28 October 2012
Posted in Film
Darren Jones on how his experience as a film editor has informed his scriptwriting
I grew up with TV rather than books. Books became important eventually, but the moving images and the stories that spilled out from that small screen were the ones that first captivated my imagination. I always wondered how it was done and if, maybe, I could do it too. That never left me, but later, as a young teenager on the Isle of Wight, I feared it was only a dream, and probably an impossible one. All that exciting media stuff seemed to happen in Hollywood, or at a pinch, in that semi-mythical place, ‘London W12 8QT’. Even that felt a million miles away at the time. True dreams have a habit of inspiring perseverance however, and eventually I did scrape myself into film school.
I was always wrote (mostly bad) short stories, short scripts, kids’ plays. I was interested in making up and telling stories, but telling them with visual media – after all, I wasn’t taking an English degree. Film school exposed me to other areas: photography, sound, working with actors – and, of course, film/video editing.
Editing appealed immediately. Editing is about constructing and forming the story. It complements writing. It’s almost a mirror image of writing. The writer starts with that terrifying blank sheet of paper and has to tease a coherent story out of nothing, whereas the editor starts with a terrifying amount of shot material (good or bad) and has to mould a coherent story from it. Screenwriting and film editing are the two film-making roles that share the most similarities. Both aim to construct and make understandable a story in a surprising, informative and entertaining way. It is the gap between them – ‘The Production’ – that changes things.
It’s often in the edit suite where you realise bits of script are redundant. For example: Labouring a point. You might be trying to tell the audience a vital piece of information, but repeating it too often, because ‘It’s really important they get this!’ Usually the audience get it first time, and sometimes guess long before you’ve told them. In the action, you might be taking too long getting somewhere. In early film-making it was quite common to see, for instance: man leaves office, gets in car, drives home, gets out of car, goes indoors. This would leave the modern audience drumming its collective fingers in boredom, if not hurling abuse and objects at the screen. These sequences can still appear in unworked scripts, but thankfully don’t often make it to the final cut. A reaction, or a look between characters, makes a line or whole passage of dialogue unnecessary. It’s visual storytelling after all.
I edited several animation series in my previous career and quite often scripts would be over length. Interestingly, the given rule that one page of script equals one minute of screen time turns out not to be much of a guideline. On one series of 11-minute episodes, I worked with a 14-page script that produced an episode about a third too long, and a 20-page script that produced an episode bang on time. Although, more often than not, they would be too long.
In that situation editing becomes a juggling act. The film must be cut to the right length and the primary concern is to make and keep the story coherent. Almost as important, however, is the secondary concern: not to let that coherence decimate every single character nuance or funny moment just because they don’t serve the main plot. This stuff is always the first to go, but lose it all and you end up with a dry, by-the-numbers end result. It’s tough to do (and helps if it is not your script!), but over time you instinctively get a feel for what can be lost, or compressed. Maybe action can be cut quicker or dialogue laid over action. ‘Show, not tell’ is the screenwriter’s maxim, but you can show and tell two different things at the same time. The audience get it.
Some scripts spend too much time on small detail, when they perhaps should feel like the episode or film is playing out as you read it. Now when I write scripts, I view it like an editor, imagining the cuts, writing action almost like bullet points. Short sharp sentences. To-the-point description. Entering a scene late and exiting early. The latter is good film editing – when a subject enters or exits a scene, the cut will never be on a completely empty frame. The entrance may be on the toe of a shoe and the exit as soon as the eyes have left shot. It’s not always the case, but as with watching the office guy driving home across town in older movies, the process of what an audience need to see has evolved.
As reagards dialogue, we all know that in real life people don’t usually talk in formal sentences unless the occasion calls for it. Often I find myself cutting late into a line as much as cutting late into a scene. A line such as ‘I’ll go pick up the car’ could be more dynamic as ‘Picking up the car’, or even ‘The car’, as your character rushes out the door. It’s all about not hanging on empty or redundant material, and making sure everything that remains is justified.
Ultimately, editing is about knowing and judging what is important to show on screen, because an editor only has a set amount of time to fill – especially with TV. Likewise, a writer has a page count to aim for, and although the writer has a bit more leeway, it’s a similar principle. Editing gives an understanding of how a story flows across the screen – that is a vital tool for any film-maker and especially so for writers who are right at the start of the process.
More than once at screenwriting festivals I’ve heard producers and script consultants tell writers that if you want good notes, give your script to a film editor. Knowledge or experience of editing helps enormously with structure, logic and instinctively knowing when you are over-egging something. At those festivals I’ve also heard people say that it is more important for writers to read scripts than watch movies; I would say watch the very best movies, the ones with superior craft, then read the shooting script. You will see how different they can be, and sometimes (controversy alert!) how much better the movie turns out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film which has been 100% improved by having lots of deleted scenes reinstated in a director’s cut. (I’m looking at you, Alexander, and even you, Apocalypse Now). Interesting, but not always better.
I write better by having all that post-production experience behind me; having seen how a final film or TV episode is put together and understood why changes and choices were made in the edit suite. Sometimes those choices might have to be ruthless, but if film editing can change the feel of a scene, or a whole film, for the better, then a bit of ruthless script editing can do the same for a screenplay.
My favourite part of writing is not the generating of new ideas, although I love that. Nor is it the relief at finishing the first draft, although that can feel euphoric. It’s the next bit, the really fun bit – the script editing – when I can take out my red pen and begin cutting and crafting the story. Just like a film editor.
Darren Jones blogs at darrenscribbled.blogspot.co.uk