How to Cut a Trailer for a Movie Where No One Speaks

By  · Published on May 15th, 2015

After seeing The Tribe at Fantastic Fest last year, my third question was how they could possibly market it. The film has zero spoken dialogue, and all the sign language (which is Ukrainian) comes without subtitles attached. It’s a modern silent film without interstitial marquees that features unabated diagetic sounds and graphic, sometimes sexualized violence. I didn’t have long to think about how to advertise something this experimental, though, because I had to hop into a screening of Lars von Trier’s 5-hour cut of Nymphomaniac in the most ill-planned double feature of all time, but that’s a story for another time.

As for the task of selling The Tribe to the public, that fell to Greg Maclennan, who has cut together trailers for almost every Drafthouse Films release since Mood Indigo last year. That includes the insane domestic lion movie Roar, the monster romance Spring and several others. Now that the aggressively stark trailer is online, I wanted to ask MacLennan how he created it, and it turns out that my premise was a bit faulty.

How do you normally whittle down all the images of a movie into what you feel is indicative of its tone for a two-minute trailer?

I start by watching the movie a couple of times and then scrub the film looking for particular scenes, shots or moments that really stick out to me that don’t include spoilers. During the scrubbing process, I start to really focus in on what the “elevator pitch” of the movie is. How do you communicate the plot or focus of the film in the shortest and easiest way possible? Generally, I try to end up with a single sentence in my mind that helps me drive the edit and keeps me focused.

Then it comes down to almost cutting the trailer into a simple three-act structure movie. You introduce the concept, show some conflict and then crescendo into a climax. It doesn’t have to parallel the movie, but you need to make an emotional connection for yourself and hopefully for an audience. I also really try to make sure each shot has a cause and effect relationship with the next and isn’t just a bunch of cool imagery back to back that doesn’t mean anything.

What about this trailer makes it a good advertisement for the movie?

I never think of my job as advertising even though I know that’s exactly what it is. When you create something in an edit bay over the span of a week, or a month or longer you don’t have an audience or any critics; you only have yourself. So, you really need to make sure what you are doing is constantly exciting or inspiring you. There are times when you look at an edit and just need to stand up, walk around the block and come back with fresh eyes. But, after that, I just try to make the trailer as connective as possible.

I’m generally not satisfied with an edit until I can give myself goosebumps. If I don’t connect to my own work, I can’t really expect anyone else to be moved by it. So, the long answer to a simple sounding question is: I think this is a good advertisement because the trailer is emotionally evocative and is a true reflection of the emotionality awaiting you in the film.

What message are you trying to send with a trailer like this? What will get an audience to check it out?

With a trailer like The Tribe we’re trying to get your attention. It’s a really hard movie to market, and we want to communicate a lot of things in a short timespan. Beyond the laurels and quotes of prestige, I wanted to communicate the power of the movie and show you how effective it can be without dialogue, subtitles or music. The weird thing about this movie is that a) it’s an incredibly powerful film and b) once you start watching it, you start to psychologically bridge the language gap and understand the film entirely.

This is a very empowering, completely unique film, and I wanted to give audiences a taste of it.

How did you overcome the unique challenge of creating a trailer with no dialogue? The text helps, but did you consider music? Would that have muted the impact?

I considered music for about 1.5 seconds and then realized how manipulative that would have been. I’m really not a fan of trailers that pull the old bait-and-switch or are overly manipulative. I try to cut my trailers as companion pieces to the movie, so that they are true representations of what you are buying a ticket for. Thankfully, the Drafthouse Films team is a great group of creative-minded people who support that. I really wanted all the sounds to feel really organic because you aren’t going to hear anything in the movie but diegetic sounds. Which is why I use a lot of slaps, breathing and heartbeats.

I tried a lot of different approaches that did not work, but I think I got to a place that grabs your attention and provides you with a rhythm. Then, I just throttled a bunch of bass for some effect to give you a sense of physically feeling the trailer without having any need to hear it. I tested this in the theater last week, and it’s incredible how the bass isn’t overly loud, but you feel it in your chest. That was an important aspect to me after we did some test screenings of the film with a hearing impaired audience and they discussed feeling vibrations.

Were there any other ways that this trailer differed from others you’ve cut that might not be obvious to the outside observer?

I mean, a lot of times my approach to a trailer is finding a song or piece of music from the movie and using that as my metronome. Songs really dictate the energy of a piece and can really help pace things out. When you take that away, as an editor you are left with putting your editing rhythm on display and hoping that works. When you take a song out of the equation you are standing naked and showing your craft. You don’t have the benefit of a song to substitute any emotion or power past parts that don’t work.

And this movie is a hard movie to edit a trailer to because it’s shot almost entirely with handheld cameras and has some of the most incredibly long takes I have ever seen. So, every time I made a cut, I had to feel confident there wasn’t a Ukrainian man halfway around the world crying because I was destroying his masterpiece.

This was probably one of the toughest trailers I have ever cut, and I feel incredibly self conscious about it. Is it boring to people? Do people get the connection from one moment to the next? Did I successfully convey the story enough to make you want to check it out? I won’t know until the trailer hits an audience, but I hope that when you watch it, even if you don’t completely get the story or understand everything, that you at least walk away feeling something. That’s what makes the best trailers for me, and I hope to be able to do that for other people, too.

The Tribe opens June 17th in New York City, June 25th in Los Angeles and expands in July.

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