Naomi Geraghty has been working as a film and TV editor for nearly 20 years. Her work includes TV series, like The District, History Detectives, Treme, Bloodline and Billions. Her feature film work includes, In America, Hotel Rwanda, The Illusionist, and Limitless.
Art of the Cut sat down with Geraghty to discuss The Upside, which is currently in theaters.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the editing schedule for the film.
GERAGHTY: It was less than 50 days shooting, starting in the beginning of February 2017. Shooting went on for a while — maybe 12 weeks because they shot in New York and the stages were in Philadelphia. They also went out to Oregon to shoot the paragliding scenes for another few days. I cut the film in New York. Then we started working on the director’s cut. The early cuts went really well and played really well for audiences so we finished picture cutting by the end of the summer of 2017 and we were mixing in October.
HULLFISH: Sorry for not doing my homework, but is this a director you’ve worked with before?
GERAGHTY: Yes. Neil and I have worked on a number of movies. I first worked with him in 2005 on The Illusionist. I cut The Lucky Ones. I cut Limitless. We also did the pilot for the show Billions. Neal directed a few episodes. I stayed on and I’m actually directing an episode of Billions myself.
HULLFISH: Congratulations. That’s really interesting to me. What do you think of that transition from editor to director?
GERAGHTY: I’ve been interested in it for a very long time and I believe I have a director’s sensibility to storytelling. I’ve collaborated a lot with directors who are writers. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about structure and how you tell a story. The beats that you need to tell a story. When you’re missing beats, how to figure that out narratively in editing. I feel like editors bring a lot to storytelling as we all now. You get a great overview of the storytelling process as an editor that you can really apply to being a director.
HULLFISH: So I’m assuming — because it’s just a huge amount of work — that one of your former editing colleagues will be editing your episode.
GERAGHTY: I am. One of my really close friends — Marnee Meyer— who is a fantastic brilliant editor will be cutting my episode.
HULLFISH: It’s so interesting with many TV shows, the director doesn’t understand the show as well as the editor and when the director is done with their few days of a director’s cut, it’s not their show any more… it’s the showrunner’s.
GERAGHTY: That’s correct. Exactly. That happens all the time. I think a lot of directors who are really good defer a lot to what the editor tells them about the show and probe you about what the show would normally do. The directors that come on Billions are very respectful of the show’s tone.
HULLFISH: Let’s get back to Upside. How does your collaborative relationship with the director work?
GERAGHTY: We’re very much in touch during the shooting process. On other films, I was on location a lot more, but now that Neil I have a really good shorthand for communication, we’ll talk on the phone during the shooting. I’ll email my questions or text him. He’ll give me notes on what he’s trying for when he’s shot a scene. He’ll write out notes of where he wants to be in a scene or what the focus of the scene is and we’ll talk about what the subtext is. We’ll discuss all that first, but at this point, I really feel I have a good sense what he’s looking for and I’ll complete the cut by the time he gets back, and then we’ll screen it.
Then we’ll start to work on our 10-week director’s cut. He really enjoys the editing process, so he likes to spend time in the cutting room, but then we’ll discuss how things should go and he’ll leave and I’ll try all these different things. Sometimes we’ll review performances that he’s not sure about. Sometimes we’ll reconstruct something. But generally at the beginning, we try to do these broad strokes — are we going to lift this scene? Are we going to restructure something? Are there certain storylines that we need to excise if they’re not working? The first cut of The Upside was quite long when we cut it all together. It was close to three hours. So there were quite a few storylines that we had to excise out of that.
HULLFISH: What was the final running time that you got down to?
GERAGHTY: It’s just less than two hours.
HULLFISH: I’m at the end of having to cut the last 10 minutes of the film I’m working on now. You know how it is, cutting the first 10 minutes is easy, then the next 10 minutes is harder and the last 10 minutes is like losing a limb.
GERAGHTY: Each cut is exponentially harder. For me, the way you really get it down — and I learned this on In America with Jim Sheridan, the really rigorous process for this is just screenings. It doesn’t have to be a full-on screening, but even a friends-and-family screening of maybe 20 people. Even the act of being in a room with people watching the film gives you fresh eyes. It gives you a different perspective on the movie. You always see something new in every screening. It’s kind of an extraordinary process.
HULLFISH: I completely agree. I’m interested though — I can often sense new things with just one other person watching, but you said you should do it with maybe 20 people. Is there something about that larger communal experience?
GERAGHTY: You definitely get something out of being with just one person who is not familiar with the movie, now. I think there’s a bit of a critical mass that you get with 15 or 20 people where there are enough people in the room and there’s safety in numbers for them and they don’t care who you are or what you think about their view of the movie. There’s an anonymity to it when there are more people. When there are only one or two people in the room, they feel pressure to laugh or react. But with enough people, there’s no pressure like that. I think you can get a more natural reaction that way.
HULLFISH: Are there any things that people write on those response cards after a screening that strikes you?
GERAGHTY: Well, seeing how much people write gives me a sense of how engaged they were with the picture. If they’re just writing one-word answers, that’s an indication to me that they’re not really engaged. Some people put such effort into their answers. You can tell that they’re really touched and moved by the story and they really get details that you don’t really expect them to get on a first viewing.
HULLFISH: To get back to cutting the film down to a watchable length, how do you cut so much and not rush the film?
GERAGHTY: I think you often take a path where you’ve cut too much. You get too close to the bone, and you realize that there are elements to the movie that you’re hurting or you either have to cut deeper into that storyline or you have let it breathe and expand it out more and find something else to cut.
The amazing part of this process is that when you read a script, you need all those words to fill in the storyline for you, but when you get actors onto a set, one look from an actor can replace all the dialogue in a scene. Sometimes that’s not even evident when you’re cutting scenes when the dailies are coming in. You don’t see it until you have everything assembled and you can judge the dynamics of the film. Sometimes it’s the thing of just “less is more.” You truncate something or you hone something and it becomes even more powerful.
HULLFISH: Was there any restructuring of the film, from the script, in the cutting room?
GERAGHTY: The script was so strong. There were just a lot of complexities. That was the biggest challenge really with this particular movie. Some films, like In America, those scenes could have gone in any order. You just have to find the emotional line through the story, but this film was less tricky from a structural point. Its a remake of a very beloved French film. Originally the structure of our film was very much like the original — a car chase — the character singing “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire… we had those scenes in our movie too, and we had to cut that down.
It didn’t work the same way in our movie because, in our movie, the Kevin Hart character has a bigger backstory. So we had to make some difficult choices about cutting. When you’re remaking a film, there’s an expectation that you’re going to be faithful to certain things in the original. They were difficult decisions, but ultimately they were best for the movie. On this film it was a challenge to cut it down, but more so, it was getting the comedy right. There are some really funny scenes. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston have this great chemistry and Nicole Kidman is fantastic in her timing. We were always trying to make the best possible scene of everything that we had.
HULLFISH: Was there quite a bit of ad-libbing?
GERAGHTY: Not as much as I would have expected actually. There was some.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about your approach to a scene and what you do when faced with a blank timeline.
GERAGHTY: I read the scene a couple of times and I really think about “what is this scene really about?” And then I start watching the dailies and you have to get into this Zen frame of mind where you’re not passively watching dailies — you’re actively watching and you’re trying to be open to these movie magic moments. You see the magic happening and you have a certain expectation of what you’re looking for in that scene — a dramatic tension or a suspense — but you also want to be open to something unexpected.
So it’s really about trying to be actively watching dailies and as I’m watching through the set-ups, I’m trying to figure out where I want to be at a specific moment. What is my architecture going to be? Where do I definitely want to be at this moment? By the time I’ve finished the dailies, I have a good sense of the moments I really want to include in the scene and what set-ups I want to be in. Then I just start laying it out. Sometimes I might have a couple of different line readings in place if I’m not sure. If I’m not sure of something, I’ll just do a rough version of a scene and I’ll revisit it. I’ll go to something else and then I’ll come back the next day or later that day.
HULLFISH: You mentioned actively watching dailies. What does that mean for you? Is it actively a thought process? Or are you actively DOING something? Like writing notes, adding locators, creating a selects reel as you watch…
GERAGHTY: With something that’s more wild b-roll footage, like something for a montage, I’ll definitely make selects reels for that. If it’s just regular set-ups for a scene, I will take notes about which lines I want to use, line readings that are promising. Often I’ll mark it in my timeline in the Avid. I have markers for each line of dialogue. Markers for things that I think are going to be good. It’s sort of a combination of those two things so that I’m always thinking about what pieces I want to use.
HULLFISH: Are you watching dailies by opening individual clips in a bin, or from a KEM roll or some kind of string-out?
GERAGHTY: I always do it from individual clips in the bin.
HULLFISH: How do you assistants set up your bins or prep the dailies? Do you group multi-cameras? Do you watch them individually?
GERAGHTY: I always group clips and depending on grouping — if it’s a medium and a close-up — I’ll just watch one of those cameras. But obviously, if the cameras are covering different stuff, I’ll sit and watch them individually.
HULLFISH: Do you have to have a different approach when you are cutting a feature film, compared to television? Or do you find your approach is similar?
GERAGHTY: It can be quite different. First off, on a feature, it’s an unknown process. Whereas on television — like with a Billions episode — I know that there are certain performances that I’m not going to use because the show is already formed in some way. So there are certain performances that I’m going to steer away from that are just not the tone of the show. But on a feature, you don’t really know that during the dailies. that you mean you can have an instinct about it but you were like So in some ways, on a feature, you have to be more open to different things. And actors on features tend to give you more options because of that. And directors are also trying for more options on a feature. There is more variation in performance on a feature.
HULLFISH: What did you temp with on this film and when do you do that?
GERAGHTY: There are certain scenes that you have to have music for. Obviously montage. And certain other scenes that don’t play well without music. In general, Neil and I often like to — in the early stages — have it be pretty dry actually because when it’s dry, it exposes all of the weakness of the film. It’s also a way of seeing the film differently as you progress through the process. It’s really nice to have it dry and then you put music on and you see can see the film differently again. It gives you all these different perspectives. So on the first half of the director’s cut really just focus on story and structure. Then, depending on the budget, we either bring in a music editor or I will start adding score in.
This movie was different because music is very integral to the storyline. The Bryan Cranston character is a big fan of opera and Kevin Hart’s character is a big fan of Aretha Franklin. So there were a lot of scripted-in tracks. So those tracks were there from the beginning, but then we decided to really go for the opera. Kevin Hart’s character moves into this penthouse apartment that’s owned by Bryan Cranston’s character, who’s this really rich guy that lives on Park Avenue. He always has opera booming in the apartment, so we kind of took advantage of that and used opera in some kind of fun and interesting ways to score as well as be source.
HULLFISH: What were some of the challenges on this film that you can remember having to work through?
GERAGHTY: The comedy was the biggest challenge really. Well, comedy and having to cut it down by almost an hour. There are some great scenes in the movie and the challenge was just revisiting and revisiting and revisiting and just being prepared to recut until we were happy with how funny it was. And that’s a rigorous painstaking process in many ways, just because you play it and you think you’ve gotten it as far as you can, and you screen for an audience and they love it, but you know that there’s a funnier scene in there. And I think that was the challenge on this movie: making sure that we mined all of the comedy that we could.
The other dilemma is that there are so many funny lines and gags in the film, but there’s also a dramatic storyline happening and we have to be careful about balancing those two things because it’s so seductive to have an audience laughing all the time, and we wanted to play every gag. yeah but then you also wanted to make sure that the dramatic moments are landing, and sometimes you actually have to clear out some of the gags to make way for that.
HULLFISH: Let’s discuss the difference between a film like this, where you have a shorthand with the director and a long-term relationship and when you start on a film with someone new. And how are you getting those gigs? Do you think it’s your credits? Or is it that you seem like someone they could “live with” for a year?
GERAGHTY: People see your credits and that piques their interest, and then you meet and you have a certain take on the script, and once you start talking about the story and the questions you ask, directors get a sense of whether this is someone who gets it. Is this somebody I can work with. Is this someone I can actually be in a room with. Do you have a chemistry? I think you have to bring a curiosity about story and the passion and humor. When you bring those things to an interview with a director, that’s a big deal, because they want to know that you really want to tell the story with them.
Then, when I think the director comes into the cutting room, the toughest thing for an editor is screening their editor’s assembly, because it’s a cut that nobody is happy with. You really have to honor the script and have a version of the script cut. But there is that moment when the director comes into your room where they have to have their time to repossess their film.
GERAGHTY: That can be a tough process, because you’ve put a lot of work into something, but then you have to let them take it back. I’ve been humbled enough by having a director say, “So what if we do this?” and me thinking, “Well, that’s never going to work.” But, of course, you try it and you see that it works, actually. You have to be willing to try everything. And if you do that for directors, you build up a trust. Even if you don’t think it works, it’s about — well, if the director wants to try something, well let’s just live with this in the cut and after a while, if it’s not working, then I’m always very direct. Then you just have to be able to propose solutions. Once the director knows you’re on board and you’re giving it everything you can, that’s how you build up trust.
HULLFISH: I wish this was an audio podcast because I also think that it doesn’t hurt that the director — in an interview with you — is listening to this lovely Irish lilt and thinking, “I could listen to her talk all day long.”
GERAGHTY: (laughs) Well thank you.
HULLFISH: You were talking about trying things the director’s way and living with it for a while before challenging problems. Young editors, I think, don’t quite get that you don’t have to win every battle on the first go-around. It’s a process.
GERAGHTY: Exactly. Absolutely. And also, I would say, it’s not a battle or a war, but you do have to pick your battles. You don’t have to win everything right away and if you feel very strongly about something you may find another way to bring it up. And you have to recognize what is ego based and what is important for the story. Sometimes it’s hard to separate those two. Certainly, in the early years, when it takes so much work to get a scene together and a director comes in and tears it all apart, I think more seasoned editors realize that that is the process of filmmaking. You go with it because that’s what your work is. You try not to get too attached to something just because you like the way the music works, or because of a specific shot you love. You have to keep it all about the storytelling and the performance rather than your attachment to the way you’ve cut something.
HULLFISH: While we’re talking about ego, I always think about the thing that’s called “the editor’s cut” is always the worst thing that the director’s ever seen.
GERAGHTY: Oh, I know. The important thing to know about an editor’s cut is, It’s not actually a cut of the film. It’s just the scenes that you’ve cut strung together. You don’t usually get any time to shape your assembly into a real cut. You’ve been cutting the scenes, but you haven’t been cutting the movie.
HULLFISH: Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? Because I think it’s completely true, but what does that mean to be editing the scenes, but not editing the movie?
GERAGHTY: Dailies is about every day, you’re getting a scene — or several — you’re so focused on those scenes and making your day and getting everything cut, and what you end up with at the end of that process is a string of scenes. But a movie is not a string of scenes. A movie is a story. It’s how those scenes all relate to each other. Something that happens in the opening will ripple all the way down and resonate at the end of the movie or it will not.
Once you have all of those scenes assembled now it’s time to look at the whole story and see how the dynamics of the movie and the drama interplay throughout those scenes and those sequences. So that’s what you really get to do with a director, and to me, that is the really magical part of editing: seeing those ideas ripple through a story. And something simple that you do at the beginning of the story resonates through the film and things that you tweak can have an immense difference.
HULLFISH: Maybe we should start calling the editor’s cut “the script cut.” Most editors want to be faithful to the script, even though the editor may not believe that’s the best for the film.
GERAGHTY: Exactly. Every editor has cut together a scene and known that a page of the dialogue would eventually be cut out. Or they’d eventually lop of the opening of a scene, or that the scene would probably be cut entirely, often, you know those things at the beginning of the movie, but you need to leave them in. Sometimes I’ll say to a director, “I think that we’re going to lose this” and they may agree, but we’ll still want to just screen it so that from a due diligence point of view that we know what we have. Oftentimes, you may know a scene is going to get cut out, but you could make so many changes in the film and that part of that scene could be repurposed for another beat later on. You never know how you could use all of this material. So you have to know everything that you have.
HULLFISH: As you are going through the process from the editor’s cut to the end, what are some of the ways and reasons that the film evolves?
GERAGHTY: When you go through this process, you realize that it is a journey. Every time you’re in the director’s cut, you think, “Wow, I think we’re pretty close.” Then you have a screening and you realize, “Oh no! We’re not! We still have some work to do.” But it’s a journey and you wouldn’t be able to get to the last director’s cut without doing the second director’s cut. You discover something at every part of the journey that you build on to get to the next part of the journey. It’s a passage that you just have to take.
You make these leaps and it’s all consequential. It’s it’s all consequential. Each cut that you arrive at leads you to something else. Maybe you go down a rabbit hole that’s not fruitful, but you have to explore that in order to discover something else that WAS important. That’s why, when people try to rush the cutting, it’s really such a mistake because it can be the most fruitful and cheapest way to get the most out of your movie.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that sometimes you cut a little too close to the bone and you have to back off. Have you ever — on a film — just slashed and burned to see how minimal you could go before building it back up?
GERAGHTY: Yes. I remember on In America that movie was about 1:46 when it was released, but at one point I think we got it to 86 minutes. When we were down to that time, Jim joked “We should just call this the 86 minute movie and people would go see it because everyone loves a short movie and the theater owners would love it. We cut that movie SO far back, but we knew that there were certain dramatic moments that weren’t landing. People were getting the storyline, but it wasn’t resonating in the same way. We lost some of the emotional connection.
HULLFISH: The audience needs a certain amount of time to process.
GERAGHTY: As an editor, you get so close to the story that you can start to shorthand things. One of the great skills of a seasoned editor is being able to look at your cut and slow yourself down and pretend to be seeing this shot for the very first time. Trying to put yourself in somebody’s shoes that way is a skill that you have to develop. Otherwise, everybody gets bored with their cuts.
Everybody wants to try something new just for the sake of it. I think that’s when executives at studios can sometimes be really destructive because after a number of screenings, they just get bored and they want to short-hand everything. On your hundredth screening, you still have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s watching it for the first time.
HULLFISH: Are there any tricks to developing that objectivity? It’s not an easy thing to do.
GERAGHTY: No, you’re right, it’s not an easy thing to do. I think it’s about being really present when you’re watching your cuts and then also — as we discussed earlier — it’s watching it with an audience.
HULLFISH: Do you use your assistant editors as a sounding board like that?
GERAGHTY: I find they’re more responsive in that way at the beginning of the process when I’m cutting scenes. But they too get jaded with the film. Also, later on, the job of the assistants tends to get even more technical, as they start to do all the turnovers and they’re obliged to focus.
HULLFISH: If you give an assistant editor a scene to cut what are some of the mistakes you’re likely to see.
GERAGHTY: I always do encourage my assistants to cut. We’ll discuss the scene and I’ll give them notes on what they’ve cut. I think. For an assistant starting off, I think it’s very easy to focus on the technical aspects of continuity and the mechanical aspects of physical action in a scene. So sometimes their version of a scene can be a little too mechanical. There’s not enough focus on emotion or tension or performance sometimes. soon.
HULLFISH: Do you have a musical background?
GERAGHTY: Not really, but like a lot of editors, I really love music and have a strong sense of what I like and don’t like in score. I did play instruments, so I have some musical background.
You see editors with a sense of music in their cuts. I think of somebody like Gerry Hambling (Evita) who was such a great editor with music and how effortless and strong his cuts are. There’s a real beauty to them. To me, the rhythm of cutting is one of the most important things along with performance and story. It’s like it’s got its own internal metronome.
HULLFISH: Giving an assistant a chance to edit is a great opportunity, but how much of a chance do they get to see you as you interact with the director?
GERAGHTY: That was something that I was able to see as an assistant. I was very lucky, I got to apprentice to a real master, Craig Mckay ( Silence of the Lambs, Reds ) and was able to sit with him and watch him work. These days the workflow of what the assistants have to get done is so great, that they often don’t get a chance to be in the room with me while I’m cutting. They do for meetings and VFX, but those opportunities for an assistant to be in the room with the director are much more limited now.
HULLFISH: I just really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for talking to me.
GERAGHTY: Thank you, Steve.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.