More likely than not, an Art of the Cut interview with Brent White, ACE, would probably be about editing comedy. His previous work includes, Ghostbusters, Spy, Anchorman (1 and 2), Step Brothers, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights and The 40 Year old Virgin, and before that, Desperate Housewives and Freaks and Geeks. It was his time at Freaks and Geeks that connected him with the cadre of the best and brightest directors in comedy.
If you’re interested in comedy cutting, you’ll need to check out my previous interview with Brent, but for this film, he’s teaming up again with director Paul Feig for a psychological thriller, instead of laughs. We talked about his current release: A Simple Favor.
HULLFISH: You’re already on to your next project, right?
WHITE: It’s called Booksmart, directed by first-time director and veteran actor, Olivia Wilde, she did a really great job. It’s a high school comedy, but it’s more Freaks and Geeks than American Pie. I’m really happy with how it’s come out.
HULLFISH: Before we get into A Simple Favor: Is it different working with a director who is an actor?
WHITE: It is. And it’s kind of fascinating. They’re more attuned to performance. I think it’s a really interesting and important skill-set that is really kind of beneficial on certain projects. On this one, it’s been really important and significant in the way that she comes at material.
HULLFISH: So before this, you did A Simple Favor with a director you’ve worked with numerous time: Paul Feig.
WHITE: Paul was an actor too for a little bit. He was a standup comedian and he did some acting and he was on sitcoms and stuff like that. And so he also has a real understanding of what the actors look for and I think that becomes a real strong-suit in a director: their ability to put themselves in those other shoes in a really positive way.
HULLFISH: And of course, Judd Apatow is also a performer, right? You’ve done several films for him.
WHITE: Yeah, Judd’s started to do standup again. I’ve been to a bunch of his fund-raiser performances. They’re a blast.
HULLFISH: As an editor, is it easier to judge performances for those directors who are actors?
WHITE: One of the great things about that type of director is that they know when they got it. They know when they see it on the day. They go, ‘Ok I’ve got it. I can move on.’
HULLFISH: Do the comedy based directors do more rolling through multiple takes? It’s so common now with digital. Do you get a sense of what they want or where you should go by listening to their direction to the actors in between resets?
WHITE: I do. It becomes really important when you sit down and look at footage.
You start going through the dailies – and the way we set it up in the Avid — we use ScriptSync — every line is annotated and you really get a sense of what happens during the genesis of the scene. You actually see how the intention changes on the day when they put it up on its feet, and what the actor brings to the table and some of the new ideas that come on-board since it was originally written. The writers are often right there on set, guiding and correcting and manipulating. So, it’s really about looking at the dailies and looking at material and seeing how the scene evolves into what it is eventually going to become.
HULLFISH: So, with that genesis in mind, are you much more focused on later takes than earlier takes? And even later set-ups than earlier set-ups?
White: You would think that’s true. But in reality, sometimes it’s the earlier take that has the magic or the wider coverage where the actors are really interacting that ends up being preferred.
HULLFISH: Looking at your body of work, I would think that sticking to the script or looking at the script is almost a danger. Some of those things might evolve so much through the prodding of a comedic director or the improvisational skills of an actor.
WHITE: It is one of the things that you look at. You’re always looking at it as you run the dailies. I do a thing where — because we don’t go to dailies like we did in the old days – you don’t go at the end of the day and sit in a theater and watch the work with the director and DP — so you don’t get the kind of input like we used to.
Dailies are always on PIX or one of these other formats where they’re streamed during the day, so while I’m working a scene I will just keep the dailies running on my iPad on my desk. I won’t really be looking at it for performance sake, but just keep an eye on it and see what the coverage was like. Not really looking at it in a focused way, but just to get a sense of what their day was like. That becomes the first blush of what I see of a scene.
Then it comes to the cutting room and it gets organized and separated and grouped and all those things that we do in the Avid to get a handle on the huge amounts of material that we often get. Then once that’s taken care of, that’s when I really look at it for performance and stuff. So the first time I look at it I’m really just looking at, like, there’s a close-up that moves here or there’s this tracking shot that looks like it’s going to goes from here to here. And so it’s just my preliminary look. And then once we get it into the Avid and my assistant does all of his labor-intensive work of setting it up in ScriptSync, often I’m a couple of days removed from when it was shot. I’m really looking at it in-depth at that point, but seeing the dailies earlier is just nice to see what they’re doing, and then when you have a conversation on the phone with the director, then you understand what their day was like.
Being able to understand the things that they were able to accomplish and the things that they were disappointed that they couldn’t get to really impacts whatever it is you’re working on. When they call me and ask, Did you see the close-up of X or that stunt or that bit that we did, I can say, “Yeah.” It’s nice to have a little heads up about what’s coming. It also starts to organize it in your mind. Pre-organize it. Like, Oh that would be nice to be at. Maybe I could be on that shot for this piece of the puzzle.
HULLFISH: I love the idea of keeping an eye on PIX in the background. I’d heard someone say that they often run a “KEM roll” in the source window while they’re thinking or doing something else – which was an idea that they used back in the film days where you could see shots as they played or wound through on the way to one end or another of the reel. Sometimes something would catch your eye.
Tell me a little bit about how you are approaching a fresh scene. You said you’re using ScriptSync or Script Integration in Avid. Are you actually starting your scenes with that or using that more for revisions?
WHITE: Actually, it makes it so much easier for me to cut something because basically one of the things that I do is to break a scene down into beats. So, as I’m cutting, I’m just looking at four or five lines, basically. and I don’t look at the whole. Sometimes I don’t look at the whole page, I’m just working my way across material: the wide shots and the mediums and the overs and the close-ups and I’ll just go through a certain section of the scene. And then once I’ve got that laid out then I’ll go to the next group. And so the ScriptSync thing really helps me organize my time so I don’t spend a huge amount of time just looking at dailies and not really putting stuff together, so I get things assembled faster.
HULLFISH: So you are going straight to ScriptSync? That’s really interesting. I assume that since you’ve got ScriptSync or Script Integration, you’re not using select reels?
WHITE: No. Sometimes that happens down the road, like when I’m sitting with the director sometimes they’ll ask for something and I will have an assistant in the other room pull that beat or that idea and make me a select reel and then just drop it in a bin at the top of the project and once it’s put together, then I have it. So we make those select reels, but on an “as needed” basis. We don’t make select reels of everything because ScriptSync actually does a lot of that heavy lifting.
WHITE: We also use a lot of locators. If the scene changes or there’s an element where it goes off script there are locators in the scene so that if I get lost in the script — instead of writing everything out — as long as it’s in the same place as the line that’s in the script, there’s just an alternate. We use a different color and that creates a place where I know, “This is where they changed it.” It’s just this way of finding alternate versions of an idea and so on a day when I sit in the room with the director, he’ll say, “I want to do that thing that we found a little later in the scene” and I can jump right to it. I can put my finger on it pretty quickly.
HULLFISH: That’s one of the great advantages of ScriptSync: when you’re doing director’s cuts so if they want to see a different performance it’s so easy to access an exact moment — not just a take.
WHITE: You get stuff together quicker you know and get them happier quicker based on what their intentions were.
HULLFISH: When you’re dealing with stuff that’s shot with multiple cameras. How are you going about judging that material? Do you just look at one angle of a take, or do you try to look at them all? Or are you using ScriptSync, so it doesn’t really matter?
WHITE: It depends. One of the great things about grouping a multi-camera clip — for example — if you have both sides of a conversation, you are able to pick a performance between two actors and keep it intact in a way that makes it more seamless. I can go from one closeup of an actress to the other actress and really preserve the performance that happens on the day.
Though sometimes – because of lighting or blocking – I’ll get a closeup and the other camera is on the same actor, but looser, like a medium or cowboy, and then in those situations, you can adjust the performance just by jumping in. It becomes a rhythm thing. You shoot these movies and the first assemblies are long and it all becomes: how do I get all of this movie into a two-hour box? How do I collapse these things in a way that they feel natural — collapsing things in a way that makes it more dynamic and makes you like the material better?
HULLFISH: You said two things that — let’s not say that they are conflicting – but just that they need to be explained: you said 1) you like to use the two multi-cam shots because you can PRESERVE the performance, but then you’re also using it to ENHANCE or SPEED UP that performance. So what’s giving you that sense of when the actors are “on” and you just have to stay out of the way, and when you need to help them by either letting something breathe or by pacing it up?
WHITE: You want to tap into the emotion of the scene. If you’re feeling the emotional content of the scene and you’re with them and you feel what they feel, that becomes the bottom line. How do I make you ache for what’s going on or how do I make you concerned about what’s happening here between these two people? How do I create tension in this situation or show their camaraderie or that they’re working as a team? And that becomes the thing that you’re trying to create the most: that real live emotion where you feel “this is really happening.”
HULLFISH: You’re talking about making the editing the invisible. But there’s also editing – that is also great – which is QUITE visible. Have you ever done that kind of editing? It seems like your projects are more the invisible type of editing.
WHITE: Especially in the comedy stuff you want to get out of the way so that the joke will play and so that it will resonate. But then, in other pictures it’s about dovetailing things in a way that make it so that it’s seamless so it is about being not seen. It’s also about being true to what they shot in a way that enhances the director’s work as opposed to drawing attention to it in a negative or flashy way.
HULLFISH: Since you’re editing so much using Scriptsync or Script Integration, do you worry about how your bins are set up? Are you going into your bins regularly? (For those that don’t know ScriptSync, it CAN replace accessing shots from the bins.)
WHITE: Yeah, I do. It just depends on what’s the fastest way to see the performance. One of the first movies that I ever worked on — in fact, my very first job — I worked for Dede Allen.
HULLFISH: Wow! Legendary!
WHITE: Dede cut on film and she was doing this Redford movie and she’d stolen this idea from Stanley Kubrick. Stanley was doing a thing where he was videotaping his dailies off of a Moviola. He did that because he knew that once he cut the film, the performance didn’t exist in a physical way anymore because there were holes in it; there were pieces of the movie that were now in the cut and missing from the bins, so he couldn’t see a performance from a to b.
HULLFISH: I had never considered that before!
WHITE: So they developed this system where she would videotape all of the dailies before they were edited and it was my job – because I came from the Sundance Institute and I had worked in video and video editing — that’s kind of how I got my start. She needed somebody that could understand how to make video work in the film world. And so they had this machine built and basically, I would take the dailies — once they were built in the thousand foot reels so they can show them at dailies, and I would videotape them. On the videotape there would be four numbers: the scene and take number — 38 Charlie take 7. There would be the code number, so it’s 37 and this is the first reel. So it’s 37 1252 so you know how far into that thousand reel you were in. And then there was a negative number that was little key number. And then you had how far into the tape you were — like 13 minutes and 12 seconds into tape 42. That was how we would organize the movie, then I created a book that showed Dede exactly where 35 Charlie take 3 was.
So she would have two copies of each tape and she had four or five tape decks in her room and she would be able to look at versions of the performance based on that. So she would say, “OK in 35 Charlie, I want thirty five 12-25 thirty five thousand six hundred twenty two.” And so I would bring that piece of film based on the numbers that she saw on the tape. So basically what we were doing was we had created this rudimentary Avid, because it’s exactly what we do in the digital world.
We have all this reference of what the performance is and so even though we take stuff out and put it in the cut it doesn’t disappear. It’s still there and you can see the integrity of the performance. And so that’s basically what we do every day now. It was interesting when I started out that that was the thing that I was in charge of — organizing Dede’s life in a way so that she could have the performance laid out in front of her every time, so she could get the right moment in the movie. And it was really this thing that she had stolen from Kubrick — who was a genius — and he understood that he needed to see the entire performance. And so when I sit in front of the bins like you say, I often harken back to that original idea. I can look at an entire performance and see which one is the best one to serve my purpose: which has the best joke or which creates the most tension or creates the right amount of conflict. And that becomes the way that we all work nowadays.
HULLFISH: Because you were talking about the integrity of the entire performance instead of a piece of the performance, do you feel there’s any danger in losing that when you’re using ScriptSync?
WHITE: Yeah, sometimes there is. That’s one of the reasons — when I approach it — I first assemble it in beats.
HULLFISH: Yup. I do the same thing.
WHITE: That’s the way I navigate the huge amount of footage. If it’s a 12-minute take, I’m only screening and assembling five or six lines at a time. And what that does is: I only have to deal with the stuff that I have because some of those takes and some of the things they shot that day are for stuff later in the scene, so it really helps me organize my life as I’m putting stuff together. But it also helps me get back to stuff quickly when I’m in the room with directors who are in the process of building their empires and setting up the next project and working pilots and moving things around and meeting actors.
The amount of time that you get to spend with the people that you’re working with sometimes is limited to the amount of time they give to you. So you want to use all the moments that you have with the director and producer at that time to the best of their ability and be able to get the stuff quicker. ScriptSync is very labor intensive at the top, but it saves so much money and so much time later on when everybody’s pressed for time and pushing towards deadlines and stuff like that. It really saves your bacon over and over again on the other side.
HULLFISH: Absolutely agree. Can you remember something distinctive that you learned from Dede? She is such a presence in our field.
WHITE: My gosh. Dede’s the reason that I’m in this business. It was the first job I ever had. And I was on this Redford movie for two years. So I got to see the entire process. I’d never been on a film before – never been in a film cutting room. I came out of film school and worked at the Sundance Institute and that’s kind of where I became an editor, but the editing at Sundance was a lab situation. Dede taught me exactly what the whole process was from beginning to end. She taught me things that I use to this day.
One of the things she would say is, “Matching is for sissies.” That was a phrase that she would use all the time.
Also, “It doesn’t matter where you go as long as long as you’re pushed to the idea.”
She used to say, “if their eyes connect, nobody’s going to be looking at their mouth.” If you put a scene together, you watch what their eyes are doing — because that’s what you do in a conversation — you watch where the eyes go and that’s a really important aspect of connecting pieces one to another. To this day I do that. Or if I’m trying to create tension I can create distance between people if I cut to them as they look away. And those are all things that I learned from Dede.
Dede was one of the people that loved the politics of the cutting room more than anybody I think I’ve ever met. She liked to talk about where we’re going to do our screening and why we’re going to do the ADR with these guys, and all those things that can sometimes become confrontational. She always loved dealing with the studio and the director and making sure that the film was protected. It was just a super amazing opportunity. I was so wide-eyed and I didn’t know how anything was done. So the way we do it is the Dede way.
It also made a big impact on me as I went forward because as I went out as an assistant and tried to get jobs, and people would say, “Oh, you came through Dede’s cutting room? You’ll be fine.” It was a vetting process that actually paid dividends down the road that I can never ever repay.
I’m really fascinated with that sense of social understanding of the cutting room and how important that is — not only to your career, but just creatively.
WHITE: She understood the cutting room was a place where you got a lot of information about different things. And I think she used the other assistants and the other people in the cutting room in a resource way that really helped her make the movie better. We would sit down and watch the dailies in the afternoon or at the end of the day with the director. It was the first time that she would sit down and look at the material and we were all expected to be there to see dailies. Once we’d all seen the material, then there were conversations about what happened in the scene… do we like this performance? Is this performance going to be problematic? Is this language or this accent gonna be an issue? All of that conversation happens in the cutting room as you’re putting something together. And everybody knows the strengths and weaknesses of the material based on sitting in a room and watching the dailies every day for two hours or so.
HULLFISH: I’ve heard from so many people that they regret that the formal viewing of dailies as a creative group has changed over the years.
WHITE: I’ve two minds about that. I regret the loss of being able to actually look at the film in a different way. But the number of hours that it added to your day – and what you weren’t able to accomplish because you had to deal with dailies. On some of Judd’s shows, we would run dailies at lunch and so no matter where they were, I would have to quit editing, get in my car, drive to location, wait for them to break, look at dailies, talk to them afterward, drive all the way back, and so in the middle of the day I would lose three hours. It really ate into your day. You got less done because of that. But now because of PIX and all those things, everybody has access to them and all of the keys have access to them on iPads.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about A Simple Favor. This doesn’t seem like Paul Feig’s typical movie.
WHITE: It’s not. And was kind of the joy of doing it. It’s a thriller and it’s really about the friendship between two women. And it was so fun to put together and it was such a pleasure to do. I just thoroughly enjoyed the time that I spent on the movie. It was shot by John Schwartzman in Toronto and it looks great and looks sharp and it looks really fancy and it’s really pretty. It has a real Old-Hollywood feel in a way that I really really enjoy.
And the performances are really great. Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick are just amazing in the movie. And Henry Golding who plays the husband in this is the lead in Crazy Rich Asians and he’s just phenomenal. Anna plays this single mom who gets into this unlikely friendship with Blake Lively’s character. They only become friends because their kids go to school together and are friends. One day Blake’s character asks Anna’s character to take her son home from school, but Blake doesn’t come home that night, and that’s kind of the jumping off point of the movie. Now Anna has to figure out what happened to her friend. It does have tension and thriller elements that I really enjoyed. Anna Kendrick is so bright and so lovely and so vivacious in the movie that you can’t help but kind of root for her in the same way that you’d root for Cary Grant in North by Northwest. That’s what I’ve loved about putting it together is that it was kind of a chance to do a little bit of a Hitchcock thing. I think people are really really gonna like it.
HULLFISH: Did it stretch muscles that hadn’t been stretched for you?
WHITE: Maybe it stretched some muscles, but it was more about: “How do I keep the tension going so that you’re drawn into this world and then drawn along this journey?” Just kind of being on a single journey where you go from here to here and this creates a kind of tension where I get a little bit more information from this scene. I’m super happy with how the movie turned out.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the schedule. Did you edit in Toronto – where the movie was shot?
WHITE: A Simple Favor was probably two and a half or three months. They were in Toronto. We stayed here in L.A. and cut. Usually what happens on Paul’s movies, is that I’ll stay here, but I’ll go out for a couple of weeks either during a big sequence or a big set piece. We did that on Spy. We did that on Ghostbusters.
For Ghostbusters it was the big Times Square fight. I was there for a couple weeks of just being another pair of eyes.
On A Simple Favor, I went out for the last big run at the house at the end of the movie. And it was really good to get the lay of the land and to know where I was going from being out there on the set. That’s one of the things that’s really great about visiting set. Sometimes they need you around because there are so many technical things that they’re working through.
HULLFISH: When you went up to Toronto, were you just going on set, or did they have a mobile cutting room or have you in a post-house?
WHITE: No. I just went on set. I was just there. I didn’t do any cutting while I was away. I would just work my butt off before I went and try to get super caught up. And then when I came back I knew that I was going to be several days behind schedule and have to make up that time. But also I’ve already been cutting the movie for a while, and so I have some ideas and some things that I want to talk about or want to discuss with the director and sometimes with the DP about what the intention is what we’re trying to do, just so that I don’t get too far afield. It’s all about communication, but I think that stuff happens a lot easier while you’re sitting there on set, in between takes or while they’re setting up lights. I get a lot of information that I don’t really get from just looking at the dailies. It’s so helpful for me when I have a big sequence like that to see how it’s laid out and see what the intention is.
HULLFISH: I was going to ask about what the value is, because the studio doesn’t just fly you out for a week and put up in a hotel and pay you to NOT cut for no reason or pay-off.
WHITE: Exactly. For Spy, the thing I flew out for was the big helicopter sequence. It was shot over ten days but there were the real helicopters in the real locations with the actors, then the real helicopters and the real locations with the stunt performers. Then there were second unit helicopters with stunt performers, out over the lake. Then there were a couple of green-screen days where it was helicopters against a green screen with the real actors. It was just helpful to have another pair of eyes to help figure out how we needed to integrate all those pieces and know where they all went.
That was the same thing with Ghostbusters in Times Square. Just knowing how to integrate the stunt-work with the real actors on those big green-screen sets. I don’t envy the guys that cut these big superhero movies. It’s super complicated and you have to really understand what the intention is.
HULLFISH: Is there anything else — a different approach or anything — that you had to take with this movie because of the type of movie it was or because of Paul?
WHITE: We kind of had the same approach. We still previewed a fair amount. On previous movies, we were primarily interested in what the audience thought was funny, but on this movie, we were also interested in where they were confused or where we led them astray. We were trying to lead them down this specific path because we’re trying to build to a big climax in a different way than you do in some of the comedy movies. I’m trying to build to a big finale, and so it’s about following the breadcrumbs to that big end-piece. So what I’m looking for is a little different – or what we’re asking the audience to do for us – but it’s still sitting in a room with Paul, and it’s just a pleasure to get the reaction that we got from people.
HULLFISH: Is the trick to leave enough breadcrumbs so that the audience is following along and tracking and understands the stakes and not losing them because you can’t broadcast the ending?
WHITE: Right exactly. It becomes so much a part of what Anna Kendrick does as a performer in the movie, because she’s the person that we see things through so you have to make the movie work where the audience is really in her headspace, so that you feel the things that she feels. That was an interesting thing — to be so focused on a single character in a way that usually I’m not because I’m working with an ensemble. But once Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are in a scene together, that’s just gold. That’s the magic. Those two characters in the same room is so fun.
HULLFISH: Brent, I loved talking with you again. I hope A Simple Favor is a big success for you.
WHITE: I can’t wait for an opportunity to talk about editing again down the road.
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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