A few months ago, I had a book recommended to me, In the Blink of an Eye by the noted film editor Walter Murch. Murch is no household name (the directors get all the glory), but the movies he's edited or re-edited are celebrated: Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley among them. Though more of a philosophical, even spiritual guidebook than a how-to manual, In the Blink of an Eye has become a standard text for students of film editing. Yet as I read and then re-read Murch's book-length essay, I was surprised how many lessons it was offering me as a fiction writer.
Oh, film editing, an acquaintance once said to Murch, that's where you cut out the bad bits. Murch fumes: "It's much more than that. Editing is structure, color, dynamics, manipulation of time
." But later he has to concede his friend's unwitting wisdom. The staggering complexity involved in editing, of course, is in deciding what separates a bad bit from a good bit. The editor decides not only which scenes make up the final film, but which specific shots, which specific takes, which performances by the actors. Then he puts those best, most essential bits into their most coherent, most satisfying order. It's only then that he performs his definitive task: the cut, the transition between one scene and the next. In other words, editing is no job for the impatient.
But neither is it drudgery. Making Apocalypse Now, Coppola famously shot over two hundred and thirty hours of film, unheard of at the time. A mammoth task to sift through all that footage, but think of all the great stuff Murch had spinning through his editing machine! Lessons for the fiction writer: Give yourself a good deal of raw material to work with before you begin to edit. Try multiple angles—change the point of view, change the perspective. Multiple takes—write the same scene two, three, ten different ways. Allow yourself multiple performances—let your characters deliver their lines with several different inflections and respond to each other in new, unexpected ways. Then, when you have your rough cut, mix up the chronology. Try intercutting one scene with another (watch The Conversation). And as you splice different passages together, remember always that you're working toward rhythm. As Murch says, "An interesting, coherent rhythm—on the tiniest and the largest scales—allows the audience to trust, to give themselves over."
Why does a movie need both a director and an editor? Simply put, the editor has detachment and the director does not. Murch counsels that the editor should visit the set as little as possible, preferably not at all, so that when he sits down to the material given him, he's blissfully ignorant of the toil, time, blood, and money that has gone into shooting any one scene. It often happens, Murch says, that there will be a scene—a beautiful, riveting, seemingly perfect scene—in a script that will make the director fall in love and want to make the movie. And it's that very scene the editor finds himself removing from the final film. It tells too much or tells it too directly or perhaps it has simply become a vestigial part of the original conception of the film, a conception that has changed over the long, murky process of production and post-production. The umbilical cord, Murch calls this sort of scene. That cord must, of course, be snipped.
"Kill your darlings," we'd say in the fiction writing world. But hold on. Murch, the seasoned editor, offers another perspective:
When you go to the doctor and tell him that you have a pain in your elbow, it is the quack who takes out his scalpel and starts to operate on the elbow.[
] [A]n experienced doctor studies you, takes an x-ray, and determines that the cause of the pain is probably a pinched nerve up in your shoulder—you just happen to feel it in your elbow.[
] Audiences are like that. When you ask the direct question, "What was your least favorite scene?" and eighty percent of the people are in agreement about one scene they do not like, the impulse is to "fix" the scene or cut it out. But the chances are that scene is fine. Instead, the problem may be that the audience simply didn't understand something that they needed to know for the scene to work.
As writers susceptible to the advice and approbation of readers, critics, teachers, and friends, we often find ourselves in just this situation: A roomful of people tell us something is broken, and we hasten to fix it. What's important is the unity of the whole. Before we reach for our scalpel or delete key, we must first search for the true source of the reader's "pain."