ART OF THE CUT on Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant

with two time Oscar-winning editor, Pietro Scalia, ACE

Pietro Scalia has won two Best Editing Oscars, for his work on JFK and Black Hawk Down. He was also nominated for Gladiator and Good Will Hunting. Other films have included: Kick-Ass, American Gangster, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, The Martian and, the previous film in the Alien franchise: Prometheus. Art of the Cut caught up with Scalia to talk about Alien: Covenant as he was coming home from work at Pinewood Studios.

HULLFISH: Can you tell me what movie you’re working on now?

SCALIA: Yes. I just started the Star Wars Han Solo Untitled Project.

HULLFISH: That’s cool! So on Alien: Covenant, do you remember the length of your first cut?

SCALIA: I think the first cut was around two twenty, two twenty-five.

HULLFISH: Where did you end up?

SCALIA: It was just under two hours… with credits it’s 2:01 or 2:02… something like that.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about intercutting storylines. You’ve got the group of guys that are up in Covenant and there’s the group of people exploring on foot and the woman that’s waiting with the lander. Did you find that you needed to manage the intercutting of those storylines differently than the script?

SCALIA: We moved some pieces around structurally dealing with when do we leave, what action or story beats on the planet and when to go back onto the spaceship. There were several longer beats between Farris and Tennessee trying to establish communication. Going back and forth too many times tended to make the journey to the Juggernaut and the Engineer’s City belabored and tedious. We combined certain scenes between Farris and Tennessee, eliminated the walking and talking through the forest, getting the ground crew up the mountain quicker. Later on, after the attack in the Med Bay on the lander, we held back going back to Tennessee, for the part where he says: “I never heard my wife so scared before”, not after her death as scripted but after the second Neomorph birth as to not interrupt the momentum. The middle part of the film was more challenging after the reveal of David.  Once the Covenant Story merges with the Prometheus storyline finding the proper structural order of the scenes proofed to be difficult because of the distinctive dynamics of the two story lines in addition to the separation of the two locations of the action. In one sense the action, the tension and unfolding drama going from one group to the other had to be balanced and spaced properly as not to loose the connective tissue of the film.

(L-R) Danny McBride (Tennessee) and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) star in ALIEN: COVENANT.

Many scenes slowed down the forward momentum and the tension that we generated in the Med Bay sequence. But because we have to slow down in order to develop several character interactions between David and Walter, thematically the heart of the movie, understanding his purpose, his motivation was key to keeping the story moving forward. Ridley did not want to sacrifice the pace, but we couldn’t speed up the scenes with David and Walter. And we didn’t want to truncate the beauty of Michael’s performances in order to shave time off. Pace is not about length of time; it’s about narrative rhythm. Again there were several back-to-back scenes between David and Walter when he teaches him how to play the flute and the terraced garden scene with Shaw’s grave where he talks about the destruction of the Engineers. In the script they were separated by scenes between Rosenthal leaving to take a break, Daniels, and Oram reflecting on the loss of their crewmates, the Covenant crew establishing communication, Rosenthal’s death and so forth. 

I spent a long time moving the individual scenes around, reshuffling and restructuring, trying different ways and saying, “I can stay away from this action for too long. I need to continue with this story line.” Each structural change had a domino effect. I must have tried over twenty different ways to structure the middle part of the film. There was a lot of trial and error with that part because I knew I was always being pulled in opposite directions by the two story dynamics. Ultimately they had to complement each other in order to advance story and character.

Director Ridley Scott on the set of ALIEN: COVENANT

HULLFISH: You mentioned building tension. How do you find that you can best build tension in editing and what’s the relationship between tension and release of tension?

SCALIA: Well, you build tension by meticulously and deliberately building on the expectation that something is going to happen. You release it when you can find the right moment – the enjoyment comes from the slow build up of tension and the quick “unexpected” release. You build tension through the use of camera movements, sound design and the composition of space within the frame, what you show or not show, what sounds are emphasized, or how music or lack of it helps enormously.

HULLFISH: Did you do anything specific to build the subtext about the themes of faith and creations? There is the text of the movie and the subtext of the movie and the subtext was definitely about God and creation. Your thoughts about subtext?

SCALIA: In Alien: Covenant the fundamental theme is the relation of God/Man or Creator/Subject. With creation also comes death and destruction. There can’t be creation of something new without something else dying. So from the opening prologue scene where David and Weyland talk about creation and art, and it becomes clear that we are revisiting the themes of creation from Prometheus – In that film we explored the theme of human hubris, the arrogance of man that he can create like a God, which is what ultimately leads to the fall of man. Creation, destruction, life and death, knowledge, and survival of our species in the future are themes that Ridley talked a lot about even during Prometheus: the idea of stealing the fire (knowledge) from the gods. In a way Weyland represents the pinnacle of a man’s ability to create something superior that is almost human – in our likeness, just like God did with man. Yet David, the perfect android, equates creation with the power of imagination. I think the subtext or the themes in Covenant are expressed through David’s actions. We know David is brilliant, very likable yet at its core purely evil. Is that a trait that he somehow inherits from his “father-creator” Weyland?  You can see in Fassbender’s performance the under-current of his deviousness. This self-awareness allows him to create simply because he feels the need to match or surpass the accomplishments of his creator. We get a sense of his superiority complex from the prologue scene when David challenges his creator, and says, “If you created me who created you?” The age old question that we all want to know. – Where do we come from?  As Weyland replies. But David goes even further and says, “You will die, I will not.” Again, death and creation; you are mortal and I am not. That makes him more powerful than his own creator. It’s that spark that makes him superior in evolutionary terms to man. He thinks, therefore, he is, as Descartes said. Yet he’s something new. He’s immortal like a God. Weyland shows he can still control him by ordering him “Bring me my tea”. (You’re my servant. You’re still my subject). But throughout the film, Ridley shows moments of creation and mutations of creations and that life in its form and creation is not pleasant. The alien, in a way, represents the most perfect creation of a creature that is perfectly engineered to be a superior killing beast. Its only purpose is to destroy any other living form. Specifically, man, the flesh or “the meat” as David describes in the Hall of Heads. Later he tells Walter of his achievement by creating the perfect form, void of the capacity to procreate by itself without a host. That’s the genius of what David has accomplished. The Alien – a perfect killing machine, as the culmination of his imagination.

Katherine Waterston (Daniels) stars in ALIEN: COVENANT

HULLFISH: One of the things that I was wondering if it got explored more in the script was Billy Crudup’s character … Oram, who ends up being the captain … and talks about how he got chosen despite having faith.

SCALIA: As a character, Oram mentions to his wife that they wouldn’t give him the position of captain because of his belief because they don’t want a man of faith to be a leader. He’s someone who comes from a Christian belief in God and Billy explored his background as Evangelical Christian … it’s not clear in the script at all nor ever developed any further what exactly religious background is. It could be implied that when he says, “I’ve seen the devil” when confronting David that possibly a close relative was the devil disguised as a preacher or a man of God. It was never really explored any further, they were just conversations Ridley and I had about his character. He talks about being challenged by his own faith. He is a man of faith, whose faith constantly challenges him.

HULLFISH: You and Ridley worked on Prometheus. Do you think your familiarity with the film affected this film in any way?

Director Ridley Scott and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) on the set of ALIEN: COVENANT

SCALIA: Not really. Prometheus could’ve gone a little further with exploring the themes of creation. During the making of Prometheus, we talked about themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I saw that there were some parallels of themes between the Engineers and the Fallen angels in Paradise Lost. That’s why, at one point, Ridley was probably considering the idea of calling Alien, Paradise Lost. The story of Lucifer being one of the brightest angels and most beautiful of angels in God’s Paradise confronts God about his creations of Adam and Eve and giving them free will. When challenging God, God punishes him and expelled him from paradise with a band of Angels that sided with Lucifer. I saw the Engineers as these Fallen angels. Some of these who later regretted their choice who returned into God’s grace and were forgiven. But Lucifer never did, and it was Lucifer who tempted – in the Book of Genesis – Adam and Eve. Thus showing God that his creation of man was doomed. These themes were unfortunately not developed in Prometheus. The film became something else. But I think that the seeds of these ideas were there and maybe continue to live in Alien: Covenant. Ridley and the writers wanted to incorporate the destruction of the Engineers’ world as a prologue to bridge the two films and to show what happened to Shaw after she and David when traveling to the Creators/Engineers’ world. There were a lot more scenes that connect directly to Prometheus but structurally it didn’t work to have two or three scenes or about 12 mins. of film that connect one film to the next. And then start the actual story of AC. I think that the prologue scene with Weyland and David sets up the thematic of creation in a more cinematically elegant and concise way.  In the overall context of the film, Prometheus, connects halfway through Alien Covenant as a flashback. At a point when it was important to tell what happened to the Engineers planet, the destruction, and the truth yet a hidden lie on David’s part. It could possibly help answer some questions for people who had seen Prometheus, but I don’t think it takes away from people who hadn’t. We also tried to have two flashbacks, when David touches Shaw’s grave and explains to Walter what happened and how she died, again another misdirection from David. On the Fox AC website you see some of these deleted prologue scenes and flashbacks that became part of the marketing campaign to engage viewers who wanted to know more of how the two films are connected.

HULLFISH: A lot of that stuff that you’re talking about is very writing oriented. The last time we spoke we talked about editing as writing. Do you think that’s something Ridley values in you? Kind of a writer?

SCALIA: Well, I’m not a writer. I’m an editor; … a visual storyteller and I look for connective tissues in images and sounds to merit big ideas. In Prometheus I think there was a promise of big ideas but at the same time you’re pulled into the demand of making a movie that’s visually and dramatically entertaining and not a philosophical essay. Sometimes those ideas don’t have to be explicit; they are subtext, thematic under currants that you can recognize from literature or art, familiar themes that writers and artist have dealt with before. I mean the whole history of art deals with creation and the fall of man. They are the big ideas that Ridley loves to tackle in his films. They appeal to him just the way he was inspired by the painting “Pollice Verso”, by Jean Leon Gerome to do Gladiator.  Gustave Dore’s engravings of Dante’s Inferno, William Blake’s drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy or God creating the universe, Michelangelo’s David: the most perfect human form in sculpture, are all sources of inspiration for Ridley and myself. As filmmakers you work on all levels of aesthetics that stimulate all collaborators on the films: Production Designers, DPs, Composer, and unify all to a single vision of the director.

HULLFISH: So that’s a lot of theory and themes. Let’s talk about something practical and concrete. How do you approach a scene?

(L-R) Katherine Waterston (Daniels) and Demian Bichir (Sergeant Lope) star in ALIEN: COVENANT.

SCALIA: So the first thing is that the assistants organize the material from the previous days shoot. A lot of times scenes takes several days. I start looking at the material when I receive it but don’t star editing the scene until I have all the pieces. I make screening notes I reread the scene in the script and rewatch the dailies before cutting. I watch everything not only the preferred “circled” takes. By this time I’m very familiar with the material and I start to build the scene. What I look for is character and story beats. I’m trying to react to the material that’s presented to me. I want to be inspired by the way it’s shot and I’ll make notes based on those reactions. I want to memorize the footage as well as I can. And the visual organization of my Avid bin helps. I make selected shot sequences have get a rough sense of the dramatic arc or shape of a scene, especially in long or complex action sequences. I can see what changes were made from the initial script and what unexpected beats and sometimes mistakes could be useful for character and story.

Michael Fassbender (Walter) stars in ALIEN: COVENANT

I’m conscious when building a scene of the space the action takes place in. Trying to make sense for the viewer to understand the surroundings the characters inhabit. Rhythm of dialogue, speed of camera movements, composition and performance are the main elements that determine the structure of a scene. My first goal is really to build character. What choices did the actor make? How does this contribute to character? Do the character’s emotions feel real? I really on my gut instinct and first impressions: “Do I cover all the story points?” that the scene requires. After a first pass I add some sound effects or background ambiences, or music to enhance the scenes. I have a visual effects editor who helps me comp temp VFX shots if they shoot with green screen. The First Assistant builds sound effects backgrounds as needed. After several scenes are cut and follow in script order I string them together into a sequence and so forth finding new transitions between scenes, which usually means removing all the beginnings and ends of scenes.

A week or so after principle photography finishes; you have a so-called first cut that includes everything that was shot, everything in script order. At this stage it’s not really a film yet. Even though the scenes are cut to the proper length it’s just a vague indication of what it could be.

A lot of times you realize when you watch it that you don’t need all of the expositional dialogue. You don’t have to actually have to say a line of dialogue when you can see it from the actors’ actions or intent. In very long static scenes or long dialogue scenes, I try to find ways of how can I move this along without destroying the fabric of the performance. I look for ways to create a forward narrative movement, visually and dramatically to keep the viewer engaged. It’s kind of an organic process of slowly building and reshaping the film as you edit.

Katherine Waterston (Daniels) stars in ALIEN: COVENANT

HULLFISH: How are your bins organized?

SCALIA: I use frame view. A lot of times if it’s a small scene usually organized by slate, by set up, numbered in chronological or alphabetical order. When it’s a very large scene and there are hundreds of set ups and an enormous amount of material I see the material first and then they organize it based on what used to call KEM rolls, which are basically a dailies roll in that order. But later on I actually ask the assistance to order the bins in parts and sections in order of scene or the order of action. Another thing I do when there is a lot of material is I mark sections with a locator marker. I go to the locaters as a way to remember.  Another thing that I discovered on the picture I’m working right now is ScriptSync. And it’s my first time using it.  Comes very handy when you have many takes with a lot of improvisation and ad-libs comedy beats. With digital film usually what happens is some directors continue shooting without calling cut, so you end up with several takes within on slated take. You can have anywhere between two and a half a dozen line starts. But ScriptSync helps me to go to these lines and see all variations of the line readings. It’s turned out to be a very helpful tool. Ridley and I have worked for so long and I know how he prefers to cover a scene with multiple cameras with few takes, so I never saw the need for Script Sync. 

HULLFISH: So you’ve worked with Ridley if I have my numbers correct eleven times. That’s an impressive marriage.

SCALIA: There are those marriages: like Michael Kahn with Spielberg and Thelma Schoonmaker with Scorsese. Both editors I highly admire.

HULLFISH: You’re getting up there yourself with Ridley. I’ve talked to a bunch of people about the need for the editing room to be a safe place; a place of trust. Beyond your obvious talents -your Oscars, your Oscar nominations, just the quality of work you’ve done – what do you think it is that that Ridley appreciates about you and why he asks you back over and over again to work with him?

Demian Bichir (Sergeant Lope) in ALIEN: COVENANT.

SCALIA: Like you said, it’s about trust and the need to feel comfortable and safe in environment for creativity to flourish is all true. I think not only from me but with all of Ridley’s collaborators he wants somebody that has a point of view. We’re there to help the film to be able to highlight the best from all departments, to make a cohesive whole from everyone’s contributions. My job is to be protective of the story and to work with the director to realize his vision. But at the same time I have a point of view. I’m not just there to put together what was shot because it’s not a given. It’s not about your technical know-how. Those skills are not what makes a film. My craftis my artistic and personal contribution, my imagination my life experiences my interests that can bring something to the project. That’s why we get hired as editors.

Directors want collaborators and people that will contribute to the film and make it the best the it can be. As an editor I take care of the quality and care of craftsmanship, how things are built, and executed through all stages and delivery of the finished film. I work really hard for a long period of time, I’m fearless and persevere when things get though, but I guess Ridley likes the fact that I work fast and meticulously. My assistants and I make sure we stay always on schedule regardless the pressure of some demands. I defend the film, and protect the director’s vision. It’s a little bit of a cliche me being Italian, but I’m passionate about film and my work. You have to be a bit obsessive about something to excel or to do well.

When I worked with Oliver Stone, he always said, “Yes it’s good, but how can we make it better?” And then you work on it again and he says, “Yeah, let’s make it better and better and better.” And that’s just the way it is. You have to distill it to its essence. You have to focus it. You have to be very specific why you choose something. You can’t be vague. Every decision counts. There’s millions of decisions and if you are passionate about something and you take care of it. I love the process of creating something and seeing it on the big screen. The biggest thrill for me is to share that experience – the collaboration and work of many creative people and crew members funneled through editing process coming together as a film – to be shared by an audience in front of a big screen is very satisfying for all the hard work one put’s into it.

 

HULLFISH: You talked about how passionate you are and your point of view. I think all editors need that passion and that point of view otherwise we’re useless. At the same time the final point of view is not ours. The point of view is the director’s and so at some point you need to take this great ego that you have about your own point of view and your own ability and subvert it to the director.

SCALIA: Ego can be dangerous. It’s not only the director, there’s a lot of people involved in the final product and sometimes you win sometimes you don’t. Ultimately it’s not about winning the argument. I really will defend story and character. That to me is essential. I welcome if somebody has a better idea that makes the film better… great… love it…let’s use it.

At one point Ridley wanted to take the “white room” Prologue out at the beginning. I said, “why … no absolutely not. You can’t. It’s very good.” It’s very formal, the way was shot and edited. The compositions and deliberate pace is the beauty of it. A chess game in the formal sense, triangles and lines that intersect from a desifgn point of view, beside it’s thematic importance I mentioned before. I love that the whole scene It reminded me of Kubrick and ….

HULLFISH: Kurasawa.

SCALIA: Yes! Kurasawa. A beautiful and austere scene at the same time filled with tension. I wanted the whole movie to be like that. Ultimately it’s the director’s film and Ridley decided to keep it at the front. At the end of the day regardless of disagreements or different opinions one leaves personal imprints behind; all choices are filtered through.

HULLFISH: In our earlier interview you said that story starts with character and you’ve talked a couple of times about character. Can you think of specific ways that you enhanced or brought out character in a scene in Alien: Covenant through editing?

SCALIA: Interesting question. Let me think about that. Character through editing. I worked a lot on Daniels’ character. I wanted her to be both vulnerable and strong. I didn’t go for a lot for the obvious takes. I needed to find the fire in the character, to uncover that she has the potential of actually becoming a leader at the end. It took a while to find that proper balance in her. I think Billy Crudup brought a lot to his character. From the script pages he seemed to be more negative… and pessimistic character. But it’s to Crudup’s credit that he created a fully rounded character, with good intension but also insecurities. So those these examples where I held back and chose different performances and consciously shaped the performance to enhance the quality of each character. The great pleasure was finding the difference in character between Michael Fassbender playing David and when playing Walter. From Prometheus I knew David and I loved his creation of that character. It is very recognizable when he’s David. But initially I had difficulty with Walter. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to like the character of Walter and what he was bringing to it, but I grew to recognize what Michael was doing and I was able to make certain specific choices that enhanced their subtle difference. When Michael saw the film he was happy with it both characters, having created enough differences between the two. It showed his amazing talent.  There were times when maybe Walter would show too much emotion towards Daniels in scenes that we lost or didn’t need. He was becoming too human-like. Those are things we eliminated in order to make him more straight devoid of human emotions. I was looking for takes where there’s an internal process that happens and can be witnessed, but being programmed up to a certain point, how little or how much you show is tricky. It was only after having put all the scenes together and looking the arc of Walter’s character did I question, “Does he make sense? Is he consistent?” And does he have enough contrast to David character?

Katherine Waterston (Daniels) and Michael Fassbender (Walter) star in ALIEN: COVENANT

HULLFISH: You mentioned having an extensive music library. What did you temp with? Stuff from the previous films?

SCALIA: Ridley really wanted to pay tribute to Jerry Goldsmith’s score of Alien. I also started working with Jed Kurzel’s cues from The Snowtown. and Macbeth.  One particular track fro Snowtown had this relentless pulsating tone and rhythm that I used in the Med Bay sequence and Ridley immediately responded to it. I also used some Harry Gregson-Williams music thematic temp cues that he provided us with.  For some really low-end voices and beats I used elements from Sicario and some David Wingo from Midnight Special.

HULLFISH: All right. I should let you relax after a long day of editing. I really appreciate all the time you’ve spent with me.

SCALIA: Have a great day. Bye bye.

Most of this interview was transcribed using SpeedScriber.

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

The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews, but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. Oscar nominee, Dody Dorn, ACE, said of the book: “Congratulations on putting together such a wonderful book.  I can see why so many editors enjoy talking with you.  The depth and insightfulness of your questions makes the answers so much more interesting than the garden variety interview.  It is truly a wonderful resource for anyone who is in love with or fascinated by the alchemy of editing.” In CinemaEditor magazine, Jack Tucker, ACE, writes: “Steve Hullfish asks questions that only an editor would know to ask. … It is to his credit that Hullfish has created an editing manual similar to the camera manual that ASC has published for many years and can be found in almost any back pocket of members of the camera crew. … Art of the Cut may indeed be the essential tool for the cutting room. Here is a reference where you can immediately see how our contemporaries deal with the complexities of editing a film. … Hullfish’s book is an awesome piece of text editing itself. The results make me recommend it to all. I am placing this book on my shelf of editing books and I urge others to do the same.”



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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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Benjamin Scotford
Benjamin Scotford

Great interview. Thanks for the insights

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