This Is the Secret of Editing
In 1990, when I was 26, I moved to the UK to work on the movie The Sheltering Sky—directed by the esteemed Bernardo Bertolucci, shot by Vittorio Storaro, and edited by Gabriella Cristiani. The creatives on this film had just won a shit-ton of Oscars (9) for The Last Emperor, the darling of the Academy Awards in 1988, and this was their follow-up feature — shot in North Africa and edited in London using the latest technology.
My job was to sit by Gabriella’s side, teaching her and eventually supporting her in using a newly-invented (and moody) computerized system to edit. So for months I sat in a room with Gabriella and Bernardo and watched them work.
One of the great things about computerized editing was something that we take for granted today, but it’s not only easy to make changes but it’s easy to have multiple versions. That was not possible when cutting celluloid film. Generally speaking, the traditional editor cut the movie and the traditional film assistants helped load up reels of film, find bits of scenes, and keep track of trims. It was rare for an assistant to cut something. But here on this computer, I pointed out to the team that we could have multiple versions, we could try things out, we could play. Still they were reluctant.
The opening scene of The Sheltering Sky involved a small flashback with our three main characters Kit, Port and Tunner (played by Debra Winger, John Malkovich and Campbell Scott, respectively) getting off a cruise ship and taking a row boat ashore. It didn’t have any dialog. It was intended to intercut with a pullback on Port’s face, as the camera rotated. The whole thing would probably run about 30 seconds in the final movie. Storaro shot it himself. Every shot was gorgeous: backlit, sparkling water, closeups of them on the boat, extreme wide shots of the little rowboat paddling in, singles on each actor. Storaro, even then, was already hailed as one of the great cinematographers, having shot a number of classic films and also picking up Oscars for Apocalypse Now (1979) and Reds (1981). You have to imagine how fantastic every frame looked in the 40 minutes of material delivered to us.
And because of the technology, I asked Gabriella and Bernardo if I could cut it. That never would have happened on film, but I was trying to make a point. They were bemused, but agreed.
This was a big deal for me. I had just met Bertolucci and was hoping to impress him. I spent the next 24 hours engrossed in the scene. I went through the footage carefully and took notes. I crafted the best bits into a little narrative that I intercut with the close on Malkovich. I was both cocky as an editor and a master of the technology, and I still found it challenging.
The next day I sat them both down and ran the cut. My elegant sequence of five shots told the story of them coming ashore, in all about 20 seconds long, a teeny bit longer than I was aiming for, but I felt good. When it finished running I turned to them for a response.
Bernardo spoke: “My god, this is horrible. And you’ve proven my point that technology doesn’t make someone an editor.”
Gabriella pushed me out of the way with a maternal smirk and sat down to edit the scene from the beginning. She sat and watched all the source material again. She selected one shot, trimmed it up, and cut it in.
Bernardo turned to me and said “I gave you 40 minutes of the most beautiful footage Storaro ever created. All you had to do is pick a shot, any shot, and move on. Like shooting fish in a barrel, there was almost no way to screw this up… and you did.”
The goal was to tell the story, not to show the beautiful shots. He wasn’t in love with the footage, just the narrative. And I didn’t need the continuity of each step of the journey to illustrate it. Some things can happen in the viewers’ mind.
When Bernardo went out to have a cigarette Gabriella turned to me. “Editing isn’t just about cutting out the bad parts. Editing is about cutting out good parts to make the remaining parts better.”