ART OF THE CUT with David Wu, ACE

editor for John Woo, Ronny Yu, Cristophe Gans and Tsui Hark

David Wu, ACE is a Hong Kong-born editor with more than 70 films to his credit. He has mostly edited for a handful of elite directors – including John Woo and Tsui Hark who faithfully return to him film after film. His editing work includes “Hard Boiled,” “The Bride with the White Hair,” and “Cold Steel.” In addition to editing, Wu is also an accomplished director.

HULLFISH: Tell me about yourself, David. You’ve had a very long and distinguished career, but there are probably many people who’ve never heard of you.

hard-boiled-yun-fat-shotty
Image from “Hard Boiled” (taken from the internet somewhere… used without permission)

WU: After I moved from Hong Kong I stayed in North America directing TV series, pilots and mini-series. At the same time I cut my own shows. Probably the only main directors I cut for other than myself are John Woo, Ronny Yu, Cristophe Gans and Tsui Hark. I started working with the French director Christophe Gans in Vancouver on his first movie and ever since then, he’s wanted me to cut all of his movies. So after 1994, I was not really cutting Hong Kong films. The last one I did was John Woo’s “Hardboiled.” (1992)

HULLFISH: You said you directed a bunch of projects. Talk to me about editing your own stuff as opposed to having another set of eyes – using another editor.

WU: I really prefer to edit for myself because I know precisely how to tell my own story through editing. There is a risk if you bring in someone else, that they might not read your mind exactly. I only cut the films of a few friends because I can read their mind. Many people have said, “You better sit back and let a third person give you a fresh idea of how to tell your story through the other person’s point of view and probably it would be a better version than yours. But I haven’t been very lucky with that. It’s really frustrating. I’m very straightforward. When I see a scene, I have that completed scene in my mind, and if I see it edited and it’s not better than mine, I say, “No no no no no!”

HULLFISH: (laughs) Yup.

WU: Ego. It’s an art: editing. So basically you are taking another brush and trying to change someone else’s painting. But he doesn’t know that the painting is my painting. So there’re a lot of obstacles. I move fast. I shoot fast. I edit fast. I don’t have to fish around. I know exactly what I want. Like Christmas shopping.

HULLFISH: (laughs) That’s the way I am – “get in get out.”

Chow Yun Fat in "Hardboiled" (used without permission)
Chow Yun Fat in “Hardboiled” (used without permission)

WU: So when other people try to cut my story they might spend four days cutting a scene which I can finish in four hours. John and Tsui and I, we are coming back to Chinese productions  and we want to give a chance to some Chinese rookies, so I would really like to give them a free hand and let them try. Because a lot of times you learn from making mistakes. But if you bring in a veteran or experienced editor, you wonder why they’re so cutty. I think it is a trend that people tend to overcut. I think it’s because of digital. It’s not of the era where you spend time with a grease pencil and tape and splicer and when you make a cut in that interval you can think. That is what I heard from Scorsese in an interview that a complaint about computer editing is that an edit is completed before they can think. So for me, I encountered a couple of times where people overcut. I abandoned the idea of letting someone else sit in my chair. Most of the time I’m sitting in the editor’s chair or the director’s chair, I’m really, really conscious of the fact that I’m sitting in the audience’s chair. That is the advice that I give to a lot of editors and young filmmakers. Although you are creating your work, your art, you still have to present it to an audience. Sometimes you indulge, but when you indulge you really need to engage the audience. In recent days, I’ve been headhunting or looking for some potential new talent or young students to whom I can pass on my experience and knowledge. If I find an ideal student where I can pass on my knowledge and technique, he can then read my mind and when I give my show to him or her, she can interpret it how I want to tell my story.

HULLFISH: You said you usually only edit for friends. Tell me about the collaboration process between you and the friends you edit with.

WU: I can read people’s minds easily. First of all, when I talk about collaboration, the person I really enjoy working with is John Woo. John Woo is the friend and collaborator that I have known for more than forty years as a trainee editor at Shaw Brothers Studio: the biggest film studio in Hong Kong. At that time I was an assistant editor for a very famous director named Chang Cheh. He is the first director that broke the million dollar box office in Hong Kong. A million dollars in those times was huge. John Woo worked as his assistant director and then when I started off training, I worked on his show and John Woo and I met in the early 70s. In those times we talked movies, we ate movies for breakfast. I was making $300 Hong Kong a month, about $50 US. And he was making even less. He’d make $600 for one movie which is three months. After work we always went to go see Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Kurosawa – that’s why, later on when he made his movie, I knew exactly what he wanted because we went to the same film school, which is the cinema. The cheapest university. You buy a ticket and you learn a lot of stuff. So John and I breathed the same…

HULLFISH: The same cinema air.

WU: Yeah. Exactly. He left Shaw Brothers in 1974 and I left in 1976. Every time we did something he was always ahead of me by two years. He moved out of Hong Kong in 1992 which is two years before me. When we met again in 1986, he shot “A Better Tomorrow” and we reunited. As soon as I saw his material I knew exactly what he wanted and he knew exactly what I could do for him. That’s the advantage of shorthand.

HULLFISH: Amen.

Image from "Red Cliff" (used without permission)
Image from “Red Cliff” (used without permission)

WU: Yes. So we really don’t need to “blah blah blah” you know. We don’t have to talk. These couple of years working together on “Red Cliff” in Beijing and last year I did “The Crossing” he basically said, “David, I just called you so we could have dim sum.”

HULLFISH: (laughs)

WU: Editing is second. Of course he was kidding. I shared the same experience with Tsui Hark. We don’t even need to communicate. Then with Christophe Gans, he claimed to be a big fan of mine. He’d seen every movie I’d cut: all the John Woo movies. He was directing a movie “Crying Freeman” in Vancouver based on the Japanese manga and he wanted me to edit his movie. After I took that job, I completely moved out of Hong Kong. So Christophe Gans is another guy who I read his mind very well, because he is a Hong Kong movie dictionary. He’s watched all of the Hong Kong movies. So as soon as I saw his material, I knew what I could do for him. So that was another very enjoyable collaboration. The other guy is Ronny Yu. I cut a lot of his movies and know him well. Other than Tsui Hark, John Woo, Christophe Gans and my own movies, I really try not to cut other directors’ movies. You know why? One time when I was in Toronto, I was one of the directors on a John Woo produced TV series, but I was also doing the editing for the whole series, so I had to cut the other directors’ shows. One day one of those directors shot tons of footage. I was looking at the dailies and had a headache just watching the chaotic shooting of the director.

So he throws me six hours of some car chase and I was being car sick just watching the dailies. He came to the edit room and said, “Hey David! How’s it going?” I was still looking at the dailies. “I’m trying to figure out what you want.” He said, “Just have fun.” I said, “I’m not having fun.”

HULLFISH: (laughs)

WU: “Just watch it. Just go on your own. Just f**k around.” And then I got really pissed. I said to the director, “I have nothing to f**ck around with.” After that, I decided I am not cutting any other directors.

Here’s my theory: when I shoot movies, I shoot the take by choice. But a lot of directors shoot two cameras, multiple takes… they shoot it by chance… hopefully they get something out of that.

HULLFISH: I assume you’re normally cutting on an Avid.

WU: Before John Woo’s pilot in Vancouver I did not touch computer editing. It was all on film. But John Woo told me I had to cut on the computer. I said, “No no no no. I don’t like computers. I am a computer idiot.” So he said, “You must cut on the computer or you’re not cutting the show.” I said, “OK.” They gave me a coach to guide me along and get to know the computer system. He said, “The last lady editor, a French lady, she spent a week and she can fly along.” You know what? I spent two days and I was flying along. I can’t deny that computer editing gives you a lot of advantages: a lot of tools to explore, to try, to adventure. On film you don’t have that convenience because you try to change your cut and you’ll have a lot of headaches. I must say, I enjoy computer editing. Once you sit down the hours go by so fast and your eyes are exhausted. It’s a blessing that after forty something years, I still enjoy editing. Every morning I get up, I look forward to sitting in the edit room. Almost like going to meet a sweetheart.

Image of Wong Kar-Wai on the set of his film "The Ferry Man" (used without permission)
Image of Wong Kar-Wai on the set of his film “The Ferry Man” (used without permission)

Even though I said I wasn’t going to take jobs for any other directors, I’m doing Wong Kar-Wai’s film “The Ferry Man” now because I love his style and I’ve known him for maybe thirty-something years. So this is the first time I’ve collaborated with him. For the first time in ten years, this is a new director that I felt I could collaborate with. I’m enjoying it very much. We chat. But I’ve turned down a lot of other directors.

HULLFISH: To get back to the NLE. Are you on Avid? Have you tried Premiere or any of the other systems?

WU: I’ve always been on Avid and I recommend Avid. Before that I tried a couple of years on Lightworks. The Avid technician said, “Every time I walk into a room with Lightworks, the editor’s always crawling under the table with his butt up in the air, fixing the machine.” I know Final Cut Pro. I might spend some time getting to know Premiere. Walter Murch said he liked to cut sometimes on Avid, sometimes on Premiere. Like he could jump into a Porsche or a Ferrari and he knows how to handle both or a Lamborghini. I think that sometimes it gives you some innovation or inspiration by switching to other tools. I’m very old-school. I stick with a brand… I’m not a brand worshipper, but I stick with things, like a favorite dish. Avid is my favorite toy and I just stick with it for all these years. Just like my better half. We’ve been married 36 years… no, more, 37 or 38. I tried Final Cut Pro, but I realized that I just want my wife back. I write all my own scripts, too. People ask me whether I like editing or directing or writing better. I think this is like having three girlfriends. When I’m sitting in the editing room for quite a long while, I’d like to go on the set and direct, just like I want to be with the other girlfriend. But when I’m on the set, I’m waiting for the lighting and the sun and the rain and I’m frustrated, I want to go back to my editing room. So I’m lucky that I have three different girlfriends. That’s just a metaphor. I’m not encouraging three girlfriends. They’ll give you three headaches. One man. One woman.

HULLFISH: There you go. I’m the same way. I’ve been married for 23 years. Not as long as you, though. Let’s talk about the art. When you’re watching dailies – especially for another director – what are you looking for. How do you approach it?

WU: I personally have a frightening memory. In my mind I have memorized more than 500 phone numbers. So when I watch dailies, I don’t take notes. After one pass it’s printed in my brain already. I try to interpret how the director wants to tell the story with all this footage. I like to surprise the director. There are two kinds of surprise. ARRGGHHH! and AHHHH! So I mostly get an AHHHH! Because I watch every take of dailies from the clapper to the end frame. Watching dailies is like going to a treasure island. It’s an Easter Egg hunt. A lot of people find it to be a burden or as a job. I don’t find it a job. I think it’s fun. I’ll tell you why. It’s so amazing when you find bits and pieces. When you montage. The beauty of editing is the montage. You create meaning by putting two seemingly meaningless shots together to create meaning. That’s why editing in French is called montage.

First I have to tell you why I get this magic of editing and how it led me to wanting to be an editor. When I was in high school, I was learning experimental filmmaking. You buy a few rolls of 8mm and you just shoot. I shot exactly what I want. In those days I saved all of my lunch money to get the film stock… not cheap. Especially shooting high speed is extravagant. As soon as you roll the camera … VEEEEEEEEEEE! (makes high pitch sound of camera motor spinning) The whole roll is gone, you know? So one Sunday I shot some passers-by crossing the lights and then I found them looking right in the camera: “Who is this young guy shooting at me?” And then in the afternoon I shot a street person picking up some garbage. A week later I watched the film. That film was like gold to me. I did not cut it and throw it on the floor. One afternoon I accidentally tried to cut together two things, which was the passerby looking at the camera and the street person. All of a sudden it gives me the new meaning that the passerby is looking at the street person! That is when I discovered the magic of editing and I wanted to be an editor. So, when I look at dailies I try to create some new meaning to enhance the storytelling of the director. He may like it or he may not but I’ll present it to him. I’ll give you an example.

When I was cutting an action scene of this first-time director, Christophe Gans in Vancouver and there was this scene where a Japanese lady decided to commit harakiri, killing herself with a sword. Her performance is OK, but the director is not too excited about it. It’s OK. I look at all the dailies to enhance this moment where she stabs herself, looks up at the sky and collapses. I was looking for a moment that visually captured it. All of a sudden I accidentally found it: at the end of one Steadicam shot, the Steadicam operator tripped and flipped and the whole camera swirled around. So when the lady stabs herself I inserted about 16 frames of that trip – VOOM! – like that and there you go. It’s a great scene of harakiri. Back then, I’d go into another room to continue cutting while the director was watching on the Steenbeck, so when he was watching in the other room, everybody heard him slam the editing table with his hand – BAM! – and everybody thought he was throwing a fit, but after the BAM! they heard him yell, “Nobody cuts like David Wu cuts!” Then later he told me, “Every movie I make, you have to cut, otherwise I cut you.” We became very good friends.

Image from Christophe Ganz's film, "Crying Freeman" (used without permission)
Image from Christophe Ganz’s film, “Crying Freeman” (used without permission)

HULLFISH: (laughs) So that’s your dailies process.

WU: I don’t spend a lot of time editing, because I know exactly what to do after I view dailies.

HULLFISH: So let’s move on from there. You finish watching dailies and it’s all in your head. You know where you want to go. Do you know the beginning so you start there, or do you know there’s a moment you’re trying to work towards?

WU: Exactly. I precisely capture the beats, the moments exactly that I want and join them together to make the story. John Woo shoots tons and tons of shots, master shots, three minute long 120fps Slow-mo. John will only use it for four seconds. If you get some other people to watch it, they do not know exactly what he wants. In “Red Cliff” in 2008, I only came aboard after they cut Part 1 and John Woo was a little worried, so he called me to come in and doctor part one and cut part two. Part One he brought in the editor from LA and he spent two months cutting one battle scene. The first afternoon I went in to cut “Red Cliff” I already cut an important scene introducing the main character, Woo just came in gave me a big grin and said, “Let’s go get dim sum.” To see the director give a big grin, that is very precious. Better than any other treat.

HULLFISH: You said you think many editors overcut. How do you know that you are cutting a scene with the proper pace? Or if you go in to doctor someone else’s pace, how do you know that it’s wrong?

WU: It’s all about the gut feeling. Other people can not have your gut feeling and you can not have other people’s gut feeling. Gut feeling is something I learned from the very famous editor Dede Allen. Her quotable quote is: “Cut with guts.” When you cut with guts, you’re not shackled by rules or theories or formula. You are there to experiment. You try to be bold. Gut feelings have to be right. When I first cut the movie, before I sit down I know what kind of movie, what genre. I know what kind of vehicle I’m driving. Like if I’m in a Ferrari or a station wagon or an old mule. Sometimes I prefer cutting the whole movie from scene 1 to the end. But of course, a lot of times you can not cut it chronologically. So in that case I will individually treat each scene with its appropriate and proper pacing, or pulse or tempo. Then I join all of the scenes together to see if they are in conflict or are they all with the same tempo or they too fast or too slow. Then I will pick the moments and the scenes where I want a little highlight or a peak or a valley. I recommend a more jazzy rhythm. It is not a monotone rhythm. Sometimes you are going up the hill and you find moments to come down the hill. You come down the hill and pick up speed.

HULLFISH: With a jazz musician, the beat is not always precise. Sometimes the note is played behind the beat, sometimes in front of the beat. Leading or dragging the tempo.

WU: Yes yes yes. Unpredictable. You have to feed the audience exactly what they want. They will be offended if you don’t give them the beat or the mood and you don’t give it to them unless you have  a purpose – creating a tension or a build-up or it sets them up well. But if you don’t feed them well, they get offended. I always think of an invisible music track in my mind. I’ll tell you a couple of amazing stories.

One time I cut a Hong Kong movie about a bunch of killers. They are in a competition. They are sitting at one long table and they are in a competition to disassemble a gun and assemble it back together. It’s a lot of cuts and after I cut it I laid on a music track and amazingly there is an understood rhythm with my cuts that it completely matched with the temp music (Wu sings a percussive driving tempo) It’s RIGHT on the cuts. I was shocked. I might have an invisible music machine in my mind.

HULLFISH: In my interview with Lee Smith, he said that when he cut without temp music and delivered it to the composer, the composer came back and told him that he was cutting at 97 beats per minute perfectly.

WU: Yup!  I learned a lot along the way with the great masters and great filmmakers. And I found out that with “The French Connection” they actually cut the scene with a piece of music and then they took away the piece of music and the audience reads the scene with the music tempo subconsciously in their minds. Do you know which cue they’re using? “Black Magic Woman.” (sings). Not the opening theme everyone knows from that song, it’s the second half (singing)…

HULLFISH: How am I going to transcribe this? (laughs)

John Woo on the set of "Red Cliff" (used without permission)
John Woo on the set of “Red Cliff” (used without permission)

WU: It was amazing. I actually used that a couple of times later on. I cut the boat chase scene in John Woo’s “Killer” using the same method and then I took away the music and in the movie all you hear is just the sound effect of the two speed boat engines (Wu imitates the cutting and revving of two speedboat engines) But subconsciously you can feel the beat of the music.

HULLFISH: Do you remember the piece of music you cut to?

WU: “Born to be Wild.”

HULLFISH: That’s great.

WU: (singing) “Get the motor running. Head out on the highway!” That’s why I have not had a day in my editing life that is a boring moment. Every day you learn something new.

HULLFISH: Amen. That’s the way to keep yourself fresh.

WU: So enjoyable. Like after work you go see a movie and it gives you some idea and you can’t wait for the next morning when you sit down again and use that inspiration, but you have to wait for another eight hours.

HULLFISH: You mentioned earlier that you had learned things from your mistakes. What are some of the things you’ve learned from mistakes?

WU: There’s one golden mistake. I’ll tell you one. I started as a trainee editor for 18 months as a trainee, then became an assistant, then became an editor cutting my first feature film. Just 18 months from scratch to becoming an editor. Nobody believes it. In those days, the senior editor would not teach you at all. They only enjoyed shouting at you. I learned splicing with cement. I tried to stand behind the senior editor’s back, but he’d give me a dirty look and turn his back to me and I’d have to walk away. One day I found out that on the side of the editing room was a long dark alley where they’d throw out the black and white print out-takes. So I asked if I could have them. They said they were garbage. So I took all those film rolls and tried to cut the shots together just like when I was in high school cutting the street person to the passer-by. And I learned from that. When people ask me “Who is your mentor?” I say Sergio Leone, Kurosawa and … and another guy…

HULLFISH: Sam Peckinpah.

WU: Yeah! Exactly! You read my mind. Peckinpah, Sergio Leoni and Kurosawa. They are my mentors. The fourth mentor is myself.

STEVE: The fourth horseman.

DAVID: Yeah. Fourth is myself.

And then, long story short, by 18 months this director Chang Cheh which I talked about we worked on a kung fu movie and then he gave me a chance to cut his first movie called The Policeman.

He shot a scene with a very long take with the young rookies. And it’s a very new star, almost like a new Brad Pitt making his first appearance. He shot a long take of this young star: He got off his bicycle, walked into a stadium that is having a karate competition where he’s going to compete. It’s a long take of him walking through the corridor into the dressing room into the locker. He took off his helmet, took off his jacket, and took off his shoes and put on the karate suit and put on and tightened the belt, pushed the door, walked into the stadium in one take and started the first match.

At the same time, while he’s inside changing, the competition is going on outside with about four or five pairs competing: slamming on the mat and trying to knock each other out. When I watched the dailies I tried to be smart. Give the director some surprises, you know? At that time I was young, trying to prove myself. I watched the dailies and this is what I do:  I have him get off the bike, walk into the corridor and push into the changing room. As soon as he pushes into changing room I cut. And I cut to the first fighting pair and it says “Team One! Bam! Boom! Bam!’ And then I cut back to the locker room he took off his helmet, took off his jacket, zoom as soon has he took off jacket then I cut to the guy. Half of the jacket out is the guy outside in the ring being pull off his karate get up Bam and then the fall of the jacket. And then I cut back to the locker room and then he took off his boots and put on the karate suit and then as soon as he tightened his belt I cut “Bam” and then outside they kick the shit out of each other. And then I have him push on the door go into it. I told myself, “David, you are a genius.”

Image from Chang Cheh's "The Policeman" (used without permission)
Image from Chang Cheh’s “The Policeman” (used without permission)

In those times the big director won’t come into the editing room. He just watched it in the screening room, you know. So I just sit in the other corner. So that day I have that scene cut ready and show it to him. He watched it and then the lights came back on. I was waiting for the praise. Just like I was waiting for the surprise. And then it was silent for a couple of seconds.

He said, “David. I shot this long take with a purpose. The main purpose is to introduce a new upcoming star with one long take to see his young face, to see his fresh look, to see him all in one long take. Your editing is really advanced but it did not tell my story and my purpose so please put the whole long take back again.” He didn’t yell at me.

STEVE: That was nice of him.

DAVID: Yeah. Even now I tell this story to a lot of young students about this mistake I made. You always serve the drama with your technique or tell the story that the directors want to tell with the scene by not using the technique overshadowing what the directors want to do. That was 40 years ago when I learned this first mistake and I’m glad. I will never do the same mistake again.

A lot of editors tend to show off their techniques and then put a technique in the scene that which does not serve the scene. Or even with the camera work with all the photography you have the crazy 360 degree technique, a circle dolly, but does it serve the scene? It does not. You know? That’s why now a lot of film students should learn to share my experience. Because whatever tool, whatever technique, whatever film language you know you say the language.

STEVE:  I was watching a big tentpole movie on the plane coming over here that I hadn’t seen before. Big gun battle. I had absolutely no idea who was on what side. I had no idea.

DAVID: This is the same story I heard about the making of “Saturday Night Fever.” It’s Travolta’s first big break and he’s very cautious how he will appear on screen and how he’s being introduced. And you know the famous scene, “You should be dancing yeah.” (sings music)  Know that scene? He’s on the dance floor?

STEVE: Yep.

DAVID:  What we are seeing now it is not the first cut. The first cut the editor was doing the same mistake as my first mistake. John Travolta went into the editing room to see the first cut. For all his training on the dance floor, I think for a couple of months and all the shooting and then the editor had so overly cut the scene with I think a lot of quick cuts that he almost fainted and fell on the floor. He told the editor to use the long takes that present his dancing technique. Now you see it and it’s all long takes.

STEVE: I think of that with dancing you don’t want to over-cut it because you want to be able to see the lines of the body. You want to be able to see the dancer actually perform the dance.

DAVID: Exactly.

STEVE:  Is that the same for the martial arts scenes in the Hong Kong movies?

DAVID:  First of all, Hong Kong movies have the most energetic kinetic film sense or film tempo in the whole world. They’re bop bop bop bop bop bop bop machine gun, you know? Why? One thing is sad when half of the Hong Kong movie stars, especially girls, they are not trained well. They are not Jackie Chan. They are not Jet Li, you know. They’re not Donnie Yen.

Peter Ho in "Cold Steel" (used without permission)
Peter Ho in “Cold Steel” (used without permission)

STEVE:  So you’ve gotta cut around the…

DAVID:  Yeah exactly. You gotta cut around. They are not Michelle Yeoh, you know. You’ve got to cut around and I might say when you look back to it now you can see the scenes are incomprehensible. You cheat away. You feel the energy, but you don’t see anything. Pow pow pow pow pow shoom boom boom bop boom boom boom boom boom bam!

So even now you see a lot of other films they seem to over cut and they seem not to let you read well. I went to see “Carousel,” which is a very old musical. They use the long take, when you enjoy the editing when you enjoy the body language in the full shot in the medium shot. But now we lost that art, you know? Especially studio films, they will have young producers come in and tell you to cut music video pace.

Of course, quick cuts sometimes gives you the contemporary pulse. They walk fast. They eat fast. You know?  So that’s life.  But I still need to collaborate with a lot of filmmakers which have the same wavelength with me that we still keep that golden classic, almost dying lost art.

It’s not like those young studio producers that say “Okay you got to keep up with the audience,” you know. Because after all the audience has to be waiting or craving that we lead them rather than follow them. Because now we have too many followers, you know?

STEVE: That’s a wise piece of advice: you need to be leading the audience. If the audience catches up to you then you’re in trouble.

DAVID: They’re expecting you. You can hear a lot of filmmakers say “Oh the audience wants, the audience wants, the audience…” When they write a scene the brainstorming screenwriter or the writers together they always say “The audience, the audience”. Actually no.  The audience is waiting for you to feed them with some fresh ideas not just feed what the audience wants, you know?

Image from "Crying Freeman" (used without permission)
Image from “Crying Freeman” (used without permission)

STEVE:  You’ve talked a lot about visuals, and we did talk a little bit about music. What about sound design and sound effects? Do you use that a lot to help sell your cuts?

DAVID:  Oh yes, yes, yes. Definitely. Sound design is really how you serve the movie. How you serve the story. If you are cutting a documentary  you really need to put in sound effects that make you feel you’re living in the environment…you’re living in the whole world. If you’re in a rural country, probably you can hear (imitates dog barking) or (imitates rooster crowing) in the countryside. You enhance it to feel that environment. What’s happening? But in a drama or sci fi sometimes you amplify, you exaggerate, you lead the audience to another scope.

When Al Pacino is in the restaurant before he kills the cop, you know, he went into the toilet to get the gun. And in that restaurant, in that washroom, you can hear the off-screen sound of the train going by. (Makes train noises) But the whole scene you never see the train. And the purpose is to give that kind of tension or the urge or the subconscious nerve-wracking moment with the train (imitates train). And that’s exactly what I did with a lot of scenes using sound effects in them. I treat sound effects as music. Especially wind. I think in my library I have more than 50 kinds of wind. Very musical, very lyrical.

The next thing my favorite sound effect is footsteps. From a footstep you can tell the story. You can tell if it’s a lady or it’s a guy. Big guy. Or from the footsteps you can tell this guy is rushing or he’s strolling or two footsteps you can hear them kind of romancing. Or he’s being chased or he is escaping, you know?

Actually I used it in Wong Kar Wai’s film last week. The comedy of the shot is not seeing the guy rolling down the stairs. It is the sound of the wooden floor: sounds like a bowling ball rolling down the stairs which gives you the comedy, right? That’s why in comedy fighting scenes I always love pots and pans. (imitates cartoon pot hitting someone) So actually I’m a very verbal sound effect guy. When I do the sound spotting in my own movie those guys are always making fun of me. They say, “Hey guys, we have to bring in a mic and record everything David says because after that we got the foley done.” I will say (imitates horse whinny) (imitates engine gunning) then the shotgun (ch-ch boom) “pew pow,” like that right? After that the sound guys know exactly what I want.

So back to the story. Because you know, movies actually are all about visual and sound and a lot of moments when I would watch a movie I would get some ideas. When I am in a tight shot I would have the footstep going up the stairs with no sound. And then give the audience another exit. And when in a wide shot — I just did this again in the Wong Kar Wai film — in a wide shot you have the rain coming down more heavily in the tight shot which may give the scene a more interesting scope, you know. I was asked by Tsui Hark last Christmas to do his Christmas release… to doctor his mix. He had the movie mixed already and he asked me to give him some you know, some surprise, some ideas to give him some little different touches. I went in because the first scene he had the New York city. And then he cut to a tight shot of the street. And then he cut to the close up of Merry Christmas. So the sound mixer is doing something which was ok. He opened up the scene with a panoramic of New York City. (singing “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry”) and then he cut to a medium shot (singing “We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year”) and then a tight shot of the banner. I took a look at it. I changed the perspective with the level of the music, of the song to the shot. In the wide shot we hear them very distant,  right?  (sings music progressively louder) Something like that, right? So in three cuts you get the audience drawn into the Christmas festival spirit and with the sound coming up level 2, level 3, you let the audience feel the progressive of the sound and the song, the Christmas carol. And after that he’s very happy with that.  He didn’t expect that. So there again I give the director a little surprise. “Oh, this is great!”

Tsui Hark (used without permission)
Tsui Hark (used without permission)

I love the process of building sound effects and music. Just a tiny bit of sound or even a neighbor’s dog barking gives you the environment. You don’t have to give a shot of a sunrise with the same guy sitting in his sofa falling asleep. Then you hard cut to day with the same lighting but you have a morning bird or rooster, the sound effect tells you it’s next morning. That’s why the sound effects tell story, which is precious.

STEVE:  That idea of the dog barking it’s a good warning sign sometimes or it’s a way to tell the audience…

DAVID:  …Something’s coming or something’s wrong, or even the very anxious dog bark (imitates barking) and they know, “Shit somebody’s coming!” Because a lot of storytellers or directors now they tend to telegraph, they tell the story too much. They hit you on the head. Too much on the nose.

But when you overdo sound effects sometimes it kills the scene. That’s why sometimes I say less is more. Why? When you watch the old classic movie, Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” or something like that. When the guy is hanging on a cliff. The other guy is holding his hand, right? This is classic scene, right? Down below is the water: you fall down you die. So the guy’s holding his hand. And then you see he’s trying to scramble to come up and then you see the tight shot of under his arm the shirt’s kind of tearing apart. And his face is hopeless. All you can hear, there’s no tearing apart of the clothes. All you can hear on the soundtrack is just a distant wave down below just a shhhh. Very light. And now days the studio will tell you “Put the sound, put the music, put everything, put the tearing of the cloth, put the music (sings)” But in that scene you won’t hear anything. And there’s a tension.

STEVE:  Yeah, there’s a bunch of times when I think of recent films that I’ve seen where total or almost total silence gives you huge tension.

DAVID:  I wonder if you are talking about the same movie.  Are you talking about “No Country for Old Men?”

STEVE:  That’s one. Sure.

DAVID:  Because in the motel scene when Josh Brolin is in the motel room. He knows that the killer’s coming. So he switches of the room light. And he’s just waiting. And he sees the light under the door and he pulls out his shotgun. And then he sees the shadow crossing the door. Gone. And then it comes back again. And then he holds his gun. And then we see the door knob. And then POW: gun shot. The whole soundtrack there’s only the air-con ambience of the motel. You won’t hear the music. (sings) The tension is in the air-con ambience.

And then another story is when John Woo was doing his second Hollywood movie “Broken Arrow.” They have a long car chase scene with Hans Zimmer’s music track (sings) the whole car scene. When they cut into the cave, then there’s a shoot out in the cave the music has a breathing moment, right? And then the beauty of that scene is the echo of the dialogue, the echo of the gunshot, Pew-pew-ew-ew-ew. And then when the studio, Fox Studio, watch it they ask Hans Zimmer to go over and fill that scene with another piece of music. Oh boy. That’s another story. Overdone.

STEVE:  I remember one of the silent things. I was talking to David Brenner about cutting Batman vs. Superman and there’s a scene where an entire building collapses in New York City, basically been bombed, and when that happens the noise is so loud, obviously. But that’s played completely in silence. There’s no explosion sound, there’s no crying, there’s no sirens, there’s nothing.

DAVID:  Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Exactly. That gives you another exit, you know. It gives you another feel.

STEVE: It’s very musical too, you know.

DAVID:  Yeah, and there are a couple of real life experiences. My sister told me one time her two kids were about three of four years old. They were at the mall. They got on the elevator. She turns around and the second kid, young son, is not on the elevator. And the elevator’s going up and then she was panicking and then she told me the whole soundtrack in her mind there’s no sound. It’s only ringing. It’s ear ringing. She won’t hear the people chatting in the elevator. She won’t hear the mall music. All she’s thinking about, her son might be gone.

STEVE:  And there’s another movie. I just talked to the guy that did Civil War, the Captain America movie. And there’s a scene where one of the characters realizes that people are looking at him and that he’s kind of been found out. They don’t use music or anything, they use this sound that’s like tinnitus or whatever you call it where your ears ring. It’s just that ear ringing sound.

Did you see Sicario?

DAVID:  Yeah

STEVE:  They did that in Sicario, at least a couple of places. Where all you’re really hearing is this kind of…

DAVID:  Even in Hurt Locker too.

STEVE:  Yeah, Hurt Locker. Oh I just watched that, you’re right. That’s powerful. I mean, because it sets you up for the next thing, too. There’s that quiet…

DAVID:  It really draws you in. Really draws you in. Because sometimes too much music, too much, you get just detached from it, you know?  But on the other hand they just draw you in so much.

STEVE:  That’s great. Yeah I love that.

DAVID:  I’ll tell you about a scene.  In John Woo’s Killer.

Image from John Woo's "The Killer" (used without permission)
Image from John Woo’s “The Killer” (used without permission)

You know, the Chow Yun Fat movie, right? Which launched him into North America, this movie. My friend Christophe Gans said it changed his life.

There’s the ending scene where the gangsters rush into the church with shotguns and blast away. And at the moment as they come in they blow up the Virgin Mary Madonna statue into pieces and the pigeons fly. The composer brought in music cue.

When we watch the cut with the music, it’s pretty good and at that moment John and I are really high in spirits. But we really want to do something really really special. And we kind of brainstorm a bit. I went home. Took a shower. Still have no ideas. So then my wife said, “Ok, let’s go to evening Mass.” She drags me to church.

STEVE:  I see where this is going.

DAVID:  Yeah. I sit in the church. While they’re doing all the communion and all the singing and a light popped on and “AH! What about this?” And I asked my wife, “Can we leave now? I got an idea.” My wife just looks at me “Are you kidding me? It’s the middle of Mass” Ok. I wait.

After we had dinner I rush back home and I rush into my music library and I drag out one CD which is “The Messiah.” And then I listen to it and then 10 minutes later I call John and I said, “John, why don’t you come into tomorrow morning one hour later? Let me do something to it. You come in at 10 o’clock.”

At nine o’clock I went back to the soundstage. I took all the sound effects out. The gunshots. Everything. I put in “The Messiah” (sings) and show it to John. His jaw is almost on the floor.

It was something so religious, something so ritual and something about justice has been completely demolished. It just… everything is set in just one cue. The mood, the visual, everything. It’s “The Messiah.”

One day I’m in the back room cutting “Hard Boiled” and John just came into my room with this letter. I said, “What?”

Behind the Scenes image from "Hard Boiled" (used without permission)
Behind the Scenes image from “Hard Boiled” (used without permission)

He said, “Come, come, come to my room.”

I said, “I’m cutting in the middle of a scene, don’t interrupt me!”

He said, “Come on come, I’ll show you something.”

I said, “What the hell is that? Show me what? This letter?”

He said, “Yeah letter.”

I came in his room. He showed me the letter. It’s from Martin Scorsese. In those times in Hong Kong, we never thought of going to Hollywood. Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, they are the gods of some other land, right? The letter is from Scorsese telling him  “Dear John, I haven’t been going to the cinema for a while, but one afternoon I watched this amazing movie from Hong Kong which was your work called “The Killer.” And I enjoyed it very much.” And of course, John Woo has a big grin on his face. Then he read the last part of the letter to me: “I especially enjoyed the scene of the Madonna blowing up with the sound of “The Messiah,” which is my favorite part of the movie.” And that makes my day.

STEVE: I bet.

DAVID:  And then John said, actually this letter is for you and me.

STEVE:  Yes it is.

DAVID:  And later on he paid homage to this moment in “Casino.” You can see the opening of the scene where the car blows up, he used another piece of classical music that was quite similar to “The Messiah” in “The Killer.”

STEVE: Wow.

DAVID:  Yeah. This is one of the few highlights of my editing career.

Bride with the White Hair
Image from David Wu’s “Bride with the White Hair.” (used without permission)

STEVE: That’d be the highlight of my editing career. That’s awesome. We have been talking for almost two hours. I could talk to you all day. I have thoroughly enjoyed this. Oh my gosh, I loved this conversation. I don’t know how I’m going to transcribe it. I’m just gonna have to be able to play the audio for people, because you did so many sound effects and singing of musical score that there’s no way that I can put that in a printed piece.

To read more interviews like this one, check out THIS LINK, and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish.


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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.

  • Jack Donda

    Great Article. Thanks to Steve.