Jamie (my editor) and I are shaping my first film, a largely improvised feature shot at the end of 2007, called HEART OF NOW. She has done an amazing job of rediscovering the film within the material we shot. Our first cut was 150+ minutes and not long ago did she find the key that let us jettison 45 minutes.
Now with a 103 minute cut, Jamie made the point that we have taken the film as far as we could go on our own. And that we needed the fresh perspectives of trusted collaborators and colleagues to help fill in the blindspots we may have developed by being so familiar with the material.
At Sabi Pictures, we incorporate collaboration into as many aspects of our productions as we can. Editing, however, remains one component that requires the single mind of an editor to delve into the material and re-discover the film. Lately, we have found a way to reintroduce collaboration into the shaping of the film by enlisting the audience.
The best way for me to give advice is simply to relate what we’ve been doing with our own film. Keep in mind, I used to work for an evil corporation that held test screenings for all the major studio films. So I learned how the studios do it first hand, and have adapted that for indies.
To prepare for the screening, I booked a theater — the Downtown Independent in LA is probably the greatest, most indie-friendly, venue in all of Los Angeles. It has state of the art picture and sound, 238 stadium seats, and you can book it for less than the cost of most 40 seat screening rooms elsewhere in the city. It only cost me $300 to get feedback in a theatrical setting.
We made comment cards that asked:
• Would you recommend this movie to a friend?
• What is your overall reaction to the film? Did this story resonate with you emotionally?
• How do you feel about the character Amber, played by Marion Kerr?
• How do you feel about the character Gabe, played by Kelly McKracken?
• Were you confused about any of the character’s relationships? How they knew each other? Or how they were introduced?
• What were your favorite scenes?
• What were your least favorite scenes?
• Do you have a favorite character? Why?
• Did you have a least favorite character? Why?
• Were there any scenes, shots, transitions or cuts that jarred you out of the story?
• Were you aware of the music switching from diegetic (sound in the characters’ world) to non-diegetic (score)? And did that affect your enjoyment in any way?
• Any other thoughts you’d like to add that were not addressed in the previous questions?
That first question is how the studios rank a film, quick and dirty. If more than 80% say they will definitely recommend the film, they’ll leave it alone. If not, they’ll tinker. I think it’s different for indies, unless you can enlist a purely “indie niche” test audience. Because if your film is like most, it appeals to a niche. So the answer here is more often than not, “it depends on the friend”.
The above are all valuable questions but only intended to get the gut reaction. Because much more important than this is the conversation held afterward. For that, I have the following advice.
• Protect the anonymous nature of filling out the comment cards by having someone other than the director or producer collect them. And don’t read them before you have the conversation. Do that in private afterwards.
• Make sure you invite people who know how to watch a rough cut. Picture and sound will likely be unfinished. Many people are simply not equipped to see beyond that.
• DO NOT answer any questions by defending or explaining why you made a choice. It doesn’t matter what you intended, only how they reacted to it. And explaining it, negates the purpose having a fresh perspective on it.
• Turn questions about meaning or intent back on the audience. Ask them “why they think it might be that way”. Sometimes they are afraid to offer an interpretation out of fear of being “wrong”. A little nudge can open a floodgate to some great insights.
• Record the conversation. And review it. Memory is not perfect, at least mine isn’t. And often my perception of what was discussed and what was important… changes over time. So it’s good to go back and refresh your understanding of what people really had to say.
Now taking this info into the edit bay and handling it properly is the most important part. It is your decision what you choose to address, and what you don’t. Just understand that much critical feedback will point to specific scenes as “where it hurts”, but that is not necessarily what is “causing the pain”. Take a macro approach to the feedback and address it in the micro.
And it should go without saying, but check in with each person two weeks later to see how the film has settled with them. Most of us develop new appreciations and shed biases toward a film after letting some time pass.
Despite the natural fears one has about sharing a film for the first time, the feedback and encouragement we received left us energized with a renewed focus. We’re grateful to the test audience for helping us and thankful that anything we choose to address in the edit, is addressable.
Posted in Heart of Now creative collaboration