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Editors explain the irrelevance of script

Director Leanne Pooley gave David Coulson (Whale Rider, North Country) and Cushla Dillon (Beautiful Machine, This Way of Life) the chance to be nice to writers in front of a strong turnout at Script to Screen’s Writers Room in Auckland. With honesty and good humour, they instead stuck the knife in – and wiggled it a bit for good measure.

Pooley opened by praising editors in general and informing everyone that in her own contracts the only person other than herself who’s guaranteed work is her editor, saying, “Basically, you get me, you get Tim (Woodhouse).”

Woodhouse and Pooley have worked on half a dozen documentaries dating back to 2003’s Haunting Douglas and the recently completed Shackleton’s Captain, the stand-out performer being The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, NZ’s highest-grossing and multi-award winning theatrical documentary.

Pooley wondered what the most important thing was that an editor brought to the process. Coulson wasn’t sure because, having been an editor for 30 years, “it’s somewhere between reflex and intuition.

“It’s strange to talk about it, really, it’s like dancing about photography.”

Both editors agreed that not being the director or the writer was important. Dillon explained she had to listen to the director and the material shot, and then negotiate for the audience to ensure she delivered a product with which an audience would remain emotionally connected throughout. “You don’t want an audience to think about it, just feel.”

“Sometimes a director is focused and sometimes they’re delusional,” offered Coulson. “They might think they’ve shot a dog, but they’ve actually shot a cat.”

If a director thought they’d shot a story about, say, guilt and the editor thought – from the footage – that the story was about something else, a choice needed to be made: are we making an OK film about guilt, or should we make a really good film about something else.

Dillon reckoned an editor should always, as a courtesy, first show the director what was written and shot without making decisions.

If you were seeing rushes and editing while the shoot was going on, and could see that something was going pear-shaped, should you tell the director? Yes, both agreed.

What of the writer’s contribution? “We’re all trying to make the best film,” said Dillon, fudging gently into the territory. “[A script] is only a plan. Once the rushes are in, the script is gone.”

Coulson agreed, and drove the stake home. “The script has got us to the point of it being shot … the only time I refer to the script is when I can’t work out what the hell is going on. It’s not normally a good sign.”

Dillon showed the opening of the Burstyn’s This Way of Life, which she explained was not scripted, but had been edited to introduce the characters and themes of the documentary.

She explained what it was trying to convey and the aim of engaging and surprising the audience by showing Peter Karena as a non-stereotypical hunter, an articulate man, a good cook, someone who killed deer to eat but wasn’t a hillbilly, who had a strong, loving relationship with his son – important to set up the film’s major conflict between Peter and his step-father.

Coulson showed a clip from Niki Caro’s North Country, coincidentally also the film’s opening, and featuring deer.

How close was it to the script? A lot of the dialogue from earlier drafts had gone by the time it was shot but “It pretty much captures the shooting script,” he reckoned. “Not in the intercutting detail of the scenes, but the intent is preserved. Some of the key visual ideas and subtext are there.”

Much of the job of cutting both openings (and of entire projects) was finding their rhythm and allowing that to come out, both agreed.

“Do you find that rhythm in a script?” asked Pooley.

“No,” said Dillon. “Good scripts are great but you work with what’s shot.”

Does a writer (other than a writer-director) get invited into the room when something’s being edited?

“I don’t believe that would have have happened as part of a process I’m working on,” Coulson said. “They cease to exist. It would be like inviting a thoroughbred into a slaughterhouse.”

“I’ve been in the room when a writer has been brought in and it hasn’t been pretty,” Dillon said.

“It can appear very destructive,” Coulson said. “But it’s the last chance before it goes out.”

So, the writer is redundant by that point. “Yes. Unless you need them to come back and script voice over.”

On the use of music, Dillon said that until recently she’d not allowed music in the room until she’d found the story’s own rhythm because she didn’t want to impose anything on the material. Coulson agreed. “Music can wallpaper over serious architectural deficiencies.” It wasn’t quite clear whether he meant it was therefore a bad thing or a useful tool.

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