Better, Good, Best

Can an Editor Really Save a Film? ☛

There’s an old joke that the editor always saves the film… even if they haven’t. But are we really the alchemists we would like to be, turning base metals into gold? How completely can an editor turn your movie around?

I’ve worked in the cutting rooms of twenty feature films, during which time I’ve seen both blandly shot material transformed into hit movies and good rushes cut into flops. There is much to play for. On one film I assisted a very old-school editor who was fired shortly after presenting the first cut. It was a time ago and I’m naming no names so I feel I can say that I would have done the same in the director’s position; the editor’s cut was sluggish and shapeless and he just didn’t understand what the director was after. He was replaced by another editor of pretty much the same generation but with a background in commercials. The result was one of the most educational processes I’ve ever witnessed. The new editor took the film by the scruff of its neck and gave it a firm shake. Many redundant scenes fell out. Most notably the pace of the action increased dramatically – the number of cuts more than doubled – scenes that once had wandered now danced. While in places I felt the result to be a little over-cut, it had a spirit and verve that the previous editor could never have given it.

The kindest cut of "The Wild Side"

It’s even true that the same set of rushes can be cut into a masterpiece or a potboiler. In 1995 the producers of  Donald Cammell’s last movie, The Wild Side, had taken the film away from the director, recut it as softcore porn and sent it straight to glorious VHS; Cammell committed suicide shortly thereafter. A few years later Frank Mazzola, the original editor who had been thrown off the project with Cammell, was paid by FilmFour to recut the movie as Cammell had originally intended. The result, while still flawed, is intelligent, sexy and daring and was warmly reviewed.

The editor can even turn a film around by adding story elements that were never even in the screenplay. Sometimes we call for new material to be shot in order to make a new idea work. I assisted on one film where the two central characters have a major falling out in the third act, but in the end their quarrel is patched up by a small gesture of kindness but without a word of apology. This ending was a laudable attempt by the writer to tell the story with images; unfortunately he’d overplayed his hand and as a result what was supposed to be a row that threatened to end a friendship just looked like a tiff. After some discussion, we called for a scene to be written where these two characters confronted their differences. The result added the weight that the end of the film had sorely lacked and, we’d like to think, helped the film take the box office by storm.

The phone box of hope in "Local Hero"

Rewriting the story doesn’t always need new material to be shot. Look at the edit of Local Hero. Spoilers ahead – if you haven’t seen this little gem of a movie, look away now. The original script ended with the camera on Mac, the protagonist who has toyed with the idea of saying goodbye to his oil company job and living a simple life in the Scottish fishing village he has grown to love. He decides instead to return to his city life in Houston. In the last scene he returns to his apartment, empties his pockets of seashells, and looks sadly out of the window over a landscape of skyscrapers. Fade to black. A downbeat, if truthful, end for a comedy. Calls from the executives caused a new ending to be devised. Not so unusual, but on this occasion the new ending actually improved the film. Mac looks out of his Houston window – cut to a wide shot of the Scottish village (featuring the phone box we’ve grown to know and love); after a moment the phone rings – cut to black as joyous music rises. Is Mac going to return to Scotland? We don’t know for sure, but we believe he will. This more optimistic ending massively contributed to the success of the film – it sent the audience away with hope. End of spoilers.

So editors approach a new project with puppyish hope, and the experience that follows goes something like this. First we receive a script and maybe it’s a mixed bag: we think “very flawed but basically entertaining”. We view the rushes coming in and it gradually seems to change; things we thought just wouldn’t work aren’t as bad as we feared, and it may even be that the scenes we loved are the real disappointments. Then the chickens start coming home to roost. Some story problems might be ones that we’ve flagged up before but, as editor, we were brought on too late for these to be fixed in the script; other issues, nobody spotted. It’s not just story either – casting decisions quickly prove themselves to be big mistakes or strokes of genius. As we work through the cut, first with the director then with various producers and executives, we do battle with these problems. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. If the process is working well, we see the film getting better and better as the weeks tick by. Someone has the off-the-wall idea to set the whole film to tango music and suddenly it all comes to life. Feeling great about our work, we look back at the script, which now seems a bloated overwritten mess. Scene 43 – who could have ever thought we needed that? The cut complete, we stand back in pride: the performances that were dreadful we cut around so skillfully that the actors actually seem to believe what they’re saying. Surplus subplots: gone. Scenes reordered in such a way that the story flows like water, the themes glinting off its surface. We’ve turned it around like some makeover show presenter: what was rambling and confused is now a masterpiece. We send it off to the sound mix and composer with a happy wave. Six months later the film comes out and we read the reviews: “very flawed but basically entertaining.” We curse the critics and commiserate with the director but secretly we know the reviews are right.

The truth is that all films have a quality ceiling, a limitation to how good they can ever be. That ceiling is set by the basic idea. If the film was always a bad idea, there’s only so much any editor can do.

Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton in "Code 46": a chemistry-free zone.

The same is true of casting – if you’re making a rom-com and your lead actors just don’t have any chemistry, the film is doomed. A skilled editor might be able to cut round the performances so that those moments of cringing awkwardness are gone; they can steal moments from other takes to make it look as if the couple are connecting; you can even get in a stellar composer to write a theme so full of warmth and wit that we almost believe these people to be in love. But nothing will ever make up for the absence of those genuine moments of connection.

In one respect ‘better’ is never as good as ‘good’. A skilled editor can always find some way of making a film better, but they can never make it good – either a film has what it takes to be good in its DNA or it doesn’t. We are surgeons, not geneticists.  We can make your film 99% less bad, but there’s only one person who can make it good and that’s the screenwriter.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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14 Responses to “Better, Good, Best”
  1. would you rather have a bad director and a great editor or a great director and a lousy editor?

    just wondering.

    Thanks for the article. lots to think about.

    • guyducker says:

      On balance I’d say a great director and a lousy editor – a great director can lead a lousy editor by the nose if they have to… or even fire them. Start with poorly directed rushes and you’re in a world of pain. Even if it’s based around a good idea, is well cast and you’ve got a top notch editor it’s not going to be easy.

  2. laura says:

    Vey nice article with interesting anecdotes. Great editing room photo!

  3. Mahmut Akay says:

    Another fantastic and insightful article.

  4. Ivan says:

    Entertaining, and very inspiring anecdotes about how certain films fared in the past.
    There may be hope for mine!

  5. Jen says:

    Nice article. I’ll never forget the story of great editor Ralph Rosenblum who took Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and turned it from a disaster into a masterpiece – he made Woody a star director. That story made me want to become an editor.

  6. liz says:

    Great article. I am disappointed in how my movie came out and don’t know whether to blame the editor or the director, neither of whom was very experienced….I’d love to have my movie re-edited but no budget! Or should i just try to do the whole thing over again with ‘money’? Any suggestions?

  7. John says:

    Very interesting article about a role that has always intrigued me. As a writer I accept that once I turn over my script to a director/producer it’s not ‘my’ story anymore: how closely the director’s interpretation matches my own is always fascinating to behold. So much of what writers do is subconscious that it’s amazing to see which elements connect with the director and which are discarded. What surprised me is that the article gives the impression that the same process of ‘handing off’, if you will, takes place between director and editor. The director translates words on a page into a visual story and hands it off to the editor who reassembles and manipulates the raw material to create what may turn out to be a significantly different story than the one captured by the director. Am I right in this interpretation or do directors hover over the editors shoulder throughout the editing cycle?

    • guyducker says:

      There is a handing over to the editor like you describe during the shoot; while the director is on set, the editor will be cutting together the previous day’s rushes. A week or so after the shoot the editor will show their first assembly to the director. How they work together after that varies from case to case, but generally it works better if the director isn’t hanging on the editors shoulder all day. Where you are spot on is in your comment about the footage, which is a new story, subtly different from the script. Nic Roeg used to say “you shoot the script, then you cut the rushes”.

  8. Great article. You have a lovely, readable style and, if I might apply and adapt your final comment to your own article, if the subject is good the article has the potential to be good. In a blogosphere packed with dross, this is the good stuff. I look forward to your next article and continue now with cutting the film I’m currently editing.

  9. Really great article. Thanks for sharing!

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  1. […] editor then sweats away trying to make sense out of a story that doesn’t quite make sense and, as I’ve suggested before, no matter how good the editor is, the chances are he or she won’t succeed. Sometimes the editor […]

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