Executive Stress

When Money People Monkey with your Cut ☛

In the Oscars this year Harrison Ford unpocketed a set of notes that had been given by the Executive Producers on his 1982 film Blade Runner. His intention was clearly to ridicule the wrong-headedness of Hollywood executives and the way they blunder into the editing process; these notes, he claims, can help us understand how the editing process can be “complicated”.

Harrison Ford presents the 2021 Oscar for best editing

In fact this set of notes has been wandering the internet for at least the last 8 years, where they have met with much contempt. But are they actually a bad set of notes? For that matter, are the notes you receive from producers, executive producers, and other money people really as boneheaded as we tend to think they are?

To answer the first question: it’s impossible to know. Remember, these aren’t notes on the finished film but on some interim version, now almost certainly lost. “Three cuts to the eggs” does sound like too many, but I’m guessing.  The comments on voiceover are interesting, given that supposedly the execs insisted that narration was added in the edit to make the story comprehensible. Both director Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford fought this move – legend has it that Ford’s “sounds like he’s on drugs” lack-lustre performance was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the studio’s attempt to dumb-down the film. We can at least see from these notes that the people at Warner’s were bright enough to see that the voiceover wasn’t working. They probably ran out of time, money, and patience to try another solution.

What this document, and the well-recorded battle over the soul of the film, show us is that trust and respect had broken down between the execs and the folks in the cutting room, and the result was detrimental to the film itself, causing its initial release to be compromised.

The bigger problem is that the mythology surrounding the battle of the Blade Runner edit, has in part led to a widespread belief amongst filmmakers that the money people are idiots and/or philistines. In fact, even the way I just phrased that is part of the problem – it draws a dividing line between executive producers and ‘filmmakers’. As the people who got the money together to make the film possible, don’t execs deserve to be seen as ‘filmmakers’: part of the team that made the film, rather than representatives of some shadowy corporate entity, bent on the destruction of creativity?

Having worked in the cutting rooms of several films financed by studios, I have to report that many of the notes we get from execs are perfectly common-sense, sometimes (whisper it) even born out of a deep understanding of story.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some executives watch cuts with less than their full attention – I remember one BBC exec who would always take phone calls during screenings and would make a point of asking for the film to continue playing as he chatted about something else. There are others who deliberately ‘dumb themselves down’ to what they consider to be the level of the audience. The legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood was of an exec who reckoned that the public had the mental age of his six year old kid, and would get said kid to pronounce judgement on his behalf. Other execs can be vague in expressing their ideas or just woolly in their thinking. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan once reported having lost his temper at a script meeting with AMC:

SHERIDAN “What the fuck are you people even talking about?” 
EXEC “Taylor, you have to look for the note within the note”
SHERIDAN “OK, but why don’t you just give me the note?” 
EXEC “Well we don’t know what the note is.”

However, most Hollywood execs know their business and have at least basic skills for communicating with those in the cutting room. Unfortunately this untold story of surprising competence doesn’t make for many juicy anecdotes. The only positive story I can think of relates to the British film Local Hero, in which a new ending was cobbled together from offcuts – an idea that came directly from a note from the execs and is generally agreed to make the movie.

So, why the antagonism against execs? It’s not just because of the myth of executive incompetence, spread by stories of the Blade Runner cut. It’s often because execs are the people with the status to tell the director “no”. And for many directors this will be an unfamiliar and unwelcome word. It’s also because the execs represent the money, so their job is to give the film as good a chance as it can have of speaking to a wide audience and making a profit. Most directors and editors see this as dumbing down, and sometimes it is, but the good execs recognise that whatever best tells the story leads to the best film… and audiences like good films.

While my aim is to encourage you not to greet notes from those with the money with knee-jerk contempt, circumspection can still be wise. Despite their power over the film, many execs are themselves afraid for their own jobs. This is why their notes can sometimes be vague and difficult to pin down. Unambiguous pronouncements leave them vulnerable if they made a wrong call. Whereas freelance directors and editors can make bad calls and move on—although they may not work for that studio again—execs are on staff, and a bad call can easily wreck their career.

There’s also a lot of truth in Taylor Sheriden’s story – looking for the note behind the note. This applies to any feedback you might be given. Pretty much everyone will find it easiest to identify that something’s wrong in a certain area of a story. It’s often harder to work out exactly what is wrong. And harder still to work out the best way to make it right. If an exec, or anyone, gives you a note—one that they appear committed to—there’s almost certainly something that you need to address. Exactly what is wrong may not be what they think it is, and their suggestions as to how the mistake might be fixed will often be wrong, but they have done you the service of pointing out a weakness in your storytelling. You can decide whether, say, the voiceover isn’t working because it’s poorly written, poorly performed or just shouldn’t be there in the first place. What you shouldn’t do is pretend that everything’s okay and this guy is an idiot. Even if he is an idiot – that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong that there’s no problem. Look for the note within the note.

War is declared.

Personally I’m willing to believe that early cuts of Blade Runner may have been so oblique that something needed to be done to clarify the storytelling – it’s a pretty left-field script. Most, but not all, people agree that voiceover narration was the wrong solution. Had Ridley Scott and the Execs not gone to war over the cut maybe they could have reached a better conclusion and ten years later Scott would not have felt the need to make his Director’s Cut. But given that audiences have been treated to no fewer than five different versions of the film, perhaps I’m being optimistic.

Bottom line is, we all feel a wrench when others monkey with our work. But maybe they aren’t taking the wheels off for no good reason – maybe they can genuinely help make your film hit the road running.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2021

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

3 thoughts on “Executive Stress

  1. Really helpful Guy. Recently I got my first IMDB credit for a feature. Aside from notes given (on request) after the first read through which I was happy to do as a writer myself, I resolved to keep out of it after that. Obviously, where millions of dollars are at stake, it needs to be sorted but (imho) this should all have been sorted in preproduction…

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