Archive for Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies

Unmastered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 2, 2018 by dcairns

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.

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Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

 

Cut the Cheese: or, Dino’s Mighty Wind

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by dcairns

A week of posts inspired by my recent reading. Here’s an excellent book by Sam & Bobbie O’Steen — Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies.

Sam O’Steen cut THE GRADUATE and ROSEMARY’S BABY and became Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski’s go-to editor. His book, “as told to” his wife and edit-room assistant, is full of good creative advice, often encapsulated in handy mottos — “Movie first, scene second, moment third,” — and also full of terrific gossip and anecdotes, as O’Steen was frequently on-set and witnessed the activities of a lot of very strange, talented, obnoxious people…

Some of the best stories arise from one of the worst films O’Steen was involved with, HURRICANE — Dino De Laurentiis’ epic turkey remake of John Ford’s group jeopardy potboiler, which was already not very good, despite sharing a lot of credits with Ford’s next film, STAGECOACH. The rehash was planned by Polanski but dropped due to his legal difficulties — it’s tempting to say that Polanski dodged a bullet, but you can’t really say such things, can you?

Jan Troell landed in the hot seat, with Lorenzo Semple on script, Sven Nykvist shooting, Danilo Donati designing, and stars Mia Farrow, Timothy Bottoms, James Keach, Jason Robards, Trevor Howard, Max Von Sydow and non-star Dayton Ka’Ne. And with all that talent, it’s deadly dull to watch. David Wingrove disagrees with me, and suggested that the film was a promising one that had been butchered in the edit, as evidenced by awkward jumps in the story and huge sets that are barely used. But O’Steen’s account makes it clear that many scenes were never actually filmed, and the imposing but underused sets are a regular result of Donati’s work — the crew on FLASH GORDON also complained that Donati never read the script, just a breakdown of scenes, so he would spend his budget freely on whatever interested him, building vast interiors for scenes that might only play for moments in the film, and skimping on others so you might find yourself shooting twenty minutes of action in a broom closet.

Many of the problems O’Steen was vexed by didn’t strike me as terribly serious — Mia’s hair and makeup may not be flattering, but I’ve seen worse. O’Steen had to create passion between the leads where none existed — Farrow eschewed any on-set romance with her unknown co-star, instead bedding Troell, then Nykvist, then (it’s heavily implied) Bottoms, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake. And they were all stuck in Bora Bora for six months while this was going on. There’s a big swimming scene which isn’t sexy or romantic (because it’s not there in the script or performances) but sure looks nice. It’s bloody looong, though. I guess O’Steen had to lay it on thick to compensate for the chemical inertia.

The crew arrived at a specially built hotel… that was still being built.

Franco Rossi was leading a second unit shooting waves, but they all got drunk and left their film cans to get flooded on the rocks.

Mia was seen at dinner with her beautiful son Fletcher on her lap… and all her adopted kids sitting on the floor, ignored.

Jan Troell’s love for Mia resulted in him ignoring the scenery and the story and shooting endless close-ups of his adored star. In the final film, O’Steen must have used every camera move he could find, because he complains Troell wasn’t shooting any.

Bottoms urinated on De Laurentiis’ shoes in a fit of pique, then hastily wrote an apology, in fear for his life.

Troell was promised final cut… then paid off with $25,000 to stay out of the edit room.

When Mia was feeding poor Dayton lines for his close-ups, she wouldn’t bother looking at him. She could read lines and do crosswords at the same time. Well, he’s no Jon Hall.

“Four down, nine letters, a mighty wind.”

She was also reportedly heard to refer to him as “the animal.”

Dino: “All directors are stupid. Anybody who gets up so early every day to say ‘Good morning’ to all those sons-of-bitches has to be stupid.”

Symbolism! God caber-tosses a crucifix at Trevor Howard!

With all this, and the drink and drug consumption, the VD outbreak (“You’d be surprised who has it,” said the unit nurse) and the malfunctioning toilets, plus all the grade-A talent, it’s amazing how dull the film is. The actual hurricane is good, especially as it wipes out a lot of the characters who have been boring us for two hours, but the natives are used as colourful cannon fodder, as usual, so it’s also kind of offensive. When our young lovers are left alone on a lifeless, flattened atoll at the end, it’s questionable whether we’re meant to expect them to survive or not, though we don’t actually care one way or the other.

Worse than KING KONG. But the behind-the-scenes action might make a good movie.