In this Art of the Cut interview, we’re talking with Morten Højbjerg, who is from Denmark and is currently working out of London. He’s editing the Amazon Studios series Hanna. This is one of a continuing series of binge-worthy shows that readers wanted to know about.
Morten’s filmography includes numerous feature films like Arn: The Knight Templar, and episodes of The Crown, Trigonometry, Top Boy, and Trust.
HULLFISH: Where is the show edited and how did you get involved — as an editor from Denmark?
HOJBJERG: It’s edited in London. A few years ago, I thought, “OK, time for some new challenges. I’m gonna move to London and see what’s going to happen for me.”
I stumbled upon this project and a guy called Tom Coan who is the excellent executive producer of this show, and we kind of got along really well and I got on the first season as well. So I’ve done some episodes of the first season and also on the second season.
HULLFISH: A chance meeting? Or was it through an agent?
HOJBJERG: Yes. These things are always through agents. You don’t really just drag off people in the pub.
HULLFISH: It could happen. I’ve never had an agent.
HOJBJERG: I don’t know. Maybe you could. I’m not sure. But in my limited experience in London so far, you’ve got to have an agent. And the agent hooks you up with meetings and stuff like that.
There are lots of independent post-production houses in London we were editing out a place called Fireworks.
HULLFISH: And where is the show shot? Where are you getting rushes from?
HOJBJERG: It’s a very international show. There are so many locations in so many places so a lot of it is shot in Eastern Europe and then we have London and the Mediterranean. Last year we had Morocco as well. This Hanna girl is just constantly on the move. So we need a lot of locations.
One of the episodes that I cut for the second season was shot in the actual Underground system (like the subway) in London which was a huge challenge. There’s only a certain amount of time that they can shut down the train line for us to shoot. The whole sequence in the London Underground is a really big sequence, a very dramatic sequence. It took place on multiple platforms in the Underground and multiple trains and on the stairs and all over the place. Put that up against that they have like really limited time in the Underground and we really wanted to make it in the actual Underground and not in a studio.
There was a lot of editing work to make the whole puzzle work. I liked that because it gives you the feeling of being real. That really brings something to the show.
HULLFISH: With stuff shot all over Europe, are there any challenges about getting dailies or rushes? How is that stuff getting delivered to you? Are they shooting in blocks?
HOJBJERG: Especially if they’re in Eastern Europe or something or Morocco, obviously there’s always going to be a delay for me to get the rushes. It’s often a couple of days before I actually get it.
HULLFISH: In America, the director’s kind of a hired gun that comes in, they do their thing, they’ve got a couple of days to do their cut, and then the editing responsibility moves on to the showrunner. How does it work on Hanna?
HOJBJERG: It’s an Amazon production, so it is sort of an American production just taking place in Europe. It’s probably the best of both worlds. We have on Hanna the brilliant creator David Farr. It’s different than making a feature film because it’s his vision. And then there are multiple directors doing episodes. I mean it’s a whole big collaboration. All of us need to try to get into David’s mind-space and his vision and pull in the same direction to make a coherent show.
I haven’t worked on a full-blown American production. My feeling is that here — in Europe — there’s still lots of space for the director to make their mark and to have their opinion and to do what they think is best for their episodes. I think there’s a lot of respect actually.
HULLFISH: The character of Hanna is a fairly young girl, central to the story. Talk to me a little bit about editing her and how you try to either shape her performances or how you’re trying to let her performance kind of shine through your editing.
HOJBJERG: Yes she is really young and I think it’s just incredible because she’s pretty much in every frame. She’s on all the time and she has to do so many different things.
It’s a show that is basically a show about identity but it’s wrapped in suspense and thriller and drama and spy movie and high-octane action. There are so many elements in it and she has to do all these things. She has to do stunts. She has to do drama scenes. Her spectrum is incredible and she needs to be on all the time.
In this case, it’s just about building on top of what she did because she gives so many brilliant performances, so it’s not really about altering or trying to do something else. To me, it’s almost touching — the trust that you have to give as an actor. She doesn’t know me. She gives all these different performances and is able to trust that all that she brings to it will be handled with intelligence so that we are able to bring out the best. That’s what it’s about: to bring out the best. I just always find that so touching — the amount of trust between the different collaborators.
HULLFISH: In her performances — or the way the director directs her — do you get a lot of different temperatures or colors of performance and then you have to decide — between take one and take two — “Oh, I like the more frightened one.” Or, “I like the stronger one?”.
HOJBJERG: Yeah. It’s often like that. It’s also: the more the actor is able to trust the process, the more variation they give you because if they trust that no matter what they offer or put on the table, it’s an offer. It’s something that we can choose or not choose. It’s like little gifts of variety that we can see what would fit best because it’s almost impossible to know from beforehand what will work perfectly.
Lots of times or most times they’re shooting in completely random order because they’re just shooting regarding what location they’re in, which makes sense. It means they can shoot the end scene Monday morning at 8 o’clock and then right after that they have to shoot something completely different, but in the same location that fits somewhere else. It might even be a completely different episode.
In those situations, it’s about knowing what you want and what tone you want it to have when you do it. But it’s also about giving different colors and different varieties and different options. It’s all about having as many options as possible for the editing.
She was brilliant at trusting the team behind the camera and kind of giving lots of different tones of things.
HULLFISH: Can you give an example of how she might play something? She’s got a very interesting character where she’s at the same time innocent and kind of naive but then also incredibly knowledgeable and experienced with things that she probably shouldn’t be at her young age. Can you give an example of how she might give two different performances and you chose one over the other because of story? Like, “She was more frightened in this one and I felt that played into the story” or “she was stronger in this than frightened and so I chose the stronger one because of the story.”.
HOJBJERG: There are examples of that throughout and sometimes that subtle differences. What the show is also is identity, and it’s also about being different and being not like everybody else. Her character is not based on anything. It’s completely an invention. I guess that gives it some sort of freedom as well.
We had some scenes where she knows something and she’s trying to manipulate somebody else into doing certain things. The challenge was: how scary do we make her? She gave different versions. Somewhere she seems innocent. Somewhere she seems a bit more threatening or a little bit more scary, because she knows. All these things are kind of subtle differences but you really feel it when you watch the rushes.
It’s also something about: how much does she need to show on the outside for the audience to realize at a certain point and how much do we want to keep for herself and be a surprise later for the audience. So, do we want to play it like she knows this and this and this and therefore she looks a little bit strong and scary or do we want to play it like maybe she doesn’t know that? It’s like a cat-and-mouse game, especially in something as plot-heavy and suspense-heavy. You need to have those options to decide if you are keeping the audience guessing or if you are giving them a piece of information — and when you are giving it. That’s about trying to keep it interesting, and her performance plays a big part in that.
HULLFISH: I remember a scene early in season one where a man is watching her. She’s with the family in Morocco. She’s being watched by somebody from above as she gets on a ferry. You could have cut it where he sees her but she doesn’t see him looking at her, but you cut to her reaction shot noticing him.
Was that in the script? Or was it something that you felt like you wanted to show the audience that she noticed? Or was it something a showrunner said, “We want her to notice this guy at this point because of what happens later in the story?”
HOJBJERG: It’s something about having the option. Them shooting it gives us the option to use it or not. Then it’s all about how it functions in the moment — how much we want her to know and how “on top of the situation” we want her to be at that exact point in time.
In TV, very often I just get the rushes while the director is still out shooting. Pretty much when the director is done shooting, I have a sort of full assembly of the whole episode to watch in most cases. I would bring as many options into that cut as possible. So in that example you just gave, I would probably have put it in in the assembly so that we knew it was there because it’s easier to take it out than it is to add it.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about sound a little bit. How much does sound play a part? How much are you doing in the picture-cut, with sound?
HOJBJERG: I’m doing as much as possible. It’s such a big part of the process — the sound and the music. I like to spend a lot of time trying to put different sound effects and music on and spend quite a lot of time playing around with that because it has a huge effect on the rhythm and the pacing of the editing as well and the storytelling. You can change so much with the right sound design, so I think it’s really important to integrate it as much as possible.
For example, in the first episode of the new season, we have this drone sequence where the drones are CGI, so we didn’t have them in the editing. So I spent a lot of time with sound to try to invent the drones in my own head because we have this whole action sequence of drones arriving and Hanna running and we didn’t have any drones. We just had empty plates where the drones were supposed to be. We hadn’t even settled on how the drones are going to look or move.
I spent a lot of time just mimicking the sound of the drone with my voice.
HOJBJERG: You have a shot of Hanna running, then maybe an empty plate and you have to decide how long to stay with the shot of the empty plate. So I have to imagine the drone coming from this treetop to over here at pretty much maybe this pace? (as he mimics the sound of a flying drone with his mouth) and then maybe hovering a little bit. (More drone sound voices) I must have looked crazy!
HULLFISH: And did you record any of those drone voice noises and cut them in, or was did you perform the drone sounds live every time you watched the scene?
HOJBJERG: I did them live every time because I was changing it all the time according to the pace that I felt it should move and where it would be.
HULLFISH: That would definitely change the visual pace of the scene — the sound of some menacing drone. That changes how long you’re gonna sit on a plate.
HOJBJERG: It totally does. The same with music. It’s a blessing, but it can also be a very dangerous thing sometimes. If you put some great music on, then you tend to kind of stick around longer.
I must say I love working with music. I always do work with a lot of things and then I take it completely off and just watch it through to see what is actually left when this beautiful track is not that there anymore?
HULLFISH: A lot of editors have their assistant editors cut all that sound effects stuff in but that obviously changes the pace a lot, and then you have to change your picture cut because the audio has changed the pace of your edits? Or are you much more hands-on with your audio?
HOJBJERG: I’m very hands-on, though on Hanna I had some fantastic assistants. that I’m obviously using to do sound as well. It’s more about gathering different sounds, layering them on, and then I like to sit with all of these elements and do the simple mixing in the Avid. It’s totally a collaboration with assistants, but I like to sit with it as well because it’s such an important thing.
HULLFISH: Did you ever get to the point where you just make an X in TItle Tool and fly it around over the plate?
HOJBJERG: Yeah. We did that too.
HULLFISH: I am pretty shocked that that was not a real drone. I thought that was a real drone.
You cut the premiere, right?
HULLFISH: That’s kind of a big responsibility. You’re basically shaping the style for the rest of the season and for the rest of the series. Talk to me a little about those decisions and having that kind of weight on your shoulders.
HOJBJERG: I don’t mind the weight. The first episode is always the one that is most scrutinized by everybody. It’s where they see, finally what they’ve been working on all along.
HULLFISH: In setting the tone for that episode, was it more like a new feature film where you’re letting the footage speak to you and that’s what’s determining a lot of those choices?
HOJBJERG: Yeah. And of course, I’ve had lots of conversations beforehand with David and the director and with the crew and reading the script. So you don’t just start with a blank piece of paper.
It’s always a very interesting moment because the director — most of the time — is not there. So that moment when the director comes into the room to watch the first episode is always very nerve-wracking.
HULLFISH: Some people don’t get that discussion. What were some of those discussions before you started cutting that first episode of the first season?
HOJBJERG: I had questions about what’s the style? What’s the tone of this? What’s our common language here? Film is such a difficult thing to talk about because it’s all so subjective. What does somebody mean when they say, “It needs to be a bit darker?” Maybe that doesn’t mean the same thing for that person as it does for you, so you have to have quite a lot of conversations back and forth to kind of get on the same wave of what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.
In this particular case, it’s a lot to do with David’s vision, but also the director that I have for my episode. It’s really important that we have some sort of common language. That’s what collaboration is about. It’s about building that trust between all the collaborators. It’s remarkable that it works.
The conversations we have in the beginning would include maybe any plot things that I don’t understand or that maybe I’d ask, “Why can’t it be THIS way? Wouldn’t that be more effective?” But in most cases, it’s actually mostly about getting to know each other and getting to know each other’s temperament and language because it’s really important that we are speaking the same language.
HULLFISH: Did you have discussions about other movies or other TV shows or other references? Is that a way to get on the same stylistic wavelength? To talk about other movie references.
HOJBJERG: It’s always a really good tool and not necessarily just talking about direct references useful specifically to Hanna. But also more about “What’s your inspiration in general? What’s your favorite film. What is really doing it for you in terms of what’s the last thing you saw that you thought was amazing and why?” That’s a brilliant tool to understand how they see film and how things work for them and what they find amazing.
Ultimately I think the editing room needs to be a safe space. It needs to be a place where you can voice your opinion and where you can have discussions and even sometimes argument. It’s a place where you spend a lot of time with another person that you maybe didn’t know before, and so you need to develop this relationship where you feel free to say whatever you think.
In my view or my method — if I have one — that’s what it’s about. It’s about creating this safe space for me and for the director and for whoever else comes into that room to have an opinion and we can have discussions about what we’re doing. Because if people don’t feel safe, it’s not useful because then we don’t get their honest opinion and honest discussion. The work doesn’t become as good as it can be. So to me, all these talks and meetings before shooting starts is all about trying to build this relationship, because ultimately it is one big collaboration.
HULLFISH: Even if the films you discuss don’t have a direct application to this TV show — Hanna — even if it’s a romantic comedy or a science fiction film you’re still getting a sense of their taste.
HOJBJERG: You totally are. In a lot of cases, I think that’s actually even more useful than just talking direct references to Hanna because that doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about that person’s preferences personally.
Even though of course it’s really useful to have references that are directly applicable to what you’re doing, but it’s also in some ways — and maybe mostly philosophical — it’s also kind of limiting because you also want to feel like you’re trying to do something new. So the moment you’re saying, “Here’s this other great TV show. That is just pretty much what we want to do again.” That’s not very inspirational for anybody.
Even though it’s probably not really possible, you want to feel like you are inventing new things every time.
HULLFISH: When you’re dealing with the pilot or the premiere episode of the first season, you mentioned music and how much music means to you. What kind of discussions do you have about music? Did you know who the composer was going to be? And then did you try to choose temp music that would fit that composer’s style?
HOJBJERG: We were really lucky that we had a composer from the beginning. They were able to send out sketches from the beginning. That was actually one of the really good collaborations that I’ve had ever. It was just great to have these guys from the beginning and they had already been thinking about themes and sound and they’re brilliant guys.
HULLFISH: You’ve got performance. You’ve got all the action. You’ve got plot things that you have to deal with, but then you also got theme. You mentioned the theme of identity and being different from other people. How can you work in that theme in your editing?
HOJBJERG: My tool is intuition and my gut feeling and I’m the first audience. I very much use my intuition when I’m editing.
This show has so many elements, but at its core it has this theme of identity and that’s what comes out in some of the more quiet scenes.
It’s great to cut action, where you have all these different shots and you can really play with the pacing and the suspense and the music and it all comes together. But what is equally fantastic — and to me, really, really rewarding — is a dialogue scene between two people. It can be amazing.
I see it a little bit like it’s a tennis match. You have two opponents and you’re just watching the ball and go back and forth and you have to decide and you have to pace and you have to decide, Is it more exciting now to watch the person who is speaking or maybe it’s actually more exciting right now to watch the person who is listening?
You have this whole dynamic in a dialogue scene which is like a tennis game or game of chess or something. And I guess it’s in those scenes — in this show — where I’m kind of really thinking about identity because it’s not something that we are saying out loud. But it’s something that I’m thinking about when I’m cutting the scene. I feel it and it kind of rubs off on the things that I’m cutting. It’s all really subtle things.
HULLFISH: Do you have a different approach in cutting a scene that is action-based to cutting a scene that’s dialogue-based? When you get the rushes do you actually do different things for those scenes? Like, “I’ll do a selects reel for an action scene, but I won’t do a selects reel for a dialogue scene” or something like that?
HOJBJERG: I always try to be completely open. I try to not have too much routine and I try to not do the same thing every time in the same way because I feel like it keeps me open to pretend that I don’t have any routine even though I obviously do have a lot of routine.
I’ve cut more than 20 feature films and a bunch of TV for many, many years. So I do have routine but I try to pretend that I don’t to keep it fresh every time because there are always new challenges which is kind of magical.
That said, in a big action scene I do try to be a bit more methodical. It’s simply to have an overview. It’s difficult to have an overview if you don’t try to sort it out a little bit first.
But on the dialogue scenes, what I most of the time do is — while watching through the rushes — I select things and I try to not think about what I’m precisely going to do with the things that I select. I select “I like that little look” or “I like that little pause.” Or, “I like this how she says this line.” I pull all these things into another sequence. I’m trying to not really think about where it’d fit or even if it fits, or if I have the same line three times.
Watching that teaches me a lot. Why did I like this? How does that fit with something else? And then the project starts by shaping the scene and actually finding out: What’s the beginning? What’s the middle? What’s the end?
HULLFISH: Once you grab all of those pieces, you weren’t trying to mold that selects reel into the final scene, right? You were using it as a source to build a new sequence? You’re popping it into the source monitor and editing the selects into a new timeline.
HOJBJERG: Yeah. Sometimes I do. Sometimes if there’s a lot of rushes it can be a complete mess and really difficult. Sometimes I just use it as a reference and I match-frame back to the original source so I’m looking at the full take and how that works.
HULLFISH: Right, because you might need something leading in or coming out of a great moment.
HOJBJERG: Exactly. And of course you don’t think about that when you pull the select. It’s really helpful to me because it keeps it fresh and it keeps me fresh as well. Oftentimes, I just go back and watch that sequence again against the actual cut that I made to see if there’s stuff that I missed.
HULLFISH: You mentioned staying fresh and doing things differently. What would be another approach that you would try?
HOJBJERG: Sometimes I feel like I need to try a different way and then sometimes I’m inspired by the old days when it wasn’t digital — it was physical.
HULLFISH: You find the best first shot and then “where do I go from there?”
HOJBJERG: Yeah. And then it’s about watching the rushes and maybe making notes, but not making any cuts in anything. Thinking and kind of trying to make a plan in my head, and then just do it.
That’s another really great challenge and another really fun way of doing it — where you pretend that it’s a Steenbeck or a Moviola. Basically, anything that I can invent that sharpens my senses.
I try to do lots of little tricks on myself just to sharpen my senses. I don’t want to feel like I have this feeling of routine.
HULLFISH: I love the discussion of different ways to approach a scene and how important audio is — making drone sounds with your mouth.
HOJBJERG: Film is so incredible in that way. I call it, “the art of the possible.”.
HULLFISH: The art of the possible.
HOJBJERG: The art of the possible because it’s such an expensive thing to do and it’s logistically it’s crazy. Hundreds of people and locations and it’s just an incredible machine to get going. In a perfect world if you have unlimited amounts of money and an unlimited amount of time, then great. But you never do. There’s always a reality.
Compared to a lot of other art forms — If you’re a painter, it’s you and a canvas and paint.
HULLFISH: You have complete control of your art.
HOJBJERG: You have complete control both in time and space and everything. But film, you really don’t because everything can happen. And as you know, anything that can happen will happen. Then editing is where all these things that happened or didn’t happen come together. It’s the moment of truth where you finally see what it is that you have been doing for the last few months and how do we bring out the best of it.
I think that’s why editing is such a fantastic place in the process, because — in my mind — that’s kind of where it happens. That’s where all the elements are being brought together and we figure out how to bring it to the next level.
It’s an amazing place to be in the process.
HULLFISH: I think so too. Thank you so much for being with me. It was wonderful to talk to you today.
HOJBJERG: Yeah. Very nice to talk to you, too.
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.