ART OF THE CUT with Sidney Wolinsky, ACE on “Shape of Water”

Art of the Cut last spoke to editor Sidney Wolinsky, ACE, in 2015 about his work on House of Cards and The Sopranos, among other things. We circled back to talk to him again about his collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro on the enchanting and gorgeous feature film The Shape of Water.

Wolinsky has cut some of the top TV shows on television. In addition to The Sopranos and House of Cards, he’s edited prestige shows like Boardwalk Empire, Walking Dead, Roy Donovan and Sons of Anarchy, not to mention cutting the pilot of del Toro’s The Strain.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. The entire interview was transcribed within 15 minutes of completing the Skype call. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Shape of Water was such a visually stunning film. Did you just love getting dailies every day?

WOLINSKY: I certainly loved the dailies. They were beautiful and the performances were great.

HULLFISH: There’s a moment in an early kind of pivotal scene as the supervisor’s talking about this new asset and this ominous music track comes in. I was just talking to Billy Fox about how important it is not just to choose the right piece of music but to have it come in at the right time. Can you talk to me about choosing that right moment – especially with that one scene.

WOLINSKY: I think that was a place where fooled around a little on the stage with where to bring it in.

HULLFISH: There’s a really nice montage that kind of jumps through a fairly quick period of time right after Richard and Elisa are watching old movies on TV and kind of dance together on the couch.

WOLINSKY: I timed the cuts to the music as you probably saw and the music kind of buttons out on the beats as the towel dispenser is closed.

HULLFISH: There’s a sound effect that hits on the final beat and acts as the transition out of the montage.

WOLINSKY: It’s funny, because the music used to have a little coda on it – a Looney Toons kind of coda – and the mixer actually said, “Can I show something to you?” and he killed the coda and ended on the sound effect of the towel dispenser, and I said, “Great idea.” The note always hit exactly there but I never thought of cutting off the ending of the music.

HULLFISH: The music throughout the movie was really interesting.

WOLINSKY: A lot of it is on television. All these songs serve a dual purpose. They become a little bit like score. The Alice Faye is a set up for the dance at the end of the show.

HULLFISH: Were there any challenges or maybe even benefits of dealing with a main character that’s mute?

WOLINSKY: The big advantage is that you don’t have to clean up their dialogue tracks. You don’t have to do any ADR for them. But seriously, the challenges of cutting are the challenges of cutting. You have to be on the right character at the right time and show reactions to what people say whether they’re saying it with their mouth or their hands. The creature, obviously is mute and our sound effects team in conjunction with Guillermo created a voice for him, so he has a vocabulary of sounds.

HULLFISH: Did you have any sounds for the creature’s vocalizations while you were cutting?

WOLINSKY: The development of the creature’s voice took place over a number of months. The initial draft versions that were sent to my assistant were the basis for what we ended up with and my assistant cut all those to the scenes and they worked pretty well. And then, little by little, the voice became more layered and more nuanced and conveyed more emotion. But we always had something in there.

HULLFISH: You used pre-lapping of audio to great effect to make some hard jumps in time feel smooth.

WOLINSKY: Transitions worked really well, I’ve got to say.

HULLFISH: One of them I remember was one of the first time she goes and visits Richard. When she leaves, the audio is still continuing as she kind of dances down the hall.

WOLINSKY: In a way that’s sort of half reality because presumably the TV show is still playing or the movie on television and yet it’s sort of abstract because there’s a time cut and we play it really loud. So that works really well.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about your collaboration with Guillermo. This is your first film with him correct?

WOLINSKY: I did the pilot for The Strain with him. I did that about three or four years ago.

HULLFISH: How does he like to work? How do you guys collaborate?

WOLINSKY: He just said, “Look I like to come in every day and look at film.” I said, “No problem.”

Director/Writer/Producer Guillermo del Torro on the set of THE SHAPE OF WATER.

HULLFISH: What was your collaboration method? How did you like to work?

WOLINSKY: He likes to come into the cutting room every day and work on cut footage. And that’s what we did.

HULLFISH: So he’s basically a “show me” kind of guy? And he would actually sit there with you instead of giving you notes and walking away?

WOLINSKY: He didn’t give notes and walk away. He would sit there while we did stuff. He’d have an idea or I’d have an idea. We’d work together. Primarily, he’d come in with a set of notes and he’d sit down and say, “OK. Let’s get started.” And we’d go through it and he’d say, “OK let’s try this.” Very hands on.

HULLFISH: Working with a director who was also a writer can be tricky? Was he precious with his writing? Was that an issue?

WOLINSKY: I actually would disagree with you on that. I find working with writers is the easiest thing because writers basically do that all the time. They write stuff and they tear it up or move it around. So I found working with writers that they’re always willing to entertain changes to things. The thing about writers that I like – good writers – is that they know the purpose of every word and every line. What I find is that directors who aren’t writers are often afraid of changing stuff because they don’t have that depth of insight.

I remember working with David Chase and I would suggest changing a line and he’d say, “I didn’t want to change it because I wanted this word to imply this thing about this character.” As an editor you have to realize that everything on the screen is important. Everything that the audience sees: because they read meaning into everything. The same is true of whatever the audience hears.

Guillermo was very open. If I thought something was unclear — and if he thought I was right – he would immediately come up with a different line. Or he would explain to me why it was the way it was.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about subtext and how it affects your editing.

WOLINSKY: Subtext is the only thing that makes things interesting really. Subtext is what gives the tension to it. I think subtext is really what drives things. Without subtext, it’s just 100 percent plot.

HULLFISH: The story seemed pretty linear. Were there any changes in structure as you moved from your first assembly?

WOLINSKY: Yeah there were changes.

HULLFISH: What were the purposes of those structural changes? Just to move the story along?

WOLINSKY: Mostly to move the story along in the areas where things slowed down and it was feeling that the scenes were not necessary or just repeated stuff that we already knew.

HULLFISH: For a lot of the movie, the musical choices are written into the script itself, because it was commenting on the story.

WOLINSKY: A lot of it is that we’re setting up Eliza’s love of old movies. The way she bonds with Richard Jenkins — his character. Obviously, the song, “ You’ll Never Know” later comes back as the fantasy musical.

HULLFISH: Did you temp score with anything outside of the diegetic music?

WOLINSKY: The final score is Alexandre Desplat. We temped with all kinds of stuff.

HULLFISH: Did you try to stick with Alexandre’s own music?

WOLINSKY: If stuff worked, we tried to stay with his previous work. It’s a tall order to limit temp to one composer. One cue from one movie would work, but in his other movies, there might be nothing there that works for this film. It’s a big job to find temp music.

HULLFISH: It seemed like the movie was shot practically most of the time. Very few VFX.

WOLINSKY: That’s absolutely true. I was never cutting a scene that was entirely green screen. The creature was in a fully realized suit and head. Everything was practical. There is CGI in it, though, no question.

HULLFISH: I really loved the transitions between scenes in this movie.

WOLINSKY: Obviously there are the ones that were clearly designed by Guillermo like where Strickland is sitting in the car and you rack focus to the water on the windshield and then dissolve to the water in the bath tub. There’s the one in the bus when that song is playing and the water droplets turn into this abstract thing and then it goes to her feet. I like that one you mentioned with the montage ending with the paper towel dispenser being closed. I like the one at the end of the heist where Strickland is standing on the edge of the empty tank and he hits it with his baton and we cut right to Sally Hawkins opening up the shower curtain. I think that’s a really dynamic cut. With a lot of the great cuts — the in and the out were designed by Guillermo. I’d love to take credit for them, but many of them were all him.

HULLFISH: Guillermo was with you for the edits, but when the director’s not there you can kind of guess what the purpose is for a specific shot, but sometimes you don’t have the context of the scene before it or after it, since they haven’t been shot when you’re making the initial cut.

WOLINSKY: I’ve been around the block long enough to figure out what the intention is, especially when there’s some special shot that starts with a close-up and pulls back to show you the room or something. You know that that’s the beginning of the scene. As you know, film is full of a lot of conventions.

HULLFISH: There’s typical coverage and then when you see something that’s very special you usually know what the purpose of that shot is.


HULLFISH: I really appreciate you talking to me.

WOLINSKY: Thank you so much. I’d also like to say that I thought you did a really nice job with your book, the way you broke down all of the comments and rearranged and categorized them.

HULLFISH: Thank you.

WOLINSKY: That must have been a hell of a big job. Just meticulous work.

HULLFISH: I appreciate that you noticed. Thanks for lending your expertise to it. I was glad to have our previous interview in the book.

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…

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