Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cent Une Tueries De Zombies. 1001 Edits. A Conversation with Mike Lane on Editing.

I have known Mike Lane quite some time. He is a damn fine film editor and has an encyclopedic knowledge of film as you will see by the amount of italics of film titles in the interview below. Mike was recently commissioned by Toronto International Film Festival Programmer Colin Geddes to assemble a montage of zombie kills from various films for Toronto's annual Nuit Blanche aka White Night the night that celebrates contemporary art. Nuit Blanche begins at sunset and goes on until sunrise. The piece Mr. Lane assembled was called Cent Une Tueries De Zombies aka 101 Zombie Kills and was screened at the luminous Tiff Bell Lightbox. There is only one thing about Nuit Blanche a lot of what you see is presented that night and not seen again, so too maybe the fate of this project by Mike Lane. I thought a conversation about his work and editing was called for, and for my money there is not enough dialogues in the world about the fine art of assembling images, sound effects and music.

1) How were you approached to work on this project Cent Une Tueries De Zombies?

The video was the brainchild of Colin Geddes, who is the Midnight Madness programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival (amongst other TIFF programmes and other film festivals) as well as a repertory film curator, friend, bon vivant and overall homme du cinéma here in Toronto. He ran an all-night collection of 35MM grindhouse trailers at the TIFF Bell Lightbox building during Nuit Blanche 2010 and I think he was disappointed that they hadn’t followed it up with anything particularly noteworthy for Nuit Blanche 2011.

As the literal man on the street during that year’s festivities I can concur that I had walked past the Lightbox specifically to see if anything was happening and, from my perspective, the place seemed closed. After cutting together some ActionFest tribute reels for Colin last April he approached me with the idea of an installation that could play in one of the Lightbox’s cinemas during this year’s Nuit: it would be called 101 Zombie Kills and it would be as simple as the title, a collection of 101 gory zombie deaths that would loop endlessly all night from 7PM to 7AM.

Perhaps it would even have an on-screen counter keeping track of the carnage. I said that I could easily perform such a task but I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that I was also wholly disinterested by the idea – it didn’t sound much different than the plethora of artless super-cut compilation videos that ten-year-olds routinely post to YouTube; meanwhile Nuit Blanche is supposed to be an Art event with a capital "A". I told him as much but I still agreed to do it … I knew that I’d probably come up with something a bit more challenging but I had no idea what that could be.

2) It seems to me to be a daunting task to assemble such a montage. What film was your entry point?

I’m going to go nostalgic with my answer and say that whenever zombies are involved my entry point is the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, no matter what. I wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies when I was growing up, but this was the 1980s and the genre was insanely popular among the boys in the schoolyard. I would quiz my friends to learn the story lines to the latest Jason or Freddy movie, and I would scour the public library for books about horror films and thrillers as the next best thing to seeing them – I would have first read about NOTLD at the same time that I first read about the plot details of Hitchcock’s Psycho … when I was maybe seven years old. I was twelve when I finally caught it on TV one day.

It was on the A&E channel on a Saturday afternoon (I can still remember the date) and even then -- with the safety of sunlight, commercial breaks, the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘90s and the Canadian suburbs -- it Messed Me Up. It was the first movie to really get under my skin. I watched it constantly during my teen years, from a $1.99 Blockbuster Video cassette. And to this day, while it may have lost its power to frighten me, its low-budget ingenuity inspires me whenever I think that making a film is a daunting, unreachable task. It makes me feel that anything is possible. For those personal reasons I knew it had to play a significant part in the project. I quickly determined that the only way to begin the collage was to begin with Night, to begin with its opening shot and its opening music cue, as instantly familiar to me as they were. It was the movie that started it all for the zombie genre as far as I was concerned. It was the zombie movie that started it all for me as a viewer. So it should also be the zombie movie that started this mad experiment. It just made sense. What would come after that, I had no idea.

3) What was your approach to this montage to make it different than this shot after shot of a kill after kill?

I’m not entirely sure where it all came from, just that I wanted to avoid the artless vibe of a homemade compilation video. I didn’t know that I would go full narrative with it. Originally I thought about the standard editing trickery of maintaining a consistent physical space within the frame – for example, if Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead looks to his Right and we cut to a shot of Clu Gulager in Return of the Living Dead looking to his Left then it will appear as if the two are looking at each other in the same space even though they’re from two different movies.

That seemed like a way to add a modicum of complexity and it was the first suggestion that I made to Colin on that subject, but in the end I don’t think I ever did that once. Another common editing trick would be to match two films together using an obvious visual or textual similarity as a bridge, which I did a few times – a soccer mom speeding away in a mini-van from one film cuts nicely to a character driving through zombs in another film, or when Gulager asks “bring me the bone saw” and we cut directly to Jeffrey Combs firing up his bone saw in Re-Animator (1985). These are the easiest go-to building blocks for this sort of montage but overuse can render them very lazy very quickly, plus they don’t actually solve the whole compilation/super-cut dilemma … they would just make the compilation/super-cut feel a bit more assured on a technical level.

At this point it’s worth noting that it was already going to be a challenge to collide so many sources into a single piece based on their formats and aspect ratios without it being a visual distraction. Classics like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie and the Lugosi flick White Zombie are full-frame and black-and-white, which would result in black bars on the right and left hand sides of the screen to maintain their composition.

Modern spectacles like the 2004 Dawn remake and an abundance of 1970s Italian zombie films are in colour 2.35:1 “Scope” format (with their tell-tale letterboxing on the top and bottom of the screen) and the remaining majority utilize the “Flat” 1.85:1 ratio which fits nicely into the 16x9 anamorphic frame that I was working with. So do you reformat them all to fit a uniform size? What about cutting from colour to black-and-white? How would that affect the audience’s experience? This led to my first major decision: any full-frame B&W films should only be seen on a television screen, as though the characters within the video are watching the classic movie on TV. This was limited even further when I made the decision that everybody would only be watching Night of the Living Dead, so the older films were abandoned. A notable exception is the moment from Night of the Creeps where you can see Plan 9 From Outer Space within the scene – what little time and special-effects experience I had didn’t permit me to matte something else onto that particular TV with its rounded edges, but thankfully it’s the scene were Eros is talking about reviving the dead “with our electrode guns” so thematically it fit.

Once I made the decision to keep certain films only on television that opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities: what if I were to keep pulling back the curtain so that the audience would lose track of what was fiction and what was “real”? We start inside “Night of the Living Dead”, then we pull back to the world watching it on TV as a zombie epidemic erupts (all in 2.35:1 widescreen). Once we’ve gotten settled into that world we pull out even further to reveal that these are all just events from some other zombie film that a group of people are watching in a movie theatre. They leave the theatre and then the zombie epidemic erupts in that “real” 1.85 world. This allowed me to maintain certain Scope aspect ratios without sacrificing the overall vibe of the piece – if you see it you’ll see that’s the key to everything that’s happening (barring two deliberate mis-directions, if it’s a 2.35:1 aspect ratio then you’re watching a fabrication).

By this point the final step was apparent: if I wanted to play around with levels of reality then the whole project needed to have some sort of overarching narrative, something to establish the reality that I was hoping to disrupt, because if the images lacked a storyline then any attempt to subvert that non-existent storyline would be pointless.

So I began to construct a beginning, middle and end to the tale based off the source material, and if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie before you can quickly list the options: the first waves of zomb attack, people barricading themselves indoors, the news reports, the barricades being breached, the involvement of the military or the militias, the inevitable apocalyptic clusterfucks and, more often than not, a pessimistic ending where everybody dies.

Then the challenge becomes telling that story using as many sources as you can cram together but in a precise enough manner so that you don’t bore the viewer with repetitive information. I still permitted some long sequences of zombies being killed en masse lest I totally confound the expectations of the people who were expecting a super-cut. Thankfully, Colin had the inspiration to change the 101 Zombie Kills title into French months before I started, for no other reason than to make it sound classier. Very prescient. If we had used the blunter English title I think the public reaction to this wildly different approach might have been one of bitter disappointment. Instead everyone seemed to really dig it.

4) You have very strong musical choices in Cent Une Tueries how did you arrive at these music choices?

Gee, thanks! I guess it all traces back to my own personal musical tastes and sense of humour because the choices were instantly apparent to me. I knew I wanted the video to end with the entire world being nuked into oblivion and if you’re gonna nuke the world into oblivion what could be better than Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds or Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World? I started with the ending first, in fact, and actually constructed it *twice* -- once to the Marley song and once to the Armstrong song. In the end the latter won out, but I moved the Marley tune immediately beforehand and both got a lot of knowing chuckles from the Nuit Blanche audiences so I guess I made the right call there.

The real surprise for me was Goin’ Back Home by John Fogerty, the melancholic piece that I used to lead into the apocalyptic climax. It shuffled onto my iPod a few days prior, and sounds nothing like typical Fogerty so even if I had recalled the tune in my head I never would have properly identified it. Little miracles. The one that seems to have struck a chord with most people is Prisencolinensinainciusol, the gibberish song by Adriano Celentano which was rediscovered as an Internet meme a few years ago. It’s boisterous, it’s carefree and it sounds like it’s from another planet, so why not use it during a sequence where boisterous, carefree people from around our planet are attacked?

I knew I wanted something that sounded vaguely foreign and I took a stab at incorporating Plastic Bertrand’s vocoder-heavy Tout petit la planete during that sequence but it just didn’t take. I was shocked – shocked! – to see how well Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy lined up with the pick-axe scene from Return of the Living Dead, and I needed some light-hearted grooves after the pounding suspense of the sequence that preceded it, set to Fabio Frizzi’s Paura Viventi from the Fulci film City of the Living Dead. I wish I could take credit for using those Frizzi/Fulci tunes (also Voci Dal Nulla from The Beyond) but they were purely from a practical standpoint – their use overwhelms the soundtrack of their source material and maintaining those songs was necessary if I hoped to salvage some of the sound effects or dialogue.

I also wanted to make sure that I was balancing the ironic pop music with reverential odes to zombie history so the Frizzi stuff fit perfectly with that intention, as did the stock-library standards from the original Night of the Living Dead that we use a few times. Similarly, I knew that I would definitely feature Goblin’s “L'alba dei morti viventi” somewhere in the piece as is it perhaps the most memorable and ominous piece of score from Romero’s Dawn but its use in the background of the United Nations sequence of “Hell of the Living Dead” dictated that it accompany that section. I thought I might use Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor” but that never came around. X’s Some Other Time was another. The The’s This is the Day was another. Flaming Lips’ Bad Days … I had options. And I really wanted to use something from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, either in music or in image because I really believe that to be the best horror movie of the past thirty years, but sadly it just didn’t fit.

Lastly, I always thought it would be cool to use the “oh no, what are we gonna do?” line from Blondie’s Union City Blue as a reflection of a character’s internal struggle when things go from bad to worse, but I had abandoned that when I finally saw Oliver Stone’s The Hand a few years ago and, sunnuvabitch, they did that exact same thing – Michael Caine is driving around after possibly committing a murder and listening to Union City Blue on the radio. So in keeping with the collage nature of this project I thought I could finally get away with it scot-free and if anybody complained I’d just say it was an obscure reference to The Hand. Hence Sarah Polley driving her car, listening to Blondie on the radio.

5) You have been an editor for a long time, what did you learn about the art of editing from this project?

Well, I suppose you learn from every experience no matter what – all work accumulates toward those fabled 10,000 hours that it takes for an amateur to become an expert – but I don’t think that I’ve come out of this project knowing anything that I didn’t already know a week ago. If anything, it’s what I had learned beforehand that allowed me to put this monster together in seven days: the speed at which I know I can edit to music, the precision of the cuts and the economy of shots required for storytelling, et cetera.

You need to be tremendously obsessive-compulsive to reach the level where your cuts seem invisible and proper, and it’s a skill you gain with time. The personal triumph is that this feels like the first professional project I’ve ever completed that was 100% my “vision”, if I can be permitted to sound like some arrogant douchebag director. There was never any outside influence or interference -- Colin trusted me that much -- and as a result it feels like a purer representation of the ideas bouncing around in my head than anything I’ve ever done.

It’s ironic that this all resulted from working on a project that I was initially quite skeptical about, so I’ve got to give all praise to Mister Geddes. If it wasn’t for him and his concept and his unwavering enthusiasm, then I would have *never* thought to attempt something like this in a million years.

6) At what point into assembling all of this footage does one begin to lose their mind?

Surprisingly quickly. I mentioned that I edited it over one feverish week but there was quite a bit of prep beforehand, mostly sorting through all of the zombie movies that we had. There were 76 films on hand so even if you were to assume each film to be only ninety minutes long that still means that you have 114 hours of zombie movies to go through.

So that’s about five whole days of non-stop watching, if you don’t ever sleep. And half of them I hadn’t seen before. I would zip through them at three or four times their normal speed but you can’t be consistent that way – you might miss a great piece of dialogue or a non-zombie scene that you want to use as set-up – so at best it was probably two-times normal speed, approximately 57 hours of zombie movies. By my final count, 48 films made it into the 42-minute video. However it wasn’t the numbers that were driving me mad, it was the subject matter.

Most zombie flicks are quite tedious, punctuated by outrageous mutilation – often against humans, at least until the modern zombie era directed its violence toward the undead instead – and the Italian stuff in particular can be so gleefully sadistic that it churns your stomach. You can only watch so many movies in two-times speed where a woman has her nipples or breasts chewed off by a zomb before you start to really hate this shit. And you’re tied to using some of it, unfortunately, because you know that’s what the history of the genre is. You just hope that you can find a way to give it a meaning or a purpose beyond exploitation and titillation.

7) What are some of your favorite zombie kills?

If you mean that the zombie is being killed, I really dig that moment in Planet Terror (2007) when Freddy Rodriguez storms into the infected hospital with a knife in each hand and street-fights the attacking zombs, narrowly dodging the arcs of blood in the air. And does the celebrity cameo in Zombieland (2009) count? If, however, you mean that the zombie is killing somebody else then you can’t get more traumatic than the little girl killing her mother with the trowel in Night of the Living Dead. Gawd, those synthesized screams …

You can see a small peak of audiences saw Cent Une Tueries De Zombies here.


  1. Hi I was wondering if their is some way to get a list of all the films used in this? Caught it last night in Melbourne Australia & one clip in particular with a bright blue Zombie intrigued me but I don't know anyone who knows what film it's from! Also It would be an amazing list to get through :) Any help or pointing in the right direction would be much appreciated. Thanks a bunch!

    1. Hi Christine, thanks for taking the time to read this interview. I will try and obtain a list of the films used. Talk to you soon!

    2. I just talked with the editor of the piece and he had this to say, "After a brief inspection I’m fairly confident that she’s referencing Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck’s MESSIAH OF EVIL ... The scene was of an old man doused in blue paint, hobbling toward his frightened daughter, and she sets him on fire. Also, it’s not a very well-known flick so it would make sense that it’s not the most easily identifiable."