Reasons for the Cutting Room Floor
Mike Sullivan learns some lessons from Hollywood editor Carol Littleton, at a new monthly film series in Boston.December 19th, 2011 | Mike Sullivan
It’s not every day that you get an opportunity to speak with one of Hollywood’s premiere film editors. If you ever have the means, I would highly recommend it. For those in the Boston area, the means may be closer than you think. There's a new monthly event in Boston that hopes to initiate conversations between industry professionals, local filmmakers, and students called Inside the Cutting Room. It focuses specifically on editors and editing. The series is a collaboration between author/editor Bobbie O’Steen (Cut to the Chase, The Invisible Cut), Emerson College’s Department of Visual & Media Arts and the Boston Final Cut Pro User Group.
A few Thursdays ago I attended a 35mm screening of 1983’s The Big Chill. After the movie the editor, Carol Littleton, and the cinematographer, John Bailey (Bailey and Littleton are also husband and wife) joined O’Steen on stage to speak about the film. Littleton has cut many great movies, including Body Heat, Silverado, Margot at the Wedding and E.T. She has worked with directors of the highest caliber including Lawerence Kasdan, Robert Benton, Noah Baumbach and Steven Spielberg. She has cut small character-driven dramas and epic action-adventures and everything in between. I learned more from an all-to-brief conversation with this pleasant, creative, artistic and classy lady than I could have learned from three scholarly texts.
When asked about the challenges of editing The Big Chill, Littleton said, “An ensemble of actors is the most difficult film to make,” but it was exactly the type of movie she enjoys the most. “Movies that deal with ideas require of us to be active in film watching,” she said.
Indeed, The Big Chill contains almost everything editors of narrative movies fear. The film has eight main characters (nine if you count the dead guy), it takes place in one location and it has no plot to speak of. The entire movie is scene after scene of people talking. They talk at the dinner table. They talk in the den. In the kitchen. In the yard. Talk, talk, talk. In less talented hands all of that dialogue could very easily slip into onscreen boredom and ennui. The challenge for Littleton was to craft a “talky” scene with several characters that was emotional, dynamic, moved each character forward, and engaged the audience in their lives. And then do it again. “It was really all about nuance and tone,” she said, “and constantly weighing the dramatic value. Looking for the small moments, the little remarks, that made the story.”
Even though it was made in the early 80s and editing technology has taken quantum leaps since, anyone starting to make a film that involves a bunch of characters in one location would be well advised to study The Big Chill. Of course, we can’t all be lucky enough to have our scripts written by Lawrence Kasdan, but watch the film to see how well his scenes are crafted, shot, and edited. (The Big Chill was co-written by Lawernce Kasdan and Barbara Benedek.)
Littleton explained that the actors were given the luxury of two weeks of rehearsal at the actual house where shooting would take place. There was very little improvisation. Kasdan, with a background in theater, was insistent that the actors stick with the written word. Bailey was also there for the rehearsal period to work with Kasdan and the actors on creating shots and camera set-ups that would enhance the themes and emotional beats. There actually is a lot of camera movement in The Big Chill, but it is subtle and used for specific purposes at specific moments.
I’d advise watching the opening credit sequence, for example. With only picture and music—there is no dialogue—Littleton introduces us to each character and we immediately get a sense of who these people are. The cutting isn’t frenetic. It’s evenly paced. She only cuts away from a character to insert shots that relate specifically to that character’s life or motivation. In between, we see shots of someone getting dressed in a nice suit, but it isn’t until the last shot, a wrist with stitched wounds, that we realize what we have really been seeing is a body being prepared for a funeral.
Clearly, Littleton was helped by a group of incredible actors who were at the start of what would become huge movie-star careers. In addition she was given the editor’s greatest gift—an abundance of material to work with. Remember the kitchen scene? It’s the one where everyone dances to The Temptations' song Ain’t Too Proud To Beg while cleaning up the dinner dishes. When he wrote that scene Kasdan put that specific song into the script. It was played on set and Bailey shot coverage of every character as they danced. Littleton was then able to cut the scene practically any way she wanted. Take it from me, that kind of situation is rare. Extremely rare. I’ve been lucky in my edits. The directors I work with generally give me a lot of choices in my edit room. Remember, the more choices the editor has, the better the film. We won’t use it all, but it’s good to know it’s there.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from Littleton involved one of the most famous cutting-room-floor scenes in history. Most people probably know that Kevin Costner played Alex, the friend whose suicide is the catalyst that brings all these characters together. We hear an awful lot about Alex. Every character seems to have had a different impression of him. But we never see Alex. There was a flashback scene that had been written and shot. In fact, it was that very scene that first inspired Kasdan to write the script itself. About it Littleton said, “I even asked Larry if we needed that scene when I first read the script,” As written the scene played at the end. It was to be a coda for the film. Except, it didn’t work. They tried it in a couple of other spots in the film. It just never worked.
Littleton and Kasdan realized that it wasn’t the scene, the performances, or anything like that. It was Alex himself. “By showing Alex we made the story specific to these characters. By not showing Alex, each member of the audience could… find their own Alex. We all know someone like Alex.” So the scene was cut and it has never been seen. Even with the popularity of deleted scenes on DVD and Blu-ray, Kasdan has never released that scene. One story goes that Kasdan wrote the part of Jake in Silverado expressly for Costner as an apology for cutting him out of The Big Chill.
Carol Littleton is still an active Hollywood film editor. Her most recent credit is last month’s The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp. Next year her latest collaboration with Lawernce Kasdan, Darling Companion, will be in theaters. The hands that once physically cut film now click a mouse, but the final goal has never changed—craft a scene that is emotional, dynamic, moves each character forward and engages the audience in their lives. And then do it again.
For more information about the Inside the Cutting Room series go to www.bosfcpug.org.