Sweet Suite

by Tom Musca

What happens when a frustrated film editor grabs snack food and final cut? 1,904 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

3:03, 2:52, 2:37, 2:30, 2:13, 2:04 to under 2 hours. The length of the rough cuts corresponded to Shannon’s weight in reverse. As the film shrunk, her body ballooned under a steady stream of snacks, food fending off fatigue.

Hollywood was awash with the adage that the behind-the-scenes stories from the making of a film were often more interesting than the film itself, but no one ever said that about post-production. Post-production rarely generated gossip. Unlike the larger than life personalities that dominated a film set, post attracted a tribe of filmmakers who were frequently introverted, soft-spoken and respectful — the librarians of cinema.

Shannon still needed to chop 10 minutes from the film. “I’ve listened to this a thousand times and I can’t tell if the clown’s saying ‘Gosh’ or ‘Gus’. Neither line is in the production draft or script supervisor notes.” Shannon rarely made eye contact with her director. Monitoring his reflection on the large display screen suspended above the editing bay was intimidating enough.

Jeffrey “the film needs to breathe” Harwell stopped texting one of his girlfriends long enough to address Shannon’s concern. “‘Gosh’? Nobody uses that dumbass white bread word anymore. Not even the jerkoff screenwriter we overpaid. Cut out all improvs. Every fucking word!! ‘Gosh’? ‘Gosh’?? ‘Gosh’??? Asshole actors vomiting verbal diarrhea all over my fucking movie!” Like many directors, Jeffrey took most of the credit but little of the blame for his film’s failures. Like many editors, Shannon knew that only by pretending to be subservient to the director’s whims was she able to be in just as much as control as he. She also knew that this director would conveniently forget his edict about improvs when an actor added something clever to the dialogue.

Parked in a 9’-by-12’ stuffy but cold windowless dungeon, Shannon’s trusted cardigan sweater was buttoned up to the neck since the editing room was kept at 66 degrees, ideally suited for machines but not warm-blooded mammals. Soundproofing panels absorbed smells of coffee, melted cheese congealed on Styrofoam take-out containers, an industrial rug rarely vacuumed, and garbage cans emptied too infrequently. Two side-by-side computer monitors stared back three feet from her face, humming with faint white noise. The editing software created screens inside screens, dedicated to bins of raw footage, the timeline, and two more windows designed to preview and playback clips. Staying hidden until selected were more tabs for transitions, filters, and effects. Pinpoint lights cast no shadows on the black high-tech console.

Jeffrey jumped out of his seat, turned his back but clearly didn’t care if his editor heard him say, “I’ll pay for your abortion. I’ll even put it in the budget.” Shannon halfway pretended not to listen to her director’s phone call while he unsuccessfully tried to convince a pregnant actress to “slim down” for a re-shoot. He had an idea for a new scene that would band-aid one of the film’s narrative shortcomings.

Shannon hadn’t budged from her chair in three hours. As she replayed an earlier cut of a scene that preceded the Act One break, Jeffrey plopped back down beside her and started to squirm. He pushed down the Pause Bar long enough to curse the cameraman, wardrobe and make-up people, boom man and of course the trained dog that wouldn’t always cooperate. He feared the critics would rip his comedy for being too Disney-like. And worse, bankable actors would no longer consider him a serious director.

“Got any more of those wasabi-covered almonds?” Jeffrey removed his signature Yankees baseball cap and held it aloft for his handout.

Even though there was a sign in the room stating that food and beverage were not allowed, everyone broke the rule after the first week. Without looking, Shannon reached into her bottomless stash of M&Ms, turkey jerky, Boom Chicka Pop, lemon flavored short bread, and hazelnut butter packets. A crumbling biscotti had escaped its cellophane wrapper. On the nutritional ladder, her Starbucks diet was the only cuisine lower than the McDonalds diet dramatized in Super Size Me.

Shannon fished out the wasabi-covered almonds and deposited them in Jeffrey’s cap, but not before popping a few wasabi-covered almonds in her own mouth in deference to snack solidarity. She pushed Play and scooted back in her chair on the three wheels that were still functioning. “We may have to ADR her lines in the car if we keep the scene.” Shannon wanted to cut the scene and this was her way of prodding an insecure and tyrannical director.

Although Jeffrey held the power, to a third party it would be hard to tell who was responsible for what in the editing room. This was their fourth film together. Shannon was nothing if not loyal. She had turned down an A-list female director with a Warner Bros. superhero mega-budget to work with him on his first comedy. Well, at least it started as a comedy.

For the last decade, Shannon had rescued films the way Verna Fields reputedly rescued Jaws and saved a certain director. She trusted the process that reworked stories and made scenes into sequences. Assembly edits became tighter cuts, then fine cuts, and then finally picture lock, before undergoing sound design, score, and color correction inside of eight months, no more than twelve.

To shrink the running time of Jeffrey’s comedy closer to the contractually stipulated 110 minutes maximum, Shannon came into scenes as late as possible, omitted two in their entirety, transferred a short second act scene to the front of the main titles, reframed shots, tightened establishing shots, trimmed dialogue and tucked the end of sentences under reaction shots. Unfortunately, scenes that once played fine were now dragging as other parts of the film ramped up.

Today they were going backwards because Jeffrey decided that singles were funnier than over-the-shoulders and she had to go back and re-knit scenes together from different takes with different energy and eye-lines. But the real problem was that they were dangerously over budget and Shannon had reluctantly agreed to work for a measly per diem and two of Jeffrey’s net points. She was getting fat but starving nonetheless.

Still, Shannon was confident that they would soon lock picture and her life would return to a semblance of normality. Thus, she did not protest when she noticed Jeffrey help himself to the last of the wasabi-covered almonds she had quarantined for her own consumption.

Shannon nailed the Pause Bar in the middle of the next scene and fiddled meaninglessly with the volume knob out of habit. “He said ‘cause you’re my son’ instead of ‘because I’m your father’ which I have in the take with the shaky camera. Do you want to drop it in the one master where we can’t see his lips moving?”

Jeffrey said nothing. He was exhausted from making too many decisions.

Ripping open a bag of gourmet popcorn, Shannon was looking to steal a reaction shot of the dog in a contemplative moment right before ‘Action’ was called. There was no way to go back and re-shoot since the dog had been injured a month ago filming a truck commercial. In the one take she found that worked, the dog was looking the wrong way so she flipped the shot to achieve the desired effect.

While Shannon searched for a steady-cam shot of a police officer she could insert in an action scene that felt disjointed, Jeffrey got on the phone and cursed at the producer who wouldn’t postpone the start date of his next movie. Twenty minutes later he was still stressed and on the phone when Shannon took off her sweater because they were breaking for lunch.

It was 82 degrees in the Valley and it hadn’t rained in L.A. for seven months. They walked around the block to Whole Foods. Meals were a big deal because they divided the day and presented an opportunity to get some sun and perspective. But the only thing Shannon could stomach was chicken soup after Jeffrey informed her that she would have to finish the film without him.

Driving home, the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. No surprise there even though it was already past 8 p.m.. Usually Shannon dutifully pulled into the exit lane when she had a half a mile to go before her off ramp, watching A-types cut in front of her with reckless abandon. But tonight she was in no mood for caution. When a Lamborghini tried to angle in ahead of her, she accelerated then surprised herself by cursing Jeffrey instead of the driver who had nearly sideswiped her.

Something radical had to be done. Her boyfriend, who at one time appeared serious about the relationship, had dumped her the day after New Year’s, complaining that all she wanted to do was watch movies instead of living life. Her mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her Bitcoin had tanked. Her toilet wouldn’t flush a day after the plumber had “fixed” it. That night, Shannon unspooled her life and had an epiphany. Without Jeffrey in the editing suite, it dawned on her that she could make the movie she wanted. For the first time in her life she would have final cut.

Shannon went out to her garage and found two taped-up boxes left over from her days as a film student at the U. One contained an old microwave and another a tiny refrigerator. She carried both to her car and stuffed her sleeping bag with the broken zipper into the trunk.

At her routine morning stop, Shannon stared at the female icon with the flowing hair. A few years ago the word “Starbucks” had been removed from the logo to make everyone subconsciously aware of the brand that no longer required a subtitle. Conspicuous in its absence, it would echo in customers’ heads, like a transitional scene omitted that the audience would experience in their imagination instead of on film. Along with her triple cappuccino, Shannon purchased every bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans in the store.

She drove to Trader Joe’s and heard the manager wearing the nametag “Gus” say “Gosh.” Shannon took that as an omen. (Editors would be haunted by things that people said innocently in real life that just happened to duplicate dialogue they had heard over and over in films they had edited years before.) She purchased $680 worth of gourmet snack foods: chips, nuts, licorice, protein bars, energy drinks, roasted seaweed snacks.

She then detoured to a medical supply store that sold commodes.

At 9:20 a.m. she parked in the lot behind the brick building that housed the editing suite, her home away from home for the last year. By the trash she stumbled upon a pile of discarded hard drives that she knew were full of random samplings of B-roll, drone shots and unused production footage from other films that might enable her to be more creative than she had been with Jeffrey hunched beside her.

On her second trip between her car and the building, she snuck six rolls of toilet paper out of the ladies room. “Dare to be loud,” Verna Fields once said. “Don’t let confusion masquerade as complexity.” Shannon quietly stepped into the editing room and bolted the door shut.

To de-hypnotize herself from earlier cuts, she decided to start editing back to front. She ripped open a bag of pretzel rods, pretending they were cigars, and grinned like Cecil B. DeMille. She wouldn’t leave the suite until she finished the film.

Six weeks later, Jeffrey summoned police to pry open the door to the editing suite. What he found surprised him. But first let’s discuss the film Shannon left behind.

Years later a French critic called it “the sweetest” film ever made, although Jeffrey would take sole credit for its quirkiness at his Academy retrospective. Basically, Shannon had masterfully edited a 110-minute film about a talking dog. A talking dog that sings. A talking dog that sings songs Shannon wrote when she was in the eighth grade and too embarrassed to show anyone back then. But apparently not now.

And then there was the body. Too big and bloated to be removed from the room without dismantling part of the doorway. Not a pretty picture, yet an illustration of true devotion to an art form that demanded everything from its practitioners, and then some.

About The Author:
Tom Musca
Tom Musca is the producer and co-writer of Stand and Deliver which garnered six Independent Spirit Awards, an Oscar nomination and selection to the National Film Registry. His credits include Tortilla Soup, Gotta Kick It Up!, Money For Nothing, Race, Little Nikita, I Hate Sundays and Make Love Great Again. He recently wrote, produced and directed the comedy Chateau Vato. He heads the MFA Screenwriting Program at the University of Miami. Find his new novel Formerly Cool (written with Jay Abramowitz) at www.FormerlyCool.com.

About Tom Musca

Tom Musca is the producer and co-writer of Stand and Deliver which garnered six Independent Spirit Awards, an Oscar nomination and selection to the National Film Registry. His credits include Tortilla Soup, Gotta Kick It Up!, Money For Nothing, Race, Little Nikita, I Hate Sundays and Make Love Great Again. He recently wrote, produced and directed the comedy Chateau Vato. He heads the MFA Screenwriting Program at the University of Miami. Find his new novel Formerly Cool (written with Jay Abramowitz) at www.FormerlyCool.com.

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