“Think of editing as writing the final draft of the script, with the written script being merely an earlier pass. In other words, give yourself permission to depart from what you wrote in favor of what you shot. Given the organic nature of filming, not everything will work out as you’d imagined … now’s your chance to rewrite it so it does, if you’re willing to re-imagine. If something doesn’t work the way you thought it should, try either removing it or limiting it to a point where you’ve at least gotten the idea across using a partial version of what you’ve shot. Try it either way … any and all ways … and see what happens.”
— Frank Darabont
excerpt from Effloresce editing note
In the fall of 2004, acclaimed director Frank Darabont, known for his delicate character studies in films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Majestic, graciously offered editing advice for Painted Saint Entertainment’s inaugural project, the short film Effloresce.
Kathleen Davison, Writer/Director of Effloresce, first encountered Darabont during the filming of The Green Mile. “We met on the set when my then business partner, Doug Hutchison, was playing the role of Percy,” explains Davison. Over time they continued their acquaintance. “For several years, Frank occasionally hosted screenings of his favorite films on Friday nights for a smattering of friends and industry folk he was working with. These were my soul food fixes. Going to Frank’s flicker show was like church for me, and you can bet that I devoutly attended.
Frank and I caught up with one another every now and again after films, but it was The Majestic that made us friends.” “I loved The Majestic. The story spoke to me with a theme common to my own writing: the power of nontraditional kin–that sometimes our truest family is found far from the proverbial tree. I wrote Frank a letter extolling his work and letting him know how it moved me. Frank set out to make a Capra-esque film and I felt he did an excellent job of accomplishing that. Most Critics can’t appreciate those old school sensibilities, but I believe that our current film standards would do nicely with a little Capra-infused sentiment. Sentimentality is only disgusting to me when I feel like I’m being pushed to feel something the story doesn’t justify. I didn’t feel that way about It’s a Wonderful Life and I don’t feel that about The Majestic. I’d consider it a great achievement to make a Darabont-esque film that delves deep into the lives of vulnerable characters battling from compromised positions.”
Naturally Davison turned to the experienced Darabont for career advice. “Frank is one of the first people I shared my thoughts with when I decided I was ready to direct film. I had long planned on being a filmmaker at large: writing, directing, producing, and occasionally acting in my work. I focused on each discipline separately, and for whatever reason, I came to directing last. It never occurred to me as I was building my plan that time may take a toll. So when I finally rolled around to directing a decade later, I was concerned that I might be too old to be well-received as a new director. I confided my fears in Frank and he gave me some sage advice and a good shove over my paranoid hump. He’s become one of my most valued teachers.”
In 2004 Kathleen chartered Paint Saint Entertainment, LLC, and pulled together the funding for Effloresce. With principal photography complete by the end of summer, she ventured into the post-production process with Editor Todd Sheridan Perry. During this time Darabont started lobbying to see how things were progressing. As Davison relates, “I didn’t intend to show him the film until it was entirely finished, figuring I’d be lucky to have him as an audience member just once and under the best of circumstances. But Frank requested to see a rough cut. When I expressed my nervousness over showing him anything prematurely, he pointed out that his reflections would be of little help once we picture locked and absolutely pointless by the time we printed. An invitation for Frank Darabont to critique my work? Holy cow, YES! But I felt a little like a might pee my pants.”
“Before the viewing, I told Frank, ‘Look, you’re allowed to hate it. All I ask is that you be honest, and if I walk away having learned something, I’ll be eternally grateful.’ I supposed he would watch it once, give a few notes and that would be it. I’d be out of his hair in 45 minutes.” “Frank was sitting in front of me during the screening. I will never forget the excitement of that–watching my film superimposed with the silhouette of my hero. Really, life doesn’t get any cooler. When the film finished, I madly scribbled several pages of comments from Frank in a little notepad. I was thrilled to get comprehensive feedback from someone other than my mother. Just when I was ready to pack my memo pad in my pocket and jet, Frank began going through the film scene by scene in slow scan, offering new perspectives and possibilities. I was overjoyed. I felt completely renewed. For one of the first times in my life it was really good to be green (largely due to Frank’s ability to address a novice without making them feel stupid).” “Three hours later, I danced out of there on twinkly tingly toes. The editing intensive would open my eyes to ways I could ultimately trim my 34 minute film down to a much improved 26 minute version. Even better, I was instructed to do my assignment and return with the next pass. A few weeks later, Frank met with Todd and me to watch our new cut.” (It’s not surprising that Darabont would delve so deeply into the process. Clearly this is a phase of filmmaking that he delights in. When at the DGA Awards with The Green Mile, Frank enthused, “I love being in the editing room, because that’s where you’re really making your movie. You’re recapturing the creative spark of what inspired you in the first place.”)
“After the second marathon meeting with Frank, we had tightened the film to the point that I needed to make my final choices as a director in order to picture lock. In the end, no matter who offers advice, the director needs to make their film. I felt all the more confident about those final decisions knowing that I had spun this thing and exhausted the angles with one of the best advisors I could hope for.” Darabont would shoot along follow-up e-mails with helpful reminders to keep Kathleen on track: “Just ’cause you shot it, doesn’t mean you have to use it. This holds true for any given shot in the movie. If an angle (or moment) isn’t working, try it without it. See what happens. And remember the head-and-tails rule. See how short any given shot in the movie can be. Start as late into the action as you can, and get out as soon as you can and still have it make sense and get across what you’re trying to convey. (The same holds true for entire scenes … look at them all and decide if there’s a point in the scene where you can start later or end earlier, even if it means cutting dialogue that’s there. Maybe the dialogue is dispensable!)” Davison credits Darabont with deepening her understanding of the process and encouraging her to exhaust the potentials by exercising them. “Frank taught me how to play with the edit. The most surprising pieces of his wisdom revolved around how much you can do with extremely limited coverage and takes. I believe the film is vastly improved because he gave me a broader perspective of editing capabilities as well as permission to toss things out. When you have very little footage to work with the first place, it’s hard to accept that you can afford to lose any of it. But you can. Lordy, trust me, you can! He turned me on to ways I could significantly alter the pacing of the film just by tiny trimming and toying with sound.” This advice helped Kathleen finesse a thorny transition problem. “He got me over a technical hurdle in a scene that had a lighting error at the top. It had only been shot in continuous steadicam takes and I couldn’t figure out a way around this glaring botch in the take I wanted to use. Frank suggested that I experiment with laying the opening dialog over the tail of the preceding scene and it worked like a charm so that the audio transition led the visual transition, bringing us in immediately after the lighting botch resolved itself … it also shaved a few seconds off the film.
Editor Perry was sometimes surprised by Darabont’s advice. Todd relates his reaction to one of Darabont’s notes: “Hmm, that’s interesting. I have reservations that that’ll work … holy shit, it worked!” Perry also noted an appreciation for Darabont’s story-telling touch. “Frank helped us find a story that was less sappy. We had a tendency to lean toward mechanisms that felt a little too heavyhanded–-ones that by Kat’s own admission were appropriate for a certain women’s network (though not her intention). Frank guided editing in ways that made the story a little more open and ambiguous, allowing the audience to decide for themselves how they should feel about the situation.” Perry went further by explaining how Darabont’s input shaped critical moments. “Kat and I had the idea that the audience should be jarred into the story, and we were heading in that direction. But with Frank’s initial round of notes, the opening was tightened further, increasing the pace, and therefore bringing us into the story even MORE quickly.”
With Effloresce nearing completion, it’s apparent that Davison doesn’t just draw on Darabont’s artistry for inspiration. “One of the things I most appreciate about Frank is the way he empowers people. In the time I’ve known him, I’ve witnessed him initiate a number of acts of kindness that I know meant the world to the recipients.” Davison’s own Painted Saint Entertainment, a production company that brings a new wave of industry professionals into a tight-knit collective, is organized around the principles of empowerment and mentorship. Frank Darabont once exhorted independent filmmakers with this advice: “If you have a dream get up off your ass and start putting one foot in of the other.” Clearly, Kathleen Davison was listening.