ART OF THE CUT with Alex O’Flinn of indie sensation, “The Rider”

Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing

In 2014, Alex O’Flinn was awarded Sundance’s Sally Menke Memorial Film Editing Fellowship. He has edited The Bad Batch, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Autism in Love. Most recently he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing for The Rider (also nominated as Best Picture and Best Director and Best Cinematography), which is the film we sat down to talk about for this Art of the Cut interview. This film has generated a lot of buzz. I loved seeing it at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theater.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

O’FLINN: I studied English at a small liberal arts school. Then I moved to Chicago. It just felt like a cool city and I got involved with the Steppenwolf Theater Company.

HULLFISH: I live in Chicago, so I know Steppenwolf. For those that don’t know the name, it’s a very famous theater troupe founded by Gary Sinise, among others, and other famous names in Hollywood got their start there too, like John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, Joan Allen, Gary Gole, John Mahoney and Martha Plimpton.

O’FLINN: Right. They had an apprenticeship/internship program and I wound up interning for the school at Steppenwolf. It’s basically an acting school taught by their ensemble during the summer. The students (who are usually professional actors early in their career) audition to get in and they take about 20 people. That was a great experience for me because I learned a lot about acting by auditing these classes taught by these great actors. So that was my first real education in entertainment. I also worked at a post house in Chicago called Superior Street as an intern and that was an experience where I learned by doing  Simultaneously, I was teaching myself more about Final Cut Pro around that time because that’s when it was kind of gaining steam. You could just have a Final Cut system at your house. That’s really when my interest in editing started to pick up. And then I decided to apply to film school and got into UCLA. That’s what brought me out to Los Angeles — going to UCLA for directing. That was in 2005.

HULLFISH: One of the interesting things that you said in there that intrigued me was your time at Steppenwolf. You said you learned a lot about acting. So tell me a little bit about how your knowledge of acting has informed your editing.

O’FLINN: That’s a great question. I’m very attuned to emotion and truth based on performances.  I really try to tune in to where the actor’s headspace is at with the character, with the scene, and with the emotional beats. I try to make everything work around that. I learned a lot about that as well at UCLA because I was trained as a director there. So having the experience of being on set directing actors also gave me the sort of discipline to hone into what the actors are doing when I’m watching dailies. The thing for me when I’m editing a scene is I’m just trying to map out the beats, and really hone in and expand those emotional moments as much as I can.  In order to do that though and have the audience feel affected by it, I have to use the moments where the actor is just 100% in the moment. You see it in their eyes. It permeates their performance. So I really try to laser in on that as much as possible. Walter Murch said you can look at editing as dancing with the eyes. I know what he’s talking about there because I think if you’re following the beats, you’re really following the actor’s eyes, and in turn, the eyes are giving you an insight into where they are at emotionally and how they’re connected with the other characters.

HULLFISH: I saw that you’d done several shorts as a director. How does your editing affect your directing and how does your directing affect your editing?

O’FLINN: That’s another good question. I was always someone who — as a director — I never loved being on set. I was always thinking, “let’s get to the cutting room so we can so we can get down to business.” I always loved the possibilities of what is possible in the cutting room. You have so much creative freedom. You have so many tools at your hand, you can really make things work that maybe weren’t working in dailies or you can take some great dailies and knock it out of the park. As a director going to set, you have to have the mentality of elevating everything to the highest possible level.   You’re constantly asking yourself how can we do everything we want to with what we’ve got right in front of us and do it great? How can we push this to make it as believable as possible?  I really believe that you have to have that same attitude in the editing room. You have a great ball of clay in front of you and the sky’s the limit. Every project has its own DNA but within that DNA there’s a lot that you can manipulate. If you have that mentality in the cutting room you can do some really cool stuff.

HULLFISH: Amen. Let’s talk about the opening montage of the movie, The Rider. Brady wakes up and we’re kind of placed in the middle of the story, without knowing what’s happened. It’s an extended little sequence, and I’m guessing that the script probably didn’t have too much laid out specifically beyond a few lines.

O’FLINN: The Rider was such a special project. Chloé (director, Chloé Zhao) made that with a crew of six people, which includes herself. It was the size of film school crew. She had a treatment with her when she went out, but it wasn’t a formal script.  They shot in September and  October, and then she did an assembly of what she shot and then we got linked up and we started to talk about restructuring things and diving deep into the cut. In the beginning, the opening was very different actually. The scene is going to be on the deleted scenes on the DVD, and it had Brady walking back from the hospital in his gowns and you saw his bandage and he walks in and he’s disoriented, calling for his Dad, so it was a very different opening. Very literal. She mentioned she had this footage that they shot very stylized of Brady riding a  horse in a corral and that it’s based on a dream he had when he was in the hospital or sometime during his injury. When I saw that footage, I loved it and just thought  “we need to  do something with this.”

The footage throughout the film has this very fluid quality.  Time sort of washes over you. It’s almost dreamlike but you are grounded in reality and the footage of the horse at the beginning was a way to say upfront, “This is  going to be the vibe of the film.” It might not be this stylized but you’re going to be in this character’s head. You’re going to be in this kind of reality quasi-dream space.  You’re going to see the horse as both a real character and spiritual character.  So the opening was an opportunity for Chloé and me to set up the language of the film immediately. Actually, we did a cut where that dream was recurring throughout the film. And then as we got farther along we decided we didn’t need it. Let’s go back to just this one moment at the beginning. And that’s where it stayed. We tried a couple different versions: one with music, but Chloe saw that the scene was super powerful without the music and we decided to take it out and use a very heightened sound design instead.  For instance, when the horse’s hooves hit the ground, we used these really low booms that gave this really powerful feeling to the image.  The scene seems to really get people into the film early on and say “this going to be something you haven’t seen before.”

Director Chloe Zhao

HULLFISH: You talked a little bit about the sound design. So how much of that did you orchestrate in your rough cut?

O’FLINN: Sound design is a huge part for me. I learned that on a couple of films I’ve done with the director Ana Lily Amirpour. She did two films: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was the first one we did together and it has an extremely stylized sound design in the style of a David Lynch film and she really got me into the idea and practice that you have to lay out the sound design in the rough edit.  It has such a huge effect on the cuts, scenes, and the overall vibe and tone of the film.  It’s not just putting the telephone ring or the door closing sound in.    Sound cannot be an afterthought.   That was a huge education for me and ever since my goal is to give a blueprint to the sound designers when I  turn over the locked cut.  By no means is the blueprint a final product, as the collaboration with the sound designer is such a fruitful one.  But having something laid into the cut, I think allows everyone the ability to be even more free with their choices, because the language of the film is so defined and it has been tested against picture. 

On The Rider, Paul Knox who was the supervising sound editor really elevated the entire sonic landscape of the film.  There are so many subtle sounds throughout the film that together really create this rich environment.  The horse sounds for instance: that’s something that he and the team really just knocked out of the park. On my end, the thing that’s always most difficult is foley stuff. The gentle sounds of Brady interacting with the horses, for instance, are sounds that a library isn’t going to work for. So for that stuff, I’ll do the best I can do with sounds from the production track in my rough edit.  But for the opening scene for instance, because the sound design is so stylized, I’ll start building it into my edit from the beginning by laying in the sounds of thunder, the low booms, the wind, etc.  All of those sounds are imperative to the scene working and they are just as important as the picture cuts.

HULLFISH: I remember in the film — at least a few times — the use of thunder even though there wasn’t a storm visually obvious.

O’FLINN: Great ears. Chloé said a couple of things to me at the beginning regarding the landscape of the Badlands.  She said when you’re out in the plains, there’s constantly a thunderstorm miles away. You’re always hearing thunder and you’re always hearing wind. We put thunder in throughout the whole film. We laid that in very early on. We started out putting in a lot of wind noise because that’s what it sounds like, but we ended up paring that back just because it overpowered what was going on. I think this film is actually very quiet at the end of the day. And we found that when we went too much into the ambiances there was almost a disconnect between the audience and the picture. So we kind of pared it back a bit. But we kept the thunderstorms in throughout. It just kind of blends into the landscape somehow — these distant thunderstorms on the horizon. I’m glad you picked up on that.

HULLFISH: I’ve been obsessed with asking about pre-lapping dialogue as a transition from one scene to another… I think I noticed at least a couple of those.

O’FLINN: We must have done it — if not for dialogue — at least for sound. No, you’re right, there’s a couple of spots in dialogue. I really do like that a lot. To me, I just like keeping the story going. It’s not something I do at the end of every scene, but it is a tool I use often. The audience doesn’t realize that you’re into the next scene and then “bam” you’re in the middle of something.

I think it’s important to vary how you get into every scene, and sometimes that variation can come in the way of sound – whether it be dialogue or an effect.  A pre-lap is a great tool that can help in that process.

HULLFISH: For people unfamiliar with editing, I like to point out that everything they see is intentional. It’s not an accident that a twitch of an eye happens at an exact moment. That’s not the actor, really, it’s the editor that chooses that timing. There’s a great moment after the cowboys pray for their fallen buddy, and then one of them starts to play the guitar and Brady’s eye flutters shut.

O’FLINN: The scene you mentioned is so important in the film. It’s the end of the first act and that’s when the film takes off into the rest of Brady’s journey. It widens out a little bit. Chloé got some amazing, honest footage there from all the cowboys talking about their experiences and my goal with that was to root the scene in Brady’s perspective. So that was my goal — just mining Brady and seeing where he’s emotionally engaged with what is being told at the fire. For me it was kind of like he’s hearing these things and then relating it in his mind because he just had his accident. So I was just going through and finding the moments where  Brady is following who’s talking and taking in what they’re saying and then reacting. It seems like a small kind of thing, but it makes a such a big difference. I talk to a lot of young editors and I explain that sometimes you just need a little salt and pepper on a scene.  It might not need a complete overhaul or even a partial one.  It might be just a few small changes in some key areas.  Then the next thing you know, the scene feels brand new.   With the campfire scene, Brady reacting to the different cowboys is the glue that’s keeping the audience grounded with Brady, even though we’re hearing from many different people.

HULLFISH: Since this movie will be a little harder for some of the readers to see (Though it will go into wider release before the end of May 2018), I want to point out what the scene we’re talking about is about. The main character, Brady, has had a traumatic rodeo accident and he’s out drinking with his buddies for the first time after the accident — they’re out around a campfire and one of the cowboys stops to pray for another one of their buddies who has also had a traumatic rodeo accident, and as he prays, you can see Brady taking in this prayer and seeming to relate to the fate of his friend. Whatever his thoughts are during the prayer, the guitar starts and it kind of snaps him out of his reverie. I just loved that moment. Also, the guy playing Brady is not a trained actor.

O’FLINN: No. He’s a cowboy.

HULLFISH: You talked about mining a performance, and I’ve cut a couple of movies with non-professional actors, and with them, it’s even more difficult and more important to mine the right moments.

O’FLINN: It’s true that he’s never acted before, but he was in the rodeo and that is a form of performing. He knows what is involved in getting an audience’s attention. On top of that, there’s something he has that is just kind of an innate talent.  And the camera just loves him. Chloé was very smart and was aware she was working with non-actors and built the script around these guys’ lives to such a point where they weren’t being asked to do stuff that they weren’t familiar with. Everything was really built around the actors, so what the camera shot would feel as emotional and truthful as possible. In terms of taking the best moments from the footage, you are always evaluating both picture and dialogue.  Something I always tell people: you have picture and you have dialogue. They do not have to come from the same take.

There are tons of times where my favorite dialogue take and my favorite picture take are different.  And you don’t need to be restricted to only using dialogue in the scene that it was written for.   I think there’s one instance in the film where I take a line from one scene and I use it five or so scenes later. There are many instances in the film also where I use the dialogue from one take against the picture from another take. Chloé would do a few takes of a shot, but none of the takes would be exactly the same in terms of the actual line being said. It would be roughly the same but the actors would put it in their own words. So sometimes you love the visual of a take, but the lines in another take are more emotional or they get us into the scene more, so I would take those lines and figure out how to hide them through different movements, shots, and whatnot. I do this with dialogue all the time in every film I work on.

HULLFISH: Do you think your background in English helps you in editing — understanding story structure?

O’FLINN: The best compliment I’ve ever gotten as an editor was from a director I worked with and he pointed to my bookshelf and said, “Here’s your education on storytelling.” I really encourage people starting out to read books, learn about history, go to museums, go to concerts so you have something to bring to the plate. There are some times when I’m editing something and I’ll think of the structure of a book I read. How an author did something with time or structure and I kind of try to translate and apply that to whatever I’m editing. So I think just being exposed to different modes of storytelling and how that stuff works and also the history of the hero in storytelling and what that journey is. Everyone who wants to be a  storyteller needs to expose themselves to as many types of storytelling as possible. I’ve cut documentaries. I’ve cut industrial and corporate films. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell talking about getting in your 10000 hours. While you’re cutting industrials, you’re wondering what you’re learning in terms of storytelling, but then, later, you have this aha moment, where you realize “That’s what I learned from all that.”.

HULLFISH: Do you have a favorite storytelling book?

O’FLINN: “Making Movies” by Sidney Lumet. The lesson I learned from that was how he breaks down every film to a one-sentence or even one-word essence. It helps to be able to distill the film into one word (i.e. – fear, regret), that can be a quick trigger if you’re lost. I think that’s a really good tool.  I also think listening to DVD commentaries with directors is really very informative. There’s a fictional book called Welcome to the Goon Squad and the structure of that is very interesting. And that’s something I think about a lot about: just how the structure of that book works. “New Cinematographers” by Alexander Ballinger is a great book, and what I love about it is that it gets into how various cinematographers are using the camera and light to set up a language for telling the story. You really see the mindset of how they’re thinking of using their tools to tell a story. You do that constantly in the editing room. The other book is from Focal Press and it’s called “Editing” and it’s interviews with a bunch of editors. I like hearing other people’s processes. You can have your own process and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s all taking what works for you. I love hearing what different editors do and obviously reading your blog you get into detail with that too.

HULLFISH: There’s a great scene where Brady is throwing cards that really comes alive, I think, because of the sound design.

O’FLINN: I’m glad you’re noticing all these things. That’s that salt and pepper I was talking about. Take that sound out and the shot is flat. A lot of people say, “It’s just a rough cut. I’ll do the sound later.” You can do that, but you might be getting editing notes that are actually really sound notes. It can take you for a loop and get you focusing on the wrong thing.

HULLFISH: I was thinking about that card scene and if you don’t have that great sound work done for a screening, someone is probably going to say, “This feels flat or it feels too long,” then you might end up fixing something picture edits that didn’t need to be fixed. I’ve talked to many editors who have mentioned that when you get notes, they are an indication of a problem, usually, but the solution that is proposed in the note is often wrong.

O’FLINN: Yeah. A thousand percent. We use that quote all the time. At the end of the day, the only people who really know the footage are the director and the editor. They have combed through the dailies endlessly day after day after day after day. So you’re the only people who are really going to know what is possible with the footage. In addition, the director and editors job is to be the gatekeeper to what that film is. And a lot of times when you screen a film you’ll get notes that can have the attitude of: “if I was directing this movie I would have it be like…” and you can not go down that path. You have to be very careful to think about the note through to the end of the film, like, “how would this affect the movie?” Does this person get the film or are they giving us notes on a different film that we’re not making? That’s a really crucial thing. I’m not a fan of the group discussion after a screening, because a lot of time what happens is someone will say something and then another person will agree, even though they didn’t have a problem while they were watching.

So what I like to do is just have a questionnaire. I’ll ask specific questions regarding where we think we’re having an issue or I want to know how something is playing.  I don’t separate out the questions of the questionnaire into a massive document (i.e. everyone’s response to questions 1 on one page, the response to question 2 on another) because if I read the responses of one person to every question on the questionnaire, I’ll be able to tell if they get the film and are on board emotionally.  If they get the film and have notes, I’ll give those notes extra weight because they are based on the terms of the film that exists and not on a version of the film that they would make.  If I read a questionnaire and it is obvious that the person doesn’t like the actual DNA of the film, then I tend to not give those notes too much weight because they are often geared towards making a film that is not based on what they saw, but an imagined version of the film.

HULLFISH: That is brilliant.

O’FLINN: It allows you a sort of filtering device to how you can focus in on the notes.

HULLFISH: Somebody – I can’t remember who – says, in the film, ‘I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.’ And then you’re on Brady and it just holds on him while he’s thinking about this statement that is essentially the crux of the movie.

O’FLINN: Yeah. That was said by Lane — his friend who’s in the hospital. It’s from a video they’re watching before the accident. I felt the same thing when I heard that clip. Brady was so zoomed in — so attentive — in that moment. I stretched it out. I might have even slowed it down to buy me some more time because I just wanted to really punctuate this moment here. I love that moment as well.

HULLFISH: I also loved — just as a little moment — when they go to a horse auction and there was a shot of a person who had brought their pet raccoon.

O’FLINN: You’ve got to just flavor the film with things that you just normally don’t see in everyday life. And I think for Chloé, a big thing in this film is nature. Being constantly surrounded by animals and nature and the elements of nature.

HULLFISH: Another question in that flavoring of the film is how long you can be on some of these beautiful moments, like Brady riding his horse for the last time. It could be three seconds or it could be 90 seconds.

O’FLINN: WIth everything, there’s a limit. Like, I love ice cream but if I eat a quart of ice cream, I know I’m going to get sick. It’s the same thing with shots. Every shot has an expiration moment. That moment where it loses its effect at a certain point, and if you hold it longer then you ruin the cool thing that you started off with. That’s why I feel when you watch early cuts, that’s your chance to kind of be indulgent and get it out of your system.

HULLFISH: (laughs).

O’FLINN: Sometimes I know something is not going to be in the final film, but I have an itch and I have to scratch it.

HULLFISH: There are a few uses of jump cuts. I noticed them in the rehabilitation shots and in the horse-training scenes. These are both places where you KNOW that rehab and training a horse HAS to take a long time. So to me, that’s the justification for the leaps in time of a jump cut.

O’FLINN: So for the training sequence, that was an improvised scene. They were filming something on a ranch and somebody actually asked Brady if he could train a colt that he had that nobody had been able to train. They weren’t planning on filming that and so the footage for that whole scene is just two 45 minute takes. With a scene like this you know you have to distill the training of a horse from beginning to end in four minutes or whatever it is, so for me, the approach is let’s reduce it to the key moments where we see he’s making progress. Once those moments are isolated, the tough part is trying to find how to connect those pieces at certain moments. I use a lot of the old tools like cutting on movement, getting you enough momentum to propel you into the next cut.

In other scenes, I use Brady’s hat a lot as a cutting point. He takes off his hat a lot and puts it on. I use that constantly too as a moment where I can almost reset into a new shot or scene.

With the rehabilitation scenes I was trying to follow a thread of emotion with those scenes rather than the threads of action and was relying on the belief that  if the audience is hooked and they are emotionally engaged in the scene, then they’re going to allow me to kind of get into my next shot however I want, as long as it’s picking up at that emotional standpoint where they left off. So, just making sure I’m following the emotional thread and giving a trail of breadcrumbs so to speak that the audience can constantly pick up on.  As long as I’m doing that, I find that I have a lot of freedom in terms of jump cutting, or any other editing device.

HULLFISH: I loved the music after a climactic moment with his horse, Apollo,

O’FLINN: We had a great composer, Nathan Halpern, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few times.   When he came on board, he gave us his library so we could temp in some stuff that was his compositions and had his sensibilities.   I always say if you can bring your composer onboard at the beginning and use their library and maybe they even give you sketches, that it will be incredibly beneficial  Having a composer on early on is such a gift, and it informs the tone of the film incredibly from the beginning.  It will also prevent you from getting this sort of temp love stuff that you’ll never be able to license. Everybody has their go-to soundtrack that they use.

HULLFISH: Mine is probably Paris, Texas.

O’FLINN: My God, Ry Cooder, you can’t go wrong. That is one of my favorite movies.

HULLFISH: You were saying how quiet this movie is. I did notice that there are not a lot of cues.

O’FLINN: I actually read an interview with Nathan, the composer, and he talked about this as well. There’s so much that is happening naturally in this film that’s just real emotion. And I think we wanted to allow the audience to be in those moments without manipulation. And then as the reward AFTER those moments, we’ll have a cue.  For instance, when Brady is training Apollo for the first time, there’s no music. But after the training, we’ll score that, which is the cathartic release of that whole scene.

HULLFISH: What did you cut this on? Avid?

O’FLINN: Yeah.

HULLFISH: Any thoughts on cutting this montage?

O’FLINN: The rodeo montage was a lot of fun to edit.  We really wanted to get the audience excited, and have you feel the adrenaline that Brady and his friends feel when they are getting ready to compete.  When I edit montages, I really like to make sure each shot I show is not a random shot, but is actually telling a story.  For this scene, we start out with Brady chatting with his friends who he hasn’t seen since the accident.  Then we move into the cowboys getting their gear and horses together.  I wanted to also show that although Brady wasn’t riding he was still involved and invested, so there’s a few shots of him helping his friend prepare.  Then finally the riding begins, and I found that the back to back shots of riders exiting the chute created a nice sense of excitement.  And then in the last movement of this section, we see Brady shouting support to his friend.  I love that shot because you just see how invested Brady is in the sport even though he isn’t riding.  So there is this kind of natural progression of what takes place.  The sound design and mixing play such a large part in this scene and Paul Knox (the sound designer) and Derek McGinley (the re-recording mixer) did a great job of building a sonic landscape that works and accents the cuts.  Rodeos are really loud, and we made sure that this scene plays a bit louder in the mix, both in the song and the sound design.    When it comes up in the film, it really hits you hard!

HULLFISH: Congratulations on your Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing on this. You deserve it.

O’FLINN: Thank you. Thank you for calling me up. I really appreciate it. You’ve done some great interviews with some of my heroes.

HULLFISH: Well, this is another great interview, in my opinion. Great insights by you.

To learn more about Alex. Here is a link to his website.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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