By Paul Risker.
The magical touch of film editing, seen and yet often unacknowledged, is similar to putting a jigsaw puzzle together to create a narrative and aesthetic flow between the multitude of shots and scenes. Emerging from the confined and hidden space of the editing room, Snow in Paradise (2014) sees Andrew Hulme take his first steps as a writer-director, in what he hopes will be a fruitful expansion of his creative horizons. And Snow in Paradise has not been a bad start, picking up nominations for the Uncertain Regard and Golden Camera awards at Cannes 2014.
One might surmise, however, that Hulme’s ambition to transition out of the editing room is a bold and courageous one, with his editorial work on the Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009) mini-series and the much lauded documentary The Imposter (2012) earning him a BAFTA TV Award and British Independent Film Award nomination respectively. But Hulme has also developed fruitful creative relationships, collaborating with filmmaker Anton Corbijn on Control (2007) and The American (2010), while he has frequently found himself called upon by director Paul McGuigan: The Acid House (1998), Gangster No.1 (2000), The Reckoning (2002), Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006). His most recent TV work was for Julian Jarrold’s 2012 TV movie The Girl, a study of Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren’s tumultuous relationship on the set of The Birds (1963). But when we spoke with Hulme, he explained: “I always had the idea in the back of my mind to ultimately come back to making my own films.”
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there one inspirational or defining moment?
I would have to go back to when I was young and I came out of school. I was interested in art and I ended up taking a photography O level. It was from there that I immediately became interested in films. It was a two-step process where first I bought my own Super 8 camera when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, and started making my own films. Then I went to do a fine art course because I could make my own films, and when I finished I had a bit of a revelation. I realised that you can’t make a living out of strictly abstract, experimental films. So I became an editor as I had those skills, and then I learned narrative. Those were the main moments. But in terms of directing I had always had the idea in the back of my mind to ultimately come back to making my own films. Then I met Martin [Askew] who had an amazing story, and everything just clicked into place. I was working with a producer who liked the idea of what had happened to him, and I think meeting him was the catalyst.
On a personal level I have just had my first child, and I think having children makes you braver because somehow I just threw caution to the wind and thought: we need to tell this story. But nobody else could see that it was important; it was only me who felt that it was.
I have heard it said that editing is the best training for a director. Would you agree?
I would absolutely agree, and I think over a period of years you work with quite a few directors in which you have the chance to see a lot of different directing styles. Not only that but you get to see what works and what doesn’t work, because you are the inside of the machine at that point. You are making a film happen; you are making it work. It is a powerful position to be in and you can see all the original ideas that the director had, and you are shedding them away, almost one by one. But the solid ideas stick. You are also understanding from the inside how a scene works and what is the point of a scene. Eventually you might as well throw your fifty grand crane shot out of the window if it is not related to the story or it is not helping it at that particular moment. But all of these I guess add up to a sort of feeling that it is actually training, and you can use it to train yourself to understand directing.
I think one of the biggest realisations for me was once I started directing and I then got back into the edit suite again. It was the ability to see a problem from the inception and not only to solve it. So what I mean by that is it almost becomes a three dimensional being. What I realised was that looking at a scene for instance is seeing how you had the idea in the first place, and then by the time you get to the editing room you are playing around with the idea to see whether it works or not. It becomes a bit like a sort of three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, which I found quite fascinating. The other thing when I was directing was that I had to learn all of the different parts of the process very quickly, and I started to quite enjoy them all, as it was like flexing a load of muscles I had never used before; even from pitching an idea. I soon got used to that and I can sort of see how it works. I am now in this other stage of the process of marketing and talking to journalists and such. It’s all stretching yourself because in the edit room as an editor you become very good at working certain muscles, and just being good at that. But then when you expand yourself and your creativity; when you move outward and start writing and directing, then it is like using your whole body instead of just one limb. It is quite amazing and it is actually revelatory.
Writer-director’s have spoken to me about how as they write they are directing, and so when you get on set part of the process has already been undertaken. The way you describe the way in which the editing fits into the overall process contextualises it as an integral part, and having had an opportunity to do them all you perceive them as inseparable.
I think that is absolutely true, and with obviously having those well developed editing muscles, what I had to do when writing was to try not to edit the final thing, but actually learn to go with the process and not impose one of the parts of the process at such an early stage. Although you can obviously see things through, almost like looking at something backwards, and it felt that was what was happening at times. Once I started writing it was almost like I was using my editing head at the same time. So I think it’s true that these are all parts of a jigsaw puzzle, and they all just slot together. The best film directors are the ones that understand all those parts of the process even if they are not necessarily brilliant at each individual one. But they understand them and how they lock together. They understand how the art department works for example because it all becomes important when you are making a film. You have to keep your eye on every part of the process, and the moment you take your foot off the gas is the moment things start to go wrong.
Do you have to embrace the creation of a film as an evolution that emerges through the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, wherein the film you start with is not necessarily the film you end up with?
That’s partly true, but I think you have to have the core idea of a good strong story. Then you still have that, and what I think you do is you attach scenes to it. Those scenes can wax and wane within the story and you’ll see which are the stronger ones and which are less so. This is how I feel about it. But fundamentally you need to have a strong story idea even though you can weave other stories as well as scenes into it.
So you need to have something that is concrete with a flexibility running alongside it?
Yeah, I think that’s true. But some directors work in a completely different way, like Mike Leigh for instance. I don’t think he has a story, rather he has an idea and he gets people together to explore it. He is a little more theatrical in that sense. But I think filmmaking ought to work in lots of different ways, and with the financial restrictions you need to have a script in order to sell your idea and attract people to the project. And the script is usually a strong idea unless you are a very developed film director who can almost decide the way that you want to work, because that’s the convention. But I’m obviously not at that stage yet.
Snow in Paradise is structured around familiar narrative themes that have been explored frequently within literature and film. Why are these themes so compelling to us both as storytellers and spectators?
Storytelling has been going on for a long, long time; since the beginning of humankind I would imagine. I think we are attracted to particular types of stories, and there is this idea that there are only seven basic plot stories that everything attaches to. As humans we like repetition; we like to perform rituals; we like habits and we like to do the same things again. In some respects watching films is a bit like that. We like to be titillated and taken on a different journey, but fundamentally we like the same stories. Why for instance does Hollywood keep giving us the same story over and over again – because people keep watching it. It begs belief, but something about this works. So people do want to see the same things over and over again, and yet when a film for instance like Birdman (2014) turns up you just go: wow, is it not fantastic? Look how different it can be. I think we are fundamentally just creatures of habit.
Does the appreciation of distinct works of art inherently rely on repetition, wherein the latter preserves the impact of the former?
I think if you look at other cultures’ way of storytelling, you really see that point elaborated. For instance we hang onto structure, but if you watch Japanese theatre it doesn’t have a three act structure. Its structure is completely different and it leaves you slightly cold because you are expecting something different; you are expecting a resolution, and there isn’t one. I think that we want these structures in our films because we understand them, and we go along with their ebb and flow. Of course it is then very pleasing when a structure is played with and something unusual happens. We appreciate it and it’s a bit like jazz where there is the structure of the piece, and then there is a little solo in the middle that gets a little applause, and that’s the nice bit of it. I’m throwing analogies at you, but I think I fundamentally agree with what you are saying.
As an audience we are your co-creators and collaborators, and as co-creators we are able to bring our own experiences to the film and take away our own independent meaning from your work. With Snow in Paradise being your feature directorial debut how do you view your relationship with the audience?
I’m absolutely tied to what the audience think because of being an editor. When you edit well, you have to try to understand in every single moment of the film what the audience is thinking and feeling to know whether to bring in music or not, and how to weave the story. So personally I am very aware of what the audience is thinking, although it was a different set of rules for me, and yet I still tried to apply the same kind of logic. I wanted to take them on a journey, but I also wanted to leave them to think for themselves by placing lots of clues and markers.
I’m not sure about the idea of collaboration as I hadn’t really thought about it. The only other things in the film that I tried to do was to have the audience experience the film from the protagonists point of view only. It would have been very easy to put in thriller elements and see what the other characters were doing to enhance the audience’s thrill factor, but I just wanted in a French way to follow this character and experience the world through his eyes. I wanted to make it very much like real life in that we don’t know what’s going on. Nobody knows why something happens. You can guess why something has happened, but you don’t really know, and I wanted to leave the audience with that feeling of dread and uncertainty just as the main character feels. And I think the film achieves this where the plot goes on on offscreen; where it is happening in another room, and you just have these little clues of what it is actually about. I think it is quite clear, but I guess in terms of collaboration I wanted to get the audience to feel very deeply for this guy. It was very important to me that they went on this journey and somehow understood why he went on this journey.
By this point you have undoubtedly seen numerous cuts of the film. How do you view the film as spectator? Is it still revealing new things that had remained hidden during the writing, shooting and editing?
I think so yeah, although it is hard for me to watch it now to be honest. I have seen it so many times and I’m trying to get some distance from it. Maybe I’ll watch it in a year’s time and I’ll be able to answer that question properly.
I’m always seeing new things in it for sure, and there is always a sense of regret that I didn’t do something one way and not another. But my experience of directing is that you never stop thinking like that. You are always critical and self questioning. I guess there are things that I possibly would have done differently, the biggest one being that several people have said to me that they were more interested in the Islamic than the gangster aspect. I did originally start writing a film like that; it was my original intention. But then I got sidetracked into telling the story more of how he became a Muslim; a convergent, and it also felt that if we put any more Islamic stuff in then it would feel preachy; as if we were trying too hard. So it was a difficult balance. Looking at it now I think I would have probably put a little more in, but I don’t know. The thing about directing is that you have to think in the moment; make big, bold choices sometimes with no time whatsoever, and you have to live with those choices. Sometimes you get into the cutting room and you have to completely reimagine your film because you have made all the wrong choices, or there are key things that are not quite working. So you have to reinvent them. I only had twenty days to shoot it and I still ended up dropping three characters. So obviously I have not brought that many lessons from editing to writing. I think that’s one of the biggest things I would certainly pay more attention to with the script in the future.
Has the experience inspired you to direct again?
Absolutely! I have three different projects I am working on at the moment, one with Martin, and another one which is a documentary. There are in fact four. One is period drama about an artist who goes to the Middle East and goes mad. There is nothing symbolic about that at all. Then another is one that will help me go back to my roots in Nottingham and write a story based around my religious background. So I do fully intend to make more films if somebody gives me some money, which they might do… You never know. [Laughs]
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.