P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

On editing and storytelling
An interview with Anders Refn

Rasmus Stampe-Hjorth

Rasmus Stampe-Hjorth has been working as an editor with Anders Refn on an episode of the Danish Broadcasting Company's TV series Magtens Billeder. This interview concerns mainly Anders Refn´s work as an editor, rather than his role as a director, for which he is also widely known.

Anders Refn's recent editing credits include Breaking the Waves (1996), P.O.V. (2001), Baby (2003) and Tid til forandring (2004). He also wrote and directed Strømer (1976), Slægten (1978), The Flying Devils (1985), Sort høst (1994), and Seth (1998). TV series: En gang strømer (1987), Taxa (1996). He has won a number of prestigious prizes.

First of all Anders I would like to congratulate you on winning the Bodil Award given to you for your enormous contribution to Danish film throughout the years. What does the prize mean to you?

I was of course very happy to receive the prize, but you don't make films to win prices. Roberto Benigni said: "Getting a prize is like a kiss and a kiss is always nice".

You work as a" lifesaver" for many national and international films. As an editor what is it you do to make a film's storytelling work?

It is very difficult to explain what film editing is about because very few people know what our work really involves. Often it is not a question of choosing but of removing parts that don't work. Basically the biggest problem in movies is that many directors are afraid that the audience won't understand the message of the film, and therefore they tell the same things over and over. There is a rule of thumb that if you say something one time at the right place and with the right timing, you don't have to say it again. Film editing is dramaturgy in practise, and it isn't always a question of making beautiful cuts. What counts is bringing the story to life and boosting the scenes. And one purpose of editing is to protect the audience from bad acting. As soon as you can feel that the actor is not reliable or low on energy, you should cut it out. Improving the acting in a film is of vital importance.

When you give first aid to a film you sit down, watch the movie, and figure out why it doesn't work. Is it because the film does not start the right way, or still has elements from old ideas that never worked and should be removed? Or are the actors not moving smoothly because the movie has been cut to hard, or do the actors almost seem to stand still because the film has been edited too slow?

A very important principle I always use is: "Get in late and get out early". In other words, enter the scene as late as you dare and get out again as soon as possible. An example is a man who enters the scene; cut to where he says: "I want a divorce", and cut again to where the wife picks up the gun and shoots him.

I look for the good qualities in a film and also try to cut to the bone, and the most difficult thing of all is to take out a very good scene because it detracts from the energy of the next scene and ruins the core of the film. It can be very difficult to do this because the scene was sometimes very expensive to make and therefore it can be hard for the director to understand why it should be sacrificed. Many directors are, at that point of the project, very sensitive about the film and that's why it's important that you get along with the director. In the end it's the director's decision as to whether or not the scene should be cut. Of course there are times when you as the editor should challenge the director; and he should fight for every inch of the movie. But in the end he is the movie's advocate, and you kill directors, not editors. If the movie fails the director takes all the beating, the producer makes another company, the editor edits another movie, and the director is left with the pain. That's why it's very important that you as the editor be engaged and agree on the message of the film.

I have noticed that you often cut films very brutally; taking out word and spaces, and that you like it when people can see there's a cut, a jump cut, a cut in sound, etc. - That you like it when it's a bit rough. Just now, in "Tid til forandring", where you combined images in focus with images that weren't. Why do you tell stories in that way?

I have edited many films and I can say that good films have good actors and bad films have bad actors… (laughter). So whatever you can do to improve the acting you should do, and I prefer to make an ugly cut if I can improve the acting instead of making a nice, smooth cut that you won't notice. The authenticity in the acting is so important and a good editor is an editor who can make the acting stand out.

So much has happened to film editing over the years. I remember when I started as an editor and was faithful to the principles of visual continuity which were established in the 40´s, requiring that you observe the 180 degree rule, ensure eye-scanning points when crosscutting, etc. Today all those rules are discarded. Today you edit with a different energy and intensity. You can make jump cuts, rush pan, all kinds of cuts in the editing.

In Breaking the Waves, Lars and I had decided that in the first sequence we wanted to break all possible rules of editing and continuity. Wrong point of view, no establishing shots, blurred images. We also found a scratch on one of the negatives that we put in the scene; we put in a take where they were looking into the lens, backlight that was edited with front light. We wanted to see what it did to the film when we broke the classical rules of editing. We found that the editing was more relaxed and a more dynamic way of telling the story. Our main rule was that we were looking for the emotion of the scene and as soon as the emotion lost its intensity, we made a cut. Even if the actors were in the middle of the shot, or we had to make a jump-cut, in order to maintain the emotional energy in the scene and the acting.

We also made another rule: that we didn't want to transport people in and out of the picture. We did not want people to leave one scene and enter the next one. As soon as we thought that the scene had culminated emotionally, then we made a cut no matter where the person was in the picture. This resulted in a rough, chaotic style which had a bigger impact on the persons who saw the film. If we had cut it the classical way with nice dolly movements and beautiful backlight combined with the sensitive and emotional film, I think that the audience would have puked. In many ways Breaking the Waves is one of the most radical films I have made till now. It was a new editing style. Lars had tried it a bit - in Riget (The Kingdom) - and I had tried it a bit in En gang strømer.

Sometimes you make the best cuts by an accident. You put two images together which weren't meant to be joined, and suddenly something happens and it works! James Joyce said "Error is a portal of innovation". Like if you intend to include some transport sequence as you learned to use in order not to confuse the audience, and then you forget to put it in, and the scene turns out to be much better. That's why you always end up with a product that's different from the script. If a word or a sentence doesn't work, I cut it out. If a person is unhappy and you can see it, I don't want him to explain to me that he is unhappy, it's enough that you can detect his emotions just by looking at him.

When you enter the final phase in editing a movie, you cut to the bone and take out parts that are superfluous. I have been working on several projects this summer: one in Reykjavik, one in Oslo, and the latest - Populärmusic från Vittula - in Stockholm, and when I start working with films - where the editor and the director have been sitting for a long time - I come with "fresh eyes" and I know just what to delete in the movie to make it work. Of course I can be mistaken in my judgment, but it often helps to see the film with fresh eyes and not to have read the script in advance when you give first aid to a film.

If you make a movie longer than necessary, you also tire the audience and it's important to maintain the audience's attention on the film and let the film surprise them, instead of letting them sit and wait for the next thing to happen. The film needs to be dynamic and should be able to astonish the audience.

When I edit, I choose the scenes that are the most dynamic, and then I can live with the fact that the images or the editing may not be perfect, because actually I think it gives more energy to the scenes if they're a bit rough; better that than making them too perfect. (laughter)

In the beginning, my films were made with perfect, smooth cuts - like in Strømer and Slægten. And that's a style I have tried to rebel against ever since.

Being a film editor means seducing the audience; making them cry or laugh. Editors are often mentioned as the nameless heroes because nobody knows what we're doing. Who can tell the difference between good and bad editing? It's difficult even for professionals, and basically editing is just trying to make the actors come alive and move the audience. To pull the actors out of the screen and let them sit on our lap.

You have been working for Lars von Trier for a number of years now, both as a co-director and as an editor (Refn received a Robert award for his editing of Breaking the Waves). And recently you worked as an assisting director on Dogville. What is it that makes you and Lars such a good team?

During a project many directors have great doubts, because one thinks one thing and another person thinks something else. But Lars is very consistent and puts a great will behind the project and that's why working with Lars is so extremely stimulating and interesting. Besides that, he is also a very talented editor and has a great sense of editing. He is also very good at following his own rules of editing no matter what. And if we have decided that some scene doesn't work, then Lars is very unsentimental with his own work and has no problem leaving it out. A lot of other directors fight till the end for scenes that don't work, hoping that they can be salvaged in some way or other. Lars is always ultra concentrated. In Breaking the Waves we shot 75,000 meters of 35 mm. film stock, edited in 8 weeks, and then had some test screenings which only resulted in very few corrections being made. That was the first time I worked with AVID and I don't think we could have done it without the digital editing. It made it possible to work with the material in a completely different way: much wilder than we used to, because we could now try everything by just making a copy. Before that we didn't dare to take any chances, because it was so difficult to return to our starting point. That's also the reason why today, we can make a pre-cut of a movie in just one week and that makes it possible to experiment with the editing.

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