Kubrick said that when he finished shooting and stepped in the editing room, from the moment he stepped in, he was no longer a director — he was an editor. Nothing was precious — it if didn’t work, he left it on the cutting room floor. I have always tried to apply the same philosophy, and if something doesn’t work, I have no problem losing it. Once you’re done shooting, you start going through all your footage. I like to go through every take of every scene. [My editor] George will build a version of the scene, and we’ll watch it, because it’s good to see someone you trust’s point of view of how the scene could work.
But editing a scene can make you insane — there are literally millions of ways you can go. And there’s only one that’s right, and that’s the one that feels right. And there are many times when you cut a scene so it works perfectly on its own, and when you put it between two other scenes, it feels wrong. Editing is like sculpting — you just keep working the footage over and over, tweaking, cutting, changing, trying things, until it feels right.
When I shoot a scene I have it cut in my head. I know exactly where I’m going to cut, shot for shot. For me, shooting the movie is execution for what I already have in my head, and when I’m in the editing room, I tend to work very fast because I filmed the scene to be cut in a very specific way. I always discuss everything with George before we cut a scene. I tell him what I was going for, why I shot it a certain way, what I was hoping to get out of the scene, and how I see it put together and why. Some scenes have very few cuts in them, other scenes have many edits. And there are, of course, times when you were going for something and forever reason, you just didn’t get it.
Some things can be fixed with what’s called A.D.R., which stands for ’Additional Dialogue Replacement.’ This is where you write new dialogue in the editing room, and you’ll get the actor to later add it in, when it’s a shot over the actor’s shoulder, or where their mouth is not on camera. Directors like Elaine May re-write entire scenes in the editing room — she just shoots over the shoulder shots so you see an actor reacting, and then the actor that’s off camera is the one that speaks. It’s a great trick. George and I start by doing what’s called a ’pull.’ This is where we go through every take and pull any line reading or moment I like. We put them in a rough order, and then if I pulled three different readings of the same line, I pick the one I want to use from those three. We’ll generally do a pull before lunch, break for an hour, and then get back into it and start cutting after lunch. You can make yourself crazy if you spend too much time in the editing room. You start re-cutting the same stuff over and over, and you get a headache from staring at the AVID (the computer we cut on) and you lose perspective on what works and what doesn’t. It’s very, very frustrating when you can’t get a scene to work right, and sometimes it just takes time. A lot of the time you have to totally re-conceive how the scene’s going to play.
When you’re shooting you can make a million excuses as to why you didn’t get the footage you need to make a scene work, but in the editing room, the only thing you’re left with is what you’ve shot, so you had better find a way to make it work. Before I shot “Cabin Fever” David Lynch gave me amazing advice about directing. He said “Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.” The donut is your footage. That’s the only thing that matters. The hole is all the other bull that you can get caught up in if you’re not careful. David told me that my job as director was to tune out all the behind the scenes drama and make sure that I’m getting the footage I need to make the scene work.
People ultimately forget that they were tired or didn’t feel like working an extra hour of overtime or were cold, and you can’t tell the audience “sorry, the scene would be a lot better but the crew really wanted to finish early so we didn’t get the shots we need.” You have to find a way to get it all done and keep everyone happy and motivated, and do it on time and on budget. So when you’re in the editing room, all those excuses dissolve, and you’re left with your film. Thankfully, we got everything we needed to make the movie work. I made sure of that. We shot tons of gore footage, so there was no problem there, and the actors got enough takes so they really could give brilliant performances.
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