Today, we move to the EDITING ROOM.
The first day’s shooting is complete. A collection of takes and shots – wide shots, close-ups, two-shots, medium shots, tracks, dollies, pans. We hope the DP has provided artful images, and obeyed the rule of thirds.
Everything has gone to the lab, or if it was shot on video, is being backed up to yet another hard drive, and transcoded.
When it arrives in the cutting room, it’s called the “rushes” — and the 1st assignment is to join together picture and audio, so that the director, the producer, the DP and other interested parties can review their work. Do actors watch rushes? It depends on the actor. Some never do; some ask to. Maybe the director would prefer the actors don’t see their work, but if an actor asks to see their work it’s wise to be inviting and polite.
Watching rushes can seem – to an outsider – tedious since it involves watching multiple takes of the same scene. This is where decisions are made. The director turns to the editor and says, “that’s the take we’ll use”. The producer throws the film cans around and hires another writer.
After this, the editor sits down and extracts the best moments from the various SHOTS, and TAKES, and cuts them together to create a SCENE.
How many shots in a scene? How many does the scene need, to make its point?
How long is a scene? Almost any length, depended on what’s happening in it. In screenwriting classes I suggest scenes should be no longer than three pages – that’s three minutes. But that’s just a general rule. There are great 24-minute scenes, as we shall see.
Sometimes scenes follow each other in a disconnected, separate manner. More often, they follow a narrative logic, and combine to tell the story.
Let’s see an example, from the beginning of THE HARDER THEY COME (Jamaica, 1972). It comes right after the credits, in which we see a bus travel from the countryside into the big city.
Do you see the distinct scenes? The overall SEQUENCE? If we were doing a story breakdown we would call this sequence, “Ivan goes to his mothers house.” This is how it works:
Scene 1. Bus arrives, stops leaves. 7 documentary-style shots. No actors.
Scene 2. Ivan – the principal character – walks through the streets.
i. Medium-wide pan with Ivan
ii. CU of dropped box; zoom out, tilt up to MS porter
iii. CU Ivan
iv. CU porter; zoom out to 2-shot
Scene 3. Streets of Kingston.
Multiple long-lens shots as Ivan fails to stop at traffic light, is tricked
Scene 4. Shantytown Ext. Sunset
Zoom in on Ivan
Scene 5. Back Street Ext. Night
Wide master shot; Ivan asks directions of card players, including Jose (a character who will be important later in the story)
Scene 6. Mum’s House Int. Night
i. over the shoulder CU on Ivan
ii. medium 2-shot, Ivan and Mum
iii. CU Mum
iv. CU Ivan
…and so on. Forty or more shots; six scenes in just over three minutes; one sequence, taking Ivan from the bus to his destination.
All of the shots and scenes are linked by CUTS. The cut is the straightforward juxtaposition of one image followed by another one. Cuts are elegant. They don’t assert themselves or draw attention to the change of image. They’re part of editing language, part of film language. But they’re not the only form of transition. There are also dissolves, fades to black, fades from black, wipes, freeze frames and other ways of joining shots.
Straight cuts (also called, less elegantly, “butt cuts”) are the norm. In the old days this was partially because they were cheaper: dissolves, fades, and wipes weren’t done “in camera” and instead required an expensive trip to the lab for an optical special effect. Today, with video editing, transitions like this are free, but the straight cut between shots remains preferred.
Now we refer to Peter Watkins’ NOTES ON THE MEDIA CRISIS. What he has to say is especially relevant to editing, though it applies to all stages of media making. Watkins’ argument is that commercial and other pressures have come to enforce one type of storytelling on us, what he describes as “a repetitive … language-form of rapidly edited and fragmented images accompanied by a dense bombardment of sound, all held together by the classical narrative structure.”
In other words, fast cuts, lots of music, audio effects, and a one-two-three, boy-meets-girl, bibbedy-bim-bam-boom! storyline — whether the film is a narrative drama, a news broadcast, or a documentary.
Watkins calls this homogenous form of filmmaking the MONOFORM.
His criticism is entirely valid, and the editing room is especially responsible for this crisis because (let me share a secret with you here) it’s in the editing room that a film really gets made. And in the editing room there is a lot of pressure – from the financiers, from the director (who may have come from the speedy fast-cut world of commercials or videos) to speed it up, to make those shots shorter, to add some music here.
At the same time, there is also an aesthetic push-back by filmmakers who care about these things. One of the greatest American directors, Orson Welles, was hired to make a small gangster film called TOUCH OF EVIL (USA, 1958). Unable to resist creating something out of nothing, Welles took a completely ordinary series of shots and turned them into one single moving take. We watch the opening sequence of that film (there are two versions: Welles’ original, which features different music as the camera passes different bars, and Universal’s version, which imposes credits over the sequence, and one overriding score).
See how the DP’s use of the crane includes a closeup (the bomb), wide angles of the street, a six shot of the actors, and a two-shot of Mr & Mrs Vargas, all without a cut.
Arturo Ripstein (PRINCIPIO Y FIN, Mexico, 1973), Theodoros Angelopoulos (THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS, Greece, 1975), Bela Tarr (SATANTANGO, Hungary, 19794), and other directors have made features in which every scene was done like this. I’ve made some, too. When a scene is completed entirely in one shot, with no internal cutting, the Mexicans call it a plano secuencia. The Americans call such a shot a “moving master” but in a plano secuencia the camera doesn’t have to move. It just has to record the whole scene in a single take. I show an example from a film I directed in Mexico in 1992, entitled EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN). Plano secuencia was something Mexican cinema was particularly passionate about. Thanks to much special effects, BIRDMAN (USA, 2014) gives the impression of being one complete plano secuencia with no internal cuts at all. THE SILENT HOUSE (Uruguay, 2010), manages this for 78 minutes. RUSSIAN ARK (Russia, 2002) does the same thing without special effects. Hitchcock’s ROPE (USA, 1948) contains several intentional cuts, but plays scenes in moving master shots, in real time – sometimes disguising reel changes in order to do so.
Such scenes are sometimes used by directors wanting to “show their chops”. As an example we look at the dance scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (USA, 2015). It’s a pretty scene with beautiful costumes, but it doesn’t work as well as it might because two or three of the camera movements are unmotivated. A good plano secuencia follows a character (or more than one character) through a scene. Unmotivated camera moves just “happen” because the director or DP wanted them there.
If you’re shooting on film, you’re limited by the amount of film which will fit in a magazine: 1000 feet of 35mm film, 400 feet of 16mm, which translates at the very most into eleven minutes of running time. So it used to be the case that you “couldn’t have a plano secuencia longer than 11 minutes.”
Shooting on video, you can have a scene run pretty much as long as you like. In our next session we’ll see a seventeen minute shot, part of that 24 minute scene from Steve McQueen’s HUNGER (UK, 2008).
But before that, we’ll watch IL CASO MATTEI (THE MATTEI AFFAIR), directed by Francesco Rosi in Italy in 1972, both for its structure, and for its source material. Remember, films don’t come out of nowhere. There’s a reason for their existence. In this case it’s the career of the founder of the Italian petrochemical industry, Enrico Mattei.
What a subject! In screenwriting classes I show this as an example of taking what might seem like unpromising material – the methane business – and creating a GREAT FILM.
The film stars Gian Maria Volonte, who you saw in the extract from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, as the gunfighter El Indio.
THE MATTEI AFFAIR takes place in the aftermath of the Second World War. The fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany had been defeated. In Italy, after the war, there was a purge of fascists, who were no longer allowed to occupy government positions.
Enrico Mattei, the subject of our story, was a bureaucrat who was hired to shut down the Italian state oil company, AGIP. Instead, he realized the importance of Italy’s vast reserves of natural gas, built up the company, and turned Italy from a poor and relatively insignificant country into an industrial powerhouse. If you buy a fridge or a stove in Europe, it was probably made in Italy. Mattei’s methane money built hotels, bought newspapers, and uplifted the economy. It contributed to the post-war birth of Neorealist cinema.
Mattei was a consummate politician – he made deals with almost everyone, from the former fascists to the communists. There’s a scene in the film where you’ll see him standing in a long line of people in Red Square in Moscow. He’s visiting Lenin’s tomb, not because he’s a communist, but because he wants to do business with the Russians.
Now the story of the founder of the Italian methane industry doesn’t sound very promising. Bio-pics of successful businessmen – whether it’s JOBS, or THE SOCIAL NETWORK, or the story of Thomas Edison – are difficult subjects to make entertaining.
Mattei’s story is different, since it’s also a murder mystery, as you will see. And it’s a mystery in which the director of the film became implicated. When he started preparing this film, Francesco Rosi sent a researcher, the journalist Mauro de Mauro, to Sicily to investigate the last days of Mattei’s life. While there, investigating, Mauro de Mauro disappeared.
So it became a double mystery, and Rosi himself appears in the film, asking questions about de Mauro, who had presumably been kidnapped, and was never seen again.
Structurally, THE MATTEI AFFAIR is very different from the previous films we’ve seen. They had linear structures, whereas MATTEI starts at the end, and moves back and forward through time. THE MATTEI AFFAIR breaks with conventional story structure in other ways, too.
MATTEI begins at the end. It has a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth through time.
From the muddy crash site we flash back to air traffic controllers trying to contact Mattei’s aircraft in the air, forward to the burning plane, to a crowd of journalists surrounding Mattei’s wife, then back to Mattei, alive, with his wife (the only other time we see her!) who asks about the death threats he’s received, back to the crowd of reporters, to a car pulling up, to a static shot of the 17-storey AGIP building, lights coming on in the middle of the night, to a battery of television screens, showing Mattei’s face and name.
We hold on a TV screen for biographical details – but the screen is blue, square, a frame-within-the-frame, with roll-bars. The information is reduced, edited, uncertain.
From the TVs we move to American reporters who believe it’s sabotage. Then to a bearded bureaucrat in the AGIP building – then back in time to the bureaucrat with Mattei in his office, where Mattei is warned that there has been sabotage at the airport in Sicily. Mattei refuses to take extra precautions.
“If they want to kill me, let them.”
This is a dangerous man, then. And a fatalistic man. And, clearly, a risk taker.
We cut back from the ‘real’ Mattei to Mattei on the TV screen, telling his story about a kitten who was killed for trying to eat from the same bowl as big dogs.
He hires a former fascist. Promises work to the poor. Defies the US. Makes deals with the Arabs.
Later in the film he succumbs to grandiose notions – “I’m the most important Italian since Julius Caesar!”
In the film’s central section Mattei is often juxtaposed with flames – no longer the burning wreckage of his plane but blazing towers of methane, pouring from the earth.
And the film – moving back and forwards in time – paints a picture of an enigmatic character about whom we learn nothing, other than he has a tremendous head for business and making useful alliances, and that he is an Italian patriot.
He makes an enemy of the American oil companies, turns them down when they offer him jobs.
“I don’t need the money. My salary is sufficient.” A dangerous man indeed!
The film uses all manner of techniques – documentary realism; journalists who wrote about Mattei talk to the camera, playing themselves – at one point the frame freezes and Rosi gives us a series of title cards, listing Mattei’s triumphs – ITALY HAS WON THE OIL BATTLE – as if this were a film by Brecht. In the Brechtian manner, Rosi plays himself, a director trying to make a film about Mattei, and find out what happened to his missing researcher.
What do I mean by Brechtian? Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright and director. He created a form of “epic drama” which relies on the audience’s reflective detachment, rather than engaging and entertaining them through “naturalistic”, sentimental action. Brecht was a political artist, who like Fritz Lang fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. Like Lang he worked in Hollywood, where he wrote an anti-Nazi script for Lang, HANGMEN ALSO DIE (1942). Like CU’s own Dalton Trumbo fell foul of the anti-communist witch hunts of the post-war years, and was blacklisted in Hollywood. He returned to Europe, where he did his most productive work.
Rosi adopts several Brechtian techniques: the freeze-frame with written information about the subject is one; real people talking directly to the camera about Mattei – breaking the convention of naturalistic drama – is another; the film’s unsentimental attitude to Mattei, its distance from him, is very Brechtian. Rosi, like Brecht, doesn’t care if we like his central character. He just wants us to observe him, and understand his world.
Rosi shows us many things, yet tells us little about Mattei, the individual. Mattei is always shown in a crowd, or in a meeting with one or several people. There is only one scene between him and his wife. We don’t know if he has any children. He is almost never alone, yet he seems to have no friends.
Near the end, Mattei’s moment of glory is in Sicily – with adoring crowds, rice showers, and people urging him not to leave. Then he is alone, in his room, asleep in his suit and tie. He shouts at the waiters and the cleaners in the hotel. Because he is a perfectionist? Or because he is afraid?
No one wants to fly back to Rome with him, except for a foreign journalist. Everyone else knows how dangerous proximity to Mattei has become.
Who killed him? Rosi doesn’t tell us. Because he doesn’t know. Instead he lists the suspects; the Texas oil men, the CIA, the Mafia, a French terrorist organization called the OAS, the French secret service (SDECE), the Italian secret service (SISMI), Mattei’s own political rivals in Italy. He was a powerful man, and he had many enemies.
Rosi leaves it open. Maybe his plane really was struck by lightning. There’s a suggestion that Mattei is like Icarus, the character in the Greek myth, who flew too close to the sun. The sun melted Icarus’ wings, and he fell to his death. When the pilot points out the moon to Mattei, Mattei muses, “I wonder if there’s oil on the moon?” These are his last words in the picture. Then he is dead again – the last shot is Mattei, being carried in a body bag.
Later we’ll see another film about a journalist trying to piece together the meaning of a man’s life: Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE. It too has a flashback structure. But it reaches a conclusion, tells us something about its subject, at the end. Rosi uses his fragmented, flashback structure to enhance the mystery. We’ve seen a lot of Mattei, but we don’t know who killed him, or what happened to Mauro de Mauro.
Rosi appears in THE MATTEI AFFAIR not just to enjoy a cameo role, as Hitchcock was wont to do. He’s asking questions, still searching. His presence tells us that the film is, in a certain way, unfinished — that the full story of Enrico Mattei still has to be told.
THE MATTEI AFFAIR is a “bio-pic”: a narrative film about a real character. Mattei was killed only ten years before the film was made, so the source material was still fresh, and Mattei present in people’s minds. Just because a film is based on fact doesn’t make the film itself true: whether it’s THE MATTEI AFFAIR or AMERICAN SNIPER, the writer and the director and the actors intervene, manipulating the material, imposing their own point of view.
Rosi was very fortunate to have Gian Maria Volonte to play the role. A great Italian actor, one of the greatest actors of the cinema, he was a committed communist and often played psychotic villains. It feels like he and Rosi shared the same vision. Perhaps his experience of playing bad guys enabled Volonte not to sentimentalize his role.
Of course, there are many other sources of material for films. In addition to “factual” material, there are novels, and short stories, and plays, and original screenplays written exclusively for the screen. But all films have a context – an environment or set of circumstances which preceded them, and led to them being made. Often films serve as propaganda: promoting a certain world-view, or mind-set. It’s hard to make a film as clear and distant from its subject as THE MATTEI AFFAIR.
One film which attempts this is HUNGER, a film made by the British director Steve McQueen in 2008. Like MATTEI it’s a bio-pic, the story of the death of an Irish republican, Bobby Sands. In order to understand it, we must first contextualize.
My country, Britain, once had an Empire, controlling India, Pakistan, Burma, parts of Africa and the Middle East. After the Second World War the cost of maintaining the huge military necessary to sustain an empire proved too great, and Britain divested itself of its colonies. It retained only a few, including Gibraltar in Southern Spain, and the northern part of Ireland, which it refused to surrender. Britain had been forced out of most of Ireland, which became an independent country in 1921, but it retained the north, which remains part of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to this day.
Many Irish people opposed the British presence, which they viewed as a colonial occupation, and fought against it. The English considered the Irish rebels terrorists; the rebels viewed themselves as freedom fighters. HUNGER is the story of some of those rebels, who were imprisoned by the British, and one in particular – Bobby Sands. In an attempt to gain the status of political prisoners, rather than common criminals, some of the Irish republican prisoners went on hunger strike. This story takes place in the 1980s, when British government policy was not to “force feed” hunger strikers, but to allow them to die — unlike the current policy in Guantanamo Bay.
A very fine actor, Michael Fassbender, plays one of these rebel prisoners. Let’s look at a scene from HUNGER, for three reasons: two very strong performances, the chance to see another director’s take on factual source material, and McQueen’s decision to play most of the scene in one really long take. The scene is 24 minutes in length. The shot which begins it is 17 minutes long.
In the film, Sands, played by Fassbender, has announced his intention to go on hunger strike, even if it means his death. A priest has come to the prison, to attempt to dissuade him.
We watch the scene from HUNGER.
Why does McQueen let the opening shot run so long? Why does he not cut back and forth between closeups? Because by failing to cut he builds the tension of the scene. A Monoform approach would be to use the wide shot as an “establisher”, then intercut the closeups of Sands and the priest as they argue. Music would build throughout, especially when Sands tells the story of the foal. But McQueen and his editor, Joe Walker, use only two closeups of Sands, and hold them for a long while. And when they cut to the priest’s closeup, the character doesn’t speak at all. His closeup shows his powerlessness, in the face of Sands’ resolve.
(updated 3 November 2020 to reflect that MATTEI can now be streamed via the Criterion Channel.