Going The Distance.

Posted July 29th, 2012 by Ben

The most important thing an editor gives over the director or writer is objectivity. Even if the writer were a brilliant editor, the lack of objectivity hobbles his/her ability to make the film as great as it can be. Objectivity is something neither the writer or director have. They are simply too close to it.

Ouch. There’s a lump of grit to find in my breakfast falling out of Friday’s Screenwriters bulletin. Worse still it comes from the usually erudite hand of Dan Selakovich who for some time now has been one of Shooting People’s regular voices of good sense. Yet there he goes regurgitating some of my least favourite film industry bullshit… Where to start?

I mean first off, someone better let the Coen’s know that their films are hobbled by their lack of objectivity. After all, whilst they’ve won Oscars for their writing and directing, they’ve only ever been Oscar nominated for their editing – when will they learn?

John Sayles, Robert Rodriguez, the late great David Lean, oh why does IMDB make it so hard to search via profession? I can do you a list of Libran directors more easily than this… but anyway, I’d hope that these names alone were enough to prove that though a lack of distance is common it is not contingent to the roles of either writer or director.

Roderick Jaynes

One of the images of Roderick Jaynes... the Coen's nom de montage

I’m jumpy about this because this myth of the editor being the guardian of objectivity is something I’ve hit from all sides. I’ve had it thrown in my face as a lazy reason why my edit isn’t working. I’ve had it smeared across my palms as a reason why someone else’s edit is. Worst, I’ve found myself reaching for it as a reason not to recut the scene I’ve thought was finished.

I’ve just been working as an editor for the BBC and though I’m proud to say that there are plenty of ways in which my objectivity has made the show better, I can’t escape the fact that there were occasions when it didn’t. Those bits that I read and didn’t quite buy on the page, bought less in the rushes, tried as a tentative assembly, dismissed and looked for a different course. Sometimes this helped – but I’m not too proud to admit to those cases where the writer came in and said “couldn’t we just try it like this…” and it suddenly made sense in a way I’d thought I’d convinced myself was impossible.

So yes I can see how it’s easy for the writer to get lost in their imagination and not see what’s been shot. I can see how easy it is for the director to get so wrapped up in the wind-reel-and-print of photography that they too get blind to how the material really cuts. But the edit is hardly a process that tends towards simplicity. After a rough assembly, a tighten pass, the radical surgery, the restructuring, the cheating of this scene from the end to the start, the sneaky slip in of that out-take where the actor gives a totally fresh performance and the montage that boils the dull bit into everyone’s favourite sequence, after all that raw material has been worked and reworked into shape, it is not surprising that editors too can find themselves attached to a cut that isn’t necessarily the best.


Seurat's Eiffel tower as the artist first saw it.

Film making is a pointillistic process, the big picture made up of millions of tiny dots. Each dot needs to be perfect so at every stage, from script to set to edit suite, the first focus is always on the detail. This means objectivity is a constant struggle for everyone. It’s not an impossible struggle but it is one made much harder by the sense that it is an editor’s natural and unique disposition. As an editor you dismiss at your peril the advice of the writer or the determination of the director; and as a producer you miss a trick if you just accept the tired hand-me-down wisdom that your director can’t cut.

The joy of this creative process is that it is fundamentally collaborative. In a true collaboration no one has an automatic right to be considered the voice of reason.

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