The finest cut
Ace film editor Lee Chatametikool, whose latest work will premiere at Cannes Film Festival next month, talks
- Published: 23/04/2010 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: Realtime
In a small office presided over by what he drolly dubs the ''Holy Trinity'' _ two big computer screens and a wall projector _ Lee Chatametikool cuts, pastes, stitches and shuffles moving images. The work of a film editor is lonely in nature, he says, with each solitary day spent looking for meaning in what is basically a pile of raw shots and cuts, in scattered, disjointed scenes that will finally come together, fingers crossed or uncrossed, as a movie.
Final cut: Lee Chatametikool has edited a number of the most important Thai films of the past 10 years.
In the past decade, Lee, 34, has edited a number of films that helped define the topography of contemporary Thai cinema. Working mostly for independent productions, he found rhythm and arc for the Cannes-winning Blissfully Yours in 2002 and Tropical Malady in 2004; and he worked on the indie affair One Night Husband (2003), the box-office bonanza Shutter (2004), and the globe-trotting drama on the aftermath of the tsunami, Wonderful Town (2008). Earlier this year he co-produced and cut Mundane History, a quasi-experimental Thai drama that won a top prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. In March, he was the sole Thai talent who won an Asian Film Award, in the Best Editor category, for his work on a low-budget, Cannes-premiered Malaysian film Karaoke.
You could say his touch is talismanic; the films that Lee edited are regularly featured at major film festivals around the world. Notably, one of the directors who relies on his service is Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Lee edited all the filmmaker's feature films, including the latest opus, fresh out of the lab like steaming baked goods,, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The movie _ affirming the successful teamwork of the two men _ has been picked for the elite Competition at next month's 63rd Cannes Film Festival (read more on page R5).
In the late 1990s, Lee graduated from Hampshire College, a film/liberal arts school known for its experimental spirit (''the professors couldn't even tell me how to edit a normal narrative film, they could only advise me on how to experiment,'' he recalls). Lee came back to Bangkok to present his thesis film, Muang Maya, at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival. Then he hooked up with the rising Apichatpong and ended up, at first, the boom man on the set of Blissfully Yours. The director eventually decided to let Lee edit the film, and the beginning of a long collaboration that's still going strong began.
The editing job tends to be overlooked by the audience; it's the invisible hand in the cordoned-off kitchen that mixes the spices and readies the dish for our enjoyment. But as every filmmaker will tell you, the editing can make and break a movie, and here we talk to one of Thailand's top film editors about the delicate art of constructing new meaning out of disparate moments.
- Real.Time: A blunt question, what is editing? Or what does an editor do in a movie?
Lee: It's a way to tell a story _ and it does a lot more, too. Editing juxtaposes two images, and in that juxtaposition, you can create a new meaning. So editing allows a film to do things that aren't possible through other elements of the filmmaking, like camera movement or acting. For instance, like in that famous shot in 2001: Space Odyssey, in which an ape tosses up a bone then we cut to a spaceship _ the impact like that can only be achieved with editing.
- Do you think editing and montage make cinema unique, or at least different from other art, say, a play or opera, because the way images are arranged and designed for the viewers?
In a way, yes. Film is the only medium in which the artist can control everything. You can control the perspective of the camera, the pacing of the entire film, you can control what people see and when they see it. Editing makes the biggest difference.[In deciding what the viewers are seeing] you make all decisions based on how the personality of each character is defined by the editing _ in terms of what you decide to show and not to show. And even the camera angle that you choose matters; say, if you want to show intimacy, you choose the angle that shows two people close together, but if you want to show that they're far apart, you show each of them in two separate cuts.
- You've worked mostly with independent films. And many of them, like the films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, are non-narrative, in a sense that they have no clear plot. How do you approach these films?
With non-narrative films, you can't break it down the same way that you do with a narrative film _ into three acts. Apichatpong's films, for instance, usually have two halves and you know where the midpoint is. What I had to do is define how the two sides work together, and it's more difficult because there are more options on how to do it.
With Apichatpong's films, what I've been enjoying lately is the feeling that when the audience sit down and the light goes off and they see the first shot in the film, there's no way they would ever guess that the last shot of the film would be in that same film. That surprise, that shock, is what's enjoyable working with his films.
- Can editing make or break a movie?
Editing is like when you take someone on a journey and he doesn't know how it's going to end. After you edit a film for a while _ when you get to a certain point in the film _ it starts to define itself without you forcing it. You start to realise what kind of rhythm it needs, and you can't force it into a different direction. All of a sudden you realise that there's a film and you didn't do anything. You just put the shots together.
I believe in this idea that a film has its own life in a strange way. I don't go on set, but I can sense that in a film shoot where the crew are happy and enjoying themselves, the footage is a lot better. The film is like a living thing that absorbs everything that's going on around it _ the people, the location, the mood. It's like a kid that's born into this world and it absorbs everything and in the end it becomes a certain kind of presence.
- People often complain that independent films are slow. Perhaps because we're familiar with fast-paced, narrative-driven Hollywood films. You've done a few independent American movies; do you think maybe one day you can edit, say, a Hollywood action film?
From the craft side of it, yes, I can cut an action film. A cut is a cut, rhythm is rhythm. But there are also decisions that come from experience. What I find difficult about ghost films or action films is that I'm not passionate about them the same way I'm passionate about independent films. I don't get excited by the scene, so when I don't get excited, I don't know if it's good enough or how much better it can be.
- What do you think of the editing in The Hurt Locker or, to give another example, the Jason Bourne movies?
I think it's harder to shoot The Hurt Locker than to edit it. For one thing, the length of each shot in that film is longer than in most action films, definitely more than the Bourne movies, which use really use quick cuts.
In terms of image, The Hurt Locker does a lot with [cutting from] really tight shots to really wide shots, or cutting in between camera movement, and this is the stuff of experimental filmmaking. Actually, a lot of the stuff you see in action films today came from experimental films _ camera movement, size of shots, rhythm. It's very Soviet-style filmmaking in a way. The concept entered the US experimental filmmaking from Europe, and then it went mainstream through music video.
- There's the editing that goes invisible, when everything is so smooth you don't see the manual work behind it. Then there's the kind of editing where the editor or filmmaker is visible. Is that related to the Soviet-style filmmaking that you mentioned?
Yes. The Hollywood-style editing, which make the process of editing invisible, is a form of capitalist filmmaking in a sense that you're drawn into the kind of make-believe reality where everything is smooth and happy. By contrast, the Soviet filmmaking is Marxist in concept. It wants to remind you that what you see on the screen is only constructed reality, that the harsh real world lays somewhere beyond it.
- Does every editing decision have to serve the narrative or the story?
No. Not in most of the things I cut. Some shots are there just because they're nice. I was reading a book on Apichatpong [which compiles the writing by critics on his movies]. It's interesting when you read a write-up about a cut, especially the decision behind a cut, and I was like: ''No! we didn't think that, we just wanted to put it there, or it was accidental.''
If you overthink the editing, you'll get a very rigid film. Sometimes you have to keep it random, in a way.
- What is the most important thing to you when you make each editing decision? Is it rhythm? Or is it the narrative?
I don't think it's rhythm. Primarily, I think it's emotion. It's how something makes me feel in a shot. [I'd ask myself] how can I fall in love with the character? Do I believe in the character? I try to think in terms of the reaction of an audience. It's about finding the emotion and finding a way to deliver that emotion through the craft of rhythm and pacing and length of shot.
- I guess you have favourite film editors in mind. Or maybe I'm wrong?
I don't have favourite editors! But I have my favourite film directors. I'd say my biggest influences are Nagisa Oshima [Japanese director from the 1960s], Chris Marker [French experimental filmmaker] and Alain Resnais [a New-Wave French director].
In particular I'm drawn to Oshima, through his earlier films in the '60s and even more by his writing about films. He talks a lot about the idea of the filmmaker being a criminal and the act of filmmaking being a criminal act. What I think interesting is how he talks about the approach to make a film more honest and to be less criminal. A film shouldn't try to fool people, or not too much. And I believe he's right.
About the author
- Writer: Story by Kong Rithdee and Photo by Anusorn Sakseree