China Diary, Opinions

Day 170: Art Of Compromise


I’d like to reiterate my theory on editing. I said it’s the art of compromising between story and flow of the movie, but that’s actually not the truth. It is in fact a compromise between the effort and the flow. Every screenwriter puts a lot of effort into explaining everything in the script. The actors and director work hard on scenes, taking hundreds of takes over the period of the production. The cinematographer films thousands of hours of material, and the set designer creates huge sets that are filmable on every angle. It all takes a tremendous amount of effort to make it happen, but ultimately, it’s the flow of the movie that counts. For the sake of flow, everything is discardable: that one amazing take we worked so hard to get; that incredible dialogue the actors had on the set; the huge backstory which was explained over a series of scenes we shot for days… But if they kill the flow of the movie, they have got to go. But it is a compromise: sometimes that one shot really is worth brining it into the story, even if it doesn’t really serve the flow – this is, in the end, a movie and people come to theatres to see also beautiful imagery. Or this piece of backstory needs to be inserted in the story, even though bringing it up might really exhaust the viewer. And the art comes in balancing between the compromises and making it feel for the viewer that nothing could’ve been added into the movie, or taken away, to tell the story in the format it eventually lands in the theatres.

As I said, we started out the first cut of the movie at 160 minutes. Our aim is to try to squeeze it into 110 minutes, which means we have now – as the film is about 118 minutes long – cut 50 minutes of shot material. I’m actually known by my producers as being quite a ruthless director when it comes to editing. I might find myself taking out even too much, but that’s also because I think films are nowadays easily too long, and usually the shorter is better. Also, when you take something out of the cut you’ve been watching so many times, you may feel it’s suddenly fresher – but it’s fresher only to you. You have to try to place yourself in the position of the viewer who comes in having not seen anything. That can be sometimes really tricky.

And of course, there’s always the question of economics. If you’re going to cut 50 minutes of the film, why shoot those 50 minutes in the first place? The trick is really knowing which 50 minutes you will cut and which you will keep. Shooting a film is just agreeing on a script and then covering it as lavishly as possible, keeping in mind your resources, and grabbing as much material as possible, so that you can then bring it to the editor and make a film out of it. With the screenwriter, you have to try to find out what are the absolutely necessary scenes to be shot, but even that is usually just a guess – only on edit you actually see if these scenes are necessary or not.

It’s interesting to see how it all comes together. Also, it’s interesting to see how certain characters become more important than you thought when shooting, and some characters become more like side characters, ones you thought will have a big role in the film. The whole editing is in fact the most interesting part of the filmmaking, because that’s when the movie reveals its’ true self.

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