Careful cutting keeps audiences from getting lost

Storytelling in film may begin with the script but assumes its final form in the editing suite. In that quiet sanctum, where the director and the editor collaborate — and sometimes struggle — to shape the narrative, the creative process can work in unpredictable ways.

That was true for several films thought to be in the running for this year’s awards, especially those that revealed their story arcs in a nonlinear way.

In “Milk,” director Gus Van Sant’s biopic of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the decision to intercut more historical footage into the film came during editing. As they watched the story unfold, Van Sant and editor Elliot Graham saw a need to enhance its historical context.

“At one point we had a cut of the film, but it didn’t feel done yet,” Graham says. “So we played with the stock footage, seeing what pieces could augment (various) scenes, and the film started to come alive.”

Graham also added more scenes in which the film breaks away to show Milk, played by Sean Penn, dictating the events of his life into a recorder. “That was already in the script, but we used more than initially had been written,” Graham says. “The device allowed us to shunt from period to period so the film could be two hours long instead of three.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” also underwent structural reworking in the editing suite. “The first rough cut of the film was well over three hours,” editor Chris Dickens recalls. “We had to quickly make decisions about what the most valuable things were.”

“Slumdog” has a complex structure that interweaves three story strands into a single braid, yielding a rich, almost fugal narrative. In one of these strands, Dev Patel plays a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and plumbs his memory of childhood heartache, abuse and adventure to come up with answers.

Wanting to shorten the film to a reasonable length, “we took a lot of the gameshow out,” Dickens recalls, “but then the film didn’t have a backbone, so we put a lot of the show segments back in.”

Dickens and helmer Danny Boyle continued to “take things out, swap the order around,” until they had tightened up the film to their satisfaction. “At one point, I thought we would never really get to two hours,” Dickens says.

In editing, “there’s always agonizing over what you love that you might have to get rid of,” says Robert Frazen, who edited Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” one of the year’s most complex films, which jumps across time, space and states of mind.

Like Graham and Dickens, Frazen made decisions in the suite that were not in the script. “We did lots of restructuring,” he says, “but the intent always stayed the same.”

“The Wrestler,” by contrast, proceeds in linear fashion, but even in that film there occurs a loop in time where the action unexpectedly jumps back 14 minutes from a locker-room scene to reveal the earlier bloody wrestling match that led up to it.

“That sequence was originally scripted as linear,” editor Andrew Weisblum says. “As originally written, the wrestler (Mickey Rourke) would have a heart attack in the ring, but then it was written that he would have it backstage, and (director) Darren (Aronofsky) came up with the possibility of doing it nonlinearly as a way to streamline and simplify the sequence.

“When the time came to shoot it, the decision hadn’t been made one way or the other, so he shot it both ways, I put it together both ways, and it was clear that nonlinear had a stronger effect.”

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