EDITING YOUR LIFE
Omar Naïm's fascinating first film ponders life as filmstock
and the slippery slope of memory.
Everyone does it. We rewrite
our personal histories so that we are better, faster, stronger,
and more worthy of love.
We rewrite with hindsight or with deliberate intent, either way
it’s denying the truth about our lives, but is it good or
bad? Then there’s the very rich who can pay people to write
their memoirs, or if you’re the president you can just hire
a spin doctor and hold a press conference.
With the help of producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore
Cowboy, Requium for a Dream), cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The
Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs) and Dede Allen (Addams
Family, Wonder Boys), Omar Naïm
has taken the basic inclination of people to rewrite their personal
it and loaded the cast with actors like Robin Williams and
Mira Sorvino. The result, The Final Cut, hits theaters on October
and is more than your average mystery/science-fiction/love
story. Similar to A Clockwork Orange and A Boy and His
Dog, The Final
Cut is about more than technology, it is about people
and their struggle to stay human despite technology.
CA: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
ON: I was editing this documentary for school, spending 9 months
editing this thing. Everybody has this idea of documentaries
as having this illusion of objectivity, and everybody who makes
a documentary realizes this one day: that I’m as manipulative
as fiction. That realization coupled with thinking about memory
and how our society chooses to preserve its past. This sort of
mass obsession, our narcissistic tendencies, nostalgia, the way
we’re all marinating in the past.
CA: You’re from Lebanon, is that true in your culture?
ON: Oh yes, more even because there was this 17-year civil war
and my generation is constantly told, “oh the Lebanon you
never knew was the greatest place ever.” So there’s
this idealization of a past that we never really experienced. There’s
this constant attack for our generation to go back to that even
though we never knew it. Plus I think that the way we put our lives
together in our minds is the closest thing to making a movie most
people have. We arrange our memories and take out the things we
want to forget and put in things that never happened. We’re
in the shot in our memory. We make a movie out of it. I thought
that the correlation between memory and how we put it together
was an interesting idea for a movie and it turns out that science
fiction was the way to go with that.
CA: I thought it was a great idea when I heard about it because
if you think of memory as the thing that happened two seconds ago,
film is a memory enhancer because it’s ticking along and
becoming a memory as we watch it.
ON: That’s really interesting, film is, on a physical level,
CA: When did you start writing the movie?
ON: January 2001 or was it January 2000? I can’t remember
CA: Well there you go.
ON: I was working as a co-cinematographer on a very low budget
film because I wanted the experience as a director, to get behind
the camera and get to know all that stuff. While I was working
there the idea dawned upon me and I thought about it for many,
many months. I started writing in Feb 2001, finished it that summer
and this Lebanese friend of mine said that it was really good and
I should submit it to the Equinox project, which is modeled on
the Sundance workshop, only in France. I was accepted, and to me
it was ridiculous in a fun sort of way, it was like Hogworts for
filmmakers. They fly you to this castle in France, the French do
everything excessively and beautifully, so they fly these 10 filmmakers
to a chateau in the south of France and you talk and workshop everyday.
I was the only one there who didn’t have a producer or an
agent. The other filmmakers really liked the material. One in particular,
knew I wanted to direct it and he got it to Nick Weschler, who
is now the producer of the film, interested. Equinox helped open
all the doors, I got really, really lucky. And Nick having the
guts to hear my pitch for it and believe in my vision for the film
was also lucky.
CA: Since the film is set in an undetermined time in the future,
what kind of music did you use for the score and any songs?
ON: The music was a lot of fun to think about, because it’s
not a futuristic film. It doesn’t take place in a specific
time. We didn’t want any music that would sort of puncture
that so a lot of the music is a very rich score, but there are
a few songs in the film. I wanted the composer to write them in
different styles. He wrote one song, which we described as we wanted
a Sonic Youth sort of song, so there’s this aggressive song
in there. Then he wrote this Sarah Vaughn sort of 40s style song.
So there are two songs written by Brian Tyler. He’d done
a couple of films for Lion’s Gate, he did Frailty and I loved
the film and the score, but I was expecting to meet someone who
was like 60 and he’s 30, but he has a great deal of maturity
and is very cinematic. He loved the story and in a way a film about
memory is a film about music. Other than smell, and short of smell-o-vision,
and we’re not going to go there, it’s not that kind
of science fiction, music triggers our memories more than anything
else. So the music was something we really spent a lot of time
CA: It sounds like you had a lot of control over the process once
it was picked up.
ON: I did. I was very lucky there too, partially because I wrote
it, but also because I attracted a really wonderful cast.
CA: Speaking of which, how did you get that cast?
ON: You know I always hear, “you know Robin’s on a
serious streak recently,” but he’s always done serious
stuff since 1982. He’s a great serious actor and he really
loved the script. I got signed to CAA out of Equinox, so we share
an agency. My agent who was there was willing to take a chance
on me. I hadn’t thought about Robin for the part, and actors
were turning down the script because it was so dark and they felt
a first time director was too much of a risk. So I spent Christmas
with my family in France, and I swear this is true, my father got
up one morning and said, son, I had a dream that Robin Williams
was going to be in your film and not only that, you’re going
to really get along with him. I’m like OK, and then I read
the script and I thought it was a really good idea, but that he’d
never be interested. It goes to show that if your parents have
clairvoyant tendencies, trust them.
CA: It seems like France was very important for the project.
ON: Yes, France is very important, France and dreams. So we sent
it to Robin and he really liked it. When we met and he really responded
to the themes and the character.
CA: How was the directing process for you considering the scale
of the cast, the budget and the weight of being a first time director.
ON: Significantly harder, and very scary, I sort of knew that going
in. I told myself, I have to make sure I don’t freak out
here. The lead up to the first day was almost unbearable, but once
it got started I got down to the business of making the film. I
had been living with it so long that I could answer questions about
the story and characters easily. It was the most addictive process
in the world. As soon as I was done, I thought, oh my god, I have
to make another one, this was so much fun.
CA: It’s like your own world.
ON: It has that side, but it’s also like, wow, there are
so many talented people adding to my ideas that are better than
my ideas. That’s so important, as a writer to hold on to
the core of the story, but as a director to be open to what’s
the best idea around. And you have to create and environment where
people can suggest those ideas without thinking that they are stepping
on your toes, or without them actually stepping on your toes. The
actors contributed some wonderful ideas. The cinematographer contributed
some wonderful ideas too.
CA: Who was your cinematographer?
ON: I got Tak Fujimoto (Manchurian Candidate; The Sixth Sense;
Philadelphia; Gladiator; Silence of the Lambs), a wonderful guy.
I learned so much from him. What I did with the crew is that, because
I had had this idea in my head for two years, I made a list of
who I would like to work with and Tak was at the top of my list.
I told my producer and he said, let’s try it. There’s
nothing wrong with trying. So I sent it to Tak thinking I’d
get a polite refusal, but he actually met with me. It turns out
he passes on a lot of stuff because it doesn’t appeal to
him. But he liked the material, the direction, he liked the fact
that it wasn’t really a science fiction film, because it’s
not it’s more of a drama, it’s a metaphorical film.
Like a Clockwork Orange is technically a science fiction film,
but it’s really about society and the direction we’re
going in and so is this film. It’s mostly about our own experience
of our own lives.
CA: Who was your film editor?
ON: Dede Allen (Wonder Boys; Addams Family; Breakfast Club; Dog
Day Afternoon; Bonnie & Clyde). And a relative newcomer named
Robert Brakey (assistant editor on: Frailty; Mulan; Dazed and Confused).
I wanted Dede over any other editor, because I find that no matter
what the film is about, her focus is the performances more than
anything else. I find the danger with a lot of films, especially
science fiction films, is missing the performances.
CA: Did the editors have any commentary on the subject matter?
ON: The editors loved that it was about editors. After we built
the guillotine I made up a diagram and they sat down and figured
out how it would work and then sat with Robin and showed him how
to work like and editor and look convincing. That was a lot of
fun. There are no movies about film editors. Part of the fun was
creating an editor subculture of people who edit lives as a kind
of director slash editor. CA: The Robin Williams character is a
cutter who uses the information from the Zoe chip to make movies
for the persons funeral that remake their lives in a better light
for everyone to remember them by. Am I getting this right?
ON: The Zoe chip is like a big POV shot of your life. It has no
feelings or judgment, and it’s mostly for the wealthy. These
cutters sit down and make films of your life to change the way
people remember you. That’s really the purpose of these films:
to worship ourselves. I find going to the movie theater in our
society is almost a religious activity: you sit down, it’s
quiet, the lights go down…It’s very similar. The memorial
film, which is called a “re-memory”, is shown in a
theater. I like the way it ties in our movie going with our funerary
rituals and it becomes a kind of new religion to us. Alan is the
man he is because of an awful tragedy that happened in his childhood.
While he’s working on his latest project he discovers something
that he never realized before about his life that he has to pursue.
CA: A shared memory?
ON: No, it’s some other guy’s life. I love the idea
that something that happened in this stranger’s life that
was meaningless to him is, to Alan, a revelation. And it starts
a mystery that needs to be solved about who he is and why he is
what he is. For me that is the question, philosophically anyway.
I mean we are who we are because of how we perceive ourselves,
but the way we perceive ourselves is quite possibly based on false
information our mind has told us. It’s kind of creepy when
you think about the fact that everything is up for grabs that way.
CA: How did you decide on the design of the world of the movie.
ON: I had a fantastic production designer named James Chinlund
who did Requiem For A Dream and Auto Focus and he always wanted
to do science fiction but never had a chance to do it and he loved
the script. We talked about what a society that worships the past
would look like. We wanted to stay away from the clichés
of the genre. In the film Alan works on an editing system, called
the guillotine, that’s a combination of old and new editing
tables. We decided that all the computer casings would be made
out of wood to create a warm feeling. You look at it and you think,
my god, why aren’t computers really made this way? The world
has to have a very warm cozy feel. I wanted the film to look like
a memory. It’s going to be confusing to a hell of a lot of
people who are walking into the theater expecting to see a lot
of lasers and futuristic cars. The costumes use a lot of 40s style
clothing and the cars are all European from the 60s and 70s. But
the wooden computers, I hope they catch on. I feel for the people
who built them and they had to be functioning wooden laptops.
CA: Tell me about the Mira Sorvino character.
ON: She’s a bookdealer and a woman that Alan has been seeing
for a few weeks. She’s a character that believes in the older
values and it’s not a coincidence that she’s a book
dealer. She is simultaneously curious and very suspicious about
these Zoe films. She says, I prefer to remember people the way
I remember them and not the way I’ve been told to remember
them. She’s the moral side of the film or the side of the
film that’s not greeting the technology with open arms because
she feels that there’s something wrong with it. She’s
attracted to Alan because he’s a very talented and interesting
guy with a real sweet side. Their story is kind of him trying to
emerge from his neurosis.
CA: And the James Clavezael character?
ON: Jim plays an ex-cutter who came to a moral awakening and quit.
Now he is part of a group of people who are ideologically opposed
to the technology and want to expose it for the mass lying machine
that it is.
CA: It seems like it could be an OK technology.
ON: That’s in the film. It’s not preachy on either
end. I made the film to be an open dialogue for the audience. Sometimes
I agree with you and sometimes not. I mean it’s OK if someone
wants to remember their loved one a certain way, but what about
when it gets to a bigger level which is what we have now with our
administration. What happens when you’re fed a particular
picture that’s not in the real picture and people start to
believe that that is the truth?
CA: History is written by the winner…
ON: Exactly, it’s something I feel very strongly about, and
so do the characters in the film, they defend their views very
strongly. The distortion of personal history is the distortion
CA: It’s the distortion of personal history on a public front.
ON: Movies have distorted our view of what our lives should be
like. It’s like we expect our lives to follow the three-act
structure. Suddenly over a hundred years of movies there’s
these expectations that have been created, but life is not like
a movie. Alan thinks like a movie too, I think that’s an
interesting conflict within the film.
CA: Are you happy with the end product?
ON: I’m really happy. I can’t wait until it comes out.
CA: Did you get all the scenes you wanted?
ON: We did have to cut some scenes. A big part of it for me was
that we had a 35-day shoot, and it was important to get it in on
time and on budget.
CA: What do you think of the concept of the director’s cut?
ON: I’m not a fan. They’re rarely as good as the original,
especially if you’re going back and digitally fucking with
it. We know who were talking about here. That’s a little
distressing because films are so much a part of when they came
out. I mean can you imagine a painter doing that?