Prioritizing Story, or Why You Should Kill Your Darlings in the Edit

This is a guest post from independent filmmaker Sam Beasley, whose thesis film Ripples is currently playing the festival circuit.

When I set out to shoot Ripples, we had a 14 page script. I told everyone the final film would be, “slow, probably closer to 20 minutes.” The assembly cut was 19 minutes long. The final cut is exactly eight minutes. And that’s with credits.

What this movie is (still) about

The structure of the script — and the 19-minute cut — had an opening scene set in the past that introduced the three main characters, and then jumped to the present.

The meat of the film is a mother telling her son a story while on a hike, as well as his imagining of that story. The inner story is about the disappearance of Allen, the boy's role model, from their lives. In the tale, Allen constantly navigates the advances of a siren figure luring him into a lake.

The script then jumps back and forth between these two worlds. Mother and son hike through the woods; Allen grapples with the lake’s nightly temptation.

Six times it cuts back and forth between these stories, with oh-so-clever graphic matches written in. There are four iterations of the “storytelling,” several scenes of Allen in a kayak on the lake, and three nights in a cabin of the siren luring Allen.

This all increases in intensity until... well, the end. Except it didn’t increase in intensity at all: it was highly repetitive. And if it seems a little complicated, that's because it was.

In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
— William Faulkner

What the editor and I discovered, after watching the always disheartening assembly cut, is that most of the movie was redundant. Olivia started telling the story, and we “got it” right away, so all that was left was to just jump in. The three nights Allen spent in the cabin dragged and teased for no reason. The lake scenes didn’t have any tension or mystery.

So we condensed it all into a few decisive lines of “storytelling.” There's only one cabin scene, split in half, interwoven with Allen’s memories of being on the lake. The introductory scene was repurposed as several of Olivia’s flashbacks. The film is now book-ended with Allen showing Michael how to fix a bike chain, and ending on the same note.

All this is just to say that we cut down, but we also re-structured. The film became amorphous rather than linear: a memory within a story.

Over half of the movie, my favorite scene, and my favorite shot all got cut. It’s the same movie though. It has the same ideas, same characters, same tone as what I envisioned in my head when I wrote the script. When I talk to people who have seen the film, it seems like they experienced the same feeling that was present in that original script.

Giving people that feeling is far more important than being disappointed over a few lost shots.

Some rules that helped me tough it out

Here’s what I learned for myself during this process. Be ready — look for any opportunity — to abandon the thoroughly made plan. An idea will invariably come along that outshines your own.

And beyond that, I think a director needs to know, more than anything else, what she or he wants to achieve. Without that, it’s impossible to evaluate elements, hold them up next to your idea, and see if they fit. Do they enhance the core idea, or distract from it?

Over half of the movie, my favorite scene, and my favorite shot all got cut. It’s the same movie though. It has the same ideas, same characters, same tone as what I envisioned in my head when I wrote the script.

This core idea should be the fundamental reason for the film. As Orson Welles puts it, “of course I think a storyteller’s first duty is always to the story.” In Ripples the emotional core is very simple: a mother finds a way to deal with loss.

Starting with that idea, ask yourself as many questions as possible. Any question you don’t ask yourself, somebody else will ask you. Who is Olivia? Who is Michael? How does she depict depression for him? What is her own relationship with depression? With her son? With Allen?

Left to right: producer Ted Keffer, director Sam Beasley, and cinematographer Louis Weissman figure things out.

These questions help you decide what is essential to the film. They help you separate out what you want to see versus what you want to achieve.

Wanting a dolly-in is different than wanting your audience to sense the moment a character has a realization. Maybe a dolly-in will do that. Your cinematographer probably (definitely) has a better idea, though.

Bring your How to the table, sure, but explain the Why, the overarching purpose behind it all. Know that you’ll never need to fight for Why, and that it’s almost never worth fighting for How. The How will change right up until the moment the shot has been captured.

There are aesthetic things you decide aren’t important (a vast and mountainous Montana skyline, or shooting underwater on a Bolex), and things that are important (a lake and dark green pine trees, or shooting on 16mm). You can’t have an ego. You can’t take a personal stake. You can’t argue for yourself, or for the sake of arguing.

I often took suggestions and criticism personally and argued from my heart. But I lost every argument that was indefensible in regards to the story. As I should have.

You’re only arguing on behalf of the story. For Ripples, the dark and ordered clusters of pine trees shot on 16mm have a particular effect. It gives the audience an impression of a subconscious mythological world that is menacing and has its own rules.

Now I (still don't) know everything

Did I achieve any of the things I’m reflecting on now? Definitely not. I learned this all the hard way. I often took suggestions and criticism personally and argued from my heart. But I lost every argument that was indefensible in regards to the story. As I should have.

Next time I’ll be better; I’ll narrow that gap between vision and actualization. That’s the hope. But really I feel like, as much as I’ve learned, there’s still far more that I don’t yet know.

Bonus section: Sam's thoughts on shooting on 16mm film

I don’t think one is “better” than the other, but we shot on film and I learned a lot about decision-making from the process. It did cost us more money. But film makes you think twice. It makes you want less takes and less coverage. It makes you strive for quality over quantity. Film helps you think about everything I’ve mentioned so far, but in pre-production.

I’ve noticed that with eight or ten digital takes for each shot, it’s going to take you twenty times longer to edit the film. And, from what little I’ve seen, the best take is still in the first three.

Yes, I want options. Like most of my millennial compatriots, I am afraid of commitment in all that I do. I think we — humans, not just millennials — are procrastinators of decision-making. Let’s leave our options open, we say, and decide later.

We forget that “later” will have its own multitude of decisions that must to be made. And we can even re-decide things! We can change our minds, cut, crop, manipulate, re-color, re-speed, re-arrange, and even sometimes re-shoot.

Apparently having options doesn’t help unless you have good options. Using film takes away the potential for infinite options, so it makes you think ahead. If you only get one or two chances to say something, you’re going to make sure you say it right.

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