Editing: The Final Re-Write by Stewart Schill

It’s a cliché, of course, but cliches are cliches because they are true (which ironically is also a cliché), that in film and television, editing is “the final re-write”. As a writer whose day job is editing television, I can attest that this cliché is in fact quite true.

A big part of my job is working with writers and producers as we find the final form of the story, which very often ends up being a version that is quite different from the original script. This can be a painful process of letting go of original intentions – and many dead babies litter the editing room floor – but also an inspiring creative process as well.

But my experience as an editor has been invaluable in my process as a writer and director. Having a sense of how things may ultimately cut together and play on screen, as well as the ruthless sense of story that the editing process engenders, can be very useful for writers to consider.

While writing and editing are very different disciplines, there is a lot of relationship between them, and good editing in the script stage is almost as important as good writing. Although to be honest, to me there is nothing as important, or difficult, than writing something good. The writer is the only truly creative artist in the process – making something from nothing. Everyone else, from the director on down, is really an interpretive artist.

Good screenwriting is, to me, essentially cinematic storytelling. Stories that are told visually are inherently cinematic. They could be told no other way. Movies that rely on dialogue might be just as well told as a play or a novel. But stories told in images are uniquely cinematic, and to me, always the goal. As an editor I like to joke that everything I know about editing can be summed up as:

  • Shot of Guy walking down street.
  • Close up of Banana peel on ground.
  • Cut to Wide Shot of Guy slipping on Banana peel.

 That really is, in essence, everything you need to know about editing. It’s a story told visually in cuts. It is, in essence, the equivalent of a cinematic sentence structure. Cinematic syntax. And good screenplays have a sense of good cinematic syntax.

When I read a script which just indicates a setting, and then goes on for pages of just dialogue, there really is no sense of cinematic syntax or structure, and you just know that on screen it will be a boring ping pong match as written. And just as a book that repeats the same paragraph over and over becomes boring, we are also as viewers constantly reading the visual information being conveyed to us as a type of visual literature. Being sensitive to that when constructing scenes is very important.

And just as literary styles change and evolve, the syntax in film is constantly changing and evolving. You can see this just by looking at older films, which by today’s standards seem so plodding and overt. Modern audiences are hip and easily bored. The story rhythm and tempo has to move swiftly, which is part of what editing definitely teaches you.

A major part of what I do as an editor, and which is invaluable to me as a writer, is essentially story editing. In television especially we are always trying to tell the leanest story possible. It’s remarkable how much I am usually able to remove from a show and have the story track, and usually play much better. It is a tendency on the written page to over explain, or to explain things in dialogue which on screen become unnecessary, or are played much better visually, or conveyed better by the actor’s expression.

Part of what good editing can do, both on script and screen, is to leave the gaps, which the audience will invariably fill in, and when they do it’s much more satisfying. Not necessarily the best example, but a classic example of this is what is affectionately known as the “I would never put on that dress” Cut. (See, you’re already way ahead of me!). A guy says “There is no way in hell that I am ever putting on that dress.” Cut to: the guy in the dress. It’s a cinematic device used in a million forms in every show and movie. I even trained my young son to recognize the IWNPOTD cut in movies. But what makes it good storytelling is the gap that the audience fills in.

But a bigger aspect of editing as it pertains to story, and what really makes a great editor, and probably one of the most important applications to writing, is a sense of narrative flow. The emotional arc. It’s a feel thing really.

As I’m assembling a show, the scenes are coming in the dailies, always shot out of sequence, and always with many challenges and problems to solve. By the time I’ve assembled the whole show it’s a collection of scenes strung together as scripted.

But then another process begins; stepping back and looking at the show as a whole. How does the story flow? It’s a sort of mystical thing really – the story may flow perfectly fine from a plot point of view. The scenes may all be brilliant individually. And yet the flow isn’t right. The emotional experience. This is difficult to quantify and articulate. But I always equate it with classic storytelling, like telling a story around a campfire, or a standup comedian. There’s an intangible sense of what the audience wants to think, feel, experience, at any given moment. And the best movies and shows take us on a journey that knows exactly when a laugh feels right, and when we’re in danger of getting bored.

Telling a story in the dark of a movie theatre is casting a spell. The audience surrenders to the storyteller, and wants to feel confident that they are in good hands. That the storyteller knows where they’re taking them, and any false move, moment of boredom or disbelief, or jarring feeling, ruins the spell.

These are the types of insights that often come in the process of “the final re-write”. Discovering that a sequence, while seemingly essential, isn’t essential, and actually kills the momentum, or loses the audience. A joke comes at the wrong place, and that’s why it’s falling flat, moving it here and that’s where the audience wants to laugh. The relationship doesn’t need to be explained, the audience fills in the blank here.

It’s a process, very much like re-writing on the page, only different – just as a movie is different than a script. But having had a lot of experience on both ends of the process, I see them working hand in hand, and I’m very grateful for my editing experience when I sit down to write.

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