A dead body is not just a still body, it has a certain color. Not colorlessness, color. If you have seen one, depending on the length of time since death, it has a progression of losing (in the case of a Caucasian) pink and taking on grey. And there is almost an artificiality about it, as if the body never really lived. You can almost imagine that someone took away the carcass that used to be living and replaced it with a less-than-adequate substitute that is somehow not quite right. Without the life of the person that once inhabited it, the body loses more than the life it held; it loses its realism.
So often movies do not capture the appearance of death, particularly in the case of murders. The film may portray a body that is bloody, but that blood appears applied rather than shed; the body may be still, but not obviously absent spirit; it may be laid out, but lacks the seeming obscenity that accompanies one who is splayed ignominiously after having been felled.
I wanted the death of the young girl in the movie to be portrayed in a way that would capture the horror, sadness, and unfairness of murder. So many things had to come together just right to make that happen. The actress had to be willing to act, purely act. In other words, she had to abandon any attempt to “look good” and allow herself to be what she was to be….murdered. Director Roger Lindley had to arrange for her to be laid out on the bed in a convincing manner. The male on-looking actors had to be totally professional, because one simple jocular remark could have marred the seriousness with which the scene was laid out and played, and thus how it would appear on screen. And the camera work had to be exceptional, with the angle capturing the scene without being prurient or grotesque.
When I first viewed the takes of the death scene, I was silent and sad. It was that good. I stared for a long time, considering how much time should be on the body, and then on the action around the body. The balance needed to be struck with enough time on her to show that the scene was ever so serious, yet also sufficiently on the investigators to keep the action moving and the dialog relevant. It took a lot of thought and time, but in the end, it felt right.
But it had to wait until coloring to make the scene whole. By that I mean that the “dead” body was still pink, still alive.
When Colorist Justin Warren and I got to the death scene, we spent a lot of time analyzing it. I was the one who knew what hue of grey we were after for the body, so we worked until we got that. But we also needed to subdue the other colors in the room as well as the lighting. It had to inter-mesh.
In the end, we achieved a color correction for the scene that I think goes very well with the somberness of murder, with the loss of a young life. The effect on the viewer is subtle, but that is the way it should be. No one should know that the mood is being set; it should just happen.
But all of that effort at making sure that death is properly conveyed almost went for naught. It was during the final sound design review, after the coloring had been completed, when Johnny Marshall, our Sound Designer, said, “Hey, are you going to fix the heart throb?”
“What heart throb?” I asked. I felt that odd mix of adrenaline you get when you are at fault, coupled with a high level of anxiety over whether a serious mess can be righted. I guess the best description is that I was overcome with dread. Here we were, finished with editing, special effects, coloring, and in the final run-through of sound and there was a big problem.
“You know, Maria De La Cruz. When she is lying there dead, you can see the blood pulsing in her neck.”
Shit. My editor hadn’t seen it. My colorist hadn’t seen it. But most importantly, I hadn’t seen it. I am well aware of where the buck stops.
I went back to Justin even though we’d finished coloring. “Hey, let’s fix the heart throb.” And he did.
But the event really unnerved me. If I had missed that, what other obvious things had I missed? It is okay if I saw something and chose not to fix it, or couldn’t fix it. But the throb was in a scene for which I had pulled out all of the stops on the amount of time and level of attention I’d been willing to devote to getting it right.
But, thanks to all those who put so much into making that scene, I think it came off very well. And, thanks to Johnny, it wasn’t blown by having one stupid mistake, a heart throb.
There are some words that are so overworked that they have lost their gravity and grandeur. Think of awesome as in “Man, your shoes are awesome”. Awe is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Now really, are shoes (save Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz) ever really awesome?
Or think of the word literally. Someone told me, “My headache was so bad that my brain was literally exploding.” I couldn’t help wishing I’d seen that.
Fuck is similarly overworked. These days it is primarily used to emphasize, often with a tinge of anger. And common speech is so sprinkled with it that it has lost much of its cachet of obscenity.
Although I am far from being a prude, I decided early in drafting Revenge In Kind that I didn’t want lazy dialog littered with the word fuck. But could I have dialog that would be realistic without expletives? Answering that took me more time than you’d imagine. First I analyzed the characters to decide if their personalities and mode of speech would be more realistic and true if they said fuck a lot. I decided that indeed there was one character who would be more authentic if he did: a character named Brown.
In particular, there is a scene in a bar in which Brown gets really angry. I absolutely know that if he were to verbalize, he would not only say fuck, he would call someone an asshole, etc. I thought about this a while and decided that I could actually make his anger even more powerful than his voice and those words would convey; I could have him smash a beer bottle and threaten with it.
Writing the screenplay with interesting, realistic dialog—but without the use of obscenities—became a fun challenge. But I promised myself that if I ever felt that authenticity would be enhanced with such usage, I would insert it.
But the screenplay is, of course, not the final determinant of what the dialog is in the film. Although our Director, Roger, had agreed to the locked script and didn’t change the dialog, that did not obviate fucks creeping into the actors’ ad libbing. Although they were fairly good about not doing that, there were two instances that indeed appear in the film, and one which was edited out.
The one I omitted successfully was spoken by a woman being interviewed by the police. In a couple of the takes, the actress had added the word fucking into the sentence, “I wasn’t going to have a fucking conversation with him.” But she was just as convincing in the takes without it. Since her character is a young, well-educated professional who’s supposed to elicit sympathy from the audience, I felt we could do without the expletive.
But there are two that stayed in the film. Actually, the first ad lib of fuck is not totally complete. An actor who plays a villain is set upon by a vigilante. He looks in surprise and says, “What the f….!” Even though he never enunciated the “..uck”, I thought about whether it could be edited out. There simply was no way because his reaction to the vigilante was essential and his mouth was clearly saying what he said. I comforted myself with the fact that the word really wasn’t finished so it didn’t count. However, the English closed captions as well as the subtitles in foreign languages went ahead and finished the word. I had to get back to the titles company and have them change it to just “f…”.
The second ad lib of fuck got by me because of my poor hearing. An actor is departing a room angrily and says “Don’t say another fucking word.” He is off-scene and the sound could easily have been edited the sound to omit it had I known it was there. It is faint and many will not notice it unless they are watching closed captions or subtitles. Still, when I found out about it, I was pretty fucking disappointed.
The vigilante was supposed to walk toward her sleeping victim and stop near him. She would pick up a photograph on the table and gaze at its subjects—him, his wife, and children. She would slowly shake her head and replace the photo. The point, of course, was to show how even rapists can have families and appear to have “normal lives”.
But in reviewing the takes, there were big problems. The vigilante moved exceedingly slowly, more than doubling the time needed for good pacing. And then there was the issue that no close up of the photograph was taken. Without that, the audience would have no clue as to the purpose of her looking at the photo. The message that the rapist had a seemingly ordinary family life could not be conveyed without the image close-up.
I was sad about the lack of film coverage of the photograph, but without it, there was no point in having the vigilante pause for it. So, for the sake of pace and want of message, I cut the entire “photo gazing” part of the scene. I felt miffed that no one had thought to film an up-close of the photograph after all the trouble to manufacture the prop for the scene and to film her picking it up. And I was miffed that the “regular guy” aspect of the rapist wouldn’t be made.
Later, I was going through takes in preparation for editing another related scene: the rapist greeting his intended victim at his door. I almost shouted aloud, “Oh my gosh, there it is, the close up of the photo of the rapist and his family!”
The cinematographer had filmed the photograph in the foreground, with the rapist greeting his intended victim in the background. What an artful way of conveying my “regular family guy” notion! My original objective for having the photograph had been achieved in an entirely different way, and one which was more subtle than the original plan. Rather than hitting the audience squarely with the message, it is delivered obliquely. This was a lovely instance of having another artist on the film come up with a creative idea to do something that I liked much better than my own preconceived idea.
As I’ve mentioned, I had a vision of the film and the scenes within it from the time I wrote the script. But, the way some scenes were directed and filmed so exceeded my vision and expectations. I was delighted, as if I were given a surprise gift. I would like to mention a few here and more later.
The script has it that Lehman, a villain, shaves his body to assure that he leaves no hair at the scene of his crimes. Now you can envision a man shaving his body in many ways, all with different lighting, angles, and atmosphere. Roger told me he was going to strive for “creepy” and I think he more than excelled at his objective. Roger had Lehman use a straight razor. And the dim lighting on his body as he drags it across his skin is an image that lingers with the viewer—just what you want.
The shaving scene was so well done that I assured that it played fairly long. Angel told me that I gave it too much time. But it is so full of evil, so ominous, that I really believed it could even have been made a bit longer. But it is an appropriate medium length.
I had some trouble placing the scene in the movie. Obviously, it had to be early, but where was unclear. Then, well into the middle of the editing process, I was talking to Johnny Marshall one day, telling him that I was not pleased with the way that the movie started. He suggested beginning with the shaving scene. It was a stroke of genius not only because it set the creepiness factor at the outset, but also because it allowed featuring the marionette as the opening frame.
Let me step back to a little history to comment on the marionettes. When Angel and I visited an Air BNB I’d found, we spoke to the lady who rented it out and told her we’d like to film at her place. (Immediately, she quadrupled the price, which made it out of our range.) The small bedroom had two marionettes in it. They were what made the place “Lehman’s lair” to me. His character is manipulative, crazy, and sees humans as not quite human, but some inanimate objects as anthropomorphic. I made her a written offer to buy or rent the two antique marionettes. She refused. So, it was one of the first requests I submitted to our Designer and Property Master: get marionettes for Lehman’s place.
Back to the extraordinary scenes. Another of Roger’s brilliant scenes was Coxon, the detective, at his favorite lake wharf. He is agonized and angry. Not one word is spoken in the scene. The acting and direction are superb, as is the filming. If it had been filmed even longer than it was, I would have included every second of it. To me, it is that powerful.
Truthfully, I didn’t appreciate the importance of relevant B roll (film that is not the actual scenes of the movie, but is used to transition between or add to scenes) until I got well into the process of editing. To help you understand what B roll would have been helpful, let me give you some examples.
In some cases, a daytime scene is followed by a nighttime scene. Going between the two would be confusing unless there were some visual clue to help the audience make the leap. For example, the transition might be traffic at dusk filmed at one place followed by traffic at night filmed at the same spot. It would be best if the two shots were at the same spot because evening traffic in one place followed by night traffic at another place might set up the audience to focus on locations switching rather than the lighting change.
Although almost all of the B roll for RIK is traffic, it was mostly either day or night, not evening or transitional taken from one spot. So it had to be used for transitions of scenes that were day-day, or night-night. We had only two really good day-night transitions, neither of them shot by the “red” camera as straight B roll. One was a drone shot that was done of the skyline. Our drone pilot, Sparky Sorenson, shot the scene both in the evening and at night, which makes for a beautiful passage in time. Another transition was shot by Angel from the balcony of my apartment. He did a time lapse with my SLR camera on a tripod from afternoon to after dusk. It is the only other spot-on day-to-night transition.
Had I appreciated the importance of B roll more, I would have assured that a number of shots of scenes without actors were filmed. I already mentioned in Part One that it would have been wonderful to have footage of the two professional kilns at the artist’s studio. Similarly, it would have been helpful to have film of the length of the bar in the bar scene (where we had extras that are not in the movie as a result of not shooting it), several close ups of the marionettes in the villain’s apartment, footage of the outsides of buildings that were used for interior filming, and so on.
One case in which there was an excellent example of B roll that we did have was the outside of the “college”. It shows the exterior of the building and several of the crew members are milling about as extras. You can see this film used as the lead in to the scene where there is a lecture at the college. We needed more footage of the building, however. So one day well after production had ended, Angel and I got Sparky the drone operator to do a few shot of the same building from above. I chose not to use much of this, however, because the season had already begun to change the trees’ leaves’ color. This limited how far we could photograph from the building and how widely, so as not to show the trees being different from the way they were when production was shot. This is why it is so important to get B roll at the same time as you film production.
Another way I got B roll is by cribbing some bits from scenes I decided not to use in the movie. For example, one unused scene was filmed at the villain’s house. I used a very eerie view of the house at night as the lead in for a short scene with the villain, and another of a marionette from the same unused scene when the villain is lying on his bed.
My advice to anyone contemplating making a film is that they go through the script in advance and mark where it is likely to require B roll and to specify what type of shots and lighting would be ideal. This is certainly what I’d do if I could do it all over again.
The choice of an editor ideally should be made prior to filming so that they can be involved from the start of production. In our case, I didn’t choose anyone until after production was completed. The reason boiled down to two issues: money and the degree of control I’d have over the process.
Angel held out hope that somehow we would have enough money left over after production to afford an editor experienced in feature films produced by studios. The nearest of those that we knew about was in Austin and they cost more than five times the money we had allocated for the editor. Also, Angel wanted to turn over the film to someone with fresh eyes, whereas I wanted to edit the film to the vision of it that I had in my head.
We were in the final week of production when I had a sort of meltdown—a conniption fit with tears and gnashing of teeth. By phone one night, I told Angel I could no longer bear the indecision and I planned to move forward with choosing an editor myself and that I had decided upon Charles Willis. Charles was keen to fulfill my vision of the film, was local so that he could meet with me, and was willing to meet my price. If Charles could handle the editing software professionally, that was all I needed to know.
Angel agreed that he and Zubi would interview Charles in a conference call to make sure that he was up to the job technically. That was followed by an in-person interview which resulted in an “okay, but with reservations” verdict by Angel.
As it turned out, Charles had many good attributes, one of which was patience. I had a very slow, unsure start to the editing process. A key problem was my hesitation in cutting people’s roles and air time, and in deciding to omit scenes. Charles was always ready to try a different approach and never complained when I changed my mind, which was fairly frequently at the beginning.
Although we started the editing in late October, I didn’t feel that we hit our stride until December. By then, we had a routine down in which I would provide notes and Charles would upload edited scenes with which we’d work.
I want to share with you some of my considerations in editing. First let me tell you why I axed a couple of scenes even though there was very high production value to the location.
It is hard to exaggerate how hard I worked to obtain permission to film in the Mesquite Police Department gym, which is a fabulous place. It is ultra-modern and has a sort of blue aura to the lighting. The first scene we would film there was designed to be when the lead detective and the police psychologist have their first interaction—let’s call it encounter 1. Encounter 2 was to be when they were more advanced in their relationship, getting more personal.
Encounter 1 had been rewritten and, although I agreed to it, I was dubious. Originally, it was to be a scene in which the detective admired the psychologist as she worked on karate, but it had become one in which he was irritable toward her, even disdainful. I was bothered by this because it seemed out-of-character for him to be rude and I couldn’t see the point of having antipathy injected when it was to be reversed only a few scenes later. So, to be honest, I was unhappy with the content, but was ready to let it happen and see if it worked.
During the rehearsal, the lead actor was exercising and doing pull-ups. I asked to have him stopped to save his energy, but was told, “Don't’ worry, he won’t get tired.” I knew better, but didn’t want to make an issue of disagreeing in front of personnel.
Then began a series of takes in which the actor bench pressed. With each take, his effort was more and more strained. Later, when I watched the best takes, it looked ridiculous, like he was trying to work on weights that were way beyond his physical capacity. So I axed the scene on two counts: its incongruity with the character of the person and of the film, and the silly looking iron pumping.
Encounter 2 was when the psychologist and detective are working out together, talking face to face. I had left the set during its filming to go do managerial work when it was shot, so didn’t know until later that it had a very serious flaw: the lead actor had injured his wrist in the exercise filming encounter 1. Now it was wrapped in white tape around the wrist and hand. It was glaring, distracting, and begged the question of what was wrong with him.
The bandage was not only white, it was bulky. To remove it with special effects would be too much of a challenge and would cost more than our entire effects budget.
I considered having the entire scene be a conversation with his voice in the background, but only showing her. But that raised a different problem. She was working on a machine in which her arms were bent beside her head, pressing forward against weights. But there was no weight on the machine. So it looked totally effortless (and was), like she was playing, not exercising. Again, it looked silly.
There are important lessons I should have already known. Don’t allow actors to exercise on-set and use minimal physical effort prior to actual filming so as to guarantee fresh energy. Don’t allow bandages or other distracting elements to costumes. Also, if there is supposed to be physical resistance, make sure it looks real. And the best was to do that is to have it be real.
In looking back, one of the most difficult and lonely times I had was after production had been completed and post-production began, specifically when the editing process started. All of the support I’d had during the previous months was instantly gone. I knew I could turn to others for help, but that doing so would be at the expense of the independence I required in order to make the film fit the vision I had. To ask others to weigh in would have made the decision-making a shared effort, something that would require compromises I was not willing to make. So, I began the journey alone, with the help of Charles Willis, the editor I had chosen. And, true to his promise, Charles was committed to going where I wanted to go with the film.
Our first effort at a cut was very, very long. I had trouble omitting any scene from the film and wanted to use pieces of way too many of the takes. As a result, when Angel saw the first cut, he lambasted the “assembly”, saying that I was taking on a role for which I was neither trained nor experienced. He argued that for the sake of the film I should not undertake “supervised editing” and should spend the money (that I didn’t have) to get a new editor to whom I should turn over the film.
In a way, this criticism set me free. The next cut, I didn’t share with him or anyone else. But I was still having trouble with moving forward on a sure path. I realized that the problem was that I didn’t want to cut actors’ air time. I didn’t want to take out parts that were good, but which did not fit the overall emerging form of the movie. And I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I was stuck. It was like having writer’s block in the middle of drafting a novel.
At this point, I had a very crucial unplanned conversation with my composer, Kays. I told him about the hesitations I felt about cutting, the fear of hurting people. He graciously spent about an hour talking with me to get across a single notion: I needed to do what was for the good of the film, not what was good for any single actor or set of actors. Actors, he said, ultimately wanted to be in a great film, regardless of how much they appeared in it. Yes, they would like to be maximally seen, but it was more important to them that the film be a success. If the film weren’t good, and not a success, the amount they appeared on-screen wouldn’t matter much. And then he said something else very important. He told me that I could do it and that it was obvious that I could. I just needed to knuckle down and make decisions wisely.
That pep talk was seminal. I went back to the drawing board and re-outlined how I wanted the film to proceed, how each character was supposed to play, and where I wanted fast versus slower pace. This allowed me to cut any scene, take, or sequence where someone was out-of-character. It made me ruthless in cutting parts that were not in focus, poorly conceived, or inconsistent with my vision of the film.
I continued to rely on Kays for the remainder of the editing process. He was always positive and I could count on him to share his vast experience in a constructive way.