ART OF THE CUT with Rick Pearson, ACE on “The Accountant”

also discussion of his work on “Kong: Skull Island”

Rick Pearson, ACE has edited so many big movies that trying to sum them up in a paragraph is to do him a disservice, so check out his imdb page for more, but some highlights are: Men In Black II, The Bourne Supremecy, Iron Man II and Maleficent. This interview is primarily about the recently released movie The Accountant. As we were doing this interview, he was in the middle of editing Kong: Skull Island which will be released in 2017.

HULLFISH: What was the schedule like on this movie?

PEARSON: We started mid-February of 2015 and we wrapped Thanksgiving of 2015, about nine months later because originally the picture was meant to be released February of 2016, but the studio really liked the film and thought that it deserved a fall slot. We were happy they made that decision, but we had to sit on the movie for almost a year. The total post schedule was probably thirty weeks. It wasn’t very effects heavy so it didn’t feel really taxing in terms of the turnarounds we had to do.

HULLFISH: How do you watch dailies?

The AccountantPEARSON: Like a lot of us who have been around long enough, we remember the time when we used to get together with the director and maybe some other department heads and that was a ritual. And it was a really good one in my opinion because it was also an opportunity for a lot of the filmmakers that were working on that particular film to get together and talk about the process and react to the footage in a communal way that that seems to – for the most part – have gone by the wayside these days. I’m sure most people are now looking at dailies individually on PIX on their laptops or whatever so that shared experience of putting the building blocks together from the beginning is not as much a part of the process anymore. What I do now is have the assistants put together what is ostensibly a daily roll of all the dailies that came in that day. I initially scan through that material to look for possible tech issues but also to familiarize myself with “OK. I see we’ve got a master and these kinds of set ups” or “here’s this specialty shot, here’s a series of other inserts” or whatever it is. So I get a broad-based understanding of what the material. Then I’ll go into a scene, say scene 127, and I’ll just start picking my way through each of the takes top to bottom. I’ll start with the Masters and see how they play and begin to build a performance that way. I kind of react to them fresh in the moment as I’m building. But I am looking at every single performance as I’m building. So in some instances I may build a what I call “performance selects.” It doesn’t really play as a scene but it’s a string-out of “I like that reading and that reading” and thinking “if we end up going this way this line may make sense.” As you know, it’s a fluid and evolving process, so by doing this kind of selects reel I have a better understanding of what pieces I have to play with downstream.

The AccountantHULLFISH: …Because the edit changes as you get scenes together in context…

PEARSON: For example on the film I’m on now we had something like 15 days of reshoots and because it’s a big visual effects picture some of those reshoots were visual effects which needed to be turned over quite quickly. So I wouldn’t normally start doing line cutting right away, but in this instance because I knew where the film had come from in terms of the rest of the footage and where we were trying to get to, I was a little more aggressive with some of that footage even on the first pass and would integrate it back into the movie and show it to the director and we had discussions of why I did things and maybe put stuff back in, but typically I’ll start off at least with the build of everything and I might do an alternate cut if I feel strongly that we’re never going to want to have these exchanges or whatever it might be.

HULLFISH: That makes sense. What about temp and score?

PEARSON: It was really interesting on The Accountant; it was my first opportunity to work with Gavin O’Connor, the director. He really prefers to see scenes and the movie initially with no temp whatsoever. I had cut with no temp 17 years ago with one of my first larger feature film directors, which, to me is really smart. But there are very few directors I think that are disciplined enough to be able to do that. And his rationale, and I think it’s a smart one is that once you’ve got the rhythms of the scenes and the performances working, you can then begin to enhance those and bolster them. Having said that, most directors today want to hear these things fully fleshed out with sound and music and often I think that that can be a little bit of a slippery slope. But for me personally when I’m initially cutting I tend to avoid using temp music so that I can I feel like I can get the scene up and on its feet before I start going do that.

With The Accountant I’d found an instrumental piece of music that I just kind of looped and it became a sort of meditative white noise. It was a track from the film, “Prisoner.” It was very cold and dark, lonely cello. A really insistent cello piece and I kept thinking “that sounds to me like that is the key character.”  The DNA of the cue really lent itself to the Christian Wolff.

HULLFISH: Exactly. You find a theme for a character that just feels correct for them. Another Art of the Cut interviewee pointed out that sometimes if you’ve got temp under something and you go to re-cut it unless you take that temp out it kind of locks you into the rhythm of the temp.

PEARSON: That’s right. And that’s an easy trap to fall into, which is why,  when I initially attack something, I don’t like to cut to temp because I think the rhythms of the action and of the dialogue, or the combination of the two are really what’s driving the meter of the scene. And then you can find something that bolsters that.

HULLFISH: Thoughts on sound effects?

The AccountantPEARSON: My first assistant, Sean Thompson, has a great ear for sound and he and I have very similar tastes. , I’ve worked with him for over 12 years now. I rely on him a lot. The director that I’m working with now has a lot of very particular sound design ideas. He’s got a bucket of sounds and he likes to play with transition-types of things.

HULLFISH: I’m fascinated with the relationship, the collaboration between an editor and a director and how that evolves. You said this was your first time with this director?

PEARSON:. He has a long time friendship with my agent. He trusts my agent when he’s looking for people. And my agent said, “I think you really should meet Rick. I think you guys would be very much in the same plane” and that ended up to be the case. We met and I had a lot of thoughts about the script. It’s a very dense Rubik’s Cube of a movie. I’m curious to see what you think when you see it. It’s a really dense read. And I had to read it once and read it again take notes and by the time I read it the third time I was finally connecting the dots. We just seemed to be on the same page from the gate. And he’s very collaborative. So if I had thoughts about the script or thoughts of what we were shooting we’d always talk and I’d show him stuff. As I always feel is the case with the director/editor relationship: it’s my job to offer my perspective and point of view but I’m not the director ultimately and I respect that. That doesn’t mean that I might not bring it up again in six months down the road when maybe that idea that I had at that time now actually does make more sense or it or it becomes moot.

The AccountantHULLFISH: Also, you know, half the time those issues go away because of some other part of the process, so the idea of having patience is critical.

PEARSON: I hear you on that. That’s pretty common I think. I have a sound mixer that I’ve worked with years and years ago who said to me “You may as well execute every idea just to see what it does. Even if you feel like it makes no sense, you never know. It may not be the answer but it may point to something else that you maybe never would have thought of. Sometimes the director says to me,  “What if you try this?” and I’m thinking, “That does not make any sense to me.” Half the time maybe it doesn’t work but it might still lead to something. I do believe it’s a collaborative process and it’s only by that process of exploration that you can you can really sift things out and find things that may have been hidden

HULLFISH: Sure. Plus, the director needs that peace of mind to know, “OK I tried it and it didn’t work.” Because otherwise, it’s always in the back of your mind: “We never tried it.”

THE ACCOUNTANTPEARSON: Exactly. You have to let those things have their chance. And you know all directors have their children. Some are more attractive than others and even some of the attractive ones probably don’t deserve to see the light of day.

HULLFISH: You don’t send them all off to college.

PEARSON: That’s right. Yeah. Some of them should probably just stay in the basement under the stairs. (laughs)

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about structure. Was there a lot of structural change that was different from the shooting script?

PEARSON: Because of the way information is parsed out in the story we were limited to a certain extent how far we could push things within the time line. There’s a pretty large exposition dump if that happens into the second act and it was always really tricky for me. It is just on the edge of audience overload, like “If I learn one more thing right now my head’s going to pop off” kind of stuff. And part of what we struggled with there was that there are these recollections but from a particular character – all these different events that have happened in the past. So he starts to recount these events and how they relate to this story we’ve been seeing unfold. It was always scripted in a non-linear fashion. But it was my concern that the audience already had a lot to grasp on top of telling these things in a non-linear fashion. We tried on paper to change it,  but it still felt like emotionally these things were parsed out in the correct order. So, in terms of structure on this particular picture it was more about lifting things out – not moving things.

HULLFISH: What were some of those extractions? What were the causes for pulling out some of those things?

PEARSON: There were a few characters in the story which took some concentration to sort of keep track of. And we had one particular character in the movie who was already a bit of a peripheral character. And then there was another expositional dump about that entire character’s backstory. There was another instance early on – it was my instinct to delete the introduction of a character that’s introduced in a sort of very peripheral way in another location doing something it seems that seemingly is completely unrelated to the to the A story and that character ends up having a much deeper involvement in the A story than you would initially suspect. My concern was by cutting to that character a certain portion of the audience would be thinking, “I wonder if that’s some other character that we find out about.” So we tried lifting that scene out and it worked gangbusters except when this larger reveal happened in the third act with this particular character, the audience didn’t care as much because they didn’t know enough about him and they were missing this one key scene. So we tried it for a while without it. But it found its way back in.

The AccountantI mean just this script was very intricate. It was kind of constantly jumping from past events to current events and it was it had different characters intersecting where you found these disparate pieces actually came together. It’s a little bit Roshomon that you’re seeing events and then not quite knowing what you’re seeing and then it but then information is parsed out through the telling of the narrative. But we are always playing with time.

HULLFISH: Can you give me an example of how you are a storyteller as an editor?

PEARSON: On the film I’m working on right now – it’s called KONG: Skull Island – Swe have a set piece with King Kong and it was sort of a standalone set piece. But I really felt that it needed some context – and not just context in the movie where it where it occurred – not just what Kong was literally doing – but also what was going on for him internally. So there’s a character in the movie who knows a lot about King Kong and he’s describing this creature to some other people then later, Kong does some of those things. So I started overlaying the description of this character over the footage and cutting it back and forth. By hearing those words over images of him moving and looking regal it sort of imbued a narrative heft that I didn’t think the original scenes had when they were separated from each other.

HULLFISH: That’s a great example.

The AccountantPEARSON: Also, in The Accountant there was a scene which was the focus of quite a lot of editorial handwringing. It’s a scene where Ben Affleck begins to sort of uncook these books and in one night he goes through 15 years of ledgers in file boxes and invoices and it all sounds so very dry. But the way it was shot – the cinematography is beautiful, the way it was directed, the way Ben’s involvement as a character as he’s beginning to dig into this material – at first it’s very dry and as he starts to get into this material I started to weave kind of both visually and aurally layers upon layers that are that are meant to be quite specific in the way they put together. They’re very sort of designy in terms of the way the letters are on top of each other visually. But then also from a sonic standpoint he started going through a list of vendor names for this particular robotics manufacturer: all the vendors for this particular firm. Then he also did a list of all of these tax depreciation and taxes terms. And I started building up those along with these layers of visuals so that that occasionally these things will start moving around the room in this 5.1 surround environment. The idea was that this was his sort of “Beautiful Mind” way he processes all these things nonlinearly. But for him it created a kind of a perfect pattern and made complete sense. So it’s a very it’s a very dense montage in that way but hopefully it doesn’t feel overwrought because I was really trying hard to make sure I felt like naturally, organically these images were laying upon themselves laying upon themselves. It was a lot of work.

HULLFISH: And did you design it yourself in 5.1?

PEARSON: I was mixing in stereo. But we always knew that once we got to the dub stage that would be an aspect of it so I built I’ve built the actual sort of feathering in and out of these terms. You know the numbers and the vendors and the accounting terms. But that was an aspect we knew we could only really fully realize once we were in there at the dubstage.

HULLFISH Perspective is critical in every scene, right? But for The Accountant I would think it’s very critical to know whose perspective you’re in. Is it the bad guy’s? Is it Ben’s? Is it the girlfriend’s?

The AccountantPEARSON: Well in this film it was an unusual challenge in that Ben’s character has a form of autism. He’s very high highly functioning autistic person. But he has a difficult time reading people in terms of understanding what their intention is when they speak. He doesn’t have any friends to speak of. He ends up having a professional relationship with this young girl with Anna Kendrick who is the junior accountant, so finding a point of view was often interesting. When it came to these scenes with him alone – his point of view is singularly unique. I think that’s why I ended up gravitating towards that piece of music in an odd way. It was trying to get a handle on him and how he sees things. The numbers and ledgers and accounting: to him it’s a kind of a symphony or like a painting. He has this place where he keeps his kind of favorite things. One of them is a Jackson Pollock painting which kind of makes perfect sense because many people look at it and say that doesn’t make any sense to me, but for him there’s something about it that completely lines up with the way his mind works. So it’s about trying to find out what his point of view was. It was really tricky but it was something that we tried to find both musically and then by using relationships. Like Anna Kendrick discovering his awkwardness. Often it would be her reaction to something he might say that to me helped get a key into who he was. He knew he wasn’t quite interacting with people correctly. He was just struggling.

The AccountantHULLFISH: That example’s a great one right because if the perspective is his perspective then when you go to cut away of Anna, it’s not because it’s a cut that reveals something about her as it is a cut away to reveal something about him and you’re back to his perspective.

PEARSON: I think that’s right. For me, she was great in that she could help us by showing the confusion because does not get it. One of the lines in the movie that Ben wanted to go to the Art Institute but his dad insisted that he goes to the University of Chicago or some serious business type of school. And Anna says, “Yeah, the University of Chicago where fun goes to die.” And Ben says “Why does fun go to die at the University of Chicago?” And she tells him that it’s just an expression and he says, “I know. I was joking.” But obviously he didn’t. He’s trying to play catch up all the time I guess. So it was a really enjoyable challenge to find out how to play him.

THE ACCOUNTANTHULLFISH: And when you’re doing that when you’re looking for performance is there anything specific or just something gut reaction to a performance?

PEARSON: In general I’m thinking about, as you say, the point of view of this scene in terms of what’s what. What is the audience’s handle into the scene? How is it informed by what has come before from that character. If I’m cutting scene 75 I might cut it one way and then find the action in scene 14 –  which they shoot later – colors scene 75 differently.

HULLFISH: Did you decide to edit multiple scenes as a block instead of every single scene by itself, like a little sequence of combined scenes? PEARSON: Especially if it’s scenes that are occurring during some larger event like in The Accountant for example. There’s an extended set piece in the third act. The security team is the securing this house and interspersed with that are other scenes that are going around that are either peripheral or integral to that event. And although initially I cut them separately because I only had them as pieces, it was really only having the context of the all of them together where you could start to feel, “No we don’t want to follow the script here whole cloth. It feels like the back half of this scene has to be dropped or folded over here” That’s the kind of stuff you can only tell by the benefit of having the larger whole.

THE ACCOUNTANTHULLFISH: Do you remember your first meeting with the director and your pitch to him? Were you discussing other movies or art or things that had happened on other projects or your theory on editing?

PEARSON: A lot of that meeting was talking about the script specifically and I offered some questions and also some possible solutions for things that I felt didn’t quite line up. So a lot of it was talking about the uniqueness of the story and the uniqueness of the character. And for him the notion that there was also a sense of humor in the film as well that came out of that character. And it was really important for him that it be done in a respectful way.

HULLFISH: Of course. Do you have anything to say about any of these scenes editorially?

PEARSON: We had quite a few experiments before we arrived at this particular “emoji” representing the female English caller. Once you’ve seen the film the choice might seem obvious, but it took a bit of time getting there.

PEARSON: J.K. is so good here, and obviously throughout the film. Choosing performance from his material was always an “embarrassment of riches”.

PEARSON: This again was an area where we walked a fine line regarding the ebb and flow of humor. Both Ben and Anna gave wonderfully bracketed performances (as artfully directed by Gavin) and so we ended up calibrating quite carefully. The preview audiences were particularly helpful here in finding how far we could go. “I like incongruity” was late breaking, but it got a nice response. I also liked using that close up of Ben when Anna’s character reveals that she wanted to go to the Art Institute. That information lands with him somehow. It lands again in the Airstream when she notices the Pollock. Finally, he reveals just how much he’s understood with his gift to her in the end.

HULLFISH: Rick, I’ve kept you far too long. You were very generous in answering these questions so thoroughly. thank you. Good luck wrangling Kong!

PEARSON: Thanks Steve, my pleasure!  He’s a big monkey and he’s on my back, but it’s a fun sand box to play in.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK or follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish.

This interview was transcribed with (Currently in beta, soon to be released.)

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Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written five books, and edited two theatrical feature films (both Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured at NAB, DVExpo and the Master Editor seminars. He has edited on Avid since 1992 and was named to Avid’s first group of Master Editors. His client list includes: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, NBC, PBS, Turner Networks, The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Investigative Reports” and “Cold Cases” with Bill Kurtis for A&E, Jim Henson Home Entertainment, Major League Soccer, The Chicago Cubs, Wilson Sporting Goods and Exxon/Mobil.