Lee Percy, ACE, has been editing since 1980 and has cut films like Year of the Gun, for director John Frankenheimer, Single White Female, Salt, Carrie (2013) and Snowden, for director Oliver Stone. We spoke to him about his most recent film, The Mountain Between Us.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the schedule.
PERCY: We started shooting at the end of November. Most of the film takes place – or two-thirds of it – up on the mountain. So it was shot in the Canadian Rockies, often above the tree line on locations reachable only by helicopter. The crew had to helicopter in and out every day which means their shooting day was very short. They were based in Vancouver for the rest of the work but I stayed in New York to do the first cut. Unlike a lot of directors, Hany (director, Hany Abu-Assad) doesn’t want to get involved in the editing while they’re shooting, so having me up there either on the mountain or in Vancouver wasn’t a necessity for him. He doesn’t really get involved with dailies. He doesn’t want to look at cuts. Obviously, if we had things to discuss, we would discuss them. He was always happy to hear from me, but he keeps his head in the shooting and leaves the editing to the editor during production. He said he didn’t want to see the film until I was completely finished with my cut. They finished shooting mid-February and I took two weeks, then I came out to Los Angeles where we set up a new editing facility at on the Fox lot. When I screened the film for Hany, he was very excited. We had only Skyped previously, so it was great to start working together. Now we’ve been mixing for a few weeks so I guess you’d say we locked picture about two days ago (mid-August 2017). These days of digital post you can keep editing, sound mixing and doing DI all simultaneously so it’s hard to tell when you really lock picture.
HULLFISH: Do you keep an edit system on the mix stage just in case stuff happens or you feel you don’t need that?
PERCY: If I have to make changes, the sound editors all have Protools on the (Howard Hawks) stage: the dialogue editor, the ADR editor, the music editor, and the effects editor. But if we’re making picture changes, we go back to the editing suites which are just a few steps away. There’s a whole process that has to follow if we do that, the changes have to go out to all of the sound editors and to the DI as well because we’re already deep into final color work.
HULLFISH: One of the things I’m really interested in lately is to talk about the how sub-text changes your editing. There’s the plot, right? But then there’s what the movie is about. So what would you say the movie is about?
PERCY: The movie is about discovering what would happen if your life depended on someone that you never met before. If your life depended on a stranger and what would happen if – in the course of survival – you fall in love with that stranger but when you make it back to civilization and all of the pressures that pull you apart and make you strangers again. You go from stranger to surviving to love to strangers once again.
HULLFISH: That’s powerful. And how did some of that affect your edit decisions?
PERCY: Well, subtext is an especially interesting subject for me because I trained as an actor. We have so many things we have to deal with as editors: How do we structure a movie? How do we structure a scene? Pacing. But one of the things I like to approach when I first watch dailies are the performances. I like to find all of the best performance moments. You can’t cut a scene that way because you have so many other forces at work in the scene. You can’t just cut it with the best acting moments. But certainly, once I note all the best acting moments I try to weave as many of them into the fabric of the scene as I possibly can. With a stage actor, it’s a whole different thing because you’re not close to their face. You can’t see the subtext through their eyes, but a really good film actor can give you so much by doing so little. And certainly, with actors like Kate (Winslet) and Idris (Elba) you know every beat, every thought through their eyes and that travels through the lens and out to the audience. There’s a beat by beat subtext that’s happening just like in real life when you’re meeting and talking to someone, you’re saying one thing but you may very well be conveying something else. And at the same time, you’re trying to read their response. So these are the many different levels of subtext at work in a scene. A screenplay is written for people to decide if they’ll green light or finance a movie. But once you get the material in the editing room all that dialogue isn’t really necessary. You tell the story through the performance and what the lens is capturing. A lot of times we just cut out dialogue. I mean, not hand over fist, but you cut out the dialogue and you rely on the other subtle elements of the performance to convey the character’s subtext.
HULLFISH: It sounded to me the way you were doing performance is that you like to use selects reels.
PERCY: No. Actually, I don’t use select reels. Oliver Stone uses select reels and he uses it for his first cut and even then, I went back into the dailies a lot. I don’t use select reels at all. I don’t even really look at the script notes or the supervisors daily report. Those are all tools that my assistants use. Sometimes I refer to them if I’m not understanding something but I really just like to have the footage in front of me and I like to look at what happened on the day with the actors in front of the camera. Look at each shot and have them up in the Avid bin so that there’s a poster frame of what each shot is: close up, wide shot, etc. I really just want to respond to what’s on the screen and I don’t want to look at the script and say, “OK these four different setups that cover this line – I want to look at how that line played as they shot and maybe we don’t need it or maybe it should be in the wide shot or maybe, Kate said it really well in the extreme close-up.” Normally you might not cut to an extreme close-up here, but for this beat on her I’m going to do that. My process really is between me and the film and finding the movie in the footage and I put as little between me and the footage as I possibly can.
HULLFISH: Trying to convey that non-verbal stuff sometimes happens while someone’s talking, but so often, it happens just before or just after they talk… that reveals the truth. And having to cut before they speak or hold after they speak can alter the pacing of the editing.
PERCY: That’s exactly right and that’s why sometimes you want to overlap dialogue. If the other person who’s not speaking is thinking and about what is being said, and what they’re about to say that’s going to motivate the line that’s coming, I might finish the last two words of the previous character’s dialogue over the character who’s about to speak. A lot of times the actor may not do that but there are some cases where the last couple of words of the sentence are better played on a person who’s about to jump into the conversation. Sometimes you want to cut away when someone is talking. Again this is part of finding all of the best acting beats because you may have a great moment… say, Kate is talking and I have a great moment on Idris and I can just cut away from her at a good time in her conversation for that reaction to really land, so we see what’s going on in his mind. That’s a fun part of editing where you have the plasticity to go inside the other character even if they’re not speaking.
HULLFISH: How do you think your training as an actor has influenced your editing style?
PERCY: I think it’s had a big influence on it because as I said I look to performance first. Then I craft other elements to come up with the pacing and the rhythm. There are elements of editing that are the same as editing a book. You take out a sentence, you move a sentence to a different place, or you put a different sentence in and all of that changes the meaning of the sentence and the scene. Or you may move the scene from the beginning to the middle or from the end to the beginning and again that changes meaning and ripples all the way through the film. It’s the same thing with a performance: If the scene is macro, the performance is the micro. The little bits of performance that can make a scene really exciting are elements I hone all the way through. I think probably a lot of editors do this, but I always like to take a spin back through the dailies a few times. When I’m working on a scene, especially a scene that’s a big acting scene, then I’ll look back at all the dailies and make sure there isn’t something that was a little bit better in one of the takes or there isn’t a beat that I could add to the scene that gives a little bit more meaning to the overall experience of the scene.
HULLFISH: Right. Once you know the structure and the pacing, you ask, “Do we have all the best parts to fill that structure?”
PERCY: Exactly right. Do we have all the very best little things, all those moments that the actors give us.
HULLFISH: Are there any examples of structural changes where the script differs from your cut? I think we can say, without being a spoiler, that there is a plane crash. So, in the movie, when does that plane crash happen? Did you find that you needed to move it forward or backward?
PERCY: There is a very economical set up before we get to the crash. I think in Hany’s mind, if he could, he’d start with the crash. That’s too sudden for an audience, but he never wanted a long set up – both the way it was written and the way that it was photographed. We actually had to expand that just a little bit. We added a few of the silent beats to set up slightly more of what’s going on with the characters. It still goes very quickly and I think audiences are both surprised and intrigued by and appreciate how little setup there is. This isn’t a classic novelistic or Hollywood movie, where you have a lot set-up: introduce the characters, the situations and here’s the inciting incident. We get right into it. And that’s always been the concept. If we did anything in editing, we probably just expanded that opening a little bit.
HULLFISH: And what about the back half? They fall in love. Where did you find you needed to trim or move so that audiences were in the right place for that to happen? (not ahead of it or behind it) Or did the timing and structure of that follow the script?
PERCY: That was one where we did spend a lot more time and tried a lot more things because to get clarity on that and to keep it interesting and yet to not make it be predictable. People are surprised because there’s a third act of the movie that I think is a little unexpected which is fun and that was a place where we spent a lot of time deciding which scenes should be in the movie and the sequence of those scenes. There was a lot of material – a lot of scenes – that were cut out and there was a lot of rearranging of the scenes that we ended up using. We spent quite a bit of time finding the best way to really make this unexpected third act rewarding and emotionally engaging for the audience. I think that by the time we got to previews we had it pretty solid. The very very end – like the last 90 seconds of the movie – we changed substantially based on our first preview reaction and then a lot of good input from both the producers, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and David Ready as well as Elizabeth Gabler and Marisa Paiva at Fox 2000, along the way, We screened for them fairly early on and they all had good input so we worked with them pretty closely. But there were some things that came in the first preview. We did two audience previews and the last one we sailed through pretty handily, but in the first, of course, there were a couple of things that came up and luckily they were issues that were not hard to fix. There were never things that we felt we were being forced to change to satisfy an audience.
HULLFISH: There’s an old joke: How many editors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? And the answer is: Do you really need to change a light bulb? The truth of the matter is that I’ve talked to a lot of film editors and most of them are very responsive to the notes that they get. Tell me a little bit about responding to notes and your attitude towards that.
PERCY: Well it varies on a case by case basis. Obviously from some groups you get better notes and from some groups you get less useful notes but in this case in particular, both the studio and the producers stayed on the same page. We had very few producers compared to modern feature films, which is nice. There was this coherence in the room. You’re not getting totally opposing notes from people. They were all well-considered notes. You want to listen to them because they have a handle on how to release a movie. You want people to go. We want people to see our work in its best form. There have been a lot of films that I’ve worked on, studio films, where the notes were not that perceptive but they point to something. They may be telling you to do something where you kind of smack your forehead at the idea, but you have to look at why are they suggesting that. And usually even though what they suggest isn’t something you’d want to do, they’re pointing towards an issue in the film that is something that you should address. That’s how it works on other levels. Hany and I were talking just this morning about how we’ve ended up with exactly what we wanted of the film. This is Hany’s first studio film. I said to him, “You have no idea how lucky you are, because there’re a lot of cases where that doesn’t happen.”
HULLFISH: How much of the movie was VFX and how much of it was CGI? Since you said they spent so much time on the mountain, it seems like it’s mostly live action.
PERCY: I am praying that they have that all over the advertising because the actors and crew were on the actual locations. There are all these shots of beautiful, pristine untouched snow that they were the first to walk through for months. I just hope that everybody realizes that none of this is green screen. It’s all the film crew and really hardworking actors working in, at times, 30 degrees below zero conditions. When they’re above the tree line and the sun is out the snow looks like desert sands making some of the shots reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. We have visual effects of course, but no green screens. All of that was real as well as the scenes that lower down, which is what they would shoot when the helicopters couldn’t fly because of weather. It was still cold and snowy, but you didn’t have to get in a helicopter to get there. The two actors and crew spent from the beginning of January to the middle of February up in the Canadian Rockies in these subzero conditions shooting just amazing footage. I hope that people will see it on a big screen and not on a DVD or a computer because when I go into the DI suite with DP Mandy Walker and Hany, it’s just amazing to look at some of the shots and to think that Kate Winslet and Idris Elba were up there tramping around in the snow – total troopers – acting their hearts out in 30 degrees below zero weather.
HULLFISH: Isn’t it nice to have those practical shots instead of faked CGI?
PERCY: You don’t have to imagine, it’s right there. And I think on the screen there’s a verisimilitude that’s worth every painful moment they went through to capture that. It’s much easier for me to edit, of course, because then you’re really structuring the scene based on what happens in front of the camera and not what you can create later. Now there certainly are places in the film where we said, “Oh we can do this or we could do that and we and then we go to our visual effects people and we create something. We’d have ideas and say if we want to take this scene out so we need to bridge that gap we’d put an actor in somewhere there, so we did. You have those ideas and that’s another part of the creative process. But in 95 percent of the scenes on the mountains they really are the real actors in the real location in front of the camera on the day. It’s both easier to cut and there’s a truth to it that you can’t get someone on a stage in front of a green screen.
HULLFISH: I was talking to Stephen Mirrione about cutting The Revenant and how many scenes they shot that ended up on the cutting floor. He said, “But I’m still glad they shot all those scenes because the actors had to go through all that effort and suffering and it changed their performances.”
PERCY: Exactly! You could see it in the film, the actor’s performances. Sense memory, as we say in acting, you could see it in the performances in that movie. The same is true in The Mountain Between Us. I respect acting and that actors can create something that never happened to them and make it believable. But I think for all of us it’s easier if you just had that experience yesterday. Obviously, it’s immediate and you can draw from that.
HULLFISH: A bunch of editors I’ve talked to say that selects reels don’t work for them. They don’t like them because it breaks up the performance artificially. Without selects reels, the bin organization has to be very important. How do you lay out your bins?
PERCY: Wide to close. The wides on top and then the close. If it’s classic coverage. It would be the wides on top, the overs next, and then the medium close and extreme close-ups would be on the bottom of the bin. The first row in the bin would be the master, the second row in the bin might be over Kate to Idris the third row in the bin would be the complementary angle of Idris. The next row would be a close-up and then the next row will be the complementary closeup on the other actor. So the sizes are matched, if that’s how it’s been shot. My assistants usually are pretty good at figuring out how to organize it for me. If it’s multi-cam, I have them grouped so that you can just flip back and forth between the multi-cam. Especially if it’s a wide and a close on the same actor if they shoot two cameras and one camera on one actor and one on the other. I’ll tend to keep those separate rather than have them group-clipped.
HULLFISH: Any markers or locators as you go?
PERCY: I take notes. I used to have forms printed out that I’d use in dailies although we don’t project dailies anymore so now I just take notes on a legal pad as I watch each take. I jot down a line or a look sometimes. If it’s a big scene I’ll use timecode to note where someone laughed in a really interesting way etc. – where they get a look that I think is really useful somewhere in the scene so I’ll jot down good reaction to something at this timecode. And then I can run back and find that if I need to.
HULLFISH: What about music?
PERCY: I start out doing my own temp when I do the first cut. I started my career cutting on film. We had one picture track and one dialogue track and the one dialogue track was just sync dialogue, that’s all you had until you got to the mix. We worked with the composer but it wasn’t until you get to the mix that you heard the effects and the music. Now, with non-linear editing, we’re cutting sound effects and we’re cutting music, were cutting in backgrounds. We’ve become sound editors a little bit but I do like to put temp music in. Sometimes it can be a crutch, but I also find that it really does help you see where you can go with the scene. In this movie, I started building a temp score almost immediately. Then once we got out to the studio after Hany and I had been working for maybe two or three weeks. We started the music editor, Peter Myles, who works with our composer, Ramin Djawadi. Pete started early in the process putting together a temp we could use. He’d play cues for us, we’d say, “You know, this part doesn’t work,” and soon Pete put together a really good temp score that both Hany and I felt was elevating the film not just repeating what’s on the screen. It’s great because then it gives us something to work with. Then when the composer comes in to spot the film we have something we can point to and say, “The temp is working really well here, but this cue we don’t feel is doing the job and we really want the music to emphasize this emotional beat that we don’t quite have. But maybe you can help us with that.” So we can turn to the composer to another partner in this emotional and physical journey, whatever it is that we’re trying to do with the movie. And the temp score is the first step in that conversation. It’s like a thesis sentence in that paragraph.
HULLFISH: Were you cutting in sound effects, like howling winds or whatever?
PERCY: Interesting you ask about that because we put in a lot of wind and then, of course, Ai-Ling Lee and the sound editors did some very artful winds but Hany – who’d been up on that mountain for so many days – didn’t feel it was right. Sometimes we have wind of course, but he said. “What’s amazing up there is when it’s quiet.” He said it’s a remarkable silence to experience. So we took a lot of the wind out and then when there is wind it’s very effective. But a lot of times you get these bright sunny days up on top of the mountain and they’re just still. Imagine how profound the silence must be if it was just you for example – What it would feel like for our two characters and the audience to be at 10,000 feet with nothing around for hundreds of miles. I have to say Andy Nelson and Ai-Ling Lee our recording mixers, have really captured that. They have taken Hany’s description of what that was like and recreated it in the film. With that much snow, it’s like soundproofing.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in the relationship between you and Hany. How you fostered it or how you collaborate?
PERCY: I think what’s true for every editor is that the relationship to the director – which is so key to the work – is different with each director. Now I worked on many, many films with Barbet Schroeder so we had a different kind of a shorthand and by the time we did the fifth or sixth movie. But with Hany we had two Skype sessions and immediately we got past the chitchat and into the weeds of the screenplay and discussing the details of the movie. You asked about the end of the movie. That was something we talked about even in our first Skype: How does a relationship work and how do people respond emotionally and how can des that affect this story. We were immediately able to talk to each other on a very straightforward and direct level, so that by the time many months had gone by and we met in person here at the studio and watched the first cut of the film we were confident in each other’s take on the story and perceptions of the characters. Then we just sat down and started working together and we’re so in sync, it’s a rare experience. We did our first pass on the whole movie in five or six days. There was not a lot of, “have you thought about this” or “tried that” we just completely agreed about everything which is quite remarkable. There was one scene, they spent a whole day shooting it – it was never really an action scene but it kind of involved some difficult work. It was a scene out in the snow and they’re struggling and during my editing period on my own I kept going back to and I couldn’t figure out what they were thinking. I couldn’t get it to work. I kept thinking I should cut the scene. It’s not helping the movie. But I have to show it to the director. After five minutes working on it Hany said you know we should just cut that scene. And so we did and we used pieces of it throughout the movie to great effect. But the scene never worked as a whole, in part because the story didn’t need it. That was just an example of us thinking the same way. It was a great process from beginning to end.
HULLFISH: That’s awesome. I do hope we get the chance to meet sometime. Thank you so much.
PERCY: Great talking with you.
This interview was transcribed using SpeedScriber. (Transcribed in under 10 minutes with no wait for a transcriptionist.)
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.