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Pacing Myself: Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party Director Stephen Cone on Being His Own Editor

Joe Keery and Cole Doman in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

“Don’t you ever want an objective pair of eyes?”

“Have you ever thought about working with an editor?”

“Yes” and “yes” are the answers to questions asked of me and other filmmaker/editors over the years about this dual position, which, for either budgetary or artistic reasons, usually extends into self-music and postproduction supervision. Much like that against playwrights directing their own work, there is often a stigma against directors editing their own films, even as, in our ever-overcrowded filmmaking landscape, there are inevitably more filmmaker/editors, each with a mindset and motive different from the next. For some, it’s an easily defensible artistic choice; for others, it’s an arrogant nosedive straight into grating, solipsistic indulgence. For most, it’s in-between. But why the need for a defense? Considering the generally accepted authoring of other geometric and/or rhythmic forms — music, painting, novels — why shouldn’t we embrace editing as an integral, hands-on process in the making of auteur cinema?

My growth as a filmmaker has been slow; slower than most, in fact. Before I made The Wise Kids, the first film of mine to “do well,” this theater major/nonfilm student had already churned out two short films, a medium-length feature and a full-length feature, none of which “did well.” The first three films — Church Story, Young Wives, The Christians — were all edited by others, skilled artists devoted to the craft of editing, and I do not regret for a second the opportunity I had to sit back and watch them work. As someone who had not gone to film school, just getting a sense of how images were put together, as well as the difference between a fluid cut and a hard one, and how that could reflect the internal emotional states of characters, was invaluable, and the equivalent of an editing class at the best film school. On the other hand, as a cinephile from a family of musicians, my conscious and unconscious ideas about cut placement, rhythm and pacing were fairly solidly formed early on. I wasn’t entirely dictating the editing decisions on these early projects, but it was close. I knew what I wanted.

The full-length In Memoriam came next in my continuing self-education and would prove to be the densest learning experience of my young career, economically, artistically and technically. Wanting to take filmmaking back into my own hands, I jumped into In Memoriam wanting to do something cheap, in the style of the New Wave, or, at that time, the Duplass Brothers of The Puffy Chair. This attitude led to a combination of blessings and curses and everything in between. Not having budgeted enough for post (that ole problemo), I decided to flip the shortage on its head and turn it into an opportunity to teach myself editing.

The process of self-editing In Memoriam was alternately maddening and exhilarating, feeling at times like getting a workout from a too-intense personal trainer. For starters, the movie was made for $7,500, so not only was there no budget for an editor, but no budget for an assistant editor, a position that, until Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, I’ve gone without. Which meant that, my first time out, I had to import, label, organize and sync sound for all the footage myself. The latter I did manually all the way up until that film, when the invaluable PluralEyes came into existence, allowing filmmakers, and my assistant editor on that film, to sync sound much more quickly than before. Added to all this, Premiere Pro was not yet near an industry standard, which as of this writing it has become, formidably, so the inevitable crashes and lost cuts made it extra difficult — all of this on top of actually Not Knowing How to Edit.

At the same time, I grew up playing classical piano, a great lover of music, so once the initial “assistant editor” tasks were complete, and I’d gotten Premiere under control — one learns, somewhat, what causes crashes as you go — editing to me felt as natural as playing or listening to music. I felt I’d found the place where the movie actually happened, and where having someone else’s fingertips on the keys was unnatural. While the movie itself, with its unwieldy tone, had a very tough time finding its own identity, the ability to move and cut the images and sound myself, to mold and shape the piece, to experiment with music, however clumsily, felt like a natural extension to the writing and directing. I was literally making a movie. That’s what an editor does. And so: the real education began.

As with every element of filmmaking, the learning process is always double-tiered, with the technical on top and the artistry underneath. Sometimes you’re learning both at the same time, sometimes you have to stop and just learn one. In my case, just getting to the end of the big messy first cut with care — which, in In Memoriam’s case, was close to three hours for a film that would end up being around 78 minutes — was the key. Then, not unlike finishing the first draft of a script, the process turns to ironing. In terms of general process, for me it was important to get each “rough” scene in relatively decent shape, inserting the temp sounds and music that made the scene live, in order to fully gauge whether the story was operating in the way I intended. Many editors prefer to not dig too deep into a scene before moving on, just to get a sense of final shape. For me, I need to play and experiment as I go, so that by the time I get to the end, it already resembles, however loosely, the final product, like an in-progress clay pot.

The biggest, most important lesson learned came out of a dance between two films, In Memoriam and my follow-up The Wise Kids. When The Wise Kids started shooting in July 2010, In Memoriam had been declared locked at a running time of around 102 minutes. One major fest was seemingly interested, but beyond that, no one else was. Our fancy pants cast/crew screening seemed to be the life and death of the film. It was largely out of this apparent failure that I decided to tackle something a little more straightforward and semi-autobiographical, and so I traveled with my Chicago team down to South Carolina and shot The Wise Kids.    

Upon wrap, I had the strange urge to dive back into In Memoriam, a film I was no longer too close to, and brutally removed about 25 minutes worth within an hour, on instinct, as it found its proper form. In that vigorous session — probably the most exhilarating hour of editing I’ve ever had, on a movie that would largely disappear from the landscape — I gleefully chopped out everything I knew in my gut didn’t belong. This lesson — the oft-stated “kill your darlings” — was very important, not just in terms of editing, but of shooting. And indeed that very summer I’d overshot The Wise Kids, the first cut of which wore out its welcome at 155 minutes, leading to the final hurdle of self-taught editing and authorship — setting your ego aside from the very beginning.

The first test screening of The Wise Kids was an interesting one. At that 155 minutes, it was lovely to look at and listen to — indeed, if I’ve developed any skill to perfection over the years, it’s in choosing temporary music — but there was a lack of enthusiasm among the audience at finish. There were long sequences of confused religious teenagers looking forlornly at each other, extended shots that overemphasized the feeling of soul-searching and drift the final version of the film would relay with much more success. This is when I realized that, even in a film without much plot, there is still a driving, internal momentum that may not be made of conventional story, but which needs a clear path to the telling. The sister lesson here is that by paring down, you’re not just strengthening what’s there but evoking what’s not. In the original version of The Wise Kids, there was an off-to-college farewell between Tim, the young gay man, and Austin, the closeted music minister (played by yours truly). Eliminating this, and not knowing how they fared, evokes its own haunted goodbye (or lack thereof) in the heads of the audience.

On the same film, as well as my follow-up Black Box, my role as music supervisor, already one I took very seriously, became especially important. For the scene in which young Tim dances his uncomfortable moment with Austin away, I needed him to be dancing to the actual song on set, so I spent several weeks prior to shooting listening to hundreds of bands and trying to find just the right song, and an inexpensive one at that. Having been in touch with Louisville/New York film producer Gill Holland previously, I learned he also ran a music label, and he introduced me to The Pass, a great Kentucky-based band I’ve used in nearly every movie since.

On Black Box, the temporary track was at its most vital, as the score would largely dictate the tone of the film (John Hughes with a horror movie score), and the work of composer extraordinaire Heather McIntosh (Compliance, Z for Zachariah). The soundscape for the film needed to be haunting, and also bind the generations — twentysomethings, thirtysomethings and sixtysomethings — so in both songs and score a sense of timelessness was needed. No track became more important than an eight-minute cue mid-film as drunken college students in a theater building at night go off to experience their own respective intimacies. Temping this sequence with two James Newton Howard cues from The Village unlocked the film for Heather and me, and she went on to write one of the most masterful film score cues I’ve ever heard.

Between the six months it took to find the shape of The Wise Kids, on top of having trimmed In Memoriam down to a slim 78 minutes, the process of editing and completing Black Box and, especially, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, was much more enjoyable and productive. Indeed, the first cut of Black Box was 114 minutes, the first of my first cuts to come in under two hours, while the first cut of the eventually 82-minute Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party was already a tight 86 minutes. My years of self-editing had influenced not just the post process, but also the shoot itself. Having learned the economics of storytelling in the prior nine years of work and experimentation, I was able to go into Henry Gamble’s… with the film already on the page, so that what we shot is what you see.

Ultimately, for those filmmakers like myself who desire a continued hands-on approach while crafting the material in post, it’s important to find those postproduction partners who can aid you in the artistry. Around Black Box, I’d found sound designers Dan Kenyon and Jessie Pariseau, as well as composer Heather, but had still not budgeted enough for color correction (completed in Premiere Pro by DP Stephanie Dufford and jack-of-all-trades/future Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party producer Shane Simmons). By the time I got to this latest film, I finally had an assistant editor in filmmaker Marty Schousboe, and the great colorist Tyler Roth of Company 3 joined Dan, Jessie, Heather (and her co-composers) to complete the collaborative dream team I’d been seeking for a decade while I tinkered around in my room. This allowed me — finally — to do in post what I loved to do most; namely, editing and music supervision, while splitting postproduction supervision duties with my producing team of Laura Klein and Shane. We wrapped in early August and I had a cut by late September, already 89 minutes. I made sure, as I’ve always done, to hold several feedback screenings, always being sure to include actual professional editors in the mix. We locked by late October and spent winter/spring in post. By March I was listening to hundreds of songs by over 100 bands and selecting the music. Company 3 then colored the film with DP Jason Chiu in time for our Maryland Film Festival premiere in early May. Between my own authorial/hands-on tendencies and the increasing desire to collaborate with the best technicians in the country, it finally felt like some sort of balance.

That said, SEEKING: postproduction supervisor, fall 2016.

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