Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Plummy Tucker, ACE on editing “Destroyer”

Plummy Tucker, ACE, has edited films including Girl Fight, Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body, and The Invitation. She was nominated for two Emmy’s in 2011 for Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Too Big to Fail.

For this edition of Art of the Cut, we spoke to her about her most recent film, Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama and starring Nicole Kidman.

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

HULLFISH: You’ve done a bunch of movies with the director of Destroyer, Karyn Kusama.

TUCKER: Yes. I’ve worked with Karyn since Girlfight, which was her first film. We met working for New York independent filmmaker, John Sayles. I’d worked on a few films for him as an apprentice and then assistant editor and then he hired Karyn to be his office assistant and we got to know each other that way. At some point, she said to me, “If I ever get to make my movie, you can edit it.” Since then we’ve done five films over a period of almost 20 years.

HULLFISH: What’s the difference between working with Karyn and John — the two that you’ve had such a long relationship with — and the people you’ve worked with less?

TUCKER: I worked with John early in my career and was in more of an assistant position, so it was a different role. He writes, directs and edits his own films. After I’d done several films with him and I was starting to cut features on my own, I would come back and work with him in between — because I loved working with him — and he’d let me cut some scenes. But really, he used to say editing was his favorite part, so he did almost all of the cutting himself. So that relationship was quite different from the one I have with Karyn, however, I did learn a lot about storytelling from him. He’s a great writer and a very succinct director. He’s very practical. That was really interesting to see. Sometimes in filmmaking these days there’s “let’s just get all this stuff, in case” attitude that people have. He always had so little money that he had to be economical in his choices, how to use the time and money he had to best tell his story.

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

With Karyn, I am the editor, which is a very different relationship. Each film is different so it can be helpful to have some dialogue with the director in advance of the cutting, but on Destroyer, Karyn had to cover a lot of territory in the 33 days of principal photography, so we didn’t have much interaction during the shoot. After so many years of collaboration, I know how she thinks and that’s a gift. I know her sensibility and I can often intuit what she’s going for. It’s obviously harder when you’re getting to know a director. You get onto a new film, it’s new people. Depending on how you came to be on that film the team may trust you more or less until they get to know you. Usually, once I get to know people, it works out, but you never know. You have to build the trust. There’s nothing that can replace hours spent in the cutting room together.

HULLFISH: With that trust is there a way that you find you have to build it? Or is it just proving your work? Or showing that you have a common sensibility? What is it that builds that trust with a new director?

TUCKER: I try to get inside the director’s head, to see what it is they want to do. For me — coming up through feature films — that was always the way. Working with John Sayles, because he is a writer-director-editor, his films were very much his vision. I learned to respect and appreciate that. If I can have some dialogue with the director before the shoot (and if I don’t know them I really try to do that) — I’ll ask if they have any references of other material that they think would be useful to me to watch or read or music listen to, that is informing the way they are thinking about the film. Often I find that’s helpful as far as getting a better picture of what their vision is.

Tatiana Maslany stars as Petra in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

So, initially, I tend to want to find out the most I can about the director’s vision and keep that in mind as the footage is coming in. I’ve worked on set in other capacities and I so I am very familiar with how taxing directing can be. Directors have so much to deal with during the shoot that I try not to bother them unless I really need a question answered. Of course, if they need or want to talk to me or see cuts or whatever, I am there for them. Beyond that, I just kind of put my head down, get the footage in and put it together with the way it seems to make sense to me, given what I’ve gleaned of their vision for the piece prior to shooting. During the shoot, if the director or producers call me and ask questions about something I’ll answer as best I can or if I have a concern then I’ll let them know. But generally, I just immerse myself in the footage and do what makes sense to me in that first cut, from what the material indicates.

Then I tend to spend that Director’s Cut period trying to help make whatever it is the director has in their head happen. Sometimes the film has to go a different way and they see that sometimes they don’t. It’s a process finding a film once it’s shot and making the best possible version of that. That can be enjoyable or it can be complicated depending on the people involved.

HULLFISH: You probably know this old saying that the editor’s cut is basically the worst thing the director has ever seen in their life, which is not necessarily your fault or my fault right?

TUCKER: We’re working so fast, it’s impossible. You haven’t refined it. We cut movies for a long time for a reason. If we could get it right in shooting days plus a week — which is what we usually have — then it wouldn’t take months and months.

HULLFISH: This is kind of my point. With a new director, you’re hoping for this trust, yet the first thing that they see of your work is their worst nightmare.

Sebastian Stan stars as Chris in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Annapurna Pictures

TUCKER: And if they’re not an experienced director, that can be really difficult because they had it in their mind a certain way and they probably already had disappointments on the set, but good directors are the ones who can see that it’s a constant evolution of their idea. They’re also the ones who can be honest with themselves and with you saying, “I was going for this on the set and I think we’ve got it in the dailies” or “I was going for this and it didn’t work out, so now what can we do?” Sometimes I find a director may call from set and say, “I’m so worried about this scene. What I was really trying to do was this.” If they can communicate those things, I think that’s extremely helpful in forging that relationship. By the same token, as the editor, you should reach out and say, “I’m not quite sure I see what you want here.” To have some ideas to offer is always helpful. Maybe they thought it was perfect or maybe they are really worried about it and they’re afraid to say anything. There are a lot of ways you can try to forge that relationship, but I try not to bother the director too much during the shoot, myself. While I don’t want to get it completely wrong in my cut, I also know that their brain is so full and their days are so complicated when they’re shooting that they can’t really engage with the editing. That’s for later.

That said, I always tell them when I start that if they have anything they want to communicate to me, please do. This can be via the script supervisor’s notes as they’re going, things they like or dislike in specific takes because I find sometimes that can be helpful in pointing me in a direction. Or a call or email, whatever works for them.

HULLFISH: Some people are really into the script notes and some people say that they never bother looking at them. Because you’ve worked with Karyn so many times — do you find that her script notes on a given take maintain throughout her later viewings? Does she have a consistent opinion of the validity of a take from on-set to off-set?

Beau Knapp (left) as Jay and Jade Pettyjohn (right) as Shelby in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Annapurna Pictures

TUCKER: Karyn is an incredibly talented director and she always has a vision. I would say there’s a through-line of emotion that she’s tapping into on the set and that generally holds true when we get into the fine-cutting. If she has a direction she might be leaning, she will indicate it in the script notes. Sometimes it holds, and sometimes once we’ve hung the film together we find we need to go a different way in a particular scene.

For example, with Destroyer, Nicole Kidman tried different things. And so we had a lot of options to work with. It was not a long editing period for such a dense movie — once you see it you’ll see what I mean — it’s very complicated in its structure. Given all that, I would say that we did have to pick a direction and go with it. But she has a strong vision, so once I can see what it is I think she’s trying to do, generally, we are honing toward that.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the schedule. Can you tell me about that?

TUCKER: Ballparking, we had 33 days of principal photography, plus some second unit days, and we started in December and then had a hiatus and came back in January and shot the rest of it. We finished shooting about a week into February. I was cutting as we were shooting and once I had the last dailies in the Avid, I had a little over a week to get my assembly done before screening it for Karyn. Then we had about five months of picture cutting before the mix and the color timing and all that. We were rushing a bit for festival submission deadlines. The question was always, “Can we be ready for Telluride and Toronto submission?” because this film was independently financed. We had a trailer cut very early on, in time for the Cannes Film Festival, and as it turned out the film sold to Annapurna Pictures based on the trailer. We continued cutting with the other festival deadlines in mind, as it was the consensus that they would be a good launching pad for the film.

HULLFISH: When you’re sitting down during dailies staring at a bin of dailies and a blank timeline, what do you do?

Nicole Kidman (left) as Erin Bell and Sebastian Stan (right) as Chris in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

TUCKER: My approach is really based on what I learned from editor Bill Anderson who used to cut for Peter Weir. I did three films as an apprentice and as an assistant editor with Peter and Bill. Bill cut all three of those films. Even as an apprentice I was in charge of preparing his dailies screening sheets. We were cutting on film then, so the assistant would arrange the takes — usually in shooting order, although sometimes we would rearrange them by scene so that it was: wide, two-shot, mediums, close-ups, in that order to see each performance back-to-back, and Bill’s sheets would match the order they were going to be coming up in the dailies screening. That process became so ingrained in me; that the editor would sit and make their notes on first viewing. Bill might scan through the dailies and maybe if they were ready in time he would watch a few takes on the flatbed, then at the end of the shooting day we would go to the screening room and Bill would sit with Peter and make notes of his first impressions and any thoughts Peter had. If we were on location, a lot of department heads and set crew would be there, which was great.

Bill would sit there with Peter and make notes of different lines, or looks or things that struck him. He would have those notes when he went to screen the footage before cutting the scene. He would go in and mark in and outs with grease pencil on all the pieces of each take that he liked and we would assemble them. So I would see his notes, then the sections he chose and learned a progression for finding performance. For me now cutting on the Avid, I still have my assistant do a paper print out of the dailies sheets for me. That’s just the way my mind works. I like to actually sit with paper in front of me and make my quick initial thoughts as I’m watching. My assistant will make a string out the full takes of the day’s footage for me to watch and I’ll do my first impression notes.

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Annapurna Pictures

Sometimes, I don’t even look at the notes once I’m cutting, but it’s part of my process, how I begin to feel the performances and I have to put that down on paper for myself. Other times, I just pore over my notes because if it’s a very complicated scene sometimes I’m taking a little piece from here and a little piece from there. Especially now, since people roll two or three cameras all the time. It can be very challenging to attack the dailies. It is extremely helpful when the script supervisor indicates for example, that C camera was just for a specific moment, and the like.

There are so many hours of footage and only so many hours in a day. I do my best to give performance my full focus but go through it as quickly as I can. I don’t speed through. I watch it. If I’m buried in footage, and say they’ve shot 20 hours of B-roll driving footage, as the editor, I don’t have 20 hours in my day to be watching that, so I’ll scan it and say to my assistant, “I need a shot of this, this, this, and this.” During dailies, you need a second assistant for those tasks, really, because your first is too busy prepping dailies. This is something that I find actually very challenging now with the way people shoot. But that’s another topic.

HULLFISH: And it’s not just digital shooting, it’s also the fact that, essentially, everything is “printed.” There’s no “b-neg”, outtakes that you don’t really have to look at.

TUCKER: Yes, but there are only so many hours in a day, right? So my advice for any young directors coming up who care to listen to what an editor thinks is: Know we get all the footage. If there are hours and hours of dailies, we very likely will not have time to watch it all and do the job of cutting your film. However, if you circle the takes that you liked best overall and give the script supervisor notes on parts of other takes you like, we can focus on that. It’s the first step in guiding your vision for the editing. It can help your editor get closer to your vision in their first pass. We can go looking in the other takes if we are missing something. It’s there to go back to, to watch later.

Jade Pettyjohn stars as Shelby in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

I find, ironically now, directors will circle almost everything, whereas working with Peter Weir on film, maybe there were eight takes and he’d circle three because you couldn’t print it all. It was a partially a budgetary thing and you didn’t want to spend all that money, you had a print budget. If you didn’t have what you needed in the circled takes, you would then have to order up the B negative to be printed. Nowadays we have everything in the Avid. So the director can help the editor focus on the material they really want to use. It doesn’t mean no one’s ever going to look at the other takes. In fact, when you’re in the cutting room with the editor later, you can say, “Let’s look at everything.”

HULLFISH: You mentioned the value of the dailies process back when it was a communal event for the heads of departments. Do you want to talk about what has been lost or what you thought you gained by doing that?

TUCKER: There was a camaraderie that was really nice. Often the assistant editor would go to the set at lunch and say, “Here’s what we got.” If it was three hours worth the director would say, OK let’s just watch the last two takes of this and the last three takes of that, so they could get an idea. Sometimes now we get seven hours of dailies, I mean it’s ridiculous the amount of dailies we get now. It’s silly. The value of sitting together and watching at least what the director thought were a few good takes from each set-up is that the department heads would all be in the same room. Sometimes people would say, “Does her makeup look strange?”, or whatever. You could discuss it and it could be dealt with immediately. Now there’s a little bit more of a game of Telephone.

Bradley Whitford stars as Dennis DiFranco in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

I just found that things got worked out pretty quickly that way if there was an issue. And also when things were great, everybody got really buoyed by it and you felt happy and excited about the material. I miss that because now everybody’s in their own little corner and a lot of people don’t even watch dailies anymore. They’re too exhausted to. How can you work 12 or more hours and go home and watch five hours of dailies? It’s just not ideal. So, there are pluses and minuses to the whole digital revolution. For example, what you can do in the DI now is unbelievable compared to what we used to be able to do in traditional color timing, but much more time has to be spent to do it. This is something that really hasn’t been addressed in editing and post schedules. If you shoot more, ‘print’ more and expect that the editor is going to have an intimate knowledge of that material, then you have to acknowledge the time that takes. We used to get 1 or 2 hours of dailies and now we often get 3, 4, 5 sometimes maybe 10 hours of dailies! That’s a huge difference.

HULLFISH: On the subject of dailies, on the film I’m cutting now, the director would bring a good deal of crew in at the end of the shooting day and we didn’t really watch dailies — but we watched my cut of the previous day’s scenes — and that was hard because the camera team is looking at the edit through the lens of “What great camera set-up/move did you use?” Where I was looking at performance and story. Not to mention it’s a cut I did in maybe an hour. But I am trying to get the director to look at whether the coverage is there for the scene and whether this cut fits with his vision for the scene roughly and the camera department is picking apart some esoterica that an audience is never going to notice.

Jade Pettyjohn stars as Shelby in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Annapurna Pictures

TUCKER: Sometimes for the emotion, in service of performance or story, you have to do something that is not going to be the best thing for the camerawork. I never want to do that, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. In Destroyer, there’s a shot like that that I think works in the context of what we’re doing, and emotionally it was definitely the best thing. It is not camerawork that any DP would want to keep in, but performance-wise it HAS to be in there. I mean I tried a lot of different things but ended up where I started with that shot. Ironically, a lot of people don’t even notice. They’re like, “Oh my God! That scene is so amazing!” Our DP, Julie Kirkwood, actually had written to me when she was in the DI saying, “I don’t know if I love you or hate you for putting that shot in.” It was really very adult of her. She recognized the strength of the performance. It was a moment of mutual respect and solidarity toward the greater cause of the movie as a whole. I always feel like filmmaking is a collaboration, between actors and cinematographer and designers and editor and all the crew, with the director at the helm. And so I always reach out to the DP before the shoot. I feel like it’s just better to have an open channel. In fairness to her, after she wrote me that note I said to myself, “I’m going to look one more time.”

HULLFISH: You said that Nicole gave you a lot of choices. Not better or worse, but different. And you talked about context: how you might have cut that scene together one way during dailies and then once you’ve got scenes together and you see the story arc over a period, you realize that performance needs to change. Can you talk to me about where that might have happened or why you made certain decisions to change things?

TUCKER: I have to remember… this was such an exhausting film to cut: in a good way and in a bad way. You’ll see what I mean when you see the film. Nicole’s character, Detective Erin Bell, is just really intense and to be in that intense place with that character for so many months was draining. The character is a very damaged, flawed human being and it’s tough and she’s in every single scene of the movie.

Shamier Anderson stars as Antonio in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

With Karyn, I usually have a sense of where she’s going so I feel like I tend to go the right way, but there is often a scene or two where my initial choice doesn’t seem to fit once I’ve hung the whole piece to together. I see it in context and I think, “Oh, no, no. It’s too much,” or whatever. What I think we came to was a sort of simmering, kind of more subdued version of Bell, in general. Except for one scene where she really has an outburst, the one I mentioned above, and that one actually stayed quite close to how I had cut it originally — it was a very visceral performance on her part. But there were maybe a couple of other scenes that were dialogue scenes where she was a little more aggressive in the performance and I think we pulled back a little bit from that. We went with more of an intensity below the surface, not outward aggression.

HULLFISH: So you were moderating the temperature of the performance using the options she gave you.

TUCKER: Yes. One of the challenges of this film was that it is a noir, crime thing, but really it was also a movie that could be a character study of this person. So it was balancing those two elements. She’s on the trail of a crime with all of the attendant story points. And it’s also told in an intercut non-linear fashion. You go back in time with her. One of the more complicated things in the cutting was making sure people understood what was actually going on in the procedural part of it. Her performance was so great that you almost wanted to just hang on a shot of her face driving for 20 minutes because it felt like you could. But of course, we couldn’t. This was not an ‘art’ movie, we just had to keep it going. It’s not a fast-paced movie, but it has a kind of dogged relentlessness to it which I think is also in the character and is appropriate for the film.

HULLFISH: You mentioned how complex the structure of the film was. Did it change from the script?

Sebastian Stan stars as Chris in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

TUCKER: The general structure is as scripted. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi wrote a beautifully crafted screenplay. As often happens, once shot, you find some things need to be adjustedThe major changes we made were in the first third of the film where we made some significant structural rearrangements that were really more about balancing the procedural stuff and parsing it out. In this film, you’re often not quite sure what’s going on. And then you find out later. You don’t want people thinking, “I don’t get it.” Even though they aren’t sure quite what was happening at a given moment, you want the audience to feel confident that they are going to find out. To feel like they are in good hands so that they can relax and enjoy the ride. In earlier screenings the audience was not getting stuff which on the page seemed clear, so we ended up moving some key scenes around just to give people the information that they needed either a little sooner or later. In her youth, Bell goes undercover in a gang and we found we needed to meet those people and see them in their element a little earlier, so we could latch onto that because that’s what’s driving her for the rest of the movie. But the way it was scripted was more like a day-in-the-life-of. We used to meet her family earlier, but delaying meeting them allows the audience to have a better grip on the story. It was tricky. When I was first cutting the dailies, I thought: we could really do this as a character study, just be on her face – hearing the amazing music by Teddy Shapiro, the composer who we’ve worked with since Girlfight. But it isn’t that movie. There is too much procedure. It’s a noir and you have to know what’s going on.

So structurally, it was really the first third where the order of things changed significantly. We also removed a few scenes that would have been nice to have to feel more elements about her life, but we realized at a certain point that there’s only so much the audience can hang onto in this movie. And so we had to pare away. We did cut a lot of dialogue out of some of the longer scenes, as well, to keep the audience focused on what they needed to know and what was going to propel the story and keep it on track a little more cleanly.

Then the end of the film was challenging and you’ll see why when you see it. That was really more about: What will we see and not see?

Nicole Kidman (left) as Erin Bell and Tatiana Maslany (right) as Petra in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

HULLFISH: You mentioned the composer, so let’s chat about music and temp and your collaboration with the composer and the director over music.

TUCKER: Teddy Shapiro, our composer, reads the script really early and he and Karyn start talking about the music before the shoot. On The Invitation, he composed and recorded some music in advance, based on the script and conversations with Karyn, and this is how he approached Destroyer, as well. It is terrific because I have his tracks to work with as I’m cutting. I always chat with Teddy before the shoot, and on our earlier films together he would recommend other scores to temp with, to sort of set me off in the direction of a sound he thought he might be going for. As editors, we have to put music in our cuts, but the temp tracks are just placeholders. It is wonderful to have tracks that are written with your specific film in mind. It becomes a jumping off point.

On The Invitation, he had this incredible violinist in for a different film and they had extra time at the end of the session and he had him do some things for us, so I was able to work with those tracks during the shoot. They were solo violin tracks. Much of the sound of the finished film ended up being those solo violin phrases that Teddy had written. They were so effective, and it was really great to have that stuff to work with. When Karyn sends me the music before the shoot she’ll say, “I’m thinking maybe it could work in the scene where this and that happens.” So I’ll make myself a chart so that I have it later. I just write the name of the piece and I write Karyn’s thoughts, Teddy’s thoughts, and add my thoughts as I’m cutting about what we think it should be for potentially and then when I’m cutting that scene I’ll listen to it and see if it fits. I ended up not temping with any other scores on Destroyer. I put in some source cues (songs), but other than that I used only Teddy’s music or just left it empty for my editor’s cut. I knew that would work for Karyn, she could get a sketch of things to come by looking at it that way. It’s a great way to work. It means you have to have the composer, and eventually the music editor, on earlier, but it’s great.

Sebastian Stan (left) as Chris and Nicole Kidman (right) as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Annapurna Pictures

On Destroyer, before the shoot, Teddy had composed five or six pieces. Some of them were long, full pieces — not something that you would traditionally use as score composed to picture, but they evoked a feeling. He wrote one piece that he imagined might drive you through the end of the film and we ended up using it that way, with adjustments by him during post. It is great — just a beautiful, beautiful piece.

So I had some initial tracks to work with, and for example, when I got all this amazing footage on Nicole’s face driving because this is L.A. and in the movie she’s driving from one place to another a lot — I just put one of the pieces up against it and I watched the 20 minute take with her and I thought “Oh my God! I could just stare at this all day.” Teddy is an incredible composer, not just of film music, by the way. His sense of story and nuance is so refined, it is a joy to work with him. The music is so beautiful and interesting in this film, I hope he will get some recognition for it.

Because he is writing the early pieces without any picture to look at, sometimes I’ll find I need something a little different, for example in Destroyer there was one scene of a desert bank robbery that I was trying to put together that was a little abstract and I really needed to cut it to music, but none of the full pieces I had from Teddy would work for it, so I asked him for the stems, single instruments or groups of instruments broken out, and he sent me those for a couple pieces. I asked my assistant editor Rachel Watson, to sync them up, so I had a giant 16 track sequence and could weave in and out of instrumentation. It was great because I was able to take parts of a couple different pieces and make something that informed the cutting of the scene. It was a little more spare. I could use some drums from this and some strings from that. It wasn’t a scene that I was going to cut visually and then later support with music. I needed the music at the beginning, to see the sequence, so that was really useful. It became a jumping off point for Teddy to see where we were going and then take it back and make it gorgeous!

HULLFISH: Since you’ve worked with Karyn so many times and are aware of her sensibilities are you still concerned with delivering an editor’s cut that is verbatim to the script? Or do you feel confident with your understanding what she wants that you can just cut out three or four lines without her seeing them originally?

TUCKER: I usually leave everything in. Even if I’m thinking, “God I hope we cut this out!” usually I leave it just so she can see it. On occasion, if I really feel strongly I might say, “Look. I’d like to cut this out here. Is that alright?” In general, if something’s really not working and the director’s too busy for me to bother them or I don’t feel like I want to bother them, then I might just do it. But I’ll always have another version with all the dialogue in.

I feel like it’s good for the director to see it as written — and a lot of them do want to see what it is as shot — So I think it’s better to see it and then take it out than not to have seen it. My cut was pretty long for Destroyer — I let things play in this particular case. Sometimes I feel like it’s good to have an editor’s cut be as tight as it can be. But on this, I think we were still finding the tone and the rhythm of the movie. At least I was, at that point. Just getting it together and having it make sense in the time that I had was a challenge, because it was so complicated. And because the film is so intercut, it was hard to see until you had all the pieces cut together.

Over the past five years, I’ve some done television and that’s much more script-based and you don’t have the time to refine.  So for example for a two-hour movie, you have a 10-week director’s cut period, but for an hour TV show, you have three days with the director. In television, the director is a gun-for-hire person and they try to get a few licks in and then they’re gone, then it’s really just about the script. Then it’s all about delivering the vision of the writer, which is a different thing altogether. But I’m comfortable with both approaches. Perhaps it comes from working with John Sayles and Peter Weir. They did a LOT of work on their scripts before they went into shooting and so you try to make that vision happen. Unless somebody tells you they have reservations about something in the script in advance then I feel like you have to try to make that thing happen that was on the page.

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.

HULLFISH: I’m sure your background with Sayles is a great help in TV because the writer is the king.

TUCKER: It’s a collaboration between everyone, but you just need to know who’s in charge of the creative vision. In TV it’s the showrunner; in film, it’s the director. Politics being what they are, you hope that if the director’s vision is strong the film will work and remain true to their vision. The same thing on a TV show: it’s the showrunner’s vision or the executive producer’s, but then it goes to the studio and the network. For the editor, the process is similar through the editor’s cut, but then after that, it’s very different.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the process after the editor’s cut and how the film changes and how you manage that or think through problems. With this film what did you see in the editor’s cut and how did you help Karyn manage to go from the original cut to what you ended up with?

TUCKER: When I was done with the editor’s cut — because the structure was so complex — I just knew that we needed to see what people could grasp. How much is it a character study of this person — because we certainly have the performance for that and there’s the material — but how much of it has to be hanging onto the procedural elements of a noir? That was the main thing that Karyn and I worked on. We showed an early cut to the writers, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi. They had also written The Invitation, and years before, Aeon Flux, so we’ve all known each other for a long time. Karyn and Phil are married, and Matt and Phil have written together for years and years. Next, we showed it to a few other people Karyn trusted who had never read the script to see if the story made sense, and those screenings helped us both realize what was confusing people. Sometimes it was surprising, but it allowed us to see the issues and deal with them.

The way we work Karyn really likes to be in the cutting room and see the footage. She likes to watch the dailies again. So there’s a lot of refining and honing. As I said, a lot of energy was spent in that first third of the movie, trying to figure out how to get things in the proper place and have just enough so that people could hang onto and be engaged in the story and feel confident that — though they were confused in the moment — it would become clear.

HULLFISH: At the beginning of the interview you said that you learned a lot about storytelling from John Sayles. Can you verbalize any of the stuff that you learned about storytelling?

TUCKER: Often John will become interested in a place and his film ideas spring from characters that might populate that place. He writes about a community within that place. As Maggie — his producer and life-partner would say — “it’s about this guy who does this and that and then everyone in town comes to visit.” It’s almost always an ensemble thing that he writes. I don’t know how to articulate exactly what I learned. It was almost by osmosis – learning what keeps a story going and what you need at a particular moment to stay engaged.

If it’s this one character and then a lot of other people are coming to visit, how do their interactions with our main character or characters propel the story forward? And I think he’s very good at making an intriguing story that way and having all the pieces fit into each other in a way that makes the whole of a film — or community in his case — realized in his writing. That’s something that I guess I always take with me: how is A leading to B leading to C.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

TUCKER: My pleasure.

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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