Carol Littleton, ACE started her editorial career in 1975. She began a long-term working relationship with director Lawrence Kasdan editing Body Heat (1981). She was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA and ACE Eddie for E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982). She won an Emmy for Tuesdays with Morrie (2000) and an Eddie for the mini-series All the Way. In 2016 she was also presented with a Career Achievement Award by the Academy of Cinema Editors.
Her other films as editor include The Big Chill, Silverado, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Accidental Tourist, Benny and Joon, Wyatt Earp, The Manchurian Candidate, The Other Boleyn Girl and A Walk in the Woods.
Art of the Cut discusses her most recent project with her: My Dinner with Herve, recently released by HBO.
HULLFISH: Let’s start by discussing dailies. You started editing back in the days when watching dailies was a shared experience. Most of the heads of departments or at the least the editor, DP and director, would watch the dailies together. Now, that’s rare. What do you think was gained by that practice of shared dailies viewing?
LITTLETON: The movies were definitely stronger for it. It was a necessary review that enabled us to evaluate and refine the filmmaking process day to day. I miss dailies very much. In the film days, I could sit next to the director in a projection room and write down his preferred takes and cutting notes – even just sitting next to the director, with someone like (director) Larry Kasdan, with whom I’ve done a number of films – I could tell whether he liked or disliked something. He didn’t have to tell me. I could gauge from his body language how he felt about different takes. I can’t emphasize enough how much I miss dailies and how much I feel the films miss dailies. The filmmaking process is truly impoverished by not having communal dailies. Dailies were a moment of reflection of the day-to-day process of making a movie. It’s not the same thing getting them on PIX. I’m sorry, but PIX is a pain in the neck.
HULLFISH: Luckily the director I just worked with loved coming in with the DP and some of the crew and watching dailies at the end of the day. Of course, it meant an extra two hours to the day.
LITTLETON: That’s truly a false economy because the two hours you might miss meant that the filmmaking process would be far more…
LITTLETON: Yes, efficient and critical. You would evaluate the previous days work with a critical mindset which is almost impossible if everyone is looking at dailies on their laptops, alone, isolated from each other.
Nowadays, it seems the goal is to get the maximum number of angles, multiple cameras as many times as you can: the whole process of shooting is largely one of hosing everything down. Certainly, if you get enough stuff wet — using the water hose analogy — surely there will be a film in there somewhere. That’s not the way cinematic movies are made. I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors in the digital age who are very cognizant of the primacy of the shot. But I’ve seen other films — primarily those I’ve pulled together as a film doctor — that are just horrific. The whole notion of a shot that tells the story — the mise en scene — appears to be lost. It’s just insane. That’s not filmmaking.
HULLFISH: After the dailies, I know you go through a very conscious pre-visualization of your edits before you even start to cut. Could you describe that process?
LITTLETON: Yes, after looking carefully at dailies, I try to visualize how the scene will unfold in my head by getting it down on paper before I start putting a scene together. Then the second step is to put it together quickly in a first cut and then “put a clip in it.” That is, I put the scene aside and pick it up the next morning after starting another scene in the meantime.
My process is simple: I’m constantly looking at a new scene, cutting a new scene, then revising the next morning before I move on to the next scene. So I have a little bit of revision before going on — or at least looking at and evaluating it in my mind. And then I start putting scenes together to form a sequence. Sometimes it’s a week later — as you know — or two or three weeks later before you have all the scenes that make up a sequence. And then I start revising the film in sequences. I try not to show the director anything until I cut several scenes together as a sequence — unless of course he or she wants to see a scene immediately.
HULLFISH: You mention that you like to work it out on paper before you cut it. Are you literally writing down shots on a notepad? Or are you taking the script and kind of lining it with specific takes and set-ups you want over each line?
LITTLETON: When the script comes to me, I enumerate each line on the page, so that I have a shorthand way of saying, “Lines 1 through 6 in scene 34 are great in take 8” for example. And then, “Lines 16 through 21 is better in take 4 for this character.” I think about the strength of the performances first of all. Ideally, it would be great to put all the choice takes together. So I just enumerate very quickly what I would consider to be preferred shots together on paper and then I think, “Well what would be the best visual progression of the scene.” I start thinking about the best performance and the best shots for the dramatic progression on paper then on film — it sounds very belabored, what I’m telling you, but it’s a pretty quick mental process.
Then I think, “Well if I started out with a wide shot then I might be able to go to the two here and pick up the single that’s really good here and just see how that flows together.” And if it seems to work OK in my mind, then I cut it. Clearly, sometimes a director will indicate choices in the notes, which I try to incorporate in the first cut. Sometimes you see a certain architecture of the scene when you’re actually viewing dailies and you know which shot was intended to start or finish a scene, for instance.
So the first cut is a synthesis of all these ways of choosing takes. When I figure that I have the scene pretty well established in my mind, the actual cutting goes together pretty fast. If an initial idea doesn’t work, I just discard it. I don’t try to perfect every cut the first time around. I just want to see how the scene blocks out using the best pieces for performance and the best visual language.
HULLFISH: You’re talking a lot about performance. Does camera movement also play into these decisions?
LITTLETON: Oh sure, yeah. I am very aware of camera movement and composition: camera movement that is specific, a definite choice on the part of the operator, the cinematographer, and the director. Yes. I use the visual language. I am very aware of the dominance of the shot.
HULLFISH: The intentionality of it speaks to you.
LITTLETON: I don’t think my process is very different than that of most editors. I’m just very careful with my choices and I have a good memory of the footage. If I want to go back into a scene and totally change it, lets say for the sake of experimentation, I know where I can find alternate takes to do that.
HULLFISH: The other thing that I think about when I think about discipline from the film-cutting days is that when I’m cutting, I’m doing a lot of trimming. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter if I trim something one frame and then trim it another frame, but of course from the film days that would have cost you dearly.
LITTLETON: Yes. I am an old film editor with a trained eye and sensitivity for the rhythm of the cuts. I execute cuts quickly. In a sense, I trust my instincts. I don’t belabor this trim mode thing too much, especially for the first cut. In fact, if you want to know, I use a Wacom tablet. I have a lot of preset positions on the tablet. So the actually cutting is quick. I don’t mess around with a mouse.
HULLFISH: Could you explain the Wacom set-up?
LITTLETON: There are buttons on both sides of the tablet, which are presets. For instance, I have buttons to turn all tracks on and all tracks off. All picture on, all picture off with one click of my left index finger. Then I have a preset also on that side for a locator. Between the presets on the Wacom and those on the Avid keyboard, I’m able to drive the Avid without too much clicking.
And I use the “Scripter.” (The un-official, but common slang for Avid’s Script Integration tool)
The Scripter is a good tool, but I don’t use it for viewing dailies. If the temptation is to cut from the Scripter, don’t do it. Most of the emotion of a scene exists between the lines, in the change of expression, the turn of the head, a telling gesture. For my last five movies, I’ve been using it extensively and I like it very much for reviewing takes— line readings and other things that I mark in the “Scripter.” For instance: camera moves can be easily compared, what works in one take and not in another.
HULLFISH: I feel like if you use it at the beginning of the process, it breaks the performances up too much.
LITTLETON: Right. Exactly. That’s why I only use it to review dailies and to review readings after I’ve already put sequences together. I don’t use it to cut. I use it to A/B. I just compare them, but I don’t use it from the beginning to cut with. No. Absolutely not.
HULLFISH: And you probably use it to review takes with a director sitting with you….
LITTLETON: Yes. The Scripter is good for a comparison review. But, when you’ve worked on film you cultivate a memory that’s different than working on the Avid. You can pull up shots so easily on the Avid, you get kind of lazy thinking: I can find what I need by using the scripter. But because I have the discipline of working on film, I retain, remember salient moments. For instance, the shot with the most touching, engaging moment is 5-Apple, take 3 about halfway down.” Crazy habit, I know.
The other thing that I retained from film days is faith in the process. If the actor is doing the work, let the actor do the work. I don’t need to do it. I don’t need to chop stuff up in tiny little pieces just to keep it moving along. Have faith in the process. Have faith in the actors and their abilities to do everything in one shot, linking up moments bit-by-bit, moment-to-moment. Once again, emotion exists between the lines– in the progression from line to line and the interaction of the actors.
Another thing that drives me crazy with digital filming is when the director picks up the shot again and again and again in a series on a single take. Prop people don’t have time to put props back. Actors don’t have time to think. The camera operator doesn’t know exactly how far to go back. Shooting over and over in a series on one slate is crazy making on the set and in the editing room. I would rather that everybody stop. Let the director give notes and start over again. Every time there is a pick-up there will be a cut. There’s no way around it. So editing options are limited from the very beginning. I encourage directors to take full takes if at all possible to retain the continuity of performance and the emotional strength of the scene. Working with internal pick-ups can destroy a scene. I get crazy about this. I ask the director, “Trust your own process. Trust your actors. Let them connect their thoughts and their feelings from moment to moment”. A performance is good only from moment to moment. So why interrupt them so much? It’s not about gathering a bunch of pieces together. It’s about cutting a movie with some sense of ebb and flow. Shooting multiple cameras is another bugaboo. Directors these days use so many cameras at once, especially in performance movies that all the angles are compromised. Multiple cameras and picking up shots in a series is a disaster, except, of course in car chases with crashes. But, for the most part, a single camera approach is much better.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in your exploration of dailies. Are you doing that directly from clips in a bin? Or do you create a KEM roll that has all of the shots and setups in a single sequence? How do you approach that?
LITTLETON: I work from dailies, not a KEM roll. I didn’t even do that when I was working on a KEM – unless it’s a very complicated sequence, like a chase or an action sequence where there clearly are certain pieces that are much better than another. I would assemble those in a select roll. But, as far as performance is concerned I don’t make a select roll. I reach a better, refined performance from the actors by sticking with dailies. It is important to watch what the actor is creating with the director and follow the progression of their work from take to take.
HULLFISH: One of my biggest takeaways from these interviews is something you alluded to earlier: Trust the process.
LITTLETON: Absolutely. Let the film instruct and trust the process. Be very observant and receptive. I try to make a CHOICE, not an imposition on the material. I watch a lot of young kids who are cutting these days in workshops, classes and in the cutting room. I want my assistants to have a hand at editing. Will they edit what seems to be easy or flashy rather than taking the time to think about the process: the intent of the scene; the emotional color of the scene; the emotional connectivity of the scene, making dramatic choices that are visually dramatic with rhythm and cadence. I have learned to trust the process and that means: let the movie speak to you. Try not to impose too much on it, especially on the first time around.
In my view, in the first assembly (I hate to use the word assembly and think it should be named the editor’s first cut), you’re trying to include everything that’s in the script, so that if there’s a problem with the script or with an idea in the script or the intent of certain scenes that are not coming across, you can talk to the director about those problems and nip it in the bud. Solve problems while you’re shooting. So I try to edit this first pass very quickly. You would be surprised how “right” your instincts can be — and I am pretty fast — so I try to keep a juggling act going: evaluating performances, camera movement, visual interest, composition and dramatic intent, all in the first cut, but not necessarily refined to perfection.
Here are the questions I ask myself: What are my predilections? What are my choices? What are the director’s? What’s best for the scene? What does the writer intend? Do the performances support the intention of the scene? How is the visual language telling the story? What is the ebb and flow of the scene? So the trick is to juggle all those values at once. I definitely feel you have to trust the process. And as you go from cutting dailies on to finishing your first cut and then working on the director’s cut and then integrating the ideas of zillions of producers, you still want to be very calm and be very thoughtful about changes, points of view and alternative approaches. Learning to be thoughtful and patient is easy when you have the knowledge of the materials you have to work with. You don’t have to declare war when you have deep knowledge of the material. You just have to be very mindful of what you’re doing, be patient and trust the process.
HULLFISH: An early mistake that I made cutting drama was feeling like if I went the way that the director wanted — which I didn’t think was right — that was my last chance to speak into it. The process of cutting the film takes so long that you don’t have to make that final choice on the first day. There’s no reason to die on that hill on day one.
LITTLETON: I think it’s very difficult for editors to NOT to be possessive and protective of their hard work. But you have to get over that. You want to carefully evaluate and analyze the scene before you start. I find that many young editors don’t read the script enough and take notes and use the script as the book — as if you were rehearsing a play. And I have always done that. Break it down and really look at each scene. See what’s necessary in each scene. I didn’t go to film school. I was a peripatetic student. I went to too many colleges and changed my major too many times. But my main focus was as a lit major (French and English literature). I have that kind of training so I approach the script as if it were a text to be explicated or torn apart and understood deeply before I start. I just don’t read a script a couple of times and say, “Yeah I love it.” The text for me is really important. That’s probably one reason why I’ve been attracted to writer/directors. I’ve worked with a number of them and that’s probably what I enjoy most.
HULLFISH: Kasdan’s a writer/director, correct?
LITTLETON: Yes. Yes. He is an extraordinary writer. I’ve worked with Robert Benton and most recently, Sacha Gervasi on MY DINNER WITH HERVE, which is highly autobiographical for him.
HULLFISH: Do you find with some writer/directors that they’re precious with their words? More than a director who is working from someone else’s script?
LITTLETON: I’ve been able to approach writer-directors with the idea that they are writing as much with images as they are with words. And many times, the images are far more powerful than words. I just say, “What if we snip all this out? It’ll be much better.” And most of the time they just say, “Oh my God! Yeah. Great.” So it’s about how you approach it. You don’t want to take lines out just because you feel you need to speed it along, or whatever, but if you can explain that the images speak much more incisively and definitively than any amount of script — audiences today, by virtue of having seen so much film, are attuned to what an image says to them. Arresting visual language is shorthand. It’s instant language. And it’s far more powerful than repetitive dialogue. In fact, when I’m reading a script and I see that there is a lot of repetition I just take the red pencil to it and have a chitchat with the director before they start shooting. If the shots are telling the story, many lines of chitchat can be eliminated. Many times, a writer-director dramatizes the reason he has written the script (the main theme, if you will) into a largely expositional scene. Those are the scenes to watch, because many times, the ideas are embedded in the script. The script may need the exposition, but the film does not. I could cite various examples of this: the flashback sequence in THE BIG CHILL, which was deleted from the movie and the initial dinner scene in MY DINNER WITH HERVE which was reduced largely to repartee. Don’t tell the audience what will happen or what characters are thinking—the experience is more powerful than any exposition. I would reference the last moving shot of PLACES IN THE HEART when all the characters in the film are taking communion. The community of the congregation becomes the community of mankind. No dialog or voice over needed.
HULLFISH: There’s the old saw that there’s the movie that you write; the movie you shoot; and the movie you edit – and they’re all different movies.
LITTLETON: Yes exactly right. The old adage that editing is the last rewrite. And a lot of times — let’s face it — scripts are written as a sales pitch. Today, writers have to sell a script and that script may or may not be a good shooting script.
HULLFISH: Right. The initial purpose of the script is to get a film funded and get people — actors, producers, a director — interested in the project. It’s not necessarily the perfect blueprint for a film.
LITTLETON: A lot of times what’s on the page is not exactly what you need on the screen because you’ve got to sell the movie from the script. So that’s a very important step that we all need to be mindful of. Salesmanship is the keyword. Sell the script first then refinements and changes can follow.
John and I attended the Telluride Film Festival where saw Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, Roma. It’s so simple and straightforward as to be deceptive. It is an extraordinary film. Many times simplicity is clearly much more difficult than piling on detail, gratuitous quick cuts, and voluminous chitchat. Roma is a classic film. It takes place in a certain time of turmoil in Mexico. For example, there is a student riot, which ignites in the background as the characters are walking into a commercial area. Alfonso never violates the point of view of the characters to show you something that they don’t experience. The rigorous point of view makes the film strong. The next scene in the furniture store is shocking for its surprise. I won’t spoil the penultimate sequence on the beach, in the hopes that you’ll see it. The rigorous point of view of the filmmaking enriches its humanity beyond what we experience in most films today. Roma is very emotional and very moving. It takes its time. It’s deliberate, controlled and just fantastic.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about context when you’re editing. The way a scene fits into the scenes around it. Something that happens — at least to me — is that an edit done during principal photography that seems good, often needs to be revised once the scene is seen in context of the scenes cut around it. Can you tell me about examples of that, or why you think that happens?
LITTLETON: Well when you say you trust the process I think that’s one of the things you need to trust is that you will go through these stages of assembling the film and putting it together that will teach you what is ultimately needed in each scene. I don’t see this as a mistake or as a miscalculation, but until you put scenes together to form sequences and finally put sequences together into acts and then the overall film, you are not able to make that judgment. Whether you revise sooner or later you must not criticize yourself for not having seen problems beforehand. That’s all part of the process. Is that making sense?
HULLFISH: 100 percent. Absolutely.
LITTLETON: I think you can’t cheat the process by trying to make shortcuts. There really aren’t any shortcuts. You have to evaluate everything as you’re going and the more deeply you get into the material the more you know it and the better you are at retaining or rejecting certain aspects of a scene or a sequence — the emotional life of the film. And that’s one thing, the most important element that I’m constantly aware of: the emotional life. That’s really why we go to the movies. We want to be moved as an audience. So I am very cognizant of allowing the audience to experience the ebb and flow of the emotional life of the movie without thinking about it. You want them to feel it. I work on the spine of the film first and save editorial embellishments and things that are jazzy or whatever for later. You want the editing to be intended and not just some fancy footwork. Distinguish between what you like as personal taste and what is necessary for the film.
HULLFISH: How quickly are putting individual scenes into a sequence? As soon as you can?
LITTLETON: Yes. I don’t perfect things too much until I have enough scenes to put together as a sequence. As soon as I have two or three scenes I hook them up and keep that in a running bin of sequences that will ultimately become a cut of the film.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little about A WALK IN THE WOODS. I was able to watch that yesterday. There’s not a lot of music in that movie and it has some interesting music choices. As someone who cut on film, there really wasn’t the chance to add temp music like you do now. What’s your current sense of using temp?
LITTLETON: I would like to give you a little about my background in music. My mother was a fine musician, a pianist and the organist at our church. From an early age, I was exposed to concert music. Even though I grew up in rural Oklahoma, one shouldn’t mistake that fact for being impoverished culturally. On the contrary, my family was culturally literate. We lived in the country about 15 miles from Miami, a small town in the northeastern corner of the state. Living some distance from town taught me how to entertain myself. We did not have a TV until I was about 15 years old and even then the reception was terrible. I occupied my time largely by reading a lot and playing music. I played piano — not well. Through my high school and college years, I played oboe in a number of bands and orchestras. I started out in college as a music major, but soon abandoned it when I realized how good my classmates were and how restricting life in a practice room could be. Nevertheless, my orientation — I feel — in editing, is very musical because of my early exposure to serious music. So, while the musicality of a scene may not be apparent, I’m aware of the melody and the cadence of each actor’s speech and the sense of the cadence of a scene. I’m aware and attuned to the musicality of film. For instance, when I’m preparing for a film I actually make a library of songs and or temp cues — a variety of music I think might work for the film— and then I ask the director if he or she has a musical approach or musical choices in mind. I load all of the cues, temp score or source, in the Avid. Even though I may or may not use the cues, they give me a place to start.
In the past, I would have a full rack of different pieces of music transferred to magnetic film ready to use. So I’ve kept the habit now that editing is digital. On the Avid, of course, it is simple and immediate to have many more choices. On film, it was a budgetary item because we had to transfer cues from ¼” tape to magnetic full-coat and arrange for a temp mix before screenings, which could be expensive. But now that you can load anything into an Avid for easy reference, I keep a pretty good library of score and source music on hand. And, of course, like most editors these days, I make a temp mix on the Avid for screenings.
For instance, on A WALK IN THE WOODS, we did not need much score. Lord Huron’s music fit the tone of the film. So we used his songs as score in addition to a limited, but beautiful score by Nathan Larson. Some years earlier, we used only source for score on THE BIG CHILL. Larry Kasdan and the producers made a deal with Motown to have access to their library, to the cues, which were contemporary with the timeframe of the film, 1969. This is before source music was used widely in film in as score. I had about 300 cues that I could choose from. In the cutting room, we started trying cues early in the process. There were two or three cuts in The Big Chill that were called for in the script because they were done to playback. So we made choices according to our whim or what worked best musically for the scenes. Back in those days, it was easier and less expensive to procure the rights for popular songs. We had neither a music editor nor a music supervisor on THE BIG CHILL and we used the entire post-production time to try music cues. I cut the film to fit the music. It is different now. On A WALK IN THE WOODS, Susan Jacobs was the music supervisor and Suzana Peric the music editor. It would have been very difficult to finish the film without their talents. Susan was able to suggest cues that were similar to cues we couldn’t afford. And Suzana edited the score and source cues in a brilliantly musical fashion.
HULLFISH: In addition to the editorial choices of which scenes have music are the choices of which scenes DON’T have music and also where in the scene the cue starts. Can you address some of those things?
LITTLETON: I have learned to proceed with caution vis-à-vis the use of music in early cuts of a film. The choice to use temp music varies from film to film. For A WALK IN THE WOODS I edited the first cut without music because I wanted to see how strong the scenes would play without music or extensive backgrounds. It’s a very sweet film, a comedy, but it’s also about a very big idea: In the last act of your life, what are you going to do before age takes its toll? All the dreams that you’ve had and postponed, it’s time to act on them now. The material demanded a certain kind of music that would allow the audience to enjoy the comedy but also the situation of two guys who once knew each other, and are now thrown together on long distance a hike on the Appalachian Trail. The film revolves around their survival in nature and of each other. The walk on the AT is a metaphor for walking through life. We have to be able to work together. We have to be able to answer challenges. We have to be able to challenge ourselves. And that’s the richness of life. (SPOILER ALERT) Not everything works out. They didn’t finish the AT from start to finish. But it doesn’t matter. They still walked the Appalachian Trail.
I tried to integrate the way that the story was told in a comedic form with the importance of self-evaluation, especially at that time in one’s life, with its larger reflections on the meaning of life. The editing called for the fun and excitement an adventure, of doing something new and challenging later in life with the acknowledgement of the grandeur of nature, which has an extraordinary effect on our lives if we let it happen.
HULLFISH: It fascinates me to discuss the differences in the structure of the script compared the way the film eventually reveals the story on screen. Can you think of any examples in your large body of work that people would be interested in concerning the change from the shooting script to the final movie and why it happened?
LITTLETON: I could speak with more detail about the film I’ve just finished for HBO, MY DINNER WITH HERVE, which first aired on October 22. The film is loosely autobiographical, based the writer/director Sacha Gervasi’s early career as a young reporter. He was assigned to interview a veteran writer who, in the case of the script, was fictionalized as Gore Vidal. In a fit of pique, Vidal ended his interview. The young reporter in desperation called on his secondary assignment, Herve Villachaize, for an interview. The film is basically a protracted 32-hour interview in a limo, — a wild ride across Los Angeles in search of Herve’s truth.
The script used a number of flashbacks to illustrate biographical moments in Herve’s life. Most of the flashbacks in the script were not full scenes, but rather short bursts. But Sacha had a sense of wanting to keep his options open in post and on my urging, Sasha shot full flashback scenes instead of the short flashback bursts as written in the script. Sacha wanted to have the option of longer flashbacks as an insurance policy to use if the flashback bursts as scripted did not work in post. Initially, in the first assembly, I was faithful to the original script. When we got to the big, emotional scene (Tate, the young reporter played by Jaime Dornan’s confession) the film did not work. We were asking the audience to emote with Jamie Dornan and the moment did not seem “earned”. Something clearly misfired. The movie did not work.
The problem was fundamental: a lack of emotional connection between Herve and Tate.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me what some of those choices were to make that emotional connection work?
LITTLETON: The problem revealed itself in the first cut: Tate initially saw Herve as an oddity and was slow to make emotional connections with Herve. Through careful use of the flashbacks, we were able to change Tate’s view of Herve and incrementally build to Tate’s confessional moment. We went back to the drawing board and found a way to build Tate’s slow understanding of Herve’s life—an emotional investment that would be believable. The short flashbacks were disruptions. They did not allow the characters to connect with each other. We used the longer versions of the flashbacks, combined others and changed the order of scenes to flesh out Herve’s past. Tate’s point of view became that of the audience. In other words, we found a way to incrementally build the story to an emotional climax. We gave the audience a way to connect with the supercharged flashbacks of Herve’s childhood, his career as a successful TV actor and his ultimate demise. We found a way to have emotional connectivity between the characters and ultimately with the audience by careful incremental, accretion of detail. Or, you might say, we used the trial and error method of editing. We tried everything until we got the film to work emotionally.
Essentially, we had to reconstruct the film dramatically. We had to keep it on its feet changing emotional gears between comedy and tragedy. This was a fundamental challenge, considering a great deal of the film was in the back of a limo. Herve is a Frenchman. On one hand, Peter Dinklage’s performance had to have a certain lightness of being. It had to have that sense of joie de vivre, of embracing life but at the same time portray his disappointments and life reversals without self-pity. You had to understand and live with the character. The flashbacks and the material between the flashbacks had to dramatize rather than describe Herve’s life.
HULLFISH: That kind of initial failure is a very touchy thing. Watching a first assembly – for a director – is almost always brutal for them. How did you address your belief that the film needed such massive restructuring?
LITTLETON: Every time you run a first assembly with the director, they fall out of their chair and they think they’re going to die. It’s doubly horrible, because you as the editor feel like a failure.
Sacha, Len Amato (the HBO Producer) and I looked at the first assembly together. The three of us agreed– there was a film there but it did not work. So Sacha and I started tearing it apart and experimented with everything. I think first-time editors try to have all the answers after a screening. That is frankly impossible. Look, listen and try everything: that is what I mean by trusting the process.
But, I knew we had problems during the shoot and the problems were evident when we saw MY DINNER WITH HERVE in its first assembly. During the shoot, I didn’t want to scare Sacha. I encouraged him to shoot the full versions of the flashbacks, even if the shooting schedule needed to be shorter. At the same time, I wanted to encourage Sacha to trust the editorial process. I suppose that means being truthful when the film does not work and finding ways to get it to play successfully, with drama, humor and empathy.
Our problems. In addition to the flashbacks, were intrinsic. We needed to examine each scene for the emotional intent as well as the forward movement of the drama. The flashbacks had to be the emotionally connective tissue to help us go from moment to moment, but the scenes between Tate and Herve had to work on their own, to create momentum.
You’ll have to see this film and let me know what you think, but I think it has extraordinary emotional strength and thematic richness. It explores the notion of taking responsibility. It explores the notion of celebrity – how celebrity can corrupt. It deals with an older man who has reached the end of his life prematurely because of his health problems and instilling in a younger man the importance of taking responsibility for his life. Herve and Tate learn from each other. It’s an amazing drama of two distinctly different people: an Englishman and a Frenchman — a reporter and an actor — a young cocky guy and an older, broken-down dwarf—how their lives merge, how they inform each other’s lives, how their friendship matters. It’s a very emotional film, which also typifies the age — the 70s —, which was wild and crazy with drugs and experimentation. And it also takes place primarily in roughly 32 hours; Herve shows this kid the real L.A, which of course is outrageous and hopefully entertaining.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the importance of being careful with your ego as an editor. Scorsese says, “no film is ever as good as the dailies or as bad as the first edit.”
LITTLETON: Right. Dailies are always fantastic, and the first cut is always a disaster.
HULLFISH: Yes. So when the director sees this is not working, that’s a hard place to be as an editor because you’re at a very sensitive place with a director because he is realizing he hasn’t quite accomplished what he wanted. And your ego is exposed as well because you’ve delivered this early-stage thing that has essentially failed.
LITTLETON: Well, you have to get over the sense of failure when you are working with the director. Forget the blame game or the guilt game. I’m supportive of the director and I’m supportive of the process. After viewing the first assembly, Sacha turned to me and asked, “What are we going to do? This is horrible. This doesn’t work the way I thought or wanted.” I said in answer, “We are going to trust the process. We will go through the film. We will find a way to put it together. It’s going to be a lot of work. Every day we’re going to consider what needs to be done. We will eventually counterbalance the comedy with the intrinsic drama. We will honor its mixture of tone.
The sense of failure is more acute with writer/directors. I’ve learned from working with Larry Kasdan. So I told Sacha, “This is not unusual. This has nothing to do with failure. This has to do with writing a film, shooting a film, looking at it and realizing all the values you wanted in the script and find a way to translate them to the screen. Everything is there, but many decisions have been made since you wrote the script and there will be more. We are editing the movie now and the script phase is over. Trust the editorial process.
HULLFISH: You were simply supportive and realistic.
LITTLETON: Absolutely. I kept saying, “Don’t get derailed by your sense of disappointment, your emotion. That’s not going to help us. You need to put that aside and think positively about what we have to work with.”
HULLFISH: You were talking about emotional flips. THE BIG CHILL, which you cut, had those as well.
LITTLETON: Well, THE BIG CHILL had similar problems. I think every film does. You’re working in a different medium from the script. After shooting you have a great deal to work with: images, the performances, movement, composition. You have to pitch the script and start to work with what is on film.
HULLFISH: Which is so interesting — because, and I’m not saying you’re contradicting yourself in any way — but, you started out by saying how drawn you are and how closely you follow the text of the script at the beginning.
LITTLETON: Exactly. Because — think about it for a moment — if you do not have discipline, you don’t know where you’re coming from or where you want to land. So it’s very important that the first approach be disciplined and follow the template of the script; that it includes the intention of the script; the intention of the characters; the intention of the director’s vision. The vision idea is overused and rather lofty. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with directors whose visions are unique. But, I don’t think many directors today have a vision, especially if you consider most directors are referential and not original. So, if you look at the intention, you are starting at an informed baseline. After the first assembly, you can start tearing the film apart and doing what you and the director feel needs to be done. Now, this method may take more time, but I’m a hard worker. I don’t mind the work at all. But I need to be instructed by the footage, the actors’ performances and the visual choices before I can go in and impose what I feel needs to be done. It’s not honest if I don’t do that. It’s not an honest approach.
HULLFISH: What were some of the things structurally or with the emotional arcs and ups and downs that you were trying to build with THE BIG CHILL that needed to be changed?
LITTLETON: The structure of THE BIG CHILL was tricky. It was circular. In other words, you start by introducing all the characters before and during the funeral and then as each persons’ issues or their themes are introduced, one person introduces us to another and to another and to another. So, the circular structure works as a chain.
THE BIG CHILL takes place over a long weekend and in some ways, MY DINNER WITH HERVE is very similar in that it takes place in a thirty-two hour period. There is a unity of time in both of films. But how you treat the time within the continuum of time is the secret. So we had to approach THE BIG CHILL with the idea of how quickly we could go from one story to the next to the next to the next and still connect them emotionally and thematically. This is an ensemble piece so we had to keep in mind how the stories would be built emotionally. Herve was also somewhat of an ensemble piece — an ensemble of two — but it presented the same problems. You want the intent of the scene and the themes of the scenes to be clear to an audience, but you want them to feel it more than to think about it. Those are the issues in both movies. Larry and I realized that every scene had to be cut to the strengths of each of the actor’s performances. We had to find ways to have a balance of comedy and serious intent. The two movies are very similar in a lot of ways.
HULLFISH: Any editing moments that you are really proud of?
LITTLETON: Well, every film is different. Can I talk about a film that has been somewhat neglected, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, Larry Kasdan’s film from the late 80s? The movie starts a year or so after Macon Leary’s young son is shot and killed in a fast food joint. Macon and his wife try to pick up the pieces after their horrible loss. The scenes unfold in unspoken, visual ways. The performances are measured in calipers. This kind of oblique storytelling is difficult to pull off. I’m very proud of THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST for all kinds of reasons.
HULLFISH: When you are judging editing — as a member of the Academy, or as a member of ACE — what is telling you that you’re watching a beautifully edited film that is award-worthy?
LITTLETON: Oh boy that’s difficult. I’m very aware of the structure of the film. How the storytelling unfolds. How the characters are introduced to the audience. You look at it – in a way – like a play. The curtain is pulled back and how is the audience drawn into the film? How quickly does the film start to have its own life? How much can you insert yourself into it? How honest is the storytelling?
I don’t like too much manipulation — or manipulation that I can see — how the editing involves me. I like to see if a character has progression and a transformation. Part of it is editing. Part of it’s writing. It’s very difficult to distinguish – and the editor essentially becomes the writer. So that is how I essentially judge the editing.
A film that didn’t get a lot of notice – but it’s probably one of the better-crafted films in a long time – is Chris Tellefsen’s editing of CAPOTE. It has a very flamboyant opening that allows you to know exactly what the Capote character is about, what makes him tick. Then the film morphs into the drama of a random, dark, mass-murder sequence, but it’s kept on its feet by pulling on the thread of the Capote character through the film. It’s beautifully done.
On the flip side, I recently saw ROMA and it is the opposite of flamboyant. And I think it was beautifully executed, directed, edited, everything about it. It’s just so simple and so moving, especially the beach scene near the end.
HULLFISH: You just came back from Telluride where you didn’t have anything at the festival — no “horse in the race,” so to speak. How does that feed you or help you?
LITTLETON: There are many reasons for going to a film festival. Most of them now are film markets. You go to sell yourself, to sell your movie, to get a distributor. That’s what Sundance has become. It’s no longer a film festival for aficionados. Unfortunately, it has evolved into a market. I suppose Cannes and Toronto are the same.
There is a lot to like about Telluride. It is in a small, Colorado mountain town and most of the people who attend are avid film buffs. And it has something for everyone: it has documentaries, restored films, old films, animation, shorts and it has current releases. People who love the movies attend it. You are seeing movies in a theater with an audience that is packed — at each showing — so I just love going because it revives me. I love the communal experience: watching films in a theater with lively audiences. Telluride an extraordinary festival for that reason. And it’s very condensed. It’s over four days. You’re exhausted by the end of each day, but you’re completely nourished and revived by the experience, As a filmmaker I can go there and get excited all over again for the very reasons that I wanted to be involved in film in the first place: to participate in the liveliest art and to be entertained.
HULLFISH: I really appreciate all the time you spent with me. You are incredibly generous.
LITTLETON: You are so welcome. I enjoyed talking to you about the process of editing and about movies. Thank you, Steve.
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.