The day before the 2016 Oscars, the American Cinema Editors presented their 16th Annual Invisible Art/Visible Artists panel discussion. All of the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Editing were present. Alan Heim, the president of ACE and president of the Motion Picture Guild’s Board of Directors. Alan won the Oscar for editing “All that Jazz” and was nominated for an Oscar for editing “Network.”
(Please note that I was only given an audio file of the 90 minute presentation and so I had to kind of guess who was speaking. I had interviewed some of these people before, but there were three men and three women and it is possible that I attributed a quote to the wrong person. To explore deeper interviews with most of these nominees, see links to my interviews for “Star Wars,” “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” and “Fury Road.”)
You can also watch the video of the event here if you’d prefer that to reading the transcript.
Alan Heim: Now I am honored to present the nominees for Best Film Editing. Maryann Brandon for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Mary Jo Markey for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Stephen Mirrione for “The Revenant.” Margaret Sixel for “Mad Mad: Fury Road.” Hank Corwin for “The Big Short.” And Tom McArdle for “Spotlight.”
Alan Heim: So what got you into editing? What attracted you to this rather arcane field? Basically we all have the same narrative somewhere, but I’d like to ask you where it is written that films have to be 2 hours or more. When I started making movies, 90 minutes was a good length for a feature film. Back in the 30s 78 minutes was a feature film. Tonight, the films run from 2 hours to 2 hours and 36 minutes… 38?
BRANDON: We tried to get it to two hours. It was really hard and we couldn’t, but I think our story content is 2:04 and the rest of the time is credits.
HEIM: Films have gotten longer and I would like to explore that a little bit. I’m going to start with you Tom.
McARDLE: I got into film in college and I just loved editing and working with footage and also a professor mentioned how it was the final re-write and I thought that idea was interesting and then, after school, I heard about a place called The Shooting Gallery which was doing very low budget filmmaking and I went down there and became a PA and an editor and got to edit a micro-budget feature pretty soon after that and just kept editing.
HEIM: What school?
CORWIN: My story’s even more prosaic. I wanted to be a writer and I was going to school in northern California and I followed my girlfriend to New York City and I got little jobs writing and I was working at the (public) theater as a security guard. I worked at the American Journal of Physics because I was pre-med, so I knew a little physics and I got fired. I seem to get fired from a lot of jobs. I got a job carrying cans at a commercial editing house in New York City and that’s really how I started.
HEIM: And you still have a commercial business today.
CORWIN: Absolutely. Initially there was a stigma attached to commercial editing or music video editing and as time has gone on there’s been a real convergence. I’m very blessed and very lucky that I don’t have to take every film. I can take some time and chill and do some commercials.
HEIM: Margaret. You’ve come from much further away to tell your story.
SIXEL: Similar to Hank I always thought I’d be a writer. I was an English teacher and also took photographs. I did a little bit of photojournalism. And I think it’s curiosity really. I was curious about how films were made and I emigrated from South Africa to Australia and I had this naive idea that I would work in the Australian film industry. I met a woman who was a film editor who said, “I don’t have a job for you, but will you look after my kids. So for six weeks I was a nanny and I did a puzzle with her seven year old that she claims no one else had ever finished, so she gave me a job as an assistant editor.
MIRRIONE: I, in college, same thing. I was interested in music, psychology, performance… one of the first production projects I had to do was to do a documentary and a friend of mine said, “Oh, you should come and do the making of my first 16mm film.” So I said, “OK, great” and I followed him. He went to San Francisco. He’s on the ferry boat getting ready to do his shots and he was using an Arriflex camera and he didn’t really understand the concept of the way the lens worked, so when he would go to shoot something he couldn’t see anything because it has the shutter and the shutter was in the off position. So I’m there recording him, he’s being really cocky before we got to do this and then we spent like an hour where he couldn’t figure out how to work the camera and when I got all this footage back in the editing room I discovered, this is kind of like magic. I can take this horrible thing that happened to him and turn it into this really funny project and it used all of the things that I felt passionate about and that’s the first time that I discovered editing and I knew from then on that’s what I pursued and wanted to be a feature editor.
HEIM: It’s kind of interesting that you started off doing funny stuff and then you did “Traffic” and “Revenant.” That’s part of the fun of this whole business is that we touch on so many different styles of life from film to film.
MARKEY: I started out as an English student and thought I wanted to be an English professor. And then I moved to Hollywood with my then-husband and kind of gave up on the idea of being an English professor, but I was working with Robert Redford as an assistant to him and was kind fo doing ghost-writing for him and discovered the editing room through my time working with him and kind of realized that all of the study that I had done for my degree in English was very relevant to what film editors do. It was about storytelling and it was about point of view and it was about very deep character analysis and sort of how a story is revealed and how characters are revealed and I just fell in love with the idea of merging my former studies with this incredibly interesting craft. And Redford helped me get my first job as an apprentice and I took it from there.
BRANDON: I was a nothing major in college and I realized that my prospects were going home and living with my parents or trying to figure something out. All my roommates flocked to Wall Street and are now gazillionaires. I’m not, but somebody in the theater department encouraged me to get involved with filmmaking in my last two years in university and I ended up applying to NYU graduate school with no idea what I was in for, but I think they liked the idea of a woman entering the program then, so I spent three years gueriila filmmaking in New York and if that doesn’t kick your ass I don’t know what does. Desperate to finish my thesis film to graduate, because I could not fail or I’d have to go home and live with my parents, I ended up at the Brill Building which, at the time, was the editing center for New York and I got a little closet and they were kind enough to lend me a KEM and in exchange I would code film and I worked really hard and I my dear friend, Joann Harris, gave me an apprentice job on “Cotton Club” and it was just the most fun I’d ever had. I realized that I’d found my people and my calling and I love to tell stories and more, I love to put puzzles together. You can ask my partner Bob, I am an avid crossword puzzler, so it’s my thing.
HEIM: You raise an interesting point. You started off as an apprentice, you said, and that’s a position that has kind of disappeared because of the different technology that we have now. So it’s a lot harder I think to break in. Do you want to talk about how you’d do that now?
BRANDON: Sure. The best way, in my experience in the last ten years is to just get into a cutting room any way you can. Quite honestly, I think being a PA in the cutting room has sort of blurred the line of being an apprentice because you can observe and learn a lot and you join a group of people who are, in my experience, very generous and open about soliciting opinions and then you do a lot of listening, do a lot of observing and I think if you spend enough time doing that you really can become what we call now being a second assistant, learn your technology so that if there is an opening in that area…especially with Avid and a lot of electronic technology, there’s a lot of media that marketing needs on films and there’s so many more jobs now that are peripheral to editing or involve editing that if you can get in there and keep your eye on what you want to do, I really do think that’s a way to work your way up, and of course it always has to do with relationships and being eager and being present and working really hard.
CORWIN: It’s also important for young people coming in to not allow themselves a whit of narcissism or ego. It’s just doing stuff that nobody else wants to do.
MARKEY: I just heard that apprentices aren’t allowed to use an Avid, if they do get a job in the cutting room. Is that true? Because that’s not helping. We need to change that rule. Why would anybody hire an apprentice, because they’re not going to be useful.
HEIM: The technology has basically bypassed the whole apprentice thing. When we cut on film there was a lot of stuff to be moved around. There were little clips, little pieces to be ordered. There were whole reels of film. You needed strong backs and muscles to be moved around – both men and women. But that job has disappeared. The classification kind of remains. As far as allowing people to touch… you put me in an awkward position as the president of the editor’s guild, but don’t quote me on this, but we tend to be pretty flexible in the cutting room and I always try to have my assistants do some cutting… as much as possible under my supervision. We all learn and I get to finish a cut faster. There’s a certain amount of flexibility involved, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t… somebody just gave me an actual thing from the contract, I guess… “apprentice under supervision … can do a lot of stuff…” (audience laughs and applauds.) They can do almost anything. But a post PA isn’t supposed to touch the Avid. Let’s stick to the flexible part. The important thing is, and it comes out in the little film that was shown earlier, that we all should be paid for our work. And if you work in a category and if you’re doing a LOT of other people’s categories… editing, assisting, whatever… you should be paid for that. And anybody who’s starting out should not be forced into doing stuff for free.
MIRRIONE: I think it’s to the detriment of the editor – we had a spectacular post PA – Stacy – and I rely on young brains. These kids are so smart and so tech savvy. Way more than I am. I am a Luddite, and it’s important to embrace these kids and bring them up, because they really are the future.
HEIM: I absolutely agree with you. So, again, you’ll find that there’s a lot of flexibility in the cutting room because people, in my experience, editors really want to give others a leg up and we are always trying to get our assistants to do some cutting. A short anecdote and then we’ll get to the film clips. I did a film last year which I started on rather late – four weeks into the production – and I wanted to catch up and one evening my assistant, who I’d never worked with before – and who was hired before I was – he came into my cutting room and said, “If you’ve got some time before you’re leaving this evening, I’d love to show you something. I’ve been practicing.” And I said, “What do you mean ‘practicing?'” and he shook his head a little and he said, “Well, I’ve cut a scene.” And I looked at him and I said, “Good.” And I sat down with him and looked at the scene he cut and we hadn’t discussed it or anything. He was just sort of doing it on his own. He was there in the morning before I came in and he was there long after I left. I looked at the scene and he’d done a wonderful job and I gave him a couple of notes and I said, “Aha! Now I can catch up, because I can give him an occasional scene to cut.” And by the time the director is ready to come in to the cutting room I will be caught up and in fact I did. So this is how I always work. If you don’t let people edit, they will never learn how to edit. There are plenty of books about it and a little film about it but you’re not going to do it without hands on experience.
MARKEY: It’s also incredibly useful to have another opinion. I show my assistants my cuts all the time. I rely on having a second and third set of eyes, good or bad, it always helps.
HEIM: When we used to cut on film and I think most of you have done it, the assistant was in the room next to you handing you little clips of film you’d prepared in advance or sometimes even a shot or two ahead of you, giving you materials so you could keep cutting and they could learn what you were capable of teaching. Editing of course is a very pragmatic field and there are different things you can learn, some good, some bad, but I think most of us up here have learned good things. Could you please talk about your clip?
McARDLE: It’s towards the end of the film (“Spotlight”). It’s sort of a montage that leads to the (priest sex abuse) article coming out.
HEIM: I loved the alternating of the powerful mechanics of the news and the press intercut with human touches. The opening shot, which is a wonderful tracking shot and kicks you in to it… do you want to talk about why you went to these choices?
McARDLE: Part of the reason why I wanted to show this is that it was one that evolved during the editing. We didn’t have the printing press shots during the original shoot. We found that we had a timeline issue in the middle of the edit and originally when Sasha showed the paper to her Nana and then Mike showed the paper to Garabedian both at night, then we went to the early morning of the papers getting loaded onto the trucks and driving away and we started showing the rough cut and the idea was that there was an early printing of the newspaper, so that’s how the paper was available and people were complaining about the timeline issue, so we emailed the Spotlight reporters and they said, “There’s no such thing as an early printing.” So we were in a bind. We had a pickup shoot and went in and shot the printing presses and I cut it all into a montage, intercutting printing presses and the process with other scenes and shortened the scenes with the people to keep it more balanced and that sort of fixed that timeline issue. I like having the printing press shots too because the film is sort of a celebration of old-school print journalism and seeing them there is a nice accent.
HEIM: When I saw the film, I thought how nice it was to see almost a 1930s montage of papers going to press and you’re only missing the Vorkapich effects.
McARDLE: That’s actually why they didn’t get shot in the first place because it would seem like that, but as we were working on the film, we realized that the film really is about these reporters doing great work and old-school print journalism.
HEIM: Sometimes when you’re working on a film and they don’t shoot something and you want to shoot it, it becomes a problem. Did you have that?
McARDLE: Well, I grabbed some footage from a documentary of a printing press and cut it in and said, “Hey look, it works pretty well, so let’s go shoot it.” Also, in the music there was an interesting thing that Howard Shore did. In my temp track I had the music go all the way until the paper hit the stoop and he did something where he stopped it a beat or two before the stoop and the sound of the newspaper almost becomes the last beat of the music. And I thought that was an elegant touch that he did.
HEIM: Also the music was very well structured to go with the montage itself. The beats almost seemed the same length. What was the temp track?
McARDLE: We used a piece from “The Visitor” that didn’t match up on the cuts obviously, but it had a nice feel and I think Howard improved on it a lot.
BRANDON: Can I ask you a question? You started by asking about that beginning shot where you’re on their backs and they’re way far away and there’s all that stuff in the foreground, which I love. I might be reading into it because I have a tendency to do things like that but I love that they’re talking about the article and at the last moment, you stay in that shot the whole time, even through – well you think he’s going to say “we can’t print it now” – but it’s this very powerful moment because it’s so far away and he goes, “You bet your ass we’re gonna print it.” It’s a real hero moment. Is that why you did it that way?
McARDLE: It was really the only coverage we had for that. (audience erupts in laughter and applause).
BRANDON: That’s an example of a director really knowing what he wants to show.
MARKEY: Did you change any of that dialogue on that walking away shot?
McARDLE: No, but some of it was looped just for performance.
BRANDON: It was a really great moment.
HEIM: It’s sort of intriguing when critics talk about films and certain things that are done in films and they regard them as wonderful directorial touches and basically, “That’s all we had” was the answer. How many times has it happened to you that “that’s all we had?”
BRANDON: Many, many times and sometimes we’ve used things that weren’t meant for a scene in that scene and it seems like it just happens there, so you know, there’s always a backstory.
MARKEY: It is funny though where you read this stuff where “this moment was so brilliantly conceived” and in reality it was a desperation move in the cutting room.
HEIM: Hank, would you like to introduce your piece?
CORWIN: It’s where the Steve Carrell character, Mark Baum has been devastated by Wing Chau explaining synthetic CDOs. They’re in Vegas. Everyone leaves Vegas and we have the scene where he’s speaking to his wife, going into Christian Bale playing the drums.
HEIM: There’s an amazing use of sound and the absence of sound in that sequence. How much did your background of editing music videos come in to play.
CORWIN: Well, it certainly called attention to that. Years ago we used to joke that sync is for sissies. (audience laughs). I’m finding, especially with the dialogue scenes that the scene with Carrell and his wife was an orphan. We were going to pull it out when it was cut. I love my orphans. What I decided to do on that ultimately, I thought what was not actually had more resonance than what was said. It was more profound. It didn’t matter if things were in sync. I just wanted to feel the moment. What they were saying really was of little consequence as long as you felt it. I also chose it because it was a moment in the film – why I started it where I did – Carrell initially comes off as an asshole. He’s bombastic. Even the cutting style was very aggressive and f***ed up. He gets fractured and when he’s speaking to his wife, psychologically I just saw him as this fragmented protoplasm. He wasn’t even human anymore. He was just devastated. And Bale, who’d been very internal all of a sudden becomes a lion. I love that.
SIXEL: Audiences don’t need a lot of information to know what was going on, so I thought that was great. You just got enough. You got the feeling of it, but if you’d played it all out with him talking to his wife, it could have been very ordinary.
CORWIN: It was deadly.
SIXEL: It was an amazingly creative way of doing it.
HEIM: Why the little blackouts? It’s not a technique you see very often.
CORWIN: It was like ginger cleansing the visual palette. (audience laughs and applauds)
BRANDON: Did you just come up with that now?
HEIM: I guess we’ll have sushi for lunch.
BRANDON: So did the director – he shot all those closeups but they were full-on dialogue scenes? Because those were quite tight. It’s a nice impressionistic thing.
CORWIN: He ran two cameras on everything and most of that stuff is b-cam.
MARKEY: Valuable b-cam.
CORWIN: It’s true.
SIXEL: Did he mean to use all those pans across?
CORWIN: Any port in a storm.
MARKEY: A lot of times I’ll get to a scene like that where you want it to have this feeling, and you don’t have that kind of footage.
CORWIN: But, you know, I was so lucky to have a director who was so open to – you see, this scene was about to die. It was about to go to the graveyard. He was open. I gotta tell you, I love this director, Adam McKay is just the best.
MARKEY: That’s really nice to hear. (audience applauds)
HEIM: So were there looser shots available? Or was it just these big closeups.
CORWIN: We had a master and Barry Ackroyd, his DP shot two camera on everything so there’s always coverage and what’s nice is that the coverage was very serendipitous.
HEIM: That’s luck again but you have to see the luck.
MARKEY: I’m just glad you saved it because I think the film has much more emotional depth with that in there. It’s really not like anything else in the film.
HEIM: It’s true, because he only becomes really human when he’s with his wife. I mean, he’s a likable character for the most part with a real edge, but he melts when he’s with his wife and becomes…
CORWIN: Well, I think one of the mottos is “never give up.” Sometimes things are just not working and it’s so easy to just say, “It doesn’t work.” Initially, I had an additional editor, my friend Liza Espinaz who worked on that for a long time, I worked on it and she worked on it and it was just horrible. It wasn’t her fault or my fault, but we just had to kill it for a while and just had to start over and start with a new approach and I would advise you guys to do that as well.
MARKEY: I don’t think the film would have been as powerful without it, because I think it’s a fantastic moment when he says he’s going to go find moral redemption and you’re with him and you get it, but he’s part of it as well, so he’s kind of disgusted with himself and if you left it there… if that was the story of him, there would be another piece missing that would make the film so much less powerful, because you’d never go to that human part that speaks to all of us, not just people who are in finance and who were in it. It just opened up the film in a way… It’s funny, ironic, that all those close-ups opened up the film big-time.
MIRRIONE: To me it’s also an excellent example of how the soul of the editor can infuse something – not just for this scene, but for the whole movie that there’s a style that the editing helps support this notion that the world is out of control, that we can’t catch up with what’s going on, but we don’t understand why this is happening and there’s this disbelief that it’s happening and it’s really clear that the creative energy you brought to it is evident in all those scenes and really that’s an excellent example of how that happens.
HEIM: I was wondering if any of you folks want to address my earlier question of why films tend to be long?
SIXEL: Do you use the word “long” pejoratively? Is that bad? I think people want their money’s worth.90 minutes is not enough time.
HEIM: Certainly not any more.
SIXEL: Mad Max at 90 minutes wouldn’t have worked.
HEIM: You’re probably right.
MIRRIONE: We actually had a cut of the film that was 10 minutes shorter than what was released in theaters and it was fantastic. It was really fantastic. It was fun to watch. It felt like a movie and we turned to each other after watching that and said, “We don’t want this to feel like a movie. We don’t want it to feel like other things.” That being said, there was a time when the movie was two hours and 55 minutes… when Alejandro turned to me after that screening and said with absolute sincerity, “The movie will never be shorter than this.” And of course it did get shorter but the important thing was that it got shorter until we broke it and then we knew we had to bring it back. That’s the thing I appreciate about feature filmmaking is that it is still the voice of the director and ultimately you are going towards that goal and feeling something that you want to get across to the audience regardless of whether it’s comfortable or not.
HEIM: Younger people are so used to quick things and watching movies on small screens and so you have to be immersive. I find at a certain point I get a little antsy in a very long movie, but as long as you keep the audience intrigued. I wasn’t being pejorative about the two hour length, it’s just something I noticed this year more than most. I’m just as bad as anyone else. I have a film coming out in March that’s 2:08. It was 2:18 and my first cut was 3:18. You want to kill yourself when you deliver a film at that length. How do you get rid of a third of a movie? So we’ve all been in that situation. It used to be that you wanted to be under two hours to fit it into schedules in the movie theaters and that seems to have gone by the wayside. I wanted to explore that a little bit.
MARKEY: I totally am in sympathy for what you’re saying, but I have to say that it’s more the experience of choosing a film. When I see that something is three hours long, I am put off. I think “I don’t want to sit there for three hours. I want to see something that can be told in less time. I can think of films that were quite long where I was completely compelled by it. I remember feeling that way about “The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.” For me that movie took me under the ether and I was just with it the whole time, but there’s a three hour movie that was released this year that I still haven’t seen just because I don’t want to see a three hour movie.
SIXEL: Fury Road is exactly two hours… to the frame actually because we cut it and it was 114, so we just made the credit roll fit in exactly to 120. (audience applauds). George, the director wanted to see exactly 120 in the ad.
HEIM: One of the first films I ever worked on I took over “The Producers” – I had been the sound effects editor – I took out a scene. I only worked on one or two scenes, but at one point I took out a scene and Mel Brooks said to me, “Well, that makes the film 88 minutes long. That’s not a movie.” And I said, “Do you want a dull 93 minute movie or a peppy 88 minute movie?” So he opted for the 88 minute movie, and of course the 5 minutes has come back in the TV version and many of the other versions and I still wish it weren’t there. So Margaret, do you want to introduce Mad Max please?
SIXEL: Yeah. I chose this scene because every action scene has the obligatory fight scene, but we tried to work against the cliche, whether you agree with me or not. The action was the narrative. Through the fight character was revealed, which in my opinion it did. But it’s also about shape. Scenes that are shaped and have structure in a particular way and the rhythms of the scene. That couldn’t have happened without the choreography. We did shoot it on a video cam with the stunt guys, so I kind of knew what I was in for. I cut it together very roughly… I mean, it was pretty lame, but at least we got all the beats. But George really wanted it to feel like it could really have happened. So we sort of talked about how the chain was going to be used. We tried to make it authentic. A lot of fight scenes I look at now – they’re kind of ridiculous. Just BOOF BOOF BOOF. And you cut away to something else and they’re still doing the same thing. There’s a particular film that’s done very well at the box office with just a ridiculous fight scene and we also didn’t want every time that someone got hit to have that horrible sound that every film uses, “OHHH” “OHHH” “OHHHH.” We just were not allowed to use it. There are a few in there, but if you really listen, each one is different. Basically my editing tips in this one is “No repetition.” You don’t use the same shot twice. There’s a few things where you’re stuck with footage and you go, “OK, whether the rising rhythms of each shot. Does each shot count. Does each shot reveal a bit of information. Does it move the story forward. I think in some ways that does tick a lot of boxes, but it’s not to say that it just fell in to place easily. There’s a lot of speed ramps. Though as I’m sitting here I can actually see all the speed ramps. So that’s not really comfortable…”awww, you can see them…” but that’s how we created a lot of energy in the scene, you know because Charlize has a sore neck and she can’t do a lot of that stuff, so a lot of it’s at 80 frames a second, or I cut out a lot of frames to create more energy. Unlike your sequence, I did work quite hard to create perfect continuity. I know that’s boring and old-fashioned, but I actually did do it because I felt that it was important that the Nux character did exactly the same thing in each shot because there was a progression, a narrative in Nux waking up, so we cut the shots in half and comped Furiosa in to match and there was a fair bit of comping within shots to make it work.
HEIM: Do you find that it’s easier to do fight scenes than dramatic scenes?
SIXEL: I think dialogue scenes are pretty easy, with all due respect. Some fight scenes don’t work. I mean, we did have a few that were a bit dodgey toward the end. So that’s not pleasant to keep watching it over and over again.
HEIM: I was kind of hoping you’d show the one with the guys swinging…
SIXEL: On the poles? Oh no. That was just too much pain. There’s about 20 hours of footage of people on poles. I’m thinking, “Which bits do they want me to use… how do they keep doing this?” (audience laughs) “What? This all looks the same.”
HEIM: That would have been a lot easier to do with CGI I think.
SIXEL: But it wouldn’t have felt right. So in fact, this wasn’t a typical scene in the film because it was not on the move and didn’t have vehicles in it. I did think about doing that end chase sequence, but I’m not quire sure what I would say. I mean, I spent two years in the cutting room and eventually it started to work.
HEIM: Two years on this?
SIXEL: Well, almost two years. We had about 450 hours of material. But it’s because of the digital cameras and they stuck them everywhere. Sometimes there are 20 cameras. They stuck them on the tires and everywhere. That just takes a lot of time to look at material and experiment with it and there were some sequences that were originally twice as long. I don’t know if anyone remembers the buzzard sequence with the spikey cars and blow up a whole lot of…. there was so much material and we had War Boys on top of the War Rig throwing thunder sticks and explostions and you felt like you had to give it the best shot and use the best material, but when we watched the whole film, it was just too long and we really wanted to move the story along and we had to judiciously cut it down and it was sad to lose a lot of that material, but in the end we just couldn’t tolerate the length. The action sequences just had to come down eventually.
HEIM: It’s sort of painful when you reach the moment when you have to say, “I have to let my child go.”
SIXEL: Yeah. Even the pole vaulters, we had to cut that towards the end. It’s too much action. Just move it along and what are those guys doing there. Seriously, that was some of the feedback.
HEIM: How many people worked with you on this?
SIXEL: We had about eight people in the cutting room. Two visual effects editors, it was small actually.
HEIM: Even though there were no visual effects…
SIXEL: Rig removal, enhancement, generators, they were out in the desert, so there’s a lot of quite simple erasures.
MIRRIONE: Don’t you find what happens is because when you end up where you’re not planning to do visual effects, but then you say, “Every shot in the movie IS a visual effect, so why not.” and then you start thinking about it differently.
MIRRIONE: I could do this, I could do this…
SIXEL: Shooting in Namibia was really tricky with sky continuity because some days it’s really misty and then it’s sunny… so how are we going to cut this footage together? I just ignored it basically, because you had to. So one shot it can be white skies and then the next shot can be deep blue. Right at the end in the Baselight, in the DI suite we did manage to do the sky replacements and it’s actually quite simple in a Baselight. You just kind of do the top and you feather it in and smoothed it all out in the end, but it was a huge worry to everyone. The other thing is the dust in the movie, and we kept saying, “Dust is our friend. It’ll just hide a lot of stuff.”
MARKEY: We definitely added dust. “Where’s the dust? Put more in!” Get the dust department! We had this CG character and my assistant, Jules, said, “They ran 25 cameras. Do you want every one?” I was like, “Absolutely not!” I have to live a life. I’ll be dead by then.”
SIXEL: When you’ve got all the tools, as an editor you should use them all, and knowing what you can do.
MIRRIONE: Discipline. But it does open up a lot…
HEIM: People out there in the movie theaters don’t really understand what you get into when you open up that particular can of worms, because almost every shot nowadays has something that gets removed or moved a little bit.
MARKEY: The one thing I find that I cannot stop myself from doing are these little speed-ups and slow-downs…”He should have paused a little more there… he shouldn’t have paused so long there…” You’re changing the actor’s pacing and I’m sure they would kill me if they knew that, but I swear, mine is better than theirs. (audience laughs) I actually did it on a low budget film that I did a few years ago, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and I had no idea that they had practically no visual effects budget and in the end they were like, “What are all these visual effects?” But they did them.
HEIM: But at some point that’s just not our problem. Shall we go on to “The Revenant?”
MIRRIONE: The scene I’m choosing to show has an actor, Arthur Redcloud. The man who meets Leo kind of as he’s on his way back and feeds him and starts to help him along the journey and when I met this actor, he told me the story that when he was growing up his grandfather told him that his destiny was to be a medicine man and trained him to be a medicine man and of course, in our modern society, he grew up and became a truck driver. Then happened to answer this casting call and Alejandro cast him. And to me, this character is really the soul of the movie and it really moved me – his performance. And the scene I’m showing is him where he’s building the fire and creating the lodge to heal Leo. And he really learned how to do that. I have two hours of footage for that particular sequence where he actually built the fire and built the sweat lodge all the way through in that incredible storm. So as you’re watching, realize that this guy taught himself for months how to do all of that stuff.
HEIM: I feel very cold. (audience laughs) Did you go through all those hardships?
MIRRIONE: No. But that crew really did want to include me in everything that’s going on and a lot of that has to do with being much more involved than you normally would be in terms of planning shots for the long take sequences. But it’s difficult because as an editor you really don’t want to be so affected by everything that they’re going through on set. You want to have that objectivity when you come back and you screen it. So that’s always a little bit of a struggle, but Alejandro has always really wanted me to be as close as possible and he’s trying to figure everything out and he wants to get opinions. Just to continue the conversation about the speed changes and things like that – one of the things we were doing was that almost all of the film was shot at 48 frames per second, which is done a lot with commercials, but what that means is that if I want to change the frames per second, the frames exist. You don’t have to use a computer to generate those intermediate frames. It’s very addictive once you have the ability to do that because it does allow you a lot of freedom to be more expressive with that. For this, Alejandro’s direction was “I want the scene to feel mysterious.” So by starting the sequence with a lot of more objective observational shots, what I did was, maybe contrary to what you would normally do is that I slowed THOSE shots down, the more objective shots, so that they become more mysterious, more dream-like – to like 32 frames per second, then once we got in to the shots that were closer with Leo, in the second half and seeing his face and seeing some point of view, then we start to get in to normal time, so subtly you will feel that shift in point of view a little bit and I found we were doing that a lot. Just using that subtle variation to signal when we were changing point of view because the hope is that the audience will – in a subliminal way – really feel the difference in the immersion and really get pulled in in a way that you’re not just observing the movie, but in some way you’re experiencing it. So for me, that’s one of the most exciting things about my job is the opportunity to express how I’m feeling and my take on those scenes and try to infuse that into the experience. Like the dream sequence that comes after that, that was a dream sequence that was designed for much later in the movie. It was the dream sequence before he gets attacked and runs off the cliff. Also, just as an example, that’s a sequence – the entire sequence leading up to the dream took me a lot of time to go through all that footage and find the structure and I tried a lot of different things before we landed someplace where we were both happy. Where the dream portion, the moment where he actually sees his son, that’s one of those examples of me watching the dailies and I knew somehow exactly how it needed to go together. By using my own instinct and the power of the emotion of me in the room alone with that material and then it was done and we never changed it because Alejandro – as neurotic as he is – we don’t talk a lot about specifics. If he comes in and sees a scene like that, if it hits him on that emotional level that he’s wanting, he knows to lose any of that insecurity about, “Maybe we should try this or that.” Sometimes it absolutely works and you just have to trust that. That kind of emotion, once you overanalyze it and think about it, it’s less about what you were feeling and you start to lose what was magical about it. It’s also a sequence that was special to me, just watching it all of the crazy rules I had in my head, there’s a certain kind of crickets that are happening that to me was like the choir and they stop at a certain point when the sun disappears and our sound team, which did such a remarkable job in terms of really, really supporting what we were trying to do, at one point they changed the crickets and Alejandro and I were like, “No, no, no. Those are the wrong crickets.” And they were like, “Come on guys!” They gave us the crickets, so they should own that, but things like that and the shot of the ants. I had well over ten hours of just shots of poetry and a lot of ants as well.
HEIM: Your shot selections were amazing. I love the juxtaposition of the ants. The macro. It became almost liturgical. It was almost like you were in a church.
MIRRIONE: Exactly. And that’s, to me, that shot at the end of the ants – to me there were like five super favorite ants shots that I had (audience laughs), but that was the one for me had like five different meanings and every time I watched it it reminded me of when they were carrying him on the stretcher…
HEIM: The problem is that you can’t use the ant shot more than once.
MIRRIONE: Which is why we only have the one shot of the ants. There’s an amazing, amazing shot with Leo laying down and his face is covered with ants, it was so creepy, so scary, but at the last minute we were like, it makes the audience jump and we’ve already got a great ant shot so we’re going to take it out.
HEIM: Can we move on to the next clip please? How did you guys pick the clip? Did you jointly discuss this?
MARKEY: I think everybody knows from previous interviews we’ve done that we split the film up, so I picked – I did it because Maryann was working – I picked the place where we have a joint scene. The first two and a half minutes are mine and then once we get on to the Millenium Falcon, they’re Maryann’s.
BRANDON: That’s not to say that we don’t take ownership of the whole film. We work together, we talk about everything, we watch dailies together, we work on it with JJ together, but as far as cutting goes, we split it up. So this is early in the film when Rey has just met Finn and BB8 and Rey have met in a previous scene and BB8 points out that Finn is wearing Poe Dameron’s jacket, which means he must have killed Poe which makes her defend BB8 and it’s the first friend that she’s had in her life, so she’s very defensive of him and the First Order is after them.
MARKEY: Right, but they have worked out that Finn did not kill Poe. He just knew Poe.
HEIM: So that was more the more visual special effects. I did have one question…
MARKEY: No. That’s all real. We shot that. (audience laughs)
BRANDON: The weird thing about the Millenium Falcon is, if you think about it, when Finn goes down he would actually smash into the glass, but when you’re in space you can flip it any which way.
HEIM: The laws of physics kind of go out the window when you’re cutting a film like this.
BRANDON: Way out.
HEIM: When they’re running around a lot on the ground and he gets shot and one of the explosions throws him to the ground… there’s almost no sound except for the music. Because there’s a lot of sound before it and a hell of a lot of sound after.
MARKEY: I was trying to do that part of the scene… it became clear to us that it was going to be Rey’s film pretty early on and I really tried to do most of the Finn/Rey scenes through Rey’s point of view. So I think that it’s somewhat subtle, but it’s really her experience. She’s the one complaining about the hand-holding. She’s the one who takes note of the fact that he asks her if she’s OK. You’re meant to feel that probably no one has ever asked her that before, because she’s been such a loner. You’re on her in that moment and it’s supposed to reflect the deafening experience that she would have from the explosion. Not to overdo it, but just to sort of suggest that. And her confusion. She’s looking for BB8. She doesn’t know where Finn is either. The other thing that I like about the film is the fun thing about cutting JJ’s scripts is that there’re always little moments of humor sprinkled throughout. I don’t know how he does it exactly, but I think that they always fit in really well. I mean, if they don’t, we cut them out, but (audience laughter)
BRANDON: That’s why they always seem to fit in.
MARKEY: But he really does drop these little things in, like her saying, “That was garbage.” And then the garbage will do. His material is really fun to cut and we always have tons of options. I mean, of the way in to a scene… we had so many shots of them running through the village… it’s sometimes mindboggling, but we like to try to pick a shot and stay with it for a little bit. I always read these reviews talking about how it’s cut just like action or it’s overcut and I look at our movies and they don’t feel like that to me. I think that’s more a critics expectation than the critic actually watching the material.
BRANDON: I think that’s part of the sound design aspect as well. We do and JJ does take time with emotional moments and I think his action is incredible and he’s got a great eye for it, but I think he should be credited more for giving you all the emotion, because he really does cover it and it really does drive every scene. Even the scene where she’s piloting the Falcon, she makes that work. She makes those shots work. I mean, they’re cool shots, of the Falcon going up and coming down but when you cut to her face and she’s determined or she’s scared or she actually looks like she’s piloting the ship she sells it and John Boyega sells it and those are the moments between the big shots that I’m very grateful for and I think you live in and have a great time with.
SIXEL: Did you do any speed ramps there?
MARKEY: Not in the action. No. She’s very quick. You really don’t have to. She moves around pretty darn quick. It’s more in the dialogue that I tend to do speed ramps. I’m sure I used it in the dialogue scene that came before BB8 came in.
SIXEL: So the picture and the sound you speed up?
BRANDON: Usually where there’s no speaking to bring up a gap in the dialogue or just get them closer.
MARKEY: Or give them more time when you feel like they should have taken a little more time before their reaction.
BRANDON: And the other thing I want to say is that BB8 is not CG. He’s a real character who’s really doing those things. He was puppeteered. And it was incredible and I think it shows in a lot of the scenes where – I mean occassionally he is CG – the one where he was thrown was CG. We don’t want to ruin him. But I think him being operated and his personality is so important to making that sequence and many of the sequences in Star Wars work.
MARKEY: He was great. It was really fun to cut him and sort of create that character by sort of deciding where to have him speak and which little head-cock to use. I mean it was pretty amazing.
SIXEL: Are your explosions special effects?
BRANDON: They’re all real explosions. We did as much real stuff as we possibly could. All of her piloting is outdoors in the sunlight so those shadows are all real shadows. She’s on a gimbal, so it looks like when she’s actually moving and the sun’s moving across the dashboard, it is and that really helps tremendously. Mary Jo and I spent a lot of time sort of putting in – a little BB8 goes a long way – and then they spent a year and a half looking for his voice and basically came back to the little that we did. It ended up sounding about like what we had put in.
MARKEY: It was the puppeteer making these little sounds as he – because it’s emotional.
HEIM: I think we’ve reached the point in our program where we have questions from our audience.
QUESTION: What new things did you learn from editing the film? And how will you use that new-found knowledge in your next project?
BRANDON: I learned to use speed-ups from Mary Jo.
MIRRIONE: What I love about the job is that every single movie feels like a new set of rules a new set of everything. Through the lifetime of your work, you’re always going to be growing and learning new tricks but for me it’s about forgetting those in an intellectual way and just letting your personality guide the decisions you’re making. There’s so many technical things that we’re always trying to deal with now. My thing is to try to let that be in the background a little bit.
MARKEY: I relearned some things that I already knew, which is sort of annoying. There are certain things that JJ and I have experienced before in intercutting scenes not to overcut too much and to keep things kind of unified. We did that in the opening village raid scene. It never really worked until we put most of the Poe stuff together, most of the Finn stuff together… It’s kind of something we already knew, but sometimes you still start with all this intercutting and then you pull it back.
SIXEL: Trusting your instincts. As I’ve gotten older, when stuff bothers me – when I was younger, if it bothered me but the director liked it, I would let it go, but now I’ve gotten older and if it still bothers me I go back into the cutting room, I open the scene up and mess around and explore and find, “Oh. That’s what it was.” So I’ve learned to act on it more.
MARKEY and BRANDON: Totally agree.
BRANDON: I think if you really think that the director is wrong about something it’s really hard for me to let it go. (audience laughs)
SIXEL: You’ve got to find your time and your place.
MIRRIONE: And you actually have the advantage of being able to prove it. (audience laughs)
SIXEL: I’ve learned to shut up until I actually have a solution to something. But if I don’t know how to deal with it, you’re stuck with it.
MARKEY: One of the advantages of working for somebody for a long time is you really learn their psychology and I KNOW that TODAY is NOT the day to bring that up again. You see the moment.
HEIM: So much that we do is psychological.
BRANDON: I agree.
HEIM: I mean, we’re between what the director shot and what he THINKS he shot. There’s a moment of reality when you’re looking at a movie and at some point the director will say, “I was wrong on that.” It’s not that you as the editor were right, but there’s the problem and you have to start dealing with the problem. And that’s what I think we all learn from our experience. I’ve been doing this for a really long time and I always learn something on a movie. If not, I’m bored.
QUESTION: How do you deal with studio notes and the politics that they bring?
McARDLE: I let the director fight my battles for me. … (pause… audience laughter)
HEIM: That’s a good way.
SIXEL: I don’t want to reveal too much. During “Road” we had 12 test audience screenings. It’s actually kind of painful. I was wondering if anyone would actually like this film. Because you tend to go to the negative. People can say 10 great things about the film but you tend to remember the negative thing. I read through them. I absorb them but I don’t slavishly try to act on everything. I think you do have to listen because you DO learn something from test audience screenings. I do think they’re useful, but there’s a certain point where you have to say, “That’s enough.” Because everything can unravel. Everyone has an opinion and in the end it’s you as the editor and the director who have to say, “This is what we’re doing.” We got told on Fury Road, “We hate that guy with the guitar. Just get rid of him.” And in the end he became the most popular character on the net. And when I think about how many arguments I had about it. “That shot where you come around and reveal the guitarist and it just goes on… can you just chop it?” And we never did. And everytime you screen the film you’d get, “Why haven’t we cut that shot yet?” There are very useful things. We had issues of backstory. The opening title sequence we had a soundscape that wasn’t in the original to compensate for lack of backstory. Then the Max character people felt, “Why was he crazy? Why doesn’t he speak?” All those questions that came out of test audience screenings. So we did address that a little. And even the subliminal frames – I mean, you did a lot of flash frames and subliminal frames – and we did that a lot too. And that came out of test screenings.
CORWIN: You can’t discount notes because every once in a while someone will give you a note and you think it’s stupid, it’s asinine and then you try it and it’s like, “Wow, it works.”
MIRRIONE: We were lucky in a couple of ways because we had just done a movie with New Regency, they understood our process in a sense so they gave us a lot more latitude. They were also desperate for us to release this year rather than holding it, which we wanted to do and the first time we showed them the movie it was before we’d even shot the whole movie. We were missing the first scene and the last scene. We had had screenings with friends and got a lot of great feedback, but we knew the movie was a mess. That it didn’t really make sense. Of course they came out of it really excited and positive and we were like – “We know it’s horrible right now. You can’t be happy.” But what they were really doing was supporting all of the things we were doing right and trusting us that we were going to fix the other things and that’s not always the case and it’s really a pleasure with something like this where we were up-against-the-wall a few times where if they had been negative, it would have made our jobs almost impossible. So I really credit them for helping us.
HEIM: I think the big thing is that you have to LISTEN to the notes, you don’t have to DO them all. You have to give them serious consideration. You can’t dismiss the many producers, for instance, who are mostly strangers to you who you rarely meet in the cutting room.
BRANDON: We couldn’t show our film to anyone, so… (audience laughs)
MIRRIONE: That’s a lot of pressure, because you can’t test it, but you have to make a movie that everybody on the planet is going to love.
BRANDON: Let me explain how much pressure that is… It was so much pressure that when we finally did show the movie in-house. JJ has a company called Bad Robot, and it was to the people who worked there and I think they were so terrified that it was the worst screening ever. We were looking around. Nobody was moving. JJ was devastated and we were totally confused by it. But honestly because of the nature of Star Wars and secrecy, I think we had to find other ways of getting notes. So he started bringing people in so we’d have very limited private screenings and really just grilled them with questions we had and listened. Some good notes came out. Some bad notes came out.
MARKEY: Then we would get 10 pages of notes from the John Lassiter screening and 5 pages of notes from another screening and we would just get notes and notes and notes and notes. And we would start just looking through them and saying, “Well, this one looks good.” (audience laughs).
BRANDON: There was absolutely no way you could try them all, which is usually JJ’s idea. “Well, let’s try everything.” It’s physically impossible to try everything.
CORWIN: Ultimately you benefitted from the fact that the movie has a more intimate feel to it than if it had gone down that road of endless analysis of test screenings.
MARKEY: I consider that a compliment.
CORWIN: Oh, absolutely.
HEIM: Well I would like to thank all of you. We have run out of time here. I wish we could continue this. I’d like to wish you all good luck tomorrow (at the Oscars). But the nice thing is that you’re pretty much done with the promotion now. Thank you and thank you all for coming out. See you next year.
To read previous interviews from Art of the Cut, see THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish.