I’m no expert when it comes to hang outs in Copenhagen. What I did discover last Friday after an evening Copenhagen Dox screening was that it doesn’t really matter where you go: it’ll be packed, loud, and smell of beer. Perfect place for a chat about the deeper aspects of editing.
Mariko Montpetit and I ended up at the Taphouse, the city’s self-proclaimed mecca of beer halls, with the largest draft selection in town. We got the last of the salami/cheese snacks in the place, and with delicious ales in secured, got to talking.
I wrote a piece, echoing our conversation then sent it to her. I‘d paraphrased, of course, not having recorded the conversation at the time. She sent me back her own thoughts, proving that Danish beer is stronger than I thought. She was a good sport about it though.
Whatever text below is in quotes is my paraphrasing of Mariko. The italicized blocks are her corrections.
It’s really nice reading your blog! It’s like reliving our conversation through your ears and eyes. It’s interesting how much we absorb what we need from the world around us. Re-reading the notes I’d taken throughout the festival, I also see the aspects I’ve absorbed which related to my current concerns, the two films I’m currently working on. I ended up writing loads after reading your blog, got inspired somehow – hope you don’t mind…
She’d just seen Mr. X, a film on the works of Leos Carax, and I’d just seen Pirjo Honkasalo’s the 3 Rooms of Melancholia, which wasn’t as melancholic as it sounds, partly because it’s so hauntingly beautiful.
Mariko was in town for the premiere of a project she’d helped edit, one that exhausted her to work on, but was the kind of rewarding project that keeps you in the game in spite of diminishing returns. I mean let’s face it, doc isn’t a place to build a fortune, it’s a place to do what you love.
Josh’s film was, and we both use the term often, a real fever dream (and if you’ve seen The Act of Killing or the Look of Silence you know that’s true. Check out the list it falls under.) The film I’m working on now is more like a volcano waiting to erupt; the main character is on the eccentric side, and the events in his life are less than ordinary. The difference is really that fever state. The previous two were darkly intense, the kind of thing you never put down, which is hard when you’re dealing with that level of horror.
“Besides, I really don’t want the burden of weeding through tons of whatever material and do damage control. (more paraphrasing here: she’s not really a “whatever” kind of woman). I love working with precise material, footage shot with a purpose in mind.”
Really? Sometimes I love doing that: hewing that rock and exposing someone’s vision. The way I see it the vision is in every choice made during a shoot, no matter how spontaneous or random.
That’s a half-truth. Because I sometimes hate it as well, if it becomes about “well that shot’s out of focus for 5 minutes,” or “why are you shooting cutaways of a model ship when you have a relevant argument happening in the background?” It’s times like those when I wish I still smoked. But luckily those are few and far between. And anyway, I still harbor the desire to do my own stuff, so sifting through raw, rough footage is the next best thing to making choices on location. I get to feel that one notch higher in the film’s voice.
“Yeah, but that can cut the impact of the material. I mean you spend so much time sculpting it into something that works that it kind of diminishes what you should be able to feel and respond to when you’re editing. How do you get past that zone of over-familiarity, or knowing the truth behind that footage to know what you’re feeling is real?”
That’s my eternal struggle. Keeping the content fresh when you’ve watched it X number of times in X number of configurations. In one way I have an easier time in fiction, because I’m always conscious of the artifice. The tricks of montage make more sense to me there when I’m trying to construct an emotional arc for the audience. But in doc I always have to fight the context of the footage; deciding whether or not to put things out of sequence, what to amp up, what to tone down, what to reveal and when, and what to ignore. It all happened. It’s all part of someone’s life, but if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s gone. You deal with the fallout later.
“Ok. Go ahead and sculpt as much as you like. But how much time do you have to work on a project? What’s the least amount of time you were ever given to cut a doc?”
About 2 months.
“Yeah. See, in the UK I get stuck with 5-6 week deadlines. Makes it a bit tougher to spend ages “finding “the film.”
So how do you build?
“I build towards one scene. Whatever that scene is, it’s the crescendo. Everything that comes before (or after depending on whether it’s a catalyst or an ending) has to emotionally build to it.”
Common sense maybe, but she’s right. That centerpiece becomes the nexus for all your other decisions. You figure out how to maximize its impact by what comes right before, right after, the character’s behavior, the tempo and rhythm of your cutting. When in the film does it happen?
Mariko picks up again after reading my text…
That’s a combination of what Josh talked about in his masterclass (all the film building up to that last scene with the blind dad), and what Daniel Baremboim talks about in music construction. But I don’t have one way of building. I think shapes and construction can change depending on the story and material, but ultimately what both Josh and Baremboim speak of is transformation. This one might be a way out (I love quoting Baremboim): Sometimes in music… “there comes a fantastic vertical pressure on the horizontal floor of the music. At that moment you know, that the music cannot continue anymore, the way it was before.”
(By the way, there’s a link to his Reith lecture (part 3 of 5)
(this series of lectures has taught me so much about editing)
I’ve been working on a project for the last 5 years now, and I only ID’d the centerpiece recently. Now the rough cut I assembled is taking form based on getting to that moment. If I do my job well, it’ll be a doozy. But the process of getting there can take time, particularly when the “moment” isn’t dramatically obvious. When you start getting into frames, or revisiting old material to find a better cut of something, then re-discovering material that means something different now, everything can change in a moment, usually for the better.
“That’s also why I like having the director with me. When those moments happen and you have to make big decisions like that… It’s key that the director be part of that process. If only to take the responsibility for it out of my hands.”
Mariko corrects me again (good thing I checked!)
I wouldn’t say taking responsibility out of my hands, because as an editor I have great responsibility. Niels (Pagh Andersen) blatantly says being an editor is like being god; you frame what to look at and how to look at. That’s a lot of power… and in my book, that’s a lot of responsibility, on my shoulders. But I also see my role as an editor as to absorb the vision of the director, be a sponge.
Sometimes I talk about the part I played in the impact of Josh’s films in terms of proxy; so by proxy, I was part of a historical game changer in Indonesia. I also talk about the courage to have a point of view. Josh had the courage to hold his point of view in that context and intervene with cinema. He takes responsibility for it. I can’t be the only one taking responsibility. I’m aware of the power I have as an editor, I won’t yield it for someone who won’t take responsibility, or something I can’t believe in.
So if I try to rephrase what you wrote….
I like when a director can keep a fresh eye, so not looking over my shoulder all the time but being engaged in the film being made. The moments you referred to, making big decisions, I do like to run them with the director. Hopefully by that point, there is already a good communication between us. (but of course, sometimes the only way to move forward when the director is not present is to make those decisions.)
All of which I agree with. As an amendment to my paraphrase, I’d simply say that I interpreted what you said as meaning you didn’t want to be the one to find and impose the vision. The difference being that someone who works well in the field who doesn’t necessarily have the same chops in the edit suite, and needs someone to flesh out what they got. There are plenty of folks out there who work that way, and I feel very comfortable in that zone. I love cold-playing a new version of something back to a director and blowing their minds. Sometimes it’ll piss them off. Sometimes it’ll just surprise them. But if a director can still be surprised by their own material, then that’s already a win-win situation. It’s not about derailing a vision, it’s about questioning assumptions.
Short and sweet. Then I ran out of quotation marks and she ran out of blue type.
One thing we definitely agreed on was that it was really nice, for once, to be able to go and see films at a festival for once instead of just attending workshops and events. And that sometimes sitting at a bar drinking Danish beer is as fun as creating a little world in a dark room.