Archive for Grapes Of Wrath

The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego

Posted in Film, THE PLAGUE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2009 by halmasonberg

SPREADINGEDITBANNERThe below video comparisons and text contain massive spoilers. Do not read or watch if you have not seen either cut of “The Plague”.

As anyone who knows me or has read my blog knows, I wrote and directed a film called THE PLAGUE which was taken away from me in post-production and re-cut by the various producers involved into a film that barely resembled the film we had actually made. It was structurally, tonally, and artistically altered beyond recognition. And unlike most studio cuts of films which are merely shorter versions of the director’s vision, THE PLAGUE was re-cut from first frame to last. Not a single edit was used from my cut of the film. The producers decided they knew best and had the artistic sensibility to put the film together on their own without the participation of the writers, director or veteran cinematographer (Bill Butler of JAWS and THE CONVERSATION fame). “We own this now and see no reason for the writers and director to be involved.” That’s verbatim. The result was a characterless mess devoid of tone, style or meaning. It was not, in any way, shape or form, the film we had made. And yet, our names remain as the film’s creators and visionaries. For good or ill.

In discussing this with folks, I discovered that it was quite challenging for some to grasp just how different two cuts of the same film could be. As a filmmaker and editor, I was used to the inner workings of post-production and understood intimately just how powerful the art of editing was to a film’s success. And I’m not talking commercial success, but its success as a story, to dictate what type of an experience the filmmaker hopes to impart on his/her audience.

And in this age of fast moving films with high-tech budgets, audiences have grown accustomed to a certain pace. Gone are the slow-moving films of the past; particularly in the horror genre which has been relegated to gore effects targeted at teenagers and young adults. For example, it would be impossible for a studio to make a film like ALIEN today. They can make another sequel, sure, but it would have very little in common with the tone and pace of the original. Ridley Scott’s long tracking shots of the ship, the eerie, unsettling tone of the entire opening sequence, the static shots of people searching for the creature would be all but removed and Scott would be told with misguided certainty that “Nothing is happening in this shot. Get rid of it” If I had a nickel for every time producer Jorge Saralegui said that to me, I’d have enough money to buy the rights to my film back.

Because I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to give folks an example of some of the differences in tone and style between my cut of the film known as THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT (openly backed by the cast and crew) and the producers’ cut known as CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE, I’ve decided to offer side-by-side comparisons of a few choice scenes. Now, while this will show you how editing can make a huge difference in storytelling, pacing, tone, tension, etc., it will not show you how proper editing can suck you in and involve you in the characters’ stories and allow you to invest and care. For that, you would have to watch both films in their entireties. Something I hope to one day be able to offer you with an official release of my cut of the film.

As for the image quality of the two cuts you are about to see, the producers’ cut was taken directly from the 35mm negative and has gone through the full and expensive post-production process to make it look “professional.” My cut of the film is from my workprint. It was assembled from DVD dailies and not the original 35mm elements. It has not gone through ANY professional post-production processes and therefore looks like a work in progress. In other words, the image is not as sharp and clean. The music is a temporary score that mirrors my desires. The music in the producers’ cut is, like the editing itself, not at all what I would have gone for or intended.

So, while the producers’ cut is more “polished”, I ask that you take into consideration that THE WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT will, when officially released, be even sharper, cleaner and richer than CLIVE BARKER’S cut of the film as it will not only be from the original film elements, but it will adhere to the specifications laid out by Bill Butler and myself as to quality and color-timing, which was done incorrectly in the producers’ cut.

One of the main things consistently altered from the Writers & Director’s Cut was cross-cutting between story lines. It was my intention, both visually and thematically, that we would cut back and forth between events and characters to connect those events and to build tension. The producers chose to show each sequence in its entirety before moving on to the next. For me, that not only dramatically reduced tension, but it avoided making necessary connections between characters and themes. The style of editing therefore also changed as the producers put these sequences together in an order they were never intended to go in. The earlier scenes in the movie move back and forth between the world of our main characters, and the world of the kids. And both worlds were meant to have unique and different styles. Much like two cars heading on a collision course, one car moving quietly and straight forward, the other swerving and careening. The two different styles were intended to create an inevitable tension and dread of what would happen when these two elements collided.

The following examples are from an early scene when the catatonic kids are strapped into their hospital beds and go into a twice-daily seizure. This was meant to be intercut with David’s son, Eric, who was going through the same seizure back home. The scenes were designed to be visually and thematically intercut as you will see here in THE WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT:

Now take a look at the producers’ version of these scenes. You will notice that in removing the inter-cutting story lines and adding digital “zooms” that were not meant to be there, both the mood and tone of this sequence is very different:

Next we have a scene of the kids turning and looking toward an unsuspecting nurse. We’ll start this time with the producers cut. Notice the transitions at both the beginning and end of this sequence. They are different from what you will see later in the Writers & Director’s Cut. The intended connections between earlier and later scenes have been completely removed. You will also notice the placement of shots within the scene is completely different. For example, the long push-in shot on the nurse is placed in a completely different part of the scene, thus greatly reducing the tension and altering the pacing of the scene:

Now for the Writers & Director’s Cut. Notice the transition out of the previous scene between Tom and Sam. We pan away from Sam and the image seamlessly dissolves on the same movement into the nurse. It should also be stated here that the shot of Sam that starts this sequence was a pivotal one for me as it gave us a silent moment to see Sam’s inner workings and vulnerability. It is one of those great shots and performance moments that many producers never see or understand. How much is told through expression and body language. And since one of the reigning themes of this film is silent communication, it is more than a little appropriate. Unfortunately, producer Jorge Saralegui’s goal as he stated it to me was, “We’re going to cut out the characters and turn this into a killer-kid film.” And that is essentially what he and the other producers systematically did. Remember, the kids’ scenes were meant to move and feel differently from the character scenes. And this scene was intended to move directly into a scene revealing Kip and Claire and not a shot of Tom at home watching TV. While the TV news report does connect these two scenes in the producers’ cut, it does not connect the characters in any way. Nor does it work toward the eerie feeling or slow build inherent in the Writers & Director’s Cut. And while the producers chose to put a scene on the TV that tells you about how the world is reacting to the kids, my intention was to show a scene of familiar violence that I felt was current and an example of how we unintentionally show kids that violence is a means to an end. Even when we think they’re not paying attention!

The visual transition at the end of the scene with the kids turning was meant to tie Kip and Claire directly to the kids in the school, kids whom they feel emotionally connected to, and to allow us to –at first glance– believe Kip and Claire to be just two more catatonic kids. Until someone speaks. We disappear behind the head of one kid, and come out from behind Kip’s head. Here’s how the entire scene was intended to play and feel. You’ll notice the editing choices throughout are completely different:

Here is how the intro of Kip and Claire was presented in the producers’ cut. It not only makes no attempt to connect the characters to anything else in the film, but they also changed the Sheriff’s dialogue to something simpler and more “direct” for those audience members clearly incapable of thinking for themselves:

One of the most crucial moments in the film is when the kids awaken. It is the moment the entire first act has been building up to. As a result, it should work on many different levels. Here is the scene as the producers put it together. It is almost completely devoid of mood, tone or purpose:

In the Writers & Director’s Cut, this scene is introduced through a montage of all the main characters engaged in very ordinary human moments, but moments that tell us about each and every individual and relationship. These wordless snippets are the calm before the storm. This montage is accompanied by David reading a passage from the Grapes Of Wrath with Tom’s voice-over. What is said here is essential to not only what is happening in the film, but to Tom’s attachment to the book. Many answers to many of the film’s mysteries lie in this passage. It brings us closer to the characters, gives us crucial tools for the story, and builds the film to this very important moment.

The intention of the above montage was that the camera would dolly left to right across our main characters. That is a comforting direction for the camera to move. But, when we fade up on the kids in their beds, the camera is now moving right to left, a much less comforting direction and in opposition to what we’ve just seen. It is a contrast and it works to make us uncomfortable.

Next up is another prime example of building tension through cross-cutting. I structured the script and film to cut back and forth between Tom’s journey in the air ducts and Sam’s journey in the laundry chute. Unfortunately, the producers once again chose to re-edit these sequences into individual scenes that play out in their entirety before moving on to the next. For me, this greatly reduces tension and, as stated earlier, no longer makes connections between the characters and what they are experiencing. Here is how the producers chose to cut these scenes together, greatly reducing the intended visual style of the film:

And here’s how those scenes were intended to play out and still do in the Writers & Director’s Cut:

If you noticed in the above scene, when the nurse looks down the laundry chute into the darkness, we expect to see a kid. But it is Tom that emerges as we seamlessly inter-cut with the next scene. For a moment, we are afraid of Tom, until we realize it’s him. The line between the kids –the monsters– and Tom is blurred for a moment. They are us. We are them. This connection is absent both visually and thematically throughout the producers’ cut. This is unfortunate since this is what the film is about. Without these elements, it’s just a “killer-kid film”.

One of the “biggest” sequences in the movie was the escape from the school. My intention here was not only to create a rousing and scary action scene, but to connect our main characters to the kids. The idea of the story is that the kids are, essentially, us. They are doing what they are doing because of us. The violence they learned is directly linked to the violence we teach and set by example. Notice in this next scene how Jean’s violent action is visually linked to the kid banging on the doors. Jean’s hands are bloodied and so are the kids’. As Jean punches and loses control, so do the kids. This builds to the kids eventually breaking down the doors and attacking. Connecting these elements visually is critical to both the story itself and the ultimate impact of this scene. Here is the Writers & Director’s Cut version:

Notice here in the producers’ cut that, instead of cutting to the kids’ hands pounding on the door, the producers chose to insert out of focus shots of the bloody face of the girl Jean is punching. This was not a shot I was involved in shooting. It is a gratuitous moment and works only to make us perhaps sympathize more with the kids than with Jean, the antithesis of what I would want the audience to feel at this juncture in the story. I chose to give us a quick glimpse of that with Deputy Nathan shooting the boy in the shoulder and the boy’s reaction to it, but any more actively works against the story, as you will see here. You will also notice that the producers had actor Josh Close ADR a line of unscripted dialogue as he calls, “Claire…” while watching the kids behind the doors. Another example of the producers assuming the audience is stupid. Overstating the obvious. Also notice how different the rhythm and tone of the entire sequence is from what was initially envisioned. It is sloppily put together, awkward, and not nearly as tension-filled:

Notice how the producers felt the need to add in unscripted dialogue of the characters saying at the end of the scene, “Go, go, go! They’re coming!” when it is pretty obvious to anyone watching that the kids are coming! Once again, the producers don’t trust the basic intelligence of the audience.

Here’s another scene that was meant to be shown without a word of dialogue and was, again, an example of story and character cross-cutting. The moment between Jean and her brother Sam as she gives him the morphine was scripted and shot wordless. In the producers’ cut, it contains dialogue added in post. The producers’ mantra: “if they’re not saying anything out loud, then nothing’s being said”. The most basic understanding of character and theme are lost with such a notion. If you repeat it throughout a film, then the film itself is lost.

The kids in THE PLAGUE communicate silently. We, as a people, communicate with one another beyond the words we use. How do the kids learn to be violent? Through us. How is that done? Did we tell them directly to be violent? No. We showed them through examples we set: hate crimes, police brutality, domestic violence, capital punishment, war… Quite often we relay this message in silence; in actions without words. And therein lies the importance of Jean and Sam communicating silently. The following scenes were designed to cross-cut back and forth between Sam/Jean/the Sheriff, and Tom/Alexis. Once again, that was not the approach taken by the producers. Here is their version:

And here is the Writers & Director’s Cut version as it was written and shot:

Dee Wallace is an extraordinary actress who was all but completely removed from the producers’ cut. Here is a scene that adds tremendous character to both Dee’s Nora and the horror and anger she feels. This moment, however, not only serves her character, but Kip’s character as well as he is the focal point of her anger and hatred here. It is a sample of what Kip (and Claire, for that matter) have been living with all their lives. It draws us closer to those characters; makes them human. We then see the impact this has on Tom and Jean in what is also a crucial moment in the growth of their relationship AND more silent communication through looks and glances that tell us more than words ever could:

And here is the truncated, characterless interpretation by our beloved, clueless producers:

Sometimes even the smallest alteration in cutting can have a profound effect. In this scene when Jean finds her brother Sam dead, it was important that we, as the audience, lose Jean here. By that I mean she goes to a place we cannot follow. It is through Tom that we witness Jean’s actions. He must be our eyes here. So when Jean enters the room, notice that we don’t cut to what she sees (or know yet if Sam’s alive or dead), until Tom enters and we push in on him and THEN we see what’s happened. Through HIS eyes! It’s a crucial delineation and essential once again to the flow of the film and the perspective the filmmaker wants us to have. It is NOT something that can be changed effectively in post. The film would need to be designed and structured differently from that point on. We are also witnessing Jean’s emotions and reactions, not through her face or words, but through the sudden rigidity in her shoulders and all around body language. Here is that scene from the Writers & Director’s Cut:

Now the producers’ cut. Notice how the producers cut to Sam and Nathan on the floor off of Jean’s entrance and don’t wait for Tom. Also notice how anti-climactic that moment is without the restraint and patience that was meant to be on display here. You may also notice that the producers added Jean whispering “Sammy” as she kneels down beside him. Once again, as if the audience didn’t know who it was lying on the floor there!

And finally, the end of the film. An ending that clearly makes little sense in the producers’ cut. Here is the “let’s get this over with” version the producers threw together:

Now you will notice in the Writers & Director’s version of this scene how important the kids’ faces are. How important it is to connect the boy in the red sweater with Jean and THEN introduce the other kids and finally see them as KIDS and not monsters, which is the whole point of the film. In the producers’ cut, the connection between Jean and the boy seems directionless, empty. In the Writers & Director’s Cut, more time is given to connect these two in a profound and necessary way. And, once again, in utter silence. What they’re feeling, how they react, is there for all to see and interpret. Nature works its way into this closing scene, a peacefulness, an understanding, an open door to things to come. And our boy in the red sweater may very well be Tom or, we feel, some part of Tom. And we feel that Jean senses this as well:

Well, there are hundreds of other examples throughout both versions of these films that are as important as the ones I’ve shown here. Like I said earlier, they are truly two completely different films. It’s obvious which one I prefer and, hopefully, it’s obvious why.

Editing can make or break a film. And poor editing and a lack of creative insight destroyed the story of THE PLAGUE that we worked so hard to bring to an audience. What was delivered via DVD was intended for a lowest-common denominator audience. The notion that the audience is dumb seems to be rampant in Hollywood today. And usually from folks who are none-too-bright themselves and, sadly, have little understanding of the craft of filmmaking. Were it otherwise, examples like this would not need to be made. But as it stands, the story behind THE PLAGUE is one of many just like it. So next time you see a film that had potential it didn’t live up to, know that there may be a version out there that does. It’s just being kept from you.

To learn more about THE PLAGUE and to help get the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT released, visit our site spreadingtheplague.com, sign our petition, and join our Facebook group.

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