For Chris Dickens, the editor of Slumdog Millionaire, the challenge was to create fast-paced montages out of an abundance of footage and myriad cinematic images supplied by director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot in both digital and film formats.
Director Danny Boyle “asked me to make the film feel like a bullet coming at the audience,” says the editor. “He wanted the images to be fast and also to have a lot of variety, to make the film’s viewers feel like it does if you go to a strange city.” The plot of Slumdog is about the precarious existence of a child who perseveres in the densely populated slums of Mumbai, and when he grows older winds up winning the jackpot on the Hindi version of Do You Want to be a Millionaire?
“I always worry that you can make things too fast and pack too much in, so the audience finds it difficult to take in,” says Dickens. “But it works for this film, because the audience is catapulted into a different world they are not accustomed to, which is what makes for great cinema.”
Dickens says he faced two sets of problems as the film’s editor. “The first was the amount of beautiful imagery around Mumbai that was shot,” he says. Because Mantle used digital cameras for 60 percent of the shoot, he felt he could produce more footage because it was cheaper. “Anthony and Danny were quite enticed by this capability, and thought with any luck these things would make it into the final film,” says Dickens. “For me, the amount of footage was a problem, though a fantastic problem having so much to choose from. In the end, a lot was left on the cutting room floor.”
Dickens’ first edit was 3.5 hours, but the final edit was a taut two hours. “That was with the prodding of Danny,” he notes. “He didn’t want it to go over two hours, which was the right decision for the film because it makes it appeal to a wider audience.”
One of the aspects of Dickens’ editing on Slumdog was to crosscut between time periods. “It did take a lot of editing to do the flashbacks,” he says. “But If we had done a straight-line narrative without a break, there would be too much of the quiz show, which would be just like watching TV. When you jump to a flashback, the audience is suddenly reminded that they are watching a film. The challenge of the time shifts was to make it all part of the same story, instead of three interweaving stories.”
The finale of the film is an exhilarating Bollywood-style dance number by the film’s cast, out of character. The initial reaction by the film’s producers was negative, “so I had to work quite hard to get it to be something that joyfully gets you out of the film in the end.”