Susan Brand talks with Colin Vaines

Colin Vaines is a feature film producer. He started his career as a journalist and then editor at Screen International. He later moved into script development and on to producing. He has worked with numerous companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Screenwriting and editing are close relatives and Colin’s experience in both script development and storytelling in the edit mean he has a deep understanding of film story. Here we discuss his experience of helping to solve film story problems where others failed. He talks about three films he produced and executive produced, ‘Gangs of New York’, ‘The Young Victoria’ and ‘Coriolanus’.

Below are three clips from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ from 2002. We start where Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, arrives in New York fresh from reform school. He has made a pledge to himself to kill the man who killed his father, Priest Vallon. The killer is Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Pay particular attention to the voice over and how you feel about Amsterdam throughout.

SB: Can you talk about the voice over first?

CV: Scorsese had been working on the project since 1977. When I joined Miramax, they had just taken it on from Disney. As you can see, Disney were never going to make this film! With the voice over, even though it was a standard thing in Scorsese’s movies, he was not going to use it here. However, when we got people to rate characters in test screenings, people didn’t understand Leonardo’s character. The situation is, Amsterdam wants to kill the man who killed his father, but gets seduced by the murderous Bill Cutting’s charismatic personality. The audience never bought the seduction, it never registered. It was one of the writers, Kenny Lonergan, who came up with the line, ‘It’s a funny thing being took under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you think’, after the boxing match and it solved the film. The boxing match really is a turning point. Bill thanks Amsterdam publicly. The next screening the understanding of the Amsterdam character shot up 30 points!

Voice over has a bad reputation, people say you should only use it if you are in trouble, but that’s not true. Think about ‘Sunset Boulevard’. It lets you get under the skin of the character. The cardinal rule is of course, don’t let the pictures and the voice over do the same thing.

SB: This next clip from ‘Gangs’ is a conversation between Amsterdam and Bill Cutting from later in the film. The complexity, built up earlier with the voice over, pays off here.

CV: In the bedroom scene, make sure you watch out for the emotional shifts and turns experienced by Amsterdam, someone who has grown up without a father. This guy, Bill the Butcher, has basically adopted him and developed an affection for him. There was a debate during the filming between those like Scorsese, who said that Bill knew that Amsterdam was the son of the man he had killed and those like Dan, playing Bill, who said absolutely not.


SB: Moving on to ‘The Young Victoria’. This film is about British politics in the 19th century and the arranged marriage of young Queen Victoria to her first cousin, Albert. This German prince had been picked for her. Both Albert and Victoria are being hugely manipulated by their families and the people in their entourage. Within this, a romance begins to blossom.


SB: I find the ‘The Young Victoria’ emotional and compelling. But it didn’t start off appealing to audiences at all did it? When you joined the production, this was an edit in crisis. What happened?

CV: I inherited this film when I joined Graham King’s company. It was already fully shot and edited. But it was so boring! All about the politics. The whole film was about her fighting her stepfather and the politicians of the time. Albert appeared about 15 minutes in and then disappeared almost completely, until the end of the film. But we realised that the Victoria/Albert story was the emotional heart of the film.

The clip you have just seen shows first of all how we set to work on two scenes that were already shot. We wanted to increase the drama and draw the audience in. ADR can make a huge difference to a film. You can add lines over shoulders, the editor can make suggestions, you can basically use dialogue as voice over. In this scene we intercut two existing scenes – Albert’s adviser describing what Victoria is like and another scene where Victoria goes to the opera. We laid the lines from the first scene over the second. In this way, we began to integrate the life of Albert with the life of Victoria which had been separate in the film story.

SB: And it got more difficult that that.

CV: Well, Julian Fellows, who wrote the script said,’ I thought it worked at the time I wrote it, but it doesn’t work now.’ We had to build up the romance.

SB: It’s an arranged marriage between Victoria and Albert where everyone knows, through popular culture, that these really had the hots for each other. We know this story and want to see it pan out.

CV: Exactly! We realised we needed more scenes of Victoria and Albert getting to know each other. Here are two of them.

CV: The scene where you see Albert arriving, the ‘Bride of Lammermoor’ scene in the hallway and then into the garden is all new, all re-shoot. And then we shot a second scene where Albert talks about housing for the poor and helps Victoria with her archery, that is also new.  We created the archery because we needed to find a way they could realistically touch, which wouldn’t have been allowed at the time. We had to work out a way of building the relationship more and give the audience the pleasure of seeing them falling in love. In this way, you bring the political story and the love story together. You show the romance, but you also show how Albert becomes a kind of political ally for Victoria. Now, the stories are properly integrated.

Thinking about other things we changed, Victoria was depicted as a spoilt brat in the film. After 20 minutes you just wanted to slap her. I brought in Jill Bilcock, a fantastic editor. We examined all those bratty moments, kept the fact that she was a child but recut it to make you feel her growth. There was another really important change we made too. We realised there were no real close ups of Victoria’s face. All shots were medium close ups. We went through all existing scenes and shot dozens and dozens of close ups matching costume etc. as close as possible. This was just to be able to see her face and see her eyes.

SB: Julian Fellows is an Academy Award winning screen writer, what went wrong? Are there problems that are just invisible in a script?

CV: When I first read the screenplay, I felt it was a script that did now know what it was. They thought at the time that is was going to be a character study of a young girl. Julian was the first to admit when we showed him the cut that it was really boring. It just didn’t work. The chemistry of the actors was great, you can’t always predict that, you just wanted more of it.

SB: Moving now to ‘Coriolanus’. It is directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the lead. He takes Shakespeare and turns it into a modern day, political drama. It isn’t one of the most well known of Shakespeare’s plays. That is said to be because Coriolanus himself is so unlikeable. Fiennes does a fantastic job however, Coriolanus is not cuddly, he is not likeable, but he is fascinating. You feel like everything that is going on in his head is on his face, so Fiennes creates a way of drawing you in. Coriolanus is a Roman general who returns home after a great victory in battle. He has been nicknamed Coriolanus as a tribute to his victory and it is suggested he run for office to become consul of Rome. Coriolanus feels that power should be in the hands of a ruling elite, but the people have a vote so he has to try to win them over.

CV: Coriolanus is a fascist essentially, but he is a man of honour, which becomes his undoing in the end. He is loved, but also despised, there is an element of that in a lot of celebrity culture today. Ralph is playing an unlikeable character, but he still has to get into the character’s psyche. You hate Coriolanus in many ways, but you can’t help respecting his code of honour and that he did try to do the right thing, in his own terms.

SB: The first clip here shows you what the people think of Coriolanus and the second what happens when he tries to win over the people by going to the local market to talk to them.

CV: At the top we cut together the newsreel footage to set the scene, otherwise you would be straight into the apartment. We also had to introduce the other important character, Tullus Aufidies. In the play, he didn’t appear until near the end of the story. You can’t write additional scenes and dialogue when working with a Shakespeare play, but we were able to establish him at the top of our film visually. You see him watching Coriolanus on TV, while sharpening his knife.

I think the market scene is a wonderful piece of writing by Shakespeare. We only did one test screening of this film and that was to test clarity to make sure people really understood what was going on. The reason I wanted to show it was because at this screening, someone got up and said if that was a Hollywood film people would say that scene is completely unbelievable. People never change their minds so fast, we need at least 5 scenes to do that. But the wisdom of Shakespeare is astonishing. People do change their minds in a second, you can change the mind of an audience in a second, but people can forget that when they’re telling stories. In this case, it’s understanding the mob mentality.