My script had just been turned down for a grant and lost every contest I entered it into. It was clear the project I was working on at the time wasn’t going to get made. The last three years had meant nothing. And then it happened…
On a late night the right combination of angry and sad thoughts led me to write down one sentence: Two members of a youth cult attempt to stop their group from committing suicide.
Everything about the idea clicked. Instantly I understood its potential. I could see all of the different ways the story could play out. I knew I could write about ideas I really cared about, and be able to make it in my parents house with equipment I already owned. Thematically and practically it fit exactly what I needed to write at the time.
For the next couple of months I wrote more consistently than I ever have. I was determined to finish the rough draft before 2013 began. I didn’t experience writers block one time. There was so much I needed to say. It was the freest I’ve ever felt writing. On December 31, 2012 I finished the 180 page rough draft. “Cult” was born. From that point on people began to ask me my favorite question: “How’s the movie going?”
Cult completely wrapped photography on August 13. For the past 4 months I have been editing. Not only is this my first time writing & directing a feature, but it is also my first time editing one. I’ve edited shorter work before but it all pales in comparison to a feature.
It is usually a bad idea to have a director edit their own work. They become attached to the footage because they put so much work into shooting it. When I looked at a take I didn’t just see what was in it. I remembered the work and the time that went into making it. I could remember what intentions I had for it and why I did things a certain way. This can be terrible because every editing choice should be to serve the story above all else. I viewed everything I shot with a bias and pre-conceived ideas about how it would serve the story that may or may not have been true. This is usually why the editor is a separate person from the director. An editor will view the material cold and without any attachment to anything shot. They can freely chose which takes work best on a story telling level with nothing clouding their judgement.
Luckily, I had no problem cutting anything. I knew all of these possible post-production hindrances before I even decided to make the movie. I intentionally over shot a lot of things in the movie to give me options about what would be in the movie. I decided I wanted the film to be around 80 minutes in length before editing began. This was for energy reasons. I didn’t want the audience to get bored and I wanted to keep the narrative concise.
The design of the film really did come from a place of simplicity. Obviously, if the story could go longer or shorter I would have allowed it to do so, but I felt having an idea of where I wanted it to be (based on the running time of similar films) I would be more willing to cut unnecessary parts. This was similar to how Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher conceived “The Social Network.” The script was 160 pages, but they knew they wanted it to be a 2 movie. The characters were meant to speak fast and editing was meant to be extremely tight. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall won Oscars for how well they were able to make sense of this story through simple and concise editing.
Here is a really good interview with them.
The rough cut of the Cult was 110 minutes. This meant that after finely cutting the scenes, I had about 20 more minutes I didn’t mind losing in order to achieve my run-time. Again, this time wasn’t to cut for the sake of achieving a run time, but just a way to make me feel better about cutting things that would have had to go regardless. I did the same thing when I wrote the rough draft of the script. Whatever ideas I had went in, and I would just cut it down later when I typed it up. The handwritten rough draft would have been 3 (terrible and unorganized) hours, and I brought it down to 90 pages by the final draft. (The average length of a feature film.) I try and get as much as I can, and then only use the best stuff.
The opening scene of the film was 30 minutes long. Obviously it had no rhythm or energy in the rough version so I got to cut things down. I was able to keep the best parts in there and trim things that were redundant or for lack of a better word, boring. Cutting shots out didn’t feel bad. I didn’t care about the work that went into them. I’d be angry if the film was anything less than it could be, so I was happy to chop 20 minutes out of it. What would be the point of all that work on set if it didn’t serve the final product. I cut an entire day of shooting out of the movie. And while that was hard to do, it was extremely necessary for the film’s narrative flow. That 30 minute rough opening scene was brought down to 14 minutes.
After editing for a while I took a break for a week so I could come back to the project with fresh eyes. This is extremely important, because editing will hypnotize you. You sit in the dark staring at a screen watching and hearing the same things over and over. You can lose track of the story and the importance of what you are doing if you don’t view it objectively as a whole. Upon viewing the film from beginning to end for the first time in its entirety many changes were made. Some scenes were actually extended, some were shortened or even removed all together. Seeing the film as a whole makes you realize where the core of the story is and what scenes you need to tell it. You can understand which notes you need to hit harder to drive the point home. It’s also how you measure the pacing of the film.
Pacing is a difficult element to get right. When you are writing and editing a scene you want the scene to live its fullest potential just within the scene itself. It doesn’t matter what comes before or after your concern is making the scene good. However, everything you are doing just in that one scene will effect the flow and feel of the entire movie. Now some tough choices have to be made. Do you adjust the scene to make the pacing of the overall film better, or do you leave it because what’s happening within needs to play out the way you edited it for just that moment. This is where editors like Sally Manke [RIP] and Thelma Schoonmaker are my main influences. They are masters at letting scenes play out as long as they have to but still keeping the narrative flow moving. It is magic what they can do.
I look at Martin Scorsese’s latest movie “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and I just can’t believe how amazing Schoonmaker’s editing is. The movie is three hours long and some of the scenes last more than ten minutes, yet it still moves along at a fast pace. It may be Scorsese’s fastest moving film to date.
So while an editing compromise sometimes had to be made for the sake of pacing, I did find little ways to try and keep the film moving forward even after letting it sit on certain scenes for a while. I really dislike the notion of weakening a scene for the bigger picture, but I rarely had to do it.
I researched all of my favorite films and watched their editing choices. I tried to imagine myself in the editing room with Scorsese debating why we cut the scene there, why we used that music, why certain reaction shots were held on, which close ups we should use. It was so helpful to my own editing to pretend to edit and discuss certain choices with my favorite filmmakers. I just have to say, being able to call watching movies and daydreaming “research” truly convinces me filmmaking is the best career in the world.
But after months of editing there was still something off about it. The problem was obvious and I knew before I began shooting I would probably have to do what I did. The Canon 7D is a great low budget camera but it has its limitations. Color is one of them. The image quality can seem muddy at times. This was also the first film I’ve ever lit so I didn’t really know how to use the lights to achieve the right color balance. Not that I had a lighting meter or gels to begin with. Christopher Nolan faced a similar problem on his first feature film “Following.” In order to defeat his color limitations he just avoided them all together. He shot in black and white because he didn’t have the budget for proper color lighting. Black and white film stock is also cheaper which is why a lot of first time filmmakers up until this last decade shot with it.
So I made the choice to convert Cult into black and white. Not only did it work for the practical reasons I wanted, but it worked thematically as well. By going black and white I had achieved the classic and moody tone I wanted. It just worked. I had shot the film in a very classical way and monochrome complimented that style. I also felt like I was connecting with other first time directors throughout history who had no choice but to shoot their movie on black and white S16 film stock.
However, I didn’t want to completely copy the look of those films. The film is still in 2.40 widescreen which I feel gives it a unique look. Most black and white films were in 4×3 fullscreen because that was just the shape of the film stock. Being in the digital age I could do things that just weren’t options to the directors of the past. I actually color corrected the entire film in color before converting it to black and white. I gave a unique grade in order to effect how those colors were interpreted into black and white. So while there are many classical elements to the film, I used the technology I have to create something I think is unique. “Frances Ha,” and the recently opened “Nebraska” have both done similar things to achieve their unique B&W looks.
Check out the teaser trailer for Cult:
I was able to shoot and edit this movie in a classic way but still do new things that I felt served the story. I really like films that respect the past but still try to push the form, and I’ve finally been able to make one. Now my work is done and the film is the hands of sound designer Abe Diaz. I can’t wait to start showing it to everyone.
2013 AND BEYOND THE INFINITE
I am so happy to be alive in a time where we have these amazing artists releasing some of the most creative work the world has ever seen. From Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker” to Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 2013 has been one of the best years for cinema. Next year is shaping up to be just as great with films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” and Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
I’m so happy that Cult will be joining the list of films in 2014. Before any of this started I was beginning to think it would be a long time before I got to make a feature. I’m so thankful for everyone who has been a part of this project. Without every single one of you this would not be a reality. We are a small part of film’s history now. Let’s be a big part of its future.
Happy New Year, friends.