When editors talk about the long-term “marriages” between a director and their editor, the discussion probably centers around three “power couples”: Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, Joel Cox and Clint Eastwood, and Michael Kahn and Steven Spielberg. This latter team has added a protege, Sarah Broshar, for their latest production, The Post (and for their next project, Ready Player One.)
It was definitely a bucket-list item to interview the multi-Oscar-winning editor, Michael Kahn, ACE, who has cut some of the biggest classics in cinema history: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, The Color Purple, Fatal Attraction, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln (to barely scratch the surface). He has won three Oscars and in 2011 was given ACE’s Career Achievement Award. For this film, he and Broshar were nominated for an ACE Eddie.
Sarah has been working in post since 2004 and has worked with Kahn as an assistant since The Spiderwick Chronicles in 2008. She was credited as an Additional Editor on both Bridge of Spies and The BFG.
(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)
HULLFISH: Many editors say don’t make a cut unless you have to. There are several scenes in The Post that I recall had very few edits. One of them is the first breakfast scene between Hanks’ and Streep’s characters.
KAHN: Everybody asks us about that scene. It’s a relationship scene between them. Steve (director, Steven Spielberg) shot a lot of coverage for that and after looking at it with us, he said, “Let’s not cut.”
BROSHAR: Yeah. It works in the master.
KAHN: Why should we abort it with a cut? So that’s the way it is, and it works wonderfully.
HULLFISH: So, is there a secret to NOT having to cut? Finding that perfect performance? I mean, in a way it limits you because you can’t select that perfect moment from one take and a perfect moment from another take.
KAHN: This was a great performance for the whole thing. We made a few edits at the end just to punch up a few jokes. That was the way to go with this scene and Steven was absolutely right.
BROSHAR: He shot a lot of coverage for the scene, but that master played from beginning to end. It puts the audience at the table and lets them choose who to look at and when.
KAHN: I think Steve realized that if we cut that up, it’s going to be so cutty, and you’d have a tough time getting these people to relate to each other, so he stayed with the master and we agreed. In editing, there’re all these choices, you know.
HULLFISH: Some people in past Art of the Cut interviews have mentioned that, if you cut, the audience might sense that they’re being manipulated.
KAHN: The thing about manipulation — what is editing?
KAHN: Exactly. That’s exactly what it is because you want people to look over here, over there. It’s all manipulation. That’s what we do.
HULLFISH: Sarah, how does the relationship with Steven Spielberg work as a collaborator for you?
BROSHAR: It’s certainly a wonderful collaboration, with Michael as well. The three of us are in the room together and work side-by-side. To keep up with Steven you’re at 150 percent of your capacity, which is incredibly rewarding. A lot of it is experience built over the years of working together and anticipating each other and feeling out the movie.
KAHN: There’s very little talk going on in the editing room. You’d be surprised to know that. We feel it out together. If you’re talking, you’re not feeling. It’s about “How does it feel? How does Steve feel? Is it the best it can be?” It’s not a mechanical process, it’s a creative one.
HULLFISH: Does it help to have that long-standing relationship with each other? Michael, you’ve been cutting with Steven for more than 40 years, and Sarah, you’ve been part of the team for more than a decade now.
BROSHAR: Absolutely. It’s been a long time where we’ve gotten to know each other very well. And there’s this instinct that kind of kicks in. A lot of times we’re watching the scene and one of us will stop it for something, and often we’re all on the same page and have the same thought about a cut. It feels really fun and collaborative and synchronistic.
HULLFISH: What kind of guidance did you get from Steven before you started editing?
KAHN: Steven actually selects the takes before we start editing. And that saves many hours of time, because we don’t cut with the wrong takes. We cut with the takes he wants to try. We have an editing trailer right next to his, so he can come in whatever time he wants. It’s all Steven’s choices. It’s what he’d like us to try to use.
HULLFISH: Are you just talking about using circled takes, or is he going back and viewing the footage after the shoot to make those selects? I’ve talked to many people who say that the director’s choices for takes on set are not necessarily what they would be if the director looked at them in a screening room, or away from the pressure and emotion and distraction of the moment.
KAHN: Steven knows what the circled takes are, but he looks at everything again to be sure. If we’re going to go through the exercise of putting stuff together, it should be with the takes that he wants to play with. Probably the most important thing we do is get his input.
BROSHAR: Our editing trailer is next to Steven’s trailer on the set or location, and he comes in several times a day — before call, between lighting set-ups, at lunch, at wrap. He’s running new dailies, then coming back a few hours later to see them cut.
HULLFISH: How do you guys work together as editors? How are you breaking up the workload?
KAHN: Well, I don’t think we break it up, do we, Sarah?
BROSHAR: Honestly, we do a lot of work together. When we’re really busy, we might split up for an hour or two and work on different scenes, but then we come back together and show each other what we have. It’s really collaborative and, I think, rare to get to work so closely with another editor. Associate Editor Pat Crane is often in the room with us, and his input is valuable as well.
KAHN: It’s really been great for us.
BROSHAR: I think we were a little intimidated before we shot because we were in the thick of Ready Player One, which is very technical and VFX-heavy. Adding another film with such a fast turn-around to the mix seemed daunting, but the quality of the performances, the beautiful footage, and the compelling and relevant story made it so engaging.
KAHN: We were working on two shows at the same time. We’d watch a sequence from The Post, and we’d do notes and have ideas, and then we’d watch a sequence from Ready Player One. We’d go back and forth. It was a challenge for Sarah and me — but for Steven, I think he said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
BROSHAR: And it was a tremendous challenge for our assistants. We had a great crew that worked really hard to keep everything under control. They had dailies done every morning while dealing with VFX and turnovers for the other film. Going back and forth between the two was chaotic.
KAHN: We’re very lucky that we’ve discovered this group that we have. And they’re all top-notch. They have to get the film to us, and that’s a whole other thing. They need to take care of it, whether it’s digital or film to digital.
HULLFISH: Ready Player One started shooting before The Post?
BROSHAR: By a year, yeah. June 2016.
HULLFISH: When did principal photography on The Post start, approximately?
BROSHAR: I think it was the beginning of June 2017. Right around June 1st, I believe. June to Thanksgiving.
HULLFISH: Sarah, I know over a ten-year mentorship and professional relationship, it’s probably very hard to isolate something specific, but what have you been able to learn from Michael? Can you think of something specific you learned by sitting in with Michael?
BROSHAR: One specific thing that I’ve learned from Michael is to not intellectualize or analyze, but to feel a scene or cut — feel if it works or if something’s bumping. That editing is an emotional process, not an intellectual process. That’s probably one of the biggest takeaways.
HULLFISH: I’m still stunned that you guys cut these two movies simultaneously…
BROSHAR: We had people coming in before 6am to get the dailies from the lab and prepped to take to set. This was the first time we’ve used Avid’s ScriptSync, so we had assistants working on that as well, which was a big help. The crew is very talented, and it was a really smooth process, while at the same time they were prepping VFX reviews for Ready Player One and turnovers and everything else. It was just remarkably smooth. For what we were up against, we were really impressed by how well everything went.
KAHN: He wanted those dailies first thing in the morning. It was impossible to do sometimes. We were going from film to digital and that takes a little more time.
BROSHAR: They got it to us pretty much as quickly as possible. There might have been some turn around with the lab schedule and the film bath, but as soon as those dailies were digitized, within two or three hours the crew had them prepped and we were on our way to set.
KAHN: Steven would be there at 7 o’clock in the morning. And he’d sit down and say, “Where’s the dailies?” (laughs)
HULLFISH: How were you guys watching dailies? What was the process when the footage comes in? Do you watch them together? Are you making notes while you’re watching, or are you just trying to let it flow over you?
KAHN: Well, it’s a very good question because we have established the way we watch film, in what we call KEM rolls. Pat would separate all the takes that were shot and put them in the script order from the script supervisor’s notes.
BROSHAR: We bring a list of new film to run to set each day. Sometimes the scene’s not completely shot, but Steven can decide whether he wants to watch the partial scene or wait until everything’s in. And then we watch the film — every single take, usually. We all take notes — Pat and I take notes on print-outs the assistants have prepared, and Steven has his yellow pad and his number two pencil and writes everything out himself.
KAHN: He can walk away satisfied that he looked at all the dailies, and the next time he comes in, he wants to see a cut.
BROSHAR: Steven has an amazing memory. Once he’s watched a take and written his notes, he remembers.
HULLFISH: You mentioned KEM notes. Are you watching them as selects reels, like KEM reels, or are you watching them by clicking on takes in a bin?
BROSHAR: For each scene, the crew builds a KEM roll sequence. They’ll drop locators for action and resets, so we can skip through if we need to.
HULLFISH: I noticed that music was used very sparingly. Do you want to discuss temping music and spotting where music needed to be?
KAHN: We always have music in there. We’ll have temp in there so Steven can tell the composer, “I like this. I don’t like that.”
HULLFISH: We’ve talked about scenes where you don’t want to cut, but there are also scenes in this movie where the editing is beautifully paced-up. Talk about that decision of where to pace a scene up.
KAHN: We often talk about pace — pace will change according to the emotions of what’s happening.
BROSHAR: The footage really dictates those decisions.
HULLFISH: I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but there’s an interesting double cut just before Kate decides to publish, as she turns one way and then she turns another.
KAHN: She’s talking one way, and then she’s turning the other way because she hears someone else on the phone. We thought it worked and we never show anything to Steven unless we think it’s working. He may disagree with it, but at least it works.
BROSHAR: That’s another classic Michael lesson: Don’t ever show anything to a director unless it works.
HULLFISH: There’s a big push into Kay as she’s talking to her daughter and she’s telling the quote about a dog walking on its hind legs. It holds on a great performance by Streep. Then a fantastic reaction to the daughter.
KAHN: That’s a beautiful scene.
HULLFISH: I assume that with someone like Streep, you made that cut at that exact moment because you wanted the reaction, and not because you HAD to.
KAHN: Oh no. Everything you want to do is because you want to do it.
HULLFISH: You guys are working with better material than what I get to work with, but for most editors, with some performances, they can be fantastic up to a point, and then you need to cut away to protect the actor from a moment of untruthfulness or even a technical issue, like focus.
KAHN: The old editors used to call that “Cutting to Lassie,” when you needed a cutaway to go to a different performance, then you could come back to another piece of film. In the old TV show, “Lassie,” whenever they needed to cutaway for some reason, they’d just cut to Lassie.
HULLFISH: I am SO stealing that phrase. From now on I’ll say, “Crap. I have to cut to Lassie.”
BROSHAR: We don’t think Meryl Streep ever needs a “cut to Lassie.” (Everyone laughs) There are so many interesting choices from her. She can just carry a scene, and she gives subtle variations from take to take. She was just phenomenal in that scene.
KAHN: We’re learning every time we see things. We have to evaluate them and see how the performances are different. Six, seven takes and they’ll all be different. All excellent, but different. But Steven makes the final choice.
HULLFISH: Last question: there’s the stuff that people are saying in dialogue, but then you’ve got these talented actors that are showing what’s going on behind their eyes. How does subtext affect your editing compared to just the plot and what’s being said?
BROSHAR: In a movie like this, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the story is in the subtext. Like you say, your performance decisions are based on so much more than their lines. It’s all about the subtle movements of their eyes, their body language.
KAHN: Especially with these great actors because of what they give you. It’s a tough choice for Steven to make.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much, both of you, for giving me so much time and so many great insights into editing this film.
KAHN & BROSHAR: Thank you.
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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