Writing, Rewriting, Refining

Over the birthday of an actor who is to be the lead in a feature I cancelled in 2017, I did another scroll through the draft and also went through the simplified alternate draft I wrote that year to generate a 2020 output of it.  You never know whether a script will ever only be a script.  I had done some similar cherry picking for the novelization, which is now being copy edited or proof read, with the same concern that it may be the final product that conveys my vision.  But I still had to go back and pick through the screenplay itself in case opportunity opens up again to shoot it.  At least that aspect – the script – can be in a state of readiness.

In practical terms, this has meant introducing a trio of supporting characters earlier and letting us be invested in them so that they are more than an idea and we feel their absence in other scenes and appreciate their return.  That was the biggest adjustment. The Devil is in the details as they say. If someone were to make everything more colloquial and shoot it handheld, the unreality of this universe would be undermined as there are runs of dialogue that must be a unit and the subject matter was chosen for its visual potential and my own preference for a cartoonish formality.  If something sticks out as not being the right fit, I have to refine it.  I have a sense of relief again that now I can hand someone this draft and say I absolutely intend to shoot this.  It is not an idea or a stem cell; form follows function and it knows what it is. Ready to print. Ready to shoot.

The downside could arguably be that the more specific and clear your screenplay, the more resistant you will be to variations offered by others.  But that may be the trade-off. I know I will not be vindicated as a writer unless I have followed my own writing, for good or ill.  If someone likes it, they like my writing.  If I were to trade it out for improvisation or someone else’s rewrite (either more chaotic or more sanitized), even if it finds an audience and is popular it will not feel like my own work.  So as this final draft is presented to potential collaborators, it all still comes back to making sure they want to make the same movie. The script will decide which actors are appropriate, not the other way around.

Some people thrive on chaos and I don’t.  Had I shot the 2017 draft that represents most of the novelization, it would have been true to my intentions.  The current version also is, with the benefit of three more years of distance and contemplation.  It might be a good idea to scare off anyone who doesn’t want to commit to reading and learning the script at this point.  The story – as I often say – is just a container for the stuff I care about, specific dialogue and specific shots in my directorial plan.  If that sounds like tunnel vision, consider this:  The main character first appeared in a 2007 short, and was a name on a piece of paper since the early Nineties.  In 2008, I cobbled together what might have been called the first draft, and then on the advice of a prospective producer spent a year submitting possible outlines I would be willing to expand.  After settling on the final premise, many drafts lived their lives as submissions to the Canadian Film Center, and table readings and CineCoup.   There were many opportunities over more than a decade where drafts or corrected outputs would be sent around for feedback.  I went through the process of simplifying stages of the ending and “killing my darlings” that might have been amusing bits which had no function or detracted from the big picture.  There is a point where it has to become a closed system, as John Cleese would say.  Now it is a matter of getting competent and committed production infrastructure.

I have been told it might be too logistically complex for a first feature.  It won’t be my first feature by the time it is shot.  It is actually also fairly contained.  There are a couple of scenes that do involve a number of people but much of it is manageable.  Safety has always been a concern and more so in the current climate.  But watching the movie will not be a “safe space” which seems to be something that chokes out and smothers anything with the reckless charm of an Eighties movie or a Chappelle monologue. It will be fun and also frankly may have something to offend everybody.  It may offend or trigger the extreme right or extreme left, both of which are fair targets of ridicule.

A writer can only have faith that there will be a percentage of the creative community and potential audience that will share the same sense of mischief or sensitivity and edge and might appreciate a movie that represents an uncompromising blah bity blah, blah. I don’t feel comfortable saying “vision,” because it sounds pompous and in fact writing or directing are more a risk and a state of vulnerability than a god-like power position. I have gone through several stages of imperfection, so it does not arrive full blown but is fuzzy and has become more clear as placeholders and distractions have been improved and thumbnail sketches have been redrawn.  The only thing you can count on is honoring your own impulses and your gut as to what seems to spice and season a script and get it all effectively across. Wish me luck.

Phantom Edits: Blade Runner

Back in the late Nineties, before there was a The Phantom Edit (the Mike J. Nichols @TheEditDoctor ), I experimented with an off-line VHS editing suite at a workplace after hours and made my own versions of a few movies.  The first was Blade Runner which I admired for its look and for dramatic scenes that work autonomously but which were buffered by languid pacing and traveling where the atmosphere is no longer supporting story but it feels like filler.  I also did a re-edit of Hook, which had too many epiphanies for Peter Banning and also wallowed a bit in some of the weird body paint manifestation.  I trimmed down Malcolm X and I did a combination cut of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns by shuffling the order of a few scenes and ultimately using all Batman and Bruce Wayne scenes and trimming villain stuff where possible.  Those only exist as VHS tapes somewhere and have had mixed reactions when I’ve foisted them onto people.  One friend’s kid noticed the baseball park scene from Hook was missing.

But the Blade Runner re-cut I tried again when testing a Pinnacle Studio editing software. This time I rented a copy of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner from a store I won’t name in Toronto and because it was a bootleg (Only the Director’s Cut was officially available on DVD at the time) I could rip and import it into my editing program.  The picture quality was still pretty clean.  By applying only the cuts I felt were needed, it still came down to a reasonable length.  Transitioning the sound became a challenge but that was all part of learning the software without any pressure.

What follows is a video that only points to the order of cuts.  I honestly believe the movie would be improved even now if these changes were applied.  Which of course will be considered a sacrilegious idea, let alone exercise.  We fans of course don’t own the things we like, but we can tinker around with them and I have seen some very arbitrary fan changes made to other people’s movies.  I will say that if you can get a bootleg of The Phantom Edit or Attack of the Edit the commentaries tracks of Mike J. Nichols are like a Master class in how the removal or shifting of a scene can change perception of something that previously had seemed to be a problem.  But for now, I can just show this indication of what I messed with on Blade Runner with a description of each cut if you want to keep stopping or re-checking.  As if you have that much time.  But this sample video is pretty short.

0:06 Cityscape reverse shot cut earlier to seem like same vehicle from another angle

0:13 From Leon gunshot to billboard and spinner. Then to Deckard already finished with paper and coming to the food vendor
0:30 From “No choice, pal” to OPENING TITLES
1:00 From “If the Machine doesn’t work?” and billboard with Spinner going frame right to left, cutting to OWL flying screen left to right for criss-cross transition that gets us to Tyrell’s earlier and skips languid pacing.
1:23 From “You’re talking about memories” CIRCLE WIPE to tunnel.
1:35 From recording of GUNSHOT heard while Deckard is in tunnel, AUDIO transition to THUNDER CLAP outside of Leon’s building
2:11 From Batty asking “Where would we find this JF Sabastian?” CUT to JF’s vehicle pulling up in front of the Bradbury building
2:18 Indicate cross-cutting between Rachel and Deckard (originally 8 minutes) to JF’s place with Replicants (also an originally 8-minutes) to weave 4-minute scenes.
2:33 From Rachael and Deckard intimate at blinds, here there is a wipe to Tyrell’s and the elevator but ideally it should be a “blinds” transition which works with the horizontal information of the Tyrell exterior and those in the previous scene.
2:43 From the window JF implicitly jumped out of and Batty’s reaction CUT TO Deckard’s car as his radio describes JF’s body so it is clear that he fell/jumped.

That about sums up the major cuts that I had a strong opinion about.  The middle section where the Rachel and Deckard stretches could inter-cut with JF, Batty and Pris had specific edit points I found but the important thing was that those sections could be woven without losing anything.  I don’t think the current Disney Star Wars movies can be helped much by fan edits, even The Last Jedi, because the controlling ideas are so contradictory and the way legacy cast were used, especially Luke, may have been appropriate for characters from some other intellectual property but seemed, er, forced shall we say?  Blade Runner was this imperfect movie that I had to dive into and challenge myself with in terms of editing without harming the core of it.  The sequel Blade Runner 2049  has a longer running time but does not feel as long.  However, the running time hurt its number of screenings and its box office so I would have trimmed quite a lot from the beginning to get us to Harrison Ford earlier.  But off hand I do not know where the fat was.  There would be many time-cuts within scenes.  I have all of the versions that have been put out, so it’s not like I have lost Warners money. I’ve gotten that out of my system long ago.




New Voices versus Visions

When there is a call for “new voices” in film and television, somehow directors are the focal point and not writers despite the fact that a “voice” comes in at the writing stage.

So much energy has gone into dissolving the auteur theory of direction and yet because a director is considered an authority on set the attibute of “voice” gets folded into his or her disciplin even when it comes to television where typically the writing team and producers are the deciders and the directors are considered guests.

If the entertainment industry was serious about injecting new voices into it, funding contests would focus on screenplays alone and not references from established professionals or attachments of producers or directors. More screenplays could come from people who are doing nothing more than writing, far from the epicentre of TV and moviemaking, with a distinct and sometimes even rural slant on life.

The screenwriter who genuinely brings a new voice could be someone who has no producing knowledge, doesn’t schmoose, and may not have directed shorts in obscurity but has access to a keyboard and can crank out wonderful material. Meanwhile there are many movers and shakers working as directors and producers, taking meetings and working ling hours who are great at self promotion but can’t write – let alone anything with a new voice. But there are two key problems with that:

a) Those with power and influence want to see their own babies born and are motivated by a sense of authorship which they won’t get from genuinely trolling for untested talents who only have a draft of a screenplay to judge.

Also, b) For good or ill, the perceived centers of show business are in big cities and carry the expected urban liberal bent of one degree or another, the most extreme being averse to giving a platform to anyone from an area that is potentially burdened by the stigma of geography and the associated political and social attitudes associated so the “heartland” or “flyover” country might be easily discounted. Both of those concerns are part of the overall reluctance the establishment has to be the first to endorse or discover anything or anyone because there is no heat and assumed value to give it status.

If a screenplay is matched with the style or approach of an appropriate director, this must imply that the director’s choices and processes are deliberate and that a genuine vision is part of the equation. If the director does not believe there is a visual grammar of cinema, and that choices with the frame are random and not part of conveying and emphasizing anything, then that person is unqualified.

If the director is only willing to step on the toes of the art department by preparing a “look book” but not willing to imply a cut and confine the editor or restrain the cinematographer by preparing storyboard sketches of each shot, this person may be a wild card and may attract a strong editor or cinematographer who are attracted to being de facto co-directors. That person might be chosen for personality. (Which leaves me out of the running, having not much to speak of.)

Kevin Smith has said that he feels like his job is not necesary when directing a TV show episode, because the crew all know their jobs so well and have tried every shot variation. He has been told the reason he gets assignments is that people are happy when he is around. That may be false modesty, but it must have a ring of truth.

If a crew feels the director thinks he or she is the next Kubrick, Peter Farrely has said the crew will make his or her life hell. There-in lies the frustration for those of us who absolutely prefer to draw our storyboards and know the psychology of every chosen frame and cut and build each sequence to direct the audience.

There must be a skill to seeming loose and being like Lt. Columbo, looking like you need help and that you aren’t a control freak but at the same time having a firm vision shot for shot and cut for cut where every beat of a scene may have a best angle or lens or framing.

Some say there is no movie syntax, even to the extent of crossing the camera access and letting the audience be confused by who is facing whom. But certainly we must agree that there is psychology and we understand personal space or comfort bubbles and what can be read into proximity of characters and how we view someone who is framed small and overwhealmed by surroundings or sitting sharply in a close-up with all activity around them soft and blurry as if the person is tuning it all out.


Working with Murphy on Movies

Nobody wants to collaborate with Murphy of Murphy’s Law when it comes to making movies, but we have no choice but to collaborate with that POS.  Here are some sob stories about encountering situations where I failed to anticipate what could and would possibly go wrong.

First year Humber Super 8mm assignment: We should a parallel action short I conceived and directed which relied on specific movement and cuts to create scene transitions.  A classmate who looked enough like a vagrant because of the Nineties Grunge trend was recruited to act.  His last name sounded like the opposite of his character. He would also supposedly help with post.  He was supposed to meet me in the library to help edit.  I was in plain view and waited but he did not show up, so I did the edit myself, splicing physical film the old fashioned way.  I was pleased to see how my planned cut came together.  Looked forward to screening it.  Then I packed up and made the mistake of doing what we were told to do — putting the equipment and finished reel back into our crew bin on the shelves of the post-production classroom.  I went home that night feeling I had saved the day and showed up for the morning screening but my film was not there. Grunge boy showed up and handed the reel to the instructor.  In turn with the others, it was screened and I was horrified.  I was not vindicated by this at all.  My work had been destroyed.  This tool had come in early or after I left and had gone through the film and snipped either side of my splices and re-spliced it.  He was a vandal.  It was not just a matter of “learning to edit” and “getting experience.”  It was passive-aggressive and rendered my involvement worthless.  To redress the matter would require him to create something he cared about and then for me to destroy that.  If it had occurred to me to try to get the guy thrown out of the program, no doubt he would plead misunderstanding or that his was a “fine cut” and he is “here to learn.”  Decades later, I still think back to this anecdote and feel the rage.  Over the years, the same guy has proven to be a low-life despite the fact that he gets work in film as an electric.  Had I not been naive, I would have put a note in the crew bin, “Bringing the edited reel home.  Will bring it for screening.” In a time-travel fantasy, that is the advice for my younger self.

We did a 16mm film documentary, and I suggested the Guardian Angels of Toronto having seen them ONCE on the subway.  I had a flurry of amusing editing ideas that would give that subject energy.  The vandal was against the subject because he didn’t like the idea of Guardian Angels (volunteer protectors against violence and crime) having a presence. No shock.  I was technically the writer, which has little meaning in documentaries. I had to submit storyboards so that the guy in “the cage” would issue our camera gear. That policy makes sense, but then I found out that we were not allowed to have the writer and director be the same person. Another classmate, Trina, was named director. She went over my storyboards and agreed with them. Then she had to be absent for an appointment so the crew advised me through producer Shaun that I should direct that day.  So I did the majority of it, the exteriors. That included half of a transition, a whip pan from the police 52 division that would take us to the headquarters of the Guardian Angels. The swish-pan was storyboarded, a transition gimmick seen in Some Like it Hot and sort of on the old Batman show.  Pan quickly away from something to a blur, cut on the most blurry frame of that and the following image which begins on the fast pan and settles on the new setting.  Vandal was to shoot the first half, the pan-away. I asked if he knew how to do a swish pan.  He was affronted and said, “Yes!”  Then I watched him and new his pan was wandering and wonky.  I politely asked if I can take a stab at it.  Mine was smooth.  The following day, Trina was back and we had to shoot the other half in the Guardians office. She wanted to skip the pan-in.  I confess I insisted we get it shot even if it isn’t used. She may have been miffed at not having the last word as nominal director. Audio of an interview was used as our sound, so there wasn’t much need for me to write narration.   When we looked at the raw footage I explained to our instructor why the swish was there and how it was to be used.  Yet, when the editor had his way, he delivered a cut that omitted my swish transition but kept the meandering, shaky attempt Vandal had done.  It was a disaster.  I spoke to our producer and asked if I can use the outtakes and restore what I had storyboarded.  He said yes.  I did a marathon editing session and made the doc as it should be.  The next day, there was a pall in the air in the cafeteria.  The editor was a popular basketball player and some (especially not from my crew) thought I had crossed a line.  I was put on the spot in production management class and had to apologize especially for hurting the feelings of the editor (never mind that he had ignored my guidelines and embarrassed me).  I got a nod of approval for my apology from the person whose opinion meant nothing to me, the vandal.  But eventually the editor looked at my cut and realized I was right and most of it was kept.  After all the melodrama, I was invited to direct the 5 minute drama the next semester. Years later, I put a satirical voice-over to it and put it on youtube.

I showed up at the earliest meetings for 16mm drama with a bunch of outlines, little paragraphs and titles.  Anyone could have pitched their own script ideas but one of mine seemed most promising so it was chosen.  I then wrote that into an eight page script and then edited that down to five pages.  It was agreed, so we went forward. Board Beyond Belief was about a customer returning a Ouija board to a service counter.  The shoot went well.  The cinematographer often asked to look at my storyboards to get it right. Then the editing process was like waiting for a baby to be born.  The editing partners included Vandal. When the actors arrived with their mates to see the screening with our class, what they saw had jump cuts because the most basic editing of a simple conversation could not be competently achieved.  Thankfully this time there had been a negative that I could take in and get transferred (albeit only to VHS at time). I took this to an off-line suite and did a complete video edit.  I took it to the screenings of another class and it played well so I felt vindicated.

In third year, I had planned to make a movie called Art Show if my script won people over.  It did not.  The script that had support was by Randy Chase, the writer in class more prolific than me.  He would also be producer and continuity.  That year I was living with my First A.D. Peter and his girlfriend.  I think Randy and Peter were popular enough that some of the crew rallied around them, and as I had asked them to be involved with Art Show I somehow retained the position of director on our 20 minute 16mm film drama project, Hearing Things.  Again I storyboarded the whole thing, let my cinematographer look through the thumb nail version with me and then I refined them after seeing the most likely location. What could go wrong?  The highly capable DP did the ordering of equipment and said he would hot access a video tap.  (In hindsight I think that may have been a fib so I wouldn’t be scrutinizing each shot in progress, which proved highly necessary.) He also showed me some excellent camera tests with various film stocks so I could choose the best look.  But then to save money and without asking he went for a cheap Agfa stock that proved to be kind of grainy and not what I would have asked for.

The opening shot was to zoom out from the darkness of the heroine’s profile to end below her shoulders so it is still a medium close-up profile.  Everybody had a thick booklet of all the storyboards.  I questioned why the camera was so far back and asked to move it closer. I wasn’t tough enough.  I’m sure when I checked the end position it was the shoulder shot.  The woman’s arm feeling at her ear had to read on screen, so I was furious to see that the zoom pulled all the way out and far away and her hand coming up was a detail that barely registered.  We also had an anticipatory pan.  She turns her head upon hearing her sister and looks down a wall to where she will emerge.  I had production stills and storyboards of this and was clear of the finishing position.  But what they showed our instructor was a meandering pan.  And in this case it was two smart guys, the DP and camera operator.  I heard them claim “That’s what Will wanted,” and was tempted to throw them under the bus but I didn’t.  There was also a planned jump cut from a wide view of the mailbox at the end of the driveway to a closer detailed shot of the mailbox; the cut was to occur while the camera was blocked by a passing car. This was before everyone had cell phones, so a miscommunication with the driver meant that he drove the car past once and then turned around and drove out of the driveway and onto the highway thinking he had passed twice. The producer was off that day and I think my roommate AD had a dentist appointment.  There was nothing in place to goose me or remind me.  I had been through the ringer for being a control freak and now I was too sedate and amenable on set.  There was one day when we had a huge dialogue scene and out DP had to go to work at a hotel. I told him we have to finish and maybe I could just shoot it myself.  The threat of me taking over anything caused him to call in and delay his shift, so that was one small victory.

Our sound recordist had his apartment robbed so out mic and the Nagra recorder went missing.  The school wanted him to pay for the replacement and instead he chose to drop out of the course.  So our post-production sound guy filled in on location as recordist.  After each take I’d ask “Good for Camera?”  “Good for sound?” and get a yes before saying it was a keeper.  There was one take where the framing was bad – a head in lower frame  – and the performance was not so good so that was not a keeper.  Camera, Performance and Sound had to be deemed acceptable.  There was an interior dialogue scene where I wanted to match the point of someone sitting into a chair as the conversation took another turn. Standard cut on the motion of sitting, from wide shot to close-up.  If helps engage the seriousness in the close-up.  Well, despite keenly watching to make sure the timing lined up with the takes I had chosen, the editor advised me that because different takes were used they didn’t allow for that editing choice.  The post-production sound guy had listened to the takes while transferring to mag and decided which ones he deemed to have the most clear sound.  Now direction, framing and performance were low priority and sound clarity decided which takes were kept.  The editor and post sound guy had spent Christmas holiday getting that editing done.  Despite the fact that I had marked up the script and given storyboards and they had my number for any questions they worked independently instead of interdependently.  Where I had no ideas for sound I would write “doesn’t matter” in the margin but I should have said “editor’s choice” because it gave the wrong message.  In most cases I was specific about sound.  In one case, a pan from the husband’s thoughtless purchase of a new car to the heroine in profile reacting was intended to be filled by a rise of score.  But the production management instructor saw the cut in progress without music and suggested cutting out most of the pan and starting the profile from her nose.  This ignored my note mentioning the composer.  One scare we had was that part way in, the lead actress resisted signing a talent release because she thought she would become quite famous.  (I have no recollection how that was resolved by the producer/writer.) I do know that when copies needed to be made on VHS for cast and crew it was done at a TV station where our editor had his co-op placement and he forgot to set the levels.  So the first run of copies for Hearing Things to play for agents and so on had muddy sound nobody could hear.

20 years later, the producer Randy presented me with a 3.4 inch tape which I had transferred to digital.  I was temped to change the end credits to put my name first as director but I kept it in the random way the editor did it, irritating as it is. There were only a couple of small edits I indulged in.

More examples in another blog. . . . .