Cut from the Final Cut

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th September 2011.

Imagine being a struggling actor and after years of unsuccessful auditions, you finally get your big break. You rehearse your lines, shoot your scenes and then gather all your friends and family together to watch your work on the big or small screen. Imagine your horror when you find that your scenes have been reduced to a few seconds of screen time or even worse, cut completely from the final project.

Star Wars debuts on high definition blu-ray tomorrow. For Episode IV: A New Hope, English actor Garrick Hagon was cast in the role of Biggs Darklighter, Luke Skywalker’s long time friend. He shot several scenes including one on Tatooine where he confides to Luke that he wishes to abandon the Imperial Academy to join the Rebel Alliance, as well as a reunion at the Yavin 4 hanger prior to the Death Star battle. Both of these ended up on the editing room floor, with only a minor appearance, and subsequent death by explosion thanks to Darth Vader, making it into the original 1977 cut.

I suppose he can’t complain. Hagon does appear in one of the most popular motion pictures ever, and was even immortalised as an action figure. And that is much more than my next subject can say.

The Big Chill was a hit film released in 1983. It was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starred Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline. Its storyline follows a group of college friends who come back together as thirtysomethings after the suicide of one their mates.

The original script called for flashbacks of the dead friend’s life that were to be interspersed throughout the film. These scenes were shot using an unknown actor at the time named Kevin Costner.

In the final cut, all that remains of Costner’s work are a few shots of his wrists and hair as the corpse is being prepared for the funeral. After sitting through Costner’s self-indulgent disaster, The Postman, I think The Big Chill may be his best work. The deleted scenes have never been released.

Speaking of which, The Big Chill soundtrack is rather excellent. Costner isn’t on that either.

Being cut from a film is not just a phenomenon for unknown actors. Famed film director Terrance Malick finally returned to the big screen with 1998’s The Thin Red Line after an absence of twenty years. This World War 2 drama features seemingly every big name male actor of the time, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and George Clooney.

Malick’s first cut ran for a bum-numbing five hours. By the time it hit cinemas, The Thin Red Line was down to 170 minutes. Unfortunately, to achieve this feat, all of the scenes featuring Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and Martin Sheen were left on the cutting room floor. I hope they all got paid anyway.

The deadly final cut has even happened to me, although in my case I barely made it in front of the camera.

In my years as a child actor, I was cast in the ABC miniseries Children of the Dragon, starring Gary Sweet. I played a hotel bellhop and had two scenes opposite English actor, Bob Peck.

Peck had starred in the sci-fi flick Slipstream opposite Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, so I was pretty excited. He later went on to star in Jurassic Park as doomed game warden Robert Muldoon.

My first scene was shot in the morning. All I had to do was grab Bob’s suitcase from a limo and lead him up some stairs. My other scene had dialogue so a few days later I dutifully practiced my lines and waited in the dressing room for my call to work with Mr Peck. Eight hours later, an assistant knocks on the door and informs me that they are running late and my scene had been cut.

What a bummer. Oh well, if it was good enough for Robin Hood, The Wrestler and that guy from Star Wars, it’s good enough for me too.

Masterchef Mindbender

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 7th June 2011.

Are you a reality TV fan? Are you addicted to watching a bunch of starving, bickering Americans on a tropical island? Perhaps following pairs of bickering Americans race around the globe floats your boat? Or maybe you prefer something a little more home grown?

Masterchef has become a ratings phenomenon and made stars out of its contestants and judges. With spinoff cookbooks and merchandise, product endorsements and personal appearances, the show has become a cultural and marketing juggernaut. It’s changed my life. I wouldn’t know how to spell croquembouche if not for Masterchef. I also now know that I shouldn’t cook the bait.

On the surface, Masterchef is a show about cooking, personal triumph and caramelised stuff. It’s about real people doing a real life activity that most of us have to do everyday, albeit a little better. However, I think Masterchef is the most unreal show on TV, far more complicated than any episodic drama or sci-fi series.

Think about this. You’re watching a standard episode of Masterchef. You’re witnessing a contestant baking a cuttlefish or perhaps something more exotic. The next moment, the same contestant is speaking in an interview about their thoughts and motivations in real time. Wait a minute. How can the same person be in two places at once? They’re living and reflecting on the same moment simultaneously. It’s an instant director’s commentary.

Compare this to a documentary. In this format, you might see footage of a subject doing whatever, let’s say, protesting for the rights of cuttlefish. Then you’d cut to an interview with the subject, speaking about the cuttlefish protest in the past tense. They know the outcome of the protest and any future developments. And they acknowledge it.

On Masterchef, the contestant doesn’t appear to know what happens next. You see them burn the cuttlefish, they speak about the stress of burning the cuttlefish but they don’t then say, “Actually, it all worked out in the end because I won anyway as George liked my cuttlefish flambé.” It’s like a good (or bad, your choice) Star Trek episode about parallel universes.

OK, so I understand that this is not actually the case. Obviously the Masterchef production team must grab the contestants from time to time, or perhaps at the end of the day, to watch footage of the day’s events and then reflect on them, without giving away the outcomes. Clearly there must be some very switched on production assistants who observe everyone and everything, taking notes on who would be the most interesting contestant or contestants to interview and follow, storyline wise, for that particular episode.

A single episode of Masterchef is a masterpiece (no pun intended) of editing. Footage from the past in the kitchen is spliced together with interview footage, also from the past, to produce an episode that to the audience appears to be in the present but as a whole, is also from the past considering that it is pre-recorded weeks in advance. The cuttlefish that was baked tonight and interviewed about it at the same time, was actually baked and eliminated weeks ago. This is more mind blowing than an episode of Lost.

And let’s not even mention the insertion of that annoying explosion that happens just before every mystery box reveal, decision or cuttlefish dissection. The winner is…whoosh! The mystery ingredient is…whoosh! I think Matt Preston just accidentally ate someone. Oh no, it’s…whoosh!

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you’re enjoying your favourite reality show about bickering contestants, remember that what you’re watching is a feat of editing genius and is possibly more unreal than any work of fiction.