Post Production

ART OF THE CUT WITH Oscar-nominated editor Juliette Welfling

On cutting the indie, “The Sisters Brothers”

Juliette Welfling is the winner of five Cesar Awards (France’s “Academy Awards”). She was nominated for an Oscar for editing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). She was a co-editor with Stephen Mirrione and Christopher Capp on Hunger Games (2012) and was an editor on Ocean’s Eight (2018).

Art of the Cut spoke with her about her most recently released film The Sisters Brothers, a Western by director Jacques Audiard.

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

HULLFISH: The music was decidedly not what you would expect from a Western. What did you temp with and what kind of communication did you have with the director to decide the tone of the music?

WELFLING: The temp music was even less like a Western. We used a lot of temp score that was not at all Western — that was more modern. Not too much melody. The music Alexandre Desplat did was more like an adventure movie than what we had done in the temp score. Desplat started with some more Western stuff, but Jacques (director, Jacques Audiard) didn’t really feel it. Jacques wanted something less like the genre.

HULLFISH: What is your approach to a scene? When you’re faced with a blank timeline and a bin full of dailies, what do you do?

WELFLING: I try to watch everything but if there are lots of takes I don’t immediately watch them all. I first watch the ones that are circled and then, when I really start cutting I watch the others unless I’m totally happy with the circled ones. When it’s a handheld camera, I watch everything, ’cause you never know!

What first guides me in my choices of takes are the performances, but it can sometimes also be an emotion coming with a particular light on a particular part of the frame like a face, part of a body, a tree, anything really… Something that moves you.

In the case of Jacques Audiard, for instance, he doesn’t watch his dailies. During the shoot, we don’t really talk, and I feel pretty free to pick up any takes I like.

Joaquin Phoenix (left) stars as “Charlie Sisters” and John C. Reilly (right) stars as “Eli Sisters” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

HULLFISH: In the choice for performance, is it just a truthfulness or is it a direction that is correct for the story? Or a little of both I guess…

WELFLING: Both. Yeah. At first, you don’t know what’s best for the story, because the shooting is out of order and I don’t think reading the script really provides that. So I don’t think you really have the perception at first of what would be correct for the story. Once you assemble the whole thing you sometimes realize that the take you picked up is good for the performance, but doesn’t fit with the story or the mood.

HULLFISH: Context for me always changes things tremendously. Do you feel the same way? Because you’re editing out of order that it’s only once you start to assemble the scenes in a sequence that you really understand them.

WELFLING: I think you’re right. Definitely not by reading the script because once it’s shot, it’s often so different from what was written or what you had imagined. Once you’ve assembled the whole movie is when you really realize how it should be.

HULLFISH: How quickly do you try to start assembling scenes in scene order?

WELFLING: As soon as I can. As soon as I have a few scenes in a row, I watch them together, and I start to work on bigger parts.

HULLFISH: Back to your approach to a blank timeline, do you simply go from a bin in Frame view and choose individual takes from that

WELFLING: Individual takes from the bin. Sometimes, when I’m cutting it together, if I know I want to be on a close-up for a moment, I’ll cut in the same shot from several takes to see what I like best. I think when you can see short takes in a row next to each other it becomes very clear which is the best.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as “Morris” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS. Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

HULLFISH: Do you remember how long your first assembly was on this movie?

WELFLING: I can’t remember precisely. Maybe two hours and a half, or maybe a bit more. But Jacques always says, “I don’t want to see something that is too long. I want to see something that has the duration of a movie, that feels like a movie. I don’t want to see more than, like, two hours or two hours and 15, maximum. Take out some scenes. Do whatever you want, but I won’t have patience for more.

So then I show him and he says, “Why did you take out that scene?” And I tell him, “because you said I had to choose to make it shorter.” With him, I have to be selective on my first cut. With other directors, I don’t do that. I put in everything. But with Jacques, I know him so well and I’ve done all of his movies, so it’s OK. Jacques just wants me to go for it. He just wants me to do what I feel, and then we can work on it.

HULLFISH: That’s very interesting. Most directors want to see that cut that is exactly like the script.

WELFLING: Yeah that’s so boring, Isn’t it?

HULLFISH: (laughs).

WELFLING: Well to me it is. When I have time, I try to do both. I do the thing in the order of the script. Then I try to do a cut that’s a bit more elaborate. Then, after I show the director the first cut, then maybe this can be the next step, where we start to move things around and to try things. So I always ask them, “Do you want to see the first cut exactly as the script? Or do you want to see something that is already a bit different?” Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no.

HULLFISH: I got the sense from this movie — and it could have been the script — it really felt to me like each scene was following that old scriptwriters rule that “you get in as late as you can and you get out as early as you can.”

WELFLING: Yeah. That’s what we tried to do. Jacques started by working as an assistant editor when he was young. He’s good at that and he always wants to cut things and get rid of things. He hates to be bored, and he hates the scenes that give too many explanations. Having the beginning and the end of the scene? No way!

HULLFISH: Well that’s one of those things you get from context right? You realize when you start to string scenes together you really feel that each scene is starting and stopping and starting and stopping, each with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then you see that some of the beginnings and some of the endings are unnecessary.

WELFLING: Yes, after a few weeks of work you can figure that out.

HULLFISH: I agree that it’s hard to see that when you just have scenes by themselves.

I noticed that you did many transitions of time using cuts, but you did others as dissolves. Do you remember a decision of why one was chosen over another?

WELFLING: There is no reason really. Well, it’s more feeling than an actual reason.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as “Charlie Sisters” Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

HULLFISH: There’s a montage of the Sisters Brothers traveling after they leave a town called Mayfield. Do you remember putting that montage together and what you had to work with? Oftentimes, montages are actually built from pieces of discarded scenes as a way to compress them.

WELFLING: We didn’t have so many shots of them riding, so I tried to make a journey that makes sense and isn’t too short, using bits and shots out of scenes that we had taken out. I thought it would be nice if we had a little time before they actually get to the sea which is something they’ve never seen.

We added bits of dialogue that had been taken out from these OUT scenes, rerecorded the dialogue louder, as if they were riding, as it had to fit with shots of them riding. Jacques wanted them to constantly talk together. He wanted them always in a conversation. I don’t think very much before doing things. To me, it goes faster to do it, then see if it works. Let’s not talk about it for hours. That’s the way that I work, so I’m not so good at talking about the way I work, because I just do it.

HULLFISH I’m really enjoying our conversation. I think you’re describing what you do very beautifully. Was there a purpose in the montage to simply separate Mayfield from the next thing that happens? In other words, it gives the audience a chance to transition between ideas and moods or tones?

Joaquin Phoenix Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

WELFLING: Well, we had this problem that the two other characters (Morris and Warm) — the two men that the Sisters Brothers are tracking — are not in the movie for a very long time. So we know the audience is waiting for the 4 of them to meet. So we were trying to get the point where the two “couples” finally get to meet. When we showed the movie to friends, they were saying that we needed to get to the point where they all meet.

Then they also complained that two of them disappeared from the story for too long. So we tried to do it fast, but we didn’t want to skip too much either. Some people were bored with just the two brothers, but you know how it is: they think that this is the scene where they’re bored, but really, they were bored because of something a half-an-hour before. So we tried to keep the journey as tight as possible.

HULLFISH: That brings me to a question about a scene where Joaquin is in kind of a portrait… there’s no background… and he’s talking directly to the camera about what happens next. How did that come to be?

WELFLING: I have no idea why Jacques did this shot in the first place. I think he wasn’t sure it would really be in the movie, because those same lines are also read as part of the ending of the previous scene. So he shot it two ways. Honestly, when I received that I loved it, but to me, it didn’t fit the movie, so originally I didn’t cut it in.

But when Jacques arrived, he asked, “Why didn’t you cut that in?” I told him that I didn’t think it fit with the movie. The style is so different from the rest of this movie. Besides, it occurs only once in the movie. It’s a bit artsy. It if occurred several times in the movie, I don’t think I would mind at all. Also, it’s something he already did more than 20 years ago in his film “A Self Made Hero.”

At that time I thought it was very “new” and interesting, but he doesn’t necessarily have to do it again does he! Anyway, Jacques wanted to keep it, so he did! To him, it helped to accelerate the narrative and at this point of the story, he thought we needed such thing.

HULLFISH: I’ve fought for things, sometimes to the detriment of my own relationship with the director, where every week I would push to get a certain scene dropped from the film. How strongly did you feel about your opinion of that shot and how strongly did you push him? Because you’ve worked with him before, so you have the confidence in your relationship.

WELFLING: Not too strong for this particular shot. Jacques likes to show his movie to friends and at each screening half of the people said, “That shot is genius” and the other half said, “Jacques, that’s weird. Why is that shot in the movie?” It’s his movie, so at some point, I figured, if half of the audience loves it… It’s not an exact science. I’m not sure I’m right.

Sometimes you KNOW you are right. You KNOW that the director is wrong and you are right, but even in that case, it’s still just opinion and feeling. Here, it’s not that the story is being told in the wrong way. It’s just an aesthetic choice. In an aesthetic choice, I don’t think I can fight. It’s his movie. I’d rather focus on the fights that I can really win.

HULLFISH: You have to decide which hill you want to die on.

WELFLING: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t hate this shot. As a matter of fact, I am not so sure I don’t even like it. I didn’t feel strongly enough to fight about it.

HULLFISH: I didn’t hate it either. It’s just something I noticed.

WELFLING: You have to notice it because it stands out.

 

John C. Reilly Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

HULLFISH: I love the fact — in this movie — that you really gave the audience credit for figuring things out on their own. Some things weren’t explained. Was that something that you needed to work out through screenings – that you had enough information that the audience could follow but not too much?

WELFLING: We didn’t want the audience to get ahead of us. We always wanted to say as little as possible. In a way, in this story, there is not much to understand as far as the action is concerned. Just two guys chasing two other guys. Their characters and relationships are complex, but this can’t be told with more information.

HULLFISH: How do you balance your confidence in your skills and your ego when presented with notes or disagreements with the director?

WELFLING: When you are an editor, you can’t have too much ego. It won’t work. When I’m confident about something, I really fight for it. Sometimes, though, although I’m pretty sure I’m in the right direction, but I know I have to shut my mouth and sit on it, but it makes me feel real sad and frustrated.

HULLFISH: Do you find that you need to let that point of contention play out over the longer course of the entire process of editing, instead of immediately challenging until you win. One of my early mistakes was in feeling like I had to make my point right then and there, without realizing I had the whole course of the edit to challenge it.

WELFLING: Yeah. Totally. Sometimes you rush too much, as where you have to wait for the right moment to make your moves! In a way, I can understand this, because when you’ve been starting to cut from the beginning of the shooting — so you’ve been cutting for 2 or 3 months already before the director gets into the cutting room- I can totally understand that the director needs to go through the whole process that you’ve already been through.

They have to do this process again. Maybe you’ve already seen why something doesn’t work and how you could fix it, or how you could not fix it and it would just end up being out of the movie, but you can’t deprive them, so I always try to wait until my time comes. It’s a long process.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about getting hired on a job. I think so much of it is more than talent… it’s: who does a director want to hang out with for months and months.

WELFLING: I got started with Jacques because it was his first movie directing and it was my first movie editing. We knew each other from before because when he was an assistant editor, I was an assistant editor too. We’ve been friends forever.

You were asking about ego, and I said I don’t have an ego, but thinking about it I might have a big ego after all. That is, when I work with a director, I need him to accept that I speak frankly, I need to feel free to propose any ideas and try them, without him being mad at me.

Some directors want their editors to do what THEY want: not to be a collaboration. I’m not interested in a director who doesn’t want to be a collaborator.

HULLFISH: Do you concern yourself with scene objectives? And how does a scene objective inform your editing?

WELFLING: I try to tell the story that I think the scene wants to tell. I try to understand the meaning of the scene, or the whole story, before I cut and that directs the way I’m cutting.

HULLFISH: Do you put much emphasis on script notes?

John C. Reilly stars as “Eli Sisters” Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

WELFLING: Not really. I always read them though, because I’m interested in knowing how the director felt about this or that take on set.

HULLFISH: Obviously, you worked as an editor before Avid, when you cut on film. I was just reading the Sidney Lumet directing book and he said one of his main responsibilities as a director was to choose which take to print. Now there is no “print.” Everything is printed. Does that change the way that you edit?

WELFLING: I don’t think so, because the script supervisor still does the same thing. You still have a circled or printed take. But now it’s nice to know that it’s not complicated when you want the other takes. (In the days of editing on film, the non-printed takes were called B-neg and if you wanted to use them or see them, you had to order them to be printed – which cost money and time.)

So that’s cool, but I still go for the one that would have been printed, at first. It depends. If the footage is handheld, that changes everything. If the camera is still and the director says he has a favorite take, it’s more certain, but if the camera is handheld, there’s so many things that can happen in a take.

HULLFISH: I just talked to William Goldenberg, who cut Paul Greengrass’ July 22 and he said exactly the same thing because a lot of that movie was shot very documentary style. Very verite. And he said it changed the way he needed to edit because he had to watch so much for the camera movements and all of that, in addition to performance.

WELFLING: I saw it two days ago and I was like, “Oh my God! Editing this was a hell of a job!” Did he edit the other Paul Greengrass movies?

HULLFISH: No. Those were cut by Christopher Rouse. Chris was not available, so Chris suggested Billy. This was the first movie that Billy edited for Paul.

WELFLING: I really enjoyed it… well, enjoying is not the right word, but… but I really thought it was great. It’s really powerful. It’s terrible. I love Paul Greengrass. He’s so gifted.

HULLFISH: Can you think of a scene in a film that you were particularly proud of your solutions to problems and the way it came out?

WELFLING: I can’t think of anything right now, but on each movie, there’s one part where you think, “We finally got through it!” Every movie has a part that is such a pain in the ass and finally you find it.

HULLFISH: You talked about cutting the movie down a little bit from where it was. Did you have to do that through losing entire scenes?

WELFLING: Yes. We got rid of entire scenes.

HULLFISH: What were some of those scenes and why did you make those decisions to lose them?

Riz Ahmed stars as “Hermann Kermit Warm” Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

WELFLING: Especially in the last part of the movie, after (the climax) the audience had the feeling that it was over. But many things still happened to the brothers after that. It was too long after that, which is too bad, because those scenes were good. We liked this part. But at some point, it took too long to get to the end of the movie, so we decided to get rid of at least seven minutes — maybe more. And also we got rid of scenes in the first part and throughout the movie where it was a bit repetitive.

HULLFISH: How does your assistant organize bins for you?

WELFLING: I ask him to write the description of the shots. When there are several cameras, I ask him to do group clips. And if he has time, I ask him to put locators when there is something specific.

HULLFISH: There were a bunch of places where you use sound as transition devices. Not even finishing a scene.

WELFLING: I think I do that often, because it’s the same as not going to the end. Sometimes in the movies, after a character leaves a scene, you’re just left with an empty frame. I hate it. I try to avoid it. I prefer it faster. Also, Jacques doesn’t like it to go too long. It’s boring.

HULLFISH: The idea that you mentioned at the beginning of the interview that he wants it cut down and he doesn’t want to see the way it was scripted is really interesting. There’s a couple of directors that I’ve heard of that like that, but that’s also challenging for you, right? Because you’re making these decisions.

WELFLING: Yes, but that’s wonderful. If you’re wrong, that’s OK. And it makes me feel like my work is really worth it. I know that he doesn’t care not to stick to the script. He likes to be surprised. We can try anything, and I can say anything. He’s ready to try even the most stupid thing.

With digital editing, who cares? He often says “I wrote the script, I shot the movie. I want to move and change things because I don’t want to stay three years with the same story that I already wrote.” Now when I work with a director who wants to strictly stick to the script, although I would admire a guy whose script would work perfectly as it is, I am a bit bored!

HULLFISH: So many directors complain about how hard it is to watch the assembly, and if you don’t have a director like Jacques, you have to play them out as they are in the script and that can be brutal.

WELFLING: It’s often very painful for a director to discover the assembly. I totally understand this and I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes at that moment. It’s painful for Jacques too. But he’s able to “recover” pretty quickly and start to “play” with the initial script.

HULLFISH: I noticed that music cues travel across multiple scenes, as they often do. When do you drop in temp and do you try to wait until you’ve got a whole sequence instead of when you just have individual scenes?

WELFLING: It depends. Sometimes I have the feeling that I need music to cut — like with a montage. Sometimes you don’t know that it will be a montage. It’s not written as a montage. You do it because you have the feeling that you have to go faster.

As far as I’m concerned, I think I need music to be able to cut this, so I pick a temp, even if it’s not the right one, but just to give me a sense of rhythm. Sometimes I feel that the scene won’t hold without music. But then, when you have the whole assembly you realize that you have 15 minutes of music in a row and then half an hour without music, or whatever, then I try to rebalance.

HULLFISH: Did you know that Alexandre Desplat would be doing the score?

WELFLING: Yeah.

HULLFISH: Did you try to temp with just his music?

WELFLING: No I didn’t, because his music on other movies didn’t fit. I showed him scenes from the beginning. He saw scenes even before Jacques. I don’t think he had time to deliver music while we were cutting. He hates temps, I guess all composers do. I have to cut with temp though. Unfortunately, the composers don’t often have time to work before. It’s a real problem, I think, this temp thing.

HULLFISH: I’ve heard a couple of instances where the composer is brought on so early that the editor is able to just use the actual composer’s synth sketches while they’re cutting instead of unrelated temp.

John C. Reilly (left) stars as “Eli Sisters” and Joaquin Phoenix (right) stars as “Charlie Sisters” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures

WELFLING: Lucky them!! I do try to work with temp that is composed by the same composer, but Desplat never did a Western. Nothing I had in my Avid from previous movies from Alexandre fit. Jacques gave me a playlist of things he listened to while he was writing. My assistant tried to find music. We were all trying to find temps.

I understand how frustrating it can be for a composer when basically you ask him to get closer to the temp as possible, but I don’t know the solution except having them work since the beginning, which is impossible if they don’t have time.

HULLFISH: When you were sending the early cuts to Alexandre did you send them with temp?

WELFLING: At first no. I was sending it with nothing. He didn’t want to hear the temp. But the more we were going forward in the editing process , the more we did send him our temps, because Jacques liked them. So little by little Alexandre heard all the temp.

HULLFISH: The trick with a composer NOT listening to temp is that the placement of the cue in the scene is really up to the editor and the director, not the composer, so if he doesn’t listen to temp, he doesn’t even know where to PUT his score.

WELFLING: Yeah true, true. But very early we had been doing spotting sessions with him, even without listening to the temps. Although we had done this precise work, Jacques always told Alexandre to feel free to add music if he felt it was needed somewhere that wasn’t planned.

HULLFISH: Do you do much sound design as you’re cutting picture? Do you feel sound changes your picture cuts?

WELFLING: It depends on the picture. If it’s just four people talking while they’re eating a meal — which is often what French movies are — why bother with sound effects? I noticed in the US that people are putting in so much sound. The first time I cut in the US, I was asking, “Why do you guys work with 16 tracks of sound? Please don’t put so much sound! I don’t know how to work like this.”

But you have to know that in France, before the sound designer starts, and that’s usually kind of late, we are only two in a team. It’s just you and your assistant and that’s if you are lucky.

Many movies in France have no assistant. I am lucky enough (or maybe old enough) to always work with an assistant. But he has a lot to do, as he is handling everything, including VFX. Thank god my assistant is a genius, so he manages to find time for adding sounds, or sometimes I do it myself when he is too busy.

HULLFISH: Do you find it helps the picture cutting to strip room tone throughout the entire scene on things like those French movies that’s just four people eating a meal?

WELFLING: No. I don’t cut with it, though I do it for screenings because people in audiences are not used to hearing the backgrounds change.

HULLFISH: I’m sure you are part of the US or French Academy or of ACE and you are called on to judge the work of your peers. How do you know — when you’re watching the work of another editor — know that it is well-edited?

WELFLING: That’s a difficult question. When I see a film for the first time, I don’t really focus on that. I just enjoy the movie but I’m not focusing on the editing unless it’s really bad and then I am so bored I have time to watch the editing. Also, you never know how the dailies were, and I realize cutting a bad movie can sometimes be much more difficult than cutting a good movie. But we always vote for good movies. We should be focused on bad movies for editing, because it’s harder.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. I greatly appreciate it. You have a wonderful evening.

WELFLING: Thank you.

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

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

 


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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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