The River Flows

Last Night I went to a screening of a friends film. This friend is a one-man band and after three years of working on the film he’s done- finished- kaput. However, I still have some notes for him….. It is a great film, but it could be better, and I believe, reach a much wider audience with a few tweaks.
After the screening I got into a discussion about his film (and the nature of filmmaking). She mentioned that it started to feel a bit long at one point but she realized that she was still interested so it was ok. I felt the same way, except that I would argue for trying to fix it rather than accept it. The film is well paced, the stories are nicely woven together, and it is a wonderful document of a place and time fraught with all kinds of difficulties. However, by tightening even a little bit I think it could connect with a much wider audience.

Over 15 years of working on films, I’ve learned the hard way to get rid of things that don’t move the story forward. When we made our film, “Horns and Halos” we followed an underground publisher as he attempted to re-publish a discredited biography of GW Bush before the 2000 election. For a long time during the editing, it seemed essential to the story to set up how he came to publish books and how he ended up as the super of the building. We had a great scene in which he was fixing a radiator as he gave us his back-story. People really liked the scene, but we realized that every scene in the film had to include at least two of the three main characters: the book, the publisher, and the author. Since this scene only focused on the publisher, it was excised. When we showed it again to the same people who insisted that we keep that scene in, we found that not only did they not miss it, but also that they couldn’t figure out what we’d done to make the film so much better.

Working on the cut of a film is a bit like working on a sculpture out of clay. At first you start with a mass of images and information. As you start to shape it almost any bit of footage seems to work. However, once you find the focus it becomes increasingly clear which bits of footage work and which bits don’t. Once it starts to take on a distinct look, even the smallest changes have a major impact. As the film gets closer to being finished, there will be many scenes where a character says three or four things but its clear that the scene is too long. At first every line seems important because they do different things. Once the focus of the scene is established, and the filmmaker understands what the scene is doing, it becomes clear that only two lines are needed. It is sometimes incredible how much better it makes the scene. With that single line gone, the audience knows what it is expected to walk away from the scene with.

Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the things that we really like, but in the end it’s essential for filmmakers to find the spine of the story and get rid of everything that doesn’t move it forward. Even if a scene is good, if it doesn’t pay off in the end, raise questions that later get answered, it really needs to go.

Last night my new friend and I argued over the essential nature of story telling. I was trying to explain to her that film is very different than literature. When one reads a book, it is understood that the book will be read in many sittings, and that the reader will likely re-read passages to get back up to speed. There’s a freedom of movement inherent in the form (not so true for short stories- they kind of demand to be read in one sitting). In addition literature is a form that much more open to interpretation on the part of the consumer. A film on the other hand demands direct attention, because it is like a river flowing forward, and it is more clear cut in what it attempts to communicate. Any deviation from that course can have disastrous results.

In this scenario the filmmaker is sort of a river guide. They’ve been down the river possibly hundreds of times and it’s their job to lead the busy vacationers down the river in the clearest most efficient manner. If these “guests” are comfortable with their leader, then they get involved in the ride. However, if in the course of their travels they find that the guide wasn’t paying enough attention and took them down a tributary and they have to row their way back to the main branch, they can get a little bit frustrated. If it happens too often, then they might just give up and walk back. If the guide is ok but not great, they might just kind of stop paying too much attention.

Last night’s film was moving along in a fairly direct manner when it sidetracked into a sub story that didn’t have any dramatic force. It was a fine scene, well cut, and visually appealing. However, it was a total dead end. It didn’t really play a role in the narrative of the story that had developed. It was interesting, but it was an unnecessary digression that hurt the forward force of the story. It was a tributary that the audience had to find it’s way back from once it was over. If the filmmaker gets rid of that and trims a few other minutes – he might just have a hit on his hands.

Now if I take my own advice we might just finish our own film.

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