Tag Archives: Character-driven filmmaking

Meryl Streep Gets a Silkwood Shower

Over the fifteen years I’ve been working closely with professional editors, I’ve frequently asked them if they have a “favorite edit,” which would be a single moment in a specific film when an edit occurs that affected them deeply. Perhaps it’s the moment he or she discovered what “film” really means or decided that this is the aesthetic path they’d like to follow. Odds are it would have happened in their teens, when such moments of discovery are common.

Not one editor has ever answered with an example, and most look at me askance. Oh, well…

Anyway, I have a few edits that changed the way I view film—and, therefore, obviously, the way I view life–and intensified my desire to have a hand in this crazy Business we call Show. My example for this post comes from Mike Nichols’s Silkwood (1983).

Four times in the film, characters working at a nuclear facility suffer radiation exposure, set off an alarm, and are subjected to the brutal decontamination process, aka a ‘Silkwood shower.’ Each instance is handled differently cinematically, but the first three dwell more on the process of the immediate aftermath of the alarm going off or the length of the decontamination process. Here, for example, is the first time it occurs, about 25 minutes into the film, when one of Karen Silkwood’s co-workers gets “cooked.” Notice how long every step takes.

The final time it happens, which is the third time it’s happened to Karen, is late in the film and the plot reached a real tempo of misfortune for the character. Shrewdly, Nichols cuts straight from the alarm to the worst part of the cleansing process:

If I remember correctly, when that edit happened I turned to my Mother and said, “Did you see THAT!!?” (OK, I may be making that part up.) It rocked me to my core.

As far as the History of Cinema is concerned, however, this isn’t a revolutionary. Hardly. Since the 60s, filmmakers, realizing their audience had been raised on TV and film, had become more willing and interested in “cutting to the chase,” which is, after all, an idiom created in the edit room.

So while Nichols was doing nothing new in 1983, the impact was new to me. I was fourteen and growing in leaps and bounds intellectually, and I was very receptive to awesome shit like this. And what I felt, in an instant, when it went from poor Karen’s face to that damned close-up, was that the director had schooled us, thanks to the prior instances in the film, to the process of anti-contamination and knew that we now no longer needed all the muckity-muck.

And there’s more going on here, something I’m going to bring up frequently on this blog: character-driven filmmaking. To me that’s when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the camera movement, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the editing.

Y’see, the moment that alarm goes off, Karen Silkwood thinks of that hose blast. That edit is exactly what happens in her mind, which means her emotions control the filmmaking, in a sense wrestling it away from Mike Nichols.

To go a step further–and verbalize what might have happened to me when I first saw this film as a teenager–that moment in Silkwood is a perfect illustration that film is able to put us somewhere emotionally faster than any other medium, including writing. The shift that occurs on that edit from Silkwood’s stunned, dry face to a closer shot of her face being blasted by a hose, happens in less time than it takes for us to blink. And you know it works when you feel the audience flinch as a single body.

(Oh, and I encourage any of you editors out there to respond with the Edit That Saved YOUR Life!)


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