In the fall of 2011 I faced the happy task of writing the acknowledgments page, and a dedication if I wanted one, for Companion to an Untold Story. I had worked my way through the copy editor’s suggestions, all typographical errors had been corrected, reference citations double-checked—the book was ready to move on to the next stage in production. In the writing of Companion, a book about the suicide of my friend Joel, I had spent years considering all manner of questions, but hadn’t thought about whom to acknowledge or whether a dedication was desirable. I had become faintly aware of the contemporary trend in acknowledgments, an outpouring of gratitude to a large cast of characters, but by and large I had paid little heed to these matters.
Best to take a look at how other authors approached this task before penning my own thanks, I thought, and I started to pull books down from my shelves.
Faulkner dedicated As I Lay Dying to Hal Smith on the copyright page. That was all. No acknowledgments. William Styron’s memoir of madness, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is dedicated To Rose, words set off on an otherwise blank page after the copyright information. Styron acknowledges no one.
I noted with approval that one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, tucks her Housekeeping dedication—for my husband, and for James and Joseph, Jody and Joel, four wonderful boys—above the copyright notice, where, if I weren’t looking for it, I’d probably miss the small nod to her family. Anne Carson in Glass, Irony, and God spells out her dedication down the empty leaf before her title page:
She embeds her acknowledgments on the copyright page, dutifully thanking the editors and publishers of magazines in which some of the writing first appeared.
Collections of poems traditionally include some form of acknowledgement, often a section that lists the literary venues where individual poems were previously published. Louise Glück’s landmark collection The House on Marshland includes a full page of acknowledgments. That format was necessitated by the number of poems previously published in magazines, or maybe Glück highlighted this history in a bow to the magazines’ services to literature. Embedding their names in small print on the copyright page would not bespeak gratitude so much as legal obligation.
The next page is her dedication:
With love and gratitude
Ellen Bryant Voigt
So far the writers I’ve mentioned—novelist, poet, and memoirist—are restrained.
The expected breadth and depth of acknowledgments, however, seems to be evolving. Many hands are required to bring a book to life, and there’s a movement afoot to push this fact forward. Jo Ann Beard’s much-admired memoir The Boys of My Youth, published in 1998, lists venues where parts of the book were previously published. In the first paragraph of a separate page of acknowledgments she expresses gratitude to two art colonies for the “gift of time” and to a foundation for its financial support. Then she turns to thank her agent for “her sustained belief in my writing, her sanity, and her charming unwillingness to accept rejection when it came our way.” In the second paragraph, she thanks twenty-nine other people.
Mary Cappello’s Awkward, published in 2007, prints a five-page section at the back of the book that resembles an academic model of acknowledgments, wherein the author is entrenched in institutions. It’s hard to classify this book—it’s a memoir and a tour of an idea, combining research and personal meditation. She thanks a variety of fellowships that supported her research, thanks a range of writers and scholars to whom she is indebted, thanks in detail her students, undergraduate and graduate, and the courses that were instrumental to her thinking. She thanks eleven colleagues for their encouragement, nine friends and guides in Russia and Italy, where she was on fellowships, and gives a shout out to two tailors. She turns, then, to note the intellectual friendship of five others, her agent, who “keeps the faith,” her editor, her writing guru, her writing partner, and a partner in adventure. In all, it’s an utter refusal to make the immodest claims of the solitary genius in the attic.
Notes from No Man’s Land, published in 2009 by Eula Biss, is close in spirit to Awkward. Her essays are formally inventive, a rich blend of research and personal reflection. They are followed by twenty-three pages of notes. Her acknowledgments begin with the SOP of thanking the editors of the publications where the work previously appeared. Thanks then go out to her agent, to Graywolf for publishing the book, to Robert Polito for choosing her manuscript as the contest winner, and to Jeff Clark for the cover design. Then she moves to the foundations that supported her, seven friends who helped her write, three teachers who advised her along the way, and an additional four friends who specifically helped the revision process. Last she thanks her husband.
It’s not just nonfiction books that carry weighty acknowledgments. Frankly, the warmth and fellow feeling in Justin Torres’ We the Animals, a slim autobiographical novel, pretty much won me over. He graciously notes eight educational foundations that gave “generous support.” Agent and editor are mentioned. He provides a “partial” list of fourteen influential teachers, with special appreciation to his high school English teacher, whom “he loves very much.” The second page acknowledges readers, friends, and heroines for inspiration and guidance.
However, not everyone is on board with the proliferation of thank-yous. In the February 2009 issue of the American Spectator Jonathan Black takes on the shift in the way we do acknowledgments and quotes Sara Nelson, an editor of Publishers Weekly: “It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it’s publishing by committee. Everything’s sales and marketing and publicity.” She says a bit snappishly that contemporary acknowledgments have turned into a “phonebook of helpers.”
In response, a blogger has taken issue with Black’s view that writers needn’t bring everyone in from the cold. It’s a good thing, says the blogger, that all persons involved with the birth of a book be laureated. Fifty-six commenters on the post agreed with his position; one found Black “curmudgeonly.” Gratitude can never be a bad thing—that was the consensus view. Spotlighting the many hands of support is good manners, good literary etiquette. Respondents also felt they got to know the author better by reading acknowledgments. They liked the personal touch.
When did the self-portrait of a writer as teetering atop a pyramid of support become commonplace? Listing a bunch of helpers behind a book was once seen as an uncrafty gesture. Inviting the whole cast—like that of a Broadway musical—to share the stage with the author diminished her stature as author.
If a book today is selected in a contest, as mine was, it is commonplace to thank the organization, the judge, and other “essential” people, such as first-round readers who passed the manuscript onto the judge. Then the publishing house must be thanked, with its troops of editors, copy editors, designers, production staff, and publicists. Agents might be involved—they can’t be left out. The impulse to pull the curtain up and bring everyone on stage for a bow is generous, and it demystifies the notion that an author is a genius alone responsible for birthing her book. Such an acknowledgment may awaken new respect for the mostly invisible assistance that is required for a book to be hatched, but sometimes I think that, given all the well-documented help the writer required, it’s a miracle the book got written at all.
In another era, we wanted the support behind the author to be invisible. No one advertised how substantially Gordon Lish “edited” Raymond Carver’s stories. Now, after the reputation has been established, we are faced with the much more complicated history of authorship behind the writer. Part of the romance of the book is the notion that there is only one author. A good book cannot be written by a committee, or so we have thought. In today’s mode of acknowledgments, the apparatus of writing is put on display.
The scene of writing, it turns out, is a crowded place. Children who suffered while their parent wrote must be brought on stage to be apologized to and thanked; others whom the author failed in some way (and who, according to the contemporary mode of thanks, are never a bitch about it) must be hailed for their patience and loyalty; agents and editors who believed in the writer and the book, against all odds—they, too, must take the floor. The book the reader holds in her hands was not miraculously created by the author and walked through a lonely tunnel; it had many stopovers at soothing spas along the way.
How can one not admire giving all persons their due, thanking each and every person for a part played so admirably? Isn’t it like the credits rolling after the film has ended?
The shift in attitudes I’ve been talking about is a part of much bigger changes in our world that go way beyond books themselves: the expansion of higher ed and the burst in the number of writing programs, which means that more authors have been supported by grants, research leaves, and other sorts of impersonal assistance that fertilize manuscripts; intensified interest in the conditions that allow markets to work, for example, economists’ attention to courts, financial apparatuses, and other institutions that have no role in a pure laissez-faire model; scholars who have in recent years studied the material conditions of books as objects, which–until the Internet allowed electronic versions–required paper and ink, typesetters, printers, warehouses, transportation, etc.; the decay of reverence in our jaded age; and so on. (What’s required here is a long list of factors—shall we call it an acknowledgment?)
And that leads me back to my own choices.
I was torn. On the one hand, being generous is a good thing, and I didn’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon like that rapscallion Jonathan Black. On the other hand, I noted that Denis Johnson’s recent Train Dreams thanked no one. There was no recitation of all the people who helped Denis Johnson write or publish Train Dreams. The era of the iconic author isn’t over just yet.
My first draft was fulsome. What about my copy editor? She was exemplary, I must say. I admired her care with details, her engagement with my themes. She probably never receives enough notice for her work, I thought, and decided to include her. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity to mention people who assisted me, and I thanked my high school teacher, Mr. Hinderlie, who had us write a short story a day for the first three weeks of my junior English class. He made us write a novel my senior year, and he introduced me to Joyce, Faulkner, Dickinson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many other writers who were thankfully, mercifully over my head and nothing like the pabulum served by Mrs. Troup, my English teacher for ninth and tenth grades. Who had ever properly acknowledged Mr. Hinderlie for the role he played in our development? No one. And I thought, I’m going to include him. The floodgates opened. In no time I had written two pages of gratitude, and I was just getting started.
But something was wrong. I thought about how awful those speeches are by actors who win awards. They’ve got a class roster of folks to thank, and they do, and by the end I don’t remember a single name or have any idea who was genuinely important. What’s special about being one of thirty people?
There were just three people whose acts of support towards me went deep, beyond the definition of help. One might even say their help cost them something, and none was employed in the business end of publishing. My husband allowed me to make him a character in my book, to open up his friendship with Joel for public scrutiny. Gale, the woman who had made a life with Joel for a time, allowed me to open it up again, even though it was painful. And Leigh simply was my ideal reader, the person I write to, who in that role has forged a lifetime bond with me and without whom I would be bereft.
At first, those three were lost in the crowd of the be-thanked around them. Their help wasn’t distinguished from that of a copy editor. It wasn’t my friend’s job to be my ideal reader. This was a gift I would never be able to adequately describe, not in a million acknowledgments. On my acknowledgments page I would thank only the people who couldn’t really be thanked.
In the final version I didn’t mention the Associated Writing Programs, which ran the contest I won, or Susan Orlean, who selected my manuscript, or the people at the University of Georgia Press who oversaw the production of my book (though they did a great job!). In each instance, I feel nothing but admiration, praise, and gratitude for these individuals and organizations. Yet I didn’t include them in my acknowledgments. In the end, I said: “I can’t say enough, and so I say very little.”
I didn’t dedicate my book to anyone. The book itself was the manifestation of my dedication, dedicated to Joel and laid at the altar of death. If I had written To Joel, it would have been a sign that my book had failed.
Adriana Paramo, the author of the highly recommended Looking for Esperanza, asked me to participate in this blog-tagging thing called “The Next Big Thing.” All of the participating writers agree to answer a set of questions in common and then tag five other writers to put forward as the “Next Big Thing.” It’s a way to bring attention to writers in a friendly chain of tags. My answers to the questions follow.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Companion to an Untold Story is about the death by suicide of my friend Joel, who carried out a methodical plan to take his own life.
What genre does your book fall under? Literature, not journalism: creative nonfiction. Companion includes all kinds of documentation, but at heart it attempts to sort out what happened to Joel through an assaying of ideas, images, and feelings.
Where did the idea come from for the book? I’m not sure I can reconstruct when it occurred to me that I might be writing a book. As a writer I tend to process experience through writing and that’s what I began shortly after Joel’s death. I began writing numbered entries in a notebook. I felt compelled to do so. The entries weren’t always directly about Joel and yet they were about him, about the effects his death was having on my life. At some point when the entries grew into a sufficient number, I realized I had stumbled into a large project. It has never felt as if I decided to write this book.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? The structure of Companion is not the form I began with. In the beginning I wrote a version that was closer to a biography, and tried to provide a more exhaustive account of my friend’s life and death. I discovered how many things I didn’t know about him, how many gaps there were between the man I thought I knew and the man he came to be. It became clear that in part my subject was how the mysterious resides within the familiar. His suicide exposed that central fact. I also came to see that I had left myself out of the story. In the final version I strive to be a companion to my friend’s story and the theme of companionship runs through the book.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? In part, I wanted to remember my friend. Suicide tends to write over the life lived, to erase it. Finally what one becomes is a suicide. Joel attempted to destroy much of the record of his life. My book remembers him. “Memory is, achingly the only relation we can have with the dead,” said Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, and so I remember.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Companion to an Untold Story was selected as the winner of the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction by Susan Orlean. The book came out September, 2012, from The University of Georgia Press.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? John Vernon’s A Book of Reasons, a memoir about the death of the author’s reclusive brother. Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land; A Suburban Memoir, and Anne Carson’s Nox.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? I can’t say what actors I’d choose. I can strongly say I see Terence Malick as the director.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? In the current publishing scene, authors have taken on the bulk of responsibility in promoting their books. In the list of recommended activities the publicist from The University of Georgia Press sent me I was most intrigued by the idea of making a trailer to accompany my book. Instead of posting lots of updates about my book, the trailer offered me the opportunity to make something with its own discrete artistic merits which might also help build interest in my book. Last summer I worked with Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, my colleague in the Department of English at Michigan State University, to make a trailer for Companion that I am proud of. I also wrote ten blog entries about the process, which was entirely new to me, called The Making of a Trailer.
I am supposed to tag five writers who I think fit the phrase “The Next Big Thing.” And here I have to admit some difficulties I’ve run into trying to fulfill the instructions. I had no trouble thinking of five writers I’d like to highlight. However, I discovered that many of the writers were swamped with more work than they could handle at the beginning of a new semester and couldn’t take on anything else. I fit that profile as well. And some writers didn’t have blogs. Imagine. And so they couldn’t participate. I am tagging three wonderful writers whose books I am awaiting to read with great anticipation.
Nicole Walker is the author of the forthcoming Quench Your Thirst with Salt.
Rae Paris is the author of the young adult novel titled You, excerpts of which were finalists for the Summer Literary Seminars and Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of the forthcoming Body Geographic.
Music on the sound track or not? That was the last major decision to be made on the Companion trailer, although the preparations required to make it took months.
I briefly considered commissioning a score, but there are no composers among my friends or colleagues who might donate time and talent, and I had no budget to hire someone at market rates. That meant using extant music. But music of what sort, and of what century?
My first thought was premodern classical music, which would allow us to avoid legal barriers. I do have a friend who’s a professional pianist. He was willing to record the chosen piece, and that way we’d avoid problems of copyright.
A search for the right music, however, did not turn up good prospects. The works that Richard and I listened to would, in the trailer, sound rarified, highbrow, and stuffy. I wanted quiet exposition, lament, and resolution, not a requiem for a fallen giant.
An example is Bach, who was at the top of our list, since Joel played his keyboard music on the harpsichord (see the entry “Manhattan” in the Companion). Despite his varied output, however, Bach wasn’t right. The controlled passion, onward drive, and profundity that make him the composer of choice for movies from The English Patient to The Beast with Five Fingers (now there’s a trailer with gusto) were not in the mood we hoped to create.
By chance, however, Bach did lead us to the right music. After we heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale two years ago, Richard signed up to receive the Chorale’s promotional emails. On a recent program appeared a contemporary composer not familiar to us, Nico Muhly.
Having listened to some of his compositions, Richard sent me a link to “A Hudson Cycle,” a piece for solo piano about three and a half minutes long. He liked its quiet forward motion against restraints, and thought it would bring pace to the trailer. I was unsure at first, but as I listened more, the music grew on me. Reading about the composer, I was surprised by his youth (born 1981) and pleased to learn that his father is a documentary filmmaker, like Pillai. After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I listened again to the piece and announced, “It’s perfect.”
In the meantime Richard had emailed an address on the composer’s website, asking about purchasing a license. Somewhat to our surprise, an answer came back from the St Rose Music Publishing saying yes to a two-year license, and at a reasonable cost.
We still weren’t sure we’d use the piece, but if we did, we wanted the trailer to have a longer life. Richard wrote back to St Rose:
We are hoping that the trailer will be a work of permanent value (to its creators, if no one else!). It would be unfortunate to lose the ability to present it after two years. Would it be possible to include in the agreement an option on our part to purchase a permanent license after the initial two years?
No response came for week, for two weeks, three weeks. Richard called St Rose and left a voice mail. No response. What had happened? Had our efforts at negotiation turned off the professionals on the other end?
We needed to find another option. Wandering around YouTube, Richard chanced upon another name new to us, the tragic Lhasa de Sela. How stunning “Love Came Here” would sound under the credits! This was the sort of thing movies did a lot of—a jumpy number as the credits roll.
But we wanted music for the body of the trailer, not just the credits, and Lhasa’s strong vocal personality would clash with, maybe overwhelm, the narration. We couldn’t afford to pay for two pieces of music, and so our Lhasa craze faded.
And then St Rose emailed, offering a license of five years. We had our preferred musical option back on the table.
When the editing was almost complete, the time came to make a decision on the music. The various members of Team Trailer had different opinions. Pillai seemed to believe that the whole was already complete, that the trailer should should stay “dry” (so goes the lingo). Richard was music’s main advocate. He had invested effort in finding the right work and obtaining a license, so I was inclined to defer to his wish to experiment with it on the soundtrack. Pillai was quite willing give it a try.
The trailer has two halves, four segments, divided by fades to black. To put things schematically, the first two segments are Joel’s history and his death, the second two my response and an affirmation. Pillai proposed starting the music with the second half.
Richard jumped on this idea and emailed Pillai:
It occurred to me to begin the music at the same spot you suggested, after the blackout following “And on that day he died.” It would thus represent movement forward in the aftermath.
The music could play continuously below whatever other sounds occur, and end with the word “companion,” the last word of the narration.
I do feel the same way about the music as you do—using it after the bathroom sequence, starting it during the fadeout and the sequence beginning with the egg coddler, and layering it till the end.
When Richard and I visited the lab to watch the version with music, however, Pillai and Drew had placed it much later. The trailer concludes with a few seconds of the river rippling in the sun, a dissolve to the book cover, and then the credits. The music began with the rippling water.
What had changed Pillai’s mind? The piece had too much momentum, he said, and made the trailer “too strong.” The very quality in the music that had appealed to Richard—its ready pace—clashed with the rhythm of the trailer prior to its final scenes.
Yet the music was right for the resolution of the story. It smooths out and unites the concluding sequence, Pillai commented. Although some of us handle silences well, he said, much of the audience would be carried along by the music. In the end there’s “a kind of redemption,” and the music bears this feeling forward.
The music was in.
Still there were fine adjustments to make. Fade in with “the sparrows were up and swooping”? No, the birds sing in a different key. Accompany “the sun is up,” or join “ablaze with light”? Fade in how fast, and fade out how slow? We chose precisely how the musical river would flow, and on what slope.
Only after all my own decisions on the music were made did I read Daniel Johnson’s analysis of “A Hudson Cycle”:
The primary rhythmic figure—a restless polyrhythm of two beats in the right hand for every three in the left—should recall the onward rush of the titular river, which very much represents “home” for the composer. (There it is, out his window.) … its relentless rhythms propel the piece as a river of sound, dark and liquid.
Here ends this series of posts on the making of a book trailer. Here exit the river (there it is, out my window), the river house, the stamps and coddler and things, the bon creative crew, Pillai, Tim, and Drew, and the “unknown man whom we knew.”
The trailer is made.
The editing was done in the Creativity Exploratory lab on the Michigan State University campus, a room wall-to-wall with monitors and CPUs of this size and that, mismatched too-large chairs, students jacked into headphones, the shiny cardboard yield of the packaging industry emptied of contents and abandoned here and there, dusty old computers on the floor that would think no more, on a table excavated hard drives waiting to be smashed or passed on to persons with less need for capacity and speed, empty packets of salty snacks, paper-format cartoons and FYIs taped to walls, others scribbled on a whiteboard, monitors playing their dazy screens, a window air conditioner blowing, a mini-fan going—all the features you’d expect in a student-populated, hard-used IT workspace.
Here in the lab Pillai and Drew selected and ordered the segments in the trailer. Selected how? Ordered according to what aesthetic?
As I mentioned in my post on the script, connections between the voice-over and specific images in the visual stream were severed early in the process of making the trailer—before shooting began, in fact. We did not have footage of a car to accompany my words about a car, for example. We had footage of binoculars, but no binoculars in the voice-over.
When it came time to order the recorded scenes into sequences, there was no inherent connection between the moving images in our collection and the narrative. (The big exception to this dissociation is Omar as the designated companion.) The latter provided the plot, the skeleton, but the flesh of the trailer, the images and sounds, had to be added to it. How would the scenes be picked in relation to the procession of words?
Pillai believed that strong emotions would be evoked by the objects they had filmed, as if the objects themselves had feelings:
In this trailer, as the focus was on the memories invoked through objects, it was important to go by their emotions—their tears and smiles when they were touched by the sun dancing through the leaves and the breeze.
The associations of ideas and emotions with various images—did I just hear someone think, Eliot’s objective correlative?—created connections between particular elements in the narration and particular shots. Certain structures of bone belonged with certain ligaments and shapes of muscle. I’ve already written about some of Pillai’s associations between objects and feelings. Here are others that he and I discussed at one time or another.
|Lights flashing on||The fact of Joel’s suicide breaking into my blindness.|
|Ant crawling||People in their routine unable to see what’s going on because they are too engaged in their tasks, have their heads down: what I couldn’t see—that Joel was saying good-bye.|
|Shower||Interior, enclosed space of purification: the bathroom. Everything washing away.|
|Shot outside the window to the river, with flowers||Sense of life continuing.|
|Colored platter/egg coddler /flames/hands||What life does the object carry, what stories, what has Joel passed to me? But also the juxtaposition of the flames and flowers, symbols of life.|
|Pages of manuscript, stamps||Ways I haven’t let go of Joel. Ways I’ve put my arms around it.|
|Stamps floating free||Release, beginning to accept, to let go, to move with the current of time passing and water flowing.|
|Binoculars||Object that shows I am seeing in a less blinded way, less one-sided, seeing both Joel and me.|
|Omar||A companion, life, energy, the river, gifts. Restoring the idea of gift from poison to something generous.|
In assembling a sequence of sights to follow the voice-over, one can identify emotions and ideas in the right-hand column that are expressed by the spoken words, then convert them into the appropriate image in the left-hand column (Pillai, of course, didn’t work so mechanically as that). In this way he and Drew Seymour, the editor, assembled a rough order for the visual stream, such that the appropriate emotions connected to images were synchronized with specific passage in the voice-over.
There was another major consideration in the sequence of images: rhythm.
Generally one thinks of rhythm when it comes to a trailer, because it helps lead the audience into the heart of the work. Often the mainstream films prefer sensational leads, while the art film might privilege Bazinian long takes with artful dissolves.
Pillai is referring to the French film critic André Bazin. His reference to “long takes and artful dissolves” is a perfect description of the style of the trailer.
Rhythm in the sense of an alternation of types of shots was a special concern because of the intense use of extreme close-ups in filming. As Pillai put it,
At a fundamental level, editing is smooth when you have a change of scale, i.e. volume between shots, for instance, when you cut from a long shot to a mid-shot or a close-up. Or you must have a change of angles of at least 30 degrees—if you are going to cut between shots taken from almost the same position, the transition will be noticeable.
In other words, Pillai and Drew needed to avoid jump cuts. Tim, with his experience as a news cameraman, gave the example of juxtaposed head-and-shoulders shots, which look jarring. A wide shot inserted between them makes the sequence smoother.
These were the general concerns as the trailer was assembled. The macroediting was done before Richard and I saw a rough cut, and when we came to the lab to watch it, what we observed was the fine-tuning.
At the Apple touchpad was Drew, with Pillai in the director’s chair (too large, mismatched). The software was Final Cut Pro X. I wish I could provide a technical discussion of its features, but my nontechnical assessment is that it can do anything.
Drew Seymour is a graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Bio-medical Materials Science Engineering. He has been involved with producing, directing, filming, branding, editing, and social media for an eclectic mixture of projects including the punditry news show The Reaction, the life culture podcast BNF, and short documentary films. He has just completed working for the Creativity Exploratory at Michigan State University.
We observed as Pillai and Drew adjusted the shot of the swing hanging on the rope; Pillai wanted to slow down its motion. Drew played the same few seconds again and again, and I heard “school district south of San Francisco” repeatedly as they adjusted the speed of the swing. Between Pillai’s quiet voice and the noise of the air conditioner, I couldn’t understand their conversation. After repeated calibrations, Pillai nodded when it was right and said, “Yes.”
They changed the pace of a dissolve into a five-second shot of tangled tree-roots on the riverbank. Pillai, using the old vocabulary of celluloid, wanted to move the dissolve forward a few frames. Five minutes went by, ten. Finally it was right. (This shot was later eliminated altogether.)
Microediting, I soon learned, is laborious, intense, slow, minute (in Pillai’s words, “painstaking and productive, obsessive and absorbing”). We watched for an hour and a half as Pillai and Drew adjusted less than a minute’s worth of the trailer they had already been editing for several days. I now understood why editing a full-length movie takes months.
I should say something about our difficulties with sounds.
The ease with which the green ribbons on screen that represented pieces of audio (I think that’s what they were) could be manipulated sometimes led to unintended effects. Bird sounds could be dropped in willy-nilly or moved unwittingly and, said Pillai, result in “a cut-and-paste effect that I wanted to avoid.” They needed layering at more gradual levels. We also discovered that what sounded fine through low-fi speakers was no good through high-quality headphones at high volume. The birds were singing to the accompaniment of what sounded like a dishwasher. Drew applied a filter and cleaned them up.
“Bird sounds are now the leitmotif of our film,” Pillai said with a bit of avian pride. Indeed, the call of a cardinal begins it.
In one microediting session I observed, Pillai wanted the loudness of the churning water in the shower to differ in two clips, with the first quieter than the second, so the second would startle and punctuate.
There were mysterious problems; sound in one of the clips had dropped out of the sound track. A hardware/software mismatch? No one was sure. Drew returned to a backup version from yesterday’s session and pulled the clip from there.
This was the second point of punctuation in the trailer, the bird sounds being the first. How high should the peak of sound be? Over and over they played the bathroom scene, adjusting duration and volume: . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon … Dazed myself, I admired the editors’ precision and tenacity.
I’ll give over the summary words to Pillai, who brings us back from microediting to a larger viewpoint, from metadata and codecs to the poetic end of this technical practice:
In this trailer, where the focus was on extreme close-ups of objects—shot through a macro lens—in most of the shots the challenge was to work on their evocativeness to point to the rare poetic quality of the book, which is invested in the materiality of the object as the career of memory, while at the same time [the book] uses it as a point of departure to journey into the deeper recesses of the heart where guilt, anger, justification, and redemption intersect in a profound and poignant way. The shooting and editing was, therefore, dictated in the final analysis by this journey into the interiority of the narrator through exterior objects—both visual, like the egg coddler or the stamps, and sound, like the chirping of birds and the water.
Editing: to splice, to unite, heart-sound-sight.
In the fullest version of the script, produced in response to Pillai’s request for a beginning, a middle, and an end, the final lines of narration, borrowed from the Companion, mention a location for a symbolic burial: “I have found a place where I would have liked Joel to be buried. It’s a small sanctuary called La Resolana, meaning reflected sunlight. I had no right to say where Joel would be disposed. But I have rights to where I imagine him, what I do to keep myself alive and lay him to rest.”
As a conclusion to the voice-over, these words would have brought the narrative arc back to earth in a good spot. But they did not satisfy me. For one thing, they refer to a locale that couldn’t be filmed, a real place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. We trailer-makers were not going to get footage of La Resolana, and I couldn’t imagine a visual substitution, though that technique worked well in some parts of the trailer, as when red geraniums stood in for red roses.
Furthermore, the ending was wordy, introducing ideas that are important in the book but can’t be developed in a voice-over of a few hundred words. Like some other passages in the long version of the script that I discussed in the previous post, it was good on the page, not so good on the ear.
While the filming was going on, I was brewing another idea for the conclusion, built on the word companion.
Dogs have been the companions of my life, in relationships deep and abiding, untroubled by the wounds human beings sometimes inflict upon one another. When Joel came for his last visit in the October before his death, he folded himself into our ordinary daily lives, and that meant spending time with our dogs. They accompanied us everywhere, and there was no escape from their intimacy. As Larry, our golden retriever, rested nearby one night, Joel said, “It must be a great comfort to have him lying at your feet.”
His remark, which at the time seemed casual, though tinged with melancholy, has stayed with me. Joel was a being unaccompanied. The preceding April, he had written to say that he might move to the East Bay and get a dog, which he couldn’t have in his apartment in San Francisco. He had a plan—maybe no more than a fantasy—of building a new life in a less densely populated area. He would not live alone as he had for many years, but have a companion.
After Joel died, I asked myself what I could have given him that might have made a difference in his life. He had turned down our offer to relocate to Michigan and stay with us while he found work. He wouldn’t have accepted money, had we any to give. It was impossible to see him with a wife and children, a deep network of friends. But I could imagine a dog. I wanted to end the trailer by portraying such a companion.
Who else better in the role than my own Omar? He was born to be a matinee idol.
Watching the day’s rushes with Pillai and Tim one evening, I suggested this new ending. I wanted a shot of Omar running toward someone unseen, suggesting the absent Joel. Pillai agreed that it would be good to conclude with an image of life, energy, and light. Omar is almost white in color, a bounding image of light.
Our plan was to have Omar run from the house and down the flagstone path toward the river. A walnut tree that threatened power lines had been felled by Consumers Energy and lay across the path. Omar would have to jump over it on his way to the river, run past the fire circle, and go down steps, from which he would leap into the river.
It was the last sequence we filmed that day, a day full of challenge and invention. Pillai and Tim had filmed pages of drafts of the Companion scattered in the ferns and greenery; filmed through binoculars; torn sheets of stamps and set them afloat upon the river, casting away grief and hurt. It had been an exhilarating day, and then came Omar.
Pillai didn’t know what to expect from Omar, who had no training as a performer, but I had faith he would do well.
Pillai and Tim set up the camera by the river in order to capture Omar running toward it. We didn’t want his handlers to be seen—it had to appear that he was heading toward the river on his own. Richard hid behind the deck stairs, holding him back until Tim was ready. I stood near the fire ring and, when the moment came, called Omar. The first couple of takes didn’t work because Richard was seen in the background. But Omar repeated his part perfectly, bounding over the tree and past the camera and down toward the river. At last Tim managed to get a take he liked.
After that segment was captured, we let Omar continue on and jump in the river. He swam out to the middle, chasing a stick. Tim was using a tripod that didn’t allow easy tracking, but Omar walked to the right-hand edge of the camera’s view and stopped right on the mark, then turned to us for his bow. It couldn’t have been choreographed any better. A star was born!
I felt happy during this final day of shooting. The sequence with Omar embodied a spirit I tried to convey in my book—my desire to accompany Joel, to give something back to him, to give something of him to others. To be a companion.
Should a trained actress read the voice-over, or should I narrate the script myself? That was the question we needed to answer before recording the oral story in the trailer. A professional like my friend Rose Portillo would certainly give a better reading than I, more polished and more detailed. My untrained voice would exhibit deficiencies in timbre, control, and emotional tone. At the same time, there were advantages to its flaws, strengths in its weaknesses, rooted in the nature of the trailer.
We were not in pursuit of a commercially smooth product starring a glossy persona. Companion to an Untold Story is nonfiction. Though singular in structure, it is factual and based in my personal point of view. Pillai’s orientation in filmmaking is likewise documentary, and while the trailer isn’t a documentary, it borrows a style from lyric films like Bresson’s Pickpocket and Malick’s Tree of Life and applies it to nonfiction. An actress reading the voice-over would push the trailer toward fiction, toward simulation and performance. The flaws in my voice are at least my flaws, and they connect directly to the real struggles presented in the Companion.
So the rationale for hearing my voice on the trailer seemed compelling, and that was the option we chose.
When the filming of visuals was almost complete, it was time to record the narration. On another hot, humid day in a parched summer, Pillai came to the river house for that purpose, bringing with him Drew Seymour, the trailer’s editor, who was to capture bird sounds while Pillai worked with me.
I confess that I dreaded this recording session. My voice—the material instrument and the symbol of self—has a tangled history, which I’ve written about in Girl Rearing. Let’s just say that, early in life, some damage was done to my voice, and that it troubles me. Not all the sounds that birds make are beautiful and pleasing, yet I accept them with a generosity I cannot grant myself.
We recorded the narration at the river house because in that environment my voice would sound more natural than in a studio. The technical results were, I think, good—the spoken words in the trailer are clear and alive. This is so even though sound was the most gremlinized part of the whole project (on that subject, see the coming post on editing). But getting these results required a passage through a crisis caused by old baggage I carried and couldn’t put down.
Pillai positioned me on the low green bench facing the fire ring and the river behind that, with the house at my back. He and Drew set up their equipment, which, as I had discovered in prior visits, takes a long time. Everything has to be just right, and there’s always something missing or not working properly. Improvisations have to be made. The sun was bright, beating down on the white sheets of paper I held before me, bleaching out the words and glaring back at my face. My neck felt hot, and I sweated.
When the equipment was ready, Pillai said, “Imagine you are talking to someone here before you. You are trying to explain to them what happened.” He didn’t want me to be reading a script. He wanted intimacy, as if I were telling an old friend about a disturbing experience.
But, of course, I was reading a script: “The Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel …” Neither Drew nor Pillai, absorbed in technical tasks, betrayed a reaction to my disturbing experience. No one nodded in understanding or said sympathetically, “I see” or “My, that’s terrible!” I was manufacturing a voice and mood in an artificial situation. I could feel the pulse in my throat, in my face, the strain in my posture and gestures. I hurried ahead, wanting the discomfort to end.
Slow down, pause, Pillai prompted gently. The more he urged me to take it easy, the tighter I got. And that is an old story. Coaxing me to relax makes me strain harder. It’s comical, really, though none of us around the fire ring was laughing.
After several rough efforts, we took a break and marched upstairs to watch the results on the TV in our bedroom.
The person who appeared on screen wasn’t me. She didn’t match my imago, my air-brushed photo. The blasting light and heat hadn’t been flattering, let me say that. My face was slick with perspiration, and my hair stuck to my head like cooked spaghetti thrown against a wall. Every imperfection was magnified. I twitched—my eyes, my lips. I tossed my hands out like fishing line and reeled them back in. Who knew my mouth was so small and that, when uncomfortable, I did little grimaces with it. Could I not open my mouth and speak like a regular person? Not to mention the sound of my voice.
I was not a welcoming presence, gathering listeners round to hear the story of my friend. Too much quivering emotion—too pained and serious, too tortured. No one listening to me would want to read my book!
As the playback continued, I left the bedroom to stand in the hallway. I could still hear my voice, but at least I had escaped my face. Suddenly I returned to the room and in a rather hysterical tone proclaimed, “Under no circumstances should these images work their way into the trailer!” Pillai looked startled by my outburst.
Directors are more than technicians. Directors have to handle the emotional tempests of their performers, and Pillai wisely realized that one way to get control was to fix problems with the script. It was now some seven minutes long, and I had stumbled over passages that looked great on the page but, spoken aloud, were too long or literary. We needed more direct expression, turning back toward the first version of the script.
The four of us, Pillai, Drew, Richard, and I, worked away, trimming passages that were empty, clumsy, or airy: “Joel worked as a substitute teacher in a school district south of San Francisco, riding on the lip of indigence just ahead of flat broke.” The verbal phrase that begins with riding was too ornate. Cut it.
“We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had.” Subtext was professor talk. Cut the sentence.
“When almost nothing was left in Joel’s apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On November 17, a package arrived.” The precise date in November is, in the Companion, part of a detailed exposition that allows the reader to understand events and actions. In the script it was a fossil. Cut it.
After much more such editing, we went back outside. This time Pillai sat me down in a red chair on the back deck. Here we made several more recordings. I felt dizzy from the heat and stress, but I did better. Do directors sometimes break actors down, doing a scene over and over to get what they want? That was Bresson’s method, I recalled.
The material of the script remained sad and painful. There was no way to make it easier to say or hear, no way to add lightness. I felt exposed—my emotions displayed for everyone to see. My impulse was to pull back, to spare myself.
We took another break, and Richard and I talked about my complicated feelings, the need to express feeling without suffocating under it. “You need to be both personal and impersonal,” Richard suggested. “Like the book.”
Sure. No problem. How much does Meryl Streep charge for a short voice-over?
Back we went to my performance. It was late in the afternoon now and Pillai wanted to record inside to try a different quality of sound. We set up in the dining room, Pillai directly in front of me with his camera.
I realized that the slow pace and the pauses made me sound weary and sad. I had too much time to think. So in the last takes I picked up the pace. I wouldn’t call it brisk, but it was faster and cleaner. I started improvising—dropping certain parts, or just a word here and there. I felt my voice change. I no longer worried about speaking into the microphone. I started to explain myself to a friend.
By the final take we had cut the time of narration roughly in half. I had worked weeks on the script, adding fabric, building the length from two minutes to seven or eight minutes, as if sewing an ornate costume. Then in an afternoon we stripped its sleeves and skirts, and it was much more attractive.
Too short, too long, just right. Like Goldilocks finding a chair that fit her.