A report from the BBC Drama Writers’ Festival and EditFest ☛
This summer has seen me hitting the festivals in force. Muddy boots, bracelets and dream-catchers have been absent from my festival experience however (although there have been lengthy queues for the loo). The festivals I’ve attended have been the BBC Drama Writers’ Festival in Leeds, and EditFest in London.
The Leeds College of Music, an airy modern building not far from the heavy Victorian splendour of the city centre, plays host to the Drama Writers’ Festival. I arrived to find the place heaving with several hundred screenwriters, all jostling to see the boards that displayed who had got into which session. The delegates are of all ages and originate from all corners of the country. The festival is only open to writers with broadcast credits; even so most of us were on a budget – the cheap hotels of Leeds were at capacity and the food provided by the festival was gratefully received. So everyone was in business mode, keen to identify targeted producers and deliver business cards, fresh from the printer, into waiting hands.
The mood had changed since I was last here. In 2011 British television had been on the back foot; the Americans ruled the roost and we were trying to figure out how they did it. Former X Files scribe Frank Spotnitz had been working with Kudos to introduce American-style writers’ rooms to the UK, and reported in his session at the festival that British producers just didn’t have the money to make this practice work properly.
This year the tone at the festival was more optimistic. A consensus has developed, both in the industry and in the world at large, that long-form storytelling, as offered by the TV series, provides a richer experience than Spielberg’s blockbuster apocalypse. No longer is Britain feeling that these TV series are the sole preserve of the United States; the Danish crime wave, French dramas like Les Revenants, along with some offerings from our good selves, have lent the field a more international flavour.
One such Brit-hit, Utopia, was showcased in a panel discussion with writer Dennis Kelly and director Marc Munden. Kelly, a playwright whose boldness is the secret of success; offered the view that self-censorship is the act of a coward. He balanced this assertion with a pragmatic approach to collaboration, telling us that “the thing that’s in your head will never exist, you’ve got to learn to let go”. He also counselled resisting the temptation to direct from inside the script.
This relationship between writers and directors was a running theme of the festival. One session covered the topic directly: a lively and intelligent debate chaired by writer and festival co-curator Jack Thorne, which asked “Should we love the director more?” Views ranged from that held by an up-and-coming filmmaker, who saw the director as integral to the process of creating any drama; to that held by a seasoned American TV writer, who saw the director as “just another member of the crew” – it’s the writers and producers who do the storytelling. I was fascinated to compare the variety of different models of collaboration proposed, and to have my thinking on the issue challenged. It was also refreshing to be in a room full of practitioners having an open discussion as equals about how drama should best be made.
Down the corridor in the recital room, however, it was all kicking off. A debate on Sexual Violence on Screen was getting bloody. Journalist Terence Blacker had asked stern questions about the way sex and violence had been combined in the BBC’s series The Fall. Ben Stephenson, head of BBC Drama, delivered stinging riposts in defence of his series. The debate ended up generating far more heat than light but, if nothing else, it was good drama.
A calmer discussion on the abuse of storytelling was provided in the first session the next morning by the ever-eloquent John Yorke. He argued that all forms of storytelling use ‘associative coherence’ – the human need to find links between things, to make order out of chaos. He provided examples as eclectic as The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Alistair Cooke’s radio essay Letter From America and the political narrative of austerity. I found particularly fascinating his application of the Khuleshov effect – the way in which we reinterpret images according to their context – to narrative in general, rather than just to film editing.
London, Two days later.
I walk through the sun-dappled streets of a Soho Saturday morning and pass through the doors of Dolby headquarters.
Inside: EditFest. The first time the A.C.E.’s (American Cinema Editors) annual meeting of the sharpest splicers in town has taken place outside Los Angeles.
First up: the TV editors. Kristina Hetherington, Oral Norrie Ottey, Frances Parker and Kate Evans. As with the TV Writers in Leeds, the belief that the small screen is in the ascendant is strong here. The clips of Game of Thrones shown by Ottie and Parker display visual storytelling on a grand scale once reserved for the big screen.
But there is discontent too. The introduction of data cameras, like the Arri Alexa, to well-budgeted TV dramas has meant that it is now standard practice to shoot with sometimes as many as 4 cameras. As a result, an hour-long show might be covered with up to sixty hours of raw material, three times as much as was previously standard. Editors who have spent their careers thus far assiduously watching every minute of footage shot are now finding that, without exaggeration, there are not enough hours in the day. While this is happening because technology has made it affordable, one of the panel suggests that it’s also in response to producers who want to be able to forage through the rushes. They like the freedom to model the show themselves, rather than being shackled to the director’s intention. None of us are sure that this is a good thing.
Afternoon, and the baton is passed to the feature film editors: Chris Dickens, Tracy Granger, Eddie Hamilton and John Wilson, moderated by Cutting Room Floor regular Mick Audsley. The impact of new technology is a running theme here too. While feature editors tend not to be quite so swamped by rushes, according to John, time is still the enemy. 35mm editing had always been a slow process, requiring decisiveness but offering the time to make those decisions. File-based editing, however, has overtaken the speed at which most editors can think, leaving little time to test out hunches and make the bold experiments the technology is supposed to allow.
Ways of refreshing the editors’ eyes and minds are also central for this panel. Chris recommends watching the film in different locations – in a viewing theatre, at home – to try to make it feel fresh to you. The desirability of keeping screenings as events, separate from the daily work of editing, is also widely agreed upon. Chris reflects on how different a scene can look when showing it to an outside eye, even before the viewer has made any comment. Both Tracy and Mick admit that they have on more than one occasion grabbed the person cleaning the edit suite and sat them down in front of a cut, in order to be able to see the film through their eyes.
The final session: veteran film editor Tom Rolf in conversation with cutting room legend Anne V. Coates – the scissors behind Lawrence of Arabia. Her career spans from The Red Shoes to The Golden Compass and includes groundbreaking work on Soderburgh’s Out of Sight. Anne, now in her late 80s, still does the occasional recut of studio pictures. She and Rolf discuss the difficulty they both had getting into the film business, due to strict union rules – in the States you needed 8 years to be accepted as an editor, “longer than it takes to be a surgeon” comments Rolf.
Anne brought with her something that editors rarely keep: examples of work in progress. In this case she shows the famous bar scene from Out of Sight as it had been originally envisaged in the script, a well-written flirtation scene leading George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez’s characters to the bedroom. The decision made in the cutting room to blend the scene in the bar and that in the bedroom lead to the creation of what can best be described as a memory of the event. It is the perfect example of just what an editor can achieve, when given time and space to play.
The talks over, the assembled company emerges blinking at the bright colours of the Pride March that had taken over the West End while we’ve been in the lightless room to which our kind are so accustomed. We fight our way through the crowd to our promised drinks a block away.
Cocktails. Tongue-tied, I introduce myself to Anne Coates and shake her by the hand. She thinks we’ve met before, I assure her that we haven’t. Realisation hits me: we’ve unconsciously re-enacted a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. But I’m not Peter O’Toole in this scenario, I’m the bluff Medical Officer who gauchely introduces himself to Lawrence in Damascus. I leave feeling a part of movie history… just not the part I really wanted.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
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