Logan has two credited editors and an additional editor. One of the editors, Michael McCusker, was already editing his next project when I did this interview, (plus I had recently interviewed him about Girl on the Train.) For this interview I spoke to Dirk Westervelt, who has extensive visual effects editing experience in addition to his picture editing background. He edited Men of Honor, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Notorious and Run All Night. Also included in this interview is Additional Editor, John Berri, who had previously worked as an associate editor on The Wolverine and was visual effects editor on The Wolverine, The Amazing Spider-Man, Chronicle and Captain America: The First Avenger.
HULLFISH: I went to go see Logan today, and one of the things that I liked about it is that this is definitely an action picture, but nobody cares about the action if you don’t care about the people. Talk to me a little bit about what you guys did to make the audience have some kind of investment.
WESTERVELT: That’s exactly right about caring for the characters. It’s mainly about the drama, right? The drama has to be strong that’s around the action, and dramatic moments within the action as well. It can’t just be full bore from beginning to end. You need little eyes-within-the-storm where people connect on certain levels. Those little moments with Logan and Charles, Charles and Laura, and then Logan and Laura. Logan reacts to her in a certain way, but then their relationship grows and all of those little beats between them, and all of the scenes they have together around the action, they ground the action. If you don’t care about any of that, there are no stakes, and the action is not really effective. There has to be danger and people that you care about for the action to feel strong. There’s a Howard Hawks quote, I’ll probably get it wrong, but it goes something like: “If there’s no danger, then there’s no action.” I think that danger depends on an emotional connection. Even if the movie doesn’t have any action, you just have to make sure the drama is as strong as it can possibly be, and that same thing carries into action scenes and makes the action itself stronger and more interesting.
BERRI: This film is so different from others of this genre because these characters are not your traditional spandex wearing superheroes we are so accustomed to seeing. Audiences already have a deep connection with the characters Logan and Charles Xavier but in this film we see one as a beaten down drunk and the other as a frail old man. These are our heroes, vulnerable, damaged and relatable. Developing a connection is much easier when your characters feel this authentic.
HULLFISH: I really love the scene around the African-American family that is introduced about half-way through the movie.
WESTERVELT: That was a tough sequence on a lot of levels. They were one of those eyes-within-the-storm. These moments where emotion goes within, or around action scenes. They have this moment of normalcy with this family – this experience of connection within a family, and our main characters need to be part of that for a moment. Laura is experiencing that for the first time, and Charles and Logan are remembering their past and sort of experiencing that again.
HULLFISH: Let’s stick with that dinner sequence just a bit, because that is kind of the set up for the whole thing. What was the perspective you were going for and what was the thought around building that scene?
WESTERVELT: You have to have warmth and humor on some level. It needed that at that point in the movie, and it’s really a lot about point of view. Laura and how she is seeing this family and how the family members relate to each other. Trying to find that moment where she is interested in how the family relates. Logan has an evolution in this scene too because he starts out quite removed, and then it grows to that moment where they’re talking about the school with humor and nostalgia and a deep connection. They are juggling a lot of threats coming into this, but by the end of the scene you’ve connected with these people, and have gotten to a different place emotionally.
HULLFISH: Is it tricky to modulate those performances so that the scene builds or that you have that gradual and natural evolution of Logan’s character?
WESTERVELT: It has to grow from being a little bit uncomfortable in the beginning. What makes it much easier is how Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and Dafne too, were doing a tremendous job with performance. Then it’s just a matter of living with all that material and finding the best pieces that take you from the place you want to start from, to the place you want to go.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to many people about jumping of time. I recognized that there are jumps almost always like there is movement forward in time with almost every cut. Especially at the beginning like I noticed it going into the first time where you see the tank. You are seeing jumps in time constantly. Was that conscious? Is it just trying to keep the film moving along or a style choice?
WESTERVELT: It’s just about the story pace as opposed to just staying linear. I mean, in some cases it’s a bit more linear here than on other pictures that I’ve worked on, because the style of the film is more classical. Do you have an example of these time jumps that stood out to you?
HULLFISH: Many actions aren’t ended. Before you complete unlocking a gate at the factory, or before you see a transaction completed between two people you’re on to the next thing. I just noticed taking out a lot of shoe-leather. I liked it.
WESTERVELT: Specifically, arriving at the factory, that was something that Mike McCusker worked on. I can tell you a little bit about the evolution of that: we just all felt that we needed to get on with the beginning of the movie quicker. Earlier versions of the movie had a lot more of Logan driving people around in the limo, when he crosses the border. There were shots of him driving through Mexican neighborhoods and so forth. But we needed to get on with the story, and get to the connection with Charles, and having the first conversation with Caliban. Up to that point the movie was probably nearly twice as long in the initial stages of the cut. So, a lot of that was compressed. Originally he gets out and he opens the gate, he gets back in his car and he drives through and then parks by the building, walks in. But all of that was tightened; once he’s at that gate and he opens it, we can be on to the next place. You don’t really need to see him travel through that space then. You just want to get to the next scene. Overall this was pretty straightforward compression, still within the classical filmmaking style of this picture. There’s an editor called Chris Gill, who’s done some Danny Boyle films, who goes a lot further for example. In the movie The Guard [directed by John Michael McDonagh], it’s the extreme version of that. It’s just key in the ignition, foot on the gas, and he’s opening the door at the next place. It’s all just little bits of action of getting someone from one place to another, rather than having them move through it in a kind of linear way. That’s the extreme version, but the compression here was less extreme. I thought Mike [co-editor, Mike McCusker, who wasn’t available for this interview], and Jim [director, James Mangold], did an excellent job of compressing that first reel of the movie, which included the example you gave of Logan arriving to the factory.
HULLFISH: Was there a specific moment in the story that you were accelerating towards?
WESTERVELT: You really want to get to the meat of Charles and Logan in the tank together when he has his first seizure. There’s plenty of important stuff before that. You’re introducing Laura and Gabriela and setting Logan up. And then you really want to get to the set up with the mission that they go on, and Gabriela’s death, and Laura and Pierce showing up to the factory, because all of that is where the story really takes off.
HULLFISH: There was a scene where Logan shows up at the hotel for the first time and sees Laura bouncing the ball. I loved this really interesting crossing action, like she always seemed to be going one way and the car with Logan would always be going the other. There was this counter-cross of action throughout that whole scene.
WESTERVELT: That stuff is great. That was just beautifully shot. They were running out of time that day, rushing stuff, but Jim knew he wanted to get those crosses. It’s just another example of his strength as a director, and with staging, that he pushed that through and made sure that he got all that stuff, because it’s just a beautiful ballet of crosses: her and the ball as he’s entering. In terms of the cut, it’s actually a scene that got passed back and forth a bit ‘cause Mike was still finishing his other movie, so he came on a little later than I did. That exterior scene was shot early, so I had done a pass. Jim had a really clear idea of how he wanted it all to come together. In that early stage, I was sending him cuts, and we had Facetime set up on the monitor. We would be on the phone teleconferencing the edits that way. He was on location, I was back in LA. And that was one of the scenes we worked on together that way. Then when Mike came on we split the movie up into reels. He took over the first two reels and I ended up with the middle section – the family farm scenes and around that part. So that motel scene ended up in Mike’s reels. John, didn’t you do the first pass on the interior of the hotel room: all the green screens? That section was kind of a group effort. But that stuff with the crossing, I think the credit all goes to the way they shot it, and Jim’s ideas for that. He’s always keeping people moving through space. Even in the tank with Charles and Logan, for example. It’s two guys talking, and yet they’re always moving through space.
HULLFISH: That crossing scene where he first meets Laura, the limo is pulling up in that hotel, you get this sense that they have a connection. There’s a deeper connection than two strangers.
BERRI: This is a great scene, there is a bit of a dance between the two of them as the limo pulls into the lot. Even though a connection hasn’t been established yet, the audience and Logan start to sense that there is one. I know Jim was really specific with the shots he got here. We also get the payoff of Charles’s mention of the statue of Liberty in the first tank scene, as Logan takes in the name of the motel.
HULLFISH: In the original edit, was there any preface or previous mention of the X-24 character that got cut out? The first time he shows up is in the farm house. Was that the way it was always intended?
WESTERVELT: He’s in that cage when the helicopter shows up at the truck where they’re keeping Caliban captive. That cage goes by Pierce on a flatbed truck, and Pierce kinda eyeballs it. It’s a subtle moment, so it’s easy to miss. You don’t really expect anyone to put it together. There used to be a short sequence where Doctor Rice walked up to the cage with X-24 in it, but it was a bit too on-the-nose and too arch. There’s a little bit of stuff that we all worked on which was the video on the phone. There’s a little clue in there for the real treasure hunters. There’s a little shot where they’re putting a Frankenstein monster together, and then there’s one shot that goes up to a monitor where it says X-24. There are these tiny little clues, but it was also designed to be a surprise when X-24 is revealed. That’s an interesting scene where X-24 finally shows up, because (SPOILER ALERT) when he walks in you want people to think it’s good ol’ Logan, and Charles is having this monologue basically with Logan, so that it’s not revealed that it’s X-24 until that last moment. So it’s a scene where you can’t cut to the other side, and it’s a testament to Patrick Stewart’s performance and the way it was shot, that it can hold us for that long, and the scene still feels as natural as it does.
HULLFISH: There are some really nice moments that I wanted to talk about. You called them the eyes-of-the-storm. They’re great and they’re needed but essentially they’re also lulls in the action. How did you determine how long those could be? I remember one of those “eyes” when Logan tries to pull his claws out and he cuts himself. There are just these beautiful moments to let the audience absorb something: lots of action and then “let’s slow it down.”
WESTERVELT: Back in that scene in the first reel where he pulls the claw out, we called that the ‘Still Saigon’ scene in homage to the hotel room in Apocalypse Now. I did the first pass on that scene but it was this huge, long bloated thing (there were a lot of beautiful shots in the bin). Then Mike distilled it into the proper size. I think it was just a moment that Jim really wanted, that kind of internal moment. In a cold-hearted sense, it’s not a scene that’s driving the story forward, but on an emotional level, it’s very important. You really need to feel Logan’s isolation on a more personal level. That’s what I believe that scene does for us.
BERRI: Mike and Dirk did a great job with setting the tone in this scene. We not only see Logan’s isolation, but we also see Caliban sitting alone in the dark and Charles lying in bed in his tank. You get a good sense of the melancholy weight bearing down on these characters.
HULLFISH: Is there also the thought that the audience needs to catch their breath before the next wild scene?
WESTERVELT: I think it helps to get you to the next day, which is night in Logan’s case because he works the night shift. Otherwise you would go right from him exiting the tank with Charles, to going out to his next night of work. There’s definitely a rhythm there where you want a transition. You could probably do it in three shots if you were compelled to do that, but we didn’t. It wanted a little more of an emotional beat there.
HULLFISH: There’s a sense when you’re cutting a scene that might not seem to have much of a purpose where you need some separation. You can’t just go from one particular scene to another scene without either just a transitional moment or something more weighty that gives some emotional subtext to what has either just happened or what’s about to happen.
WESTERVELT: The pace needs to feel natural. It needs to feel human, like the rhythm of our lives. You can always make a straight cut from this to that, but it’s not always the right answer. How much is too much and when does it become filler? There are other places where we just cut from the gate opening to him walking inside, where you can do a lot of abbreviation because there’s no real emotional value. But in this case, it’s a very internal moment, and I believe it does pay off – the audience gets a connection to the character through that.
HULLFISH: Can you talk to me about temping and did you temp from the Marvel universe? Did you temp from a lot of other things?
WESTERVELT: We had an amazing music editor – Ted Caplan. He’s worked with John, Mike, and Jim. A lot of different temp, though not so much from the MCU, and also things that Ted created. They’ve all worked together on several pictures before. It was my first time working with all of them. I think music editing is an incredibly difficult and interesting and powerful part of the process. The first few months John and I were doing stuff ourselves. There’s a song in the movie that John temped in that is still in there: at the convenience store, that was also in the movie trailer.
HULLFISH: John, tell me about that song that you temped in that stuck all the way through the final picture.
BERRI: The cue in the convenience store, as Dirk mentioned earlier, was the Jim Croce song “I got a Name”. Ted and I were going back and forth about what would work in that scene. I wanted something that we would expect to hear in a convenience store, but also lend itself to where we were in the film. That track was something I tried early on and even though Ted and I auditioned a few other tracks, I kept going back to it. Jim also felt it worked well in the scene but wasn’t immediately sold on it for the final. I think it grew on him as it made it all the way through.
HULLFISH: If bands and musical artists were smart, they would let film editors have unlimited, free iTunes! That music was a little more diegetic right? Played in the store’s speakers?
BERRI: Yes, it was played as source through the convenience store speakers. It just worked really well for Laura’s stroll through the store, walking the aisles like an everyday kid, but obviously far from it. Blood stained clothes and a can of Pringles. I know we are in a road movie of sorts and the chorus of the song is “moving me down the highway” but that wasn’t what I was going for.
HULLFISH: That’s always the struggle, right? You’re trying to find something that’s meaningful and yet you can’t make it too meaningful or else the audience says, “Oh, of course they had to stick that song in there…!”
BERRI: Right. I was worried it would be too on-the-nose because of that chorus but for me, the song is more about finding a sense of identity and how this ties into his (Croce’s) relationship with his father. I thought that was a great parallel to Laura/X23’s story.
HULLFISH: I think it was a great choice. Let’s talk a little bit about some of those big action scenes and pacing those things out.
BERRI: Mike and Dirk obviously handled most of the heavy lifting with the big action scenes. I cut a few of the smaller vignettes in one of the larger action scenes but they managed the overall structure of the sequence as a whole. Having had the opportunity to work with Mike numerous times I’ve been lucky to learn how he organizes his material. I’ve tried to incorporate some of his methodology when I organize my own dailies bins. I will leave the original dailies bin intact and create my own bin or bins putting the beats of the scene in order. If there is a stunt or 2nd unit material I will incorporate that material as well keeping the clips grouped together by where they fall in the scene. This provides a linear way to work through the bin and also helps with getting familiar with the material.
HULLFISH: That makes sense. For somebody that might now understand what you’re saying: in a longer scene, where Logan kills four people, you’re breaking each one of those kills or each area in which a scene has blocked action, into a separate mini scene.
HULLFISH: Dirk, what’s your approach to some of these complex action scenes?
WESTERVELT: It’s a little bit fluid. It sort depends on how the shots break down and the particulars of a specific scene. Basically, I’ll leave the main bins that I get from Daniel [1st AE, Daniel Nussbaum] all set up in order. If a scene is small or it’s broken down into a bunch of different vignettes then it’s obviously easier ‘cause you don’t have to find the material for each piece. But then you get a bigger scene where there is a lot of stuff going on at the same time, and longer takes covering more action. Then it becomes critical. Generally I break it down into bits, and group them into separate bins in a way that makes sense to me based on the choreography and chronology of the scene. There might be more than one way to organize a sequence, but the method is to try to break it down into the component pieces, and also to flag selects, pieces that just really stand out and that I really want to try to get into the cut. I usually flag them with locators within takes, and also as subclips or subsequences in separate selects bins. So those selects moments generally live in more than one place for me. They’ll be marked in the bins where everything is broken down, but then also be clipped out into the selects bins.
HULLFISH: The organization of that stuff pays off.
WESTERVELT: It is critical; I might spend a couple days organizing and viewing before editing a big scene.
HULLFISH: John, you spent a lot of time on the pre-vis effects for this movie. Tell me about that.
BERRI: I came on to help with previs a couple of months before shooting. The previs supervisor was Clint Reagan. He and Jim have worked together numerous times so it’s a nice established relationship. When I arrived there was already a rough partial previs pass done but things continued to evolve throughout pre-production with lots of new ideas being explored and new shots being generated. Clint has a great eye for designing shots and also understands story. When I came on I took whatever level of a cut existed and worked off it from there. Jim would review the sequence to determine what was and wasn’t working and we would work together to create the material we thought was needed.
HULLFISH: Were you basically there during pre-vis as an editor saying, “This is what I would want to build a sequence?”
BERRI: Yes, and we had a handful of other people involved in the previs process. Aside from Jim, Clint, and myself, we had Chas Jarrett the VFX supervisor, and Garrett Warren our stunt coordinator. There was a significant amount of stunt-vis done for this film as well, and the process was similar to that of previs. The stunt team would go out and shoot and rough cut a scene and then hand it off to me. I would then fine-tune it based on feedback from Jim. It was a very collaborative process. As with any film, the element of budget also comes into play during the previs process. Sometimes you have a sequence that is working well but has to be pared down due to cost. In these instances I would try and keep the integrity of the scene intact but work the material down to meet the budget.
HULLFISH: And you are putting the pieces that are being delivered to you together?
BERRI: Yes, and this was followed with a good amount of back and forth. After I worked on a scene based on notes from Jim, I would then pass the cut back to previs or stunts. They would then shoot or create additional footage and then pass it back to me. We’d get feedback from Jim, new ideas would be explored and the process would continue.
HULLFISH: What was the methodology to carry those pre-vis shots through the rest of the edit? Every shot had a name? I am interested in the process.
BERRI: Every shot is named because the sequence is being bid based on that previs cut. The VFX team attaches a cost to each shot and tracks it. We tried to maintain those shot names once we had a cut scene, but it isn’t always feasible as so much can change from previs to shooting to editing.
HULLFISH: And is there any kind of layering in the timeline that kept the VFX organized? Like pre-vis would be on v1, and then you placed the next version of the shot that comes from VFX on v2, and then finalized version on V10 with multiple versions between?
BERRI: Yes. Mike cut the refinery chase which was a heavily previs’d scene. He started with the previs on v1 and once dailies came in he would work above that layer while maintaining sync with the previs so it is available for easy reference throughout the process. Of course things are fluid and sometimes material is shot that differs from the previs, or you drop beats etc., but that previs layer lives in the cut for most of the duration of post.
HULLFISH: That is exactly what I was interested in. Thank you so much for your time.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews, but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more.
My thanks to Moviola’s Ramin Taheri, Renard Beavers, Hajar Elfared, and Evan O’Connor for transcribing this interview.