“Alter Egos” – How I Cut Film Trailers

I love cutting trailers and teasers. I’ve done about 10, mostly for free (though several for embarrasingly low fees), and mostly for friends with independent features I enjoy, but I never tire of editing them. My formula is fairly simple, amateur and redundant, especially for comedies: Joke, music kicks in, exposition, joke, music/tone shift, big joke/moment, main title, amusing tiny joke, closing title. But this recipe seems to get the job done, if in an almost cookie cutter way.

The teaser I just cut was for Jordan Galland’s upcoming comedy “Alter Egos.” A funny and impressive indie which adds a grounded, casual, and darkly funny vibe to the hero genre.

I previously cut a trailer for Galland’s 2009 film “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.” It’s probably my most polished comedic trailer.

Both films gave me plenty of material, with impressive looking cinematography, recognizable talent, exciting genres and strong punchlines.

On this one, however, Jordan and I made a deal, a good one. He would do all the music for my film, Supporting Characters, and I would do a teaser and trailer for him. If anything, I certainly made out on this deal, as Jordan’s contributions of both his talent and man-hours far out-weigh mine here. However, I thought it would be fun to discuss the process, for anyone who might be interested. (I recommend watching the AE teaser above, if you already haven’t.)

The first thing I do when cutting a trailer is listen to any and all music that the filmmaker owns or can get for free (as has been the case with my entirely indie roster of “clients”) and listen to that playlist obsessively on my Ipod. I wait until I hear music so good it should be on the radio (in other words, “catchy”), but that also gives me an emotional response, and that I can see images, dolly shots, kisses, punches, etc playing over (in other words, gives me “goosebumps”.) In this particular instance I received 20 original tracks from none other than Sean Lennon, who did the entire, remarkable score for the film. Each were terrific, some very serious, almost like The Dark Knight, some silly, almost like conga music. Since this trailer was to be short and sweet, the two I chose had the highest energy, went well together, and had good points for me to cut in and out on, on a strong musical note, to emphasize my punchlines (perhaps the biggest challenge for trailer music).

Once I have two songs, I lay them down on my final cut pro timeline and start placing my favorite jokes. In the case of Alter Egos, I felt the two strongest trailer moments would be:

1. A joke where our main character says to his sidekick, after he learns of the whereabouts of his father’s killer, “What about rule #27: NO Revenge?” and his sidekick replies “No one follows that rule.” I loved this joke since I read the script, and not only does it cut well to the main title, but it has the added advantage of both defining the tone of the film (essentially, who-gives-a-shit, its a comedy) and adds an important bit of stakes and exposition to the trailer. Now we know at some point this guy has to decide to avenge his father’s death, and I find that interesting.

2. Jordan, the director, had already cut his own teaser that was just okay (I’m fairly sure he would agree, and it was basically cut as a reference for me). However, it had a fantastic bit with perhaps his movie’s biggest star, Danny Masterson, wherein he reveals he can be invisible for “2.3 seconds.” While I did not like Jordan’s entire sample trailer, I found this portion to be impeccably well cut and hilarious, so I copied it shot for shot, and placed it in one of the 5 major joke-points in the trailer. Great joke and shows off our star– a no brainer.

So at this point I have about 1:10 timeline, with two songs, a main title Jordan had made up and these two jokes edited in. And I watch that about 20 times, getting a sense for what it needs.

Then the process becomes about adding things to bridge these moments together. Since this was more of a “teaser” than a trailer, I had little pressure to tell the story clearly, which gives me permission to have random, impressive shots and tangents throughout. This is when I do perhaps the most obvious yet most overlooked bit of work for an indie trailer: I ONLY choose shots that, to me, look like a high quality film and raise the production value of the project. While Jordan’s movies are great, he did shoot them on VERY tight budgets, which meant compromised coverage, lighting and most commonly locations. It isn’t something I can put clearly into words, but I essentially look for shots that feel like a “movie” to me, that would be in a professional studio trailer I would see in theaters, or I try my best not to use it. (A terrific example would be the graveyard scenes in Rosencrantz, which have INSANE production value).

Our most difficult portion to cut in this teaser, narratively, was the opening. It starts off well. I loved the joke where the hero asks his eventual love interest to help him because he wants to break up with his girlfriend. He says, “I’m a superhero, you got to help me.” She replies, “I thought that meant YOU were supposed to help ME.”

In three lines we’ve established he’s a superhero, he wants to break up with his girlfriend, and this is a comedy (or even more specifically a romantic comedy at times). Not bad. But then the tough part was to explain that this guy has a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his OWN alter ego. It sounds simple, but it was INCREDIBLY complicated and potentially very confusing if not well-executed… but if we can quickly and simply explain this premise, you can really enjoy it, I think.

It’s one of the many problems with filmmakers editing their own trailers and films themselves. The “Burden of Knowledge.” WE know the character’s name is FRIDGE, WE know he has an alter ego named BRENDON, and WE know what that alter ego looks like out of his costume… but our audience does not, and its our job to introduce those elements clearly, which is tough in a 1:10 trailer. Anyway, I did my best, but you be the judge of how well we did.

Then we have our button joke; Something at the end to leave ’em laughing. The best part of this portion of the trailer for me is that it can be a totally non-linear moment that I can chose from ANYWHERE in the film, though ideally we’ve set it up earlier. (For some reason, what immediately comes to mind for me is Mike Tyson punching Zach Galifinakis in the amazing The Hangover trailer button). I chose the moment where Christine Evangelista (an actress whom I have strong feelings for, as she played the lead of my directorial debut) is furious at the main character. She says “You broke up with me in an email? Who do you think you are? BATMAN?” Now, this isn’t my sense of humor, necessarily (pop culture references are notoriously difficult to pull off), but I can hear an audience laughing in a theater as I’m cutting it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it. Its a good joke, self-referencial, helps further define the world of the film, and continues the storyline that this guy’s personal life is interfering with his professional life. I think it really works, though I had several juicy options for this.

Then, after a few notes from producers (of which I had shockingly little on this) I hand it over to Jordan who does the final sound design and titles, on which I think he did a great job…

I really like the two trailers I’ve done for Jordan. I feel they capture the potential and tone of those two films, which are really funny, original and heart-felt. I’m now in the process of cutting a longer trailer for Jordan (as per our original deal) and it should have a lot more breathing room and feel like a larger movie with a more coherent plot. Hopefully.

Anyway, stay tuned.

Some other trailers I’ve done:

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