The Cutting Edge

Trailer-maker Mark Woollen talks shop

Mark Woollen
Mark Woollen

"You know, it can be hard getting a joke to work. Something that's hilarious in the movie and you want to feature prominently just doesn't play in the short form without the setup, and that's really tough when you should be showcasing comedy." This sort of thing is a workaday challenge for award-winning trailer editor Mark Woollen. But it's the kind of problem that too many movie trailers resolve in a morass of plodding plot points and would-be catch phrases punctuated by scratching phonograph needles and metallic impact noises and held together with moldy Motown hits or snatches of score from the blockbuster action hit of three summers ago. That's a world away from the sly, stylish work that Mark Woollen & Associates have done for films as different from one another and as hard to summarize as Lost in Translation, Burn After Reading, or Che. His Making the Perfect Trailer workshop at South by Southwest will aim to demystify the mechanics of crafting movie ads that at their best serve as beguiling invitations to singular experiences.

Austin Chronicle: So as I watched a bunch of your trailers, I was really impressed, but I also realized you're the guy who's to blame for getting me all hyped up to see some movies that it turned out I hated!

Mark Woollen: Well, I guess did my job. ... You're not going to come to the panel and ask for your money back from me, are you?

AC: No way, it's great. So how did you get into this?

MW: Well, I was really fortunate that the public high school I went to had a media program where we got to do video production. And when I was 17, I was actually cutting long-form shows for school, and I happened to read an ad in Variety looking for a trailer editor. So I applied, and I actually got the job and learned the ropes. ... When I first started, I didn't know how trailers were put together at all. You know, there are a lot of odd assumptions people have about how this is done, like you just take the best scenes and put them together or something ... but it's really more involved than that and interesting as a process.

AC: You tend to really simply present a premise but really emphasize a sense of texture and mood of the film's experience as opposed to, you know, hitting every beat of the plot, sometimes to the point of spoiling the movie itself or just making it look dumb.

MW: I know what you're talking about. I hate those as well. You know, the cliché voice-of-God narrator laying out the whole thing, going, "In a world" and stuff. ... I like to think we don't do that. There are a lot of bad trailers. As many as bad movies, probably. But I feel really lucky that we get to do a lot of films we really love and respect, so it's a great challenge for us to work at putting across how the movie feels.

AC: And what's the essential thing you're looking for?

MW: Well, every piece is as different as every film. ... Of course there are the ones where story is the strength of the film, but a lot of the ones we work on are very strong in performance, for instance. And you want to make sure that that's what you're showing the audience, because it can be the most important thing for making people want to see it. ... The Wrestler trailer is obviously about a remarkable performance, not a heavily detailed story, but really showcasing Mickey Rourke. ... In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, we started in one direction going more into story, which is the big strength of that movie, but it's actually really tough. We've got a lot of different characters to juggle, at different ages, and that can be hard to get across in so little time – time's really the single biggest enemy you have, and you have to convey an essence. ... But then as the acclaim started building at festivals, that actually became more of the direction to take it, doing more the Academy campaign or review-based trailer.

I'm lucky my company can actively work at pursuing certain trailers, and I try to get jobs with films by filmmakers I love. I knew that they had been trying to make Milk for 20 years, and I love Gus Van Sant's films, so when I heard they were finally doing it, I felt like I'd just be lucky to have a chance to help the film. And we just ask, "What can we do for the film?" and work hard to get it right.

Making the Perfect Trailer

Mark Woollen Workshop

Monday, March 16, 1-2pm, Room 16AB

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