Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Evan Schiff, editor of “John Wick 3”

Evan Schiff started his film industry career at the Stan Winston animatronic studio in 1999 working on such films as Jurassic Park III and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. His work as a VFX editor or assistant editor include work on Rocky Balboa and Pan’s Labyrinth, Rambo, Hellboy 2 and Star Trek (2009 movie). A major turn in his career came as an assistant editor to legendary editor Paul Hirsch, ACE on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and a string of films after that. Promoted to the editor’s chair, he has cut films like, John Wick 2, Broken Kingdom and Southside with You.

We spoke with him about his latest film, John Wick 3.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your history with the director, Chad Stahelski.

SCHIFF: I worked with him on John Wick 2. I didn’t know him beforehand, but Mike Rubi, my agent at UTA, got me an interview with Chad and soon after I was on a plane to NYC. John Wick 2 was actually his first solo outing as a director and my first studio editing job. On John Wick 1 he co-directed with his business partner, David Leitch.

HULLFISH: So what was the shooting schedule like?

SCHIFF: Two-thirds of the movie takes place in New York and a third takes place in Morocco. I went to New York and we started shooting there in May of 2018 until about mid-July, but by the time we wrapped — and they had planned for this ahead of time — it was too hot to bring a crew and all the dogs that we needed to Morocco. So we came back to L.A. and started post-production. We cut the 2/3 of the movie we had for about 10 weeks and then went to Morocco in October and shot there for 10 days.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to a bunch of people that have done these split schedules like this and they said they’re great. They love them because it gives you a chance to know what’s in the can.

SCHIFF: Yeah. I enjoyed having the time to really dial in the New York section. But the downside of having the time in the middle was it sort of jammed us on the back end. It meant we weren’t able to watch the movie as a whole until very late in the schedule, and you don’t truly know what problems you have to solve or how to shape the rest of the movie until you can watch the whole thing in a run. So after the Morocco shoot, we were in a position of not only having to cut all this new footage and a huge new action scene, but also prep for an impending director’s cut screening followed by our first public preview. Having that split schedule ended up compressing the whole back end of the post schedule.

HULLFISH: Looking at your filmography, do you feel like you’re getting typecast? You’ve done a ton of action pictures. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

SCHIFF: If I am then it was definitely something that was unintentional. As an assistant editor, I was fortunate to work on some really large projects. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol was a favorite. I did Hellboy 2 also and was at Bad Robot off and on for a number of years. Those assistant editor credits paved the way for getting this type of movie as an editor. I think people scanned down my resume and recognized a bunch of big action titles, and even though I was doing those as an assistant editor and not the editor, it did contribute to my ability to be considered for action movies as an editor.

I did have this experience though while interviewing for Southside with You, which was almost entirely dialogue when I had to answer the question: “You seem like an action guy, but can you cut dialogue?” So I had to explain that people do talk in action movies, and as an editor, my job is to cut whatever you throw at me as artfully and elegantly as I can. But I really had to reassure the producers of that movie that I was capable of cutting a movie that did not have any action.

HULLFISH: You were on Ghost Protocol with Paul Hirsch?


HULLFISH: I just interviewed him.

SCHIFF: I just read it. Great interview.

HULLFISH: Thanks. He seemed like an awesome guy. What were some big takeaways from working with Paul Hirsch?

SCHIFF: Definitely not being precious about anything. That’s a key thing that every editor knows and is a mantra we all repeat, but seeing someone practice and reaffirm it so skillfully is something else. That movie was big. It had a lot of moving parts. I am still in awe at how deftly Paul cut the switcheroo sequence inside the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That sequence had characters split between two identical hotel rooms, so there were two separate scenes going on simultaneously, each with their own tension and internal arcs, plus you have to keep straight how what happens in one room affects what’s happening in the other. That’s a lot to keep track of for both an editor and an audience, and Paul did it flawlessly. That kind of skill is inspiring.

I also felt like Paul kept the cutting room very calm, collected and very reasonable in terms of our work hours, which is no small feat on a tentpole film. These days assistant editors frequently have to do a bit of everything (sound, music, VFX, color, etc.), but Paul was very specific about not overloading us with work that should be done by another department, and in some instances he arranged to bring in the appropriate people earlier than usual to get that work off our plates. He wanted his, and by extension our focus to be on the cut and the performance and weeding out only what we needed to tell the story. His instinct for that is unmatched, and it was definitely a learning experience to be able to watch him cut a movie as big as Ghost Protocol, with all of the moving parts that come with that both inside and outside of Editorial, and still be able to know, “This over here is what I need to worry about and the rest is either noise or someone else’s job.”

HULLFISH: So few people talk about the management that you have to do as an editor. There is a huge amount of just managing your team.

SCHIFF: It definitely takes up a portion of your mental space. As the editor, you want to make sure that everything is running smoothly so that you are free to cut the story and focus mainly on that. For me — having been an assistant editor for a while, and many people sort of know me more from my assistant editor days than from my editor days — I like to know what’s happening outside my room and how it’s being handled, but I also try to be conscious of not inserting myself into the assistant editor responsibilities too much. I feel like if you hire good people, they’ll come to you when they need help but they will also take care of most of the day-to-day on their own, and knowing that you don’t have to worry about the day-to-day stuff frees you up to work with the director and to focus on getting the edit in shape.

I always stress to everybody that I’m interviewing for a job that I might be hiring a visual effects editor and an assistant editor, but I really want to just hire a team. If there’s a particularly visual effects-heavy day I expect my assistant editors to help cut shots in and make EDLs to turn over to the DI. Or vice versa, if it’s not a particularly visual effects-heavy day, but it’s a heavy turnover day on the assistant editor side, then I like my crew to work together to get things out the door as fast and efficiently as possible without being too precious about titles.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about editing action movies and this movie. When you are approaching an action scene, how do you do it? Is that something you’ve learned from the editors you’ve worked with as an assistant or something you’ve adapted from them?

SCHIFF: I think it’s something I’ve adapted, especially since each movie presents its own unique challenges. One of the things I’ve learned on this movie — and compared to editing other movies that weren’t shot by a director with decades of experience shooting and designing action — is that I’m incredibly lucky on John Wick films to have really high-quality dailies. I find when I’m going through an action scene here, it’s pretty obvious where I need to be at any given point in the sequence.

Our whole mantra with the John Wick movies is to stay wide and stay as long as you can on one angle so that you see that it is our actors that are doing all of the action. We’re not trying to hide anything by cutting. We’re not having a double do 90% of the work and then cutting in for a close up of our lead. So I look for what angle allows me the best vantage point to show off all of the months of training and work our actors have put into this movie. And I try to stay on that angle for as long as I can until something breaks — either the director yells “cut” or there’s a missed move or a gun jams. Or if 80 percent of a given take is the best version of that part of the fight, I’ll often take that and find the next set of coverage that I have for the remaining 20 percent plus however much more can I push beyond that into the next part of the choreography. So I tend to go very linearly in that respect. I’ll say, “Here’s where I need to start and how long can I take that?”

Now once I’m at this point where I can’t stay on this any longer, what options are available to me now to continue moving the scene forward? As I’m watching through dailies for the first time, the structure isn’t something I tend to fully plan out in my head. I’ll definitely note moments like “This take is best for this knife stab” or “This is a really good throw” on this angle. I’ll make notes of what I think are the selects and I’ll compare them to what the script supervisor notes is a select. But in terms of the overall progression of the fight, I tend to figure that out on the fly.

Keanu Reeves stars as ‘John Wick’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM.

HULLFISH: How do you deal with the actual nuts and bolts of that? Do you do that viewing and cutting from the bins or from a “g roll” or a “line-out?”

SCHIFF: I usually work straight from the bins with individual takes. As the bins are being prepared I’ll watch a KEM roll. And if it’s a short enough scene, I’ll cut straight from the KEM roll. But most of the time I prefer — especially for a long action sequence — to have the assistant editors create multiple smaller bins. They’ll take a beat sheet of the fight sequence and let’s say that there are 12 beats, I’ll have beats one through four in a bin and beats five through eight in a bin, and nine through twelve in a bin. That tends to mirror how they’ve broken out the choreography, too. On set, they’ll shoot long chunks for small sections of the fight. I find that it helps me when I break the dailies down to sort of mirror how they were shot on set. It helps me keep everything mentally organized in my head. I know that I can cut this one section and worry about a later part of the fight later. Then if I get there and realize I need to go back for something, it’s really easy to do. Also when it gets to be months down the line and something’s bothering you that you want to check, smaller bins help you re-familiarize yourself with just the relevant parts of the dailies.

HULLFISH: One of the things I’m really interested in with action is how sound changes the pacing. And I’m assuming that a lot of the fight sounds are not in production. Are you adding that stuff to get a sense of it as you go? Or asking assistants to do it?

SCHIFF: We have the best stunt performers in the world working on this movie. Chad, being a former stuntman himself, and a fight choreographer, he just gets all his friends to work on the film. And one of the benefits of getting stunt performers that are at the top of their game is that we get the fight efforts (sound effects) just naturally. So as they’re fighting I already have fight efforts in the production audio that are from our performers. On top of that one of the first things we’ll do is start putting in the punches and the kicks and the gunshots and ricochets and things like that. So we’ll do a pretty thorough sound effects pass by the time that I screen the assembly for Chad. John Cook and Nick Ellsberg, my team of assistant editors during production, tackled most of that sound work while we were shooting, and then my LA 1st Assistant Editor, Halima Gilliam, came on at the start of Post in LA and helped finish it out.

Of everything, it’s especially helpful to have the gunshots in place. Chad often designs the choreography around a particular rhythm of gunfire. So it’ll be a double tap and then a single shot, and when you put those in it carries the rhythm. We get some of that from production because we’re using capped guns and those make some noise. On those guns, nothing comes out of the barrel when they pull the trigger because the barrel is blocked up, but a shell does get ejected from the chamber. That’s what allows us to shoot action scenes where we’re putting the barrel of the gun directly against somebody else’s body without fear for actor safety like you would have with a blank. But those guns don’t have the full-throated sound of a gunshot, so we go through and use the capped gunshots in the production audio just for timing reference and then replace them with better sound effects.

HULLFISH: Does it make a difference compared to other action movies you’ve cut to have this director who is so attuned to stunt work? Does that change the edit?

SCHIFF: Yes. It’s what allows us to execute the type of editing that we’re known for in the John Wick universe. If the footage weren’t so high quality — if Keanu hadn’t done all the training that he’d done and in this movie, and that Halle also did — and if the stunt performers weren’t the world-class performers that they are, then you start having to make compromises in the editing. You can’t show a full take because someone keeps screwing up, or you can’t adjust a fight on the fly to make better use of the location and camera angles you’re able to get.

One of the things that Chad does a lot, is show up to a location and then figure out the choreography, whereas, in a lot of other action movies, they will choreograph ahead of time and then it’s locked in. They teach their actors exactly how the fight is going to go and if you show up on the day and need to adapt, you’re sort of stuck at that point, because the only thing you’ve taught them is the choreography.

One of the things that’s important to Chad in particular, is that his performers show up months ahead of time to train in whatever martial arts they’re going to be expected to perform. And so knowing those martial arts more thoroughly allows them to get outside and improvise and say, “OK, this set has this cool column over here. Let’s do something with that.” Or this particular geography requires a bit of adjustment compared to when we were rehearsing, so we need to change the fight around. Having performers and a director that are all speaking the same language and able to execute all of the stunts that we’re trying to achieve means I don’t have to compromise if I want to hold a shot for 20 seconds so that you can see the entire choreography from one angle without cutting.

On other films, if you’ve got doubles that are subbing in and doing all the most important stunts, you’re looking at the back of somebody’s head a lot and then cutting in for a close-up. The audience starts to get that feeling of: “This has been broken up and I feel like I’ve missed something, and I feel like somebody is trying to hide a cheat from me here.” Sometimes you don’t have any choice in having to make those compromises. As editors, we deal with footage that has problems all the time and we do whatever we have to, but in this case it’s pretty reliable that I am able to execute the original vision of the action sequence because the quality of the stunts and performance and the cinematography is so high and so thoroughly planned out.

HULLFISH: With fight scenes, the action is dependent a lot on geography and knowing kind of where you are and where each person in the fight is in relationship to each other. If you’re able to stay wider, that definitely helps the audience know where they are.

SCHIFF: Yeah. Chad likes what he calls symmetrical editing. He likes starting wide then working our way in tighter and then pulling back wide again at the end. One of the things that you’ll notice as you watch these John Wick movies is that often when you get to a fight scene, you’ll find we’ve already led you through the location sometime earlier. So we’ll stay wide and we will give you that preview in advance. In John Wick 2, you visit the museum earlier in the film and you get all these wide shots of the room that Keanu’s walking through before we come back to it for a fight, so you know the location and you know how it’s laid out. Establishing the geography has been already taken care of earlier in the film, so when the action starts you already have all this background knowledge.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) and Director (Anjelica Huston) n JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

In terms of sort of triaging when we do have problems, there’s a point in this movie where, because of weather and the realities of shooting on location, we weren’t able to shoot a scene that established the geography of a particular location in advance of a later action scene. When we got to cutting that action scene, it became obvious that it was hurting us because we’ve never been to this location before. We don’t know the geography. You can feel there’s a difference between the scenes where we’ve been able to properly set it up and the scenes where we haven’t.

HULLFISH: With those action scenes, are you finding that you’re cutting on matches of action or do you try to avoid that or it doesn’t really matter and you’re doing a little of everything?

SCHIFF: Chad hates mid-motion cuts. In hand-to-hand combat, he hates when somebody starts to throw a punch and you cut half-way through the motion of punch on the other side. So what I find, especially in the way that he choreographs everything, is that there are these natural lulls I can use to change angles. They’re not long lulls, you’d never notice them, but I can sort of feel them out when watching the dailies. Those lulls in the choreography provide natural edit points, so I try to find those moments where they’re pivoting from one set of moves to another and that’s where I try to find my edit points. That way you always get to see the whole move. I’m trying not to — as best as I can — interrupt the choreography with a cut.

John (Keanu Reeves) and Sofia (Halle Berry) in JOHN WICK 3: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM.

HULLFISH: That’s very interesting. That is fascinating. Since you read that Paul Hirsch interview I did, there was the idea he explained of slowing things down and allowing the audience to get things and allowing the audience to feel something for the character so that when they get into a fight they care about them. For me, the biggest danger with that is when you’re in the later stages of having the assembly done and you’re starting to trim it down to time: it’s those slower, quieter moments that always seem to be the targets.

SCHIFF: Yeah. The assemblies for both John Wick 2 and 3 were fairly long. Our producers made fun of us because we have a lot of footage of Keanu walking places. There’s a lot of shoe leather in John Wick movies. This is also a world of assassins that is very respectful, so people don’t talk very quickly. They don’t interrupt each other. We don’t have rapid-fire dialogue. We constantly get this note of, “How come everybody is waiting for everybody else to speak before they say their next line?” But it’s in the performances, and it’s intentional. I can close gaps here and there, but it would feel unnatural if everybody started talking over each other. So it’s a fine line that we try to ride because we are sort of intentionally a slow movie, but then we have our fast action. We want to introduce you to the world in a relatively slow way. That’s something that we like, and an aesthetic that I share with Chad. We had a two hour and 44-minute version of the film that had every scene that we shot in at its full length, and while I prefer the more cut down length, to this day Chad would still gladly watch that version.

The other thing we have is a world that’s weird. These movies are weird. So they require a little bit of attention in order to understand the things that we aren’t explicitly telling our audience. We don’t explicitly introduce most of the characters or what they do, so you can’t speed through a lot of these scenes because you’ll miss important information. One of the things that Chad is fond of saying is that everything can’t be fast, because if everything’s fast then nothing is fast. You have to have dynamics. You have to have that differentiation between what’s fast and what’s slow. You need a little bit of both. And you need elegant transitions between the two in order to carry your audience’s attention. We definitely subscribe to the idea that you need some slow in there to let the audience release their tension; to provide information that they can take in and retain for later, and to direct their focus on a particular part of the screen. You want them to notice the small details in the sets, the costumes, and the cinematography, for example. We do a lot of world-building, so we can’t have all these short shots or no one will be able to see all the small details that actually make up the world.

HULLFISH: You mentioned transitions. When you’re going from scene to scene what are some of the things you’re doing to make one scene cut well into another scene?

SCHIFF: In many instances, it involves a music pre-lap and/or a held look, or a dialogue pre-lap. Like most editors, I try to find that out point in a scene where you get an idea of what is coming next and that tends to lead naturally to the beginning of the next scene. On this movie, we had a B story to keep track of. There’s action in Morocco at the same time there’s action going on in New York and what’s happening in each world doesn’t necessarily transition naturally between one and the other. So it took a little bit of effort to find: what’s the right number of times that we should be cutting back and forth between these two locations?

How do we bridge the cuts between the New York sections and the Moroccan sections in such a way that it won’t be jarring to just suddenly abandon what you’ve been watching in New York and start up where you left off the last time you were in Morocco? We went for bigger chunks, so we tried to cut back as few times as possible, and that allowed us to have a structure where we would use New York to transition between time cuts in Morocco — breaking up something that happened earlier in Morroco with something that happened later. That way, when we come back to Morroco, it’s the next morning or the next afternoon, and that made for a more seamless transition.

The other thing that I think has become sort of a style for the John Wick movies which is particularly fun for me is cutting the montages that build the myth of John or reveal a new piece of the world. In John Wick 2, John is coming back from Rome while Ian McShane is telling the Santino character that John Wick is coming for him and these are all the reasons he should be afraid. We combined a bunch of scenes that were shot separately and were pretty dry on their own into an engaging montage that reestablished the myth of John Wick the assassin; told the story of John traveling back to New York and revealed the assassins that were lying in wait for him in New York; clearly laid out that John was on a mission to confront Santino, and set the expectations for when they finally met.

That montage also reveals the switchboard center, which plays a big role in John Wick 3 — which is a call center where you can order hits on members of the assassin community. Dating back to John Wick 1, Elisabet (editor, Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) established the mythology of John with a great montage that cut between Michael Nyqvist explaining who John Wick really is and images of John in his basement digging up his chest of guns and preparing to go to war. I try to continue along the path she started, and so we continue to use these montages in the John Wick universe to transition and relate exposition in a way that is engaging and fun.

HULLFISH: So in the original script, they jumped between New York and Morocco more regularly than the way you cut it.

SCHIFF: Yeah. Because Morocco was shot so much later than our New York shoot, we had some time to figure out where we might break, but we planned for having many more breaks in the chronology than we ended up with. The plan was to cut back and forth six or seven times, with shorter scenes, and that ended up getting annoying. We also ended up cutting out some of the scenes in New York, so that naturally eliminated some of the times that we cut back and forth.

HULLFISH: Do you find that it’s generally true that scripts that have an A and B story are written to jump back and forth more than they end up being cut in the movie?

SCHIFF: I don’t know that I can make a generalization about it but instinctually it feels like as an audience member I don’t want to be dragged around more often than I have to be. Once I’m engaged in a part of the story I’d like to see it through. Obviously, a montage is a whole different thing that’s designed to go back and forth, but if we’re just talking about scene-to-scene or section to section, I think it seems appropriate that you would want to consolidate as much as you can into bigger chunks.

HULLFISH: I think I’ve read scriptwriting advice that those more frequent jumps in the script phase make the writing and reading of the script more interesting. But then when you watch it you want to stay with one story longer.

SCHIFF: That would be a really interesting comparison to make.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about music and temping. Did you guys temp with a lot of previous John Wick stuff?

SCHIFF: We pretty much exclusively temped with previous John Wick scores. On this movie, we used a little bit of the Atomic Blonde score, because that’s also a Tyler Bates score. On John Wick 2 we went to outside score just a tiny little bit, because we only had John Wick 1 score to work with, but it was still probably 80 percent John Wick 1. On John Wick 3, we probably temped 95 percent from the John Wick universe. And then maybe 5 percent from Atomic Blonde.

It’s such a help because Tyler, Elisabet, and the whole JW1 crew went through all of the hard work on the first movie of finding the tone and the vibe of the film. And it’s actually hard for us to find other temp that feels right. There isn’t another score I can think of that sounds right for the John Wick universe. We had all of the stems from John Wick 1 and John Wick 2, so for temp our music editor, Richard Henderson, made new cues using the stems from the previous movies. So we’re not using the soundtrack version of John Wick 2 in our timeline. We’re actually deconstructing previous cues and reassembling them into something new that never existed before. But it’s still technically temp, we’re just using it in reconstructed ways. And so then we’re able to show Tyler exactly the vibe we’d like for a scene using his own music as reference.

HULLFISH: You didn’t work with Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir on the first John Wick, did you?

SCHIFF: No. I didn’t. We did a Q&A together at LACPUG last year — which was really fun, but we haven’t had the pleasure of working together yet. She’s awesome. She set the style so much for this franchise. I, of course, try to bring something to the table as well, but so much of what she did in John Wick 1 is what makes the John Wick world what it is and influenced how we attacked the cut for John Wick 2 and 3.

HULLFISH: To get back to kind of the nuts and bolts of cutting. How does your assistant set up your bins for you? Is there anything else that you try to do in your bins or in the way that you prepare a scene or your assistant prepares a scene?

SCHIFF: I’m pretty basic in how I like things set up. I mostly work in Frame view. If a setup is in a group clip, I only have the group. I don’t also have the sources for the group in the bin. And then I like the setups to be arranged chronologically by where they fall in the scene, rather than strictly alphabetically.

I do ask that the List view is appropriately filled out with descriptions and all the other metadata, like script supervisor notes, but 95 percent of the time I’m in Frame view.

HULLFISH: You mentioned specifically about the script supervisor. Do you do anything in frame view to call circled takes, like an asterisk or anything like that? Or do you even care which takes are circled?

SCHIFF: Chad doesn’t call out a lot of circled takes. Our script supervisor, Shane Scott, was sort of attuned to figuring out when Chad yells “Cut,” is it sort of a “CUT!!!” or “cut.” (mimicking a happy excited definitive cut versus a more resigned cut). If it’s a very enthusiastic “CUT!” then she’ll star it. And if it’s a dejected “cut, cut, cut.” then she won’t star it.

Especially with action, you want to look at the later takes primarily. Sometimes they’ll get lucky and the very first take of the setup they’ll just nail it and then they’ll do a few more for safety. But mostly they go until they get it and they don’t go anymore because doing fight work is very taxing on your actors, or in some cases dangerous, even. You don’t want to do more of it than you have to. So if you’ve already got the take: move on. Generally, it’s within the last one or two takes of a setup that I usually find the best version of something and then occasionally it’ll be take one.

The other interesting thing that we do is that when we’re in the middle of the director’s cut, we give Chad an Avid with access to all the fight dailies. It’s a separate project and he has read-only access to the NEXIS. He has one workspace that he has write-access to (for saving his edits) and a separate project so he can mess with that as much as he wants and it doesn’t affect the main project. Being the incredibly knowledgeable martial artist that he is, he’ll go through and he’ll do his own cuts of the fights and then we’ll compare. He’ll see that somebody didn’t get an elbow in the right position in the take that I chose and he’ll find a take where they did. If you know how to do jujitsu and judo, you can see on screen how technically correct our fights are. The reason for that is that Chad has gone through and done a QC on all of the martial arts moves to make sure that they are correct.

I can tell a good throw from a bad throw, but I can’t tell if this exact hand position — is his thumb in the right position? — Those are the things I don’t see, not having any martial arts experience whatsoever. So he’ll do his cuts and then we’ll look and generally we’re on the same page. He sometimes chooses a different take or a different size here and there, and we’ll merge those together. If it’s a structural thing I usually end up winning that argument and if it’s a take difference then he usually ends up winning that argument.

HULLFISH: I did a previous interview with someone who has edited Jackie Chan movies and they said that his fight coordinator stayed in the edit suite almost at all times just to pick the takes that he knew Jackie would want because of positions of arms and whether a throw is right that kind of thing.

I’m really interested in the process. So you get an assembly and you try to determine what is going to happen with the movie at that point. Talk to me a little bit about the process of refining. What is the discussion between you and the director to get the movie from the point of your first assembly to wherever it ended up?

SCHIFF: Generally it starts with me advocating to cut the scenes that I’ve known since very early on aren’t going to make the movie. (Both laugh)

HULLFISH: Been there. Done that.

SCHIFF: There are seven or eight minutes right there you can cut out, at least. It seems obvious to us but you’ve still got to go through the process of getting everybody else on the same page. There were some scenes that I — right off the bat — was like, “Dude, this is not going to make the movie, let’s just cut it now.” And he’d say, “Sure, OK.” And there were other scenes where I was like, “Dude, this is not going to make the movie,” and he’d say, “Let’s keep it in there for a little while longer.” So every couple days or once a week or whatever we’d be trying to cut time out and he’d say, “I don’t know where else to cut.” and I’d bring up that scene again: “We can cut this scene right here and nobody will know. It’s not necessary for the story.” And slowly but eventually he would come around to the idea. Then there are the scenes that can technically be cut without being missed but that have personal meaning for Chad, and since it’s my job to help him make the movie he wants to make, I’ll work on slimming those scenes down without losing the essence of what’s important to him.

Once the low hanging fruit like that is gone, it gets harder. They do shoot a lot of Keanu walking from point A to B and so we start targeting that stuff, always thinking about how we maintain our introduction to our new set pieces and provide smooth transitions without boring people with unnecessary shoe leather.

I mean, we went to Morocco and shot in the desert and there are all these gorgeous vistas of Keanu in the desert. We had preview audiences say, “We really loved this movie, but does he need to walk in the desert so much?” We kept trimming that down and trimming that down actually to the point now where I think it’s a little too short, but it is what it is.

Because of our schedule, I had a couple of Additional Editors on the film: Matt Evans and Gina Hirsch. They were instrumental in helping make this movie what it is. Matt came on just before we started our Morocco shoot, and then switched out with Gina as we got closer to picture lock. They’re both fantastic editors, and through them, I got a fresh set of eyes on my work to ask questions like, “Why are you spending so much time on this shot? You can just go from here to there.” And you think, “Duh. How did I not see that?”

When you’re in the thick of it and it’s crunch time, having another editor second-guessing all your assumptions and cutting new versions of scenes you’ve never been 100 percent happy with is incredibly valuable. I’m so grateful to both of them for their help. I also need to call out Mike Fay and Tom Foligno, my Visual Effects Editor team, who did amazing work and kept that side of editorial running so smoothly all throughout even our craziest times.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the structural changes of going back and forth between Morocco and New York less often than the script. Any other structural stuff?

SCHIFF: This movie was more straightforward than John Wick 2, so mostly we just had to get time out. All of our scenes worked. The chronology worked. We just had a lot of everything.

John Wick 2, from a structural standpoint, was much more interesting and dare I say a little bit more fun in a creative way as an editor. In John Wick 2 we actually did take a sequence from the end of the movie and put it in the middle of act 2. We completely restructured the whole transition from act 2 to act 3. But John Wick 3 is roughly in the order it was written because of the type of story it was compared to John Wick 2. John Wick 2 had a little more Machiavellian intrigue and you had to keep track of a lot of complex plotting. In this movie, we’re almost all action all the time. It’s pretty clear what John is after and what the people who are after John want so that that required less manipulation of structure.

HULLFISH: Do you remember what the determination was in John Wick 2 to move that scene at the end into the middle? How did somebody come up with the idea to move that scene as an answer to a story problem?

SCHIFF: It was something that I think was bothering Chad during production. The part we’re talking about is when John faces off with Common at Lincoln Center and then they go onto the subway and they fight on the subway. One day on set while we were in New York, Chad said, “Do me a favor and do a proof of concept of what would happen if we move Common earlier. I don’t know where. I don’t know how it’s going to work. I don’t know geographically what is going to happen, but I just have this feeling.” And his feeling was right.

The original scripted structure was John goes to the museum, he kills all of Santino’s men and Ares (Ruby Rose), but Santino escapes. Then John chases after Santino but ends up running into Common again. But at that point in the movie, if he’s already confronted Santino, who is our main bad guy, you want to see that through to the very end. By the time they leave the museum, you want the movie to be ending. So John’s got to leave the museum and go directly to confront Santino. Having Common reappear in the middle of our ending was this big speed bump.

But we didn’t want to just cut Common out. Common is amazing, and his character is important. We wanted to use those scenes, they were important to the story and important for world-building, so I just started looking for where could I put this? I found a spot that ended up being able to be attached to John’s return from Rome and that montage I discussed earlier where we basically have John return from Rome with a contract out on his life. So, in the end, the sumo guy and the violinist attack John, the pencil fight happens, and then after that was a great place for Common to be reintroduced. It ended up feeling like a natural progression of bad guy fights leading to a boss fight.

We caught some heat for our New York City geography, though. John goes from Chinatown to Lincoln Center, where he enters the Oculus and gets on a New Jersey PATH train that ends up in the Wall Street area. If you know NYC geography at all, it’s pretty messed up. People called us out on that, and originally our geography was a little more accurate, but structurally it works much better this way, actual NYC geography be damned. It felt like a more natural resolution of the conflict that we had set up, and allowed us to build from the secondary characters to primary characters to our main bad guy — Santino — and end with confronting Santino in one fell swoop. It sort of goes back to what we were saying about consolidating the chunks. Originally it felt like Santino was in two smaller chunks with Common in the middle, and by moving that earlier we were able to consolidate Santino into one chunk that played much better and kept tension building from the museum all the way through John walking into the Continental lounge.

HULLFISH: That is a really really interesting editorial story. Thank you for sharing that with us. It was great talking to you I really think this will be educational for a lot of people. I appreciate your time.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

SCHIFF: Thanks, it was fun to talk to you too.

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

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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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…