The Pre-Edit

…the Avid timeline stretches out much longer than my 30-inch Dell monitor. It’s the center of my triad of monitors – a pair of Dells and then my Panasonic 17” program monitor. I have the program monitor on my right, and around thirty Avid bins open on my left. I’m editing a film. Working on everything an editor works on – timing, music, narrative pacing, interesting scene development – but for one caveat. We haven’t shot even a single frame of the film yet.

I look forward to the work ahead of me on this day because to me this is real moviemaking. So much of the art is in the pre-pro. It’s tedious, no doubt. I’ll sit in this chair all day long. I installed a small glass-faced refrigerator right next to my feet, so I don’t even have to walk to the kitchen to grab an iced tea. I almost literally have the world at my fingertips.

I also have a microphone. My trusty old Shure KSM32 large diaphragm mic is right here, hooked into my Avid, in case I want to change the script – which is the whole point of this exercise. As I play the sequence, I listen to my own voice and all my bad accents as I “perform” the entire script. Everything. All the characters, and even all the narrative descriptions. I’ve read it all trying to establish the timing. It’s fun to do a one-man play. I once saw Kevin Bacon on Broadway doing a one-man play called An Almost Holy Picture. In that play, he represented a lapsed Episcopal priest who was questioning the existence of God in light of the suffering condition of his daughter. He was good in that play. I’m working on a film called Richard & Sabina about a couple in the 1940’s who suffer as well. Through their suffering, they find God.

"I’m reminded again of the power of what we are doing. The power of what lays literally at my fingertips. The power of cinema. And it pushes me forward to make the best film I can possibly make."

The music in my pre-edit is really good. Currently I’m working with composer Alexandre Desplat, who composed The King’s Speech, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Shape of Water, as well as a film called Operation Finale, which is set in a similar era as my film. I like his style. Of course, I’ve never met Desplat, and we have no license or permission of any kind to use his music – much less music composed for another film – but that’s what is fun about this phase of pre-production. I don’t need licenses for anything. I’m never going to show this version of the film to the public in any way. This whole edit is for practice. This is where I bring the screenplay to life and give it a test run. So, I throw in Moonlight Seranade by Glenn Miller behind one of my 1940’s party scenes; I download scenes from a 1939 Greta Garbo movie and cut them right in. There will be time for our permissions and licenses team to chase down the copyright holders and see if we can afford to use any of this stuff – but for now, like I said, I have the world at my fingertips.

These are tools Orson Welles never had, nor John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock – all the master directors from previous eras. They couldn’t sit down at a non-linear editor connected to Google and pre-assemble their entire film on a “practice-run.” Obviously, that didn’t stop them from creating masterful stories on the screen. But I don’t have their talent – or their budgets. So, this is how I do it.

I sit at my Avid. I scour the internet for an image of a 1940’s German Bible, for newsreel Holocaust footage that sears into my brain, for images of 1938 convertibles that were popular in Eastern Europe in the late 1930’s, for images of Iron Guard leader Corneliu Codreanu as he led the anti-Semitic charge that was a precursor to Romania’s allegiances with the Nazis. I search these images, I grab them, and I cut them in. I’m making a mood board. I’m making a rough-cut. I’m crafting a real time vision of a film.

And I grab sound effects. We have a massive library of sound effects, so I assess the options, import them into a bin, and cut them in. Now I’ve got music, I’ve got sound effects, I’ve got dialogue, I’ve got scene descriptions, and I even have footage from my first scout trip. It’s starting to kind of feel like a real film.

I build a scene around one of the locations I filmed on the recent location scout. My footage isn’t very good – and it isn’t comprehensive. There is some imagination involved. Does this location work? Could it work? Is it practical? Is it artistic? And then, I try a different option. It’s like the old Yellow Pages ad: I let my fingers do the walking.

Alan Arroyo is my assistant editor. Sometimes I call him and ask him to go on a wild goose chase. He’s great at finding wild gooses. He does a lot of heavy lifting, importing all our footage, helping me chase down obscure images, sounds, or films. I had him search out old Nazi propaganda films for me. He downloaded several into a bin called “SELECTS NAZI FOOTAGE.” I watch through these films. They are unbelievable. Lies told with a straight face. Lies told with a confident swagger. Lies that persuaded a generation that Jewish people were inferior, were vermin. I am disgusted with what I see, and also reminded again of the power of what we are doing. The power of what lays literally at my fingertips. The power of cinema. And it pushes me forward to make the best film I can possibly make. Is it propaganda? No. It is truth. We are telling a true story, and we want to make it great.

So, back to the timeline. Are the transitions seamless? Does each scene have conflict? Is it visually interesting? What can practical music add to a scene? Scored music? Is the film too long? These are the questions being answered in my pre-edit. When I show this cut to my producers and department heads, I hope to hear them say, as Andrei Marinescu said last time I showed him one of these, “I think the film is already done.”  

And then, we start shooting.