Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Joan Sobel, ACE, on editing “The Rhythm Section”

Joan Sobel, ACE worked as first assistant editor to editing legend Sally Menke on several films, including both Kill Bill films. She edited 2002’s Oscar-winning short The Accountant and the 2005 feature film, The Quiet, followed by a steady string of work including A Single Man, Admission, and The Perfect Guy.

I’d previously interview Joan about her work on Tom Ford’s haunting film Nocturnal Animals. for which she was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Editing.

Today, we discuss editing for director Reed Morano on The Rhythm Section with stars Blake Lively and Jude Law.

This interview is available as a podcast.

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

HULLFISH: Was it really fun to edit?

SOBEL: It was very, very creative. We did a lot in the cutting room and tried a number of ideas. It was very experimental and we took risks with it. Reed is great. Barbara Broccoli is phenomenal. There aren’t that many creative producers in film anymore. Barbara is one of them. She is just a joy to work with.

HULLFISH: And for those that don’t recognize that name, that’s James Bond legacy stuff.

SOBEL: Yes. It was actually Barbara and Michael Wilson. Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson ARE James Bond. Barbara is Cubby Broccoli’s — or Albert Broccoli’s daughter. And Michael is his step-son.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about producing in the editing room. What creatively are you getting? Is it notes? Is it story concepts? Is it tone? What is it that the producers are contributing?

SOBEL: All of the above.

The Rhythm Section is an interesting movie because it is in the genre of an action film. But it’s not quite an action movie. Reed really wanted to do something different. With action movies, we’ve all seen the same thing over and over again and Reed really wanted to concentrate on the darkness of this character — of the Stephanie Patrick character — and the plight that she’s going through.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

Also, the fact that this is a woman’s story — which is very unusual for an “action” movie, there’s only been a few action movies with a female lead — like Atomic Blonde, which is a completely different film and one of my favorites. I love it. And Elizabeth Ronaldsdottir is a very good friend of mine and she’s a phenomenal editor… Atomic Blonde is one of the best-edited action movies that I’ve seen. But that movie was a rough and tumble, heavily choreographed movie with a very tough heroine. The Rhythm Section is the antithesis of that.

The Rhythm Section is a very dark look at a young woman — someone who could be like you, me, anybody — who becomes an assassin reluctantly and is not very good at it. She’s stumbling through this new “vocation,” and half of the time you don’t even know how and if she is going to survive. It was a challenge to portray both that hesitancy and incompetence, to convey that darkness, and still create a sympathetic heroine.

Because of these challenges, there were many different tonal shifts that we tried in the cutting room.

HULLFISH: You talked about being creative. One of the things I was thinking of creatively was the sound design. She’s having these memories shortly after she meets the journalist at the beginning of the movie and there’s some great sound design in there.

Did you start that in your picture edit?

SOBEL: We started the sound design pretty early on, working with the sound designer — Oliver Tarney — who’s actually doing Bond right now and did 1917. He’s a wonderful sound designer.

Also Rachael Tate — who’s the ADR and dialogue editor — is amazing.

I started working with Oliver when we were doing the car chase scene back when I was doing my editor’s cut. We started putting together some sound design way back then and talking about that.

When Stephanie goes back and remembers her family, remembers the pain of losing them and her guilt, we worked on a number of sound ideas for that. Again, this was fairly early on in the editing process.

HULLFISH: Some of it almost sounds like score… there’s a very organic blend of score and sound design.

SOBEL: It is a combination. There’s a combination of the score and sound design that balance and complement each other — THAT was interesting because the score really wasn’t done until very, very late in the process.

The score was composed by Steve Mazzaro with Hans Zimmer. And that was also incredibly creative. They were amazing. Hans and Steve quickly got this movie and Reed’s vision for it and they created a beautiful, killer score.

I temped with a whole bunch of different music cues and Reed and I tried many different kinds of music when we started working together on the director’s cut. I felt early on that the music shouldn’t be too dark because the movie itself was so dark.

It was interesting trying to keep a tonal consistency in the temp. Reed absolutely loves working with music. She’s just amazing with music and we tried many things. Reed had compiled a temp library that was incredible. But if you ask me to remember what the actual temp music was, I won’t be able to recall.

You’re testing my memory because I finished this movie quite a long time ago. I actually finished the movie back in March.

Director Reed Morano on the set of Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

HULLFISH: Reed is one of my favorite directors. One of the reasons why I was looking forward to this interview — in addition to you, of course — is because of her.

I love the fact that she often operates for herself. Did she operate on this movie? She does that sometimes, right?

SOBEL: Reed did operate the camera at times. (Cinematographer) Sean Bobbitt also operated and did an amazing job. Together they’re such a dynamic team. And they just adored each other.

Reed is really one of the loveliest people I’ve worked with. She’s very charming and her beauty is both inside and out. It was so much fun working with Reed. She’s got her pulse on everything contemporary, on youth. Reed is willing to try anything within her vision for the movie. She strives to go outside the box and do things differently than the norm. So we took refreshing risks in the cutting room. Some succeeded, some didn’t.

HULLFISH: Well that’s the way it works, right? I think that’s one of those lessons for young editors is: it’s okay to work hard and try something that does not bear fruit.

SOBEL: Yes. Yes. And you get so much out of it. In editorial, there are often a number of problems that we have to find creative solutions to.

Director Reed Morano on the set of Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

To me, that’s what’s so exciting about being an editor. I don’t usually talk about editing. I think it’s very difficult to verbalize the editing process because it’s almost like talking about acting. It’s alchemy in many ways.

What I love about editing is the experimentation of it. The creativity of it. I started out as a visual artist, an illustrator. I didn’t go to film school, though I did experimental films when I was in college.

I love movies that really take a risk and I love all genres of movies, past, and present. In fact, I was kind of sad that I had to come to New York — not that I was sad because I came for the premiere — but I was sad because on Sunday in L.A. at the Disney Hall they were showing Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) which I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

It’s a stunning silent movie by F.W. Murnau that was, I believe, the first Academy Award winner starring Janet Gaynor, who also won the Academy Award. For this screening, they stripped out the old score for the silent movie and Jeff Beal who I believe composes for many different movies and TV — House of Cards being one of them — wrote a new score that was choral and they had the L.A. Master Chorale sing along with a projection of Sunrise. I had to give my tickets away but I heard that it was extraordinary.

You look at that film and you look at films from the past and there’s so much innovation there. We think we are incredibly original today, but we’re really not. And that’s what I love. I love seeing and feeling that emotional reaction when you experience this juxtaposition of putting an image next to an image and the alchemy that happens when one does that in films both past and present. And I felt like with The Rhythm Section we really did that.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

HULLFISH: You mentioned that you did a lot of creative problem-solving. Can you explain some of the problems that you needed to solve and how you overcame them?

SOBEL: Early on we had an issue with audience reaction to Stephanie coming to (CIA operative, Mark) Serra’s house, and a long dialogue scene followed by a sex scene. We had both the dialogue scene and the sex scene as written in the movie for a long time and it wasn’t quite playing. The long dialogue scene brought the film to a halt and then you had this handheld, sultry sex scene afterward, and for some reason, it wasn’t quite working.

One of the things that we came up with was to flash forward to the sex scene in the middle of the dialogue scene so that the sex scene appears as if it’s a fantasy, more of a visceral longing for each other, a connection in their bodies and in their heads about each other rather than the actuality of it. We were attempting something to let the audience experience it either way. This was in keeping with the relationship that Stephanie and Serra have of not being quite honest and upfront with each other.

HULLFISH: Reed seems to love camera movement. In this film, the camera is moving — both handheld and other — for a significant portion, but then sometimes it’s not. And I was wondering — for you as an editor — having a camera moving — especially hand-held — does that affect pace and when you can cut?

SOBEL: Reed does love handheld. It can be very difficult to work with because — as every editor knows — you have all of this vibrant camera movement and then if there’s a cut to a static shot with absolutely no movement, it’s extremely challenging to cut up against it. The cut will stand out like a sore thumb. But there are ways to cheat this, little tricks to soften the juxtaposition of movement to stillness.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

Because Reed shot so much of this handheld, the camera would often be literally spinning around the room and you wouldn’t necessarily be on the person who was talking. But the handheld also kept the energy up and it kept that visceral feeling of seeing everything and feeling everything through this character’s eyes. That was significant as that’s what Reed’s vision for this movie was — that the audience would experience this journey through Stephanie’s eyes, through her emotions. We would experience her pain, experience her fall, we would experience her grief and her fear.

Her fear was really captured in the car chase. That was such a brilliant idea on Reed’s part to keep the camera in the car with Blake. When Blake is screaming she really is screaming out of real fear! Sean Bobbitt, who is a very tall guy, was crammed into this tiny, little car next to Blake. They had to rip out the passenger seat next to Blake and Sean was crammed in there with a device that could swing the camera back and forth. The sound guy was in the back seat, scrunched in the back, recording all of the great sound, including Blake’s real screams. Then there was a guy mounted on top of the car who was the person actually driving and steering it.

So Blake was in the car with a steering wheel that didn’t really steer, experiencing everything as it was happening, but she had no control over the car. It was so visceral and real and frightening. That was absolute genius on Reed’s part to really keep that entire scene as Stephanie’s perspective from inside the car because we’ve all seen car chases a gazillion times from outside the car (and with the hero expertly steering throughout). Reed shot footage outside of the car just as back-up, but we never used it.

Blake did a lot of the stunts herself. The whole fight scene with Jude Law — the hand-to-hand fight scene — which was one shot. Actually, there’s one cut in it, which was unfortunate. We had to put a cut in there because there was just a tiny part that nobody particularly liked. Blake also immersed herself into that ice-cold lake in Autumn in Ireland. Her shivering was real.

HULLFISH: There’s a scene early in the film where Stephanie/Blake is with Proctor. Proctor, the journalist and they’re having a conversation. All of the shots in that scene are quite tight on her, and quite loose on him throughout the entire scene.

SOBEL: That was a choice that Reed wanted to have.

HULLFISH: Can you remember the dialogue about that and why that was a choice?

SOBEL: Proctor is really a secondary character — he’s the one who sets everything in motion. It’s not as important to be on him as it is to experience Stephanie’s reaction to what he is saying to her. It’s so much more important to be on Stephanie. That was Reed’s reasoning — once again, to stay with Stephanie. Always stay with her.

Raza Jaffrey stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

HULLFISH: A question of perspective.


HULLFISH: Sometimes — and I loved it — we would experience jumps in time through jump cuts and other times you used dissolves. Why? Why use both of those? And was there a reason sometimes to use a cut to experience time and sometimes dissolves?

SOBEL: Well the cuts obviously are more in the style of this movie. I usually tried to avoid using dissolves. However there were moments — not many — when they were needed to depict either a time-lapse, for instance when Stephanie is waiting outside of Proctor’s after screwing up by losing the bag with Proctor’s information in it. Stephanie looks up at his flat and it dissolves from her face to a closeup of her face, signifying her hesitation to confess her screw up to Proctor, plus it foreshadows what she is about to discover, and serves as a simple passage of time.

HULLFISH: And maybe the bus? When she’s taking the bus to B’s?

SOBEL: Yes, and especially when she is walking. There was a lot of footage of her walking and walking and walking in Scotland which was really beautiful (in actuality these scenes weren’t shot in Scotland. We shot that in Ireland and added CGI to make it Scotland. But it was really extraordinary, and I actually loved that sequence). Unfortunately, we had to compress time here, yet still maintain Stephanie’s feeling of aloneness and determination to go forward. Prior to the final cut, this sequence had more jagged, abstract cuts. There were more shots of Stephanie stumbling around, having symptoms of withdrawal, and freezing in the extreme cold.

Jude Law and Blake Lively star in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

Editorial decisions had to be made to keep the movie from being too long. The movie truly kicks in when she gets to Boyd’s. And so I think that much as I loved this sequence, its lyricism was trying the patience of the audience a little too much. Before we cut it down, I don’t think I had dissolves in it. Now, I believe that there’s only one dissolve — which is from the EWS drone shot to a CU of Stephanie’s face when she comes upon Boyd’s compound. Again, we needed to show a time passage here.

There are a series of dissolves much later on in the movie when Stephanie goes to Serra’s and she wakes up and observes Serra in a very domestic setting, preparing morning coffee. That was designed as a tonal shift and a lyrical, more poetic use of dissolves.

One of my pet peeves is watching a character move across a room. In this scene, I had to get Stephanie up and across the room to meet Serra at the kitchen table, as that’s where the entire scene takes place. The dissolves were for expediency-sake with some added poetry for what the audience is about to see.

HULLFISH: This is more directing maybe but maybe you can tell me that there’s some other coverage that you didn’t use.

I loved — when we first meet Jude Law’s character, B — that the whole thing is done using his boots as the only “reaction shot” of him. How do you use shoes as a reaction shot? Because it’s basically a reaction shot but to somebody’s shoes. So how does that work?

Jude Law stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

SOBEL: Well I did use Boyd’s boots as a reaction shot, as a character even! There were purposeful little moments where one or both of his boots moved depending on the dialogue.

HULLFISH: Oh I noticed. Yeah.

SOBEL: Especially when Stephanie says, “I’m going to kill Reza.” And Boyd says something like, “Oh! He must be really frightened!” Stephanie is lying on the ground and can’t even get herself up off of the floor. And there’s a little moment with his boot, that believe it or not is an actual reaction shot……the boots acting!

I actually love this scene with the talking boots. It was something that Reed wanted to do. She did do coverage of Jude. I believe it was a side angle. I felt like staying on the boots was a far more original way to introduce Boyd — as these boots are impersonal militaristic, and threatening. And besides Stephanie being so completely out of it by this point in the movie, it added a touch of humor. And when Boyd’s face is revealed at the end of this scene, it made it much more of a significant intro for Jude.

HULLFISH: And also keeps with that idea that you said of staying in her perspective. It’s always her perspective and her perspective is that she sees his boots.

SOBEL: Absolutely. The boots are what she sees, they are her perspective. She’s lying on the ground with the snot running out of her nose, going through withdrawal, and conversing with the boots until Boyd lifts her up and puts his face in hers and says you know you’re just a big fuckup…..you got Proctor killed.

Jude Law stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

HULLFISH: And is that the moment you reveal him? Because then, of course, the question is: if you’re on the boots for so long the big question is when do you reveal Jude’s face?

SOBEL: His boots actually exit the screen. He drags the bench both into frame at the beginning of the scene, then drags it off at the end. When Stephanie says as he’s exiting the door (his exit is heard via SFX off camera), “You’re B. You’re Proctor’s source,” that’s when Boyd comes back in (via stomping, threatening boots coming closer SFX) and he grabs her by the lapels and tells her she’s just a total fuckup. That’s when Jude’s face is revealed — which is a wonderful character intro.

HULLFISH: So there’s are two cross-cut scenes where she’s learning to shoot cross-cut with a scene where Jude is just running her ragged. Were those written as separate scenes or were they written to be intercut. I love that they’re intercut. Talk to me about choosing to intercut them.

SOBEL: They were written as separate scenes. As separate scenes, they slowed down the movie and they didn’t have any punch to them. When Boyd is describing hollow-point bullets to Stephanie and what they do to the human body, and she is holding them in her hand…looking at them, feeling them, we decided to intercut that scene with another scene of her gaining more experience by shooting at targets to emphasize the emotional significance of this scene. At the very end of that intercut Boyd says “shoot me” and we did a sound montage of exactly what he had said in the previous hollow point bullet scene which is: these bullets will rip through human flesh and blow out a human heart and…..after hearing that…. she fires anyway.

So, on the one hand, it shows Stephanie as nervous, as horribly aware of what it means to pick up this gun and use it, and on the other hand, it shows that she’s willing to do it. Stephanie is such a screw-up and she’s so frightened most of the time — as we would be in this situation. But there had to be something significant that is conveyed here, “I’m ready to do this. I’m willing to do this.” Not just running around shooting at a target. If Stephanie knows what she’s potentially about to do to somebody — to a human being — and she pulls that trigger nonetheless — risking Boyd’s very life (she does shoot him a little on the high side!), that act signifies another step in Stephanie’s journey and her willingness to be morally compromised. It propels the movie forward so that when Boyd says, “I’m gonna put you out in the field,” she just might be ready.

That was the reasoning behind this intercut…..to get Stephanie to be semi-believable as an assassin. It’s the first time that we see that Stephanie is willing to go through with it (she even surprises herself). Before this intercut, the only time Stephanie has attempted to carry out an assassination is when she tries to kill Reza in the college cafeteria – when she has an opportunity to kill Reza and she can’t do it. So this intercut is a way to build up to this turning point in Stephanie. Up to this point, Stephanie has been trying to prove something to both Boyd and to herself by immersing herself and swimming across the freezing lake, building up her strength and driving skills, and the hand to hand combat with Boyd. That’s a lot different than saying you’re willing to pick up a gun and kill somebody, blowing their body apart in front of you.

HULLFISH: Right. And there’s some interesting psychological stuff there too, but the intercutting between the running and the shooting was just to speed things up.

SOBEL: The training part is very short, but it can be perceived as long because we’ve all seen those training scenes. Again, the intercut was to show that this young woman is willing to kill.

HULLFISH: Yeah. And I did like — just before she shoots — that’s in the trailer, so I don’t think we’re spoiling too much that he asks her to shoot him in the trailer.

You mentioned sound design earlier, and that section also has some interesting sound design, because earlier in the scene, he talks about the hollow points and what they do to flesh. Then he says shoot me and she aims at him and there were some nice shots of her being a little shakey with the gun — a little unsure, and so the audience is worried she might miss his bullet-proof vest — but there’s also sound design where she remembers him saying what it’s going to do to his body.

SOBEL: Exactly.

HULLFISH: Just before she pulls the trigger.

SOBEL: And she does pull the trigger. Even with that in her head, she pulls the trigger….and on someone who up to this point, is training her, helping her, and who is conceivably a good guy.

Blake Lively on the set of Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

HULLFISH: Correct me if I’m wrong — this has got to be a directorial thing or maybe something you guys decided in editing — but before every one of her assassination attempts there’s like old pop music.

SOBEL: The pop music was put in way later, months after I had finished the movie. I actually think that was a Blake decision. She kind of wanted to put in more needle drop pop songs. Reed and I had tried many things earlier in the history of the cut. For instance, at the very beginning of the movie when you have the flash-forward where Stephanie lifts up the gun to the back of Lehman’s head, I had originally temped in the Smashing Pumpkins’ “The Killer in Me is The Killer in You.” That was eventually replaced with an energetic, dynamic score from Steve and Hans. Later on, after I was gone, it was replaced by Cass Elliot’s, “Dream a Little Dream.”

The needle drops that went in, went in after I left the picture.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about the structure of the film. Did it change significantly? I was trying to figure out whether there was any more backstory — not that I would’ve wanted it — maybe showing her descent after losing her family? Basically she’s at the bottom when you meet her.

SOBEL: No. Nothing else was shot.

What there was, was a longer period of time in the brothel.

HULLFISH: I’m glad that’s not there actually.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

SOBEL: There was a whole scene with a pimp and he was very abusive. Later on in the movie, Stephanie kills this pimp. We ended up taking out these scenes.

The reason that we removed these scenes was twofold: First of all — as you said — it extended the time in the brothel by a significant amount. That was one of the things that Reed and I really worked on condensing….the whole first part of the movie up until she gets to Boyd.

Blake is so good in those scenes and it was painful to take them out because when you have a performance that’s that wonderful, you are very reluctant to lose those scenes. But we had to.

Nobody wants to stay in that dark place.

HULLFISH: That’s exactly how I feel. Like, I spent the right amount of time there.

SOBEL: It’s hard to watch Stephanie being abused. She is punishing herself in those scenes. Reed was incredibly successful in getting the audience to experience Stephanie’s POV and to feel what she’s feeling. So when you’re in the brothel you don’t want to feel it anymore. You want her to start climbing out of it.

We also had to remove those scenes because Stephanie killing the pimp, though incredibly satisfying, was almost the antithesis of Stephanie’s “family revenge” character arc. It gave her character a morally compromised scene that caused a significant bump in that journey.

Novelist and Screenwriter Mark Burnell on the set of Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

There was definitely a lot of condensing. There was a lot of intercutting. There was a lot of moving things around making it challenging to maintain a uniform tone. Plus, there’s a considerable amount of action in The Rhythm Section, but there’s also a considerable amount of character study.

HULLFISH: Yeah it’s a psychological movie.

SOBEL: Yes. And I think that that makes it difficult and challenging but also incredibly wonderful and fun for me as an editor and really joyful to work with somebody like Reed who has a fresh and different vision and is willing to change the game up.

Plus, to have somebody like Barbara who has done Bond for all of these years……who’s really willing to try something new and to stand behind a truly creative director. Barbara was incredibly supportive of all of us.

HULLFISH: I don’t know Reed at all. I have this image of her as a very production-oriented director who likes cameras and being on set. But what was she doing in post? How was she in post? How were you guys interacting? What were the decisions that she was trying to help you make or that you were trying to help her deal with?

SOBEL: Reed would bring a lot of ideas to post and I would bring a lot of ideas, a lot of problem-solving issues. Reed was so open to collaborating. She wanted to maintain that dark-dark-dark-dark tone and I think I was trying to bring a little bit of that dark tone up more, slightly lighten it more in places. We both acknowledged each other’s points of view and worked together to problem-solve.

Sterling K. Brown stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

We really wanted this character of Stephanie to be from a woman’s point of view. I think that that was incredibly important — that she wasn’t in the male gaze, that this was more of a female gaze. And I think we succeeded in doing that.

HULLFISH: I wasn’t going to bring this up because I didn’t want it to have a tone of sexism, but you mentioned this female POV and keeping her out of the male gaze. Do you feel like that’s one of the reasons why Reed wanted a female editor? Because this was so in the female space?

SOBEL: I do, but I don’t think that Reed would have been opposed to a male editor. I think that she was leaning certainly more towards a female viewpoint on this. That’s not saying that a male editor wouldn’t have that sensibility. I believe that both male and female editors can handle both the action and the emotional aspects of a story.

HULLFISH: Sure. That sounds like something that you guys needed to balance — tonally, how long are you in her headspace and how long are you battling it out? Did you use scene cards to get a feel for breakdown of scenes?

SOBEL: You know, I never use scene cards. I usually do something very simple where I have a one-liner breakdown right in front of me at my bench. If I do choose to move a scene, and it’s then locked in, I’ll ask my assistants to redo the one-liner continuity. It’s a very simple, easy to view continuity that I can see at all times.

Blake Lively and Sterling K. Brown star in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

I find cards become a little too free form, encouraging people to take them and kind of go “WEEEEE!” …..let’s move this scene here-here-here-here-here and not really make a decision.

I come out of editing on actual film. One of the things that is good and bad with Avid is that one can try things a lot faster and move things around a lot faster, but sometimes it also prevents people from really making a decision, making a strong choice and truly thinking about an edit before executing it.

I think if you just do that, I don’t think that you need cards. Perhaps on certain films they are very important and helpful. But, I tend to do really complicated movies, and I don’t use them. By the way…..somebody get me something simple one of these days!

HULLFISH: Are you ready for a rom-com, Joan?

SOBEL: I’m ready for rom-com!
Something complex, with intertwining scenes and tones, like Nocturnal Animals — which you would think that we would have used scene cards for, we never used scene cards… I think we prepped scene cards for Nocturnal. I think we even prepped scene cards for The Rhythm Section, but we never used them.

HULLFISH: Yeah. I’m not saying they’re for everybody, or for every film. The reason why I was thinking about it was just — how long are you in those action scenes and how spaced are they compared to the more psychological scenes with her?

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

SOBEL: We were in the psychological scenes a lot more than the action scenes. And I think people aren’t quite used to that because once you’re in an action movie — or if it’s been defined as an action movie — then the psychological scenes aren’t necessarily what the audience is used to seeing. So you’re trying the patience of the audience, but it makes it challenging and new and different.

I was Sally Menke’s first assistant editor for six years. Kill Bill, vols. 1 and 2, were the last ones that Sally and I did together. I learned so much about psychological character development and motivation from her because Sally always cut for character.

We used to make scene cards for Sally and she never used them either.

HULLFISH: But you made them.

SOBEL: We made them but she never used them.

I really do hope that I am maintaining some of Sally’s legacy, as with Sally, it’s the character that is always front and center. It’s the psychological makeup of that character and where the character finds himself or herself and how she’s going to react in that situation. And in a movie like this, it’s a little difficult because we don’t have that background that you asked about — which might have helped.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

The audience is dropped into the story where Stephanie is dropped into it, and then we watch her climb up and out of it and make sense of it all. Blake brought so much to the Stephanie character — and having the joy of cutting her — of editing and sculpting Blake’s performance, was a real thrill for me.

HULLFISH: Well I can definitely see that your time with Sally showed up here in this character study. How do you remember that she was constructing character? Or doing something with character that was any different than what was in the script?

SOBEL: First of all, Sally studied psychology when she was in school. Then she went to film school, but she was always continuously drawn to observing and conveying human behavior.

When Sally would edit scenes, she did what I do now. I watch all of the dailies. Every frame from before they hit the slate to after cut is called….trying to mine every little nuance that an actor brings to a performance. Every little eye movement. A twitch in the cheek.

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures’ “The Rhythm Section.”

You’re mining for that in every daily, and you want to make sure that you build to those moments in whatever scene you are cutting. Sally would do that all of the time. I watched her do it and she talked about it to me.

Sally always cut for performance. One of the last times I saw her — which was sad and really loving too — she was nominated for an Oscar for Inglorious Basterds — which was the last movie that she did with Quentin. And I had done A Single Man at that time. And I remember going to ACE’s Visible Arts/Invisible Artists and Sally was there and I came to see her. And when I walked in she was talking to Joe Klotz who had edited Precious.

Sally introduced me to Joe and she put her arm around me and she said, “See this is just what I’m talking about. She cuts for performance.”

That to me was the biggest thrill and an incredibly moving moment in my career, because it is what I love more than anything — sculpting and helping the actors and really bringing what they give to the forefront of a movie. So I hope I did that for Blake. I think she gave so much and I hope that I did it for Reed too.

HULLFISH: On that lovely note. I’m gonna let you go. Thank you so much for the wonderful conversation. So good talking to you.

SOBEL: Thank you, Steve. This was really lovely. I’m so sorry that we had to wait so long.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

HULLFISH: Oh no! It was worth it. Thank you, Joan.

SOBEL: Thank you. Bye.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out more than 200 interviews with the world’s top editors at THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on imdb.

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 them 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…