Sunday, June 25, 2006

Film Authorship Musings

Over the past month or so, I've been working editing an indie movie, a film that is notable for the fact that it's not particularly good, and this experience showed me a lot about why so many movies can end up so utterly lackluster. It's not necessarily a lack of talent, it's more a lack of vision. In the case of this film, and the vast majority of Hollywood films, the project lacks a singular vision. Someone wrote the script, someone else directed the movie, but the guy who's supervising me is the film's producer.

I came into the project when there was a pretty developed rough cut already down, pretty much all the footage was in place and it was my job to trim it down, I ended up cutting fifteen minutes of fat from the film, hopefully making it a lot more watchable. There might be a good film in the footage, but I wasn't given the autonomy to remake the film, and that's pretty much what needs to be done. As I was going through, I discovered one scene that wasn't in the cut, a crazy sequence involving a smoke machine, masks and a mass resistance dance. It was easily the best looking footage in the movie, the only thing that felt unique and exciting. So, I cut it together and put it in the movie. It's a one minute sequence and it was fantastic, but I was told to cut it down by a third or half. This is after I synch it to music, meaning that a lot of the scene's impact is lost in the re-edit.

So, I plead with him saying that it's the most exciting scene in the film, it's thematically critical and that it's just one minute so give me this. But, he tells me, "that's your opinion and this is my film, so cut it." I did it and it turned out alright, but the point was clearly made, I was not an aristic collaborator on this film, I was there to push buttons. And, after that I stopped caring about making the film better, this guy would make decisions I didn't agree with, but I couldn't bother fighting them, especially because for every tough decision his plan is just to show it to an audience and see what they think.

So, I could easily see how the editor of a Hollywood movie could stop caring when he's continually getting hassled by an executive to make the movie easier to follow or more conventional. At a certain point, it stops being artistic and just becomes a job.

This is why I'm such a firm believer in auteur filmmaking. What a film needs to be great is a singular vision, someone who's making a film not for money, but because it needs to be made and he'll do anything to make that fiction into a reality.

If you want to fight out why Hollywood movies are so bad, it doesn't take much more than to just look at the reason they're made, to make money. Does anyone have a desperate need to make 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift'? No, it's more like someone's agent told them it'd be a good idea to make a big franchise movie, and the studio decided that 2 Fast 2 Furious had made some money, so why not do another one? This is where the test audience mentality comes from, if your sole goal in making a film is to sell it to audiences, it's very difficult to make a great film. The reason is great art can't be made by commitee, and for every good film that manages to slip through the system, there's countless bad ones.

When I'm doing my own work, I sometimes think about how something will play with an audience, but generally I'm more interested in how it plays for me. I'll think about the moments in films that I love, and try to replicate the feeling that they create. Maybe people will respond to it, maybe they won't, that's impossible to predict, and trying to create a film that will please the audience at the expense of your own tastes is a path to ruin.

Obviously some people go too far and create films that are unwatchable for anyone but them, but generally speaking, all great films can be traced to one persons' vision, at a moment where they got a brief moment of artistic freedom.

Earlier today, I watched the film Funky Forest at the Asian Film Festival. This is a movie that's totally unlike anything I've seen in America. The closest thing I can compare it to is 'Head,' the Monkees' film. Funky Forest is a stream of consciousness journey through a series of increasingly bizarre viginettes that blends elements of sci-fi, musical, romance and comedy to create a film that really defies description.

Watching the movie, it's clear that this is a director who knows what he wants. The film's 2.5 hours, and you could easily cut an hour, but the film's long running time immerses you in this guy's world. This is a film that doesn't care about focus groups or appealing the audience, it is what it is and you can take it or leave it on those terms. I don't think it's always successful, but taken cumulatively it's a wonderfully bizarre experience and something totally unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's one of the most exciting films I've seen all year because the film just plunges into bizarre ridiculousness and takes you along with it.

The film was actually made by a three director team, and I don't think that contradicts the auteur theory. What you need is not necessarily a single person, just a singular vision, and this film clearly has that. Once you have that singular vision, it's a lot easy to collaborate. If you know what you want, it's a lot easier to see if a collaborator's suggestions fit the vision, rather than trying to rely on a test audience to find out what works and what doesn't.

For me, narrative clarity is always less important than emotional clarity and visual impact. You can ask a test audience to describe what they were confused about, but you can't really figure out what had an emotional impact on them. That's the greatest enigma of filmmaking, and that's why I ultimately choose to make a film that I love, so that if nothing else, at least I know one person enjoyed it. But when you've got $150 million invested in a film, making a good film isn't good enough, and that's the major problem. I'd have no clue how to market Funky Forest, but I do know that if people got to see it, they'd probably enjoy it. And that's the big problem for Hollywood, it's more important to get people in the door than have them liking the film on the way out.

Related Posts
70s Cinema, Box Office Economics and Auteur Filmmaking (6/21/2005)
Filming Original Works (11/7/2005)
Great Films (12/19/2005)

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