Today we’re talking with Alan Baumgarten, ACE who recently edited The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.
Alan was nominated for his first ACE Eddie in 1997. He won an ACE Eddie and an Emmy for Recount. He won an ACE Eddie and was nominated for an Oscar for American Hustle. And was nominated for two more ACE Eddies for his editing of Joy and Molly’s Game.
I interviewed him previously for his work on Molly’s Game.
The rest of his filmography includes Venom, The Cloverfield Paradox, Gangster Squad, and Zombieland among dozens of others. Alan was also an Additional Editor on JoJo Rabbit.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about The Trial of the Chicago 7 and how you got the gig.
BAUMGARTEN: I worked previously with Aaron Sorkin on Molly’s Game (with co-editors Josh Schaeffer and Elliot Graham) and it was a great experience collaborating with him on that film. Then, in 2018, I heard that Aaron was going to be directing The Trial of the Chicago 7. Thanks to good timing and good fortune it came my way, but then it fell apart in pre-production due to financing issues, and it got delayed indefinitely. Once I’d read the script though, I was hooked and was going to make sure I could find a way to do it, if and when it ever back to life. And then a year ago, in October 2019, production started.
HULLFISH: That’s one of those tricky things for editors, especially that are in demand or that work with specific directors multiple times — is how do you work your schedule so that when Aaron Sorkin calls you’re available?
BAUMGARTEN: Well it is tricky, as you said, but you just have to hope that it works out. And it doesn’t always. You can’t really control it. Sometimes there are certain things you can do, but as we know films are shifting all the time so it’s a little risky to hold out for something that may or may not happen when you might have a definite opportunity right in front of you. Once I knew that Chicago 7 was going to happen, I just did everything I could to try and make sure that it would work out.
HULLFISH: One of the biggest challenges — it seemed to me from watching the film — would be structurally. The film jumps around in time a lot. Is that something that’s tricky or do you just think, “Hey. It’s a scene. I cut the scenes together and then eventually we need to worry about context.”
BAUMGARTEN: Aaron’s scripts are very specific. The dialogue is beautifully written and a lot of the structural framework is well established and a lot of the cross-cutting beats are built into the script. He’s mapped everything out to a large extent and that is certainly an advantage for an editor. So I’m working with an existing structure that leads the way, but there’s also plenty of discovery and exploration on how to execute things – exactly when to go from a dialogue beat and cross-cut to a flashback and then return to the dialogue. The layers and textures of his time jumps are a lot of fun to manipulate and play with.
HULLFISH: Aaron’s so well-known as a writer. Is that something that carries through into the editing room — in a good way or a tricky way?
BAUMGARTEN: It carries though amazingly well. Aaron appreciates editing very much, and I think he feels a kinship to the process. There are similarities to writing in that we’re alone working on the material in editorial in much the same way a writer would be alone working on a script. Aaron values and trusts the process and he doesn’t want to sit over my shoulder. He gives me a lot of freedom to take time with the material. In that sense, I think his experience as a writer translates very well into the way he works in editorial.
HULLFISH: It made me just think of something for the first time which is — lots of people say that film editing and writing are similar and that editing is the final rewrite and all kinds of things like that, but that made me think of revisions of a script and how many versions of a script you have to write before you come up with the final one and how editing is a very similar process in that you have this first assembly that you have very early in the process — maybe a week or two after the show was shot — and then the film discovers itself for many, many months after that.
BAUMGARTEN: You’re absolutely right. It’s about the revisions, refinement, tweaking, reassessing the material, dialing things into where you feel they’re just right. That goes on in writing and rewriting and the same is true with editing. You start with a first cut and sometimes it’s very close and other times you tear it apart and approach it much differently. It’s an ongoing process to work through the material and many revisions and versions are needed to get to the final result.
HULLFISH: I find that process somewhat difficult with my ego — to be honest — and I would love some mentorship here on the phone. Many people say talk about how bad the editor’s cut is… Martin Scorsese says that if you’re not physically ill watching the editor’s cut, something is wrong with you.
That’s my work! But you have to know that there’s this process that you have to go through and just because your first cut wasn’t what the director wanted or that the first assembly is a nightmare that is not really a reflection on you — or is it. Or how do you keep it from being a reflection?
BAUMGARTEN: Well, it is and it isn’t. I think it’s more a reflection on the amount of time one has had. It does sting when people are jumping on the work when you feel like you haven’t had enough time or new ideas are just bubbling to the surface and there hasn’t been an opportunity to implement them. As far as editor’s cuts go through, they’re an important starting point, and they need to be treated as a starting point. I think Aaron had heard something similar to the Scorsese quote, maybe even worse – the “wanting to kill yourself” version. Thankfully, after he watched my first cut he wasn’t despondent, he was actually rather positive – he offered some praise, said we had a lot to do, and that he’d be back in the morning to start in. Unfortunately, some people have become more and more impatient — whether it’s producers or executives or even directors. There’s a desire to get to the end zone quickly and usually, it just doesn’t happen that way. The time to reassess, the time to reflect, to step away — it’s very important. Rushing the process is stifling and counterproductive.
HULLFISH: With Aaron — I’m assuming he’s an incredibly busy man and so — other than notes — how much were you guys in the room together and how much is he there and how does he like to work?
BAUMGARTEN: During the director’s cut, Aaron is very disciplined — he likes to come in every day, but he doesn’t usually spend long stretches of time with us. He likes to give notes and then leave me to work on those notes and then he’ll come back and review with me and we’ll finesse things together. Christine Kim (who started as the First Assistant and was later promoted to Additional Editor) would take all of the notes and the three of us would discuss everything thoroughly. We work chronologically through the film. We worked on sections or sequences — whether it’s five or 10 minutes or maybe an entire reel— and we’d stay with those until Aaron felt we were in a good place in terms of being close to what he was looking for and then move on to the next section. Aaron also took time to interact with 2nd Assistant, Brandon Marchionda, and Post
Production Assistant, Kaitlyn Ali, who were terrific. They both contributed greatly to the success of our editorial team.
In our case, the workflow was altered quite significantly with the pandemic / COVID situation. We ended up working the last 4-5 months from home. We were able to get through the director’s cut in person, which was fantastic. We finished the 10-week director’s cut in March right when we had to shut down the editing room and move the Avid systems to our houses. As I continued to do fine-cutting, I would post sequences for Aaron, and then we would chat on the phone or via email or via Zoom calls to discuss the work and the changes and just keep working forward that way. We went to Warner Brothers for the sound mix and for the color timing we went to EFILM. Aaron was involved in all of that as well, but he let me get things close, and then he would come for reviews and give notes and we would finish that way.
HULLFISH: How were you sharing things with him? Was there a technology that you were using?
BAUMGARTEN: We kept it fairly simple. On this film, we used the PIX system, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Christine would post sequences or reels on PIX for Aaron. He would watch those and then give us notes by email, phone, and /or Zoom. We did occasionally “screen share” to work on music notes with our composer, Daniel Pemberton, who was in London, and our music editor/consultant, Carl Kaller, who was working at home in Hawaii. We also did this for visual effects reviews with our team at Brainstorm VFX, who were in New York.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in the fact that Christine was promoted to additional editor. What do you attribute that to? And to some extent is that a sign of your confidence in the place you are in your career.
I’ve talked to other editors that said, “I feel like I’m far enough along that I can give someone additional editor and not feel like that takes away from me at all.”
BAUMGARTEN: That is certainly true. I’ve worked with her several times before and we have a very good shorthand. She has great taste and instincts and I value her opinions and feedback very much. I felt very fortunate when she agreed to join me on this film. She helped me put sequences together right from the very beginning. She was involved in finding a lot of the stock footage and helping organize that and bringing it forward into the film. Throughout the process, Christine continued to step up in every way and it was clear to all of us that it was time to give her the recognition and credit she deserved.
HULLFISH: That’s awesome. You said you’ve worked with her before. When do you know that someone is ready to step up and step out and someone’s work is deserving of being recognized?
BAUMGARTEN: It’s a good question. I think you have to have worked closely enough with someone to know.
What I’m looking for is somebody who really understands how to work the material. I want to know that they’ve looked at things from every different angle — from different ways of approaching a scene and have tried several different ways of doing things before presenting their favorite version. And that they can show me an alternate version and can explain exactly why something was done. It has to come from a place where I feel there is thoroughness – I guess that’s the best way to say it. And, of course, the work has to be great! There’s also a certain amount of maturity and experience and other qualities that aren’t necessarily easy to measure or describe that are essential.
HULLFISH: It’s so interesting that your answer is involved with the ability to communicate intent and purpose and reasoning and all that kind of stuff.
I just talked to a film editing class last night on Zoom and told them that communication skills are incredibly important for an editor. It’s not just about what you do in the timeline, it’s got to be about how you’re able to talk to your other collaborators.
BAUMGARTEN: Explaining your thought process. I agree. Because a lot of what we do is by instinct and by feel. Sometimes it is hard to explain. But it’s very important to be able to communicate and explain the logic or the thinking behind what you’ve done. There have to be specific reasons why choices were made and clear ideas about what you were going for and what you did to achieve it.
HULLFISH: When you’re working with a director and they ask, “Is this the best take?” You have to be able to say, “I chose this take because of this purpose. I thought it served this story purpose and it was better than this other take because of this thing.”
BAUMGARTEN: That’s great you said that, Steve. This came up the other day in discussion with some friends of mine and we were laughing about this. When somebody asks: “Is that the best take?” — I know at least two editors who say (or want to say!): “No. I chose the worst take.”
It gets back to what you mentioned earlier about sensitivity and how do we handle that kind of thing? When people ask, “Is that the best take?” I usually say, “Yes, I think it is the best…for this reason.” It’s like you said, you have to explain why you chose it. And it can be very subjective as to what is the most important factor in making the choice. Sometimes people lean too much on what is technically the best, and that often isn’t the most important reason to choose something. Sometimes technical perfection in the moment is the right thing. Other times — and very often — it’s an emotional reason, a feeling, or something at the moment that comes through only in this particular piece you chose that makes it the better way to go.
HULLFISH: Sometimes — right? — you have to say, “It ISN’T the best take, but if we use the best take at this point we can’t get to the really important best take in this other startup or later in the scene.” You can’t bridge that gap.
BAUMGARTEN: Again, very well said. If it unravels too many things, you have to assess if it really is that important to use a take for what may be a single, isolated reason. There are probably other important factors you’re going for — the construction of a crucial beat you’re trying to get to — that might have led you to use certain specific takes. It’s very important to keep the focus on the priorities of character and story. You have to understand what you’re going for and why and make your choices with these things in mind.
HULLFISH: What are some of the important things for you to discuss or to hear from Aaron about either tone or intent? What are some of the ways he communicates with you? I’m sure he doesn’t just say, “I want six frames cut out of that.” He’s giving you directions that are much different than specifics maybe.
BAUMGARTEN: A lot of the tone is built into the script and how he directs the performances. He’ll focus very much on inflection — if a line reading goes up or down in the wrong place and he wants it to be adjusted that will be something we will look at very carefully to finesse so that it’s just right. He also gets very specific in terms of the overlaps – where he wants an overlap and how much he wants overlapped. So it tends to be those smaller details rather than larger tone issues. A lot of what he’s looking for comes down to energy and pace, and that mostly comes from the musical rhythm of the dialogue.
HULLFISH: He’s very well known for that rhythm and pacing in his dialogue. Is that something that really drives your visual pacing of a scene — the performance pacing?
BAUMGARTEN: I would say it is — first and foremost — the element that drives everything: the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue. In many cases, characters are speaking on top of each other. But there’s also careful attention paid when to back off and when to take pauses when to let the reactions breathe. So it’s finding that balance of good pace in the dialog along with good timing of the right reactions.
HULLFISH: Interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about intercutting stock footage with production footage.
BAUMGARTEN: Well, the opening sequence, the prologue of the film, has stock footage that was written into the script – the footage of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and all the other news footage. All of that was written in by Aaron as a way to convey the time and place of this film.
So we’re establishing that and then we’re also introducing our main characters in the more narrative dialogue-based moments where we find out who each person is and the organizations they’re affiliated with. But as far as stock footage, that was the only place it was originally planned. So the intercutting of the archival material with our production footage in other places – that all came about later in editorial.
I think it was our second pass of notes going through the 1st riot sequence when Aaron said, “Maybe we should consider working in some stock here.” I loved hearing this because we had anticipated we might go this route and we had been pulling a lot of this material all along, so we had a very good library of archival footage in the Avid already. We decided to make it all B&W, to have it play very noticeably as archival footage. I tried to find moments where it either matched well or, alternately, gave us a more jarring energy.
We ended up using archival footage in a total of five areas in the film — the prologue, both the first and second riot sequences, the aftermath of the first riot, and the flashes of Fred Hampton’s murder.
In the aftermath of the first riot –where we see protesters who have been wounded and our characters are debating about whether they can even get close to the convention – we used five shots from Medium Cool — the Haskell Wexler film, and we left those in color. We needed a little more time at the end of the first riot to settle down before we got into the next scene and the Medium Cool footage matched perfectly with what our DP, Phedon Papamichael, captured in production.
For the murder of Fred Hampton, we used quick cuts of actual crime scene photos — the bullet holes in the wall, the shot-up mattress, Fred Hampton dead, and the police who were at the scene standing around. We added camera flashes and sound effects and placed these visuals while the phone is ringing and Tom and Bernadine are about to get the news (off-camera) – and then the audience hears about what actually happened when it’s explained in the next scene.
HULLFISH: Did you ever see the movie “Bobby? Emilio Estevez’s film about Bobby Kennedy’s assassination?
BAUMGARTEN: I’m don’t think I did. I take it they used stock footage effectively in that as well?
HULLFISH: Yeah. I interviewed Richard Chew about that movie. Obviously, it was a real event. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and leading up to it and around it. They had production footage of that night and also stock footage and they intercut it in really artful ways.
BAUMGARTEN: I’m going to check that out and I’m glad you mentioned it. I recently re-watched The Unbearable Lightness of Being after a journalist I spoke with reminded of that film which also integrated stock footage with production material. They did that for the Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia during the “Prague Spring.” It’s very effective and there’s a fairly extended sequence with documentary footage mixed in with reenacted footage with the actors – probably much the same way you’re speaking about Bobby. They did it beautifully in Argo, and of course Oliver Stone mixed footage into JFK and Nixon as well.
HULLFISH: When I moved to Chicago I worked at a post-production facility that did TV commercials and The Oprah Winfrey Show and some documentary work for Bill Kurtis and the guy that owned that post-production house — Del Hall — was one of the news cameramen that shot all that Chicago 7 footage.
BAUMGARTEN: For the news? Or for a documentary film?
HULLFISH: I think he was an ABC cameraman. There’s even a famous photo of him. He got beat by the police as a photojournalist. It was funny: he went on Antiques Roadshow because he went to the trial of the Chicago Seven and he just went up to those guys and he got them to sign whatever the court document was that they gave to all the press. He’s got that signed with all seven guys signatures on it.
BAUMGARTEN: That’s fantastic.
HULLFISH: Anyhow, let’s talk about storytelling. Editors use that term a lot. We all say that we’re storytellers. In the nuts and bolts of watching dailies and putting together the first cut of a scene, how are you telling the story in a way that amplifies the story beyond what’s in the script?
BAUMGARTEN: I start by focusing on the intention of each scene and go from there. What do I want to convey and what’s the best way to do that with the material I have? I’m always looking for the performance that grabs me or rings true and lands in some way that says “use this.” I’m also looking for shots that are interesting visually, that illuminate something without the need for dialog. A lot of it is following the footage, experimenting, and trying things that may not seem obvious.
So it’s a combination of watching all of the dailies and looking for the best performance, finding the moments that speak to me in some way. Reaction shots are also very important. You want to have all the characters in a scene involved in the right way at the right time — sometimes that’s in the script and sometimes you discover it as you edit the scene. You want to create the emotion or reality of the moments in the most dynamic and impactful way possible.
HULLFISH: I love that answer. Continuing this idea about storytelling: How do you continue to function as a storyteller as you get out of that process and now you’re working with the director’s cut or you’re working with a film in context and having to either cut scenes or rearrange scenes or go through the longer process of the film? What are you doing to be a storyteller? Are there any examples you could give from this movie for example?
BAUMGARTEN: Well, we didn’t really re-structure or rearrange scenes in this film. We did omit a few dialogue lines or parts of lines, but not very often. There were a couple of places where we were backed into a corner editorially, which does happen sometimes, where we had to manipulate or manufacture certain beats to get what we wanted.
An example of this would be the scene where Ramsey Clark is in court, on the witness stand offering his testimony, but the judge won’t allow it to be heard by the jury. This really needed to land as a crushing blow for our defendants because that’s essentially when they know it’s all over. When they can’t have that testimony heard, their last hope has been dashed. We wanted to go to some singles here but we didn’t really have the close-ups we wanted for this moment, so I had to go to other scenes to steal some shots. We had to do some extreme blow-ups, re-pos, split screens, and even change the color of some of the wardrobe – all things that we do from time to time to create exactly what we want.
HULLFISH: Before we started this interview we were talking about the fact that you were watching a webinar about some of the actual people and what the truth was of the movie compared to what they actually experienced. Is there some kind of a feeling for you or responsibility with working with something like Molly’s Game or this, where you’re working with real-life people – people that are still living?
BAUMGARTEN: That’s a good question. In a dramatic film about real events, there are always going to be certain facts and situations that are changed or altered for the storytelling purposes of the screenwriter and the filmmaker. Generally speaking, I think it’s perfectly acceptable— these are movies where you may not be able to tell the whole story of whatever the event or person’s life might have been. There’s a certain amount of dramatic license to be expected. As long as you’re true to the spirit of the story and the subject I think that’s OK. In this case, Aaron has always said his work is more of a painting than a photograph. It’s not a documentary.
I try to get dates and places right, so I will refer to original source material or look things up online: what really happened or what was the truth here? If I can, I’ll adhere to that without straying from the momentum of the film or the purpose of what we’re trying to achieve in our story.
HULLFISH: Did you do any prep about seeing either documentaries or reading books about the actual events?
BAUMGARTEN: I did a fair amount of research. I watched some of the previous films that have been done on the subject. Chicago Ten, the Brett Morgen film is great. I mentioned Medium Cool, the Haskell Wexler film, which is amazing with incredible footage. There are also really some good books about the trial. Conspiracy in the Streets has the cover with the Avdeon photo and it also has illustrations from the courtroom by Jules Pfeiffer. I also bought the transcript of the trial — a giant book with all the court records and transcripts— just to have it on hand for reference. And it came in handy on several occasions!
The research is a fun part of the process for me, whatever the project is.
HULLFISH: Another question about the very nuts and bolts of approaching a scene when you get a fresh bin of dailies and you’ve got an empty timeline. Are you a selects guy? Do you just go to the clips in the bin? Do you watch dailies passively the first time or are you always actively watching and taking notes or doing something?
BAUMGARTEN: My process varies depending on the scenes I’m working on. Ideally, I like to watch the dailies first and not take notes – just watch all the footage and take it in. But, often I have trouble holding myself back and it also depends on how much footage there is. My next step would be to either take notes on the dailies or to start in making selects. I will generally make selects of all my favorite pieces, all the important moments in the scene, and build them into different sequences, sometimes by character or by beats within a scene. Once I get into a scene, it kind of leads me down a path or multiple paths. I don’t try to fine-cut right out of the gate. I’ll work on a scene until I have a good sense that it’s coming together then I’ll continue to shape it and go deeper and start to add more layers.
Transitions in and out of scenes are very important to me, so I’ll often try to figure those out so I know where the movie is going. I like to see how things are flowing, how the characters and story are shaping up, so I’ll start building the film into larger sequences as soon as I can.
HULLFISH: Alan, thank you so much for a great interview. I really appreciate your time today.
BAUMGARTEN: You’re very welcome. Good talking with you as well. Thanks, 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.