Earning Violence


We all know that one creepy guy in the audience. The one who we all know is laughing for the wrong reasons. That guy makes my skin crawl. And that is the guy I had in mind when I signed up to edit LUCID, a psychological horror film about a newly wedded woman, who dreams each night that her husband is trying to kill her.

As a female, I am sensitive to how violence against women is portrayed. As a female editor, I am even more aware of my responsibilities in that portrayal. Making it my personal goal to tell a truthful film, without being exploitative. The story of Lucid was conceived of by its female star, Marion Kerr, and was going to be edited by a female, so it seemed like a simple enough task. But as I stood there being strangled by our camera assistant as we practiced what angles would be most effective to cheat the violence. The voice inside me questioned, just what kinda of movie am I helping to create here?

That internal voice grew louder as I was responsible for recording the terrifying screams of torture each day on set. And after being worn down by my first rough cut I came to the realization that there was only so much I could do, violence is violence. If the scene called for the lead to be punched three times in the face, what responsible choices do I have to depict that as an editor? Only show her getting punched twice? I started to panic and I pictured defending my decisions against disturbed audience members by saying, “but the story was created by a woman, no seriously…”

I expressed these concerns with the film’s director, Kevin K. Shah and he told me how he understood everything that I was feeling. And then he gave me the great gift of “Spilling Blood,” a literary article that explores the different ways of approaching violence in storytelling. And while we aren’t exactly making a Hitchcock film here I was very pleased to be reminded that I wasn’t cutting the next entry in to the SAW franchise either.

Instead of just being intimidated by the violence, the article helped me to step back and better understand why violence was being used in the first place. By its very nature, violence is dark and unsettling and it’s in those difficult situations where we learn the true qualities, good or bad, that any given character may have. Watching someone fight for their life or for the life of another can be more revealing to an audience then watching someone eat Sunday brunch. Conflict is the key. Not every story needs violence to create this conflict, but it can be an effective tool to have in your storytelling tool box.

Understanding why violence can be used is only the beginning. Understanding how to use the violence responsibly proved to be the real challenge. How much should I show and in what way? The article discussed the power of the mind, and that what is implied mentally can be far more terrifying to the viewer’s imagination than somethings that can be shown visually. I can think of two specific instances in Lucid where we had the shot of the blood or the slicing, but the director and I consciously chose to use the character’s reaction shot instead. In those instances we are asking the viewer to fill in the gore, which can actually be more traumatizing in the process. And at the same time we are asking the audience to be more of a participant in the story instead of simply spectators.

The article also discussed the importance of earning the violence. Meaning if the audience doesn’t care about the characters in their regular world, then they won’t really care if they are being beat with a baseball bat either. Making the violence unearned. These Lucid characters aren’t just some expendable naughty teens at summer camp, so I was careful to spend just as much time, if not more, crafting and shaping the scenes of non-violence to help keep the story in balance and to get the audience to invest themselves in this couple.

There are still many scenes and shots in the film that make me squirm. And I often refer to the process of cutting Lucid as being punched in the gut. But I finally came to realize that is how this story should be. And as traumatic as the experience was, it also pushed me to gain and use a new set of editor muscles in the process. I also learned that at the end of the day, creepy audience guy’s laughter is not really under my control. What I can control is telling the best story that I can and earning those horrific moments instead of exploiting them, or at least that was my intention. The last line of “Spilling Blood” says it best, “Our job as writers, no matter how uncomfortable it can be, is to occasionally but responsibly shine a lamp into those dark corners of human existence.” And that is what I hope we accomplished with this film.