The editing of this documentary has been as close to a dream I had years ago as I've ever come. The dream was born when I was still a film student in Chicago at Columbia College before I went to New York to actually get a degree. I thought it would be great to spend a summer in an editing room, overwhelmed with amazing footage and great possibilities, and having nothing but time to make it something truly terrific as the season burnt on without me. I would chainsmoke and confer with the editor, trade tasks and perspectives, forging a private world of cinematic creation. Of course the dream came with a flatbed editing table, edit tape, razor blades, a second floor rented room with a fire escape outside and no air conditioning, just a lot of fans. Something with swelter and mild stress but a lot of joy. In a busy slightly wild neighborhood as well, so the world of the film and the world would intermingle in a great weird way.
On this project, I was able to live my summer in the editing room but it was in a basement room with no windows, plenty of air conditioning and a computer. But the other part of the dream, a great editing partner, was there. Barbara Allen was my editor, and besides being in tune with the whole piece, she too was a bike fanatic. That meant many days began with a bike ride together, rides where we'd review the direction the show was taking, talk over strengths and weaknesses and commend ourselves for our general cleverness.
My desire was to mesh the four stories of the four artists into a wild whole, to find similarities and also to accentuate differences and to do it in a way that found energy in abruptness, in unexpected shifts, in surprise.
I had Walter Murch's dictum in mind – emotion first, storytelling second, all the rest a distant third. Murch is the Oscar-winning editor of "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now" and "Cold Mountain" He is extremely articulate about editing, having written a clear and exciting book on the subject "In the Blink of an Eye." He also approaches his material, that is, film someone else shot, as stuff that can go many ways. He seeks the strength and truth of what's actually on film, something we of course are obliged to do in documentary editing.
So the first task was to isolate and prioritize the most emotionally powerful moments in our footage. And we had a lot of footage – nearly 60 hours of it. The second task was narrative form, the beginning middle and end of it.
I always conceived of the show as having three parts, like a piece of music really. The first part would bring us into the world of each artist, a combination of exposition and development. We'd learn about them and see them start their work, set in motion the process that would pay off at the end. The second part would bring us deep into their personal worlds, would take us on journeys (sometimes literal journeys) into their lives that could be said to be separate from their art. The third section would be opening night, the culmination of their work, of their narrative.
But the details of how that would all work needed to be fleshed out in the editing room, in the building of each scene and the movement from scene to scene and person to person.
(It's funny – during the editing I screened "Shine" for my son, Austin. It inspired me to pull out a long paper I'd written on the film for a monthly film talk I used to do for a group of very nice and very smart folks who mostly wanted to have an ongoing social commitment. It began "Every film is musical, or at least it has the potential to be so." It went on to describe the structure of "Shine" as being like a concerto in three movements. That was in the late 1990's. I felt I had a moment to see into my own artistic basement, so to speak.)
Before shooting began I had a short list of models in mind when I considered the multi-narrative nature of the show and of a verite documentary in general. They were:
"Chronique d'un ete" ("Chronicle of a Summer") by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin
"Short Cuts" & "Nashville" by Robert Altman
"Fast Cheap and Out of Control" by Errol Morris
"To Live Until I Die" by WTTW's Jay Shefsky
Influences close to my heart and on my mind as we moved through the editing of the show:
Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's "Chronique d'un ete" the film that more than any other laid the groundwork for the modern documentary.
Orson Welles - especially the Welles who edited "F for Fake" and the Welles who mastered the mysteries of lip synch starting with "Citizen Kane" on through "Chimes at Midnight." Rip roaring freedom and fearless disregard for the clean choice.
Jacques Rivette's "L'Amour Fou," a great balancing act of a film about a personal relationship and the rehearsal of a play. One of my favorite films about art ever – it's half documentary and half scripted (or improvised but certainly performed) narrative.
Martin Scorsese. Every edit, every nervous tic of an edit he ever commanded, every shocking and startling and original combination he ever devised. The best director of editing bar none in American film.
Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his later work, the work with deceptively simple landscapes and skyscapes and off kilter cityscapes that are heartbreaking to behold. And Jean-Luc Godard for his constant iconoclasm.
Danish director Lars von Trier – emotion, invention, tastelessness, guts.
The audio mixes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films of the late 70s – dense, bold, multi-layered, inspiring, dizzying.
Mike Leigh. Truth.
Robert Altman when he really mixes it up, juggling seemingly disconnected narratives like so many fragments of a painting.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the red hot master of emotionally explosive Altman-like worlds.
"Don't Look Back," another great documentary film about art.
Peter Watkins' "Edvard Munch," an amazing film about art and an amazing example of how editing can transform what could be seen as conventional though gorgeous period footage. Also for combining documentary and narrative impulses with an aggressive disregard for convention.
Mexican cinema of the last 5 to 7 years – including "Amores Perres" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien"
John Cassavetes. Truth. And boldness. Shattered illusions. Empathy.
Luciano Berio, the king of the intellectually dense and emotionally rip roaring audio collage.
Lev, Sergei & V.I., my three Russian pals who really knew what editing was all about.
An occasional Francis Ford Coppola montage.
Stanley Kubrick's comment that everything in filmmaking that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.
The ballet sequence in Pressburger and Powell's "The Red Shoes." It starts in a theatre and then leaves the physical world behind for a world of cinematic possibility.
The climax of Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the second version where an orchestral concert is both the score and touchstone for a tour de force of multi-layered storytelling.
The KEM editing table, a machine I haven't used in years but upon which I learned some profound things about recorded images, time and joining one moment on film with another to make something entirely new.
Robert Coles. The Coles who wrote "Doing Documentary Work."
James Agee and Walker Evans's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."
(If you're feeling lost I suggest Wikipedia. Or NetFlicks. Or Kim's Video. Or Facets.)
I believed in the power of editing to make the final show something bigger than the sum of its parts. And I believed that editing was the way the show would be written. For me, in documentary work, editing is writing. It is the construction of larger forms and the intricate work that is akin to creating sentences, crafting paragraphs. And it's a whole lot more satisfying than either.
The summer of editing was the most artistically satisfying stretches of time I've ever had, certainly the most amazing experience I've ever had in an edit room.
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I am haunted by something my friend (and composer on this project) Nick Tremulis' dad once said. He said "The best piano players don't sound like piano players.
* * *
One of the things you try to on a project like this is screen it for people, people who haven't been involved in making it, people you trust, people who will speak their minds and offer reactions, many suggestions, mostly help you gauge how it's going.
I had two screenings rather late in the process, after music was written and laid in, before the last stages of editing and mixing. They were within 16 hours of each other with a night in between.
I invited a group of friends to the station, and friends of the associate producer and the production assistant, along with my brother Darrill, and we watched the show. Many things went wrong – the rough mix was a catastrophe, some sloppy last minute audio editing resulting in background noise overwhelming some key lines during emotional scenes, the monitor kept doing weird things with the aspect ratio. Regardless, the show came through and the feedback began. It was overwhelming positive and when it wasn't, it was helpful. I drank coffee like a fiend from 8:15 pm to about 10 pm and then tried to sleep. I can take a lot of coffee but not that much and certainly not that late. After a night of restless rest I rode my bike the 13 miles to work and got ready for the second screening. This was for my bosses – Fawn Ring and V.J. McAleer. They were ecstatic. We talked for a while about how to possibly eliminate five minutes to bring it down to the fifty-five minutes it needed to be, a tough task for sure. V.J. bowed out and Fawn and I ate lunch and poured over the piece moment by moment, looking to find the right combination of five seconds here and fifteen seconds there that would give us the magic fifty-five.
Eventually I returned to my office, closed the door, put a Wilco CD in the computer and lay on the floor.
My son Austin is 14 this summer. He's taking photos for a summer photo workshop. One of his assignments is to take portraits of everyone in the family. Too bad he wasn't around with his camera to snap this one.
Sprawled on the floor mid-day, the artificial lights extinguished, sunlight coming in from my basement level windows. Two bikes in the corner of the room. My dry erase board filled with a countdown calendar to the show's completion with days x'd out and a list with dozens of possible title written in blue marker. At the bottom of the board in orange marker my shorthand reminders of what making art can be about:
Love – St. Paul
Disciplined Abandon – Jed Perl
Space Time Energy – Ennio Morricone
Compassion Wonder Outrage Love – Gian-Carlo Menotti
Need – Marketa Kimbrell
(Marketa was a teacher of mine at NYU. She taught acting. She was teaching life, but only the wisest among us knew that. I didn't catch on for a long time.)
And this in green marker, written after a stunning week shooting Orbert's concert and APTP's opening:
"I am awash in beauty, joy, provocation, meaning."
Would've made a nice portrait of the TV producer as an exhausted delighted middle-aged man.
I still had to cut 5 minutes.