Cinereach grantee Rebecca Richman Cohen released her latest film, Code of the West, on iTunes and other VOD platforms last week. In this guest post, she describes the rather harrowing process of opening her finished film back up to include new events in the lives of her subjects after the film’s festival run, before making it available to digital audiences.
One of my mentors recently offered a chilling metaphor. He compared the process of re-editing a finished film to the act of necrophilia. It may sound comically extreme, but his point was that in the filmmaking world, there may be nothing more taboo than unlocking a ‘finished’ film and disassembling it at its seams. After having survived the ordeal, I am inclined to agree with his insight.
I write this post because I am reeling from the effects of having violated this powerful taboo with my own film. My team and I originally “finished” Code of the West in time for SXSW 2012, not anticipating that there would be any more major developments in the story. A few months after our premiere, two of our main characters were indicted on federal marijuana charges, and prohibited from using the defense that producing medical marijuana was legal in their home state of Montana. One of them faced a minimum mandatory sentence of more than 80 years in prison. We were determined to document the effects of this injustice on our protagonists and their families so we started filming again, launched a Kickstarter campaign, raised enough money to re-edit, and went back in to update the film.
Not only did we add a new ending, we also changed much of the narration, added a new scene in the middle, and generally rendered the film more compelling, more character-driven, and more relevant to national issues. Nonetheless, the process of diving back into the material was painful for many reasons.
First, we were documenting some of the darkest moments in our characters’ lives. It was an emotionally taxing process to contemplate how most effectively to “represent” the suffering of others. This was true when we were editing the original version of the film, which included a dark scene of a DEA raid on our main character’s medical marijuana growhouse (our main characters in handcuffs, federal officials in hazmat suits, and sirens blaring). But there was something even more challenging about filming our subjects again after they had seen the film and become involved in our outreach campaign. During the original edit, we never screened cuts for any of our subjects – but after the premiere, they had the opportunities to screen the film many times over and were now deeply invested in the update.
It also opened a Pandora’s box into the creative process. It made me sensitive to the musings of critics and audience members – and it made me doubt my original instincts. Where before the film was a thing that simply existed in the world, now it was something over which I once again had control. Criticism wasn’t just about something I had done. It was about something I was doing.
And finally, I had enormous anxiety that broadcasters wouldn’t take the second version seriously – that the film’s fate was sealed in our original version and that no one would see the new version.
Luckily, two remarkable editors guided the process. We brought on a new editor, Lindsay Utz, to structure the new version. Lindsay brought fresh eyes and a keen sense of possibility to the process. And Francisco Bello, the film’s original editor, writer, and producer generously offered useful consultation on the edit. In the end, a process that was at times beset with anguish proved to be worthwhile. The Kickstarter campaign helped to build an engaged audience for the film leading up to its official release. And the new version is simply a more powerful story than its predecessor.
But the experience also left me with questions. Did we do enough? Should we have radically reassembled the film instead of simply revising the narration and adding new scenes? Which critics were right? Did we make it more or less marketable? These questions provoke anxiety at any stage in the creative process. It was unfortunate for us that we had to ask ourselves those questions upon not one – but two different releases.
Historically, it was impossible to re-edit a finished film. In order to create the final master print, filmmakers destroyed the original stock in the process – so “tinkering” after a première was not an option. Once a film was done, it was done. That’s clearly no longer the case (as evidenced by the significant numbers of filmmakers who go back to the edit room after festival premieres) – so maybe it’s no longer quite as taboo as it was once considered to be. And I imagine that there are many filmmakers in my place, who are telling stories about current events and who are involved in ongoing campaigns to make change happen around those stories. These filmmakers have even more reason to consider updating their films when there is a turn of events that changes the stakes.
That said, just because it is a technical possibility, and sometimes a narrative necessity, if you’re considering this path yourself, this filmmaker urges you to proceed with caution, and not without first setting some boundaries for how much change is healthy to make.
Rebecca Richman Cohen is an Emmy Award nominated filmmaker and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. War Don Don, her first film, won the Special Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival and was nominated for two Emmy awards: Outstanding Continuing Coverage Of A News Story (Long Form) and Outstanding Editing. Rebecca has been adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and American University’s Human Rights Institute. She graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and with a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, where she now teaches two classes on law and film. In 2010 Rebecca was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces in Independent Film as an “up-and-comer poised to shape the next generation of independent film.” She is a 2012-2013 Soros Justice Fellow.