ART OF THE CUT with Manchester by the Sea’s Jennifer Lame

Jennifer Lame started working as an assistant editor on TV shows like 30 Rock and Smash before joining editing teams on features films like Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Reservation Road. She moved into the editor’s chair on the 2012 indie, Pricecheck before editing a trio of Noah Baumbach films: Frances Ha, While We’re Young and Mistress America. Recently, director Kenneth Lonergan tapped her to edit his critically acclaimed film, Manchester By The Sea.

Hullfish:  Let’s talk about Manchester by the Sea. It’s a very interesting movie. I can see why it is up for so many awards. I’ve noticed you’ve worked with a couple of directors multiple times: had you worked with Kenneth Lonergan before or no?

Lame:  No, I had not.

Hullfish:  So how did that relationship come about and how did it play out? How did you find out you were going to be compatible?

Lame: I had heard about the project for a while and I was kind of obsessed with it because I was a huge fan of Kenny’s work. I was working on a movie in LA at the time, but I had gotten a few drafts of the script. I was trying to get an interview. About three weeks out from production, which is pretty late to hire an editor, I got a call saying “Kenny wants to interview you, but he doesn’t Facetime, do you have time to fly back to New York?” and I didn’t, so we were just going to have a phone interview and I was pretty bummed about that because I imagined it’s pretty difficult to get jobs on the phone, I’d never had a phone interview before. He got on the phone and he actually started talking about Margaret (Lonergan’s 2011 film) a lot because he discovered things in the edit of Margaret he wanted to tell me about and I wasn’t saying much just listening –  finally we started to discuss the Manchester script, but the interview was almost over so I thought, “I have to say something risky.” I had read a couple versions of the script and I had noticed scenes he’d cut out and so I said “I was kind of sad that you cut these scenes out and this is why, and I wanted to know what you were you thinking?” I think at first he was kind of shocked, but then he admitted that he missed them as well and agreed with me: “I didn’t want to cut them out. It was for production reasons and I had been thinking I should put them back.

In fact, I was just talking to Casey about putting one of those scenes back before I called you.”

I think he was kind of impressed that I’d taken the time to read so many drafts of his script before I even knew I would get an interview, so I think he started to trust me a little bit and then the rest of the conversation was great, we just kind of clicked and I got the job a few days later.  By the time I flew back to NYC to begin working, he had already gone up to Massachussets to finish prep and start shooting the movie, so we never met in person until after the shoot which was really bizarre. I already had anxiety about working with a new director since at this point I had only really worked with one other director.

On top of that Kenny was so busy on set because the schedule was fairly fast, so we didn’t really talk much at all during production. I had just finished a third film with the director I was coming from and because we have worked together so many times we talked all the time during shooting, so again I was out of my comfort zone. In the end it was a great learning experience, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t very nervous.

Hullfish: What kind of a collaborator is he? Do you remember what he said about his previous editing on Margaret?

Lame: With Margaret Kenny talked a lot about inhabiting the space and really living in the moments of the film, both inside the main character’s world and outside in the world of NYC and all the people surrounding her. The length of the scenes and the length of the movie were both crucial parts in helping to bring Kenny’s script to life even if at times it felt uncomfortable. I think the goal was to push beyond the uncomfortable, let people just feel completely immersed. I actually just saw Kenny’s cut of Margaret at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens recently and I wished the movie kept going, I loved it so much.  There’s something about that movie where you really just feel like you’re so in it you don’t want it to stop. So whatever he was trying to accomplish I think was effective and really interesting and new. What he accomplished – even though he would say it wasn’t to complete fruition – was really exciting, and to hear him talk about editing in that way made me really excited to get into the editing room with him.

Hullfish: I have worked with writer/directors and they have written a script where they intentionally wrote every single word for a reason and when you end up starting to lose those words and lose the scenes that they sweated over, it’s difficult to “kill their babies.”

Director Kenneth Lonergan

Lame:  That’s funny because the post producer, Stuart Macphee, who was on Manchester said the same thing you’re saying. One day I was telling him how much I loved working with writer/directors because they weren’t precious with the script because they knew it best, they were so fun to talk to about when it was time to let things go.  He said, “Jen, you realize most editors find it difficult to work with writer/directors because they’re so precious about their script and won’t cut things out.” I laughed realizing, obviously, that’s true. I guess I have just gotten lucky…. Noah’s not precious at all, in the name of making the movie the best it can be. Cutting out half his lines? He’s all for it if you can prove to him it makes it better. Kenny probably held on a bit tighter, but not much. He also was all for cutting things if it made the movie better, I think he just needed a bit more convincing/talking it out or  testing a cut, which made sense especially since this was our first movie together.

Hullfish: I interviewed Jan Kovac who edited Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Focus.

Lame: Those guys are really interesting.

Hullfish:  They’re writer/directors and he said that you get in there and you start chopping away and reorganizing things and they really considered it just another opportunity to rewrite. And he actually co-edited with them… they get their hands dirty on the machines.

Lame: I think that’s great. I think that’s how it should be.

Hullfish:  How exactly was Kenneth a collaborator? Did you talk a lot? Was it “show me and then I’ll tell you what’s wrong?” What was the process of collaborating with him?

Lame: I think it was a bit of everything. We talked a lot about things. We tried a lot of things. This movie was really difficult to work on for various reasons. The script is so emotional and we really wanted to be respectful of the delicate subject matter, so there was a lot of talking about  getting the tone right, of respecting what happens to Lee and his family. Also obviously the jumps in time were a challenge. In terms of collaborating, we talked a lot about things and how we felt about things, we tried things. Sometimes Kenny would just go home and I would keep working on my own and I’d send him stuff. On Margaret he learned how to use the Avid, which is so helpful because I could send him something at 10 o’clock at night and he would look at it and tweak it, send it back to me in the morning, I would tweak it more. He was so engaged, but also gave me so much space to be alone with the material as well. He was never sitting over my shoulder. It felt like a truly collaborative experience in that way, we were both in the mess together.

Hullfish:  That’s awesome. One of the things that I noticed about the edits was that everything’s kind of always cut in the middle. Sometimes even sentences just are cut in mid-stream. Was that a stylistic choice that you felt like the audience should always feel like the scene keeps going without them?

Lame:  I know we did that a lot whenever we were cutting back and forth in time.

I think I do that a lot in Noah’s movies, so that’s probably something that unconsciously carries over as well. I just like doing that in general when called for.
Early on in the movie when you first meet Patrick, there’s this uncomfortableness with him and Lee. It was nice to let those scenes play out maybe longer than you would imagine to let the audience feel the awkwardness between Lee and Patrick when he first moves into the house. Later on in the movie, when they start to feel a little bit more comfortable around each other, we end scenes a little bit more abruptly or in the middle of things so we set things up to use that technique in a very effective way.

Hullfish: Altering the timings that characters react as a way to reveal character is something I’ve talked about with Tom McArdle who said that they always lengthened the spacing of the responses by the new newspaper editor in Spotlight to set him off as an outsider. And Kate Sanford said that they sped up responses on Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire to show how smart he was.

One of the other things I wanted to talk about was going back and forth in time. Where it really started happening, of course, was in the lawyer’s office after he’s informed that he’s going to the guardian.

Lame: Previous to that we jump back in time three times: we go back to the hospital room when the brother gets the diagnosis, and we see them on the boat fishing for the shark, and then we see him and Randi together in his house with all his kids. I think the lawyer’s office really stands out to people the most because we cut back and forth quicker in that specific sequence than we do throughout the rest of the movie.

Hullfish: Was that scripted? Why did you decide that this is where we need to tell a lot of backstory?

Lame:  That was scripted. In terms of when we cut back and forth wasn’t necessarily scripted.

Hullfish: I did an interview with Joe Walker, who cut Arrival, and there’re a lot of flashbacks in that movie. He said that most of the flashback footage was not written for a specific scene, so there was just a big bin of “Amy Adams with daughter” and it wasn’t necessarily, “Scene 27 flashback footage. It was just “daughter footage.”  Was your movie similar?

Lame:  Not really. We had a big b roll bin of “town” and “town in winter” and “town in spring” and “town by the harbor” that we used throughout the movie, none of which was really scripted, but was an important part of the film as the town functioned almost like another character so we used quite a bit of that footage.

But with the actual cutting back to the past those were very specific scripted scenes not just B Roll. The scenes are actually consecutive and if you cut them together would make a short film, almost like a B narrative. All of the scenes that take place in the past were scripted, but we definitely moved them around a lot and played around with when we cut to them. They had to reveal themselves in a certain pace and rhythm inside the main narrative for it to work properly.

Hullfish: What were some of those decisions and decision-making reasons of moving some of those flashbacks?

Lame:  We cut out a few of the flashback scenes in the middle of the film. One example is the children’s funeral. We felt the movie, while obviously dealing with a devastating subject matter, could not be overwhelmingly and oppressively sad all the time. We needed to make the audience feel the weight of what happened to Lee and the town and also feel how much Lee is weighed down by it, but not make it feel so much so that you just check out or become numb. When we moved the flashbacks around it was for various reasons. Sometimes it was a pacing thing – how long it had been since we’d seen the last one? Sometimes it was emotional – when do the flashbacks have the most impact in the story and also make the most sense in terms of where we are with the present day characters? We needed to find the perfect place for the past to have its biggest impact emotionally, as well as narratively and rhythmically.

Hullfish: Talk to me a little bit about music and temp music. Because a lot of it is classical music, did you actually temp with what ended up in the movie or did you temp with something else?

Lame: We temped with what ended up in the movie. Those were pieces that Kenny picked early on. He said, “These are pieces that I was thinking about while writing the script and I love them. See if any of them work.” I remember I used one of them during Joe’s funeral when Lee sees Randy at the funeral. It worked so well we ended up keeping it and using it in the final. We also used a piece Leslie Barber gave us early on for when Lee first drives back into the town of Manchester, and again it worked so well it stuck so the “temp” score really became our score.

I think the reason why this music works so well is because it has a similar perspective and relationship to Lee and his experience as the movie does. It has that ethereal quality that evokes looking on with respect and understanding and with no judgement, acknowledging that tragedy is relatable and human and is happening all around us constantly. Lee’s story is just one glimpse into what is happening all around us every day.

Hullfish: You mentioned the idea of not letting an audience get into a space that’s too dark and there are also light moments. I love the moment on the boat where the girl is driving and Casey’s on the back of the boat smiling.  I think that might be the only time he smiles throughout the movie?

Lame: Yes, and it’s heart breaking. You see him completely happy for a brief moment. It’s wonderful.

Hullfish: Character and perspective are huge in a movie. Talk to me about using perspective or trying to tell a story through a character.

Lame: I think a good example is the fire sequence. The fire sequence is told just in Lee’s perspective. We don’t see anything from that night that occurred except for what happened to Lee. We don’t show how the fire started or Randy putting the girls to bed. The audience is completely with Lee in his perspective of that night and I think that’s why that scene is very unique and effective. A different kind of tension is created rather than cross cutting between the fire starting and Lee walking to the store.

Hullfish: In the fire scene, which is a very serious scene, why did you guys decide to keep the thing with the paramedics struggling to get the wife in an ambulance?

Lame: That’s so Kenny. It’s the same reason why – right after that devastating fire scene – he puts a joke in about, “Where are you taking me? The orphanage?” and everyone laughs after you just watched this horrible thing. I think that’s why Kenny included the cellphone going off in the end of that beautiful, slow motion funeral scene. Kenny adds those moments, he says, “Because that’s life. That’s what real life is like. Every time I’ve been to a funeral something embarrassing happens to someone and everyone tries to not laugh but nothing is perfect.” The thing with the paramedics wasn’t planned, but they hired real EMTs and real firefighters and they were having a little bit of trouble getting her in and Kenny stopped and said, “What’s going on here?” and the EMTs said, “This is what happens. We do this every day for a living and sometimes this happens.” They only shot two or three takes of it and I could’ve cut around it, but Kenny didn’t want me to. He liked the fact that sometimes the stretcher gets stuck and he just felt like this is real. We definitely had the discussion of “Are you sure you don’t want me to get rid of it because I think I can get rid of it” and he said, “No, no, I think we should keep it.”

Hullfish: The Japanese call it wabi-sabi: finding beauty in the imperfection of real life.

You’ve worked with Noah Baumbach several times. There’re a bunch of those relationships between an editor and director: Thelma and Martin and Quentin and Sally Menke. How did that relationship begin and what is it that you guys want to work together?

Lame: We started working together on his feature, Frances Ha. I think he was at a turning point in his career and I came on as an assistant editor, but then the editor had to leave and I knew the footage better than anyone. I had organized it in this way that Noah likes. So Noah edited with me while they were looking for another editor. He was nervous, but then he started to trust me once he realized I had similar taste as he does.

I remember he made me stack sequences line by line and he would shoot like 50 takes on Frances. It was a super low budget movie and no one was telling him to stop. He could just keep filming. They shot it on a Canon 5D so there was so much footage. Noah would ask me to pick my favorite lines, and then he would look and see if our favorites matched up. There were a lot of little tests like that which I understood. Once he started to trust that I had similar sensibilities and understood what he was going for, then he started to trust me. During our edit, he also worked on a pilot, The Correction, for HBO and he had to leave me alone, which he’d never done before. He’s the type of director that is just in the room all the time and he’s very obsessive. But he couldn’t be in the room, because he had to go shoot this pilot. He would come in on the weekends to look at stuff, but then I had the week to try so many things as well as his notes, etc. I think because that worked out, even though it made him very nervous, it made him trust me even more. We have a very close relationship at this point. I think it’s because Frances was such an intense working experience for both of us. In a way we were both forced out of our comfort zone together. He having to work with a new person who didn’t have nearly as much experience as the editors he had worked with in the past, as well as being forced to leave me alone with the material for a lot of the time. For me it was the first time I had to transition from being an assistant to working in a room all day with a director, which was scary. I just finished my fourth movie with him.

Hullfish: That idea of trust and having the edit suite be the safe place for the director is something I heard over and over again from people. Trust is so important.

Lame: This is their baby.  Directors are usually very intense people and that whole dynamic was something I wasn’t mentally prepared for. There is just so much that needs to happen in that room and go well. Aside from the creativeness, you really have to trust each other with all of those emotion and vulnerabilities.

Hullfish: You mentioned that, when you were an assistant, Noah liked things organized in a certain way. How do you organize your project and bins so you can approach a scene in the best way?

Lame: Noah likes to do these things called stacks, which a lot of editors do – especially on TV shows – where you just stack every line that every character says on every take. I like to do the stacks myself because it’s a good way to watch the footage. I also was forced to do a lot of the assistant duties on Frances Ha as well as Mistress America so I had gotten used to doing them and doing them fairly fast.

I pick selects from the stack as I stack: kill two birds with one stone. It’s quite satisfying when I’m done. Sometimes Noah has me on set, so I have to let the assistant or apprentice do the stacking. It’s hard for me to let someone else do the stack because I have such a particular way that I like doing them. There’s something about physically doing them that really keeps me focused. I find it’s harder to focus when I just hit play and watch. I don’t really have a very specific way to organize the bin besides the stacks.

Hullfish: So many different people do something similar to what you’re calling a stack. Like, sometimes I do performance selects…

Lame: I think that’s the same thing. Noah calls them stacks, but I think they’re the same thing.

Hullfish: Does this stack actually go vertical or does it always go horizontal in the time line?

Lame: It’s horizontal in the timeline. It’s a string of lines – every reading line by line horizontally –  and then, when I like a performance, I lift it up to the next level and if I really love a performance I lift it up to the third level so that’s why it looks stacked.

Hullfish: There’re a bunch of editors that use that same methodology. To clarify what we’re talking about here: there are many that create KEM rolls, which is not the same thing, right? What most people call a KEM roll is really the dailies strung out in groups of camera set-ups. But even for a simple scene that’s three minutes long with maybe ten camera setups and three or four takes for each camera set-up – you can’t keep that in your head. You can’t keep the beginning line of setup A take 1 in your head when you’re looking at the last line of setup H, take 3. So, to solve that, you break down each line and string them so you’re watching all setups and all takes of just a single sentence back to back to back?

Lame: Right.

Hullfish: I don’t do literally every single line, but I do small clusters of lines that usually have similar blocking – like, breaking up the beginning of the scene until one character crosses to a different point, then breaking that up until someone sits down…or with multiple characters in a scene, breaking up each interaction between two characters until it switches to two different characters.

Lame: I actually do every line. It’s time consuming but once it’s done it’s done. Noah and I do a lot of line replacements – even replacing a word within an actor’s performance. So when you have the stack line by line and you’re looking for a specific word, it’s really helpful.  At the end of the day – even though it’s a lot of work – it just helps so much later on when you’re doing all the fine tuning.

Hullfish:  And have you ever considered using Script Integration in Avid? Because that basically does the same thing. But, that too is a lot of work to set up.

Lame:  I’ve tried to talk Noah into that, but I think there’s something about it that he likes. He likes seeing the timeline. He can see where my selects are, too.  There’s something about the visual of it in the timeline that he’s so used to. I think he likes knowing that I went through it and I watched everything and I think this goes back to the trust thing.

Hullfish: A lot of people use the same method as you, so that’s definitely tried and true. Some of the other Art of the Cut interviews – if you look at them – you’ll see the ScriptSync proponents and it is a lot of comedy people and it’s a lot of television people.

Lame: I remember when I worked on 30 Rock as an assistant we did string-outs.

Hullfish: Doing those string-outs or stacks seems like such obvious assistant editor work, but I think when I talked to Billy Fox he was telling me that he does the performance selects work himself and I kind of chided him about needing to learn to delegate, and his response was: “No, that’s how I learn the footage.”

Lame: That’s what I’m saying. That’s why I like stacking myself because it really makes you focus and really learn the footage because I’m physically doing it.

Hullfish:  Do you color code the stacks at all? That was something I was just doing yesterday…

MBTS_2532.CR2

Lame:  No, I never have.

Hullfish:  We’ll have a little collegial conversation between the two of us here. Here’s what I did. I broke the stacks down just like you mentioned, then as I watch the parts of the scenes, I color code the blocking of the scene changes. So, all the green section is before the guy walks through this door, or all the yellow stuff happens when the characters are facing each other like this, and then one character sits down, so now I’ve changed the color again. It makes it easy to jump to the part of the scene you want. Visually you can see a scene is broken into multiple sub-scenes.

Lame:  Oh, that’s really smart.

Hullfish: Your stack might be 20 minutes long, but now you’ve got five different colors of stacked sections that are each only four minutes long and it’s much easier to jump to the place that you need.

Lame:  Right, right.  Oh that’s so smart.  I’m going to steal that from you.

Hullfish: Please do.

Lame:  Yeah, I’m always looking for new ways to make things easy.

Hullfish: Now that I described it, I’ll have to put it in the article.

Lame:  Yeah, other people can learn from it.

Hullfish: What are some other editing things that you’re passionate about? What interests you when you’re talking to other editors?

Lame: I talk to editors about when you feel stuck, how to keep going, because that’s the most interesting and mysterious thing about editing. I can still remember the five scenes on the movies I’ve worked on where I was like, “I’m never going to get this.” But finally, one day it just comes to you and I don’t know how. What do you do when that happens? What’s your method?

Hullfish: In my interview with Julian Clarke on Deadpool, he says he leaves a problem scene and comes back to it later. Joe Walker and I talked about “editor’s block” when we discussed editing Arrival recently and he mentioned that he’s got these cards that Brian Eno created called Oblique Strategies. It’s a set of cards, like playing cards, and you just flip one over and it gives you a fresh way to approach a creative problem. Like a one sentence tip on doing something different to help try to break through.

Lame: I need to get a set of those.

Hullfish: Buying a set was the first thing I did after my interview with Joe. They sit inches from my keyboard and I find myself thumbing through them all the time. There are a few websites where you can get a free “virtual” Oblique Strategies card set, too.

Well, this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for talking with me!

Lame: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

Read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, with Oscar winning editors like Margaret Sixel, Tom Cross, Mark Sanger, William Goldenberg, Kirk Baxter, Hughes Winborne, Martin Walsh, Pietro Scalia, Stephen Mirrione, Conrad Buff, Mike Hill, Dan Hanley, David Brenner, Anne Coates with THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

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Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two 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.

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