So I have been absent for a while working on a major re-edit of my feature film debut Agnation. Emerging from my editing cave with the usual warning – everything here is my personal take on my experience making my first feature film. I do cuss a lot, both in real life and on paper so if you are easy offending go ahead and skip basically everything I ever do cause well I am not for the faint of heart.
They say that editing your film is the last chance to re-write your script, and I would say re-editing your film is a last chance to make the very most out of what you have, in fact it’s a chance to make something more than what it is, which can be powerful, while being stressful, nerve racking, self doubt inducing and a damn fine reason to crack open the whiskey. So here are my soberish reflections on re-editing.
1) Get valuable feedback – bottom line is anyone can and will give you feedback whether you ask for it or not, but valuable feedback is a different animal. Valuable feedback either comes from a sample of your audience, like big studios that use focus groups, or from people who truly understand your audience. Try to get both. Focus groups are actually pretty easy to set up, get someone you know to arrange a group of people you don’t know who fit inside your audience and have them watch your movie and answer questions while you are not there, big thing you want is honesty and if you are there or you know to many members of the audience you won’t get it. You will get other feedback too, from people close to you and people involved in the project just weigh that according because people close to you might be hesitant to be critical of your work and people involved in the project may have self serving motives driving their opinions, I got both of those but didn’t put any weight to the feedback. You want that feedback to be brutal, in fact you need it to brutal because film is one of the most competitive industry there is and to compete being “good” isn’t good enough.
2) Be willing to kill your darlings again – there will be scenes you or someone involved in the project really liked, and really worked hard on that just don’t work inside the film, you have to be willing to cut those scenes. A film is a comprehensive experience and a good scene that people worked hard on that doesn’t serve the film has to go, and it sucks but kill it. Scenes will typically come up short for a couple of reasons, resource limitations (you didn’t have the time or money to get something right) or talent limitations (behind or in front of the camera) if you take a hyper critical eye to your work you will likely see both (as I did) and know in your heart what needs to hit the cutting room floor with a thump.
3) You can only serve one master – this is true of anything you do, and to me the master is the audience and the film needs to serve the audience. Art for art sake is pompous bullshit to me, art, be it film, a painting, or a song, and exists solely to get an emotional reaction out of an audience. Everything you do should be aimed at serving that audience. I look at Agnation not as a love letter to horror, or a style of horror but rather as a love letter to the indie horror audience, which I been a proud member of for the past 3 decades. Being a member of the audience makes it easier to build things around that audience. Now some feedback you get won’t be aimed at serving the audience, and if the person giving that type of feedback is attached to the project ignore them. Either they don’t appreciate the audience, so ignore them, they are to self absorbed to understand that the universe is much bigger than them so ignore them, or they are too stupid to understand the point of art in the first place is to serve the audience so ignore them. In fact fuck them, look at them, seriously look at them most likely they are a loser who has successfully sabotaged their own career do you really want them to impact yours? No kick their ass to the curb and surround yourself with people who appreciate that the audience comes first.
4) Find the best of what you have and turn it to 11 – most films have something to them that is really good, really stands out, in re-editing the task really finding that and then figuring out how to turn it up to 11 while cutting the shit that doesn’t work as well. It is easy to see which is which if the audience engagement increases that is the good shit, if the audience engagement decreases that is the shit you need to cut. You never, ever want to bore the audience, these people gave you time they will never get back so make it worth their while. For us we lucked out the most engaging part was the horror elements so we did a bunch of reshoots, added footage, shot fx shots everything to maximize the impact of the best of what we had and cut the stuff that the audience didn’t give a shit about ending with a shorter, tighter faster paced film that delivers on the best of what we have to an audience that is most engaged by that. By the way its okay for things you try to not work out. There is a big gripping fear of failure in society today so strong that a lot of people are afraid to even try anything. Don’t be one of those people, if you tried something and you know in your heart that it just doesn’t work cut that shit and move on and realize that you suffer no harm when something just doesn’t work out.
5) Don’t be afraid to polarize – the best film, or any art for that matter, appeals strongly to a core niche audience while offending those outside that audience making it polarizing by definition. The beauty of independent film is we don’t have to appeal to a large audience, we aren’t making big budget studio blockbusters, we get to serve a small audience. There is something so liberating about knowing it is ok to offend some people. Seriously that will allow you to make the best film for your audience because you don’t have to give a shit about people who aren’t part of that audience, if they are offending fuck em movie wasn’t made for them.
6) Develop thick skin – anything at aims to be great to a particular group is going to be attacked by another and in the highly competitive world of indie film there is no room for luck warm bullshit, if your hot to one group your ice cold to another. So develop the thick skin needed to take on the criticism your going to get from people you really don’t care if you appeal to in the first place. A fun little project to do is to go to IMDB look up your favorite genre films and read the negative reviews, you will see that no matter how great a movie is within a genre there are people on their keyboards who despise the best of the genre and have no problem attacking it from behind the computer screen. So toughen up and prepare to face down the critics as you appeal to the core of your audience.
So after weeks, hundreds of hours trapped in my office fueled on energy drinks, whiskey and cigarettes as I pounded a dent in my desk with my beautiful baldhead I emerged with a much better film, infinitely better and that hard work has paid off. Stay tuned as we announce some recent success with the fresh version of Agnation shortly.