening in equal measure. Which is as it should be. A vision drives a project, and the crew makes it happen.

THE ANALYST

01

9 times out of 10, I’ll get the job that starts from the beginning: “Phil” they’ll say, “We got this heap of footage, and we want you to come on in and make some sense of it.”

But then there’s that 1 time out of 10, the time I get called in to re-jig a film that hadn’t yet been tamed by other talent. That 1 time out of 10, the time when I get to jump in and sculpt the clay that already got softened up by other hands, that time is a hoot.

I love jumping into a sandbox that’s already been warmed up. A certain number of permutations have been tried, and, with enough experience under my belt, I can analyze those permutations, analyze the creator’s intent, strategize a new permutation, then… play.

I saw “A Good American” last night, a doc about a math guy who spent his life finding patterns in data that could ultimately save lives. I’m not saving lives in my little edit suite, but I am finding patterns. In some cases I’m letting them go as facile, too recognizable to be taken seriously. In others I’m embracing them as fresh enough to have a real impact on audiences.

I walked out of that film last night with a head full of thoughts, the main one being that life is generally spent trying to make sense of the world around us, the people in it, and ourselves. There are a few who manage to reach some communicable wisdom. They’re usually the ones with something to say, and sometimes they’re like Icarus, too close to the message to make it clear.

02

I think that maybe I’m Icarus’ wing man. Maybe I don’t burn with the stories within me, but I can help the ones who do to spread their flames.

And maybe that’s just fine.