Lean – Powell

Lean quickly mastered the craft of editing sound movies and continued to assist other directors in cutting talkies. He developed his own approach to assembling the footage for a sound picture, virtually ignoring the sound track, and cutting the film primarily by focusing on the images. Michael Powell, who would one day commission Lean to edit a couple of his films, approved of Lean’s method. The tendency of a film editor, Powell pointed out, is to “follow the bloody words”: “But cinema is all about images.” Lean cut the footage in terms of what he wanted to see on the screen—“and to hell with the sound,” which is, according to Powell, primarily just “actors yakking.” If the editor concentrates on the images, Powell concluded, “the words take care of themselves.”

Powell shot the exteriors in Canada’s great outdoors in the fall of 1940, and Pressburger was on hand to revise the script when needed. The interiors were shot at Denham Studios from February 6 through April 18, 1941. Initially, Powell had chosen John Seabourne to edit the picture, and Seabourne undertook the task. But, apparently, once he started working on the miles of location footage that Powell had brought back from Canada, he pushed himself too hard and soon collapsed from nervous exhaustion. When Charles Frend suffered a similar fate while editing Major Barbara, Lean observed that, because editing is a highly complicated process, an editor can easily get stressed out while cutting a picture. Powell remembered Lean’s editing of the two Shaw films and requested that Harold Boxall, a studio executive, ask Lean to take over for Seabourne. Boxall, we remember, had given Lean his very first job in the film industry at Gaumont in 1927; he had followed his career and was gratified to obtain him for this movie. He even boosted Lean’s salary to £75 aweek as a reward for substituting for Seabourne in an emergency. Lean had replaced Seabourne as chief editor of Gaumont-British News a decade earlier, when Seabourne had moved on to edit features; now history was repeating itself, and Lean was filling on for Seabourne again.
“Somehow it had never occurred to me that I could command the services of a craftsman like David Lean,” Powell reflected. “A load dropped from my shoulders. I realized what it would mean for the film to have an editor like Lean to review… those thousands of feet of film.” He was confident that the edit of The 49th Parallel was in good hands.
When Lean took over as editor, he read Pressburger’s script. “I settled down with it after dinner,” he said, “and I couldn’t stop. I was still reading it at seven the next morning.” Then Powell showed him all the location footage, which amounted to five hours of film. When the lights went up in the screening room, Lean said laconically, “Well, you need an editor.” Lean spent six weeks trimming the location footage alone from five hours to a preliminary cut of two hours. When Powell conferred with Lean from time to time about his edit, he discovered that Lean aimed to do more than just condense the rough cut to a manageable length. He would sometimes improve a scene while he was cutting it, for example, by adroitly inserting some stock footage: Lean thought that the opening sequence needed an introductory shot of the German submarine surfacing in Canadian waters before it was sunk by Canadian bombers. With Powell’s approval, he obtained some captured German newsreel of a U-boat surfacing from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and interpolated it into the film, accompanied by Vaughan Williams’s bold, mighty music.
Lean was a miraculous storyteller, Powell explained; he had a knack for shooting additional footage in order to smooth out the narrative continuity ofa scene. There is, for example, the scene that occurs shortly after the Nazi fugitives land their lifeboat on the Canadian shore. Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman) and his men ransack a Hudson Bay trading post to steal supplies for their cross-country hike. They shoot a French Canadian trapper named Johnnie (Laurence Olivier) when he attempts to stop them. Powell remembered Lean asking him while editing the scene, “Michael, do you mind if I take a camera and shoot some close shots of hands snatching guns and knives, that kind of thing?” Powell replied, “Go ahead.” So Lean filmed these shots and then inserted them into the scene in order to punch it up a bit. Powell reflected, “I gave Lean carte blanche. I had been saved by some good editors, but never on this scale… I recognized that Lean is the best editor I ever worked with—or should I say worked for?”

Looking back on the film, Lean said that he respected Powell but conceded that, because he was so uncommunicative, he was the most difficult director he ever worked with. According to Lean, anyone who disagreed with Powell was squelched by a stony stare. By the same token, Eric Portman told me in conversation that he crossed swords with Powell during filming because he thought Powell sometimes behaved like a dictator rather than a director.
For example, when the unit was filming the aftermath of the crash landing of the fighter plane in the lake, the actors were to extricate themselves from the wreckage and swim to shore. Portman feared that Powell had not taken sufficient precautions to see that none of the actors were hurt while they were flailing about, attempting to climb out of the wrecked plane. “Michael, are you completely mad?” Portman shouted in a fit of panic. “You’re going to drown us all for your damned movie!” Powell ignored Portman and simply ordered the cameraman, Freddie Young, to “keep rolling.”
Moreover, said Portman, Powell was was not developing the way he wanted during rehearsals, and Portman found that disturbing. Yet, he added, he never lost sight of the fact that Powell was a first-class filmmaker, and he returned to work for Powell in his very next film, the 1942 One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which Lean also edited.
Googie Withers, who also appeared in Powell’s next film, affirmed that she got along well with Powell. He could be very rude with members of the cast and crew, she conceded, in order to try and get the best out of them: “He was very meticulous about what he wanted, from actors as well as everyone else.” In this regard, near the end of his career Powell himself noted that, when he started out directing pictures, he was “slim, arrogant, intelligent, cocksure, and irritating,” and continued, “I’m no longer slim.”

Beyond the epic: the life & films of David Lean – Gene D. Phillips

É tão engraçado ver esses pontos de vista, Powell em suas autobiografias é um doce, elogia todos os gênios que trabalharam com ele e há até essa citação de que o Lean não trabalhou para ele e sim o oposto, num galanteio clássico. Aí vem o Lean e diz exatamente o contrário, que não havia condições de conversar com o Powell. A verdade é que acredito na veracidade de ambos os lados, foi a Deborah Kerr que certa vez constatou como lidar com o Powell: a boa e velha tática de fingir que concorda com tudo.

Nota: Não é muito galante Powell dizer que Lean foi o melhor editor com quem trabalhou, sendo que teve Reginald Mills a seu serviço em dez filmes, inclusive na maioria de suas obras-primas. Seria o mesmo que o Scorsese vir dizer que a Marcia Lucas foi a melhor editora com quem trabalhou quando a Schoonmaker é obviamente o maior de seus complementos. Depois do Powell, Mills ainda engatou uma parceria com o Joseph Losey, com quem fez seis filmes.

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