Saturday, October 1, 2011

Trimming the Fat

Now it's time for reality to set in about the world's reaction to Tolltaker.

I'm not complaining about the reaction. Just the opposite. There has been an outburst of enthusiasm surrounding the movie's first screening at a film festival (or, at least, it was the first screening of the completed film, and not a work in progress). Reactions to it have all been positive - but of course people are going to be that way to your face. They just want to be nice.

Actual, specific criticisms I received, I took to heart. For example, Peter Woortman, a screenwriter who had just taught a semester at Rutgers (no, I was not a member of his class), saw a cut of it and commented that the first scene, the one with the waitress, could be shortened a bit. He suggested that we pick up the scene at a point later than we had previously, cutting off the beginning, which consisted mostly of dialogue that essentially repeated what the voice-over narration had just told us.

"I was ahead of it," was the way Peter put it to me.

Now, I don't know if I had just come across a standard piece of industry lingo, and my ignorance of it was therefore to be considered proof of my amateur status. But that phrase stood out for me. "I was ahead of it."

A valuable lesson to be learned there. The viewer is constructing the story in his head as you, the director, are constructing it on the screen. Sometimes the viewer is constructing it faster than you, at which point he gets frustrated and tunes out, because he's impatient for you to just get on with it already. As the story-teller, you can't let that happen.

So I cut out the opening third of that scene, which was a tough pill to swallow, since we opened with a gorgeous dolly-in that beautifully established the entire diner. But I do agree that it was the right move to make. Now, instead, we open in the middle of a private moment of shared anxiety between the young Bobby and the waitress. We begin at the level of tension that was established by the montage of Vietnam news footage just previous. And the information we're getting is fresh, too. Not a re-hash of what we've just been told.

This operation removed some slackness in the narrative. But there was also Vince's suggestion to cut out Bobby's scenes with Paw-Paw and Nick. I had thought they added different dimensions to the overall story by showing how Bobby had in his grandfather an accomplice in denial, and also showing how earnestly Nick wanted to win Bobby over.

However, Vince said, the focus should be on Bobby. Especially given that this is a short film. Or it's supposed to be. At 23 minutes, it's already too long to expect your average agent to sit through it. So - You must kill your darlings, as Faulkner said, and I cut a version of the film without those two scenes.

I do think that Vince is right about the tighter focus that the shorter cut gives to the film. But does the value of that focus outweigh the value provided by those two cut scenes? I can't tell. It's that whole being-too-close-to-it thing. So, just like the studios, we'll do a couple test screenings. Following are two links, one to the version of the film with those two scenes cut, and one with them left in. If anybody wanted to take a look at them and get back to me with an opinion on which is better, I'd certainly appreciate it. The links:

For the "long" version:

For the "short" version:

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