The edit room is a place of laughter, tears, elation, frustration, tedium, thrills and more often than not a lot of rather vulgar language. You have nearly as much control over a story during the editing process as you do while writing or while on set; that can be really scary. It’s very easy to lose perspective and make huge last-minute decisions that change your story dramatically. After watching the same sequences over and over again, you lose sight of what’s good and what’s not.
The last film I made went through 27 title changes - this time I built it into the shot, which meant one less thing to dither over!
I’ve learned that I’m the kind of editor who needs to hear lots of opinions during the process. I don’t necessarily take all those opinions on board; just hearing them can be enough to restore my perspective and thus my confidence in decisions that I’ m making. During the editing of Apple Juice I had excruciating moments of not knowing what to do next, feeling totally overwhelmed - all I needed was someone to say “This bit’s great, this bit’s rubbish” and I had direction again.
I think that editing films you’ve written and directed yourself is a hugely different task to editing someone else’s story. When you know your own original vision, you can edit to match that as closely as possible. This can be a blessing or a curse. For me I think it’s kind of like blinkers on a horse; I’m so attached to my story that I don’t often see all the other possibilities available to me in the edit. I’m working on it!
An example of fantastic editing in film is this scene from Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, edited by Walter Murch:
The legendary Murch won two Academy Awards for the film, for best film editing and best sound engineering. The beginning of the scene is narrated by the future Almásy; the whole film is told this way, as we jump back and forward in time from 1939 to 1945, where Almásy lays dying.
In this scene the Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is very nearly hit by a plane flown by the cuckolded Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth), in a moment reminiscent of the famous crop duster scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. It is revealed that Geoffrey’s wife Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) was also in the plane - and she, unlike Geoffrey, is alive, though gravely wounded.
The sense of foreboding at the beginning of the scene is built using picture and sound - the nail biting sound of the approaching plane, Almásy’s ominous voiceover, the closeup of the unhinged Clifton cut with the wide of the unwitting Almásy.
Sound is so powerful here - we hear Katherine’s soft moans before we see her, and the painful realisation on Almásy’s face. Music creeps into the scene as the two come together, and in one long and heart-wrenching take we watch him pull her shattered body from the plane. The music sweeps as we watch him carry her up the cliff in a beautifully constructed shot that is like a classic painting; the scene then becomes intimate as the two talk - and we build to the climax: Katherine tells Almásy “I’ve always loved you” and the music swells to a crescendo as Almásy weeps. We cut to a dramatic wide that shows us just how far they have to go, and the hopelessness of their situation.
It is my dream to one day construct a scene as beautiful and emotionally affecting as this one. The whole film is this brilliant - if you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend doing so!