Where’s the Punch Line: scenes from the cutting room floor
Why a scissor happy film post-producer is more dangerous than a bad script
“It’s okay, ” I say to my friend, sitting cross legged on the floor as the credits send the room into darkness. “But for a kid’s film, there’s nothing to draw the parents.”
“Yeah,” he replies glumly. “They got rid of my comic relief.”
Post-pro in TV or film has always been a rough job. You need to kill people’s darlings, tread on a lot of toes and send a lot of critics into Medusaeque hissy fits. No one likes having their scene cut, their novel trimmed or their lines rewritten. It hurts, I get that, it’s your baby. Even if deep down it’s pretty obvious your film couldn’t be eight hours long.
But an overzealous post production editor can also spell the death of a film or a play. Too much reshot, too much rewritten and too much redrawn leaves a project unfunny, soulless, creativity free and often confused. What the director was aiming for and intimately understood is randomly tetrused into a blockish lump. Never hire an editor who isn’t also a writer, a good screenwriter friend of mine told me. You don’t want anyone who can cut but can’t create.
This is particularly true of films. Sorry, film editors. I do hope this doesn’t apply. You might be one of the good ones. Hear me out, anyway.
Pick a flop, any flop. Whether it’s legendary (Lone Ranger) or an unnoticed disaster (The Pirates of the Caribbean 9000) I will bet you that they did one of the following:
A) Cut the comic relief down, or out
B) Had an editor working separately to the film’s original director.
Sure, there are some hilariously bad director’s cuts from overly precious directors. Nymphomaniac was quite possibly the worst long form film I’ve ever seen. I’ll openly admit that Tim Burton has some ghastly solo material. But the reason for a flop is always down to the same thing, irrespective of genre, disagreements back set or release date: it was boring.
No one goes to the cinema or buys a film (or looks it up on Netflix, thanks Gen Z) if they haven’t heard something new, exciting or funny about it. Maybe it features your favourite comedian as a hilarious traffic warden or vicar. Maybe it has a plot twist everyone is talking about. Maybe it looks stunning. Film sells through word of mouth. You have to use footage of ‘that guy who is really funny in four weddings’ or use that hilarious riske joke to stand apart from every other generic Christmas Seuss movie or dull action Cruise vehicle.
What films do you like? What films endure? The Mummy was a fantasy horror with a stack of comedy. On paper, it’s weird as hell, but it works. Mumma Mia 2? Absurd. Surefire box office bomb… until the jokes were actually hilarious. Comedy is too often seen as dispensable to the plot and it just ain’t so. Jokes are the first thing your audience repeats. Stop cutting your flipping relief.
But, as my beloved screenwriter friend (who would kick me if I named her here) says, post editors don’t really come from creative backgrounds in film. They are sent in by nervy execs to hack the film into something recognisable. That often means generic. And they often strip the soul right out in the name of a run time and a safe product.
Bad, bad move. Creativity is what keeps you watching and not flicking over to yet another Attenborough whale documentary. Don’t ever stop risking that. It’s a bigger risk to let a knife heavy editor anywhere near your film than a silly joke in scene 31.
So put the scissors down, my lovelies. Reflect on those lovely small moments on the cutting room floor and mould them back into something the director wanted to see. Sure, you’ll have to convince the poor darling that he can’t have four minutes of paint drying (we’ve all had that conversation) but listen to them too. You are there to ensure their vision is realised, not to butcher it to death and stitch the corpse up as a Barbie.
Remember this, if nothing else:
What makes you want to read/listen/watch/fangirl about to your friend?