Today we’re talking with Fred Thoraval, editor of Oscar contender, Promising Young Woman which you can watch on-demand now through Amazon Prime and others. It has also been nominated for an ACE EDDIE for Best Editing.
I last talked to Fred when he edited the film Peppermint, back in 2018. He’s also edited the films Taken, From Paris with Love, Safe, and The Gunman.
HULLFISH: Fred, thank you so much for joining me. It’s great to have you on the show. We talked earlier about Peppermint.
THORAVAL: Yeah. That was like two years ago. Thank you very much for having me back.
HULLFISH: That was a great conversation. I’m sure this will be as well. Tell me a little bit about how you met the director and landed this gig.
THORAVAL: I received the script and there was something very exciting in It. It’s a script that you start to read and you can’t stop. You need to go in one go to the last page. I thought it was brilliant, the kind of movies you know you would do anything to work on. And with the script, Emerald sent a mood board — very detailed, with everything you will see in the movie. All the references were there. She was very specific and precise.
Same for the music. She had a playlist of all the songs that she was referring to in the script. The whole world of the film was there.
We had an interview. It was more of a talk. I felt very at ease with her, and I think she was too, because very quickly, at the end of the interview, she said, “Let’s do it.” And that was it. To be honest, I thought I’ve misunderstood until we’ve received the official call of the producers. It was too good to be true.
HULLFISH: You said there was a mood board. You actually got that delivered to you with the script?
THORAVAL: Yes, both the mood board and the playlist. It was giving a clear idea of what she was aiming for. It was at the same time intriguing and exciting.
Emerald sent a more elaborate version of the mood board to the whole crew before the first day of the shoot too. I found this very clever. It was a great way to invest everybody on set.
HULLFISH: Do you think that maybe either her reps or your reps felt like it would be a good connection because of Peppermint? They’re similar in some ways? Or do you not think they’re similar at all? They’re definitely different in tone.
THORAVAL: I actually would love to know, but I wouldn’t say that it’s because of that. Promising Young Woman is an unusual revenge movie. In most of them, there’s a traumatic episode like the murder, kidnapping,… of someone very close to the hero, that triggers his/her quest. This makes the audience root for him/her. Here you don’t know anything about what happened. The story is unfolding slowly and you discover throughout the movie why Cassie became the character you meet at the beginning of the movie, what was her traumatic episode.
So I don’t know what interested Emerald. Maybe the fact that I’ve touched almost every type of genre that is in the movie? I did some thriller, horror, auteur movies, even some comedy. I’m trying to not have a label. Everybody has a label, unfortunately, but I think that, as an editor, I was able to cut different types of movies and learn from them. It was fun to actually use all the things I’ve learned on past projects to help the movie and to sometimes counteract what you can do usually with those elements.
I like the idea of working in the US after starting in France too because it gives me a foot in two different types of culture. I like the idea of taking from both, blending and using things that you usually don’t choose for this or that, of having different influences, and at the end of the day, for now, the mix is working.
THORAVAL: I don’t think things are that different, we are all making movies, maybe it’s more a matter of what our past culture and history are. I’ve worked on movies in the US that could have been European, and when I was still living in Paris, I was cutting Taken. I like the melting pot and am trying all the time to not have preconceived ideas.
When I’m cutting, I’m just trying to feel the flow of the dailies. Feel the flow of what I’m emotionally reacting to. I’ve never heard, for example, Act 1, 2, 3, before arriving in the US. This is something that, when I was working in France, maybe the writers were using, but in the cutting room we were not talking about that.
My feelings are my meter in a way. It is my only way to know if I feel good with the performance I see — with the pace — with the flow I see on screen. I’m referring to my guts in a way.
HULLFISH: You mentioned some of the genres that you’ve cut in the past and this is definitely a film that kind of jumps between genres or tones. There’s kind of a horror feel to it. There’s a rom-com feel to it. There is a psychological thriller feel to it. How did you deal with the tonal jumps?
THORAVAL: All the tones — all the genres — are baked in the script. You had quite clear sections. The “Madison scene” with Allison Brie, for example, is a scene that you’d usually have in a thriller. The horror movie feel was at the beginning of the movie with Adam Brody, where Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan’s character) eyes snap open and she sits up, sober. The music is creeping in, very unsettling, with stings like you would have in a horror movie. All that was very clearly set up in the script.
For me, one of the most important things was that we needed — from the very beginning of the movie — to connect with Cassie, to use her as our emotional North Pole Star, and this was the only way, for me, to have the tonal shifts to work as seamlessly as possible. If the audience is very close to her, hopefully, they will feel at the same time the same emotions she’s feeling, and in a way, she will guide them in the flow of the movie.
A lot of the music cues that Emerald was referring to in the script and in the playlist are in the movie at the end of the day. Toxic was in the playlist twice. The Paris Hilton song. The Wagner. The King and I. All those songs or music cues were very important to connect with Cassie because every time you hear one of those songs, it reflects the state of mind where Cassie is — her moods are very connected to the music. I think the movie wouldn’t be the same at all if we didn’t have those cues.
We had such a stellar performance from Carey Mulligan. When I saw the dailies, it was the kind of performance that let you just focus on the details from one take to another and you can find your way in the cutting room very easily because she’s spot on all the time. That was an amazing thing.
You have all the cast around her, especially Bo Burnham, who is crucial to make her character be who she is. And you couldn’t have all the rom-com or the comedy side if the chemistry between Carrie and Bo wasn’t there from the first day.
A funny thing happened to me on the first day of the shoot. I went to get a coffee on Melrose — which I rarely do — and then walked to take my bus to the cutting room — I don’t know how to drive, even after 10 years in Los Angeles. I see there’s a movie shooting on the side of the road and I thought that was funny because our movie was starting to shoot the same day. Then I look more closely and I see “Promising Young Woman” on one of the director’s chairs.
HULLFISH: Come on! I don’t believe it!
THORAVAL: I promise! I never looked at the location on the call sheet and I rarely go to that coffee shop. So I start to talk with people on set and nobody knows my face of course. I meet with Renetta, the script supervisor and Robert, the sound mixer, and suddenly Emerald arrives: “FRED! Come!” and you meet with everybody. Suddenly I had a chance to be with the DP and meet the production designer and people who you don’t see all the time — especially at the very beginning of the shoot.
It was very interesting for me to see the Madison scene, which is completely different from the rest of the movie because it’s a very serious thriller-type scene. Cassie had straight hair, business as usual clothes on, in a classy restaurant, but with this red halo type lamp above her head. Two days later, I received the dailies from the coffee shop and it was completely different. Her appearance, the location felt more fresh, poppy and I started to see what Emerald had in mind, visually.
All those elements helped us tremendously in the cutting room to create the world she had in mind.
HULLFISH: With that introduction of Madison, I think that’s the first place that we’re introduced to those Roman numerals that kind of act as Chapter breaks. Was that in the script? Or were they added later?
THORAVAL: No, they were not in the script. This is something Emerald brought up in the cutting room. We were searching for a way to help the audience to have a clear sense of the plan that Cassie was following. She is meeting with characters that you didn’t see before and that you will, for most of them, don’t see anymore. Each number, like a chapter, was helping the structure, giving the signal to the audience that it was the beginning of a new phase in Cassie’s plan. But what I like with Emerald, is that her idea was not limited to the chapters, like a lot of other elements in the movie, she used it as a twist to add another layer to the story – But no spoilers!
Another thing I really enjoyed with her is that I was able to do what I love to do — It’s the Ping-Pong thing where I was taking a chance on the first cut. I was trying something, she was looking at it and even if it was not what she had in mind, it was giving her ideas and so we were starting a back-and-forth — and at the end, we were arriving at something that was close but slightly different.
That’s the way we worked on the entire movie. She was giving enough freedom to try things and to do something that was maybe not working, but it was helping to trigger something else — and in the process make it work.
HULLFISH: I was just talking to somebody else about the importance of failures and how — just because you do a cut that doesn’t get approved and the director doesn’t like — that doesn’t mean you haven’t moved further down the line.
THORAVAL: Exactly. The interesting thing about our job is that process — being able to make mistakes and learn from them.
I always believe that the movie will reject what it doesn’t want. There’s something very organic in the process. If you’re trying too hard to do something that doesn’t fit the movie itself, it doesn’t work and you can tell.
I think it’s very important to have time to not be exactly where the director wants you to be at the very beginning. Personally, I like to have that time during the dailies to try things — because you don’t have much communication during the shooting process. So it’s my playground. I’m trying stuff and we talk and exchange, and at the end of the day, it helps to figure out what is the best way to help his or her vision.
HULLFISH: I love a couple of really interesting pacing moments. Joe Walker describes these as being “landscaped” where you pace up a section — sometimes with jump cuts — and that leads to, or follows, a longer, slower-paced moment.
One of them is as Cassie is prepping to go to the bachelor party. There’s a series of jump cuts — putting on makeup — and it’s followed by a long walk to the cabin. It just works really well.
THORAVAL: That’s exactly what happened in that scene. We were trying to find a good balance between her preparation in the car and the long walk that will take Cassie and the audience to the cabin — where you see the trees closing on her.
When we were working on that moment we needed to keep that connection with her when she’s putting on the lipstick, when she’s adjusting her wig. But at the same time, we needed to keep the energy for the walk after that, so the jump cuts were what felt the most natural to keep glimpses of the different actions, but keep the momentum of what she was doing.
That reminds me of another great moment in the cutting room. Emerald was working on her laptop. She turns to me and tells me that she had found a string quartet playing a version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that she had slowed down by half and that it gives to the strings a very unsettling and screechy quality. She gave this tweaked piece of music to Emily Freund, my assistant, to import into the Avid. We’ve cut it on the walk to the cabin and it was working so well!
That’s what I love with Emerald. She has some very unusual ideas and that gives a very unique perspective on things.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about sound design. There’s a great spot where she’s in a car kind of with her head against the steering wheel and a guy pulls up behind her and he’s yelling at her and his audio is muffled and sounds intentionally distorted. Can we talk about that scene a little bit and the sound design of that and why it was done?
THORAVAL: That scene is coming out of the Dean scene (with Connie Britton) which is the moment where — for the first time in the movie — Cassie explains to the audience what happened to her friend Nina and the first time one of the protagonists is acknowledging that she acted wrong back then. It’s a tense, confrontational scene between these two women, which ends on a sarcastic note when Cassie leaves. But now she has to face herself and her actions. The tension that grows again is now internal. Leading us to the next scene where Cassie’s not feeling good.
We start a drone that will build up and will take us to Cassie in her car. She is listening to Wagner’s “Liebestod,” which is muffled like every other sound because she’s in her world, reflecting on what just happened. We stay in her perspective, hearing muffled horns and suddenly an angry guy is entering the frame, harassing her verbally, forcing himself into her world.
One last insult takes her back to reality. And when she gets out of her car, the voice of the guy becomes clear and normal. The music becomes clear too but futzed like source music coming from a car radio. While she turns around her car, we are slowly transitioning into full score, at the peak of the music when she hits the windshield of the guy, following her and the state of her mind.
The sound design and the music are always very connected. That’s why — for the mix — the dialog and music mixer, Scott Weber, and the sound supervisor/fx mixer, Frederic Dubois, decided to split things so Fred was able to mix the source music cues (created by artists outside of the movie). There was a lot of work done to prepare these cues to be used as diegetic sounds — so they would feel integrated into the space of the movie.
HULLFISH: Just before the Paris Hilton montage, there’s another slower sad montage. Can you talk about the value of slowing things down there and kind of opening that up?
THORAVAL: It was a complex moment. I can’t talk about the sad montage without talking about the Pharmacy scene and the music. A lot of the cues were decided before the shoot and they were very important. If you remove those cues, it’s not the same movie at all. Like the Paris Hilton song “Stars are blind” that is used for the Pharmacy/love montage. Ryan and Cassie have just kissed for the first time in the coffee shop and you see the future she could have with Ryan. The audience really needs to feel their love. A traditional way of doing this could have been to continue the score from their kiss into the pharmacy, transition to a comedic tone, and then switch to full score during the “love montage”. But doing that would have completely changed the nature of the scene… when Ryan starts to sing the lyrics and it becomes a sing-along is the moment Cassie definitively falls for him.
Basically, there were two things we needed to deal with: How to arrive at that song and how to make sure that we had enough before it to earn that moment. We needed to have the connection between them existing but we were not able to do what you traditionally do — continue on the same flow. We had almost all the elements but we were still missing two things: the transition to the kiss and the transition to the pharmacy.
So we looked into all of the scenes we didn’t use — all the elements that we could repurpose— and we’ve created that moment where she’s lonely and sad. It was giving us enough time for Ryan to come back to the coffee shop and be able to kiss her. Having that time helped us to arrive at that kiss and to finish that moment. This helped us to transition to the scene after and to enter into the Paris Hilton song. If we didn’t have that, we were not able to have the song and we were not able to completely earn that moment.
HULLFISH: Another thing that I’m really interested in is the use of close-ups. And this movie is played very wide for a lot of it — not unusually wide — and you reserved the close-ups for big moments like when she finds out about the video recording, that’s a big close-up.
THORAVAL: We were keeping the close-ups for very important moments like the first time she is hearing that Al Monroe is back. This is where it’s so important to have an actress like Carrie Mulligan, because she gives so much that you can stay on her and you WANT to stay on her.
At that moment I think we are using a more blurry sound — like more muffled — on Ryan’s dialogue because what is important is just her and her reaction.
HULLFISH: There’s a montage at the bachelor party that does not happen in real-time it does not happen in straight time. The montage has her pouring vodka in all the guys’ mouths and all the close-ups, but then it also cuts to her either chewing gum or pulling off her latex gloves. None of that’s in continuous time.
THORAVAL: We didn’t have to follow a continuous action. It was all about the interactions between these men and her. It’s a kind of macro on what is happening. And it’s referring to the core of the movie and the way some guys can see women. I found very clever the way Emerald and her director of photography Benjamin Kračun decided to play that scene with very close-up in extreme slow motion. It changes the perception of the actions you see on screen. Everything is heightened.
HULLFISH: The Bachelor scene kind of harkens back to the very beginning credit sequence with the guys with the dad bods and the khakis grinding and thrusting on the dance floor in close-up slow motion.
THORAVAL: I love the subversion that she’s adding to everything in that movie to serve one idea. It’s a very important theme and she’s using a very unusual way to tell her story, but it’s strong because of that.
HULLFISH: I wanted to talk to you about that scene when she’s walking — stunned — out in the park. She’s just seen this video that rocks her world. It seemed like the music was score underneath with a totally different piece of singing above. Was that actually one track of music?
THORAVAL: It’s a song from the film “The Night of the Hunter” that her parents are watching early on in the movie.
When she is walking in the park, she’s devastated. We tried different cues and at one point Emerald came up with this eerie song. There’s a quality to it that is very unusual but that is very touching and talks to the heart. Everything is collapsing suddenly for Cassie. So I think that song with that quality with the kid’s voice and the lyrics make you connected to her pain.
It’s something that happened in the process. It’s a kind of magic. Maybe I’m a bit mystical, but there’s something that is not always coming from a thought process that is rigid — that you had at the very beginning. No, no. It’s something that evolves — it’s like the Ping-Pong we were talking about at the beginning, one element triggers another one. It’s just all those influences, and having some nice — almost miracle accidents — that suddenly makes it become something that works, that clicks.
HULLFISH: It was the perfect, haunting emotional quality for that scene but it didn’t make head sense. It certainly wasn’t on-the-nose but it was very emotionally on-point.
THORAVAL: She was always looking for something that was working for her. Whatever it is, it works, that’s all. Even if it’s not in the script. Even if it’s not what we planned. It works. I loved how she was in the cutting room very organically reacting to the material — to the flow of it.
She wrote every single word in that script. She’s an author too so she’s very connected to the words but she was never attached to them. That makes a big difference with some situations that I’ve seen in the past, where you had a writer that was so attached to his own words that he was not seeing that he was losing so many things around because of that. It was completely the opposite with her.
HULLFISH: Can we talk about the dinner scene — it’s one that the studio provided?
THORAVAL: The dinner scene is hilarious. It’s the meeting with the parents that you could have in every Rom-Com and that has an amazing quality of comedy and of improv. It was another one of these magic moments that can happen on a movie, this time on set. Unfortunately, we had to lose some of these improv lines. It’s very tempting to keep everything but you have to find the balance between these funny moments and what the scene is supposed to be, how long it can live in the whole movie,…
This movie was shot fast, in 23 days, mostly with one camera, like that day. So when there’s improv, you were not getting the reaction shots like on a comedy based on improvisation, where you have two cameras so you can play from one to the other using the other camera. This time we didn’t have that. So Emily did a brilliant job to find the best lines, to try to stitch them together and she created a long string-out of the dialogue with different sections that we used to play with.
Jennifer Coolidge is amazing in that scene. I remember that moment where Bo, who is so good at improvising, was asking her about her job and she was saying she was a fish tank designer… It was the start of an incredible exchange where you could tell how much all the actors had fun. A real masterclass.
HULLFISH: It’s played a lot on two shots if I remember. Like it was usually one whole side of the table — either the dad and the mom — or Carrie and Bo.
THORAVAL: Yeah exactly. And we had a wide profile shot of everybody, which was necessary to give the feel of the room, which is so particular and one of the comedic elements at the very beginning of the scene.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for such an enlightening discussion. I really appreciate your time today.
THORAVAL: It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I love to talk about this movie, so thank you for that.
HULLFISH: Thank you very much. I’m sure we’ll talk on your next film, hopefully.
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.