Susan Brand interviews Srik Narayanan, director and producer of television documentaries. Susan edited a number of his films including The Man Who Ate His Lover and award winning series What We Still Don’t Know.
SB: When we have worked together, you have always come to the edit with quite a well-developed script. How much do you expect things to change from that?
SN: “Things will change completely in the edit. That’s one of the frustrations of writing a documentary script. It’s not like writing a novel where you are writing what will be very close to the finished article. When you are writing a documentary script, it’s a bit like writing a musical score and you hand it over to the musicians to play. People have said that film resembles temporal arts like music and theatre more than it does literary arts. It’s good to write a script, it firms up the ideas that drive the film, it sets up a way for you to understand the film, but the edit is where the performance happens. Editing is a fluid process, that’s where you create meanings. A story only really comes into being when it’s cut. Always when you write a documentary script, there is in the back of your mind the notion that it’s not the finished article, however good it is.”
SB: I never felt pinned down or restricted by your scripts. It was helpful that you had developed the ideas already. Instead of spending the edit working out some fundamentals like, ‘What is this film about?’ which happens very regularly, we are taking an idea that already has substance and making it even better, developing it even further over that six weeks.
SN: “When I make a film, I’m trying to provide a whole experience. It seems to have gone out of fashion to get lost in films. You have this amazing array of tools to draw people in.”
SB: It’s like you want to hypnotise people or mesmerize them, to draw them into your story.
SN: “It sounds rather sinister to say you want to hypnotise people with a story, but I guess that’s what it is. I’m not sure all television is like that. Sometimes T.V. is just trying to provide content for people, which is fine. But certainly, some of the films I’ve tried to make which are more creative, are ones where you are trying to surround people with this story and draw them into the total experience.”
SB: When we work together, the pictures and sound are working together. As an editor, you can find yourself wallpapering scripts that are spewing out of a computer on the other side of the room.
SN: “If you are working in a visual medium, the words can tell a story and the pictures can tell a story too. If you don’t use all these elements: sound, music and images, to me it’s a waste of film. For example, using the pictures alone sometimes, you can economise with words. Sometimes you don’t need to say things, because you’ll be showing them, which is rather more satisfying. Let me explain it this way, people like jokes, they like being asked to fill in the dots. In film, you can suggest something, take people on a bit of a journey. If it’s just straightforward information, there’s nothing left for the audience to do. What I’m talking about is not an intellectual thing, the mysteries of the storytelling don’t have to be difficult. Let the audience think what they would do next. The audience actually know an awful lot about film grammar because they watch film and television all the time.”
SB: What do you want to do next? For me, I want to edit more and more complex stories.
SN: “If someone says a story can’t be told, or can’t be made interesting, that’s really attractive to me. If people are saying it can’t be done, that means noone has managed it. It means you have a whole range of film techniques to try out on that subject that have never been tried before. If you are playing around with form and technique and ways of telling stories, it’s great to take on those challenges.”
SB: You’d have to admit, the films we have made have had a very extrovert editing style.
SN: “In terms of style, there is an idea that editing should be invisible. The film-maker is the master manipulator, this is promoted as something to aspire to. But to me, covering cuts is one of the least important things we have got to think about, i.e. Is there something to cut away to during this interview?”
SB: I see these techniques as a kind of palette. When I choose a smooth style, I don’t choose it because it is the convention, I choose it because it is right for that part of the story.
SN: “A thing about mistakes, a lot of mistakes end up being right, being used in the final film. They are accidents that look great, without planning.”
SB: I love that. I look out for something random that can be used in the final cut.
SN: “It’s really important to play. It sounds like time-wasting, but it’s really important. You don’t see the conjunction of things if you don’t experiment. It’s important to try things out. It’s easy to do with current technology. You don’t have to go through film reels and line things up on a Steenbeck, you just double click it! Related to this, as soon as I feel I’m just making films to order, that’s where the creativity stops. The ideal edit for me is not long or unsupervised but one where you can play and try thing out, the whole way through.”
SB: It’s not entirely about reason and logic, which doesn’t means you don’t need plenty of reason and logic to make a film. But it’s not random, it’s about sifting and experimenting with a sense of direction about where the film is going. I keep mentioning the importance of preparation, the importance of coming to an edit with a thought-through script, but to spend six weeks making a prepared idea into a really brilliant idea is a wonderful experience.
SN: “It’s important to have a vision, a reference point. That way, you will know which ideas will work for your film and which ones won’t. I would say though, six weeks is an adequate amount of time to make the films we are required to make, but to make the films we’d like to make, it’s not quite enough.”
SB: What do you think of the editing process?
SN: “I think the editing is the most enjoyable bit. When I started off as a director, shooting seemed like the most exciting part. I now know when you’re editing, you can change what you shot into something else. It’s a very powerful process. It’s inspiring. It’s where you really feel you are making the film, which I don’t when I am out filming.”
SB: It’s like there are flexible parameters. You can change the tone or the mood or the direction of the film in the edit. The parameters are much wider than most people would imagine. There is a certain point at which you just don’t have the material, you cannot say such and such, but within that, it is surprising how much leeway there is. It’s important to be flexible in the edit, to make use of these stretchy, elastic parameters.
SN: “It’s important to shoot your documentary with the idea that it could be cut in a number of ways. That doesn’t mean you don’t have an idea of how it should be cut; you shouldn’t shoot everything and not make any choices. That would be the most infuriating thing for an editor, to walk into an edit having made no choices, including every possible angle on every shot and every option in the interviews. But it’s important to shoot with flexibility; without doubt the editor and director will use the material.”
SB: It’s wonderful to have choices when you edit, otherwise you are very limited in terms of changing the pace or mood. In cases where the director could only get five shots to cover a scene, you are very limited in terms of what you can do for them in the edit.
SN: “You know, this is not just about money, it’s about ideas, about using your resources well. The films we have worked on look more expensive than they were, because of the way I used the resources. Once the audience is on this journey with you, they’ll buy the cheap, slightly ropey shots, because they work.”
SB: Do you have a favourite film-maker with reference to editing?
SN: “I’ve been watching Cassavetes again recently. Editing-wise, they are really intriguing. There is a real magic involved in those films. Technically, you’d think that most of what he does wouldn’t work: really long takes, then really short takes. He cuts together shots that don’t seem to carry much information or much action. He cuts together shots that you think wouldn’t work together, big close-ups on people, cutting from close-up to close-up. Why is it that they work? It’s so peculiar. It’s a lot to do with the actors’ performance and where you are placed as the audience. His films try to make you right there inside the action. The editing somehow just makes that happen.”
SB: The editing does not look conventional, he doesn’t look like he has spent time hiding cuts.
SN: “Sometimes the scenes have really long takes in them, but there’s a kind of minimalism with what the scenes convey and then it’s straight into the next scene. You don’t have slow introductions. Between scenes, it can be very fast, but within the scenes you can have these very long, slow takes, with very few edits. But you understand the story, you get enough clues. These films were made in the 60s or 70s, but they feel avant-garde in the way they are shot and edited.”