Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The cutting room floor…

It’s a title that dates me. But to explain, in the days when films and yes, even TV shows, were cut on film the moments that did not make it into the final cut were left  “on the cutting room floor”and most of the time for good reason.  I am a firm believer that less is more when it comes to filmmaking.  I have no use for those treasured “director's cuts" resurrected, repackaged and sold once a director's career has reached a status that supports his or her leftovers.  My exception is Ridely Scott’s director's cut of Blade Runner. In his version, there is no narrator and somehow for me, that makes the film much better.   

There is another over-used saying - documentaries are more fun to make than watch.   Which I hate to admit is probably true. Many times the moment the camera turns off are your most memorable.  Or perhaps, it is in that moment that you allow yourself the time to take it all it.  I remember sitting next to a volcano on the isle of Stromboli as it began to rumble and my interviewee grabbed my shoulders and told me not to run or as a young associate producer when I was setting up for a shot in the Queen's Robing Room in the House of Parliament when the guard turned his back, smiled and let me sit in Her chair, or sitting at Jane Austen's desk as the crew wraps the gear.  

But even more significant are the stories that are left on that floor.   I remember in one interview,  I was asking an expert questions about communication and its importance in sex education.  And after the interview she pulled me aside and said "I think its really important that you are doing this because I’m an expert in this field and I just discovered that my ex-husband was abusing my daughter while we were married and if I can be fooled, anyone can. "  In that moment, I truly felt as if a weight had landed on my shoulders. What should I do with this information?  The camera's weren’t rolling and I knew she consciously waited until we had stopped.  So, I kept our conversation private, but I have never forgotten it.  Once while filming in a school for learning disabled kids, I was profiling a wonderful and brilliant teacher and afterwards she told me the story of her brother and how she saw him struggle with learning disabilities his entire life.  As tears streamed down her face, she said "this is why I do what I do".   I can't help but feel that even though those stories didn't make it into my final cut, they influenced the choices I made in the edit room. 

Today in the world of reality television and scripted documentaries, the edit room has become a place where "story" is created.  What happened in real life has very little to do with what we see on screen.  Producers are often told to coach soundbites and create drama to fit a "script".   I think most viewers are savvy enough to know this and they watch because they are entertained.  But what happens when the drama is real, the pain is palpable or the beauty breathtaking?   Unless its in the script, those moments will land on the cutting room floor.  The only exception may be in nature films - wildebeest, whales and lions don't take direction and they never will.   Perhaps that's why I never tire of watching them.