Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with John Gilbert on editing Hacksaw Ridge

John Gilbert, ACE has an impressive filmography which includes, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bridge to Terabithia, Chasing Mavericks, The November Man, and the recently released Mel Gibson film, Hacksaw Ridge. He’s currently editing the upcoming feature with Sean Penn, The Professor and the Madman, also produced by and starring Gibson. (Note: there are two John Gilbert, ACE members: one from LA and one from New Zealand.)

HULLFISH: What was the post schedule like on this movie?

GILBERT: We started shooting in September 2015, and went through to Christmas. It probably took me a week to tidy up the assembly. And then I worked with Mel Gibson for about 10 weeks on it. I originally thought that 10 weeks was not going to be enough. About half the movie is battle scenes, with a lot of quick-cut action, and a lot of choices due to the amount of footage I had. Mel had been in during the shoot and we went over some sequences in great detail, looking at re-speeding shots, and trimming frames, taking quite a bit of time. So I thought if we were taking this amount of time here, we were going to take forever on the film. But surprisingly we were in pretty good shape after about eight weeks.

Mel seemed to like most of what I’d done and while we spent a lot of time working over key scenes a lot of other things survived as I had them.  There are always key scenes where small changes in performance and timing can be critical and we worked hard on them.

So we were done probably at the end of March and previewed in April or May, where we had a great response. I think the scores were in the mid-90s. So we came back to Australia and we played around with a bit more, fine-tuning, tightening it up a little. The VFX took a bit of time to get right, and we were scoring pretty late. Then we mixed at Sony in August / September and were all done, about a year all up.


HULLFISH: People view dailies very differently from each other. How do you view the dailies?

GILBERT: These days people shoot three of four hours of material every day and I haven’t got the patience or the memory to view it from top to bottom. Actually, I think we had nine hours of footage one day. I work in text view which is a little old fashioned I know. I’ll have the assistant set up the bins and I’ll have them create a KEM roll for each scene. And so that’s my dailies – so I can scroll through and look at it all quite quickly. I have continuity notes in front of me and they’ll put a little description beside each shot that says medium shot or close-up or whatever.

The assistants break it down into scenes for me, and I skip through the circled takes to start with, just to have a look at what sort of coverage I’ve got. I like to get an idea in my mind about the shape of the scene, where I’m going to use the wide shots, where I’m going to use the close-ups, and how to best use the coverage I have. I like to find what I think are they key moments in the scene and make a note of any magic I find in the performances. I make a ‘selects’ sequence as I go, which I make in story order, and that becomes the basis for my first edit. It is also useful if the script supervisor has a good relationship with the director and is able to give me insight into what they were thinking, and any moments they loved when shooting.

So then I’ll start throwing it together in the kind of shape that I envisaged, and as it comes together it evolves. Maybe other ideas become apparent and the circled takes work, or maybe they don’t, and I’ll start exploring for other performances or action that enhances what I’ve come up with.

I probably played with the structure less on this movie than I have on just about anything I’ve done.

Director Mel GIbson on the set of Hacksaw Ridge

HULLFISH: What changed?

GILBERT: Quite often tops and tails of scenes will go. The first half of the movie is pretty straightforward drama, but as is usual the script over-explained some story and was trimmed. At times I like not to resolve a scene fully, especially if that resolution is provided another way soon after. It’s good to keep the audience wanting answers.

The second half of the movie is mainly on the battlefield, and while the basic shape is as scripted, I’m sure we moved the action beats around. Once you get going you put the script aside and go with what works.

As you can imagine we had a large number of stunts and action moments. They tended to be shot as little mini-scenes, which were then intercut with interaction between our characters, and they were then assembled into in the bigger battle scenario. So I could edit them in isolation, then dovetail them all together.

I thought the first hour was going to need to be trimmed more heavily than we ended up doing because it played so well in the previews. Mel was very happy with it. And I think the audience knows what’s coming so I don’t think you’re in danger of losing them. The early scenes set up the characters so well. So when you get to the war … Imagine you’re in an incredible battle, something like Saving Private Ryan, and these guys being blown away in front of you. Now the thing with Private Ryan was you didn’t know anything about those people. But imagine going into that knowing the characters and having a lot more at stake. So the first half of the movie gives you an emotional connection to the characters and therefore a lot more emotional response when they are put in harm’s way.


HULLFISH: Movies are obviously shot out of order, so you have to work on individual scenes at first, but how quickly are you trying to create little sequences of scenes instead of just scenes?

GILBERT: I’ll do that straight away. As soon as I’ve got two consecutive scenes I’ll put them together and if I have a run of ten scenes … like I’ve got a movie I’m doing now, “The Professor and the Madman,” I’ve got a sequence already that’s ten or eleven minutes long and we’re only three weeks into the shoot. And I’ll start making little lifts between scenes straight away if I can see them. Movies these days have maybe 200 scenes, and it’s so important how the momentum of the scenes propels one to the next and to the next, so I’ll do that as soon as I can. And maybe halfway through the shoot, I’ll join everything I have together and play the sixty plus minutes assembly. I put two seconds of black in where scenes are missing, and it’s quite enlightening to be able to see how the movie plays, how the character arcs build, and you can get good insight into the shape of the movie, and feedback to the director about how things are working.

Andrew Garfield and Director Mel Gibson seen at Summit Entertainment, a Lionsgate Company, Los Angeles Special Screening of "Hacksaw Ridge" after party at The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Lionsgate/AP Images)
Andrew Garfield and Director Mel Gibson at Los Angeles Screening of “Hacksaw Ridge”

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about modulating the temperature of a performance. You’ve got to start someplace when you’re cutting the scene. You have to go with some level of intensity. And then, later on, you can change but you’ve got to you’ve got to make a fairly good guess at the beginning knowing that you can change things later.

GILBERT: Yeah I think you’ve just got to go with your gut instincts on these things. I’m always looking for a performance that I believe and something that feels real to me and not contrived and something that works within the scene. I look at how the characters respond to each other. So much is conveyed with their eyes, the timing of edits around moments of eye connection is important to me.

HULLFISH: Cutting on a look.

GILBERT: I think the moments of eye contact between characters are very important. Finding those moments of connection and using edits to emphasize them – or otherwise, if the story requires it – is part of making the drama work.

With modulating performance, most good actors and directors will know where they’re going. A good story will build pressure on characters that will escalate as it progresses, and that will force characters to reveal who they really are.  And there’s nothing like a war story to put a character under the most severe pressure, like Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge. That’s when you see who he really is.

HULLFISH: Obviously not just putting that pressure on them in the war scenes, but you’re putting that pressure on a character in every single scene and finding a way to do that.

GILBERT: In every scene right. I try. I mean here’s a guy –  when Pearl Harbor happens – he joins up because he could see that the country is under threat and he loves his country but he doesn’t want to shoot anyone. So he joins the Army but when they’re handing out the guns he says, “Oh no. I won’t touch a gun,” and everyone looks at him like he’s crazy. I mean the peer pressure. Most people would wilt and say, “OK, I’ll go along with it.” He’s basically ostracized by all the guys in his troop. He gets beaten. It would’ve been easy for him to go home. And  of course, the great thing is that when the chips are really down – as these guys are being shot to pieces – the other guys retreat and he stays there and he hauls these guys out who were taunting him and ridiculing him in training. He saves their lives and it’s very moving because of that.

HULLFISH: How do you work through a scene from the beginning?

GILBERT: When I first watch the material I pull out what I think are key moments or anything that I think looks like it should be in the scene – just sort of a selects reel – and I’ll put that in story order. Once I have those key moments I can play it down and build the scene out from there.  I’m first off looking to tell the story, but that’s usually pretty straight forward. Next, I’ll look for where the sub-text is, the stuff that’s bubbling away under the surface, and see if I can add complexity there so that the scene can work on more than one level.

I usually put a scene aside after working on it the day after it was shot, and then go back to it a day or two later. It’s then easy to see more objectively how it’s playing, as you can get lost in the minutiae of a scene sometimes.

HULLFISH: Do you do selects reels for performance as well?

GILBERT: Yes, I’ll pull out what I like to start with, but these selects are really just building blocks for the scene, you have to start somewhere. Once I feel I have enough to get started I build out from these key moments, and I usually find I need to go back to the original slates, finding what happened before or after the moment I’ve selected, and the scene takes on a life of its own.

In difficult performance scenes, I’ll often put the lines back to back, as many takes as I think could be used. If it’s a big scene I sometimes have my assistant build these sequences. I keep these select reels so that I can come back and review my choices later if I need to. It’s also useful for the director to look at if they need to as well. I think it’s very instructive to see a number of line readings back to back. I think it makes it more obvious what the options are.

hacksaw-ridge-teaser-poster_smHULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about pacing. You kind of alluded to one of the reasons why you make cuts by what’s moving things along or even using looks between actors. What’s one of the things that’s determining the pacing of a specific scene?

GILBERT: Well I like to pace things quite aggressively. I never want an audience sitting there thinking “I know what’s going on and I know what’s going to happen next.” I want to be ahead of the audience. I want to keep them on their toes so that is the first and foremost thing that determines pacing for me.

You have to choose your moments when you can play long and there aren’t that many moments you can play long – so pick them carefully. Variation in pace is also critically important. You can’t be one pace fast or one pace slow. It’s boring. You’ve got to work out where you go fast where to go slow and I try to go fast on exposition and slow on emotion.

HULLFISH: it’s interesting to point out that specific concept because it may seem obvious but it’s also rarely stated

GILBERT: When something is working emotionally you really want to have the audience feel it. You don’t want to shortchange that because there are moments in Hacksaw Ridge where the audience is in tears or really, really connected with the movie. There was one point where Garfield comes down the cliff face after he’s been rescuing all these guys. And he walks through a bunch of guys and he’s kind of shell shocked and they are looking at him thinking, “Holy shit! What has this guy done?” And I had two takes and I never thought it was long enough. So what I did was the camera dips down for a moment and I hid a jump cut so I could use the two of them together to extend the walk by about fifty percent. There’re even a couple of guys that you see you see twice as he walks past, but it was so important to have that time. And I think Mel was pretty pleased that I managed to hide the cut so that it appeared to be a lot longer than what they’d actually shot.

HULLFISH: Speaking of your director, Mel Gibson: how do you establish that trust? GILBERT: Well you do need your director to trust you. It’s certainly tricky working with a someone for the first time, because whether or not you get on in conversation and you seem to share the same ideas when you’re actually cutting their footage and showing them scenes for the first time, trust isn’t automatic. You can’t assume that person is going to be on the same wavelength as you. So I think with Mel, he’s worked with good editors previously, and he was probably feeling me, out and it took a few weeks. But I think I earned his trust and he was very happy with what I’d done. We got along pretty well I think. We didn’t have to fight about anything. Our disagreements were fairly minor.

HULLFISH: Do you remember what it was like at the beginning? Either getting that job or … did you have to kind of pitch yourself?

GILBERT: I had never worked with Mel. I had read the Hacksaw script because I was working with Bill Mechanic who was the producer. I was in New Zealand at that point and I knew that they were going on a location scout on the Gold Coast in Australia. It’s about a three or four hour flight to Brisbane, so I flew there and had dinner with Mel and came home again. I had no idea whether I had the job or not until a month later Bill called and said: “We want you to do it.” It’s such a difficult decision for a director, because they just don’t know how it’s going to go until they actually work with you.

HULLFISH: What did you talk about that kind of connected you?

GILBERT: It’s a really difficult thing to sell yourself as an editor because all the other work you’ve done doesn’t really mean anything. You know how it is in a cutting room. You don’t know how much was the director; how much was the editor; was the footage any good? I remember Mel saying he’d worked on some other movie and it just looked like the editor had chosen all the wrong bits and they got to another editor to fix it. And we talked about the things that can go wrong. You just sort of fence around and get the feel of the other person. It’s more than a social chitchat. A lot of it does come on personal recommendation. I think Bill told him, “John’s OK,” and maybe at the end, Mel took his word for it. So happily it worked out.

HULLFISH: How important is the sound design in selling the cuts and selling your scenes?

GILBERT: Sound design is of course very important. I made a music temp track, and my assistant Carly Turner added sound FX.  I like doing the temp because I know what I need and I know where the emotional and story inflection points are. It’s tough to get a music editor in and expect them to see these things straight away when I’ve been with the picture so much longer.  I think they miss sometimes too because they’re intent on creating something that’s musically correct whereas I’m more interested in something that’s dramatically correct.

With something like a battle scene sound design is a huge part of it. The edit needs to have the soundtrack filled out to get the pacing right. This movie has three major battles in it, and the first one, which is eleven minutes long, I decided quite early on that there would just be sound effects and no music. The sound guys were pretty surprised by that and pleased because they don’t often get that. They said, “These things are usually filled with music.” But I wanted the first battle which is an incredibly intense assault to be sound-effects driven. The second battle I wanted to escalate the emotional intensity, so I thought by holding back the music until then I could do that. It’s about six minutes long and in this battle, our guys get overrun and adding dramatic music worked well there. The music helped the emotional progression of the movie. I wanted to create a relentless onslaught that the audience couldn’t hide from. It was total mayhem, but it had to be mayhem that had a structure too so you knew where you were and what was going on. And then there is a third battle, which was more of a ballet, so it was different again much shorter, but a lot of it played between 48 and 96fps.

HULLFISH: What did you temp with? Did you come up with a lot of war stuff? Or do you find you have your favorite composers? Did you talk with the composer that you used on the film?

Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams and Producer Bill Mechanic seen at Summit Entertainment, a Lionsgate Company, Los Angeles Special Screening of "Hacksaw Ridge" at The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Lionsgate/AP Images)
Composer Rupert Gregson-Williams and Producer Bill Mechanic at screening of Hacksaw Ridge.

GILBERT: Rupert Gregson-Williams scored the film and I didn’t have anything of his because I didn’t really know his work. For the second half of the film, I used a lot of Brian Tyler from a film called “Battle Los Angeles.” The beginning of the movie was more conventional strings… it’s more relationships and a romance as well. My temp was probably a touch cheesy on the romance, and it was nice to be able to steer Rupert away from that a bit.

HULLFISH: To go back to dailies, do you use markers in the Avid or paper notes or anything when screening?

GILBERT: I think it would be a good idea, but I never do it for some reason. I just create a little selects roll as I go through. I’ll pull out anything that I think is important. And I’ll put it in a story sequence so that’s how I keep track of things.

HULLFISH: Have you ever tried using script integration?

GILBERT: I think it’s kind of a good idea but I have never used it. I think if I was cutting TV that is very dialogue driven and had to handle a huge amount of material I think it would be pretty essential but doesn’t it need quite a bit of management to prepare? I like to have my assistants have things ready for me fairly quickly so I don’t know if I’d want them spending all that time. Do you know how long it takes?

hacksaw-ridge-final-poster_rgbHULLFISH: It takes a long time and the interesting thing that you mentioned because I’m not using it on the movie I’m cutting now, but the last movie we just had the assistant prepare maybe six scenes that were complex and dialogue heavy and had a lot of coverage. Everything else did not use ScriptSync or Script Integration. When you have your assistants break down the scenes do you tell them exactly how you want it broken out like every single line back to back to back or little chunks?

GILBERT: I don’t worry about the master shots or the wides. It’s more sort of tighter coverage: mid shots and MCU stuff where I’d ask for all the line readings back to back so I could review with Mel.

HULLFISH: That’s one of the places where Script Integration actually works because once the assistant has it set up you can select one line in the script and all of the takes across that script and then hit the play button and without anyone having to edit that together you can actually play every line from every take.

GILBERT: Yeah, that sounds interesting.

HULLFISH: Well, thank you so much for your time today. I hope the movie is successful.

GILBERT: Pleasure speaking with you.


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 speedscriber.com. (Currently in beta, soon to be released.)


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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…