What’s the Big Idea?

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Claiborne Smith

The big idea yesterday at the “Power of Story: The Big Idea” panel, presented by TimeWarner and Sundance Institute, was collaboration: how it works and why it’s necessary in filmmaking. But the panel also revealed that a smart filmmaker isn’t threatened by working with other creative people; it’s possible to hold fast to your vision while inviting in ideas from others.

Boys Don’t Cry filmmaker Kimberly Peirce started things off with an emotional wallop by screening a rape scene from that now-iconic film. As Peirce reminded the sold-out crowd, the film, about a young woman with a sexual identity crisis, features a stripping, two rapes, and a murder.

“You really ran into the possibility that you were going to be redundant, that you were going to alienate the audience, and that it was essentially going to be pornographic,” Peirce said.

She needed a little help from others in figuring out how to shape and assemble the film’s footage (Peirce disclosed that the clip she screened was re-cut seven different times until a test audience said it felt true and right). The scene in which Brandon (played by Hilary Swank, who received an Oscar for her portrayal) is raped required “quite a bit of work” in how it was written, and “in terms of the acting, it meant getting the actors to go beyond just the pure unleashing of the violence,” Peirce explained.

Prominent composer Thomas Newman (The Player, American Beauty, Wall-E, among many others) played a clip from the opening scenes of Road to Perdition; the movie’s director, Sam Mendes, had told Newman he didn’t want recognizably Irish music even though the film’s plot involves an Irish American mob family.

“In all instances, you want to see how compelling the drama is and then push musically only as far as you need to to push the story farther,” Newman said after the clip, with its Irish instrumentation, played.

Newman found a way to make both Mendes and the studio pleased with his musical ideas, while staying true to musically defining the film’s characters. “In the end, I think that’s what is most important – what enlightens people more than anything is how much fun it is to have a story told to you,” Newman said.

Jill Bilcock is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after and respected editors (Moulin Rouge!, Elizabeth, Muriel’s Wedding). She screened a mesmerizing segment of Moulin Rouge! that’s full of jealousy and betrayal—and the editing techniques style she employed—cross-cutting across two story lines, staying nimble and loyal to the film’s overall storyline—is as dramatically stunning as the content of the scene.

“Editing has open to it the use of sound, music, visual effects, graphics—all these things that can embellish and change even the way it was originally written on the page,” Bilcock explained. “And you only know that when you get to that point in the movie and you decide, ‘Yeah, let’s cut away; keep it all offscreen. That dialogue is better like that.'”

So collaboratively shaping a story can happen in the editing process, far after the script was written. “For me, it’s always emotion first and how it affects me in the timeline of the story,” she said about her decision-making process in the editing room.

For Bilcock, the opportunity to work on different kinds of movies (horror, for example, and then a Hollywood movie about a family with a dog) and her personal stipulation that she “does not want to work with a bastard” influence her decision to edit a particular film.

Jason Reitman, a member of the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury this year, and the director of Juno, Up in the Air, and Thank You for Smoking, got his start at the Festival with the premiere of his 1998 short Operation. “I want to tell a story about something that I’m feeling,” Reitman explained.

Two of the movies he’s made are adapted from books. “And then I read a book that seems to articulate that feeling in a better way than I’m capable of and I begin this strange silent collaboration with the author of the novel,” he said. “Up in the Air was really for me about the idea of being alone, and really looking into the idea of being alone without judging it because I do love to be alone. And I do have a sense of exhilaration when I’m in a hotel or in an airport and I see various destinations and realize I could just drop into a city where I don’t know anyone and have nothing and how exciting that would be.”

Reitman didn’t bring a clip to the panel, but he did close it in a fitting way. Asked by a film school student in the audience what advice he (and the other panelists) give to budding filmmakers, Reitman talked about the easy access we all have to the technology required to make movies. “There’s no excuse to not be making movies,” he said.

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