Editors Cut Up Over Film Length Debate

Opinion is divided on James Bond’s latest action-stuffed outing, “Spectre” — yet there’s one point on which most viewers seem to agree. At 148 minutes — the longest running time in the series’ history — it could probably stand a bit of cutting.

“Spectre” is not alone. Two-hour-plus running times were once the general preserve of epic event spectacles, hard art cinema and prestige dramas, not multiplex entertainment and series entries. Yet the average running time of 2015’s top 10 U.S. grossers is 122 minutes.

That crop includes “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” the latest product of the recently popular trend of splitting final series chapters across two films — half a movie, in effect, yet still 137 minutes long.

While certain films’ narratives need such space to unfurl, it’s hard to argue that in other cases: several pictures deep into their franchises, why do the “Fast & Furious” and “Mission: Impossible” films require over 130 minutes to cover minimal new ground?

Viewers can answer these questions all too easily from the comfort of their seats. For editors, however, arriving at the optimum running time involves trickily juggling directors’ visions, producers’ demands, audience preferences and instinctive sensitivity to the script.

“A movie is a shared dream between an audience, where you live a character’s life,” says “Room” editor and Independent Spirit Award nominee Nathan Nugent. “That’s not always best-served in 90 minutes. In ‘Room,’ we took our time in the first act exploring the characters’ space. But in the last act of a film, you need to be more to the point, to make more satisfying leaps in time, more elegant story weaves. It should never have the same shape as the first.”

For “Steve Jobs” editor Elliot Graham, the challenge was balancing the three equally weighted acts of Aaron Sorkin’s exactingly structured script. “Usually a film starts, builds and ends,” says Graham. “It’s hard to ask an audience to complete a story, wait, invest in beginning another one, and do so three times — it was a unique challenge. But that drive to lean into the pacing, in addition to addressing pitfalls, helped to bring down the running time while also creating a unique momentum that became a part of the language of the film.”

Working from a 180-page script, Graham defied the “page a minute” metric that is often cited as an industry rule of thumb, but doesn’t necessarily apply to heavily dialogue-driven movies or to sparser, more ambient ones. Working with an example of the latter in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione found the greatest challenge was in maintaining the film’s unrelenting atmosphere — as opposed to multi-stranded films like“Traffic” and “Babel,” which afford more storytelling variations — without it seeming monotonous.

“All the scenes took on the same rhythm — one the camera was creating out of technical necessity, but it was starting to pervade the whole movie. And when everything’s the same rhythm, you don’t feel like you’re moving,” Mirrione explains. A longtime Inarritu collaborator, Mirrione brought the film’s running time down by degrees, in dialogue with the director as he shifted out of a shooting “headspace” — a gradual process given the film’s labored shoot.

For Mick Audsley, editor of Baltasar Kormakur’s true-life mountaineering thriller “Everest,” there was less negotiation involved: he and the helmer made an early pact that the film couldn’t run more than two hours: “Because the subject matter was so emotionally intense, it couldn’t sustain beyond that,” he says. “It wouldn’t be right to put the audience through an emotional ordeal and an endurance test of length.”

Joe Walker, editor of Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” brings up a different commercial concern — one that bumps up running times, rather than the reverse.

Adds Walker, “100 to 120 minutes just feels right for the scope of the stories we are telling. Stray under 90 or 100 minutes and you risk entering the not-giving-value-for-money zone.”

Nugent agrees, citing small-screen competition as a factor: “The quality of TV drama has risen so much that people feel movies should give you more bang for your buck.” Certainly giving the audience a lot in that respect is Fred Raskin, editor of Quentin Tarantino’s 178-minute “roadshow,” “The Hateful Eight.” “I’m certainly setting myself up for potshots by saying this,” he says, “but a moody three-hour-long picture with well-developed characters and a storyline that engages from beginning to end is often more right than a 105-minute picture with cardboard-cutout characters and an overly truncated narrative.”

Shot on Ultra Panavision 70, Tarantino’s film is a famously old-school contraption. But has the digitization of filmmaking also encouraged longer running times? Audsley believes so, not least because technology has given editors more material to work with than ever before: “Rushes are now in excess of five to six hours a day; when we were working with film, you’d get 30-40 minutes since it was so expensive to process,” he says. “In many ways that’s good: It makes people looser, more open to experimentation. But maybe we’re not as disciplined as we used to be.”

Digital editing, meanwhile, means editors can retrieve previously excised material far more easily than before. Do running times swell with too much second-guessing? Perhaps, says Nugent. “Technology allows you to go back on those first-cut decisions. Back when it was harder to undo things, editors made braver storytelling decisions.”

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