Today, our guest is Nels Bangerter, who was just nominated for an ACE Eddie for Best Edited Documentary for the film, Dick Johnson is Dead. Nels already won the International Documentary Association and Cinema Eye Honors Awards for his work on this film.
Previously, Nels cut director Kristen Johnson’s other award-winning documentary, Cameraperson as well as the documentaries Let the Fire Burn and You See Me, among others.
HULLFISH: I just had tears streaming down my face. I posted on Facebook. I’m like, “I don’t know if any of my friends are documentary people, but even if you hate documentaries, you have got to watch this movie.” It is so good in so many ways.
BANGERTER: Well thank you. This is the biggest, fictional crossover that Kirsten and I have done before, and I think it definitely aims to be something beyond a traditional documentary.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. I think it succeeds at that. For those who haven’t seen the film, there are various things that we come back to in the film. I think it’s pretty obvious if you read even the smallest, synopsis on the film is that it’s a daughter with her father who is dying, losing his memory and she kills him in numerous, humorous ways. So, we’re always going to these stunts, and you’re returning to these kind of “heaven” scenes.
How was the movie structured? How did you decide, “I think it’s time for another stunt.” ‘Cause you could have done them all in a row or you could have spaced them out differently than you did. They didn’t have to go in specific places.
BANGERTER: We were editing and shooting at the same time on this film. We were developing the way that the film worked as the footage was coming in. And originally, the way the project was pitched and funded was with the idea that Dick would die at the end of every scene, and that was really exciting. It was high concept, and we started off that way, but pretty quickly, real life events took over and it because Kirsten’s dad, Dick Johnson’s dementia was getting too serious for him to be able to reliably execute the stunts – we couldn’t have as many stunts as we wanted.
There was a period when we were engineering some of them with visual effects, but we realized pretty quickly that we could go a different direction with the budget that we had for the stunts and we started conceiving of and filming the heaven sequences. Those provided a third element. You have the reality of the film, you have the stunts, and then you have this heaven timeline in a way that we could then cut between all three of those to keep the energy moving through the film.
HULLFISH: I totally got that sense of energy that those three things provided. Every time you jump to a new one, all of a sudden you perk up.
BANGERTER: Yeah. With a lot of films, I like to try to stay a half a step in front of the audience. And I think one way to do that is to jump forward in time. And the audience, when they’re with you, really is super-capable of filling in the gaps. There’s almost nothing that you can’t jump forward that the audience can’t quickly come up with an explanation for in their mind and you can sell it as long as you have them on your side.
Jumping between timelines is a classic example of that. When you’re working with a documentary, it’s real life, so you’re skipping over the parts of life that aren’t that interesting. And you can get to the next really golden moment.
HULLFISH: Another structure that I thought was really interesting was that the film does a typical book-ending that a lot of movies do. It starts with the funeral, the fake funeral, and ends with the funeral.
BANGERTER: Dick Johnson’s funeral was the first thing that was really shot for the movie. For a lot of the edit we had it entirely in the beginning. It was this crazy way to launch into the film, and we were actually conceiving of either a second funeral at the end that we would play as a real funeral or actually the way that Kirsten Johnson, the filmmaker, had conceived it, we had thought maybe we would be filming until Dick died. He’s still alive to this day – spoiler alert – so that could have taken years and years. We just had this amazing performance from one of Dick’s best friends who was truly…
HULLFISH: I was in tears. I was just sobbing,
BANGERTER: He’s so good. And in a way it is a performance. I mean, Dick jokes during the movie that – Ray is his name – Ray believes that the funeral is the real thing that he’s lost touch with reality for a moment. And that’s sort of the case, but Ray had told us earlier on, and it’s in the film not completely clearly, but he’s saying that he finds the undertaking of the film to be a really valuable thing and that he wants to do his best to make it amazing. And I’ve always thought of that performance from him as him deciding to be in the moment and choosing to make the funeral real. And he just knocks it out.
HULLFISH: The guy deserves an Oscar then. Seriously he deserves an Oscar for that performance.
BANGERTER: Yeah, he’s brilliant. And then we had a great camera operator catch him at the end as he went over to the side of the chapel And, he’s sobbing during this climactic moment. It’s great. It plays beautifully. And so, when we eventually figured out how the movie was going to end, we knew that it could end as well as beginning there.
HULLFISH: It’s really powerful. Let’s talk about how long a vérité scene could be or should be because you’ve got scenes like his memory test. So, at one point he goes to a doctor and she’s trying to ascertain whether he’s lost more of his memory. That could have probably played twice as long or five times as long. How do you create a vérité scene in editing and determine how long it should be?
BANGERTER: That’s such a hard question to answer because I think it comes with experience and it comes with feel, and it changes with the way the edit is working. Sometimes your edit is faster paced and a slow vérité scene will feel like it drags. And other times in almost the exact same situation a slow vérité scene provides this really deep moment of introspection.
There’s a scene where Dick Johnson is eating soup. It’s this departure and it’s very calm, very quiet, and really one of my favorite scenes. But I’m always looking for whatever the moment is that makes something really amazing, but I don’t like to cut it too close to the bone. The classic thing with editing is get into the scene as late as you can and get out as early as you can. And I think I keep that in the back of my mind, but I push against it a little bit. I think that there’s a value to beginning a scene somewhere comprehensible, maybe beginning it late-ish is good, but I like there to be a moment in the middle where the audience has to do their own work in their mind on what’s going on. And then when you have a strong ending to the scene, then whatever the audience has come up with that they think the scene is about, can be in some sense validated by a strong ending. It could be a joke or it can be just an emotional point or it could be a death, and it can kind of knock home this freedom and trust that we like to give to them.
HULLFISH: Can you remember with either of those – the soup or memory scene – how much footage you would have had? How long could that have been if you’d just decided to make a documentary about just that one moment?
BANGERTER: I think the soup scene – I may have had a 12-minute cut of that scene alone.
HULLFISH: It’s maybe what? Two minutes now?
BANGERTER: I think two or three minutes. There were a lot of extra little gags in there and there was a formal three-act structure – beginning of the conversation, middle of the conversation, end…
I do remember when I first showed it to the director, we both loved it. It was really just wonderful, but we thought, “Is anybody else going to like the scene at all?” It’s a scene of an old man eating a bowl of tomato soup very slowly…
HULLFISH: And then a bowl of ice cream.
BANGERTER: He’s just calmly having a conversation with his daughter and it’s very intimate and it’s very real. And it just played in a way that’s so refreshing to us. Then it was a matter of trying to see if we could work that in.
Every time I go through a timeline, I’m watching each scene and sometimes it’s shaving down a second or two; often it’s not shaving down a second or two. Or sometimes it’s reordering a line or two. Or, maybe now and then, cut out 45 seconds from something. But it’s kind of on many passes that it slowly evolves from what I do as a first cut.
I do try to avoid the pitfall of making too long of a first edit. A lot of doc editors – a lot of editors in general – build an assembly cut. I try to skip that part and go as soon as I can towards first a rough cut. It’s something that’s watchable as a movie.
HULLFISH: But you first cut that soup scene 6 times too long.
BANGERTER: Yeah, I certainly put too much in. It’s funny, the longer I edit the less confident I become in any hard choice that we make. I believe that making strong choices is important and I think a strong choice can go either direction in a way. You know, leave something in a moment that lets the audience really absorb it or cut it to the quick and make it really high impact. Those are both great.
HULLFISH: The soup scenes felt the right length. I don’t know. I can’t know because I don’t know how good it was at 12 minutes.
BANGERTER: And who could ever judge editing unless you’ve seen the dailies? This is my puzzle as well. How do we know what’s good? Even having seen the dailies, it’s a hard call.
HULLFISH: Another obsession of mine is pre-lapping. The memory scene is one where you pre-lapped. I can’t remember what was before it, but you started to hear the voice of the therapist or the doctor during the previous scene. What’s the value of a pre-lap? You didn’t do it every single scene.
BANGERTER: I feel like I don’t usually pre-lap. I don’t remember it there. But in that scene, towards the end of the scene, the director’s voiceover comes in – and this is actually a joke – Her voiceover comes in, in the way voiceover does, the audio from the set dips down and she starts talking about her reflections on what her dad was doing in that moment and then we cut to the scene where Kirsten is recording the voiceover in her own closet, which is where she did record the voiceover. And that is this goofy little thing that, I made a joke about where documentary voiceover is recorded, then it ends up paying off too. It’s a setup for the very last scene in the film as well.
HULLFISH: And she really records all the voiceover for this movie on her iPhone?
BANGERTER: We were cutting temp voice over that was recorded on her iPhone for sure. And I’ve done a little more of that since then and it really can be pretty good. Your sound person is annoyed, but they can’t quite put their finger on what’s actually wrong with it. But actually, in those scenes there was another shotgun mic under the camera that was recording her as well. I don’t know what was actually used in the mix. Probably the shotgun.
HULLFISH: I wanted to talk about the use of jump cuts. There’s a scene where Dick has just moved to New York city. He sings “Popeye the Sailor Man,” and then there’s some dialogue, but it’s literally just shot after shot of him jump-cutting, almost looking into himself.
BANGERTER: Yeah, it’s this amazing close-up on Dick as he was a passenger in a mini-van and he just looks lost and it was beautiful footage of him looking out the window and riding. It jump cuts several times. To me, it’s barely even a jump cut. It’s this energy that you get from an edit. In essence, you’re saying this took a long time, right? The excisions in the cut are pointing towards that. So, it’s a valuable technique for expanding the depth of a scene, but I use it all the time. I’ll cut out a word or two in a conversation, and if the cut feels right, I don’t cover it anymore. I think that audiences are really astute about it. It can sometimes be energizing in a way. It’s something that I feel like if you don’t have the perfect cutaway, a fake cutaway looks worse. It detracts more from the moment than simply jump cutting.
HULLFISH: I wouldn’t have wanted to cut to him; cut to what he’s looking out the window, cut to a scenery shot, cut to her driving the car, cut back to him… It was very compelling just to watch his face. It seemed like specific moments where he was thinking or, like you said, lost almost.
BANGERTER: Yeah, the light was changing over his face. You could see the backgrounds behind him going by, but you could see his eyes so clearly and almost watering. It was a beautiful moment.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I thought so too. And the other jump cut that I wanted to talk to you about, because I think we’re about the same age – years ago, you would try to avoid the jumpcut, I feel. Now, it’s more acceptable.
The other place where I saw the jump cut is during an interview where Kristin’s talking to Dick about regrets and whether he had a fantasy of what his life would be like in his older years. And she’s asking him questions and then he’s answering and then it would cut to another question and another answer without cutaways.
What’s the value? Why not cut to a cup of tea or a wide shot of the two of them sitting there or some little bit of detail on the room?
BANGERTER: Two reasons; and I think the main one that I’ve learned from cutting Kirsten’s footage and others is that – and Walter Murch says this too – the emotional edit is the most important cut. You have to cut for an emotional reason. You can strain yourself to imagine what would be better than cutting again to this person’s face in an intense, beautiful interview.
HULLFISH: I think of a 60 Minutes edit – not that 60 Minutes is poorly edited – but they would never use a jumpcut like you did. They’d cut to someone’s hands fidgeting in their lap or something.
BANGERTER: Right, yeah. The hand shot is one that shooters – inexperienced shooters especially – always shoot and editors rarely use.
Since one of the first docs that I cut called Let the Fire Burn, which is just full of reaction shots, I just became a real connoisseur of reaction shots. Not that I’m so good at them, but I really want them to count. I want them to mean something. And so, if you’re cutting away to a reaction or a B-roll or whatever, it has to contribute, or it’s better not to cut away at all. I would much rather simply jump cut than do something that detracts in the least.
HULLFISH: I always think of that Broadcast News scene where the guy says, “Wait, cut to me. I think I can get a tear.”
BANGERTER: Kristin Johnson is a cinematographer by trade and she shot a huge portion of this movie. She rarely shoots cutaways. And when I first was editing her stuff, I was frustrated. I thought, “Why couldn’t you just give me the cutaway here?” And of course, editors are always like swearing under their breath at the shooters, but we talked about it later and she MEANS not to. She challenges the film to not do the classic establishing shot and then come in and then cut away to somebody’s hands or clock on the wall or something. She really shoots with a ton of emotion and engagement and doesn’t let the kind of nuts and bolts get in the way of that. And I think it’s really brilliant the way she does that.
HULLFISH: With the heaven scenes, did you have cards on a wall where you’d determine where to stick those? Was there a script? Did you just decide in the timeline: “Now is a correct time to go to this particular heaven scene?”
BANGERTER: Before we shot the heaven scenes, we had the idea for them and we started slugging them in. When Dick would die in the scene, I’d put in a title card. It looked like the Windows 95 background with the green hill and the blue sky and I think I put some After Effects, some spinning bunnies and a sunshine, which gave us a sense of what we were doing. It was going to be goofy, beautiful, sentimental heaven. And so, we slotted those in.
HULLFISH: For those who haven’t seen the movie, this is not a heaven of puffy clouds and angels.
BANGERTER: I can talk in a second about why we made some of the decisions in the way we shot it. But we would slug it in places when we really felt like it could work – as long as we could shoot something that was amazing there, we thought, “Oh, this is going to be really fun.” And it’s surprising and turning it to 11 in a way. We’ve conceived a documentary where the main character dies repeatedly. What could be more than that? Let’s send him to heaven.
So that was really fun, but that was at the point in the film where we were already having a tough time getting Dick to be able to perform the stunts because of his dementia. I mean, he can be so loving and brilliant and he’s a great listener. He’s really an amazing dad and he’s that way all the time, but as far as hitting a mark or doing the exact thing you need to do at the right time, that was really hard for him with his dementia.
So, what we figured out is that if we shot the heaven footage at a thousand frames per second and threw confetti around in the background, it would have this gorgeous, strange heavenly look. But in a way – more importantly – it would allow us to use any fraction of a second that Dick was performing to our advantage. So, if there was a scene that something wonderful happens and we needed him to laugh or smile, we just had to get him to laugh or smile for a fraction of a second and that would play out 40 seconds long. And it made this strange, wonderful place, that I think is kind of unusual under any circumstances. And then it also allowed us to make the best of his acting ability.
HULLFISH: I really want to push this for young editors about opening space and pacing. Talk to me about the value of moments like Dick waiting for the subway train that he never gets on. It’s right after this discussion of him basically telling his daughter, “euthanize me when I get to be too much of a pain in the butt.”
BANGERTER: It’s this moment where Dick goes down to the bottom of the stairway in the subway and he is just standing there and a train passes him by entirely. It doesn’t even stop at the station; it just rumbles by. Full disclosure, the train did stop, and we just cut it. It’s two shots meshed together and I just ran it all the way by there because I felt like it could create a moment to contemplate. And it’s Dick contemplating his own mortality in that moment. Kirsten is behind the camera at that point. She’s a presence there and it’s her watching him. On some level, there’s her temptation to push him in front of the train.
HULLFISH: I definitely thought that as an audience member!
BANGERTER: That’s part of the joke, but it’s also an ambiguous moment that way. I think that’s something that is really valuable in films.
I went to film school and there’s a film school approach, or like a simplistic approach, where everything has its meaning and its place. And I think, in my mind, I’ve replaced that with: everything has to be really good. That’s my rubric for how to put something in a film. So, if there’s a moment where nothing really happens but it’s enchanting or strange or tense or intense, we’ll find a spot to put it into the movie.
That goes along with really trusting the audience to be with you. I feel like there’s a mindset that is easy to take as an editor or a director that assumes that the audience is ready to change the channel at the slightest provocation. And I think it’s a defensive way of editing or filmmaking. We got to hold on to these. We have to hold on to them. We have to keep them entertained. We have to hook them. And I think it’s important not to lose them; that’s for sure. But if you play your hand too close, it doesn’t give you access to these more interesting moments. It’s not as rich a way of making a movie.
HULLFISH: For me story-wise, that scene is pointless. But It’s definitely got emotional intent to it. It’s a pacing moment after an important emotional statement that gives the audience a chance to go, “Geez, here’s a guy that truly knows he’s at the end of his life.” And it’s a great little moment that I loved was there.
BANGERTER: Oh, thanks. It’s nice talking to you about this stuff because you’ve really found several of the things that we do as editors and being able to point them out, which is nice.
HULLFISH: Oh, thanks.
One of my favorite cuts in the whole movie, is a very unusual edit as they’re preparing for one of these stunts. He’s in a makeup trailer, they’re trying to explain how they’re going to squirt blood out of his neck, and he steps out of the trailer to do the stunt and instead of going to the stunt, it cuts to old home movie footage. Like a hard cut. And I loved it that we were in another place. Tell me about making that decision. Why did you cut it then? You could have put that home movie footage anywhere.
BANGERTER: So, it’s almost a continuity cut – as much as it’s a hard cut to a different place. It’s certainly on the movement and the action but he’s sort of being walked down the stairs.
HULLFISH: Oh, a hundred percent. It’s not a cut that takes you out. It’s a cut that is seamless but it’s a hard edit.
BANGERTER: Yeah. And it’s a cut across 20 some years and he’s being held as an older man as he walks out of the makeup RV, and then in the home movie shot it cuts to, he’s holding the hand of his wife who had Alzheimer’s at that time. And it’s this conceptual match edit. This is too pretentious, but it’s like Lawrence of Arabia, right? The match and the sun.
It takes you at the right time in the movie to this kind of deep emotional well for him. That scene is actually directly from the movie that KJ and I made together before this one, which was called Camera Person. And in that we do a very similar cut to the same home movie footage, a different portion of it, but in a way it was our little wink to our own work as well.
I do that all the time. Recently, I looked back to one of the first movies that I edited, the first feature, in fact, the poster is here. It’s called Cine Manifest. The director, Judy Irola, who directed that film recently passed away. So, I was watching the film and we had a lot of fun editing that. We did a lot of goofy little tricks and there were meta moments in there that we just loved. And looking back at that, I’m still doing all those same tricks 15 years later.
HULLFISH: Like what?
BANGERTER: I use text on screen a lot. That’s a favorite thing of mine to do. In Dick Johnson Is Dead we did it with the date for the ambulance footage. There’s no text on screen and then, suddenly, at a key moment, there’s a specific date on screen and it means things have gotten very serious. Anyway, the film Cine Manifest has a lot of that. It has hands reaching from behind the camera into the frame. The cinematographer, his hands or her own hands reaching out, that’s something that if a shooter ever gives me footage where that happens, it will end up in the rough cut. I guarantee it. I just love it. Yeah, go see it. Cine Manifest is on YouTube.
HULLFISH: I’ll put a link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA04Xl6MPDM&list=PLxDC7A0yqiY7AnNGmwuyfM8bM_DOhv9Pa
BANGERTER: It’s not my most mature work, but it’s a great story and Judy was an amazing person.
HULLFISH: And it’s a great poster.
BANGERTER: Yeah, and the poster’s really wonderful too.
HULLFISH: Inbal Lessner, I don’t know if you know who she is, she cut Seduced; anyhow, she said, “I want to make the editor person version of Camera Person.”
BANGERTER: Yeah. We’ve joked about that before. I assure everyone it would be far too boring.
HULLFISH: I can attest to that.
BANGERTER: But for filmmakers, Camera Person is a story about, in a way, secondary trauma. That you are traumatized by the footage you shoot. And of course, that’s not the most important thing about it, but I think there’s enough in Camera Person that I think you recognize that there’s a tertiary trauma for editors as well watching stuff like this. And I think often documentaries are tragic subjects or even worse like mass tragedies. And I think, to some degree, that’s too much how people see documentaries, but that said it’s a part of what we do. So, I think that’s there.
HULLFISH: I talked to Inbal about that because she’s edited a bunch of movies that are very dark subject matter. I’ve cut stuff that was very dark and traumatic to cut, thinking “I can’t. I don’t know if I can do another day of this topic.” So, I totally get that.
BANGERTER: And at the same time I made a movie about a New Yorker cartoonists. It was funny, you know it’s all cartoons and funny, and that can be a painful process. Editing is hard. So, my partner was so excited about it when I started the job she was like, “this will be so great. You’re just going to be laughing and laughing all day.” And I’m like, “no, no. Editing is hard.” You cry even if it’s a funny movie.
HULLFISH: What about this movie? I’m dealing with issues with my father today and this movie affected me very deeply because I saw my dad in Dick very strongly. What about you? How did this affect you?
BANGERTER: There’s no good time to deal with the subject of death. It’s always on somebody’s doorstep and I think that’s one of the interesting things about this film is how many people it’s caught at exactly the time that it was helpful for them or really amazing for them.
There are a couple of my friends who haven’t watched it yet cause they’re in a situation, maybe like yours Steve, where it’s just too on-the-nose.
I always think of it in two ways: this is about losing a parent and then you could also be somebody in their seventies or something and start to think it’s about losing your memory and losing your ability to drive and your connection with your kids. And you can experience this as somebody who is themselves mortal as well, and I think that’s an interesting thing that I’ll come back and look at hopefully in many decades.
HULLFISH: Can you, for the purpose of explaining what got left in the movie, explain some things that might’ve gotten cut out?
I was thinking – there’s a nice cut from him being in his house for the last time to him arriving in New York city, the moving van. It’s basically leaving the house to getting to the house. Was there travel? Was there more stuff that you could have cut a scene with in between those two?
BANGERTER: There was an airplane scene in fact, now that you bring it up, where he gets on the airplane and kind of scrambles down the aisle and gets to his seat. And Kirsten’s filming him the whole time, which is this great bustling camera shot as you go all the way to the back of the airplane. And he sits down and we had a really interesting scene where, and this happened in real life, he looked out the window and he said, as they were taking off, he said, “I think I see some smoke out there. What is that?” He was talking about some smoke on the horizon. There was a garbage fire in the distance of the airport. But I used that line and cut the scene where he says it once the plane is in the air and then we had the plane crash and that was a Dick Johnson death. And the plane crashed and then we cut to: he arrives at the apartment. He’s fine. That was a joke death. But that was one that we ended up feeling like the sort of constructiveness of that death wasn’t helping us that much. It never felt fully working. And we were leaning away from every death every scene approach anyway at that time.
But with a doc there’s always tons of stuff that you leave on the floor. I think the hardest thing to do in a way is not to get rid of things, but I’m always just looking for ways to make sure that we use the very best stuff that we had. So, if there’s a scene that’s amazing, even if it’s not quite on point, I’ll try hard to keep it in. The saying, “you’ve got to kill your babies?” I really disagree with that in a way. I’m a baby saver. I want to find a way to make those amazing scenes work. And I think of course there’s always something that you let go of because it’s wrong. But I think if you can string together 24 amazing scenes, you’ve got a movie and all you have to do is string them together. So, I’m much more in favor of helping the audience make a leap to get a scene in than taking something out.
HULLFISH: Something else I wanted to talk to you about was another kind of emotional connection that I just thought of which is the scene of him leaving his house. And packing up the house really centers around an urn with his wife’s ashes in it. And then the next scene is him deciding where that’s going to go in his new house. So, there’s that nice emotional through line of those two scenes.
BANGERTER: Yeah. And that is something that you discover when you do take scenes out is that you get these things that connect from one side and the other. And yeah, that connection wouldn’t have been as strong if we, for example, kept the airplane scene in.
HULLFISH: Yeah. So that’s why you kill your babies. Unless the airplane scene wasn’t one of your babies.
BANGERTER: It was, yeah. I don’t want to draw that analogy on further.
HULLFISH: I want to talk about this little bit of nonlinear storytelling of the Halloween scene because you start out showing Halloween and then you’re kind of in this weird place, which you know is a set and the audience is kind of left to wonder what the heck’s going on. And then it’s explained why that scene is in there.
You could have told it chronologically; this happened, and then this happened, and so now we do this scene. You see them going around in the streets of New York trying to get candy. Dick’s there, he’s obviously not getting candy but the kids are, and then it goes to the set where he’s lost and scared. And then it comes back to a car scene where it sounded like they dropped him off at somebody’s house to rest but Dick got confused and thought he was left behind forever, I guess.
BANGERTER: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
We called that the hell sequence, and it was counterpart in a way to the heaven sequence but it wasn’t in slow motion and it was in this sort of hellish but not fully hell apartment. it’s challenging the audience to understand what happens. It’s asking them to put something together and, “Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I think I get it.” He was left alone in the apartment while the kids went trick or treating and he didn’t understand where he was and was, deeply upset by that.
And we had cut that scene, that Halloween scene, the apartment set where he would exist in a kind of panic. And it wasn’t amazing. It kind of worked. There was the reality of the situation was that he’d gone through a really terrible moment, but that wasn’t on film. That was when he was off by himself and Kirsten, the director, was taking her kids around on Halloween. So that was sort of a “re-cre” moment where we recreate the time in that apartment.
HULLFISH: But you don’t know that it’s a recreation when you’re in the apartment.
BANGERTER: Right. You’re with him in that moment. And I think that’s a storytelling question that you face over and over as an editor is: do you explain what’s going on first? Or do you explain later? Or do you try to analyze it later? Or draw some emotional point from it later? Or do you do that first? And I think there’s rules of thumb that way but I think every situation you feel it out as it comes.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the plane flying through with the banner about Dick moving to New York.
BANGERTER: That’s After Effects.
HULLFISH: Of course it is, but I’m so sad. I wanted that to be a real plane with a real banner!
BANGERTER: It’s VFX. When Kirsten moves to New York, she has a very unusual living situation with her family. She lives next door to her kids’ two dads, and they all co-parent the two kids. And so we decided to explain that by having this long explanation spelled out on a banner that’s being pulled by an airplane that flies from behind the building. It’s too long to be a real airplane banner, but that’s kind of the joke ‘cause it keeps going and going.
I did it that way in After Effects and showed the director and the producers. Everybody said, “This is great. This looks perfect.” But I said, “No, it’s terrible.” So, we had our visual effects people do an A-plus Hollywood job on it. But even they looked at it and they’re like, “I think we can just let this be.” You know, it’s such a simple effect that just worked.
WithNetflix you deliver everything in 4k, and so probably at 4k it would have been more noticeable.
So, we did that and we did a similar trick with this book that he’s playing with, the title of the book tells you about his heart attack. That’s the one where it says, “Dick ate a piece of cake and had a heart attack the next day.”
HULLFISH: Oh, that’s an After Effects shot, huh?
BANGERTER: We tried to do it in After Effects and then we ended up reshooting. We shot the insert later for that.
HULLFISH: There’s one of him where he falls asleep in his favorite chair in his bedroom, and the chair floats to the ceiling.
BANGERTER: That was actually shot on a green screen. We did a full crazy shoot for that to get the angles all right. I don’t think we could have built the lift for that, but that’s a fun one.
There’s also the one where the words are spelled in his tomato soup as well. It turns into alphabet soup and it says “One year later” in his soup. So, we were just playing with ways that were really fun.
As a doc editor, it’s nice to take a couple hours in the afternoon off of thinking really hard and just watch a YouTube tutorial and teach yourself how to track a movement in a scene to try to get something to look exactly right. I had a great time with that.
HULLFISH: Since you worked so collaboratively with her over the course of the shooting of a long period, did you get to points where you would say, “I think we need this here. Could you go shoot ‘x?’”
BANGERTER: All the time. Kirsten and I have worked really closely and enjoyably together on a movie before this, so we had a very trusting collaborative relationship where nobody was worried about annoying anybody with any pertinent requests. So, I’d say, “Oh, let’s get this scene in,” and sometimes we wouldn’t bother because it wasn’t that good an idea. Sometimes I thought it was a good idea and we tried it and it was a terrible idea, and other times it worked.
We had one scene when Dick goes to visit Lolita, his girlfriend from college or his crush from college. We had that scene end with Dick being bitten by a rattlesnake in their yard. The producers were ordering dead rattlesnakes online and we had this elaborate thing, and I was like,” it’s gonna work. It’s gonna work.” And then, there’s a version of it that was very funny, but it was so stupid that we cut it. So that was something that I pushed for hard and then of course, I agree completely, didn’t belong.
KJ is such a great person to work with. She’s so generous to every single person on the crew, absolutely to a T and you kind of see that in the film even. But especially working with her as an editor. And with a lot of directors I work with there’s a lot to be gained from trust, and I work remotely a lot which means that directors are just sending me material and I’ll be sending them something back, whether it’s every day or a couple of times a week or something. But it’s a way of working that is allowing everybody to be doing their best work at their job. It’s a way of entrusting everybody to knock it out of the park and I feel like that’s one of Kirsten’s big strengths.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about that collaboration. How you were collaborating with her? What does that look like? Was it all remote?
BANGERTER: I’m in Oakland, California, and Kirsten lives in New York, and we’ve worked this way before. The production sends footage to me – either in the mail or over Dropbox – and I’ll start editing it. And we’re on the same page with respect to how the story is working, so I’ll usually be able to make something work out of whatever comes in.
Then I always send the scenes right over to the director, Dropbox them over. And they look and then we talk them over and it can go anywhere from there. But usually, for me, it’s not a situation where the director is in the edit room helping make decisions on shots or cuts. That’s sort of usually in my purview.
Typically during these movie,s Kirsten will come out here for a week or so and often we’ll have the director stay in our guest bedroom and do a week here and there of the intensive, really specific editing. So, if there’s that shot that the director has always hated, that’s when we find the replacement for that. Or where there’s an edit that’s not quite working or where we hammer out a big new pass at note -arding all the scenes and trying a big new order, that’s a time that it helps to be in person. There’s a lot of trust in it and a lot of nice space to work with when we work this way. I’ve been working remotely for roughly at least 10 years, 90% remote.
HULLFISH: I just cut a documentary the same way. The director’s not there, you cut a scene, you send them the scene.
BANGERTER: Yeah. And it can work great if it happens to work great. I’ve talked to directors and I’ve gotten the sense that they’re really hands-on, and in those cases I say, “This might not be the best way to do things. You might be better off finding somebody in your own city.” I love getting on the phone with people and talking over things. It’s really a nice way to interact.
HULLFISH: It sounds like you cut things down as you were going.
BANGERTER: I try to aim for something under two hours to start with. I just aim for a movie. I want it to play like a movie. And so, what that means is that oftentimes there are a few scenes in the first edit that I just don’t even cut. Or I’ll cut the scene and not put it in to the timeline. And then later, over the course of the edit, which are long on independent documentaries, you’re swapping scenes in and out, you’re adding things and then taking something else out in order to work the stories different ways. So there was no 4-hour cut. I hear about 4 hour and 10 hour cuts. I never put it all on the timeline at once ‘cause I don’t find that a very helpful way to process it. If it’s too long, you can’t tell what parts are good and what parts are bad. It’s all bad at that length.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I agree. Although I did an interview with the Apollo 11 editor that had the 24-hour edit.
BANGERTER: That’s an amazing film and I could see that 24-hour cut being in a theater or in a museum. But that’s not how I would have done it.
I think people always want documentaries to be short. There are a lot of reasons for that. Some, I agree with, some that I don’t agree with. But if it ended up being two and a half hours? “Okay, I can deal with that.” I just aim for something that plays with a sense of momentum.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for a great conversation.
BANGERTER: Really nice talking to you, Steve.
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.