Post Production

ART OF THE CUT: Frédéric Thoraval on cutting “Peppermint”

Frédéric Thoraval has been editing features for the last 15 years, including Taken (2008), Sinister (2012), and The Gunman (2015).
We spoke to him about his latest project, Peppermint, directed by Pierre Morel and starring Jennifer Garner.


(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: How long were you on the project?

THORAVAL: Principal photography started in the last week of November 2017. We had a break for Christmas, which was very nice. And we finished three weeks ago when I checked the DCP (mid-August 2018). It’s the first time I finish so close to the premiere, it was pretty weird.

HULLFISH: I just talked to William Goldenberg who said that they got a break for Christmas in the middle of the shoot.

THORAVAL: That’s something that they should do more. It’s very good for the production, because they can think about the movie and recharge.

HULLFISH: It was all shot in L.A. and you were in L.A.?

THORAVAL: Yes, though the film doesn’t use the classic LA and Hollywood locations. And we were cutting at Lakeshore (Entertainment).

HULLFISH: How close to scripted were you? I was trying to figure out whether the opening scene was written that way or whether that was an editorial choice to go out of chronological order?

THORAVAL: The opening scene was in the script. The opening title wasn’t. Pierre (director, Pierre Morel) added it. It makes a transition between the iconic LA and Skid Row where Jennifer Garner’s character is living. It was important (and a good way) to set up the grammar of the movie with the hand-cranked film look too. Riley stitching herself in the van (where she lives) was shuffled, so we were entering faster in the flashback.

HULLFISH: I was really intrigued by the fact that you said that it was important to set up the grammar of the film from the very beginning. The style is really visually fascinating and engaging but that’s something that you kind of want to set up at the beginning and not start off with it looking like a Hallmark movie and then go into that style later in the film, right?

THORAVAL: Exactly. From the very beginning of pre-production, Pierre told me he wanted to use a hand-cranked 35mm film camera for certain moments. I like the idea of an organic look, especially in a movie shot with digital cameras. Plus the hand-cranked footage is very efficient visually, and can be a good help to tell the story as it can be used for flashbacks, for reminiscences,… It was a good tool to use in a graphic movie like this.

HULLFISH: So can you explain to somebody who hasn’t seen the film, what visually the hand-cranked camera was used for? I am shocked that those moments were shot in-camera. I thought that was all created in the edit.

THORAVAL: Yes, they shot with a real hand-cranked camera they always had ready on set and were using it for very specific moments. It’s a simple camera like the ones used at the beginning of cinema that you can crank manually in both directions to print and re-print. This creates some random fluctuations of the speed and can create some flashes or interesting superimpose pictures. For example, there’s one moment where Jennifer Garner’s character, Riley, is at the boss of the gang’s house and she sees his daughter arriving. There’s a hand-cranked moment there where Garcia’s daughter blends into her own daughter’s face, Carly.
The exact moment where we transition from one girl’s face to the other is real. It was done completely in-camera.

Director Pierre Morel and Jennifer Garner on the set of PEPPERMINT

HULLFISH: I had no idea that those effects and transitions were in camera. I thought that was all post.

THORAVAL: It’s very organic, but there’s some randomness in it, you can’t really see how it will look until you get the negative developed and scanned. That was actually an issue because they were shooting just a little bit of hand-cranked every day so we needed to wait until we had enough to process. I guess the time where labs were processing every night are gone, even in LA. These days, it’s not easy to have access to a lab, unless you are developing every day. So we really had to wait quite a while before we could see what was shot. We would get a print processed, scanned in 4K and transcoded to DNxHD 115.

HULLFISH: I’ve grappled with the choice between DNxHD 36 and 115 on a couple of films and always went with the 115.

THORAVAL: The producers wanted to have something as clean as possible for the screenings and I’m happy they did. It can be quite heavy at the end of the project even if we were on a NEXIS but the result was worth it. For the audio, I’ve been working in LCR (Left Center Right) for the last few years. It’s not 5.1 but that would be the next step. LCR at least gives a good sense of what the sound could be, especially with the dialogue in the center which becomes more precise. I’m a bit of a spoiled kid with my center speaker. What are you working on?

HULLFISH: DNx115 on a Nexis. I monitor plain stereo most of the time when I’m just cutting dailies, but I can switch in an instant to 5.1 to watch a mini-screening of a scene or reel. But I’m not really placing anything in 5.1 space. I picked DNx115 because we’ll have several screenings before we pay to have it conformed to the OCN (original camera negative) for the final film “print.”

THORAVAL: I like the 115 because I’ll do some mild color correction and for temp VFX and screenings, it’s just better.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about organizing the hand-cranked stuff. Did you label it in a specific way in your bin or was it just obvious visually what it was? Or did you place the hand-cranked stuff in a separate bin?

THORAVAL: We had a separate bin. Basically, anytime there was something different than the principal photography, we had it in a different bin. I’ve been organizing dailies the same way for years, I work with thumbnails in the bin, with group clips and indications of the good takes according to the script supervisor reports.

Everything has to be organized in a specific way. I need this homey place. With a string out sequence labeled BAB at the top, it is the way I was calling it in France. Then I have all the clips ordered by set up and takes, about six or seven takes max in a row. When there’s a group clip, I start with it, then have the 2, 3, 4, … cameras just after to have a clear view of the different angles and sizes shot in each group. I have some editor friends who organize the clips in the bin in different ways and I tried to work like them but I’ve always come back to this set-up.

The clips will mostly be used later in the process, when I start to work I always use the string out. That’s the base of everything. That’s where I put my locators to mark the moments, performances, camera movements, and anything that is important to keep. It’s from the string-out that I’m pulling my selections.

And this is very important to me. I need to go through all the footage. Even if it’s trashed. And sometimes you find that needle in the haystack moment, that magic moment that wasn’t planned to be shot and that makes my day. In every movie, there is a piece like this, a moment that was not meant to be in the movie.

I try to not cut with a preconceived idea of what the cut should be. The footage guides me. Sometimes there is an incredible performance, a moment that I need to build around even if it’s not with the shot/angle/size you expect, and sometimes when I have lots of dailies then I will roughly build first from the ‘best’ circled takes… Still, I’ll look at everything. Even if it can be painful, tedious and time-consuming, I like to have that time when I’m trying things, different structures,… It’s my “playground”. A time to experiment, a time to become intimate with the footage… It is really the foundation of everything. And I know that as soon as the
director will be in the cutting room, my time to be “crazy” will be finished. The “ping-pong” exchanges will start and this process will make the assembly become a movie.

HULLFISH: You mentioned BAB is from the French. What does it stand for?

THORAVAL: It’s an acronym for “bout à bout” meaning “end to end.”

HULLFISH: I may have to adopt that.

THORAVAL: This is not line-by-line. It’s the whole scene organized by set-ups and takes, with the group clips when there are some. It can take time to set-up the bins, prepare the dailies,… And there was a lot to do during the shoot. Fortunately, I had a great assistant with an eagle eye, who was very organized and efficient. She was thinking ahead which is not that usual. It was the first time I was working with Emily Freund, she is young but already so precise. After the shoot, she edited some scenes, like the first cut on the opening credit scene, did a lot of sound work and temp VFX. She’s very good at this! She was also able to set up a few big scenes with ScriptSync. I’ve never used this feature before and it was helpful. Especially working with the director, the producers when they want a specific line reading.

HULLFISH: Any other instances of the script changing in post?

Jennifer Garner stars in PEPPERMINT

THORAVAL: We had some scenes shuffled, and mostly some tidying up. The major change was probably the very beginning of the movie. It was taking too much time before the flashback where the origin of the story is told and it was kind of confusing to meet some characters, like the cops, without knowing what happened in Riley’s life five years ago. We needed to have an emotional connection with her, meet her family and follow them until the drive-by shooting where you really feel and go for her. We moved some scenes to stay with Riley and to follow her to the van in Skid Row. It’s all about her. Then the flashback introduces you to the reason why she became that cold killer you meet in the first scene and to most of the characters.

HULLFISH: There’s a couple trigger moments for flashbacks and for other things you know she either sees something, hears something, or senses something and it gets you into these flashbacks. I just loved the timing of those where you’re given a moment to get in her head but it’s not too long before you’re in the flashback. And all of those were using hand-cranked camera footage?

THORAVAL: Yes. But there’s only one flashback. When Riley is in the van and she gets a box of girl scout cookies that triggers some memories of her daughter, Carly. We used the hand-crank and the sound of Carly calling her to transition into the next scene. After this, we kept using the hand-crank footage in moments where Riley was emotionally engaged, like when she identifies the three killers of her family or in the courtroom when she’s falling on the ground after the judge releases them. That was a key moment in the film, because she’s realizing that she’s not going to receive justice. Something is broken in her. We used the hand-crank to make more of a moment of this. She starts her transformation here. A few seconds later, Riley will disappear (using again the hand-crank) and with her, the soccer mom we knew. We won’t see her again in this timeframe. The next time will be five years later and she will be very different. The combination of the sound from Fred Dubois and the music written by Simon Franglen helps to keep these moments integrated in the movie. Sometimes SFX and music are fighting against each other, it was great to see on this movie how both were blending naturally.

Clifford “Method Man” Smith stars in PEPPERMINT

HULLFISH: I love talking about intercutting and you did that at a critical moment near the end of the film. We’re tracking Riley as she is trying to escape and recover and also tracking Garcia and the rest of the gang as they close in on her.

THORAVAL: At this stage in the movie, Jennifer Garner’s character is in really bad shape, physically and mentally. She has a bad wound on her side, she missed an opportunity to obtain the justice she is seeking. Garcia and his men are looking for her… She is almost unconscious. We were looking for a way to bridge between her daughter coming to see her in her “dreams” and all of the events that are going on around her. The closer they get to the door of the building she is laying in, the closer her daughter will be to wake her up, until the guy is entering in the building. It was challenging to connect this moment between Carly and her, the last one in the movie, and the mob guys coming closer. We tried very early on to use just a thin piano cue, with almost no sound, and it stayed like this until the end. The first temp for this cue was actually one of the first piece of music Pierre talked to me about as a reference.

HULLFISH: That’s a tough dance to do when you’ve got two stories that are kind of converging and they can’t time out off-center from each other. They both have to converge evenly to the same precise moment.

THORAVAL: That’s why it was interesting for me to not have any sound, just music. It helps to be connected with her, in her head, and at the same time to not be disconnected each time we are back on the menace coming outside. When we tried to put some production sound on one or the other side, the scene was suddenly becoming very normal, and it shouldn’t be just another scene. It was meant to be an important moment that gives her the strength to finish what she was there for, a kind of adrenaline shot. All the emotional beats when we were seeing Carly around her in the second half of the movie were finally coming together. Like when you put little stones along your way to lead you back home.

Director Pierre Morel and Jennifer Garner on the set of PEPPERMINT

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about some of the fight scenes that you had to do. One of the things that I’m really fascinated with the fight scenes is establishing the geography of it.

THORAVAL: This was very important for us from District B13, the first movie we’ve done together: making sure that the audience was never lost, so they could be engaged in the scene and connected with the main character.
Pierre has a very good vision of what the action should be. He is giving me everything we need to be as clear as possible. He shoots a lot of set-ups that allow me to follow the choreography, have sharp key moments and hopefully make the spectators feeling immersed in the scene. On the editing side, I try to stitch the shots together so it gives the feeling of one continuous movement… even if sometimes there are three takes edited together. I don’t like to feel the cuts or see the tricks that are supposed to help the scene to feel natural (timewarps, jump cuts,…) so I’m trying all the time to lace the best actions beats together but in the seamless way possible.

When he shoots an action scene, Pierre is always focusing on the reality of it too. He wants it to feel as real as possible. When it hurts, it hurts. When Jennifer Garner is receiving a punch, you can tell she’s receiving a punch. Her character is in pain. We’re trying to be as realistic and transparent as possible in the cut so you feel what she feels. And if you are lucky enough to have an actor like her, being at the same time so involved and committed physically, delivering such a strong performance, it makes your life way easier. For me, an action scene is all about the stakes and you cut it like a dialog scene: you need to be on this specific shot at this specific moment.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the composer. When you were temping music, were you trying to stick in the composer’s previous work or were you going anywhere you wanted for temp?

Jeff Harlan and Jennifer Garner star in PEPPERMINT

THORAVAL: Simon wasn’t involved yet when we started to temp for the assembly so we used very different soundtracks. Temping music at early a stage without the composer already on the project is unfortunately quite usual for me. I would love one day to start to cut with a few themes and cues written for the movie by the composer. So I took the habit to think music as soon as I’m cutting, mostly for the scenes without dialogs of course. I feel the need to find the “color” of the music, according to the preliminary talks with the director and have a sense of where the movie will go music-wise… When I’m making my selection on scenes that are not planned to have dialogs and start to cut them, I’m looking for the cue that will put me in the mood of the scene, in the perspective, the state of mind of the character we follow. When I’ve found that cue, I can listen to it for three days, looping it to immerse myself in the scene and be connected with the character. But I never cut on the music, the picture and the performance always drive the scene.

Just before the previews, we worked a few weeks with Brent Brooks, a music editor who did a pass on the whole movie to have a more consistent soundtrack. He tried several directions, structures and improved the shape of the music. A few weeks later, Simon (and his music editor Dave Lawrence) started to work. It was great to work with him because it’s rare to have a composer who can watch a movie with temp music, understands why this specific cue is there and have his own take on it. He wrote something different, but including some of the key moments or movements that we needed. It was my first time working with him and it was such a blast. He was very clever in the way he worked with the structure of the scenes, the themes or the way he balanced organic and electronic instruments.

HULLFISH: So it sounded like you were also going into the Avid color tools to get the colors into the right space, if you didn’t feel that they were from the DIT?

Jennifer Garner stars in PEPPERMINT

THORAVAL: The DIT has a lot on his plate on set, and even if he is good, the matching can’t be perfect. We used the color tool to adjust the grading from one shot to the other, sometimes to try another direction that the director wants to explore too but mostly to try to give the seamless experience possible to the audience when we screen the movie, including to us.

I met with David Lanzenberg, during the pre-production, he was collaborative and it was a pleasure to work with him from the first meeting. To make sure we were talking about the same thing during the shoot, the 65” OLED monitor on my system was calibrated very precisely by the company who dealt with the set-up of the previews. So we knew that what we were looking at in the cutting room would be close to what they were watching on set and, later, to what the audience would see during the screening tests.

For the sound, the room was calibrated the same way and Fred Dubois was giving me a lot of elements in advance to help the cut and prepare the screenings.

HULLFISH: That’s nice to have.

THORAVAL: Definitely. Fred is extremely detailed in his work, from the SFX to the ambiences, and very organized. It was helpful to work with part of his selection of sounds, labeled in a specific way, first for the quality of his material, and because it made it easier and faster for the conform. It helped to save time to prepare for the temp mix, when time is the key element.
For guns and action scenes, he is one of the best sound designer I’ve ever worked with. Pierre is — picky is not the word — it’s more than that when it comes to weapons, and Fred is the same. When they start to talk together about the sound of the AAC Honey Badger, for example, it gets so detailed and precise on the sound of this and this mechanism that I was totally lost. They sometimes combined 15 tracks for a single gunshot to make it compelling and realistic.

HULLFISH: On Tuesday, I’ll be getting a sound kit from my sound designer and I’ll be like a kid in the candy shop.

THORAVAL: Same for me. It’s exciting to receive good quality elements, you gain so much time during the post process. You can focus on the nature of the sounds from the early cuts and have the opportunity to refine them more precisely in the soundtrack at each step. It can be unsettling to have new music cues, new sound beats, new picture grade, new sound mix. The sooner you can have some elements well in place, the more you can digest the new ones. The first temp mix was already precise and solid, so it wasn’t a totally new movie we were discovering each time we were arriving on the dub stage for the temp mix 2 or the final. It was
getting better and better gradually. And without bad surprises.

HULLFISH: I understand. Sometimes when you have a new element — even just a small sound, like thunder in the distance — the new sound that is placed can have a jarring effect. It’s like having “temp love” with the temp music. You just get used to it being there.

THORAVAL: If you have a clever sound supervisor, he will understand why that sound is there, what is the specific component you liked in it. He will adjust or change it so it makes sense in the world of his soundtrack but it won’t change drastically the feeling you have. In the past, I arrived at a temp mix and the dialogue track was very clean, without most of the foley, suddenly it felt dead, all the life disappeared. It wasn’t the same movie, the experience was totally different and it’s a big issue before a screening. The workflow Fred has chosen allowed us to really stay connected to the movie we were living with for weeks, and he improved it at each step.

HULLFISH: To change directions, Jennifer Garner’s character started out light and got pretty dark, but there are moments of light. Tell me about trying to balance the light with the dark in her character.

Clifford “Method Man” Smith and John Ortiz star in PEPPERMINT

THORAVAL: There was not a lot to do, everything was there. I didn’t need to create anything. She balanced her character throughout the movie on set. Even when she is emotionless, there’s something in her eyes, a hint of the mother she was when she looks at the photo-strip with her husband and daughter, the way she’s touching the tin toy she finds at the judge house. It was always there.

She gave amazing performances that were so emotional which raised the hair on my skin, which is my truth detector. There were a few spots in the movie where I felt this, like after the drive-by. Each time that moment was happening, from the very first time I saw the dailies. And it happened all the way until we were on the stage. Sometimes a connection was lost in the process, we’d make some adjustments and it would click again, I could feel the hairs on my skin. That was crucial, and with her, I had that a lot. We had great actors to build those kinds of moments.

HULLFISH: Are you a builder or a chiseler/sculptor? Do you chip away at a selects reel until it becomes a scene, or do you use the selects reel to build a new sequence from scratch?

THORAVAL: I use my BAB reel as a source to build my selection and then build my scene from that. From there I do many copies. I keep a lot of copies of the history of the cut. I regularly go back to earlier versions of the scene where I’m trying to see what I can cut and what I can change. Sometimes some of them are useful four months later. I’m a compiler. A packrat? Yeah. But everything is really about the selection. The selection is my base. My foundation.

HULLFISH: Any comments on these scenes?

THORAVAL: This is a clip from the police station scene at the end of the movie. Riley is using a cellphone to make a live stream video. Moses is discovering her on TV. For her angle supposedly shot with a smartphone, they used a Canon camera to have more of a video feel. To accentuate this feeling, we actually used a same as source quicktime exported from the Avid DNxHD115 sequence. The full frame shot on Riley was slightly blown up to lose some definition. This is one of the last sequences that was cut in at the DI in the very last days of our schedule. The color correction sessions are always a kind of oasis in the mayhem of the post production process. You can just focus on the picture, in a quiet and dark DI room when everything is hectic outside. I really enjoy this (too short) time. A special thanks to Yvan Lucas, Billy Hobson, Amy Redfern, Lisa Tutunjian and the team of Harbor LA for their amazing work and help on the movie.

THORAVAL: In this scene with the judge, the handcrank was used as a memory. The tin toy Riley finds at the judge’s house reminds her of the one Carly was playing with at the birthday scene. The footage was shot at the same time as a scene when she finds the toy five years earlier in Carly’s almost empty bedroom, after her death. I’ve just noticed that the nails in the judge’s hands were erased in this clip, probably to not have any ratings issues. It’s a shame, it was very well done practically. Even when the judge is moving on the last shot, the nails are not moving at all. The illusion was perfect. It took me a while to understand how they did it on set!

HULLFISH: Frederic, thank you very much. It was wonderful talking to you.

THORAVAL: Thanks to you, Steve. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

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. Canadian Cinema Editors said, “You find yourself seated at the table as this masterclass is going on. And it’s a really big freakin’ table.” “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.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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