Tatiana Riegel, ACE was last profiled in Art of the Cut for her Oscar-nominated editing of director Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, for which she won an ACE Eddie.
Her previous work includes, The Finest Hours, Million Dollar Arm and Lars and the Real Girl. Other work includes There Will Be Blood, Fright Night and The Men Who Stare At Goats. TV work includes Game Of Thrones and House, M.D. As an assistant editor, she worked on JFK, and Pulp Fiction, among others.
HULLFISH: I thought there was a really interesting thing you did early on in The Girl in the Spider’s Web: there was a scene where Lizbeth walks through a club and there’s score, but there’s also the music from the club at the same time.
RIEGEL Yes, there is. The director was very specific about that and we tried a number of different things. We tried just source music. We tried exclusively score, and then we tried various combinations of the two. We didn’t really get what he wanted until the final score came in, because of course, we were doing it all with temp until then. He had something very specific in his mind for that and it did take us a while to get to it, but I think he’s very happy now.
HULLFISH: I wanted to ask you about a section that — I have to be really careful about because it gives away an important plot point — so at some point the young boy that is in the movie gets a phone call and shortly after that phone call you really play with time. The audience doesn’t know if you’re in the present or in the future or flashing back to the past or is it linear time. Can you talk to me a little bit about trying to assemble that and how close that was to a script and what the challenges of that were?
RIEGEL: That was actually pretty close to the script. We did make a couple of changes relatively late to the game in one section and had to do a little reorganizing of scenes but that particular area was pretty close to script. I think it’s actually pretty linear at that point. The director was very interested in unwinding the story slowly. He really didn’t mind people being confused. And that was always the debate about how much people could take of that. Where are they lost? Where are they leaning forward? And so we had a number of previews and some other screenings to get to that exact place where hopefully people are intrigued enough and aren’t ahead of it too much, but also aren’t terribly confused.
One of the big questions for American audiences was skipping from the first book to the fourth book. The first Girl in the Dragon Tattoo picture (David Fincher’s) came out about eight years ago or something like that, so even if you did see that film that’s a long time to remember certain aspects of it unless you’re a huge fan of the books. We all wanted to make sure that you can go see this film without having to know all of this other information. And if you were a fan of the books and the films that you could also enjoy it just as much. So that was always the dance that was taking place.
HULLFISH: I didn’t feel like I got lost, but it’s OK for the audience to be confused sometimes, right?
RIEGEL: Exactly. And I have to admit that — to his credit — he was much more confident at times than I was. We both were concerned until we started screening it. The audience reaction was really good, so I think we all got a lot more confidence then.
In early screenings it was really confusing and then as we went through a few versions, more ADR lines went in and some other things were just made a little bit more clear — a few VFX, a few inserts — stuff like that. And then — in fact — a lot of that stuff was backed off again at the end because it was very clear nobody was missing anything. We were able to drop a few of those spoon-fed moments.
HULLFISH: I’m really fascinated by something you just said which was an admission that the director was more confident in it than you were. I think that’s part of the editor’s job, right? Even if you’re wrong, you still need to hold that up to the director to say, “I don’t know if people are going to get this.”
RIEGEL: I think that’s one of the nice things about the director-editor relationship, in general, is that I do think you need to be sounding boards for each other. You need to have somebody in the room being the negative person in the room — for lack of a better word. Somebody to ask, “Are they going to get this? Are they not going to get it?” and to make sure every single thing is being thought about. If there are certain things that he’s making assumptions about, I want to make sure that he’s realizing that it is a potential assumption. And if there are things that I’m making assumptions about, or that I’m being too clear about or too straightforward, then he needs to push back to me and say, “No. It’s okay if somebody is not understanding,” or whatever. And it makes the job very interesting and the discussions very lively.
HULLFISH: You sent me a lovely picture of your editing team. I’m sure those discussions went on even with your assistants for example. You probably ask them, “What do you think?”
RIEGEL: Oh yeah! I always do. I think that is half the job of the assistant editor — to be able to help the editor through the whole process. The editor is the first audience. We’re the ones who are putting it together, and the assistants can help with that tremendously. I absolutely require them to watch and to speak very freely. Doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to or agree with what they say. But they’re an audience member just like the next person. To gain confidence and to talk about it fanatically, emotionally, logically. I think it’s a good conversation to have in the cutting room. So I always include them and insist that they watch everything with me and talk about it, and they have to be brutally honest.
HULLFISH: When you are deciding on hiring or choosing assistant editors, are you trying to find somebody that has the same taste as you or are you trying to find somebody that’s a different voice in the room? Do you ask, “what’s your favorite film?”
RIEGEL: I definitely want someone who has opinions. Somebody who’s not going to get upset if I don’t necessarily follow or agree with their opinions. But I do I like people with opinions. I think a good, healthy conversation about scenes in the film or other films is good. As we’re working over the course of a year: “What did you see this weekend? I saw this. What did you think?” I think it’s wonderful. That’s what I love about movies and about filmmaking. It’s great to experience it in the theater, but then also to be able to share it with your friends and family and co-workers afterward is so much fun.
HULLFISH: Is there a difference to the way you approach a scene’s construction when it’s just a conversation as opposed to a big fight scene? There’s a couple of big action fight scenes in this movie.
RIEGEL: The action sequences generally are pretty planned out and choreographed, so it starts to become pretty obvious what they’re going for. These things are shot in very little pieces and something only fits in a certain place. In terms of an action sequence, I try to get the spine of it going and then work from there.
It’s similar in that you want to be drawn into a scene and feel the emotion of whatever is happening there — whether it’s thrilling or scary or action-packed. If it’s a quiet dialogue scene, it’s definitely more subtle. Little things make a huge difference in a line reading or a reaction. This film didn’t have big dialogue scenes, but when I have those dialogue sequences with lots of people I might start it in the middle and work my way out from there, or start at the beginning or start at the end and work my way back — depending on the scene.
But as with all scenes, I think the most important thing is to watch all of the dailies and really keep a good sense of what your immediate instinctual feeling is about that scene, whether it’s a dialogue reading — does that line reading sound real to me? Do I understand the emotion of it? Do I believe it or does that punch look real? Am I scared or concerned or amazed or whatever? So I’m always watching it like an audience member and trying to remember that first initial reaction that I have, and then go from there.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I noticed in the performances of this movie — and Claire Foy is a fantastic actress — but she is playing a very damaged character who does not have a lot of emotion. So how did that affect you choosing performances?
RIEGEL: The director wanted to be very true to the character of Lisbeth Salander. She is a very shut-down – or at least extremely cautious character. And although Lisbeth Salander and the Queen of England could not be farther apart, I think they have similarities: they are not allowed to be emotional. They’re not allowed to be upfront. So in both cases, they are quite reserved. Claire Foy is very good at that. She does a lot of acting with her eyes in both. And she’s quite spectacular.
HULLFISH: I was struck by how there were places where Lisbeth is walking down a hallway or she’s walking through an airport and you need those moments even though maybe it doesn’t seem like much is happening. You need them for pace or release or to build tension. Everything just can’t be dialed up to 11 all the time.
RIEGEL: Definitely. You have to have those peaks and valleys. You have the big motorcycle chase or the fight scenes and you do need those moments in between. But you don’t want to relax tension too much. You’re always wondering what’s happening or where is she going or who’s going to find her. That just makes the film really interesting. The concern always is: what is the overall pace of the film? Is it dragging? Is the beginning too slow? Is the middle too slow? Through screening it, this is what we came up with. Ultimately we hope it’s the best combination of things.
There was a large sequence in the film for quite a while — and it was probably close to 15 minutes — that we took out very, very late in the game. It’s a good sequence. I’m sure it will be on the DVD extras. But ultimately it took away from the film as a whole. There was nothing wrong with it. It completely worked storywise, but when we took it out it really helped the rest of the film play. Those are always the tough ones. It required a little bit of restructuring when we took it out, but very little. It played fine with it. There was quite a lot of fun stuff happening. Some of the producers’ favorite lines were in that section. It was a brave thing for the director to go ahead and do that, especially so late in the game because it came out pretty close to the end.
HULLFISH: There were a couple of places — after big emotional moments or tension-filled moments — where you’d cut back out to a big wide shot… it felt like a wonderful sense of release for the audience.
RIEGEL: The film was almost all shot in Germany — some in Stockholm and there are these tremendous vistas and views. And so it’s always nice to open it up and make it feel like a big movie — like the cliffs and stuff at the end and their house. You know it’s nice to stop and take a break. I think it’s really important. It lets you stop. It lets you digest what you’ve just seen and then move on from it.
HULLFISH: You sent me a great shot of you with your crew at the mix. Can you talk to me about some of those decisions to take a sound effect beyond what is probably considered a “natural” sound effect to something that carries real emotional or sonic impact? I’m thinking of a scene with Salander where she’s getting a wound stapled shut with a staple gun.
RIEGEL: Getting a staple gun used on you is not a pleasant idea, but we definitely turned that up a little bit and made it a bit more gruesome. It was fun. We tried a few different sounds and what the sound brings to the stapling is just pretty brutal. We took the time with the staples. The first one is pretty bold and then it just builds and builds from there.
HULLFISH: When you are cutting fight scenes, staple scenes, car chases, motorcycle chases, are you strictly cutting picture or are you adding sound effects as you go to add rhythmic elements outside of the picture?
RIEGEL: I do try to add sound pretty quickly because it just adds so much more to the sequence. It’s pretty amazing. It’s a wonderful cheat once you start getting all that stuff in. For a long time, I do cut it without sound just because oftentimes in a lot of those action sequences they’re shooting MOS (without sound being recorded) and you have no choice until you get it assembled before you can start putting sound on. There was a lot of stuff that was shot MOS. Some stuff was shot with sound, but it’s usually pretty lousy sound. So I try to imagine in my head what it’s going to sound like. Either I or my assistants will add stuff. We try to turn over those sequences as quickly as possible to the sound crew and let them work their wonders.
For our first screenings for the studio they didn’t want to do a full temp mix but there were so many sequences that just couldn’t be screened without sound effects so I sent four or five big sequences in the movie to sound, to have them work on for that screening, otherwise it was just going to be unbearable to watch. Library sound effects just are not sufficient so we gave them the sequences and they got temp mixes back to us for those and it just kept getting better and better. The sound supervisor, Mandell Winter, and Hamilton Sterling, the sound designer, they were both just unbelievable and such a pleasure to work with.
We had a few different mixers for the temp dubs, then ultimately Julian Slater and Kevin O’Connell for the final — who just did such an amazing job. It was fantastic.
Fortunately, I gave them stuff pretty early on because they were hired early on in the process — pretty much as soon as we got back from Germany. They volunteered to help as much as possible which was terrific. It is such a luxury — I don’t really want to call it a luxury — it really is a necessity. But you don’t get it very often, so it feels like a luxury when you do. But to have the sound crew involved early on is just so important because sound is huge in films like this. It fills things in so much and can really make it feel like it’s a big movie.
HULLFISH: Were you actually editing in Germany or were you always in L.A.?
RIEGEL: I was in Germany for the production.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me a little bit about the schedule?
RIEGEL: We started shooting mid-January (2018) for about three and a half months. We came back the beginning of April or the middle of April. We were in Berlin. We were actually in the city. They shot all over Germany but also at some sound stages slightly outside of Berlin. So we weren’t really much with them. In fact, I didn’t see the director much at all for the entire shoot because they were just all over the place.
So then we came back and were working at Pivotal Post in Burbank through the director’s cut and then moved to Sony for the whole preview process.
HULLFISH: You said you didn’t get a chance to see the director much during shooting — which is fairly normal — they’ve just got so much stuff to do. What kind of conversations did you get to have before he got involved in shooting?
RIEGEL: You know what? Amazingly little. I had never worked with Fede (director, Fede Alvarez) before. I interviewed with him once via Skype. Saw him a few times in Germany and then sat down with him when we came back for the director’s cut and started working with him very intensely at that point. So I had very little interaction with him.
It’s always difficult when you work with a new director: that time getting to know each other and sort of feeling out how the process is going to work and how this particular person likes to work and all that.
The previous movie I did — I, Tonya — was the fifth time I’d worked with that director (Tatiana discussed her Oscar-nominated and Eddie winning work on that movie in another Art of the Cut interview), so we had a real shorthand and it was completely the opposite in terms of the early communication.
HULLFISH: Working with a new director is always scary. So many very experienced and talented editors, like you, have described that.
RIEGEL: I had somebody describe the interview process as basically going on a blind date and deciding whether or not to get married. Hopefully, it’s a good marriage. You can never tell. The good thing is that we both have the same goal, which is to make the movie as good as possible. And ultimately my job is to give the director the film that he wants.
HULLFISH: Do you have German roots? Your name is very Germanic.
RIEGEL: My last name is German, but I not really. All I know is that my last name is German. I worked on a film a long time ago that Wim Wenders directed and I was convinced he hired me because I had a German last name. I have no idea why he hired me, but he was a pleasure to work with.
One day, like a year after I finished working with him I got a phone call and he said, “Hey Tanya, it’s Wim. I’m in Germany and I’m driving through the town of Riegel, and now I’m out of the town of Riegel. It was just a tiny little town in the south of Germany or something. And when he was driving through it he thought he’d give me a call. It was very sweet.
HULLFISH: Your description of the interview being like going on a blind date and deciding to get married ON the blind date just rings so true to me.
RIEGEL: Yeah. It’s a little scary because the director has amazingly intense relationships with everybody involved on the film, but obviously, when you’re on the set he’s doing it with 50 60 a hundred other people at the same time. When you’re with the editor, it’s just one-on-one, 12 hours a day. You have to figure each other out and make a good marriage for that year. That the challenge. But it was really fun and I think Fede is a very interesting filmmaker and I learned a lot from the whole process.
HULLFISH: Obviously you’re a talented editor and an Oscar nominee, but what do you think it was that drew him to you?
RIEGEL: I don’t know. I have no idea. I never asked him. I should.
HULLFISH: I would hate for this to sound sexist, because your talent speaks for itself, but do you know whether he interviewed several women and he was looking for a female editor to help guide this very strong female-centered movie?
RIEGEL: You know it could have been. I think it’s very helpful to have that. Whether it’s a male-female thing or anything else, it’s very important to get different opinions and different ideas. And I think it’s a very, very good thing when a director and an editor are not the same sex. The one relationship that I can point back to very clearly that I used to watch as an assistant editor was Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke. (Riegel was First Assistant editor on Pulp Fiction and Associate Editor on Jackie Brown.) The two of them could not be more different from each other as people, but they had a phenomenal relationship, and they really needed that ying and yang and I think it made his films so so much better because of that.
The same thing is true with Craig Gillespie and me. We’re very different from each other and having those different opinions and discussing them and debating them make the film much, much better. Whereas if you just have the same people in the room you don’t push the movie as much as it needs to be pushed, in my opinion. That’s why I want my assistants to give their opinion. I want to hear what other people have to say. Even if I don’t agree with it, I learn something from it each and every time. And I think the same is true with the director-editor relationship.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk score and temp. The music was a really interesting blend of a romantic classical feel and grungy industrial. They’re like opposites.
RIEGEL: I can talk a little bit about music, but it’s very interesting on this particular film: I was not that involved in the music. Most of the time I am and most of the time editors are. Fede has worked with this composer a number of times. They’re very very good friends. Fede is a musician and has very specific ideas about what he wants and how he wants it to be. So he worked very closely with the composer. Also scheduling-wise and because of a number of different things, together they got it done and more or less showed up on the stage. There was also a music editor that they had worked with a lot. So in all honesty, I was the least involved in the music of any film I’ve ever worked on. I learned of the music when it showed up on the stage. It was a very different experience for me. I think a lot of the music is very beautiful. It’s has a real orchestral, sort of Bernard Herrmann type feel to a lot of it. You might assume that it would lean a little more towards a technology electronic sound. There are those elements, definitely which I think are very cool, but it’s also got a really warm, orchestral romantic style.
HULLFISH: So I don’t understand how temp music worked.
RIEGEL: The way the director likes to work — which, again, is very different from what I’ve experienced — is that we basically finished the director’s cut without music. He likes to work in a more linear schedule. He wanted to finish the picture then he wanted to do the music, then the sound and it’s been very successful for him.
HULLFISH: Did you like cutting without temp?
RIEGEL: I do. It was nerve-wracking to me only from a scheduling point. I had great confidence that he was going to get the music that he wanted because of his musical background and because he had worked with the music editor and the composer so much that I wasn’t worried about that.
In terms of working without music? I LOVE working without music. I mean, I love putting music on — and on every other show I’ve done I’ve I’ve done the temp mix or I’ve participated greatly in the temp music and in the final. This was the first one that I hadn’t. But having said that, I actually really quite like working as long as possible without music. It allows me to work most efficiently and get the most out of the picture because I can’t rely on the music to do that for me. So in an action sequence, I have to make it exciting without music. In an emotional sequence, I have to make it emotional without music. In those places where you can easily rely on the music to do a lot of that heavy lifting — which is great — but if you force yourself to do without it, you really get so much more out of the picture I think. Then once music goes on, you know you’re fine. Music is a great tool. Music is a tremendous part of every film and it needs to be there. I did miss that aspect of it on this film. I would’ve liked to have participated in it more. I like music but I also really like spending a lot of time without music and really getting the picture right and then bringing music into it.
HULLFISH: How do you approach a blank timeline?
RIEGEL: Well right after the panic of it and the feeling of how much work I have to do — the best thing to do is just to sit down and watch the dailies. In the beginning, I’m often feeling quite lost and I don’t know what to do or I don’t know what I want and I’m trying to anticipate what the director is going to want. I try not to do that too much because I can get bogged down in that — in trying to guess rather than react instinctively to my own feelings about the scene. Thinking of what the director wants tends to wash away as I watch the dailies and once I really get through the dailies and I really get to know the scene and I become very familiar with the different performances and what the pieces are, I start to visualize the scene in my head and it becomes more mine and then things just kind of go together. It’s really sort of an instinctual thing. I can’t quite explain it.
I love it when my assistants cut scenes. I really do. I think it’s great. I think it’s great practice for them. It makes their job much more interesting. It takes a little bit off my plate and I get very frustrated with myself when I’m trying to verbalize the notes that I want to give them because sometimes I’m just not good enough at doing that.
For me, it’s a much more instinctual kind of thing. I just kind of have to see and play and watch what that cut feels like to me. I have to play with it myself. I’ll watch the dailies. I’ll put the scene together as I think and feel it should be. I put it away for a day. I go back and look at the next day. Sometimes I’m incredibly pleased with it and it’s much better than I remember it being the night before, and sometimes I’m horrified. Like, “what was I thinking?” Then I rip it apart and try again. I think a lot of it comes once you familiarize yourself with the dailies.
People are shooting so much and the edit schedules are so short that lots of editors tend to go for the select takes and only use those to put together the scenes and then they go back later. I can’t do it that way. It may work terrifically for them, but I have to watch all of the dailies. I watch every single take because I find little bits and pieces in every single take that could make the scene for me and the scene would be completely different with only the select takes. I have to do my legwork and really watch all of the dailies before I even begin cutting anything.
HULLFISH: To get down to the nitty-gritty, it doesn’t sound like you’re making selects reels.
RIEGEL: I don’t. I use different colored markers for different things. I have my own little system. Sometimes I’ll just jot down a very cryptic note but most of the time it just kind of goes into my mind and it stays there and I start to formulate the scene in my head before I start cutting anything.
I don’t know if that’s something left over from my film days, where you couldn’t try too many different things because then the film literally wouldn’t go through the projector anymore. You had to put it together in your head a little bit more. Also, the time constraints of finding the KEM rolls, winding through them… I mean, you had to know what you were looking for.
I really like watching dailies. Seeing what the actors have done — the adjustments that they make or that the director asked them to make. I learn a lot from that.
HULLFISH: But when you moved from film to digital, you did not bring the use of KEM rolls along. You like to call up a single take from the bin.
RIEGEL: Yes. If a scene has a tremendous amount of footage — an action sequence or something like that — I will move stuff around in bins because it’s often shot so out of order. I just don’t do selects reels at all.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how you build the spine of the fight. How do you come to understand the spine — or choreography? The script isn’t spelling it out punch for punch.
RIEGEL: Sometimes it really is a puzzle. It takes a while to figure it out. With action sequences, there’s never a piece that shows you the whole thing. There’s not a master shot of the whole fight or chase, so it is a lot of just piecing it together and trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be. There were a couple of times where certain things where the director said, “That’s not what I meant but that cut is really cool.” Let’s leave it like that. A lot of times, I’ll know that something is going to change because of length or time or whatever and that a section in the middle can just come out, so I’ll make a different cut and put it aside.
HULLFISH: Different versions.
HULLFISH: Maybe not with this director, but with a director you’ve worked with four or five times, when you’re cutting that editor’s cut, do you ever cut lines out of the script before the director sees them if you’re confident that they aren’t needed or slow down the scene?
RIEGEL: As a general rule I would stick to the script. It was all there for a reason. So, until the whole movie is together I don’t think that we can really see that reason. I can have hunches certainly and a lot of times those hunches are right. But I try to leave everything there for a while — if for no other reason than to find it for when the director says, “Hey, where is that?” So I try to have it all in there at least once. But if there’s genuinely something I feel very strongly about, I’ll go ahead and do that. Or I’ll send an email or I’ll send both versions. With Craig, I tend to do that more because I know him so well.
We may have talked about this in our I, Tonya interview, but — for example — there was a sequence with Allison Janney. It was a scene where Tonya goes back to the restaurant where her mother works and they sit in the booth and have this conversation. Janney’s character is talking about being a mother and she gets very very heated and kind of crazy in the scene and delivers this series of lines really really intense and her eyes are open and bulging — and that was take one. The first time I saw it, I thought, “Oh my god. This is fantastic. But then Craig was making this adjustment to the scene where he kept toning her down on each successive take. I never understood why he was asking her to bring the performance down. I responded so much to take one! So I cut the scene using take one. I sent it to Craig. I told him that I saw he was making this adjustment, but I love his take and I’m going to fight for this take. So let’s leave it like this for a little while and we can argue about it later. It ended up staying in for the whole movie. We went back and looked at the other takes and he told me I was right.
I ended up talking to Allison about it in the bathroom at the Oscars. I told her that there was this one take where I just loved take one and Craig kept trying to tone you down, and she said, “I know! I know! I loved that take and I’m so happy you used it.”
I knew I might lose eventually in fighting for that take, but I was going to be very vocal for a long time.
HULLFISH: So that was great that you and Craig had that relationship that you could push that up front. What if that had happened on this movie? Would you have started with a later take and then maybe pushed to use take one further along in the process?
RIEGEL: Definitely. That is the dance that editors have to do with directors a lot. Obviously, our job ultimately is to give them the film that they want to make. Hopefully, we get to discuss it and debate it and have those conversations and build off of each other and make the movie better than it would have been. It can be a better movie than either of us would have made individually. But ultimately the job of the editor is to help the director make the films they want to do. When you’re not as close to each other you obviously have to be much more tactful about it. That’s part of the job is that political part. It’s always a vulnerable place to have open and honest debate for both people. You can’t take it personally at all.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time today.
RIEGEL: So nice to talk to you.
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