The James Clayton Column: the mystery editors

Editors are a vital yet oft-overlooked part of filmmaking. James takes a closer look at the work of these mystery craftspeople...

Here’s a pretty disturbing proposition for you to mentally chop down into easily digestible chunks – Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac makes its way into cinemas this week. The controversial Danish director’s new ensemble movie revolves around the reminiscence of a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who’s found in the street by an academic (Stellan Skarsgård). Joe proceeds to tell him her personal story and the film plays out in flashbacks across different time periods, fleshed out by an array of well-known actors who engage themselves in graphic carnal activity.

In truth, however, none of the stars – among them Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe – have sex in this frank, visceral feature, even though it may appear that they are. It looks like the main credited cast are doing the real dirty work but, really, it isn’t them. That’s not their celebrity skin and those aren’t their reproductive organs in action.

The Nymphomaniac leads have porn actor stand-ins performing actual penetration and possibly also providing the required genitalia where required. It’s all industrial light and magic – the deceptive trickery of moviemaking fabricating false reality which the audience is compelled to believe in.

It’s also worth noting that Von Trier’s director’s cut version of Nymphomaniac – or NYMPH()MANIAC as it’s styled for those who like non-too-subtle Freudian symbolism – is five-and-a-half hours long. It has been edited down from its original state into two films – Nymphomaniac Volume I and Nymphomaniac Volume II – that both come in around the two-hour mark.

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Those two shorter takes are being rolled out into select theatres around the globe – at least, in places where distributors reckon there’s a market for highly confrontational sexual works from a cult European arthouse auteur with a notorious reputation. In all likelihood, the number of people seeing both of the Nymphomaniac bifurcations is going to be limited, but nowhere near as small as the amount of people who experience Von Trier’s uncut version.

Guests at the Berlin Film Festival were treated to the extended edition and, as an off-screen diversion, the sight of Shia LaBeouf wearing a brown paper bag proclaiming “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”. Otherwise, Nymphomaniac in its pure, full-bodied form will remain an occult curiosity that the masses won’t be able to access until the eventual release of a special Blu-ray package. That, of course, might not ever come around as all of us who’ve waited on the complete Kill Bill or combined Grindhouse releases know all too well.

Von Trier approved the decision to condense his erotic epic down to a four-hour abridged double-bill but had no involvement in the actual cutting. No one knows how he feels about the changes for wider exhibition because the director is maintaining the public vow of silence he adopted following the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. (He botched an awkward joke about being a Nazi and was subsequently enveloped in a media storm and ostracised by the festival board. Upset by the furore, Von Trier has forsworn all publicity and has taken to taping his mouth shut and wearing ‘Persona Non Grata’ t-shirts for cameras, simultaneously becoming something of an inspirational mentor to the troubled young Mister LaBeouf.)

The Danish director is silent, but he’s not the only involved significant figure whose opinion and feelings about the chop-job on Nymphomaniac are absent. I’m not even absolutely certain who that significant figure is, but this significant figure is at the centre of all studio post-production re-cuts. That person is the editor – arguably the most important but overlooked individual (or individuals) in the filmmaking process.

Molly Marlene Stensgaard and Morten Højbjerg are listed as Nymphomaniac’s editors and they can definitely take credit for sublime work that convinces spectators that Charlotte Gainsbourg and Shia LaBeouf are not merely simulating copulation. Are they the ones responsible for the curtailed multi-volume versions shipped into cinemas, though, or did the producers hire other editors for that task?

Questions about editorial arrangements have been on my mind with the coming of the variant Nymphomaniacs and the news that Western cinemagoers will no longer be seeing a shortened cut of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer when it finally arrives. In the latter case, producer Harvey Weinstein had ordered an expurgatory edit to make it more accessible to North American audiences, and subsequently encountered a massive backlash from film fans who wanted to enjoy the same movie that Asian cinemagoers were raving about. We’ve got our wish, though it’s interesting to note that the ‘American Edit’ was handled by Joon-ho himself.

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We can’t be so sure when it comes to other bowdlerised flicks that have been altered (or butchered) in post-production under the direction of film industry overlords and not the actual director. When these acrimonious wrangles occur and become common knowledge the emphasis is on the feelings and thoughts of producers, the studios, the directors and sometimes the star actors and screenwriters.

Film fans are also very vocal, very passionate and very opinionated, and their voices get heard in the present day thanks to social media and online platforms. In the midst of all this and in spite of all this, however, no one ever hears from or appears to be aware of the editor. This strikes me as being quite incredible considering that they’re the most critical element at this stage of a film’s life – a stage that will ultimately have a huge impact on a film’s reach and performance on its public debut that consequently affects its entire legacy.

The questions also apply to films toned down and sanitised under instruction from classifications boards or studios seeking a PG-13 certificate. Who’s wielding the scissors and dicing up the raw goods for mass consumption in all these scenarios? We know the crime (or ‘deed’, to use a less impassioned, judgemental phrase), are aware of the causes and can get a handle on the victims but, curiously, we never acknowledge the actual weapon, as it were. We’re very much bothered about the smoke, the bloodshed and the ‘bad guys’ doing bad business but are completely ignorant about the gun.

Putting aside possibly-awkward metaphors to try and get an objective handle on this issue, I’m interested in finding out more about the forgotten trigger fingers operating in the dark of the editing room. Each individual film is undoubtedly different, so it would be nice to get insight and come to understand the particulars of some well-known cases where films have gone through contentious editing phases.

Think, for instance, of the recent defanging job done on Taken 2 or the theatrical cut of Thor: The Dark World, which omitted a lot of Malekith the Dark Elf’s backstory. How much agency did the editors have on those movies? Working on these projects, are they constantly caught in crossfire between the director’s vision and the wishes of the studio? Are they – though it’s unlikely for the two example features – even the listed editor at all or actually a mercenary ghost-for-hire, brought in to do a job and then simply leave, invisible and unknown?

Going back further into film history, I wonder if serially offended directors such as Sir Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam have a blacklist of identified editors (studio patsies?) who mangled their grand master visions and necessitated the later release of numerous director’s cuts. I wonder if Orson Welles could have fingered the exact individuals who re-edited and mutilated his original rough cuts of The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch Of Evil.

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I don’t just want to shed light on the shady business of the editing room for a few name-and-shame exercises, though. I repeat again – editors are arguably the most important people on the film production line. They’re the ones who are responsible for a movie’s pacing and for its translated meaning and storytelling style through techniques such as transitions and montage. They’re the ones bringing together all the pieces – on-screen performances, the photography, sound and music, etc – and melding them into a cohesive, multi-sensory whole.

Editors are provided with filmed material and it’s their job to judiciously assemble, shape and sculpt said material. They make the action scenes feel exhilarating, they make the emotional beats resonate with poignancy and they make sure that the comedy sequences hit and achieve the goal of being funny. Movies are moving, emotionally affecting experiences because of editors and without editing all films would simply be flat segments of raw footage. That’s not very cinematic and is unlikely to ensnare, entertain or engage viewers in an immersive fiction.

It’s the nature of the beast that good editors don’t get noticed. Editing as an artform is only really saluted when awards season comes around and a few editors get a statuette for their troubles. (And editing involves a hell of a lot of trouble and a massive amount of time spent blinking at monitors while you do an epic amount of painstaking, meticulous work.)

Directors who cut their own movies – Steven Soderbergh under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard and the Coen Brothers who call themselves Roderick Jaynes – sometimes receive praise for their work, but that’s probably more admiration for all-star Renaissance man effort. Aside from that, I think it’s reasonable to state that only Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese’s long-term partner in crime) and Sally Menke (editor of all Quentin Tarantino’s movies up until her death) have achieved fame as star name editors. They deserve the acclaim, and it’s a shame that so many other diligent geniuses are not likewise noted for their contributions.

It doesn’t seem right that the ones who cut the picture are cut from the picture. Considering the behind-the-scenes mysteries and underappreciated magic of movie production, when it comes to the editing I think those unexposed private parts are very much ones I’d like to see – even more than the private parts on display in Nymphomaniac (not actually the private parts of the actors whose private parts you think you’re seeing thanks to the deft dark artistry of film editing).

James Clayton is looking for an editor to cut up his junk and a porn actor double to act as his junk. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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