When I sit in on the edit, Eki and I work at SpaceWhale. On his own he does a rough, rough-cut (for “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we had 51 hours of tape for a 51´doc). My two-cents comes in when it´s time to fine-tune the project. Over the years I´ve learned not to blab when Eki is concentrating. Or if I do, he might say,“Shut up Maggy”. If I ask the same thing five or six times, he´ll say, “Tell me once, tell me twice, but if you ask me again we won´t do it.” And since I once tripped on a cord and broke the hard-drive after all the footage had been taken in, I watch my step. But now at least, when I sigh because nothing seems to happen, he doesn´t have to say, “It´s rendering”.
To see what at first looks like a mish-mash, come alive, make sense and begin to tell a story is a real kick. No wonder Martin Scorcese said “The art of the documentary is in the edit.” But it can be boring too and there´s lots of repetition. For example: we look at the same scenes over and over, then after the umpteenth time see one that doesn´t look right, or fit in and has to be cut. When we disagree, Eki usually pulls rank and says he´s king of the edit room. But if I really, really, with a capital B, believe in something he listens.
Then there are those perfect moments when the cut is brilliant and I love to watch it over and over. In “marihuanaland” former district attorney from San Francisco, Terance Hallinan, tells us why he is in favor of decriminalizing pot. He gives several examples of the terrible things that happen to people when they get caught with even small amounts, and why he thinks it´s wrong. He ends by saying, “Most of all the broken hearts.” The cut is from him to a freight train at night slowly passing through Oakland, CA. The audio is a long and mournful toot. It´s only a few seconds but those few seconds tell a lot.
Sometimes there is something Eki and I would kill to keep in but our commissioning editor (rarely) asks us to take it out. When we interviewed Esa-Pekka Salonen for “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we knew we had a problem: he had already been the subject of several documentaries, and had been interviewed a lot. People get lazy, take the easy way out and tend to tell the same stories. So we tried to come up with some off-beat questions. One was: You seem to have lived a charmed life (he got famous overnight when he was 25), have you ever had any bad times? His answer made us want to jump out of our boots. He said, “Well, (after that night), I was in all the magazines, there were lots of girls and I was eating, drinking and f****** around.” We thought it brought this famous composer/conductor down to earth. Eki and I were almost 100% sure Esa-Pekka would not have minded if we had left that line in. But his “people” – there to protect him from people like us – went ballistic. So for the TV program we deleted the F-word and the scene lost its punch.
Now I’m heading to Helsinki for the home-stretch on “marihuanaland”. Soon it will be locked in, nothing more to change, cut or add. That´s a weird moment: happy/sad. It´s why you want to have a wrap party so that you can get a bit snockered and forget that you won´t be coming back to that particular project anymore, except to promote it. But that´s another story.
Lesson 15: Kill your little darlings.
Next week: 10 Back In the Belly of the Beast