The City of Absurdity The Straight Story
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Mary Sweeney Interview with Mary Sweeney, Editor, 'The Straight Story'

By Elina Shatkin, EditorsNet, October 14, 1999

Mary Sweeney not only edited the David Lynch-directed "The Straight Story," she also produced it and wrote the script. Because she oversaw the project from start to finish, the usual editor's dilemma of deciding what footage should be trimmed from the film was especially painful.

Although it may seem incongruous to see the Walt Disney (the film's distributor) and David Lynch in the same sentence, "The Straight Story" is vintage Lynch in its portrayal of small-town life. When 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) receives a phone call informing him that his estranged brother, Lyle, has suffered a stroke, he uses the only means in his power to reach Lyle: a 1966 John Deere tractor. Traveling at about 5 mph, he drives the tractor from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wis., encountering a number of strangers.

Sweeney first discovered Straight's story in a 1994 New York Times article. Along with co-writer John Roach, she traveled along the same route Straight took, meeting some of the same people he met; many of them were eager to share their stories and memories of Straight, which helped shape the film. When Sweeney originally told the story to Lynch, he had no interest in directing it but when he saw the script, he changed his mind. Although it is her first credit as a screenwriter, she has collaborated with Lynch since the early 1990s. She edited and produced "Lost Highway" (1997) and edited "Hotel Room," a three-part television series Lynch directed in 1993.

You weren't just the editor of "Straight Story" – you also produced the film and wrote the script. How did you discover the story?

I read about it in the New York Times. I couldn't secure the rights to the story at first but I sank my teeth in and kept checking until I received permission to use the story. I read about it in the summer of 1994 and finally received the rights in February 1998.

That's quite a wait. How did you eventually secure the rights?

The story was optioned by another producer in Hollywood. I kept track of his activities and he never did anything with the rights. Alvin, the subject of the story, died in 1996, so I pursued his heirs, with whom the producer would have to renew his rights. Once I discovered that the option hadn't been renewed, I negotiated the new option with them.

What concerns did Alvin's family have about telling the story?

His children actually knew very little about his trip because they were all living and working 150 miles away in Des Moines, Iowa, at the time. None of them was with him on the trip and they didn't know much about it, but they provided us with a great deal of background information before we started writing the script. They were a bit reluctant at first because they had high hopes about the original producer making the movie. They were disappointed and initially a little cautious about going back down that road.

How did you persuade them to do it?

The fact that I was tenaciously hanging on to the idea of making this story after three and a half years proved I was very serious about telling this story. I told them that this film would not necessarily be directed by David Lynch, but we could, at the very least, secure him as an executive producer. Although they weren't that familiar with David's work, that helped a bit.

As I understand it, the first time you showed David the script, he wasn't interested.

We have been developing several properties for production; this was a project in which I was particularly interested. I mentioned it to him first in 1994; from the beginning he said it was interesting but not his cup of tea. When he talked about it, it was more as an executive producer; I never expected him to come around. When we finished the screenplay, I gave it to him because I was interested in hearing his thoughts. I always had a secret hope that he would want to direct it, but I honestly didn't show him the script thinking he would change his mind. He liked the script, however, and that was what changed his mind.

Did you always plan on editing the film yourself? I know you already made the transition from being an editor to being a producer.

I've been editing for almost 20 years, and my first producing effort was "Nadja," which came out in 1994. Following that I produced "Lost Highway" and now "Straight Story." I wanted to be more involved in creating and developing projects, so becoming a producer seemed like a good way to satisfy my desire and broaden my horizons.

Is it true that you started working with David Lynch as the script supervisor and first assistant editor on "Wild at Heart"?

I actually worked as the first assistant editor on "Blue Velvet" before moving on to "Wild at Heart," on which I was the script supervisor and first assistant editor. I became an assistant editor on the "Twin Peaks" television series when David's editor, Duane Dunham, went from editing to directing.

What is it like moving between editing and producing?

There is a natural crossover between producing and editing, particularly on David's projects because I am aware of and involved with them from the very beginning. We have a line producer who comes on for the duration of the shoot, and then I take over as producer. Very often, particularly in independent films, the editor ends up doing all the producing work in post-production because there is nobody else to do it. I like having that kind of control in post-production.
I am involved with a film from inception all the way to distribution. It's vital that you make a distribution deal with a distributor who can market the film properly.

Did you act as both the editor and post-production supervisor?

No, I was the editor and the producer. I hired a post supervisor.

David Lynch and Mary Sweeney at Cannes Did you work closely with David in cutting the film? Since you were both the producer and the editor, you must have had a good idea about what he wanted.

This is the third feature I've edited for David. I haven't worked with anybody else since "Blue Velvet" and, as an editor, I've worked only for David. I am familiar with the way he shoots things – he follows a script very closely – and how he'll use that. Based on the familiarity I have with him, it's easy for me to make a first assembly while the film is still being shot. Within a week of finishing production I will show him an assembly, which is generally very long because I put in as much footage as I can.

After we examine the film scene-by-scene, he gives me notes and I edit the footage by myself. Then he comes back and we go through the process again. After three or four versions, we watch the film projected on the big screen. As we get closer to the end, he'll actually sit with me during editing when he wants to work on something specific, but he gets too antsy for the most part and it's often much easier for me to edit without someone watching over my shoulder.

When you showed him the first assembly cut, it must have included more footage than you ended up using in the final film. Was it simply a matter of trimming individual scenes, or did you take out entire sections of the film?

The first thing we do is make each scene works without worrying about the total length of the film. Also, I sometimes miss his intention of how he wanted me to cut something. We eliminate some footage in the second pass, but not much. We're really trying to make each scene work, then we concentrate on the whole picture. There were many scenes that we had to cut because the film was just running too long. It has a very languid pace as it is and I didn't want to overstay our welcome with the audience.

What scenes were cut?

We cut scenes that slowed the film down or repeated information that we had already conveyed. We didn't want to lose full scenes, but we had to cut something. There weren't any horribly acted scenes that we had to work around. Since I wrote it, it was particularly painful to lose anything, but we had to cut an hour.

Were there more scenes with Sissy Spacek, for example?

No, she was always contained in the first part of the movie. There was one prayer scene that was mostly improvised because we scripted it on the day of shooting; it was a very sweet scene, but we definitely had to shorten the front end of the film and get Alvin out on the road as soon we could.

Were there more scenes that take place in the town and with Alvin and his buddies?

Yes, there was a second hardware store scene as well as a couple of other things.

What about when he was on the road? Were there originally more scenes with various characters that he meets while traveling?

Yes, but we had to lose them.

The absent brother, Lyle, plays a huge role in this film, although we never see him until the end, and even then he says only two sentences. Was that scripted in?

It was written like that because John and I thought that Alvin's desire and determination to make the trip was the important part of the story, not the resolution.

I'm curious about what made you connect with the story in the first place. Why did you pursue it so tenaciously?

Partly it was just instinct. It hit me in a way that I didn't quite understand. As time went by I wasn't letting go of it – or rather it wasn't letting go of me. I think the story addreses the kind of quiet courage that people experience in their everyday life. There was something about his trip and his determination that was courageous, but in a very simple and straightforward way. It wasn't something he was boastful about, it was just part of his job. His brother was sick, he had to go see him and these were his options.

While you were cutting, was there any conflict between you as a producer, needing to finish the film on time and in budget, and you as an editor wanting more time to edit it?

Not really. What David and I do is so synchronous in that we are both determined to make the best possible picture and if we have a deadline, it's a shared deadline. David designs the sound and he is fully the director. I'm very devoted to David as a producer; I believe strongly in his talents and he's one of the reasons I am so happy that he made this film – because I think it will open people's eyes to his talent. There are different sorts of producers and the kind of producer I aspire to be is one who has the privilege of working with great creative talents. My job as a producer should be to promote and protect that talent. There's no conflict at all.

Did you have a hand in envisioning the final look of film?

No, that was definitely David. At a certain point, you have to walk away. You write a script and you hope against hope that it will get a director who understands what you were trying to communicate, which David absolutely did, and then you have to let them bring their talent and ideas to it. Freddie Francis was the director of photography and had worked with David before on "Elephant Man" and "Dune." David explained to Freddie what look he wanted to achieve and they delivered it. As I said, David is involved in the editing and he is truly the creative force behind the film.

Did you talk to him at all about what kind of look he wanted?

No, no, he'd kill me.

After Disney picked it up, did they make any changes to the film?

No, they released it just as it was when they bought it.

How long did you spend editing the film?

We finished shooting in the middle of October 1998 and we mixed in February, so it took about four months. This was the first time I cut a feature on an Avid, though I've done many commercials with David on the Avid. We cut "Lost Highway" on film.

How would you compare cutting on an Avid to cutting on film?

It's much easier and faster. One of the things I worry about with Avid editing is how quickly I can create a number of different versions and what that does to my first impression of the dailies. The more I create different versions of the film in Avid, the farther I move from what a viewer has, which is essentially a first impression because they generally see a film only once. I was able to do things much quicker and more easily, so it was much less labor-intensive with the Avid.

What commercials has David done and did you cut them?

Yes, I cut his commercials. We did one last year in Paris for Yves St. Laurent Opium perfume; that's the second one he's done for them. He's done perfume ads, science fiction ads, an Adidas ad and a Jill Sander ad. He's been doing commercials for about 10 years.

What was the hardest thing about making this film?

It wasn't hard at all. It was so much fun. Even having to lose parts of the screenplay that I had written wasn't difficult because I was driven to make this film work in any way I could when I was editing. At that point, I was contributing to the process as an editor, and if it's playing too long, which was a big danger with this picture, it wasn't going to work.


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