I’d Advise You Not To Listen To Advice.

Posted October 27th, 2014 by Ben

Or at least that’s what I’d say to Joel and Ethan Coen if they read Dan Selakovich’s recent post about directors not editing their own work. I’d say the same to John Sayles and indeed to Steven Soderbergh.

The Coen’s failing again as editors.

Of course just because Joel and Ethan are capable of being nominated for an Oscar for their editing and their directing on the same film (twice), it doesn’t mean you will; in exactly the same way that just because Dan feels The Bourne Supremacy out grossed its predecessor editorially as well as financially, it doesn’t mean that all director-editors will make the same mistake. All comparisons are odious, a poetic truth that skewers just about every aspect of the previous sentence.

More odious (but still fun) are sweeping generalisations. I wouldn’t actually urge you not to listen to advice, just not to swallow it whole. I quite agree that Dan should write a book and his post is full of brilliant techniques for surviving the edit of a film. Read carefully and you’ll see that none actually preclude a director from editing. Dan says “An editor has to know film grammar, screen structure, acting, directing, as well as the tools that we are known for; pacing and emotional impact.” but I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that a director needs to know all of this as well.

Steven Soderbergh about to ruin another film.

This argument always boils down “distance”. That magical quality a director apparently loses during a shoot but an editor seems to maintain during an edit. This over simplification is obviously bogus. Indeed one of the arguments for a division between “editor” and “director” is that after leaving the editor to do their cut the director now comes in with clear eyes – so they now must have a “distance” that the editor has lost? Or does the editor still have to save them from themselves, poor addled creatures, blinded by the mess of the shoot?

Shooting a film is, by necessity, a process of constant abandonment. It’s the hardest part but, like all deaths, it’s hard because it’s forced on you. You plan a scene, you script, storyboard, design, rehearse, tweak, panic, breathe deep, call action, try and let it flow and then five or fifteen takes later you’re pulling up sticks and in all but the most exceptional circumstances you will never do it again. It’s history. You move on, your consciousness deluged by the next set-up. There is tidal quality to a shoot that washes you clean. It isn’t the romantic baggage of “that perfect shot” that confuses things in post, it’s the fact that the edit defies time. In the edit every recorded moment can run backwards and forwards ad infinitum and with no escape save perfection. This is when you need some of Dan’s techniques for getting through the material, for seeing it clearly, but don’t be fooled – these are an editor’s demons not a director’s.

Oh God, who let David Lean get hold of the bloody rushes!?

It saddens me to see people posting after Dan, smugly setting up camp around the “truth” that it’s never a good idea to let a director cut. Though built on great practice, his argument suffers from editorial ego. All editors (especially me) think of ourselves as saving the director from their own failings. To edit a film is to seem to create it, to take false ownership of the material and imagine yourself as the final, and most vital artistic force. After all, you alone can control time and you alone have solved all those needless mistakes the humans made on the shoot.

Don’t fall for it. Of course editors think they’re special. And of course some of them are. That’s the whole tricky but brilliant thing – everyone’s different and no one has a label detailing their contents. Good advice never narrows your outlook beyond the bounds of human ability. Experience trumps innocence every time, except every time it doesn’t. If you’re thinking about editing your work as a director, or if you’re sick of editing other people’s mistakes and want to make your own – don’t let idiotic dogma hold you back. But do explore the steps Dan outlines as his process, it’s a great working model.

  1. Peter Domankiewicz

    Hi Ben. Thanks for answering Dan’s post in much the way I would have done, if I could have been arsed, thus saving me effort and providing me with some great picture captions to chuckle over. Speaking as a director who completely ruined his own film by doing the first cut, saved it by handing it over to a highly talented multi-award-winning editor to recut (whilst having the brazen cheek to impose some of my suggestions on him) and then RUINED IT ALL OVER AGAIN by later finessing it further and taking out several minutes more – resulting in the unwelcome result of audiences laughing in all the right places and really enjoying it a lot – thank God someone has given me the firm slap around the face I have been needing. I mean, for God sake, I was even IN my own film! How could I ever achieve objectivity about that? Obviously I would just want to indulge myself with reams of long, lingering close-ups, rather than – say – find the very best of my performance as I would with any other actor.
    Actually I would follow Bob Dylan’s advice of “Don’t follow leaders” only I would substitute ‘experts’ for ‘leaders’ (and skip over the bit about “Watch the parking meters”). Whilst I love hearing about how different people approach creative problems and am always open to ideas from others, I am suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you “This is The Way”. These people, professional as they might be, are essentially the enemies of creative originality. They’re fine if you want to make something that is just like stuff you’ve seen before, but probably the wrong people if you want to try something new or strike out in a new direction. The great thing about my editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas, was his total openness to new ideas and willingness to admit if he’d made a bad call. It’s probably why he’s in constant demand. When I first spoke to him and asked what his plan was for the edit, he replied “I’m Spanish. There is no plan.” and I kinda like that.

  2. Q-ell Betton

    Great post and thoughtful. A a fledgling filmmaker, I have edited all of my shorts and allowed – where possible – others to hack away as long as they can explain to me why. I have been lucky enough to be advised by those wiser than myself and more experienced but I think by biggest take away from this – and favourite line! – is in the reply from Peter Domankiewicz his editor’s approach “I’m Spanish. There is no plan.” Love it.

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