There are three versions of every feature film: as written, as shot, and what comes out of post. The written and filmed story can often be too long as compared to some arbitrary target length. It is the editor’s job to get the film down such a “manageable length.” Since a film isn’t broadcast television and doesn’t have to fit into a time format, deciding on the right length is a vague concept. It’s like saying how long a book should be.
This idea was derived in part based on both the audience’s attention span to the story and how long their bladders held out. Couple this to a theater’s schedule – longer movies meant fewer screenings and, therefore, lower box office revenue. In past decades, the accepted length was in the 90 to 100 minute range. Modern blockbusters can easily clock in at 120 to 150 minutes. However, if you are an indie filmmaker and didn’t produce a film starring Tom Cruise, then you better stick closely to that 100 minute mark.
The rule of thumb for a script is around one minute per page. 100 pages = 100 minutes. For the most part that works, until you hit a script line, such as, “and the battle ensued.” That can easily consume several minutes of screen time. And so, it takes careful reading and interpretation of a script to get a valid ballpark length. That not only impacts the final length, but also the shooting schedule, production budget, and more.
Walter Murch has a technique to get a good idea for the true length of a film. His method is to take a day or two and act out each scene of the script by himself – reading the dialogue and going through characters’ actions. As he does this, he times each scene. He’ll do this two or three times until he has a good average timing for each scene and a total estimate for the film. Then, as the film is being shot, he’ll compare his time estimates with those coming from the script supervisor. If they are radically off, then he knows that something deviated a lot from the written script. And that will need some explanation.
Trimming the first assembly
The starting point for any editor is to assemble everything according to the script. At this point, the editor does not have discretion to drop lines, scenes, or re-arrange anything. The point is to present an initial cut to the director, which is faithful to the director’s intention during filming. Now you know how long the combined material really is. It’s quite common for the film to be long. In fact, that’s better than being too short or even very close to the target length.
If a film runs 10-30% over, then according to Murch, you can get there through “diet and exercise.” If it’s 50-100% or more over-length, then it’s time for true “surgery” to figuratively lose some body parts or organs.
A film that’s 10-30% long can usually be trimmed in various ways, without losing any key scenes. One way is to cut lines more tightly together, which can also help with pacing. A film often has “shoe leather” – getting a character from point A to point B. For example, a character arrives home in his car, walks up to the front door, opens it, and enters the home. Here, the editor can cut from the car arriving home directly to the interior of the home as the actor enters. Another technique is to enter scenes a bit later and exit them earlier. And finally, as you see the assembled film, you may realize that there are redundant dialogue lines or early plot reveals that can be cut. All of these comprise the “diet and exercise” solution.
If the film is long and you can’t get to a desired length through “diet and exercise,” then more drastic cuts are needed. You might have to lose entire scenes or even characters. Sometimes this can focus the film by honing in on the real story. You often realize that some of these scenes weren’t needed after all and the film plays better without them. It’s at this stage, that the director and editor may re-arrange some of the scene order. In doing so, you may also discover that certain plot elements become obvious and that scenes, which might have foreshadowed or explained them aren’t needed after all. This process can takes days, weeks, or months.
It can also be painful for many directors. Some are happy to jump in and make severe cuts right away. Others have to go through an iterative process of whittling the film down in numerous passes over the course of weeks.
One of the earliest films I’ve cut was “The First of May.” It was a family film with a child lead actor coupled with an ensemble of older acting legends. Toss in a literal circus and you can see the complexity. The final length was long by what was assumed to be the “ideal” length for an indie, family film.
As we we getting down to the wire for the initial pitches to potential distributors, the producing partners – who split the roles of writer and director – were at odds over the length. One argument was that “ET” was a family film and it was long. The counter-argument was that this wasn’t “ET” and if it was too long, they’d never get in the door in the first place.
We were at an impasse and the co-producer/director and I did what we called the “slash and burn” edit. What could we cut out of the film to get to 90 minutes if told it had to absolutely be at that length? Unfortunately, this exercise didn’t sit well with the co-producer/writer. In the end, after some tense conversations, they were able to agree on an edit that held together well and met the objectives.
This is a dilemma that every editor/director team faces and it will always be painful for some. After all, when the editor cuts out the scene with that great crane shot that took all day to pull off, the director can’t help but wince. However, it’s all in service of the story. Remember, the audience only sees the film that they are presented with and will usually never know what was cut out. If the pacing and emotion are right and the story holds up and entertains, then you’ve done your job as an editor – no matter what the film’s final length is.
©2023 Oliver Peters
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