Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with RED SPARROW’s Alan Edward Bell, ACE

This is not my first conversation with veteran editor, Alan Edward Bell, ACE. You can read about the editing of The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 here. 

In addition to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 Alan Bell edited the previous two installments in the blockbuster franchise. He also edited (500) Days of Summer (for which he was nominated for an ACE EDDIE), The Green Mile and The Amazing Spiderman. 

And for you Jennifer Lawrence fans, I also interviewed Tom Cross, ACE about editing Joy.

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

HULLFISH: Tell me about the intercutting between the two leads’ stories at the beginning of the movie. It starts as a ballerina begins to go to work and as a spy begins to go to work. The two stories are deftly intertwined. I’m assuming that the specific intercuts weren’t scripted exactly that way – that you needed to find your own pace for that pas de deux.

BELL: It was scripted to be intercut but the chunks were much larger. So there were basically four or five, maybe even six, dance chunks that were choreographed specifically to pieces of music which were not all the same, they were kind in the same vein, but they weren’t the same exact piece of music. Because there were only five dance numbers and the way it was scripted in much larger chunks we ended up cutting it down quite a bit and not really sticking to the script because it was just too languid. It was about 14 minutes long when you cut it exactly to the script.

When you have these musical numbers that are changing it doesn’t flow very well so I went through and figured out what the beats per minute were for each of the cues then found a common denominator of beats per second which was somewhere around 98 I think. And I created a click track and I cut it to the click track. So as I went through I made sure that both every edit and, in many, many cases, internal things that were happening were on these beats. So then when we got it narrowed down and got very close to the way we wanted, James had a click track that he could work from when he did the score and he did a demo pretty early on. It was one of the first things that he did. That sequence because of the face replacement was such a beast. We knew literally every shot had to be affected in some way. So we had to turn it over quite quickly. In fact, we turned over the majority of it before we were even done shooting the movie. So we turned it over long and then we continued to trim it down.

But in terms of the editing style, we were really looking for symmetry. We wanted to make sure that if you were following her in frame, that he was sort of in the same place in the frame and really tried to make it so that it flowed together and built up to a crescendo.

Jennifer Lawrence and Sergei Polunin in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: For those that have not seen the film, one of the very complex things that people might not understand is: because you are intercutting this thing where she is actually dancing to the music, even when you cut away from her, the music has to stay the same because you can’t cut back and forth and not have the music be continuous through the whole thing.

BELL: Right. It kind of has to glue it together. And that was the initial reason why I chose to cut it to a click track, because there just wasn’t one musical solution that would work. And it does play with time a little bit. It starts off with these two people and the audience sees, “He’s here. She’s there. Are they going to collide?” He grabs a gun and he’s going somewhere and she’s going somewhere and then you realize, “Oh, they’re actually not colliding at all, not at this point. And so this whole thing happens and with a traditional film you would expect them to have some sort of connection, around the end of the dance, but we play around with the audience a little bit there. I think it’s interesting. I hope it’s interesting.

HULLFISH: That’s very interesting. But that idea of having to maintain choreography — it’s not like a typical intercut. Getting to maintain those elements of placement in frame at the intercuts and making it feel like the dancing is continuous throughout the intercuts, that’s a really intricate little dance.

BELL: Yeah it is. Before I did the click track, it was pretty challenging because each musical number was different. Some of them are slow, some of them are fast, and when I found that common denominator it made it very easy for me to go back and forth because even the slower things, the cuts could be on double beats.

Joel Edgerton in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

Then, of course, James was able to sort of ramp it up and do a lot more with it. Originally when we were cutting it there was a bit of a shape, where it had a little bowing in it (he draws a dip in the action with his finger in the air) The action didn’t continuously ramp up in intensity. So we had to cut some of it out because we wanted to go right up to a peak and then drop. I believe it’s going to be in the DVD extras: where once Nate fires his gun in the park and he’s running from the police, there is a point where he actually thinks he’s eluded the police and he slows down and goes into this tunnel and looks at his thing and then the cops come after him again. And that gave this sort of feeling where we’re ramping up, ramping up… and then — oh, we’re slowing down and then we’re ramping up again and by removing that we were able to really keep it on a trajectory that worked.

HULLFISH: I definitely got the sense in watching the intercut scenes that the action with him is getting more and more intense and also the action with her is getting more and more intense until the climax of both scenes.

Changing topics, I saw the 60 Minutes interview with Jennifer and she’s fantastic. You’ve done several movies with her now.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

BELL: Whenever I do a movie and she’s not involved it’s like, “Wow, I could really use some good acting.” She’s phenomenal. She’s an unbelievable actress and she’s maturing. She’s just getting better with age so it will be interesting to see where she is when she’s as old as Meryl Streep for instance because I just expect her to just get more seasoned and get better and better and better and she’s already so phenomenal. I mean every performance, every take. If you took all of the bad takes and strung them together, they’re better than many other older actors’ good takes.

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about the fact that you have done a bunch of films with the same director. You both did all of the Hunger Games movies, but also Water for Elephants.

BELL: Water for Elephants was my first picture with Francis and this was my fifth film with him.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about that relationship and how it’s developed and what it’s like to work with somebody for five films.

Director Francis Lawrence on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

BELL: Well, it’s great. I am incredibly grateful to Francis that I’ve been able to do that because he’s just a super nice guy. When I did 500 Days of Summer he came to a couple of screenings because he’s close friends with Mark Webb who directed 500 Days of Summer. After 500 Days of Summer I was looking for my next film and Mark was prepping Spiderman and we weren’t sure when that was going to happen or if I was even going to be available or the studio would even consider hiring me for it. I had read the book, Water for Elephants, and I called my agent and asked about it and she said, well they’re really looking for A-listers I threw your name out there and they’re not interested. So I called Mark and said, Can you just call Francis and get a courtesy meeting? If I can just sit down and meet with him he — doesn’t have to hire me, just take 10 minutes. So Mark texted me back: Done. Twenty minutes later my agent called and said, Francis wants to meet with you. They’re going to send you a script. So they sent me a script. I met with Francis. I was super excited about the movie. And I think that impressed him and so he took a chance and he hired me for Water for Elephants and it was really fun. We had a blast making that. So then, after that, I did The Amazing Spiderman with Mark and then Francis got the Hunger Games films and called me and asked me to do those.

The thing about working with the same director over and over is you start to really understand the types of things that they are interested in. You no longer wonder what he wants. Or what does he mean when he says this or if what if he doesn’t say something? You start to really get to understand him as a human being and what their tastes are.

Francis likes to get in the cutting room and roll up his sleeves but it gets easier through time. So when you’re working with really talented actors and actresses — he’s rarely questioning my choice of takes any more, except — it’s only scenes where maybe he didn’t get the performance he wanted from somebody or structurally maybe the scene isn’t doing what we wanted, where you really have to go back into dailies and deep go through everything and figure out, OK what can we do with this?

Director Francis Lawrence on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

When you have a longstanding relationship with the director and you’re comfortable working together, a sense of trust starts to build and he recognizes that that take is working really well. I don’t need to go back and look at the other four takes unless I’m actually looking for something else. So much more time is spent with us having creative ideas about what to do with the film on a structural level, tonally. He feels more secure that I’ve got the good bits there because we’ve done enough to where he’s seen those bits and he knows I’m picking the right pieces and it just makes for better collaboration. If all I ever did was work with Francis in the future it would be fine with me. There are plenty of directors out there that I’d like to work with. I’m not suggesting that I’m not interested in working with anyone else but Francis is fantastic. I really enjoy working with him.

HULLFISH: Well that trust issue is a big thing as far as the ability to get things done. The ability to work easily with a director. I think that’s why so many directors have their favorite editors. Otherwise, why not switch around?

BELL: That’s true. And there are some directors out there, Doug Liman for instance. I don’t think that guy ever works with the same person. He always has multiple editors working on his shows. I don’t actually have a problem with multiple editors. I’m actually at the point where I prefer to work with multiple editors, but there needs to be a lead editor, I believe. Or the director becomes the lead. It’s easy to end up in a situation where the director is pitting editors against one another and they’re baking off cuts and things. That type of environment is not conducive for me to have a creative influence on the movie. I’m perfectly happy to work with other editors. I want them to recut my footage and I want to recut theirs. I want a real give and take. And I even did a lot of that in this movie.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

One of the things that I learned from working with Mark Yoshikawa and Jennifer Vechiarello on Mockingjay 1 and 2 was when you’re passing things back and forth, good stuff happens. And it helps to relieve stress by getting things done quicker. So on this movie while we were in Budapest one of the things that I did which was really fun and I think my assistants really enjoyed it was as I was cutting Francis would come in on the sixth day and just watch whatever I’d done that past week. He’d just look at stuff and we’d talk about it and he’d leave. He might be there an hour or two hours. We didn’t really do a lot of re-cutting and it was mostly just, “show me this and let’s talk about it.” So as he was talking about it I would record those conversations and he would talk over the cut as it was playing with the audio down low and I would import them into the Avid and give them to my assistants and say, “Here. Re-cut this based on his notes.” And so a lot of times I would do the initial edit of a sequence or they would and I would re-cut it. I would show it to him. He had notes. I’d give it back to them. Either they or I would re-cut it based on his notes. Ultimately, everything got filtered through me. But what it meant was that when they weren’t doing dailies, they were able to not just cut a scene, they were able to react to a director’s notes and make changes based on that. So next week when he came in, the cut was even further along which is great when you are chasing camera because we were also polishing sections of the movie in ways that normally you don’t have time to.

The inverse of this if it’s just you, you’re chasing camera, you’re getting notes and you’re deciding which notes you can address or not. I mean there are only so many hours in the day. And it worked well, Lara Khachooni and Ryan Chavez were my two assistants and both of them worked very hard, did tons of editing on the movie as assistant editors. Ryan got an additional editor credit at the end of the film because he did so much work. I just don’t see that I’ll ever turn away from this way of working. So much more gets done and people come up with ideas that you don’t think about.

Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: Yeah absolutely. A lot of times editors allow their assistants to edit: “Show me a cut and I’ll give you some feedback.” But there’s incredible value in that next step of providing the director’s feedback, and now you get to re-cut using the director’s feedback. That’s the step, right?

BELL: Yeah. It’s a huge step. When I made the jump from assistant to editor it was a real disconnect, because all I had ever done was cut stuff on my own and get the editor’s opinion or one of the other assistants’ opinion. But the director never really saw my work. There are two processes. One is we cut it the way we want. Then the director says, “hey I was thinking this and we try to make it closer to that” and the next step after that is: “how do you comport yourself in the room with the director” How does all of that work? How do you manage the job? It’s harder for me as a mentor because they’re not always able to be in the room while things are happening. I think it helps because they’re hearing the director’s notes and usually there’s multiple note passes right? So once they’ve done the re-cut then we’re showing it to the director again and he’s doing another pass and I’ll tell them, “Here’s what he had to say.” Go for it. And I’ll even, in many cases, call them into the room and say, “I’m going to have Lara come in here because she did the re-cut and I want her to hear this firsthand.” And it worked out great. And I think it’s valuable for them. Certainly, it’s valuable for me. Francis enjoyed knowing that he had multiple hands working on it because so much more gets done. And then at the end of the day when we sit down with the cut footage and were starting to really roll up our sleeves and work with the first assembly, it’s gone through enough real cuts to where you’re not as concerned about does this scene work in and of itself. It’s more about the whole picture.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: How long was that editor’s cut?

BELL: Basically, he gave me a week. Because the movie was so long, the script was quite long, it was definitely over 150 pages. It was huge. And there were a lot of pages with one or two lines that each one was 30 seconds or 40 seconds long. So instead of having a one minute page, you’d have a five-minute page. So I cut everything as best I could. The bits in London were shot at the very end and I was tasked to do this giant 20-minute sizzle reel for a theatrical distribution conference that Fox was having. So I was focused on this thing that had nothing to do with cutting the actual movie itself for the last two weeks of production. So when Frances came in I wasn’t super pleased with the stuff that I had done during the whole London section because all that had really just kind of sat on the shelf. My assistant had done a lot of work on it. I’d done some work on it but in prepping the assembly, that area of the film needed the most work and I didn’t have as much time on it as I would have liked. So Francis and I, rather than go through and watch this whole big long four-hour thing we just started at the beginning and we just started working through the film and we did a complete pass and then we watched the movie then another complete pass and watched the movie. So I had a week for my editor’s cut, but I wouldn’t call it that because I spent that week working on something completely different than the movie, unfortunately.

Then Francis had 10 weeks for his cut and we went through the movie probably within the first five weeks of his cut we went through the movie twice and then the last five weeks we went through probably three or four times and screened it both for ourselves and other people. We screened it for the producers maybe a week or two before we screened for the studio. We probably screened it for the studio on week twelve.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

This is a movie that really benefited from audience screenings whether they were small audiences or larger audiences. We learned an awful lot about her character, how audiences related to her, and it was a really good example of the idea that chasing an arbitrary time (trying to get the film to a specific length) can actually be deleterious to the process. We had a version of the movie that was about two hours and 30 minutes and we screened it and we were very happy with it. But we also really wanted to get it down to 2:10 or 2:11 if we could. We got it down to two hours and 11 minutes and we screened it for another audience and they did not know how to feel about this character because the easy stuff to eliminate are all the slow beats. All the introspective moments — that’s the easy time.

Unfortunately, you need those moments in order to buttress the character because we were dealing with a flawed character in Dominica. She’s capable of extreme violence even before she becomes a spy. So if you don’t show her having any kind of remorse and you don’t show her struggling with some of the choices that she’s made — even if there are very small moments — you end up with an incredibly cold main character that isn’t as compelling and it’s harder for an audience to connect to because we do have to forgive her flaws to go on this ride with her. It’s one of those movies where things are meant to feel raw and more realistic than an Atomic Blonde or Bourne Identity. So, if we can’t get our hooks into her character and decide to be comfortable with her even though we know she’s flawed the movie will suffer. And so when we did this two hour and 10-minute version we found that the movie felt longer and people weren’t as connected to her as they should be. So we ended up putting things back and then started finding other ways to speed it up. But we really had to be very careful with her character and that even meant putting things back and creating moments for her to just think about what just happened or what she’s going to do so that the audience can actually connect with her as much as possible.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: I think it’s so interesting that you talked about how important screenings were. From people who aren’t as experienced as you, or from “auteurs” there’s this attitude about audience screenings, like, “I’m making ART!” But for so many editors, and probably directors, those screenings are so powerful, not even just to read the comments afterward, but to FEEL the audience as new people are introduced to what you’ve done.

BELL: What I would say to the auteurs out there who are “making art”, If you’re making a movie for yourself and you don’t care what the audience thinks then you should be making an indie movie that isn’t being financed and distributed by a corporation whose sole purpose is to make entertainment which generates a profit. You can make artful work and still fit in a capitalist paradigm but if you’re making a movie for an audience then I highly recommend you screen it for various audiences to find out how they react. If you’re just making a movie for yourself and you want to throw it out in the world and maybe people will react to it the same way you do. Maybe they won’t. That’s fine but don’t gamble with a large corporation’s money. If somebody is financing your movie and it’s not you, my recommendation is to try to find a common ground and make the kind of movie that you both want to make together but be on the same page.

That’s one of the things that’s so great about working with Francis is that he doesn’t enter into relationships where he’s competing and fighting with the studio because through the whole prep and script process, he’s already discovered what kind of movie the studio wants to make versus what kind of movie he wants to make and if it’s not the same film those movies don’t get made because who wants to be fighting with the studio? And the reality is that there are different types of films and studios are willing to make different types of films but those films have to have reasonable price points. We couldn’t have made this movie for 150 million. It would never be profitable. I personally feel like the whole auteur idea of making art — I think that’s great but that’s the kind of thing that really doesn’t happen. It’s fantasy land. Darren Aronofsky did that with mother. I heard they didn’t do any screenings, I don’t know for certain but that’s what I’d heard on the street and critics loved it. I don’t think audience members did because if you don’t screen for an audience how are you going know? And if you’re not making the movie for an audience then why throw it out for an audience to see?

Charlotte Rampling and Jennifer Lawrence in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: Beyond the commercial-ness of the film, I think it’s so important just from a storytelling standpoint. I think of comedians. No comedian gets up to do their HBO special without having told those jokes a hundred times in some little club, right?

BELL: Absolutely. The other thing that audience screenings do that we overlook at times is they give us a new angle towards objectivity. Because we watch things over and over again and we take things for granted and when we cut certain things out, we don’t always realize that that thing that we recognize because we’ve seen it in the movie so much that by pulling that out we miss what it really does to the film. Sometimes you really have to detach yourself from the process to see that, and one of the best ways to do it is to show someone else and see how they react and then you see it through their eyes. So there’s that. There’s story. There’s pacing. There’s so many critical things that audiences tell us whether or not we get their notes or not, just sitting in the theater. Just feeling it. And then there’s clarity. And when you have a movie like Red Sparrow for instance where certain things are supposed to be unclear or not 100 percent solid in the audience’s mind versus you know what should be clear? What do they understand? When do they understand it? And is the misdirect working? Should they feel misdirected at this point in time? There are so many questions and answers that you can only really get from an audience screening and reading the cards and hearing what the focus group has to say. Some of them you have to say, “Good. I’m glad they didn’t know what her intentions were at that point.” And others are like, “Wait, they didn’t realize that was her uncle?” We had better fix that. It’s stuff like that. Those are things that, if you don’t screen it for an audience, those are layers of confusion that aren’t helping the story.

HULLFISH: To get back to the previous discussion, if you took 20 minutes out of the film the audience lost the connection with her character. You, as the editor, never lost the connection with Dominika, because you’ve seen all of her from the beginning.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

BELL: Exactly and that’s where the loss of objectivity can come to play because you can’t unsee and unfeel and unexperience the things that you have. And so you have to be really good at separating and dissecting: well if I do this how is it going to impact X Y and Z? And that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s also a very difficult thing to hang onto once you have done that kind of dissection of the process. It can be kind of ephemeral because as you move forward it’s easy to forget some of those things because it’s all counterbalanced by all of the experiences you’ve had before.

It’s one of the big conundrums of editing is: how do you stay objective? How do you remember how you felt the first time you watched it? What are the techniques that can be used to keep those ideas in the back of your mind when you’re making decisions going forward? And I don’t think there are any 100 percent solutions that work for everyone every time. For me, I write a lot of stuff down. If I’m in dailies and I’m working on something and particularly when I’m watching dailies I’ll make notes. Actually, in the bin I use these cards and JPEGs and make notes that on this performance, this is what I liked about it and this is how I felt when I first saw it. I’ll write it down in a notebook at times. I rarely go back to the notebook. But in the bin, I’ll see the card that has the green thing behind it. I work in Frame view and so all these JPEGS are color coded and I’ll stick them behind the clip. And that clip will have a note connected to it. So it means something to me. So when I see it, I remember how I felt about it.

One of the reasons why I’ve been struggling with Avid and Premier and these editing tool companies, is because I really feel like the methods that they use for visual organization are terribly antiquated and need to be updated because there are so many things that can be done to make the process of organization visual and much more accessible for the editor in ways that we are used to dealing with things in real life, as opposed to this whole metadata, text-based search. That’s not how I organize things in my brain or in real life. I don’t just throw them all in a box and I want to look at something so it just pops out. I need to know where my stuff is and there’s a reason why I put it there. Editing in Frame view is the closest but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for what I would like to see in terms of organizational tools.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: One of the biggest things I’ve learned from these interviews is that organization and approach to a scene are so closely tied.

BELL: Right. Well, the thing is, you have to organize it in some way on the system in order to take that organization and keep it here (Bell points to his head), because ultimately it’s all about servicing your brain so that you can make sure that you get the right pieces and end up with the right cut. And part of that organization is one to allow you to sort of end up at that final piece. But it also informs that final piece at times which I think is what you’re saying. I used to cut with just text and then I discovered while working on the Green Mile, once I started using Frame view I really never went back. But I need more than just Frame view. I still need textual information and there’s so many different ways that you can improve it. Why can’t we have independent frame sizes? Why do they all have to be one size? Why can’t I take one and make it bigger than all the rest. That would indicate a great deal or make one smaller than the rest. Why can’t I put a note and see that there’s a note? Not a marker but there’s an actual note and click it and have it link to a word document or any application that I’m interested in for that matter. Why can’t I click a clip and record something into a microphone and have an audio file associated with that clip(independent of the clips soundtrack)? Why can’t I take all my clips and have them compressed down into one small place so when I’m working on a laptop I’d hover over it and they expand out and choose the one I want? There are so many visual things that you should be able to do. Why can’t I draw on the bin? Why can’t I take a stylus and make actual notes and handwritten writing on my bin and have multiple onionskin layers? Why can’t my assistant do that? so I could turn it on or off. There are so many things that we could do with editing systems that would make it easier and give us more information or less information in ways that would be become intuitive, that you could use or not use. You wanna work in Text view? Fine. Maybe there are other things that people in Text view would like to see because that hasn’t changed in a gazillion years either. It’s all about out metadata, now days and this is a visual media, I’m interested in images and sound. Not Metadata.

DF-30889 – Matthias Schoenaerts in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

HULLFISH: FCP-X is very into this metadata model of finding stuff.

BELL: You’ve lost me there. This is a visual medium. If I was a word processor and a writer maybe. But I’m cutting images and sounds and affecting those images and sounds and I’m a visual beast. What I need are tools that support that. For me personally.

HULLFISH: Many people are with you about the need for more options in bins. They want to divide bins with lines. There’s all kinds of stuff.

BELL: I’ve given all these ideas to the Adobe people years ago. They did nothing. I talked to Avid about them, and they have other ideas about what they want to do apparently. Unfortunately, right now for me, Avid is the one that’s going to work the best but Adobe and Resolve they can do whenever they want to do.

HULLFISH: With so many people that I speak to, SO much of editing is about organizing the material.

DF-32336_R3 – Jennifer Lawrence stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s RED SPARROW. Photo Credit: Murray Close.

BELL: Well if you can’t organize it I don’t know how I’m supposed to cut it? Here’s the reality: if they want the customers they need to service the customers’ needs. And if they’re not going to then they won’t have the customers. I really think that the time is right for a startup to make an editing program from the ground up where they actually sit down and talk to editors before they write a single line of code. People have tried, but they don’t know what the problem is they’re trying to solve. Because it’s not just about pasting images together. It’s so much bigger than that.

HULLFISH: It was interesting to hear you say, “I’m kind of stuck with Avid.”

BELL: I remember when Final Cut Pro came on the scene. When I saw it I was like “Oh my god. This is amazing.” Apple bought it and I started to beta test and they had a film cut list tool that was developed for it. And the guy basically copied the Avid version. And I was so upset. You could have made it so much better. When the Avid cut list came out and the change list came out. Everybody in Hollywood was pissed off. Well, it’s the standard now because it never changed. But when it first came out the people who were doing change lists by hand they were like “wait a minute why is it like this?” It’s a computer. We should be able to decide if I want to do all the deletions first and then all the additions. For me, it’s much less about codecs and more about process. What are the ways we can leverage this tool into doing things more effectively and giving people a greater variety of how they can do the same or different goals?

HULLFISH: I’ve got a couple of scenes from the studio. Sometimes they’re not exactly the way they’re cut in the movie. Can you take a look at “Are we going to be friends?”.


BELL: It’s kind of a cut down version of the scene. It’s missing the beginning when Dominica walks into the consulate. She’s clearly looking for somebody and we understand it’s Nate. And then she spies Marta, her roommate, with Boucher (Mary Louise Parker) over in the corner. The thing that I like about the scene and what I enjoyed about cutting the scene — it wasn’t particularly challenging as scenes go, but it’s a real kind of playful fun connection between the two of them. And I just love the smile that she gives him, and their laughing together and I think that the environment that it was shot in was pretty spectacular. It’s a pretty amazing room. There’s a little bit of an ode to my 9-year-old son there. I used the Mozart Eighth in A minor as the temp source music there and I knew James really wanted to put something else with violins in there but it stuck. My nine year old has been teaching himself to play classical music on the piano and that was the first piece he ever learned. So I was like, “Oh I know just what to put in here.”

It’s one of those scenes that I actually love cutting where you’re connecting two people, and as an audience member, I think you get to enjoy the ride that they’re going through. They’re having fun. They’re kind of playing each other but you can tell that whether or not they’re playing each other they’re enjoying their time together and for me when you’re an editor and you’re connecting two characters, that’s as good as it gets. That, to me, is really fun.

HULLFISH: So that has to do with scene objectives, right? What is the point of the scene? You’d cut it differently if the objective was to handle some bit of exposition, but you feel the objective is to build this chemistry and a bit of character for both of them.

BELL: Right. On the surface, it looks like it’s really simple. There’s the emotional objective: we want to connect them. But we also need to do a couple of things that have to be borne out by the scene: we have to clock that she notices that there’s a connection happening between Marta and Bouche. We have to also set up and make sure that she agrees to go out on a date with him. But also at the same time make sure there’s that emotional playfulness and connectivity between the two of them and see that there’s a give and take. They’re playing with each other. But at the end of the day, the audience should see that they enjoy each other but also not 100 percent think everything that they’re saying to each other is real. Right? Because they’re both spies.

HULLFISH: I would think one of the other places you probably got pushed to cut early on was the stuff with her taking care of her mother or the stuff with her mother and of course that would be so central to caring about the character.


BELL: Right. There is one scene of her mom that we ended up cutting from the film that was quite long and there was a lot of expositional dialogue that wasn’t really necessary. The movie couldn’t support the minute and a half or two-minute scene of a monologue. So, for the most part, all of the mother was kept in the movie. We played around with removing some of that stuff. And what we discovered is that you really kind of needed to be reminded that most of what she was doing was to protect her mom. So we even added a few ADR lines here and there where before she goes out on the date with Ustinov and she’s outside the SVR building — that big building and the uncle says, “Do this for your mother.” That’s an added line because we just wanted to keep hitting home that this is why she’s making some of the choices that she makes. So early on we tried removing a lot of that stuff but we’ve discovered the movie kind of suffered without it. So the mother was pretty key.

We have this one clip where it’s Dominica going to Sparrow school and when she comes home and says I have to leave for a while, that scene was originally slated to just be a separate scene and then the drive to Sparrow school was a separate scene. We realized that one of the ways that we could reduce time was to intercut those two scenes and have some of the dialogue going over the entrance to Sparrow school. We really worked hard to make it as efficient as possible because in a certain way the movie doesn’t really get going until she gets out of Sparrow School and connects with Nate. So we needed to try and get as much of that sort of preliminary stuff out of the way as quickly as possible in order to have time to tell the rest of the story. Sparrow school takes time so we really wanted to get there as quickly as possible and then get her out of Sparrow school as quickly as we could.

HULLFISH: The thing with trying to get to a certain time — or just to shorten a film — is never about an across-the-board trim of time. You’re always trying to speed up or delay certain specific story beats, so trying — for example, to — see how fast you can get her story and Nate’s story to intersect, right?

BELL: Exactly right. The first and second act of the movie, those were the areas where you really had to focus to get time out because with a movie like this there’s a lot of preliminary information; there’s a lot that has to happen before you can really get to the intrigue between her and Nate, and it just takes time. There were some ancillary characters that were reduced in terms of their time in the movie. For instance Anya, the young girl who was relatively tortured by the matron in the class where she’s forced to do some things that she can’t do. There was a whole sort of side thing where she and Domnica actually have a conversation in the cafeteria. Then Domnica, as she’s running, her ankle is hurt and Anya comes back to try to help her and is reprimanded and they’re punished because of that. And then Dominika —sneaks into her room and tries to console her because she isn’t handling the school well. But the next morning Anya has hung herself.. We took all of it out. It was great in terms of what it did. It gave Dominika’s character a sense of empathy towards other people which is really powerful after what we saw her do early on in the movie. But it took way too much time and it wasn’t what this movie was going to be, so we had to find ways to reduce it and really get to the core of Sparrow School. And I think there are people out there who would say Sparrow School is still too long. But we needed to do as much as we could to show what she was overcoming and get her to a place where she could exit Sparrow School and it wasn’t playing like a short montage. It had to be a physical mental struggle for her. By the end of it. So that takes a certain amount of time.

HULLFISH: You also have to spend enough time at the school so you understand what a horrible human being the uncle is to have subjected her to this. Otherwise, if you just kind of turned Sparrow School into a sexy, exciting, action-packed montage, it would seem like the uncle had afforded her this great opportunity to go to “Spy School.”

BELL: Yes.

HULLFISH: Alan, I kept you far too long. Thank you so much for sharing such great insight into your process and the movie.

BELL: It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. I love what you do and your interviews are always so thoughtful and make for good reading. Thanks.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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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…