A while back fuego and I were in a little pub, enjoying food from the bagel place next door and working on our respective projects. At a table nearby there was a group of film students working on a project together. On that quiet afternoon a new phrase entered our lexicon.
The students were from all over the place, so of course they were holding their conversation in English. I found the discussion tantalizingly irritating, like a rash you can’t help but scratch. I had to listen. fuego was eventually compelled to put in his headphones to block out the others’ conversation. We were both annoyed by the students, but it turns out we were bothered for different reasons. It’s funny how strongly the students affected both of us.
They were discussing, with great intensity, things like how far down the Nurse’s cigarette should be burned in one particular shot, considering the different things that the cigarette could symbolize. “If it was almost all gone it could represent…” Absent from their discussion was the story. You can pile up all the symbolism you want, but if the story sucks none of the rest will matter. Let the critics find the symbolism. If the symbolism is an important part of the story, well, then, that’s different. In that case worrying about the symbolism is synonymous with making the story as good as possible. These kids were just looking for extra depth to pile on top. You see the problem with that, yes? Depth has to be underneath.
So says the guy who fancies himself a writer. I was at one point tempted to say something, they were so damn intent on their cigarette. I wanted to shake them awake. “Let it go! Put your energy into the story.”
fuego, it turns out, was contemplating intervention as well, but of a different sort. After an hour of cigarette burnage and other minutia, he wanted to beat them with his chair. It is fortunate he had his music. Later, this is what he said to me as we walked down the street: “I’ll tell you how long the cigarette will be. It’ll be however long it was when you got a good take.”
So says the guy who makes a living turning scripts into movies. In the practical world, all your half-burned cigarettes will be lost in the heat and rush of making the film. Worrying about that stuff doesn’t just waste your time, it wastes the time of the crew who has to try to deal with it, and in the end will come to nothing. “The nurse is smoking.” That’s about all you need to say about that. You can put in that she pulls on the cigarette at a certain point, to help establish the pacing of the scene as you imagine it, and there’s even a possibility it will happen that way. You could even call for an ashtray-perspecttive shot of the nurse — if it helps the story.
Now, when we are working on something together and we get hung up on a point, one of us will point out that it is a half-burned cigarette. Since our definitions of the phrase are slightly different (mine: it doesn’t help the story; fuego’s: it will be lost in the heat of production no matter what we write here), we invoke it at different times. It works, though. No matter what qualifies it as a half-burned cigarette, we know it’s time to drop it and move on.
Which at last brings me to the reason I’m writing this. I have found myself mired in half-burned cigarettes lately. I’m getting bogged down in details that ultimately don’t matter. Better not to mention them at all. (A corollary of the half-burned cigarette: inconvenient minutia is better ignored than explained. This principle does not apply to people doing really stupid things, like cops not calling for backup.) So now I’m staring at a scene that is a veritable ashtray, and I know the answer. It’s difficult to do after all the time and sweat I’ve spent on it, but it’s time to delete the whole damn thing and tell that part of the story an entirely different way. I hate when that happens.