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Shoot to Edit, Live to Tell Your Story

In the early fifties, Paramount hired Alfred Hitchcock to come to Hollywood. The British director had a rude awakening. He was used to having free reign over his movies, but Producer David O’Selznick was known for micro-managing every aspect of his productions. Rebecca (1940) would not be the exception. For the American mogul, it was his movie. Angling to retain his creative control, Hitch came up with the idea of just shooting the takes necessary to edit the scene the way he had planned, effectively taking away the power to recut the film in the editing room.  He knew what it would look like. This way, he stymied O’Selznick at his own game.

As an independent filmmaker, it may be unlikely that you will have a taste-making gatekeeper looming over your shoulder, but Hitchcok’s experience can provide you with a useful guideline regarding production: limit your raw footage, and just shoot what you need. With film going the way of the dodo, and the seemingly limitless capacity of digital recording and storage of images, it is very tempting to shoot in abundance, just to keep your options open. You may plan to find your movie among the tracks of Avid Media Composer or Final Cut Pro, but the risk of swamping your workflow is real.

The first point of concern is production. Aiming to shoot as many takes as you fancy can prolong shooting days unnecessarily, depleting your budget and imposing strain on cast and crew. For a few years now, there have been rising concerns about too demanding schedules on movie sets. This August, 14 of the top cinematographers in the industry, like Emmanuel Lubezki, John Toll, and Ellen Kuras addressed the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) calling attention to the perils of extended working hours, leading to accidents on and off the set. Yes, even projects abiding by union rules suffer from the effects of extended hours.

You do not want to add up to that. The higher calling of making movies can be weaponized, subjecting artists and workers to uncalled-for sacrifices in the name of art. This attitude can be even more toxic in the indie realm, where just getting to the point of rolling cameras is a major struggle. Your shooting schedule is way too brief, and you want to get the most out of each day. Then, the smarter way would be not to inflate shooting hours, going in a wild-goose chase for an elusive gesture, or a camera movement that you just can’t seem to get right. Visualize your scene, plan ahead, get that shot list done, and roll cameras. That said you can be open to new ideas or happy accidents, but allow a limited time for those, and then move on. It’s good karma to be considerate of your collaborators.

Cinema lore is full of creative geniuses, pushing people to the limit, to get the performances they want out of them. Maybe they are wearing down an actor to drain all the mannerisms away and get that ideal core of truth hidden under so many tricks of the trade. Maybe Kubrick and Fincher can play that game, but I feel you are at a different point in your career. 

It is not in your best interest to amass ungodly amounts of raw material, to sort it out in the editing bay. That’s the second front where playing to be the next Fincher can throw a wrench in your project. Editing bay rental fees and an editor on the clock can add up. Even if you are editing yourself, with your own equipment, time is money. The time you spend clicking way through dozens of takes could be better spent in other matters. You will not be lacking things to do.

Try to get your movie done before setting foot on location or in the studio. Take the ideas in your head, and put them down on paper. 

So, what can you do? For one thing, do like Hitch. Try to get your movie done before setting foot on location or in the studio. Take the ideas in your head, and put them down on paper. Not quite sure how to stage a scene? Play around with it. Storyboard key scenes, especially those that may be challenging, or include a lot of moving parts. This does not mean that you will stifle your creativity. If anything, you are managing assets and time to make sure it has the opportunity to flourish.

Back to the grueling actor hazing...it’s never a bad thing to rehearse. If your talent’s schedule allows for it, set apart a few days to go over the script, discuss characters and build rapport with your cast. You can use a compact camera, even a phone, to film rehearsals and work out the kinks in your plans. By the time you hit the set, you won’t be strangers building a working relationship under pressure, with technicians targeting you with spotlights. 

At some point in his career, Francis Ford Coppola would invite his actors to his house, for a sprawling Sunday family lunch that he himself would cook. They were literally breaking bread together before setting off onto the stressful business of consigning an idea into a movie. OK, maybe cooking for your actors works only if you are an Italo-American patriarch with a huge wine-making state in Napa Valley, but you get the gist. Hey, you can make do with takeout!

The point is, make your cast - and crew - feel like you’ve got their back. And don’t betray or abuse that confidence by creating grueling working conditions just because you are a believer in the myth of the abusive genius. Yes, Hitch and many other directors whose work we idolize are known for their excesses, but by being mindful of the workload you inflict on others, you would be saving your own sanity down the road. 

In his latest projects, Steven Soderbergh is known for assembling a rough cut parallel to the shooting schedule. God knows how he manages to do it without compromising his sanity. More power to him! But one thing is to push underlings to go beyond the call of duty, and another entirely different is to do it yourself because it is part of your creative process. You do you. Make the best movie you can, and do no harm to yourself or others.

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