Not a rough cut

From the book First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors

Tom Rolf, editor of French Connection II, Taxi Driver, War Games, 9 1/2 Weeks, Jacob’s Ladder and Heat:

If you play too much on one side of the screen and not come around and play on the other, it starts titling and it’s uneven storytelling. As a guiding force, I tend to cut on punctuation. Any kind of hesitation gives me the chance to get in and come around the other side. But to cut arbitrarily in the middle of a word drives me crazy. Some people do it, and I thing that’s just carelessness and/or they don’t have an ear for it, or they disagree with me! So be it. We’re in the same field as the storytellers but we’re providing the images. We’re not using your imagination like radio, but showing you what’s there. So you have to be careful of the rhythm. At the end of WarGames, when there were so many different elements coming together – there was a bomb, a nutty colonel, codes – they all had to mesh. I think I went back and reworked three and four times until the rhythm was right.

There are no absolutes in cutting films. I do have some self-imposed rules that are as close to absolutes as they can be. I hate to cut straight in. I try never to leave an empty frame of anything for any reason; there always has to be something, even if it’s a mood that you want to try with a sound effect like crickets and birds. I never put music in when I run a cut with a director because I think music gives a false sense of confidence that the scene is working. The one false element in any movie is the music. It’s totally emotional and out of left field, and I’ve always had a little problem with it because I think it tends to support the picture. To run a cut, put in a few sound effects, like gunshots or birds or wind, whatever the story is, just so it isn’t totally dry. I’d much rather hear if the story is working. They you know if you augment it with music, you can make it that much more compelling. Putting music in too early allows the fat to remain on the film because it becomes more acceptable.

I like to overlap a lot, a personal preference. Another of my minor laws, I never let an actor start his dialogue offstage. He should start onstage and then segue into whoever else is reacting to it…

…Since you’re dealing with diplomacy, it’s a difficult position to be in sometimes, and if you’ve got a very big ego yourself, then you’ve got a problem. If you’re bright enough to discuss a problem or to try and change someone’s mind because it makes sense, great. You could be strong in that way. When someone says “What do you think?” and you say, “I think that it’s shit and you ought to reshoot it,” that’s strong enough! But you can’t be a lackey, you have to be your own person…

…Editors have to be malleable, have a good sense of humour, and be patient. I’m basically a lazy editor, so that the first time I cut something, I try to make it as good as it can possibly be, knowing that in the back of my head that I’m going to go back anyway and change it anyway because although it might be good for that sequence it might not be good for the overall picture. But I don’t think concsciously that I have to go back and coompress the picture. So I make my overlaps, stretch my dialogue, fill my tracks. I do all the things that many editors in their first cuts don’t bother with. They call it an assembly. I make a first cut. I do not like what I am doing to be referred to as a rough cut.

…A lot of times you want to get lazy. ‘I’ll fix it later.” Once you do that, you’re sunk. You think, “When I go through it again, I’ll catch it.” You never do, or if you try it’s too late.

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