Editing on set offers a different take – one direct from the frontline. I’m convinced that in many cases it helped when I was on set, and the directors of photographers saw it. The point is to know as soon as possible whether something has worked or not. I don’t know any camera operators who aren’t interested; they always want to watch the material, they come to the editing suite and discuss what they see. When I edit on set during shooting, we immediately enter into collaboration, we become partners. I reckon it’s the best possible solution. I’m close by all the time, I can talk to the camera operator and show him a scene and ask for something more to be shot if something’s missing. It’s not always possible, of course; we have limited time, we move to new locations. Ultimately, communication and openness are the most important factors. I’m guessing Andrzej Jakimowski will always use on-set editing now. We did it with both Tricks and Imagine. I think it’s a good method, which helps the film.
Of course, there is a totally different way. The material ends up in a dark room, in the hands of a person with a fresh perspective. It’s the pure form of that first edit. This also has its positive side. An editor who has seen how the takes were shot is burdened with what happened on set, with the difficulties of the shooting, with expectations. For example, in Imagine there’s a scene where the blind central character, Ian, walks along a quayside. I was on set and saw it being shot; it was at night, the crew had a camera up on a crane for several hours making sure it was high enough and made the right movements. The tide had gone out, there was a drop of several metres down to the water, and the actor was walking 20 centimetres from a high harbour wall without any protection. It was all very tense. How can I cut out something like that?
To cut out or not to cut out – the case of the butterfly
Occasionally it happens – I’m revealing the biggest secret of our collaboration right now – that conflicts can arise when camera operators come to the edit suite. Of course, both camps are thinking about the film and want the best for it, but each one is searching for something different. I once edited a film where the camera operator used very long tracking shots – tens of yards long, set in difficult terrain in a forest. There were five shots like that, each one very long. In the first cut I only used a fragment of each shot, which added up to a combined running time of around one minute. After the screening it turned out that the camera operator thought that each of the tracking shots would be used in its entirety. He felt they couldn’t be mixed because they each had different rhythms. They would have added up to five minutes of film. It does happen that there are incredible master shots which last several minutes – all of them acted superbly – and the audience watch in amazement and are convinced that no cuts could be made. In a situation like that, however, the overarching value is the film and its drama. In this specific case I decided the film ought to be edited differently. The director of photography kicked up an almighty stink and the entire situation ended with me being bad-mouthed. A bitter aftertaste remained a long time after. Interestingly, the director only left glimpses of those five takes; a second of each. Finally, the entire scene only lasted a few seconds.
Of course, conflicts can have a positive effect on a film. Something new always arises from a conflict. It acts as a stimulant and although some blood is spilt, the film gains. That’s why it’s sometimes worth taking off the gloves. I had one of the most incredible battles with Adam Bajerski during Tricks. It was a fight over one take lasting several months. The central character’s father is sitting in a café at a provincial railway station, drinking coffee and chatting up the waitress. Meanwhile, his young son is setting up toy soldiers on either side of some steps. The camera tracks back from a tight close-up of the café to a wide shot in which the entire station building can be seen. That shot lasted over half a minute. Before the camera started rolling, a white butterfly flew across the foreground. It fluttered upwards, dropped downwards, described an elegant arc and flew out of the other side of the frame. It did it as playfully as if it had been asked to play the role of a butterfly in the shot. Pure poetry. The problem was that something had caught the crew’s attention and the camera stayed motionless for a few more seconds after the butterfly appeared. At that moment, nothing was happening in the frame.