With some editors, I talk about their awards, THEN about the REST of their filmography. With Kirk Baxter, ACE, the ONLY filmography to talk about is the stuff he’s won awards for … or at least nominations.
Before any of his numerous awards for editing – he was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design for Big Love.
His first editing nominations were BAFTA, ACE Eddie, and Oscar nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Then there was a BAFTA win, an ACE EDDIE WIN and an Oscar Win for editing The Social Network. Followed the very next year with another Oscar win for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then a Primetime Emmy nomination and an ACE Eddie nomination for House of Cards, an ACE Eddie nomination for Gone Girl, an ACE EDDIE nomination for Mindhunter, and – as we head into the real awards season – he already has multiple nominations for his work on Mank, which is what we’re talking about today.
I last talked to Kirk Baxter for his work on Gone Girl, and about a month ago, we featured Kirk’s assistant editor Ben Insler with the technical details behind editing Mank in Adobe Premiere Pro. Kirk wanted me to discuss the nuts and bolts of that project with Ben so that we could focus our discussion about Mank on craft.
This interview is available as a podcast.
HULLFISH: As someone who’s watched a lot of black and white movies from the 30s and 40s — the cinematography is very similar to those films. Is the style of the editing also similar?
BAXTER: Absolutely not. And I think that was a conscious decision. It did come up in conversation with Fincher — of whether we should purposefully slow down our pacing and our response time to things, and it was my point-of-view that would just make it seem a bit shit.
I think it was enough for it to be lensed and shot in that style so that it visually places us there, and it sounds like we’re there. But for me, the most exciting part about working with David — in terms of the craft part of putting scenes together — is the volume of what he captures, and I don’t mean multiple takes of one topic, I mean he gets all the angles necessary to bring you around a room from every perspective that counts.
And then if he’s in a long scene, he’ll get people up and he’ll move them — typically so that you can start to create new perspectives and new places to be so that things are always being stimulated and refreshed and reset. And if it was edited like an old film — and I’m sure there are examples but this is incorrect — but if it was edited like a movie from the 1930s we would be sitting in masters and we’d be sitting in two-shots and we’d be letting the actors do their thing.
But I think today — and with Fincher especially — we’ve got the ability to move around at a much greater pace and with that because you’re dissecting a scene into smaller pieces, you can control with much more accuracy a performance and the intention of the scene.
HULLFISH: I think the last time we talked you said if I get a 15:1 ratio of a scene with the coverage, you would have a question about why these options? Do you feel like you have to use every single set-up?
BAXTER: I try to. I try to use each set up correctly and I try not to overuse setups. I think if you’re in a performance scene use — as often as you want — that main over-shoulder, or what have you. That’s there to sort of parse out the information, but I try not to repeat angles if I don’t have to.
But the math of parsing out the angles within a scene I think is the pleasure of the sport. That’s super enjoyable. The amount of takes — that so much conversation takes place with Fincher — really just ensures that you’ve got the best piece possible when in that angle. But really the conversation — if it was being accurate — about David should be redirected to the amount of coverage, not the number of takes.
So when actors talk about, “Oh my god! I did 80 takes with Fincher on that scene!” That’s because you did eight takes of 10 angles. That’s why you did 80 takes. It’s not because he’s a fucking masochist banging your head on the one angle over and over.
HULLFISH: I am sure not.
Did you screen films of the era?
BAXTER: No. I had this embarrassing conversation amongst myself; Don Burt, the production designer; Erik Messerschmidt the cinematographer; and Trish Summerville, the costume designer. Fincher put us all together and one of the questions that came up for all of us was how everybody researched and prepped for their roles.
And it became embarrassingly clear that I was the only department that doesn’t require this because I sat down to watch Citizen Kane again — and I’m OK receiving my hate mail for this — it just didn’t hold my attention and it’s got a lot to do with its pacing. I can appreciate it for what it did and how it moved forward and I still think there’s a lot of beauty in it in how things are constructed and set up and I just adored the end of scenes — the way they sort of would fade down within a scene. They weren’t just an optical fade, it was with lights turning off physically, so a scene would gradually dissipate in the same way you would for a stage play.
And I think Fincher and Eric Messerschmidt beautifully took from that in our film. I loved it when those shots and those dailies came up and I spent a lot of time making sure that we were using the absolute best one and the best angle for it because those lighting setups would occur in almost every angle they did a scene and you have to make sure you’re in the best film to really highlight it and show it off and sort of work your scene backward so that you knew you could be in the right spot for closing the scene out with that.
To go back to when I watched Citizen Kane, I found it more enjoyable to watch it with The Last Picture Show Peter Bogdonovich doing the audio commentary on the DVD that I had of Citizen Kane and I found it fascinating to listen to that as I was watching and that kept me glued to it because it provided more of the historical context of the decision making behind things and what was groundbreaking at the time.
And I guess if you watched that film through the lens of, “Here’s what this film gave us” almost like a film school, then it’s a fascinating piece of work. I’m just one person with an opinion. I don’t think I deserve an audience over dissecting films of the past, but I can put it really simply if I get my 16-year-old daughter to watch Citizen Kane she’s bored. If I get my 16-year-old daughter to watch The Godfather, she’s riveted.
Things have progressed in storytelling.
HULLFISH: And in editing — which is how we started this conversation — which was, that this film, Mank, is not edited in the manner of those films because it would have been too slow.
BAXTER: Yes. it’s just not possible for us to do it that way. Editorial is repetition. In the number of times that Dave and I would sit in a room — or even be throwing in opinions from separate places due to COVID — the number of times that we are consuming the same material over and over again in order to improve it — it wouldn’t be possible to last through it that many times without fixing what is an awkward pause or things that sort of bump and grind.
I don’t want to be the voice of filmmaking, and it’s not for me to say whether something we make is good or bad it’s for others to decide. It’s the same as with films of the past that are to be respected for where they stood in that time frame.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about the score because the score did seem like a score from the past. Is that correct? What did you temp with?
BAXTER: Only with Trent and Atticus’s work.
I love those guys so much and they’re so easy to work with and just so damn good.
It wasn’t too far into the process when they dumped about 20 tracks on me. I know where I was sitting at the time — my living room — and it was nine or 10 o’clock at night and they sent them all via PIX and Fincher and I were texting with each other and poring over them immediately. It hits like a gift and a present for all of us. And straight away, when you’re listening to them, it’s like, “Oh my goodness! This one is a bullseye for that drunken fever-dream during the election night.” And the track turned up exactly the way it is. It got rerecorded with an orchestra.
But with a montage like that, that is so sort of glued to its music, everything has got to stay within the frame of where it beats lands and everything. So from the first moment they just throw darts right into the bullseye and it’s sort of up to us — myself and David — which track goes where, but they just send a whole pile, and Dave and I’ll work through it.
We’ll say, “This is the most beautiful one. This is gonna be the Mank score. Let’s save this for the most emotional hitting parts. This can be the conclusion, but if we’re going to use it in this part of the film let’s try to find two or three more homes for it, so it’s earned by the end and will slowly evolve that track.”
So they share in all these conversations. So I might use a track in its bare-bones simplicity three or four times in the film and then Trent and Atticus will take that and expand upon it and improve on each use.
HULLFISH: So when you said that you were temping with just their stuff you were actually using stuff written FOR Mank…
BAXTER: They wrote for the film but they don’t write TO the film. So they sort of handed over their first album and said, “Here’s Mank Vol. 1” and of that, I think three-quarters of the music is in the film. And then we start sharing scenes and then in comes Mank Volume 2.
Then by the time I’m assembled and we’re starting to fine-cut, they’re now writing specifically for scenes. And they might send two or three versions and we lay them all up, we weigh everything and jump on the one that’s the most hand-in-glove.
Sometimes we used needle-drop for things that were supposed to be source music to place you of the time.
HULLFISH: Diegetic-type stuff.
BAXTER: Yeah, like something that’s playing in the lobby of the hotel as Mank is exiting. Something that’s playing on the radio. On the scene where Mank’s passed out in bed and drops the bottle — the sort of homage to Citizen Kane there — and he’s listening to the radio, I temped in an Atticus piece that they did for The Watchmen that sounded 1930’s and jazzy.
It was absolutely perfect in there — to the point where we were saying to ourselves, “Do you think we can just license this one?” But Trent’s said, “Well, you’ve got direct access to the guys that did that one, so how about we do another?” And they wrote us a piece exclusively for that. It was so good we just did a commercial with it for TV marketing using that track — a 60-second commercial.
I think we had about five original pieces that we were licensing. Towards the end of their writing, it became a game for me — and probably a pile of work for them — of trying to get them to re-do absolutely every one of the licensed cues, and one by one we just knocked them out.
Trent and Atticus rewrote — in the era — and the only piece that was licensed is “California Here We Come,” which’s on the marketing fake newsreel.
HULLFISH: There are a few big set pieces — at least from an editing standpoint — that I wanted to talk to you about because they’re obviously difficult or they must have taken a while to do.
The first one is Louis B. Meyer’s birthday party. There’s a birthday-party-wide conversation, where it’s not each person having little side conversations, it’s literally 20 or 30 people in the room all talking to each other in the same conversation. Talk to me about trying to cut that and what the difficulties of it were.
BAXTER: A scene of that size, with that many angles — when the dailies come in, I guess the first mindset is fear. With Fincher, I start on day two and I’m trying to keep up with camera. The closer I keep to camera the better it is in regards to helping David.
I think he’s staying in close contact with me — not to be an overlord over what I’m doing — but more to get affirmation that the collective good of all of his key players and actors is coming together so that he’s doing his job to tell a story and recreate human behavior and, is it dramatic? And all of that stuff, so he’s constantly checking in to get affirmation that he’s okay — that he can keep progressing.
And then there’s the flip side of that when you’re dealing with sets. I’ve also got production Ceán Chaffin — Fincher’s wife — checking in, saying, “Next Tuesday, we want to strike this set and here’s the price tag for each day that we’ve got to keep the set because Dave’s not going to strike it until he knows he’s got the scene. And he doesn’t know he’s got a scene till he’s seen it cut.”
And so there’s this pressure — that used to sort of be crushing to me when I was younger — because I was in this world of wanting to live up to my role. And I still exist in that frame somewhat, but I take more pleasure in it now knowing that I’m helping by taking this sort of foolish pride in helping economically — so that they can release that actor; that they can strike that set; that the band can keep playing.
And I take pride in my role of relaxing David and letting him understand that he’s getting it so that he can concentrate on moving forward. So, that’s the sort of build-up in answering your question.
So when a scene like the birthday party comes in and there’s that much material and it’s shot over that many days and there are that many choices, you can’t put that together quickly. And as soon as he’s finished shooting that one, he’s moved on to the next scene. So you’ve got to keep up, but you’ve got this monster that’s arrived. And the only way to beat the monster is to attack it. And it’s just a pile of work.
And when you’ve got a ticking clock on you, sometimes the pleasure of doing a scene like that starts to become a chore, because you just have to get through it.
I’m always cautious that I sound like some prick that thinks I’m clever at doing something. I guess I go the long way around and maybe everybody does but I’m not privy to how every other editor is working.
I just painstakingly select and organize everything and shrink it down and just slowly shrink it all down so that it starts to become very clear and obvious how to get through something because at first, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have a clue. And until I organize it; until I make the choices clear to me about which angle to be in at what time and how to walk through a scene like that so that you’re not dizzy watching it, so that is a pleasure for an audience to watch and you do know where you are and you do know where everybody’s at in the room. It just requires a whole pile of time.
Once you’ve kind of worked it out, and once I’ve got a first assembly done and you can get through it and it makes sense, then Dave’s good. He doesn’t need to see it polished to a shine. He just needs to know that he’s got the scene.
That’s when the pleasure starts. Now you can really manipulate it. Now you can try not to overuse angles. Now you can perfect when you’re going to use that close up of Pops so that he’s the almighty powerful in-the-center-of-the-room, and you’re not diluting that power by overusing his close-up and I try it a lot to sort of bring things back to Mank.
In that scene, I was conscious of trying to keep things framed around how he’s getting into it.
David gave me a very fast piece of direction that helped me a lot from Dave. He described that that’s what it was like. I don’t think that David was there at the time when those parties were taking place, but his perception was that this was it.
Hearst would invite all these players over — people of opposing opinions on purpose — and he would say, “Let it rip! Let the arguments go!” Ply everyone with drinks; fill the room with beautiful women; put a bunch of big brains in there and let it rip. And it was supposed to be this raucous talking-over-each-other. I think that’s supposedly why he liked having Mank there, who was extremely quick-witted and not shy to deliver his point.
When David said it was this raucous, vying-for-attention that told me how fast the scene could be, so I got it as tight as it could be whilst being able to track it.
HULLFISH: I did sense — in that scene — that you were always trying to get back to Mank as kind of an anchor. He was off to one side of the room — so he wasn’t the center of attention — but for the scene, he was kind of the center of attention because you would come back to him to check in on him fairly regularly.
BAXTER: Yes. To keep him as the focus — not just being on people as they speak. Bring it back to Mank as he’s absorbing it. And see things through his perspective.
HULLFISH: One of the other big set pieces was the election night. That must have been a very complex scene to edit.
BAXTER: Well it sort of had three parts to it.
HULLFISH: And did you organize it like that? Did you think of it as three separate scenes?
BAXTER: Yes. That’s not my decision that it was shot to be that. It was written to be that. It was shot to be that. The part of that that was always niggly was musically — of how to go from things that are internal for Mank to then being external in the room and then back internal and then external.
Because normally if you’re putting that many scenes together in one space one piece of music could contain all of it. But we were doing a very big sort of highs and lows and they needed to be musically separated, so there’s a lot of sort of fiddling with how to glue that together sonically.
I was really happy with how we ended up at first, but when you’re doing it you’re dealing with that first guide track that drops, and then as you progress, things can be written precisely for those scenes to sort of help glue them together and the work that Ren Klyce does with sound design helps a lot.
But that’s another case where I went the long way around. The montage stuff that’s more inside Mank’s head of him watching the room as he gets drunker — David shot it at different speeds because there are two montages. The first montage is at a faster speed and the second one is a bit slower.
That’s sort of how I separated in terms of selecting dailies because a lot of the time you’re dealing with the same people on the stage and the same actions that are taking place, but I’ve got different speeds for how it all occurred, so I could kind of say, “All right. You’re in that folder and you are in that camp.”
But he didn’t shoot that all in one hit. He would do pickups of a cigar burning or ice falling into a glass or all those different crazy closeup imagery. Shots would just turn up here and there, but each time something arrived, I cut it as if that’s all I had and was ever going to have.
So I would fine-cut each scene in time to the music and we didn’t really want the scene to get longer, so then a week later, five more shots would turn up and I would have to work out how to shove them in there while still trying to keep my own rules of eye-travel and screen direction and this shots framed on the right side of the frame and the next one I want to be over on the left side of the frame and things like that so that the montage has this sort of song to it.
And sometimes when a new shot comes up you’ve got to pull apart what you were happy with but ultimately it gets better. I could have avoided that if I looked at a schedule and saw that something was being shot down the track but I just never do. I just don’t really have the professional discipline — planning, and plotting.
I just deal with what gets put in front of me.
HULLFISH: I would think that a lot of that is also just trying to keep up to camera. In order to keep up to camera, that’s the way you’ve got to approach it because otherwise, you’d be sitting on your hands for three days until something came in.
BAXTER: I’m not afraid of reworking something. I don’t mind doing the work and when it’s something like montage — like this — it’s really pleasurable. I feel much better if I’m on top of everything and I would rather do it 10 times and be on top of it than sit on a bunch of dailies, having that irritating the shit out of me — not on top of it.
I loved putting all of that together. The only time it was niggly for me was sonically, to get it to all glue. And we went up to the Skywalker Ranch — drove there from L.A.. That was the first outing out of my house with the whole lockdown and I was in one of those little rooms — the John Ford suite — riding my bicycle up to Skywalker. I think five of us were allowed in the mixing bay with our masks on at a time.
That’s when that thing finally got coded in its resin and set to place and I kind of breathed my sigh of relief.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that — with the election coverage scene — that it was important for you to get it sonically right. Was that to do with tone? The various tones that are in that scene.
BAXTER: Yeah. It’s because the montages are internal inside Gary’s head and they needed to have their own kind of way of telling it musically — separated from what was live music playing in the event. So you went from being in the event to being inside our character and because they were such vertical changes, coming in and out of those scenes was the tricky part for me.
Hopefully, they’re not tricky for an audience, but I found that I picked on myself a lot in terms of how I was progressing through it, but it was ultimately the mix that solved it for us.
HULLFISH: A lot of the movie centers around the speed with which Mack thinks and speaks. The conversations and the patter in certain scenes are lightning-fast. Did you find that you were trying to tighten that and make him seem smarter by answering faster or were you really more following the performances of the actors than molding the performances?
BAXTER: I think it’s all of the above. No matter how drunk Mank was he still had the same response time.
HULLFISH: That’s impressive!
BAXTER: Yeah. And I think that’s probably what he’s famous for — is his wit and willingness to embrace conflict directly to the hand that feeds him.
I think I’m consciously trying to pick up the pace of ANY scene — not specifically to speed Mank up, but move through things as actively as we can.
Some of it I had to consciously slow down and that’s really around Upton Sinclair. We made a conscious effort to allow that information — especially when Mank’s watching him deliver his live speech so that people can get familiar with the unknown.
I always worry — when you’re in scenes where they’re talking about other people — names of people that aren’t there, names of people you’re yet to meet — it’s a similar thing I remember from Dragon Tattoo. Elizabeth Salander, when she was kind of in the vault collecting all the data and working out who was at all these murder sites and she’s found this clue that led her to that clue that led up to this clue.
We want the scene to move quickly and you’re working against this sort of idea that: “Is the audience in lockstep with you?” Back then we came to the conclusion that it doesn’t fucking matter. The audience needs to know that SHE knows that SHE’S the expert on it.
And if you aren’t 100 percent tracking — and I hope you are — but if you’re not 100 percent tracking any given topic during Louie B. Mayer’s birthday party, you ARE tracking that Mank has a fucking solid opinion about it. And it’s the opposite of those that he’s opposed to.
HULLFISH: There were a couple of times where I felt like, “Yeah. I can’t keep up. But that’s the whole point. He can. And whatever I missed I don’t need to worry about because I followed the story and that’s all that I needed to do.”.
BAXTER: Yeah. It’s gonna come to you. It’s doing its job of delivering…
There I go again. “It’s doing.” I THINK, I HOPE it’s doing its job of delivering the characters.
HULLFISH: Got it. Is there a difference with editing this style of cinematography? Obviously, ALL compositions should be deliberate but there was something just so beautiful and perfect and precise about the compositions and the blocking. Does it change things for you?
BAXTER: I don’t think so. It becomes very clear what angles deserved their “moment in the sun” and how we should be on them. You can sort of follow your nose through it.
HULLFISH: It’s probably just a testament to your editing but I felt with many scenes like that set-up HAS to be the only real entry into a scene. The shot that you used.
BAXTER: Thank you. I do not recall. It’d be a case-by-case basis. I think Dave can shoot to that a lot — especially when you’re in the bungalow, you could work out there’s only one way to exit a scene.
HULLFISH: Well, there’s only one way to exit a scene a lot of times — to your point of earlier — because many of the scenes end with a lighting cue.
HULLFISH: The lighting of the scene kind of turns off in layers.
BAXTER: Yes that’s when you’re in the bungalow. That’s the “present” part of the film. And with David shooting multi-cam — you do have choices of how you want to exit a scene because they’re all getting that same lighting effect to it, but it’s just what our jobs are. You just sort of pick which one’s the most beautiful.
HULLFISH: You’re deciding, In this specific set-up, you see the light in the back turn off the best. Which one shows off the effect.
BAXTER: But coming into scenes? David does tend to shoot specifically for that. It becomes pretty obvious what the choice is of how to start a scene, but the craft starts to become the choice of when to jump off. At what point do you get out of that shot.
HULLFISH: And is there anything that leads you in that decision. It’s not just boredom with being on that shot… It’s when a shot has achieved a certain energy that’s going to propel you into the next shot? Or what is it?
BAXTER: Ultimately it will become clear in the scene — with watching and re-watching — when you’re overstaying your welcome.
Sometimes if you jump off too soon there’s going to be more ping-pong than you want, so if you hold out that little bit longer you can reduce a little bit of that.
I guess it’s just the willingness to explore. It’s like a chess match — if I play that move here, how does it translate six moves down? If I go back to the beginning and I play that move one beat later, what’s the ripple effect? I’d be a genius if I knew all these things ahead of time, like some great chess player. I only know by working it through.
HULLFISH: So you cut that scene that way — make those decisions — when you’re “in dailies.” But does your approach to that scene change once you’re away from that pressure and you’ve got access to the director?
BAXTER: One of the reasons I’m so painstaking about selecting before I start assembling — I find, 90 percent of the time I’m 90 percent of the way there, and it’s really just the refining of things.
Unless I kind of get it wrong — like just straight up got it wrong. And in regards to getting it wrong, it’s getting it wrong with what David intended or had in his mind.
I think there were two scenes in the movie where I got texts back from David saying, “When I shot this, I was thinking about being over here at this time” where I kind of approached it completely differently from what Dave had in mind. But it’s so quickly solved and easily fixed and in some cases, they were rudimentary scenes.
One was watching Louis B Mayer exit the funeral when he drops his handkerchief. It was just in terms of coverage of how to be on Mank and at what point to come over. I think I used Louis B. Mayer coming out as his own shot instead of getting Mank in position and having it become his POV. Very small things.
I live in this world of trying to move the ball forward without going to the cheat sheet that is Fincher so that his energy isn’t trying to keep me up to speed because he’s got so many other mouths to feed.
So I remember these moments where I thought, “Oh fuck! I didn’t read that out of the coverage” and they become scar tissue for me.
I think that’s unfair. I don’t deserve to do that to myself and I only recall two of them in the movie. That doesn’t mean to say that I cut everything exactly how David wanted. It was more like, Oh. There are two that I fucking blew. But that’s the bar I set for myself. I want to be as useful as I can be. And these occasions when I’m not, I go, “Aw shit!”.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? It’s absolutely exhausting, with time and mentally and all of it.
I got an email yesterday — I don’t really work with an agent on films, I have an executive producer on my commercial work, but not with features. Mostly my thing is avoidance. But I got this call yesterday asking to call such and such a person. They’ve got a movie they want me to cut. And I look at it thinking, “I don’t even want to be told what it is.”
A scene never scares me — putting together a scene, no matter how many angles or how deep it is — the crafting of making films is workable. And if you remove the crushing part of: “it’s gotta be done this quickly” and you put yourself in a relaxed frame, it’s all workable and it’s really quite joyous, but if you do that in a hostile environment, with cruel people or with people that are playing mind games with you — or that their scene doesn’t look good because of how YOU did it.
If they’re not being forthright because they’re unhappy about what they shot or there’s someone in more power that’s a producer that wished it was this but they didn’t get that and you become the roadkill because of it. Editorial can be really hostile.
So I find myself — just to a fault — really cautious about what I want to get involved in because it’s hard and I know that with David the conversation isn’t personal. It’s about the material and he’s accountable. He’s like a drip fund that’s just steadily checking in and he’s reliable. He’s accountable. He’s not emotionally hostile, and you move forward on a collective front to do the best you can possibly do with what you have.
Even the filmmakers that I know — that I respect — that are doing great movies today — we all know each other and everyone knows the background stories and I hear some of the most insane stuff about behavior. I’m thinking, “Christ! There’s no way I want to put myself in that situation!”.
HULLFISH: Well that’s gonna be one of the great things with working with David so many times — and him with you — is that comfort level, and to know that when David walks into a room with you he knows what he’s gonna get, he knows how to act, he knows how you’re going to respond, and the same thing with you.I take pleasure in being part of this film family where you can all lean on each other and it’s earned over a long period of time. It’s like any other relationship. I don’t want to get divorced from it and I want to earn my right to be there and continue to reap the rewards for doing so.
HULLFISH: I love the little reel change hole punches. Were those scripted in exact scenes? Or did you put them where the actual balanced reel changes were?
BAXTER: I had nothing to do with them. That was all David. They turned up after the fact. That’s Dave writing notes on PIX. “Real change here.”
They were just a pleasure for me when I spotted them, but I saw them the same way you did.
HULLFISH: I noticed in one of them — you probably noticed the same thing — in the first one that at the reel change there’s also a little shift in the picture.
BAXTER: Yeah. He puts the sound in there too.
HULLFISH: Can you speak to the schedule? Especially the overall general schedule. When did they shoot? How long did they shoot? Then what was your edit schedule after shooting ended?
Also, you mentioned the lengths of days to shoot a scene like the birthday scene. How long did the birthday scene or the election scene go on?
BAXTER: I think it was a five-day shoot for the banquet scene at the end. That was one where I got really lucky because it was one of the last things Dave shot. So I didn’t have the heat on me to get that cut so they could strike because they knew they had to shoot the scene and then strike.
No one came at me and I could just sit down and do it without a foot on my neck.
HULLFISH: There were a lot of people. It’s a lot of reaction shots.
BAXTER: Yeah. I was scared of that one also because Mank’s blotto drunk and he owns the scene in regards to what’s being said — and there’s a lot being said — there’s a lot of pages. The scene I think plays for seven minutes. I could be wrong about that.
But I think each full take goes for seven minutes. So when you think of all the angles it takes to sort of circle that table, and all the different players and coverage — it’s seven minutes long for a take. So you just multiply that out by what it takes to shoot a scene like that. There’s just a lot of material.
And then you’ve got someone playing drunk. Are they always going to be legible when they’re intentionally slurring or bumbling?
HULLFISH: And are they always the same amount of drunk over five days.
BAXTER: Yeah. So I was pretty nervous about that one. I thought there was going to be potentially a lot of work crafting Gary’s performance to get it to be fluid, and I was surprised at how easily the scene came together.
Gary was exceptional — to the point where any one of his performances you could have put in front of a live audience on a stage and you’d get a standing ovation when he played through the whole scene from start to finish. Gary killed it and consistently killed it. Take after take after take.
It always comes back to how David shoots — not just with the number of angles and the number of takes within those angles — when you remove the problem of: “Well, the actor’s good in this angle here and not so good in that one there.” The performance isn’t dictating where I can be, because all of the performances are good in every choice. So, I can now work out where the best place to be is based on who’s looking back at Mank and work off the perspectives looking back at him and the whole thing just becomes a ballet of movement.
Also, because there wasn’t a pressure of when they were going to strike, I could just really sit down and enjoy myself.
HULLFISH: When you mentioned organizing things — and clearly you have an assistant editor or multiple assistants — how much of that organizing are you doing because you feel like it’s part of your process and do you use selects reels to try to get things down?
BAXTER: Yes. Anything I can offload, I offload in terms of labor. For my own survival, I try to offload as much as I can. And the assistants are included as much as possible in what’s taking place in the cutting room — not just prepping me to work.
But I come in in the morning and whatever’s been shot I’ll go through and mark up in each angle with the multi-cams where I want to be at which time, and mark how I want those scenes broken into pieces.
HULLFISH: Like with locators? Markers?
BAXTER: I’ll do one take and I’ll Add Edit and choose which angle to be in, and I will slice in a mark saying, “I want these things separated.” So a seven-minute scene might be broken into 12 chunks so that when I analyze each performance I’m analyzing —
HULLFISH: A 12th of it.
BAXTER: Yeah. Exactly. And then I can really understand, “Has this bit been nailed?” rather than picking something that Gary did for the entire seven minutes.
So I’ll go through and do one take and map out precisely where I want everything to be and then I’ll hand that to the assistants and they’ll replicate those cut points through all the takes and then start to build scenes out for me.
Then I’ll watch through a scene that’s been broken down and I’ll raise to video layer 2 everything of interest. Anything that I raise gets passed off and then the assistants will sort that into a reel of selects but placed in scene order, so when you get to a movement or beat, you see it in the master and then you work your way into tights and closeups and things like that.
So as I sort of slowly shrink down those selects, it starts to become clear what’s redundant within that piece — like, “No. I’m definitely not going to be in the master here. I don’t need that close-up here.” And then I can start to shrink down what I’m evaluating.
Sometimes I’ll keep the close-up stuff around just to be able to keep the audio. It’s often better mic’d and sometimes more precise.
In a like the banquet scene, that’s that large, I then might shrink it into three or four selects reels because otherwise, it ends up being 30 minutes 40 minutes long. So I’ll start to break that into 10-minute pieces. “Here’s the first act of that scene. Here’s the second act of that scene.”
The more you reduce these things down and get them into things where you’re not judging ten-thousand things, and now you’re just judging one hundred things, you can progress. You can move forward and make solid informed choices.
And with a scene like that, there were a lot of ways to get in and out of it. The entry points were obvious. How you bring Gary into the scene — when it got broken up — going back to the bungalow and then you return to that scene and Gary standing up saying, “I’ve got a picture, Louis!”
In that particular moment, because of the amount of coverage that was in that scene from start to finish, I probably had 15 different ways to jump into it. And I probably explored 15 different ways — and then I think out of that, there were probably four winners. And then I probably share those four with Dave, and he’ll say, “Let’s go with this.”
And then two days later we change to one of the other choices. So it’s in flux. it’s not completely obvious but I do sort of stand by the idea that about 90 percent of it can get worked out just by being very systematic about how you distill down the information and by the time you’re ready to march forward it’s informed.
I know other editors that just jump in and go for it. I’ve experienced that. They say, “Well, the first thing I do is just slam together a scene so I can see what it is.” I didn’t don’t know how to do that.
HULLFISH: That’s why I do these interviews because everybody’s different, and it’s interesting to hear your perspective and somebody else’s perspective.
Another short question. You’ve edited on a couple of different NLEs and you’re on Premiere for this. Any thoughts about NLE or Premiere? How your tool affects you? Do you not care?
BAXTER: I don’t care. I care if it’s not working. I care a whole bunch. I’m privileged to be able to offload a lot of that to the first assistant and somewhat to Peter Mavromates who’s the head of post.
I work with this muscle-memory of what keys I’m hitting and I can get very frozen in time with what I’m doing. I want all of my thought process to be about the decisions not how I’m executing them, and the software is execution. So I prefer not to be changing in it and if I am changing it then I want whatever new thing we’re going to, to adapt a lot of the process of how I worked prior.
If I’ve got something new to learn I’ll do it kicking and screaming and then after a week of repetition I don’t think about it again. I’m like a dad whose music on his iPod froze the day his kids were born. It’s the same sort of thing.
Going all the way back to Avid, I took my Avid settings and I put them onto Final Cut when I went to Final Cut and then I took my Final Cut settings and I put those onto Premiere and I am positive the assistants are all doing better than me, but I get my shit done.
HULLFISH: That is what matters in the long run. Kirk. Thank you so much for spending so much time with us. I really appreciate it.
BAXTER: Thank you for the interest.
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.