WE WERE midway through the first day of production on a documentary about the real Stingo: the best-selling, critically acclaimed creator of Sophie, Nathan and Nat Turner. William Styron was sitting in the kitchen of his Rucum Road house in Roxbury, Conn., video equipment and crew scattered about.
We had been up since 7 a.m. shooting exteriors in the rain and following the author of "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner" on his daily trip to Munson's food market. Rose, Bill Styron's wife of 25 years, had offered to make lunch for the six of us and was waiting for my response as I figured out how to include the scene in the documentary.
The schedule had called for a scene in which Bill and Rose would discuss their weekend dinner party, a party we had planned to record. Bill, a displaced southerner, had agreed to cook one of his favorite dishes, a Virginia ham. It seemed to me a perfect opportunity to humanize this "great" author--showing him preparing a down-south dinner for friends. But I needed a scene that would set the stage and introduce the ham and the party. The conversation couldn't look forced, and in order to sustain visual interest Rose and Bill had to be doing something; so I told them to have the conversation while they were preparing lunch.
We threw up a couple of lights, put a wireless microphone on Bill, set up the parameters of the shot and started to roll tape. The Styrons, a well-practiced team, began whipping up a lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Michael Ford, whom Bill would later dub the "walking tripod," followed the action with a 20-pound electronic camera perched on his shoulder, while I monitored the stream of images on a five-inch portable screen in the dining room.
In midconversation with Rose, Bill suddenly said, "I'll get the ham," and moved unexpectedly out of the shot. Responding to what he thinks of as the spiritual communion between himself and his subject, Michael smoothly panned over to the ham and steadied the shot just in time for Bill's hand to move into the frame.
I've watched that shot in slow motion perhaps a hundred times since the day it was recorded. It's a lovely piece of camerawork: in focus, perfectly framed and stable as Styron hauls the ham down from the point where it hangs between two banks of kitchen windows. The camera zooms out and Bill sweeps around in a 180-degree arc. It's a pas de deux between camera and subject that in real time takes no more than five seconds until the moment when the panning lens picks up the kitchen island toward which Bill is heading.
That's where the shot got ruined. A technician, not anticipating the sudden movement, got caught by the camera's eye as she futilely backpedaled out of range. The shot was 98 percent perfect, but useless, so we tried to cover ourselves by reshooting the sequence and then plunged on through several more days of the bone-numbing schedule.
When it came time to edit the 15 hours of tape we had shot on location, that achingly elegant, nearly perfect, messed-up ham shot came back to haunt me. I couldn't use it and I couldn't figure out how to get around it. It seemed to be the transition that made the whole 60-minute program hang together. The ham had emerged as a device for revealing Styron's southern heritage and his humor.
But I still needed a coherent early scene which would introduce this ham and the party to follow. And since the documentary does not use either a narrator or a reporter, only the words and images recorded on location could give the final program shape and sense.
I spent scores of hours sitting in the studio at George Mason University, the video editing system humming reproachfully as I struggled with the imperfect ham shot. When I reluctantly let go of my favorite ham shot I discovered that its absence left a creative space in which a solution began to form. I reconstructed the kitchen scene so that the ham is first revealed in its solitary splendor on the kitchen island. The ham has the screen all to itself for several seconds before Bill moves back in to remove its wrapping.
This was, however, only a partial solution. What Bill actually says during the shot wouldn't work in this new version.
The words I wanted were in three different places on the tape, and were too long at first to fit into the 18-second space. I became an electronic tailor--trimming and stitching Bill's words into one coherent sentence. In the final edition he says, "We're going to have a down-south dinner party with our New England and Jewish friends, including Arthur Miller, who would kill for one of these hams." All the while we see him unwrapping the ham and the wrapping paper makes not a bit of noise until the camera's back on Styron's face.
That's when the original audio comes back in as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author holds up his ham, smiles wryly, and says, "That's a beauty." I like to think he's talking about my editing. CAPTION: Picture, Stathis Orphanos William Styron, Copyright (c) Stathis Orphanos