The Art of The Guillotine: Finishing Sentences

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“The best collaborations are the director-editor teams, where they can finish each others sentences,”

These are the words of Writer/Director and all around “Do-it-Different Guy” Quentin Tarantino when asked what the most important collaborations where in making a film. He went on to add that his own editor, Sally Menke, was his “only, truly genuine collaborator”. Indeed, even noted Film critic Walter Kerr has argued that editing is comparable in its importance to directing itself, and should be credited as such; he wrote “At the very least, it seems to me, the editor’s credit should be rescued from its place near the bottom of the list, an area we may call Oblivion…. Second position is where he belongs, and no lower, if we’re still going to hold him to also-ran status.”[1]

Oscar winning Editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of films where the end credits read as such, Written, directed, edited, sound mixed and starring…. insert one name. Never mind the circus which comes with acting and directing yourself, but the one that gets us is the WDE (writer, director, editor) or Indie Trifecta.

The greatest downside to cheap digital tools is that any Filmmaker can now pull off the Trifecta (writing, directing and editing) or even the dreaded Quad Singularity, Writing, Directing, Editing and Acting!  (See that black hole ahead, that’s your film!). The old world notion that a filmmaker should have to raise funds to hire or pitch professionals to work/gift on their films is no longer necessary (Hint: if you can’t convince an individual to invest in your project (funds or gifted work), maybe a re-evaluation of your Project might be called for) In the words of one filmmaker, “Final Cut Studio comes with a manual, so why do I need an Editor, Colorist or Sound Mixer?” (The next Oscar winner to get up and thank Apple or Avid for creating a great manual will be the first)

This post is not a comment on the hobby filmmaker or the occasional practitioner, but to the auteurs/pros and career filmmakers who dream of one day holding a statue in their hands (as we do also).

Today, filmmakers yearn for EPICs and Scarlets, but how many times have you heard someone long for a Murch or a Cox? I think the latter is far more vital to success (I have an EPIC and I’d trade it for a Murch/Cox or even an Angus Wall in a heartbeat). As proof I point to this long list of Oscar winning filmmaking collaborations;

35 years and more

30–34 years

25–29 years

20–24 years

15–19 years

9–14 years

Sure, we’ve all heard repeatedly the wounded cry of a lot of filmmakers, “look at Akira Kurosawa (who both directed and edited many of his best-known films, Seven Samurai (1954) and Kagemusha (1980)) or The Coen Bros, who edit under the name Roderick Jaynes, they can do both well”. I think if your opening statement is to compare yourself to the above auteurs well, have a nice day, because I really don’t think you are in the same Astral plane as the rest of us. These are unique individuals, that’s why the list above is sooo very long and this paragraph has three names, nuff said.

So what am I saying? Get an editor. An Artist. Someone to finish your sentences. Beg, Borrow, Bribe and/or just Ask. Develop inhouse (Many wanna be directors would do far better learning storytelling, pacing and angles by editing than crowning themselves helmer and asking mom and family to crew. And not growing or maturing as an artist because of it) .

Why get an editor? Because it helps to have someone who knows your goals, but can see with a fresh pair of glasses. (Editing IS directing, it’s just done at a keyboard instead of on a set.) Someone once said; A Film is made (3) Three times, once with the pen, once through the lens and finally in the edit. If you as the filmmaker helm all three times, how many opportunities did you miss to re-tell the story or explore other avenues in the plot because you can’t see anything other than the story the way you wrote it? A good editor can see and shape audience reaction, even if the Director missed getting the footage needed to tell the story in production. (When problems shooting the mechanical shark on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws threatened to sink the show, Verna Field’s legendary edit of ordinary b-roll shots of a shark fin slicing through water, transformed the movie from ordinary thriller to box office legend). Two storytellers, each seeing the goal and working, together to complete the vision.

(As Martin Scorsese garners another statue for his visionary film Hugo, one has to ask, would “Marty” be Marty without Thelma Schoonmaker? Maybe so, maybe not.) For an inside story on the Scorsese/Schoonmaker collaboration on Hugo go here

Another point is that if and when you are lucky enough to get funding for your projects, know that very few investors are going to be comfortable with the WDE scenario. Most will outright prohibit you from holding all three hats, often bringing in their own editor or (worse yet, Director). Despite the fact that securing funds with yourself listed as WDE is difficult to impossible (unless you have a proven track record of success with that model), why not start collaborating before that?

Personally, I’ve completed projects where I was forced for reasons to edit my own work and I’ve helmed projects edited by amazing collaborators that saw my vision. I’ll take the latter, every time. And though I can edit, I’m NOT an editor, as I’ve seen that a good editor is a storyteller and artist in their own right, and not just the Director’s (or Producer’s) puzzle builder. (I’m also a Colorist and I love collaborating with talented Directors and Producers as it gives me a chance to tell stories with light and color, adding my uniqueness to their vision)

I hire or beg good artist to work with me because I want to collaborate, with talented artist, some even though we don’t share anything in common but a love of good storytelling. The fact that they work with me, helps me to understand that I’m maturing as an artist myself. And having someone to finish my sentences makes me a better filmmaker. Good collaborations produce good results, from Production Design to End Credits, thus producing the best product-Films people enjoy and want to watch. And isn’t that the point?

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