Yorgos Mavropsaridis just won the ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy. He was also nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA for the film. He was nominated for an ACE Eddie in 2017 for The Lobster. Other films include Killing of the Sacred Deer, The Enemy Within, Dogtooth and numerous Greek films.
Hullfish: I loved The Favourite.Congratulations on your Best Picture nomination and Best Editing nomination for the Oscars!
Mavropsaridis (Greek for “Blackfish”): Thank you, Steve.
Thanks to my director, Yorgos Lanthimos, we first came to international attention with Dogtooth which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign film in 2011. Then we got a nomination for the script and a nomination for the ACE Eddies for Lobster, and now another Eddie nomination and many more for The Favourite, hoping for best picture as you say.
Hullfish: You’ve worked with many different directors. Your filmography includes more than 80 films. How many times have you worked with Yorgos Lanthimos?
Mavropsaridis: I’m 64. Lanthimos is around 45. I worked with a lot of directors before him, with the older ‘new Greek wave’ of cinema. We met when he did his first commercials. From the start, we wanted to have the creative freedom to do what we wanted, even if it was a commercial. That’s what I had also learned from my tutors. At the time commercials were a new kind of industry in Greece. Yorgos had a unique style. He insisted on his director’s cut and people respected him for that. His close collaborators — one of them was me, but he was working with another editor as well — had to be with him, to support his vision. To follow his way of thinking. After that, we did his first feature film which was a mainstream comedy. He co-directed it with a famous comedian in Greece. I worked with him on that as well. It was a tenuous relationship. The schedule was too tight. It was something that we both want to forget.
After a while, he wanted to get away from all this glossy advertising business so he came up with the script for Kinetta, shot with a budget of only 20K. We consider that our first real collaboration. It was just a 16-page script with a lot of improvisation. When he was growing up, he liked dance and choreography, so all of his mis-en-scene and direction is mainly expressed physically. The first dialogue appears around the 25th minute. It was a difficult collaboration as well. Yorgos was trying to find his means of expression in this film. It was very spontaneous. Very rough, handheld. The editing was quite difficult in the sense that our first cut was about four hours long and we also had to find a way to communicate. He’s not very talkative. I’m not either, but we had to find a way to collaborate, but in the end, we managed to take a whole film out of that four hours.
After that, we were lucky because Dogtooth was quite successful in Cannes. Dogtooth brought us close together as personalities as well. We found a way for him to express his creativity and also for me to have my space to try things. We took a lot of time to edit Dogtooth. They finished the shoot at the end of August and we worked all the way until April. But we did a lot of commercials in between. That was also a low budget film: 250K euros. I do understand now what he likes or what he would like and what he wants to express. But it doesn’t mean that we found a standard way because every film is a new challenge. He’s very demanding in a sense and the level of difficulty of his films is high and growing with each new one.
We went to Ireland first and then to London on Lobster and I was assembling during the shoot. That was kind of strange for me because I’m not accustomed to doing the assembly and I think it took me away from the creative work I used to do. I felt like I was doing something that would be thrown away later. I felt like it inhibited me from finding the meaning of the scene. Because I am older, the Greek films I do now, I collaborate with younger editors. They do the assembly so I oversee but it helps them as well. They get experience and I think that’s the best way to work. On The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it was good for me because I was away from the environment. I’m a bit influenced by what I see around me and it does influence my editing, so I prefer not to go on location. Yorgos understood that, so when we did Sacred Deer, they were in the States and I stayed in Athens. This is the way we work, during the shoot I work alone until I have a first rough cut to present.
But to answer your question, I’ve done all his feature films from Kinetta on to The Favourite. On The Favourite, it was a bit different. He had a contract to start The Favourite in March but we had to finish the Deer and he could not get involved after he started shooting The Favourite. So I had to stay a few more months to finish the ADR, the VFX, all the post-production. He started working with a very good English editor, Sam Sneade, so I didn’t think I would work on The Favourite, but after four months of work, he asked me to take over because he couldn’t find a way to communicate his ideas and the work was not progressing. So I started working on this film in July. I had to redo the rough cut as I saw it. Then we finished after six months in January.
The way we worked in Athens with no budget — we continued to work that way. With Lobster or Deer or The Favourite, he takes his time. We make sure we have the best performances and the parts we really like, but when this phase finishes that’s when we really start the work because he wants to deconstruct and reconstruct the edit from the beginning. On the English language films, we always have the obligation to have them less than two hours, so already this is a test because usually, they are 2:30 or 2:40. We did a lot of this on The Favourite mainly due to pace or to give it rhythm and pulse, to make sure that the plot does not take precedence over the main themes that concern Yorgos, which are usually existential, like what is love? How people behave when they are in love? The things he’s interested in his own personal world. So that’s how we approach them. We want the audience to participate in the questioning of these themes.
We first did that in Dogtooth, when we started the film, not in the script order, but using as a beginning the ‘new words learning’ scene, which immediately places the viewer in a position to question his knowledge. After all, what we know is what our education has taught us in our early years. If we name a thing by this or that name, it’s because we were told that this is it and not any other.
You can see in the way he uses the camera and the way he uses the actors and his mis-en-scene and then the edit, he is trying to find the unique language for each film. We make a lot of changes to make the film thematically more of a thesis in the Eisenteinian sense rather than plot oriented. In The Favourite, for example, starting with the scene between the Queen and Sarah questioning what is love. So we know that this is a film about the meaning of love, not a film about a plot — as it was in the script, Abigail going to the palace to attain her aims. It’s more of an esoteric progression towards a conscious realization, both for actor and viewer. We like to have self-conscious moments that make the performances more real. If they don’t exist then the edit is merely descriptive. We don’t want to describe things. We want to indicate things so the viewer can put his experience, his psyche, his own interpretation. We get a lot of interpretations in the previews. You know, when you ask people “What was this movie about?” It’s interesting to see people’s reactions.
My editing starts with me interpreting his mis-en-scene, which is an interpretation by Yorgos of a written script. Lanthimos likes me to interpret what he has done my own way. He’s a very good ‘editor’ in the sense that his decoupage is very particular, but at the same time giving you a lot of paths to follow. There’s not only an interpretation in the scene itself, but also in the structure, when you change the order of the scenes and also in the creation of ‘montage sequences’, which we use extensively for different reasons. For example, when he doesn’t like a scene, but the scene is necessary, or a part of the scene is needed, that’s what we do. We create ‘montage sequences’. We did that a lot in Dogtooth. We did it a lot in Lobster. He shoots things in linear order, to keep the integrity of the performances whole, but we often change them to montage sequences.
For example, in Lobster when the rules of the game were explained, this was created as a montage sequence from five or six linear scenes or in The Deer where there was this intercut between Colin (Farrell) taking his son to operate on him and the parallel action of the necessity to do this, the discussion with his wife and the doctors. We did this with a lot of scenes in The Favourite — the strange scene when Abigail gets hurt and she goes out in the woods to get the medicinal herbs. This order was broken down and turned into a single sequence for many reasons and also, aesthetically, it introduced the theme of a lot of dissolves, something we hadn’t done before so extensively. In Lobster, we had three dissolves, which indicated a change from the first location to the hotel, then from the hotel to the woods and from the woods to the city. On The Favourite, in this scene the dissolves we introduce create an aesthetic consistency that takes us to the final scene where you see a lot of dissolves between the Queen and Abigail and all the rabbits superimposed on them.
Hullfish: That was going to be one of my questions! So the intercutting with the scene of Abigail getting the herbs wasn’t in the script?
Mavropsaridis: No. It was not in the script. The script order was linear. First, the scene in the kitchen when Abigail gets hurt. Then in the evening she goes to help the healing of the Queen’s wounds and finding in this an opportunity to become friends with the Queen, the next morning she goes to the woods, collects the herbs and returns in the palace to apply them on the Queen’s wounds. In this script order, you could see that she planned this thing, due to the classical ’cause and effect’ chain. From the beginning, Lanthimos wanted to avoid this kind of characterization — that she’s plotting and scheming to gain something. Another thing I can tell you is that he was not satisfied with the way he shot the night scene in the queen’s apartment.
So this first ‘montage sequence’ is constructed with the music by Greek composer Yani Christou playing at that moment, connecting these scenes, and which repeats also when she finally succeeds. If you remember, this is the same music — a couple of notes repeating monotonously — when she goes to the Queen’s bedroom and they make love for the first time. So it’s a situation indicating and in a sense mirroring what she wanted to achieve and when she finally succeeds in it. But we didn’t want to show it in the usual classical ’cause and effect’ way, our means of doing it was cinematic in the particular Lanthimos’ articulation. Of course, it creates a lot of questions at the moment, but at the same time engages the viewer, why is this happening? Can I connect it later somehow with something? And we make sure the dots to connect them are there, but it requires an effort from the viewer.
Another example is in the dance scene between Abigail and the Queen. There are close-ups of Abigail indicating that she’s doing this because she wants to gain something. But then no, we wanted to do it in a different way, like two girls playing, but still be true to the script. Abigail is plotting but is at the same time very innocent. People are very complex beings, they contain a lot of contradictory elements. So what we did to indicate that something else is also there in this innocent dance between the two women, is that we started using the sounds of the next aggressive pigeon shooting scene on the dance.
That, hopefully, creates a kind of distance in the viewer’s perception, not identifying with plot or character. That was our way of presenting this situation in a cinematic way and not with ‘descriptive’ editing. Lanthimos likes to experiment and for me, also a viewer, it gives me great aesthetic pleasure when it is attained. It also gives me some indication of how to find the particular narrative language that can be appropriate and at the same time to freely express itself in it own right, not just to serve the plot.
Hullfish: The scene you’re talking about — that’s the pre-lap of the audio of the dove shoot over the dancing?
Mavropsaridis: Yes. Exactly.
Hullfish: There was also an intercut of some guys throwing fruit a chubby naked guy… I can’t remember what it was intercut with — something with Emma Stone.
Mavropsaridis: That scene was revealing to the audience that she was plotting, you could not hide it any longer, because she had just done something terrible putting poison in Sarah’s tea. It was the first time she was fully revealed, of course, there were insinuations, indications before, like the dissolve from Abigail’s close up when Sarah says, “I’ll make a killer out of you yet.” when we dissolve from her face to the next scene. Or a very slight smile when she goes to the queen the first time and the queen wants to throw her out, but Abigail talks about how lovely her rabbits are. There is parallel action with graphic match cuts between the shots — looking at Abigail from behind in the corridor match cutting to Sara galloping seen from behind, or the chubby guy falling down, cutting to Sarah falling down, and the chubby guy laughing and pointing at somebody in the room, cutting to Sarah as if pointing to her saying ‘this is the real victim, the laugh is on her, not me’.
It was also done in the scene with the letter Sara is writing to the Queen. Again different linear scenes combined with the scene of the prime minister trying to persuade the Queen to give Sarah another chance. That’s the same style we had developed from Dogtooth.
I remember when I started the edit in Dogtooth, at the same time as the shooting, Lanthimos sends me a new script with a completely different order of the scenes from the last draft without saying anything, as if to indicate to me, Look we’re not doing a classical narration film, we will take these scenes and play around aesthetically, finding new ways to connect the scenes, with their musicality and not their obvious meaning, showing this scene has an aesthetic, formal relationship with the previous scene or any scene being mirrored later. In the sense, the final draft is written in the edit. There’s a lot of editing work to make this happen.
We do the best rough cut we can within the script order. After two or three months I know the material and I know the possibilities. The edit is so fluid with him. It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants. He knows exactly what he wants to get out of it. I’m an editor who can produce a lot of ideas, but half of them must be discarded because they do not belong to what he has in mind. In this sense, he is very careful to maintain his aesthetic purity. I think he’s a genius director, and he makes certain that you get what you need to accomplice your work.
I’ll give you this example in The Favourite: although he’d already worked with a different editor for four months and had a rough cut, in July I asked to be given some time before showing it to the producers. So I had two months to re-edit the rough cut in script order in my way. After that, our real work started and it took us from the end of September to almost the end of January, trying our method. Some things, like intercutting with the letters was quite easy, but others take a lot of time and experimenting.
Hullfish: Another intercut that I remember was as Sarah is riding off after she’s poisoned, intercutting with what’s happening in the palace.
Mavropsaridis: Right. Always the level of difficulty in his films, and the work that his films require from when we start till we finish is above ten on a scale from 1 to 10. Usually, he first hates what he sees. Like, recently we were working on a short film for a car company. I sent him my first cut and he calls me back and says, “I shut it off. I couldn’t watch more than a minute.”
Hullfish: You’re clearly very experienced and you’ve had tremendous success as an editor, but to have that failure with a director too, it’s an ego thing. And as editors, we really have to set our ego aside.
Mavropsaridis: Well yes, this is something that I’ve learned through the years. When I was a younger editor, I thought I knew everything. I do express myself freely, this I have kept, but in the end, it’s the director who has to decide. What I have gained from putting aside my ego is the understanding that the creative process is something you cannot easily put down on paper, repeat in different circumstances and accomplice without trial and error, without the time process, and without abandoning your fixed ideas. As Heraclitus has said Τα παντα ρει, everything flows, and you cannot cross the same river twice.
Hullfish: Earlier you said that the two of you aren’t very talkative. How are you doing this collaboration? When you’re in there with him, Is he asking you to try something and the conversation is more what’s happening on the screen? How do you collaborate with him?
Mavropsaridis: We watch something, like the rough cut, and he gives me his notes. The way I interpret those notes is what he wants to see. I don’t know how I will have to find it on the way. That’s our connection. Sometimes I do things that he hates, I have to accept it and find another way. To me, it’s a kind of aesthetic morality and certain unspoken ‘rules’ pertaining to his purity. Like he likes to see the cracks in the personality of the actor. We don’t discuss these things, but they’re things that we both perceive and look for. He’s not looking for the ‘perfect’, ‘correct’ performance. He’s looking for the true moments and for what we call ‘presence’. You’ve probably experienced this — with some actors you have to cut a lot and with some, you don’t have to do anything because their presence communicates through the screen.
Lanthimos is an admirer of Robert Bresson. Bresson used to do 40 takes. Why? Because he didn’t want the actors to interpret. He wants them to be there. He doesn’t want the editors to interpret the characters or the plot, he wants the edit to provide its own different meaning and give an extra depth to the narration. If I try to be intellectual about it, he’s not so favorable with that because he wants me to start from the ground up. “Don’t explain to me. Show me.” So it puts me in a very good position because I have to remember that I have to work on the ground level, on the cut, my feet have to be on the ground to hold firmly my mind in the right place. We also have this saying, “We want it analog.” Like, how we used to hear music in the old vinyl records, hearing the scratches as well. That’s why he returned to 35mm negative for The Favourite. He doesn’t like the digital look. On Lobster, we even used a monophonic recording of a song.
Hullfish: You said that Lanthimos didn’t really like your DOING of his notes, but. it was your interpretation of his notes that he appreciated. Can you give me an example of interpreting a note instead of just doing a note?
Mavropsaridis: Some of the notes are very specific but they depend on my interpretation as well, for example, in Lobster, we wanted to eliminate a whole situation in a scene but we wanted to keep the rest. That was very difficult. So he does not tell me how to accomplish it. He says, “You are the editor. You do it, write the script using the picture-words available to you” Another example from The Favourite, the main idea for the scene in the woods between Massam and Abigail was that he wanted it to be similar to the style of a famous Greek director named Alexis Damianos in a film called Evdokia (1971) which was a cult film for us. There’s a fantastic scene where they go up high in the mountains and the guy builds this swing for his girlfriend. The swing goes out over the edge of the mountain and you feel this exhilaration. Something up-lifting. So he wanted to edit this game between them like that, to provide this feeling. Jump cuts and exhilaration. So interpreting the note to edit the scene like this other film is a whole procedure. The only requirement is that everything must belong to the ‘Lanthimic’ world, aesthetically and emotionally. It’s like greek traditional music (from ancient times) based in scales of four and three, not the ‘well-tempered’ octave(after Bach). You can go from the first four scales to very specific three scale notes, (they are called tropes or paths) but in this strictness, there is plenty of room to improvise and create new ideas and feelings.
Hullfish: The rest of the movie doesn’t have a lot of jump cuts, but that scene is all in the energy of the jumpcuts and the performances.
Mavropsaridis: Exactly, and in that scene, the note was just to do it evoking the feeling of the particular scene in Evdokia.
Hullfish: You’ve mentioned numerous times about language — about editing as language. That made me think that you are two Greeks editing a film in English. I’m assuming you’re discussing your edits in Greek?
Mavropsaridis: Editing as language and particular articulation, yes.
We’re talking in Greek but when other people are around — producers — we talk in English.
And when we receive the notes from the producers he hands them to me and says, “You read them. You interpret them.”
I’ll give you an example of how we deal with notes from our producers. The dance — the dance with Sarah and Massam while the queen is looking. As you saw, there was the edited section of choreography, then the very long tracking shot in on the queen’s face to see her expressions. The obvious note that we got was: “Why don’t you intercut the queen’s expressions with the choreography?” We didn’t want to do that because we wanted this separation. It gives you a different perspective on the scene I believe. It’s just an aesthetic purity and morality. You don’t cut up that shot, you have to respect it.
Another note we got was when Abigail introduces herself to the queen. In the background we see Sarah’s head and then when the queen leaves she turns her head reacting to the situation, sensing an ‘enemy’. They wanted a close-up, which was impossible because he never shot a close-up. He wanted this reaction in the background, which made it all the more forceful. Another note was when Sara tries to apologize to the Queen about the letters and we hear her voice behind the screen. The notes requested that we cut back and forth to see her. Our idea is always to cut when there is a reason. Lanthimos wants to keep the purity of his aesthetics. In this sense, I believe we are a kind of family. He likes to use his family of collaborators because they understand and support his vision.
Hullfish: One of the things I’m not sure I understood was that on a lot of these films, you said you don’t do the assembly or the first cut.
Mavropsaridis: On the Greek films I don’t, I work with younger editors since usually I don’t have the time to work for the whole procedure, so the last three films in Greece I collaborated with a younger editor who prepares the assembly. We’re thinking of doing it with Lanthimos as well, maybe the next film we’d work with a younger editor to do that. I’m 64. How many more films can I do?
Hullfish: I’ve talked to a number of editors about the fact that editors get more and more valuable and more sought-after as they age. You look at somebody like Michael Kahn or Thelma Schoonmaker or Anne Coates. There are so many editors working into their 80s or 90s. I’ve talked to many editors about what their least favorite part of the editing process is. Yours must be the assembly.
Mavropsaridis: Yes. I don’t just want to interpret the script. I want to work more creatively. On the Danish film I’m cutting right now, I’m doing it all myself. But that’s different because I was not on location. I can work when I want. I don’t like to work at a fixed hour, like only in the morning, I like to have the freedom to work any time an idea becomes compelling and seeks its resolution.
Hullfish: We touched a little bit on music. What did you temp with? There were a couple of very interesting musical pieces that were pizzicato plucking of an instrument with maybe a drone under….
Mavropsaridis: We started using music from the editing stage first in the Lobster. He knew the music he wanted to use before we used it.
In Lobster, we had the Beethoven theme and the Shostakovich theme. After that — in The Favourite for example — he did approach Anna Meredith the Scottish musician. And in the end, we ended up using just these pieces from her like the pizzicato pieces you mentioned when the Queen is vomiting. And also music from Greek composer Yanni Christou. Lanthimos doesn’t like the music to interpret or support the scene. Music is used in a different way aesthetically. Vivaldi is very appropriate in the corridor when you’re following the Queen and she’s longing for children, expressing her inner feelings, just before the dance with Abigail, and then the sounds, pigeon shooting, become music ( Johnnie Burn is our regular sound designer, and his contribution is always fantastic)
At some point in The Favourite, we did try with a Greek musician and friend of ours — Coti K — to introduce in Vivaldi a more modern approach but in the end, Lanthimos chose to use the classic recordings.
On Sacred Deer he gave me the music from the beginning, mainly Sofia Gubaidulina, to get this feeling of terror that comes from nowhere, coming from a single musical instrument, so it was very appropriate. It is also his way of giving notes. This is the mood for this scene. You must understand that we’ve done more than a thousand commercials together and all his feature films. I know what he wants and he trusts my feelings about the music, I have studied music myself,I used to play violin. As I said, we really only started using music with Lobster, (in Dogtooth the music was from the space of the film, music in Kinetta also). Lobster had classical music and two old Greek songs. Like an inside joke, at the end of Lobster, Sofia Loren sings from a Greek commercial film from the sixties, The Boy and the Dolphin, I laughed a lot when he told me we were going to use this song, talking about love, but in the usual ‘romantic’ sense.
Hullfish: I know there are a bunch of editors in the States that I can think of: Kirk Baxter and Hank Corwin at least who are both also big commercial editors. They have post houses themselves and between feature editing gigs, they’re cutting spots. Does cutting spots allow you to exercise a different muscle or is there one thing you like about commercials and something else that you like about feature films?
Mavropsaridis: When I started, I wanted to be in the film business and I started in London, I was educated in the London International Film School when John Fletcher was the director. Then I came back to Greece in 1982. Our commercial film industry was just starting and like all of us, I had to support my family. It was then that I met people who used commercials as a means to support themselves financially and also in order to be able to make their personal films, the older generation of filmmakers, like Yorgos Panousopoulos, Nikos Panayiotopoulos, Nikos Nikolaidis, Nikos Perakis, I worked also with Alexis Damianos on one of his last films.
I told him that I had doubts about editing commercials,I felt that somehow that was not morally right, but he said, “No. Don’t have any doubts because doing commercials the way your generation does it is a kind of poetry. The poetry of the young people’. When I started cutting commercials, we did have that creative freedom, but that doesn’t happen anymore. But still, commercials are still a very good creative exercise. Mainly, I did commercials because it was the only way we could afford to do films. But it’s great for a DP for a director, an editor to work every day and not wait for a single film once in years.
Hullfish: Did you two meet each other doing spots?
Hullfish: So doing spots is a great way to meet directors who also are looking to move on into features.
Mavropsaridis: Just as you say. We met with people that we believe serve common interests to do mainly art-films. And when we were working on commercials we were discussing films, we exchanged ideas. A lot of directors like to talk about their next film. It’s a great creative meeting place. It also allows you, in this chaotic environment in Greece to be a good editor. If I’d stayed in London and tried to be in the film industry, I don’t think that I would have become a good editor because I wouldn’t be given these opportunities. This chaotic situation in Greece helped a lot of us, and the low budgets as well. There’s a famous incident where Nicholas Ray asks Luis Bunuel, “How can you make a film with such a small budget?” And Bunuel replies, ‘how can YOU make a good film with a very big budget? ‘If you make a film with a very big budget, producers will want their money back so you have to compromise in order to please as many people as possible, your potential customers, and accept things that you wouldn’t otherwise accept.
Hullfish: Obviously, you’re a talented editor. but why do you think he wanted to work with you? Was it personality or the working experience or simply the results?
Mavropsaridis: We did a lot of commercials together, I was already an accomplished editor at the time, so he did appreciate my editorial abilities, but then we did this commercial film I told you about called ‘My Best Friend’. We didn’t get along together in this film. I didn’t think I would do his next film. But he judges people according to their abilities. We had some personality tensions in that film, and he started working with a different talented editor but at the time he wanted to do Kinetta, that editor was not available. So I got a second chance and in the process, we came to a creative understanding. He wants to have his own family, his own people around to support him. He wants people that understand his vision and are capable of accomplishing it.
Hullfish: Yorgos, thank you so much for your time today. I enjoyed talking to you.
Mavropsaridis: Me too. Thank you, Steve.
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.