Thursday, January 23, 2014

Carol Littleton on "Body Heat"

Back when I taught screenwriting, in order to help demystify the screenwriting process, I would have students read along with the script for Body Heat while we watched the movie.

CAROL LITTLETON: Did you work from the shooting script?

Well, that's the crux of my question. I got the shooting script and in order to make it match the finished movie, I had to tear it apart and literally cut and paste it back together.

CAROL LITTLETON: Well, that's what editing is. If all we had to do is follow the script, it would be very easy. It would be like a dress pattern; you lay the pattern down on the table and you pin it against the material and you just cut along the lines. If that's what film editing is, then everybody could do it.

As editors, we're given the pattern -- which is the script -- and then we make a movie out of it. And in Body Heat, you saw exactly what we did. We changed the structure, we dropped a lot of stuff.

What was the process of finding that movie?

CAROL LITTLETON: It was like any movie. The routine for us, those of us who work on Hollywood films, is that we start cutting when they start shooting. In this particular case, Larry (Kasdan) wanted me to be involved early on. I went to rehearsals.

He felt, and I think it's one of the smartest ideas going for a director, if you can get all the people together, even just to read through the script and discuss the script before you start shooting, then everybody knows what his intent is from the beginning.

So if I'm there in the rehearsals, I know the direction of the scenes, what would be ideal for those scenes: where the emphasis is, how the humor plays out, all the different values in the scene. I can get an idea of that in rehearsal. So I sat there and took little notes for myself about choices that were being made in rehearsal and how to look for them when the footage would come in.

We start from the beginning. If it's not rehearsals, then it's day one. We're putting the film together, out of sequence -- in shooting sequence -- and we're revising as we get big blocks. We look at those big blocks another one once all the material comes in.

A week or so after they've finished shooting, we have a film that represents the script. Every scene is in. Everything they shot is there. And we sit down and look at it.

In the case of Body Heat we took it to a screening room and looked at it with no interruptions. And then we said, "Well, we have a lot of work to do."

All of the things that the script had were not in the film at that point. It wasn't suspenseful enough -- it was suspenseful, but not enough. The humor was not as funny as it should be. The characters were not as clear as they could be. It was too -- I don't want to say pornographic -- but it was not suggestive enough as a sexy movie. It needed to be more erotic and less specific, less obvious. And in too many scenes, things were revealed literally too soon for them to be erotic (from my point of view). I think things are erotic when they're suggestive and indirect. Eroticism is not just showing a naked body; it has to have a certain amount of romance as well.

We had some problems and that's where we started. We just said, "Well ... let's start." Larry saw the problems as well as I did, it wasn't a one-way street. And we sat down and literally collaborated.

The pictures I've done with Larry have been the best, from the standpoint of collaboration. I really respect him as a writer, he's a fabulous writer. He's a wonderful director. He's an extraordinary person, very humane, very kind, very gentle. We just have a very good working relationship.

We experimented a lot, because you don't know the 'how.' You know 'what' needs to be done, but the editing process really is discovering how to do it the best way. When I'm working on a film -- every film -- we will have screenings and people feel that they have to tell you what's wrong with the movie and how to fix it. I never listen to how to fix it; I only listen to what they perceive the problem to be. They aren't editors and they don't know what the footage is, they're not inside the process at all.

I could drive your car around the block and say, "You know, it's riding kind of rough and I think you just need to take the engine out and put a new one in." And all it really needs is a spark plug. So that's how I listen to people's comments at screenings; they are utterly worthless to me, unless they just say, "I didn't like that moment and I didn't get it -- it wasn't clear to me." That's helpful.

But to come to me, or to Larry, or to any director for that matter, and say "I think you ought to move this scene forward and that scene back," how would they even know how to say that? Producers today think they can do that, and I can tell you there's only one producer I've worked with who knows the process as well or better than I do, and he's phenomenal, and that's Scott Rudin. But he's an old pro and he knows to let the creative team figure it out.

How long did it take to edit Body Heat?

CAROL LITTLETON: I think we worked in editorial -- apart from the time that I worked while they were shooting, which was about three months -- I think Larry had ten weeks for his director's cut. We looked at it again, then took it up for George Lucas to see. George was the Executive Producer, although he did not take a screen credit. We took it up to Skywalker to show it to him about ten or eleven weeks after. We talked about it. We had a few little pick-ups to do, one day I think, and a couple of inserts.

And then we had another couple of months of revisions, so that would have put us at 18 weeks of post. Then, in those days, you mixed it, cut the negative, had an answer print and previewed the film at that point.

In our case, we had two previews after we mixed it and before we cut the negative. We had one in San Jose and then in Seattle. Then we finished the movie. So that would have been 22 to 24 weeks of post. It's not too little or too much. It's about what it takes to do a film.

Editing a film is not about speed. It's about thinking about it long enough and trying things. It's as though a writer takes yet another version of his script and does a huge re-write. You have to figure out new ways of solving problems.

So it's really just a re-write. That's what editing is -- the final re-write.

It was really funny, when we were doing E.T., which of course had a lot of changes and a lot of stuff that we did. I remember one day Steven (Spielberg) said, "You know, what we're doing is we're actually making the movie here in the editing room." He would always say funny, obvious things like that.

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