Transforming Information into Experience: White Sun Screenwriter and Editor David Barker
David Barker is a hard one to put a finger on. He is an American writer and editor who over the past 10 years has gained an international reputation for his analytical ability and open, unconventional approach. Recent collaborations include Deepak Rauniyar’s sensitive exploration of the impact of Nepalese civil war White Sun (opening today at New York’s MOMA and running through September 12) and Josephine Decker’s upcoming feature with Molly Parker, Mirandy July and Helena Howard, Madeline Madeline.
Things happen with David differently than you’d expect them to. You walk an entirely other route than you wanted and end up right where you need to be but not knowing quite how you got there. When we met, my boss at the time, filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, wanted David to take over her role as artistic director of Cinematexas International Film Festival when she returned to Greece.
David came to visit from Los Angeles. There was a party at my house, so he and I were talking in the front yard. I felt a big responsibility to help convince him to stay, but I couldn’t figure out anything to say. I distinctly remember giving up on that and feeling a little hopeless for the festival, which we all cared very much about.
Anyhow, we walked away from the party down the railroad tracks and talked of other things. I’d left my shoes back at the house and was walking on the rails to avoid broken glass. The snails had crawled out from the rot under the wood ties like they do every night, so from time to time I’d accidently step on one and it would pop, which feels very peculiar when you have bare feet. I remember the snails now more than the actual conversation, but whatever it was we talked about, by the end of it I trusted David completely. Which might have been more or less the one thing he wanted from someone he was going to work with.
Speaking with directors Deepak Rauniyar and Josephine Decker and David himself again for this article, it seems like the process of letting go of what you thought you could or should do and then re-finding it in a more honest form is common to working with David as a writer or editor, too. I got a clearer idea why people fight to hold onto him, why he was the only person in the world Athina would leave her festival with with or why filmmakers in New York or Los Angeles with so many other editors to choose from fly down to David’s current residence in Santiago to sit with him for a week. Filmmaking is David’s expression and language, but it’s also about something bigger than that — David is trying to move something unspoken into the world.
Filmmaker: David, your work has been compared to that of Franco Arcalli, the famous Italian “creative editor” who co-wrote and edited with Bertolucci. Can you talk a little about your process working with different directors?
David Barker: It’s different with different movies. Sometimes the more personal movies function like a strange kind of inverse mirror. If you are editing a movie for a year and it doesn’t work, it’s usually reflecting something back to you about your own life, something you don’t see. With Josephine [Decker on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely] we talked both on the level of the movie and also a lot personally. I asked a lot of questions, going through the whole thing from the beginning. Why this shot? Why this piece of music? Why cut here? Why does this character do this? This was a way that I could get to understand how she saw it, but it was also a way for her to understand it from the outside.
A part of this comes from teaching, because when I’m critiquing students’ work, the most important thing is to get into their world and understand what they are doing and how they see the movie. It’s not very helpful for them if I critique from my perspective. It’s a little like acting — you have to embody this other subjectivity.
Then the next thing is going back through the footage and looking at what movie is actually in the image. Sometimes a cut is not working because the director is trying to make a film which is very different then what’s in the image.
Filmmaker: Can you explain what you mean by subjectivities? When you and the people you work with use the word it seems like you are all talking about the same thing, but I don’t know if I know what you mean by it.
Barker: The way I think about subjectivity came from analyzing movies very closely, but there’s a quote from William James that said the same thing 150 years ago: “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
I think it is very valuable for example as a way to approach dialogue scenes in a drama, where much of what’s going on has to do with interior thoughts of the characters. But it’s also relevant to the editing process, especially when something isn’t working. There are ideas the director intended that are unexpressed in the image, or latent and need to be brought out, but there are also ideas expressed that are invisible to the director, that are fundamental to how she or he sees the world without knowing it, which can’t be ignored. And sometimes the editing process gets into that level.
Using subjectivities in a dialogue scene could be to create it so that instead of it being a picture of the two people talking — lets say Person A and Person B together in a room — you approach it through the many subjectivities present. So, for example, you only see person B through person A’s subjectivity and listen to them through Person A’s subjectivity. And person A you only experience through person B’s space or listening. And then you also experience them each a little bit in their own speaking, but you don’t have any kind of exterior “objective” way of seeing them. So there are two non-concomitant subjectivities that exist inside the same space but don’t overlap. Or maybe they overlap a little bit but they don’t line up exactly. That’s how, for example, Terrence Malick’s Badlands constructs dialogues in my way of looking at the shooting and editing, but it is not how he does it in Days of Heaven.
What we did with Josephine’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was to create a lot of subjective spaces inside of conversations and in how the two leads saw each other, so the drama for the audience of the space between the characters was partly being in one subjectivity and then a different one.
Filmmaker: What else do you look at in a scene?
Barker: One of the things we look at a lot, that we are looking at with Josephine’s new movie now — Madeline Madeline, which I am not editing, just consulting on — is using an idea of dramatization which is “transforming information into experience.” I think of the dialogue more as music, so you should have the experience of what’s happening regardless of whether you understand all the dialogue or not. There’s usually two different things: a cinematographic tension and experience and then there is the drama that is in the screenplay, and they usually need to be both operating for something to be interesting. Sometimes they can be about the same thing and sometimes they can be about different things. So we’re taking the drama of that film a bit out of the world of spoken language and into a visual language that can be understood without the words.
Filmmaker: When you are looking at the larger structure, instead of the scene structure, how do you talk about whether something “works” or “doesn’t work” dramaturgically?
Barker: The main thing I notice is emotional tension. It’s just automatic for me to construct a movie around an emotional tension, and that’s something that you can tell when it is there. But it is hard to explain it. And sometimes it’s hard for the director to tell when it is there because so much of what makes a character work or make a dramatic structure work is about taking things away — it is about the thoughts you are making the audience think that are not actually in the movie. Because if they were in the movie then they don’t think them! So you construct a strategy which has the audience have certain thoughts without you saying them. And it’s a little bit easier for me to see since I am not the person who wrote it or directed it. It was much harder on White Sun because I was more involved, having co-written the script and been on set.
What I got from the time that I spent with my mentor Jean-Pierre Gorin was an ability to analyze things deeply — a film, a scene, a shot — so I can look at a movie and I can figure out why it’s working the way it’s working. So that’s very useful with helping people figure out how to make their movies work.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about writing during the edit?
Barker: Sometimes it’s a situation Gorin and Godard called “trapped rat” editing, which means you have shot a bunch of stuff but it doesn’t work as a movie and now you’re fucked. In that case you’re very free with the footage. Just looking at the movie and trying to see what is in the image and what can we make a movie of. And if you are successful at it you almost always end up making the film that the person wanted to make, but through a different means.
Director Josephine Decker
Butter on the Latch, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Madeline Madeline
Filmmaker: Josephine, how did you start working with David?
Decker: For Mild and Lovely, I was working with another editor, but there was something on this bigger level that just wasn’t pulling you through the whole film. And I showed it to my friend Braden King, who made Here, and he said, “You should talk to David because David is someone who can see things. There’s things you are doing with your footage that are unusual, and David can see things that aren’t there or have the possibility of being there.”
So I met with David. I just remember it so vividly. What I love about David is that when you encounter him it sort of feels like you are encountering someone who like has a secret life on earth. It felt like he had come from some other space and was inhabiting my kitchen. And I was like who is this person? Because his thinking is so radically… maybe the word might be… “not-attached.” That’s very Buddist in a way, but he sees so far beyond what you shot into the limitless possibilities of what you could make.
Thou Wast Mild and LovelyFilmmaker: What was the process like?
Decker: He really gets inside of what are you trying to communicate, and then he helps you communicate it. What I think David does that is so difficult is that he basically takes the mirror and holds it up to you as a filmmaker and shows you what you are doing, what you are trying to say, and what’s working and what’s not working. And that is such a gift! Nobody does that.
With Mild and Lovely, he was like, “What kind of film are you making?” And I was like, “I wanna make a real straight-up realistic Western. A Western but a mumblecore Western.” And he’s like, “Really? Because I see these sequences where she’s lying on the ground touching the sky.” Or, I had all these sequences that I had written that were the voiceover of a cow, and I would stay up all night making these dream sequences that became a big part of the film. They became part of the film because David clicks on a box and was like, “What are these? These are beautiful.” And I said, “Oh I just stay up all night editing those, and I don’t know what they are for,” and he’s like, “That’s your film. Your film is living in this. And this is also what you personally bring to this that is very different than what other people are making.” He’s good at helping you not shy away from your strengths or what you are already bringing, so our conversations end up being about how the rest of the film can allow that language to be understood.
Filmmaker: What’s interesting to me is hearing over and over again “what you want to say” as opposed to what “works” or “doesn’t work.” Rather than looking at pieces that work or don’t work, looking at what you are trying to do. It sounds like making something that is true to itself rather than looking for a formula for what works.
Decker: Completely. But the other thing that is amazing about him is that he really knows how to make things work. He’s great at scenes.
Filmmaker: Is it hard to come to the realization that the film you wanted to make was a different film than the film you thought you wanted to make?
Decker: No, because I think it’s true-er. He’s right, I didn’t want to make a straight-up Western that’s exactly like things that I have seen that other people make. Even though that’s maybe what got me to make the film. The film we did make, which we had a lot of fun making, was a lot more exploratory and experimental and satirical and full of strange discoveries in dreamland. So it felt right on when he revealed that this is actually the kind of filmmaker that I was.
Director Deepak Rauniyar
White Sun, Highway
Rauniyar: The other day we had dinner at David’s house and his wife was teasing, “Deepak is here, who are you texting?”
Filmmaker: Because he should be texting you all the time.
Rauniyar: Yes. We talk a lot. Any new idea I write I send it to him, and if I have any idea I keep sending him different things. He is the first person to say what will be more suitable for this story or not. Sometimes I go beyond what we have decided we initially need — something inspires me [to] go beyond, and he is the one, the police, to keep something on track. Since I met David in 2011, if it is not even related to our writing, if he has time, most of the time, I say everything to him. He is someone I can really trust with everything. He is more than a writer, a co-writer, or editor.
Filmmaker: What is it the work process like?
Rauniyar: I also work with other people. Some people work like a dictator sometimes. They want to take in what they really like. And what I find different in David is that he is not a dictator. He does not want to dictate to you. He’s always willing to listen. He might have written the final draft already but if I have a crazy idea he is always up to read it and find something new. And if something doesn’t work, he is able to explain why in a way that I can understand.
I haven’t met anyone else who is able to explain so exactly — to say if you pick this one, we have this back from the film, this will be good in this part, this will be impacted in this way. He tries to find what it really means for me and what is more important for me and try to help put in the best structure to help that.
I find that different from other people that I have worked with. What they think is really good, they think is good, and they push to be done in their way. If you see the films that he has done with several directors they are all very different. It is not that he is trying to push his style or agenda or something. He can work with any genre and structure, and he can really see. It is rare to find someone who can work with such different styles and still make a good film.