A Challenging Scene
At one point or another we have all faced a challenging scene. The scene that no matter what you throw at it, no matter how you approach it for one reason or another, never turns out quite right. It slowly consumes all of your focus, and becomes the editor’s Moby-Dick, if you will. While scene 48 never bit off my leg or sunk my boat, it definitely became an unhealthy obsession to get right.
When I first read the scene, a late addition to the script, I was very excited by the prospect of getting to cut it; a four page, face to face showdown between our hero, Paul Boxer, and his nemesis, Henry Langlois. It had tension, reveals, and even a few monologues. I couldn’t wait to get started.
My first feelings of unease about the scene began to arise as I looked down at my audio recorder on set. Each take was running close to 7 minutes, almost twice as long as expected. It was the smallest glimpse of the scene taking on new life, off the page, and slowly evolving into a beast.
The director must have shared this discomfort with me, as my instructions from the get go were to start off with a shorter version of the scene. We sat down with the script and decided which beats to explore losing in the first cut. Now I must say this may have been my first misstep. Before Down and Dangerous began, I finally got around to reading The Conversations with Walter Murch. One of the biggest takeaways for me was to avoid getting too smart with the first cut, as you would inevitably be making more problems for yourself down the line; in short, on the first pass, stick to the script. This was a lesson I struggled with while cutting my first feature and a lesson I was determined not to repeat again.
I may have stuck to my guns and fought harder for my new first pass mantra had I not also been so distracted by the daunting nature of the footage. The scene’s over the shoulder shots were framed in beautiful wide shots that were quite pleasing to my eye, that was until I attempted to cut the two angles together. The lack of continuity between shots was off the charts. Now it is important to say that I am a firm believer in story and emotion, and that they trump continuity every time. But when I would try to piece a wide shot of actor A with the wide shot of actor B, the odds of their heads, arms, or drinks being remotely in the same position as they were in the other angle, were slim to none. A pretty disheartening distraction when your main goal is to seamlessly integrate the footage and performances into the same moment and same rhythm. Eventually a box of wine and an eight point garbage matte became my best friends here.
Have I also mentioned that I was trying to conceal the removed beats and lack of continuity by intercutting it with another scene by way of Out of Sight and Anne V Coates? Ha ha, yes there was that, too. But these two scenes were not conceived to be intertwined and it never quite worked.
Months passed and every time we would watch the cut down, my heart sank when we would arrive at scene 48. I knew I was going to have to go back again. It became a constant cycle trying something new, moving on to another scene, watching down the cut, repeat.
As disheartening as the process can sometimes be, editors don’t quit. We might run out of time, but we definitely don’t give up. #PostDontStop The only limitations are where your mind and instincts take you, or don’t.
Eventually, while reworking a later scene where the same characters interact again, I discovered the delicate connection and balance that these two, seemingly unrelated scenes, 25 minutes apart share. Certain information could be stronger when presented in one scene instead of the other. And the echo of information should be felt, but not repeated. It was an important reminder that less is more.
With this new knowledge and fresh eyes after some time away from the cut, I had finally found my white whale, the decoder ring to help process my choices through. “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” and here is the scene’s purpose within the story.
Have I succeeded? Will I need to go a few more rounds? Only time and the test screening around the corner will tell. But the fact that I’m finally excited by the possibilities of this scene again feels really good. As an editor, not every day is sunshine and rainbows, but it’s the challenging scenes that make the payoff so rewarding.