[ Personal Memories | Behind the Scenes ]
ARGUING THE EDITING
By Jonathan Oppenheim, editor
She told me about the filmmaker, an intense guy named Joe, who was devoted to telling their story and had already spent many years researching and shooting it. This made me anxious. It suggested to me the possibility of a rigid, relentless personality, someone with whom it would take an inordinate amount of energy to deal. However, I had been looking for a project that I could sink my teeth into, where possibilities in the material might be rich and complex. We arranged to meet.
The meeting with Joe, confounding my fears, was pleasant. He seemed charming and intelligent, the project, large and interesting. In the ensuing weeks, we met once or twice more. He looked at my tapes, I looked at his trailer. We decided to work together.
Happiness is not a word that I usually associate with screening footage, but when I began to watch Joeís footage, I found that I was happy. Here was a unique experience; hours and hours of interviews with people who cared about ideas and knew how to express them. Though not all on the same level, the material seemed loaded with possibility. But what the film could be that contained these interviews, I didnít know. That would emerge over time, I hoped. I screened for many weeks, alone in a room and that happy feeling continued. I remained uncharacteristically optimistic even when I slowly began to wonder if there might not be sizable gaps in my knowledge of what these people were talking about.
During this early period Joe and I each embraced a different idiosyncratic idea related to the question of narration. An early scriptwriter had come up with the idea of mini-documentaries Ė two to four minute sequences throughout the film, each encapsulating a historical period (ie.the Popular Front, the McCarthy Period, the late Sixties) Ė instead of traditional narration. These mini-documentaries would provide the necessary historical backdrop for each section of the film. This method of addressing the huge volume of history would free us up to concentrate on the four mens stories and let the arguments rip, so to speak.
My pet notion was to take Joeís idea to its logical but risky conclusion, and this was to dispense with narration completely except within the mini-documentaries. My idea grew out of my long held belief that narration tends to deaden a film, and is often used as a crutch by the filmmaker to escape the challenge of telling the story organically. If the mini-documentaries worked properly, narration in the body of this film might not be necessary . At the very least dispensing with narration would allow us to build the story solely from the strengths of the interviews. Further, we would not need to worry about an outside voice stepping on the liveliness of a sixty year story told through argument. So mini-documentaries and no narration became our game plan.
By the first week of January, 1996, after a year of editing, we felt ready to screen a complete version of the film. It ran three and a half hours, was laced with mini-documentaries and had no narration. There may have been one or two Communists left in it. We had had modest hopes at this point that we were on the right track. However, viewing the film was a sobering experience, to put it mildly. It was so formless and boring that it took our breath away. Too stunned to turn the lights up when the film was over, Joe and I sat there expressing our feelings of despair and cold fear in the dark. What had we been doing all this time? How could we have gone so wrong? When we turned the lights up one thing was clear to us: Weíve gotta have narration. Weíve gotta get real. We had been trying to tell virtually the entire story through what came out of peoples mouths and it was putting a huge burden on the interplay of the protagonists. It was sinking us.
Over the next months we began trying to narrate the film. This process consisted of locating the sections where it was needed and removing the extensive interview material that had been serving the function of narration. Joe would then write a draft of a narration line which we would discuss and try out. Each piece of narration usually went through many drafts (ten or more) because it had to convey complex information as tersely as possible. Each draft of each line would have to be recorded in order to try against footage.Typically, so as to muffle room noise while making this recording, one of us would crouch under my down jacket while reading into a microphone. This probably occurred many hundreds of times. As draft after draft was put in and improved, the film began to have a flow. The cherished mini-documentaries began to seem like interruptions and were removed. The last of the Communists also bit the dust.
The film began to work as a story but a new problem emerged. The film was now a virtually unbroken mass of voices, mostly older, male ones. The need for other kinds of sounds to break up this low throaty rumble was clear. We found three ways to address this. First, with rich background sound effects, largely used under the copious archival footage in the film. The second point of attack was to find a certain kind of narrator, one who had neither a neutral narratorís voice nor one who was too close in character to the older men in the film. We needed a voice that would exist in some natural relation to the four men, a youthful voice with a New York feel to it. We heard Alan Rosenberg read a short story and knew he should be our narrator. The third and most pivotal solution was music, opening the film up with music. We located many areas that could take music and worked with a composer, Adam Guettel, who had a deep and insightful take on the film. He helped us bring it to another level.
The real lesson for me was that bad ideas are like fertilizer, if you have enough time to explore them and get beyond them. All of our really bad ideas seemed to lead to important realizations. The foolhardy attempt at working without narration for as long as we did helped push us to tell the story through what was strong in the interviews and to create a back and forth between the protagonists. The misbegotten mini-documentaries were a valuable exercise in condensing complex historical material which stood us in good stead when it came to actually creating a narration track. The failed inclusion of the Communist opposition helped us to perceive the actual nature of the film we were working on, that it must relentlessly focus on the four men and their gradually shifting positions. But little of this could have occurred if we had not had time for the full process to unfold.