John Gilbert, ACE, started as an assistant editor in his native New Zealand in 1980, under Oscar-winner, Jamie Selkirk, and has been editing for more than 20 years. His films include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (for which he was nominated for a BAFTA, and Eddie and an Oscar), The World’s Fastest Indian, Bridge to Teribithia, The Killer Elite, Chasing Mavericks, and Hacksaw Ridge (for which he was nominated for an Eddie, won the BAFTA and the Oscar).
HULLFISH: Looks like you’re already on your next project, The Professor and the Mad Man?
GILBERT: No, no. That’s an interesting story. The Professor and the Madman was actually before this. We shot that in Dublin 18 months ago (December 2016, this interview was recorded in May 2018) and I went to L.A. and I did the director’s cut during the Oscars last year. Then we got to a bit of an impasse with the director, producers and the studio.
HULLFISH: I noticed that Mel Gibson was on that as an actor. Is that how you got on to the film?
GILBERT: More or less, yeah. I knew that he was doing it. I read the script and pretty close to the end of Hacksaw Ridge I went to Dublin. It’s based on a book that Mel’s company Icon bought about 20 years earlier called “The Surgeon of Crowthorne.” It’s about a linguistics professor who’s writing the Oxford English Dictionary and a schizophrenic in a mental institution. Mel Gibson plays the professor. Gibson’s character doesn’t know this guy played by Sean Penn is crazy. He just gets these letters from him and eventually meets him and discovers that he’s in a psychiatric institution after having mistakenly murdered someone. The guy is a well-educated American army surgeon and quite intelligent and lucid – most of the time…
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the movie at hand, which is Adrift. Tell me about the post schedule.
GILBERT: The shoot for this was in Fiji and New Zealand. So, it was sort of close to home even though the NZ shoot was in Auckland. I live in Wellington, which is an hour’s flight away. That’s about as close to home as I ever get. So we shot seven weeks in Fiji and about three weeks in Auckland.
Fiji has a tourist side of the island and the other side where we were, where it rains a lot. We were set up in a little house on a hill. EC3 were doing the dailies so we had a tech and a colorist who were doing the dailies and I had two Avids for my assistant Carly Turner and myself, and we worked our way through it.
About halfway through the shoot the crew relocated to the north coast of the island where we were considering joining them, but there was very little infrastructure and turned out there wasn’t enough power for the dailies unit. They could almost power the computers, but not the A/C. So stayed in Suva, about a three hours drive from where they were. Then, when we went to New Zealand, we were housed in a post facility in Auckland called Digital Post, so we were there for three weeks.
The story involves a woman being on a wrecked yacht in the middle of the Pacific. The film opens with her waking up in the bowels of the yacht which obviously has had something really nasty happen to it. They built a replica of the boat and put it on pedestal in a car park in Auckland and shot interiors and exteriors on green screen.
There’s a large storm for which we’re still grappling with some of the visual effects. The rest of the movie was shot on the water on the north coast of Fiji as Bob Richardson, our DP, likes shooting into the sun and the boat had to be out of sight of land.
Our director is Icelandic — Baltasar Kormákur — so we relocated to Iceland for the director’s cut, and we did twelve or thirteen weeks in Reykjavik. We went from the tropics to Iceland. I left there the day before Christmas and there were about three hours of sunlight — the sun would just pop up and sneak across the horizon and go down again.
My wife and two daughters came up to Iceland and the girls went to an international school. My youngest daughter liked it so much that she stayed on with me after the others went home to New Zealand, and so I was dropping her at school in pitch black and picking her up at three o’clock in the afternoon, dark again and she would come to the cutting room and hang out.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how the heroine wakes up in the bowels of the ship. Was that scripted that way?
GILBERT: No it wasn’t scripted that way. The film was written to open in the moments preceding the storm. But we liked the idea of putting our main character in jeopardy where the audience doesn’t know what has happened. There is more mystery if we see the immediate aftermath of a disastrous event. The story from there is basically two parallel strands, one of her waking up in the wreckage through to the end and two, her arriving in Tahiti through to the events leading to the storm. We did move things around a lot. We didn’t want to just cut back to the earlier storyline gratuitously. We always wanted that to inform what was happening in the present and to keep revealing things to the audience that helped the understanding of the present. So it is a standard editing quandry: how and where you weave in and out of different story elements.
HULLFISH: I just re-read our interview about Hacksaw Ridge and you said that with that movie, it was almost word-for-word the same structure — just some deletions and tightening that always happens.
GILBERT: Hacksaw Ridge DID stay the same structure. You’re right and that was a fairly linear story. There was no reason to pull it apart, whereas with this one, scene one is now in reel four. The scene numbers are a total jumble. It all fits perfectly and no one will ever question that it wasn’t written that way.
HULLFISH: I’m so interested in the idea of structure changing in movies and not changing in movies and why that happens. It’s the temporal nature of editing, right?
GILBERT: You’re always thinking maybe there’s a better way to tell the story. You’re always looking at putting question marks in front of the audience and intriguing them, wanting to keep them thinking and you want to withhold the answers until the appropriate time. And as you supply answers you’ve got to keep supplying more questions as well. That’s what keeps an audience through to the end.
There are a lot of different options, different scenarios but our movie is essentially two people on a boat. The potential is for it to be enclosed, claustrophobic, repetitive – and I’m really pleased with way it’s turned out because it’s none of those things at all, with a lot of the credit to our director and our DP who shot it in such a way that it never feels like we’re treading water. It previewed really really well.
HULLFISH: Did you have a chance in between the various shooting days and locations to ask for any shots or footage that you felt you were missing?
GILBERT: I asked for a few pickups along the way. As they were shooting out on the boat for so long it was easy to ask for things. There was a big emotional moment where I asked for more coverage and they sort of pooh-poohed the idea, and then three days later it turned up in my dailies – and it ended up in the movie. You float things and then you see where it goes.
HULLFISH: Sometimes you just have to trust the process. Like – in this case – you just mentioned you wanted something. They weren’t going to give it to you. You could have raised a stink about it and stood your ground and potentially cause damage to your career, or you could just wait to see what happens later in the process as things shake out. You have to have some patience.
GILBERT: I think that’s true. Early on as an editor I would have a situation where I disagreed with the director and I would argue it out more. Now, if the director wants it a certain way, I’ll do it that way, and in the process we will have other ideas, so it’s never a wasted exercise. Or maybe that scene never even ends up in the movie. So, your disagreements — say you’ve got 20 things you disagree with during the cut — you might get to the end and only three of them are left, so you can talk about the three things that bother you at the end instead of having conflict along the way. There’s also the possibility that the director’s right and you’re the one who’s wrong.
Early on in my career I used to think I had to have all the answers all the time. I now realise I don’t have to, I just have to trust the process and keep working and things evolve, the answers will come.
HULLFISH: Great advice. On Hacksaw Ridge, we talked about your method for viewing dailies. Does that method change from picture to picture?
GILBERT: I don’t think it’s changed. This was a little different from Hacksaw Ridge in that it mostly was shot single camera and the DP was also the operator. So I didn’t have as much footage to deal with, so it was much easier. Also Baltasar likes less cuts and on Hacksaw Ridge Mel liked more cuts, so I had to just relax and let things play.
On this, they liked to just set a scene and let it play. So, often I would say to myself, “Do I need to cut? Does this play?” There were times when I definitely dialed back the amount of editing I did and the dailies, I guess, were reflective of the fact that they like things to play out in master shots, which is not to say that they didn’t shoot coverage. But there definitely was not as much footage as a lot of other films I’ve done.
HULLFISH: Were there any unique challenges of a movie on a boat or with so few characters?
GILBERT: I think every film has unique challenges. As I said before there was the potential for it to be repetitive and claustrophobic but that didn’t happen. The challenge is always just making the best of the material. Bob likes to shoot into the sun, he likes everything backlit. So there were times where he wouldn’t shoot a reverse where the conventional wisdom would be to shoot one. There were a couple of occasions where I would use a reverse and Baltasar would say, “I don’t want to use that. It’s front lit, Bob hates that.”
A big challenge has been the visual effects. Water isn’t easy to make realistic digitally, so we’ve been working with the VFX house on those shots for a while. In fact, they are still working on a few shots even though the premiere is on the 23rd of May, which is a week away. So we’ve already mixed the film and we have placeholders on a couple of big shots. And the VFX house has to move various splashes and things because the sound is already done. Normally the sound reacts to the picture, but this time the sound is locked in and VFX has to deliver to sync with what we’ve got.
HULLFISH: Very interesting. And for those things you’re waiting on, you have a plate or something from the greenscreen to give you a sense of what’s “missing?”
GILBERT: We have a work-in-progress from the VFX company. We’ve got water and wind and sails whipping around.
HULLFISH: I think I talked to Lee Smith about editing Master and Commander and he said it was very difficult to try to get a rough dialogue edit on some of those stormy seas scenes because all of the dialogue was unusable from the wind and wave machine noise.
GILBERT: They got us a guide track. I could hear what they were saying. The guide track was good enough for me to work with.
SIDEBAR: Description of the timeline tracks from John’s assistant, Carly Turner:
V21 still has our Avid sound design in it and was the version we previewed with – it was mixed by our sound team for the preview, but this is prior to turning over. V36/37 is our current edit and we are now using the stems from the mix but keeping A1-A4 to track changes with the sound team. R1v36 – the long purple mov – is one long VFX shot – we’ve imported the QTs of the WIPs (work in progress) into the Avid. V21 was prior to having the WIP back so it’s all the plates we used to make the one long shot. There is a title sequence running along the top from 5min in, we have front credits on this one and our titles were done with transparency layers for moving effects that didn’t come across into Avid so we got them to bake it into our graded pics. V1 is always our drama / plate layer V2 is for WIPs and you can see in v21 we have some double layered Avid temp comps in there as well V4 we have titles sitting on to give a bit of room. And in the beginning while we were still in rough comp / animation stages John likes to keep several versions of the WIPs cut on top of each other so we have them at hand. This makes it easier to see the changes and it’s become useful if a shot was comped and then went back to animation, we can bring up the comp again for a screening. I like to colour code them so we know where we are at – orange is an old WIP already turnovered to conform green is final, light blue is animation, dark blue was a post vis, dark purple are new shots coming in that are WIPs to be turned over to conform (we have a rolling conform). We also ran out of colours without making new ones so you’ll see I like to make the composer tracks in V21 dark purple – which are then removed from V36 as we have mixed. We change colour from job to job but Orange is always WIPs and Green is always Finals. Audio layers we have A1-A4 DX A5 – A12 FX A13 – A16 MX. We keep it like this until we mix and then we have it as you see in V37, so A1-A4 is left as our old DX on mute to track changes. A5-A6 we leave blank and will put in any new production DX while we are still cutting so we can track changes. Then we blow away our work and layer the DME from the mix.
HULLFISH: Anything to discuss about audio or music?
GILBERT: We decided to do a first pass with no music. Sometimes music can be used to make you think something is working when maybe it’s not working as well as it could. You can paper over problems. As far as ambiance — she’s out on the water alone and I just wanted the ambiance to be as neutral as possible. It’s about dialogue and the sound of the boat just sitting on the water, which is pretty minimal. At the same time, the performances are so fantastic that you just get enmeshed in the story and there’s nothing to distract from that. We added music later on. Volker Bertelmann, who did the score for Lion, wrote our score.
HULLFISH: I love that movie.
GILBERT: Once we got through our first picture cut, we started trying out different composers and different scores and we settled on Volker and he sent us a whole lot of his stuff and I just temped the movie using a lot of his previous scores. He operates in a particular world of strings and piano and it’s quite a sparse score. So I was able to approximate pretty well where the score was going to go and he came along and wrote it and pulled it all into the same world. We didn’t want too much music. We probably even threw away a few cues, just because the loneliness of a boat out on the water is quite compelling.
HULLFISH: Was there a guide to how you tried to pace the movie or the cutting? You mentioned that Baltasar liked to let things play.
GILBERT: You’re always trying to judge how fast the movie should be going. How fast should you be revealing information? When has the audience caught up with you? You don’t want your audience getting ahead and waiting for you. You’ve always got to stay just that little bit ahead of the audience. You’re assessing that and it’s partly instinct. And while we wanted to let scenes play without cutting too much you can work on the pace with where you come into scenes and where you go out.
HULLFISH: There’s also that larger pacing question you were talking about switching between you A story and your B story.
GILBERT: That wasn’t so much pacing as much as when you got to a logical point in that story to leave it and change to the other strand. You always want to leave it on a question mark so that the audience is waiting for you to come back and is keen to find out what happened. This film is only 96 minutes long. We pulled a few scenes out in the middle of it as we felt we were repeating ourselves and so we moved through the middle of the film maybe a little bit quicker than it was written, but in terms of pace, we didn’t feel like we needed to hurry it along too much. Preview audiences found it very emotionally involving.
HULLFISH: Tell me all about collaborating with the director. You mentioned that you found out that he liked to let things play. Is that something that happened in a discussion or did the dailies actually speak to you?
GILBERT: No, Baltasar just talked about how he liked things and he obviously shot them that way and there were certain scenes he shot with the intention of playing as single shots so he was probably paying more attention to the pace within those shots. And he shot some variations, some shorter and some longer so we could make that decision later. At the beginning of the movie there’s something that’s designed — there’s a couple of hidden cuts in it — but it’s a shot that lasts about four minutes, and there’s a shot in the storm at the end of it was about two minutes long which is a pretty major achievement in a hurricane.
He pretty much let me get on and do my thing and what I would do was work away on scenes and then my assistant would Hightail them to him and he would then come to the cutting room the next day and we would talk about how he reacted to it, his thoughts, and I would digest that and he’d go away and I’d go back to the Avid and give him another version the next day. He didn’t feel the need to sit over me. He was quite happy with the cutting process and just let the film evolve in a very natural way. Once you’ve got a cut to a certain point and it sits there, you play it a few times, you see things and you make adjustments. A week or two later, you’ll see something else and it just keeps moving forward.
HULLFISH: How do you judge editing? When you’re voting for the Oscars or BAFTA or whatever: when you look at someone else’s editing how do you even determine what is good editing and what is not?
GILBERT: Well, that’s a good question. First off, how much of it was really the editor and how much was the director? Who knows what happens in the editing room, after a couple of weeks, I can’t remember whose idea something was. You also don’t know what kind of material they had. For me, sometimes I’ve done my best editing on my worst films.
HULLFISH: Me too.
GILBERT: (laughs) They’re the ones that present the most challenges and you have to be the most inventive. But if you’ve got great material, it’s easier to be good. In the end, you’re just judging how film plays, the pace of the film; is there anywhere in the film where editing maybe takes you out of the film or is clumsy? Are there great choices made that really work well. Does it feel original and surprising?
HULLFISH: Can you tell me about cutting this scene?
GILBERT: This scene was shot over 2 or 3 days, and the action was originally much longer. It was difficult getting the boats in position for continuity so I struggled a bit to get all the pieces matching. Balt was very particular on the continuity of the sails and wind direction, so I had VFX replace the sail on one shot. I had a lot of coverage of the boats travelling in different directions and often on the wrong side of each other, but I think it worked out pretty well in the end.
HULLFISH: John, thank you so much for your time. Good luck on your next project.
GILBERT: My pleasure.
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.