If you have watched a funny movie in the last decade, you’ve seen Brent White’s work. “Ghostbusters,” “Spy,” “Anchorman” (1 and 2), “Step Brothers,” “Knocked Up,” “Talladega Nights” and “The 40 Year old Virgin.” And before that, “Desperate Housewives” and “Freaks and Geeks.” It was his time at “Freaks and Geeks” that connected him with the cadre of the best and brightest directors in comedy.
HULLFISH: I went to see Ghostbusters two nights ago, then last night I was watching TV and saw “Anchorman” and saw your credit on there… you should have your own cable channel!
HULLFISH: There are a lot of topics I cover with most of the editors I talk to, but you are the posterboy for two of them: longtime collaborations with directors and you’ve got a bunch of them – 3 movies with Paul Fieg (Fieg and White are pictured at the top of the page), 5 with Adam McKay, and 4 with Judd Apatow.
WHITE: That’s right. I know. It’s been a pretty amazing little run here.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about collaboration with those guys. Do they like to collaborate in different ways? Do you have to adapt to their method of collaboration?
WHITE: All three guys have slightly different senses of humor and they’re all equally valid and amazingly fun to be in a room with. I just have to say that I feel luck the luckiest guy because I get to hang out in a room with these hilarious jokers for months at a time. And the thing is when I’m not on one of their movies I miss them terribly! (laughs)
HULLFISH: That’s nice!
WHITE: I think, it would be nice to hang out with Judd today and talk about whatever, or sit on the couch with McKay and really discuss politics and what’s going on in the world and sit with Paul and discuss the latest episode of “The Walking Dead.” That’s the real beauty of what I get to do is I get to spend quality time with these hilarious gentlemen.
HULLFISH: Several people – when asked why they got into editing – have said that when they saw how much quality time that the editor spent with the director compared to the other crew and department heads, that’s what turned them on to editing.
WHITE: That’s basically how it worked out for me. When I got out of college I was getting ready to go to grad school and I got involved with The Sundance Institute and worked at their June lab for several years. I worked on the set and held a mic and I learned a lot and it was an important part of my film experience. But after a while I thought that to get something more out of my Sundance experience I should probably get into the cutting room, because that’s where everybody sat around and talked about what went right and what went wrong on the set and where things were good and what was good and just as part of my film education I thought if I would learn anything else from Sundance it would be great to be in the editing room. So the next year I went back – and because Sundance is a non-profit thing, Sony would send their latest gear. So each year it would be brand new. It came in boxes and we used it in the month of June and we would box it up and it would go to the trade shows. Brand new stuff, so nobody knew how to use it. So the next year when everything arrived, I unpacked the boxes and I had a conversation with this guy who was there and I said, “I really want to learn how to edit this year.” There was a spare system set up in another room. This was in the 80s, so it was 3/4″ rudimentary editing equipment. So that’s what I learned on so I read the manuals and learned how to run the machines and was practicing and doing stuff and there was a gentleman who was there from France – didn’t speak any English – and they had a project they were trying to work on. But they’d scheduled all of the other editors and luckily I spoke French. So they had me edit for him and these two other big filmmakers from France. So, I ended up sitting in a room with this guy named Daniel Vigne who wrote and directed “The Return of Martin Gehr” and Bertrand Tavernier who’s an amazing French director who did “round midnight” and a bunch of other stuff. We spent a week in a room with these guys. So that’s how I got into the editing room, is through Sundance.
HULLFISH: Wow! That’s a great story. One of the things we got off on a tangent from was collaboration. You said you missed being around these directors and they have very different senses of humor but how do you feel that they collaborate differently?
WHITE: I don’t know that I do things different with each guy. I just do what I do. I try to be as open to what it is that they’re trying to do and be open to exploring the material to find out what’s the best laugh, what’s the joke that we want to tell, because in any given situation there are a lot of jokes and some of them are really funny, some are a little broad… so we could do the broad joke that’s easy or we could do the smarter joke or the more pointed joke or the joke that’s more towards character or the piece that actually helps the arc of the story and all those kinds of things, so it depends on the movie too and the collaboration with the guys is always about the amount of time you can spend with them. Judd has amazing things going on all the time, so your time with him is really valuable so it’s a matter of having the most options and ideas and stuff ready for him when he can come and sit with you. And McKay, the cutting room is like a refuge for him. So it’s great when he shows up and we spend a fair amount of time going through things and getting them set. And with Paul we spend some quality time just sitting side by side in a room and going over stuff. Each thing works great for the type of movie they’re trying to do. I get a chance with a movie – I put that first assembly together or whatever and I try different jokes and I try the things I like and the things that make me laugh and tickle me, and when I’m done, I’ve seen that movie and I’m happy to now say, “Let’s make a different movie. Let’s make Paul’s movie.” And once we get that all put together, we say, “Let’s make the movie for the first preview.” And for each iteration I get to see that version of the movie. That way you don’t get tied down with things. You can be as open to the process as possible and hopefully it will deliver the kind of laughs and moments that will eventually entertain and audience.
HULLFISH: You talked about how funny these guys are. I don’t know anything about them, so this may seem insulting to them, but do you find that you need to be the “keeper of the story” because those guys are so worried about hitting jokes?
WHITE: No! Not at all. As a matter of fact all of those guys have really great senses of structure and tone and what they’re trying to say. Judd’s movies are often much more personal and real and human, so the thing we do there is try to make everything as real as possible and the funny comes out of those moments that are absolutely spot-on, “I’ve been there. I’ve lived that. I’ve experienced that.” With McKay there’s a lovely, subversive element that I’m telling this joke or doing this piece so that I can talk about something bigger. So the idea about doing something bigger – like with “Anchorman” and the media or families or relationships like “Talladega” or “Stepbrothers.” So they have a bigger agenda. And Paul is just trying to make the audience have a great time. “What can I do inside this genre to make you enjoy it the most possible?”
HULLFISH: So originally I was going to ask if you get typecast as a “comedy editor.” Or is it that you regularly work with three comedy directors, so it’s more about the types of movies those guys do rather than what people think you can do?
WHITE: Like you said, it is the people I’ve worked with. I came out of Sundance and all my early works were independent movies and serious movies and dramas and stuff like that, but literally the way I met all three of these gentlemen was through a TV series called “Freaks and Geeks.” I was the third editor and that’s where I met Judd, that’s where I met Paul and that’s where I met Adam. When Judd produced “Anchorman” he said, “I know the right editor. You should hire this guy.” I didn’t know McKay before then but that’s how I got that job. The way I got the “Freaks and Geeks” job was that I was at Sundance and somebody brought the pilot for “Freaks and Geeks” to the lab the year that came out and I saw it and thought, “That’s a really great show.” I really gravitated to it. It felt like me. It felt like it was about me. So I basically pulled some strings and had people call on my behalf. It was early in my career. I didn’t have a lot of stuff going on. Enough people called that, as they were collecting their crew, they got calls from all these different names suggesting one name, so they met with me. It was super fun. It was all about music and kids and family. Those guys are still doing those types of shows. It’s all about relationships and emotion and stuff like that. But that’s where the real hilarity comes from, when things are real.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk performance.
WHITE: One of the things that a lot of these do is cross-shoot with two different cameras and that helps me manufacture the performance, because I can adjust the rhythm of the speech and the rhythm of the way people talk so that I can create a funny rhythm that will make you laugh at the end when it happens in the correct way. And that’s one of the reasons it takes so long to do and why the previews are super-important to us because I can fine tune those rhythms, and go, ” That’s a little close but it’s not quite right, and what if there was more air there. And there’s this thing I call “The Apatow Pause,” which is like, “How long can I hold a pause … … … until it breaks. And sometimes the more awkward it is and the longer it is, it becomes this thing where you create a certain amount of tension. And when the tension breaks you get a bigger laugh and a stronger laugh and there’s a physical thing that happens when you create the perfect little rhythm and pause.” Judd’s a great technician in knowing what rhythm is going to make something funny. “Is it six frames? Is it eight frames? And that’s how you spend you day: manipulating the footage so that it plays in a certain rhythm and a certain way.
HULLFISH: Is finding that rhythm like focusing? “Trim too long, then trim too short, and back somewhere in between and now I’ve got it?”
WHITE: Yeah. Sometimes it’s not only the picture because on the Avid I’ve got that waveform monitor up the whole time. I can see what the sound is doing. I can see the air and if I can collapse the air, it’s about bringing things together, like there’s moments when Will (Ferrell), who’s like the most amazing improv person… sometimes it’s just about pulling up the little moments where he’s thinking of the next thing. He’s so quick, but it becomes about making it as realistic and life-like as possible. And that’s what makes some of those films and jokes work amazingly well, because you’ve made them as human and fleet-footed and quick-of-thought as you can. What happens is with the double coverage, shooting from both sides, is you capture the interaction of what’s happening in real time and then all you have to do is just micro-surgery and it just rolls and that’s the other thing. How fast can you get it to go? Sometimes I feel like it’s a bit of a rollercoaster, you want the waves of laughter to build in a way so that they crash and crest at the biggest joke, so you’ll see the first joke and the second joke and it’s all about how to create that big guffaw or release at the end of the bit. And it’s so fun to sit in a preview audience and watch them ride that wave. It’s super fun.
HULLFISH: Speaking of test audiences do you feel that all you need is for the test audience to be there – to be with them? You can sense those timings?
WHITE: (laughs sinisterly) We do a thing where we record the audience. We record the laughs and then we take the laughs back to the cutting room and we marry it to that version of the movie and so now I have a version of the movie with literally a laugh track and so as we’re going forward and adjusting the movie and fixing the movie, I can go back to those preview audiences and say, “Well that joke worked really well in Woodland Hills, but it blew when we took it to Phoenix and ….” I have a record of how they reacted. I’ve worked with Sasha Baron Cohen who has a crazy list of every joke and how they perform and everything’s numbered and notated and it’s very specific and that’s the bible that they live by: “This joke got a 7 and this joke is a 6 and this is a 3 which is OK, but if I don’t need it it should go so the 6s and the 7s are stronger and more in line and it becomes this thing where you’re trying to get to the next level. That’s the other thing that happens is that you have the movie in a certain place, then you start to get notes and information and stuff from producers or studios or stuff like that and the notes kill the things that you’re trying to finesse. If you pull the thing that they don’t like, it all unravels or stumbles. That becomes the dance you have to do. “OK, I need this joke, but I’ll give up this one.” And there’s all this horse-trading.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about “Ghostbusters.” One of the things that fascinates me as an editor is when you determine that you can just make a jump in time. So one moment you’re in the office and the next moment you’re halfway to the destination or even at the destination.
WHITE: One of the things about “Ghostbusters” is that there’s a lot of tech and a lot of gear and some of the most amazing stuff you’ve ever seen. You want to help that in a way, but you can only see them get dressed or get their gear on so many times. So you do it in an earlier scene and kind of introduce the ECTO (the car) and then it’s about getting to the next bit… the next funny piece.
HULLFISH: What were some of the discussions about things that got dropped or re-arranged? Why did they happen?
WHITE: You look at the relationships between the four girls and what are the things that are the most important for those four relationships and that becomes one of the things that you look at. The things that create the most feeling for each of these characters and you want to keep all of that stuff and the stuff that is extra, you can jettison. The other thing is literally to keep the story moving along so that you’re not waiting for something to happen. That’s one of the things that I think is great about Ghostbusters is that it really motors. It feels like it’s clipping along and there are things that are happening. When you get into the third act with all of the CGI and all of the action and stuff, then that action stuff keeps working along really, really well. That’s the other thing that’s happened over time is that as we’ve gotten down the road in these big comedies, both McKay and Paul (Fieg) are trying to add action elements to their movies and that becomes like the most fun part of putting these things together. We know what we’re doing with the jokes and stuff like that, but can we make a really good fight scene? Can we have a nice shootout? And how can we make a great car chase? It’s just because we’re kind of nerds and we love movies so much that we just want to be able to play in that sandbox. That’s what’s so great about Ghostbusters. This is a sandbox that we’ve all grown up with and love and have cherished for years and years and we get to play with all these toys and ideas.
HULLFISH: Tell me about your approach to a scene. With as much improv that you have to deal with in these comedies, maybe it’s different than the approach other editors have to take.
WHITE: There’s a lot of material that you have to weed through. In my cutting room we use Script Integration (like ScriptSync, but without the automatic phonetic detection) and every take is put on the script inside of Avid. Every line is lined up so I can get to it and with improv I am able to notate and find each little element in its separate beat. So what happens is that you have a scene and it has several joke beats or ideas that you’re trying to work through, and what I do with Judd and several of these other guys what I do is versions and you can see how long the scene can go and sustain itself or you can cut each idea, for example in “Talladega Nights” the dinner scene where they have the prayer. How much of all of that material can I work into that idea? That is one of the reasons that scene is so long because there’s so much really good stuff. It comes early enough in the movie that you have the patience for that experimental kind of thing and it’s super, super funny. If that scene came later in the movie I’d have to figure out a way to pull different elements out so that it didn’t carry so much weight and that’s what happens in movies like Ghostbusters. Like I had these moments where Kristin Wiig is flirting with Hemsworth and how many of those do you need before you’re done with it? In Ghostbusters, the rock concert scene there’s a moment where the ghost comes down and picks up the lead singer and swings him back and forth across the stage. It was super funny and crazy expensive to do all that CGI and it comes to a point where “That’s the lift.” That’s the thing that comes out.
HULLFISH: It’s not advancing the story?
WHITE: Not advancing the story. It’s just a sidebar, or whatever. So that comes out fairly painlessly. Especially with these big effects movies where you do a joke or whatever it is and it has to really play because you’re spending a lot of money.
HULLFISH: To get back to Script Integration, I’ve talked to several other guys who cut a lot of comedy, even TV guys like Peter Chakos who cut “Big Bang Theory” and most of them say that Script Integration is basically useless for them because of the amount of improv on their series.
WHITE: Because I’m working with Judd and Adam and Paul who have a finite amount of time in the cutting room, for me to be able to find that moment that he’s looking for in the fastest possible way – it takes a fair amount of time and I’ve got a pretty big staff that do all of that stuff before I sit in the edit chair so that when I sit down with a director I can find things quickly. Because he’ll remember from on set, “What about this joke? Or what about THIS joke?” And me being able to find it super-fast is a huge bonus. It saves me a huge amount of time. Sometimes, because there’s a huge amount of improv, I still can’t find it, so I’ll yell out to my first (assistant), “Can you pull up that scene where we have that alt joke?” and he’ll be able to find it and put it in a
bin so I can integrate it in the scene that I’m working on. One of the things I haven’t talked about is that there’s another editor that works with me named Melissa Bretherton and she is a huge, huge benefit because she has a different sensibility and that brings things to the fore that I never would have seen and I couldn’t do the movies without her, she’s so integral to what we’re doing. I’ll also ask the assistants that prep all the scenes, “What made you laugh? What was your favorite joke?” I don’t look at the dailies except cursory. I have dailies on PIX (streaming dailies service) on my iPad sitting on my desk just kind of running while I’m editing. So I’m seeing what the set-ups are and what the idea is, but I’m not really looking at performance or anything like that. I only start looking at performance once the dailies have been entered into my system with the Script Integration, that way, I’m not wasting time because I could spend all day every day just looking at dailies during production and I need to be cutting stuff together. Once they’re in Script Integration I’ve got these beats and I can see the first third of the scene or the first beat and then I’ll just watch that section – I’ll watch all of the coverage for just that beat. Then as I’m doing that, I’m pulling things that I like, pulling jokes or ideas or looks or angles or whatever it is that I respond to and I pull them into the cut. Now I’ve got that version done and I can look at the next beat. So I’m looking at everything, but in sections.
HULLFISH: So with the amount of improv you’re dealing with, are you guys getting these things transcribed then using transcriptions instead of using the shooting script?
WHITE: Sometimes it does. There’s a new thing that’s been happening on the last Judd movie and also on Paul’s last movie: there was a stenographer on set.
WHITE: (laughs) … she sits behind the script supervisor and types away madly. She writes down everything that happens. So I have this record and in the Judd world there are these books and he will go through the books and highlight the lines or ideas – not even looking at the picture – he’ll just look at the words and he’ll go “that joke… this joke…” and he’ll highlight them and then we’ll get them back and I have to figure out how to take that element that he highlighted and do a version that includes that in the scene. Sometimes the lines are not even on camera. Sometimes it’s a funny joke, but it’s not on camera, so I have to figure out how to make that idea work.
HULLFISH: One of the other things you’ve talked about is that with Paul and Judd and McKay, when they’re using two cameras, they’re usually cross shot. A lot of the people I’ve talked to – and in the movies I’ve edited – it’s less cross-shot and more on two angles of the same actor, like maybe a medium and a raking close-up.
WHITE: That happens as well. Sometimes you just can’t do it because of the space or the light or whatever, but even a tight and wide is something that also allows me to adjust the rhythm of a scene so I can jump to the next idea. You’ll see those in the movie. You’ll see me go from a wide to a tight and it is something I do all the time because… it’s always about the rhythm of the speech…
HULLFISH: It’s a tool to help you create the pacing you want.
HULLFISH: I just interviewed the Star Trek editors yesterday and they were talking about the number of times that they used different takes and timings even within a single wide shot or two shot using split screens.
WHITE: Yeah. I do that too. I’m sure especially with an action movie like Star Trek, it helps you create the dynamic and tension you’re trying to achieve. I can see that. I do that because there’s a look that maybe comes a little bit late or you’re trying to get a reaction in a wide shot to happen closer to the joke and you put in a split and pull it up a bit.
HULLFISH: Two last questions. One is about sound effects. Do you find that the sound is critical to selling your visual edits?
WHITE: Super critical. Some of the things that happen is that we’re always protecting the laugh. We’re always protecting the joke. We bring the sound guys in really early and we work with them throughout the preview process and it is a way that we can create the movie together so that when we get on the final dub stage, we’re not trying a bunch of new things that we’ve never seen before. We’re just fine-tuning the things that we’ve worked on for the last three months as we’ve been going through these test screenings. They do a temp dub for every one of those. The sound guys are integral in the process of finding the movie: this is the right car sound or this is the right gun blast or all those kinds of things so that we find them eary enough and we’re not filling up the movie at the last moment with things that aren’t tested or we’re not sure of and that way we can protect the jokes and ideas. I have to give so much credit to Andrew DeCristafaro my amazing sound supervisor. One of the things about Ghostbusters is that there was so much tech and so much opportunity to do this great sound job! You’ve got the ghosts and the city and the gear and the proton guns and how specific and precise they can be and it was really a dance to get those things to work the way we wanted them to so that they are exciting, but they don’t get in the way of the joke and they don’t get in the way of the emotion. This was a really difficult mix and a very difficult job in that respect. And the other thing is that the visual effects are coming in and they’re always last minute and they change the sound. It’s a wonderful fast-paced dance. And the other element is music and how important that is to the comedies because there are sometimes when you hear “Oh that’s comedy music.” All of the guys I work for, especially Judd, who’s so into music and me as well, we’re looking for real music that creates emotion.
HULLFISH: I worked on the VeggieTales shows and movies and the one thing that they were always very careful of was that even though the songs are supposed to be funny, the music itself is REAL music. The lyrics provide the funny and the music was really good music that didn’t – by itself – sound funny. That’s a tribute to Kurt Heinecke who wrote all that music. He’s not a great comedy composer. He’s just a great composer. So the music is not used to create the funny, the music is the dramatic bed that allows the funny to happen on top.
WHITE: Exactly. And there are also moments where the sound can be super funny and create a joke. And sometimes it’s the lack of sound that creates the punch-line. Plus ADR (automated dialogue replacement) where we’re writing jokes on the backs of people’s heads and stuff. Becky Sullivan who was out dialogue person was amazing. We’ll bring in Kristin and Melissa and Kate and they will play in the ADR room and do things that are super-hilarious and create comedy that did not happen on the set or wasn’t even intended.
HULLFISH: To help readers who might not be industry insiders, to say “we wrote jokes on the backs of people’s heads” means that you use a shot from coverage that shows the back of the person’s head, so you can’t see their mouth move, and then replace what was said – or not said – on set with what is recorded later in an audio studio. That way you can implant a joke retrospectively that was not spoken on set.
WHITE: Right. And the most genius example of this is in “Anchorman.” Danny Trejo who is the bartender and Will is at the bar and he’s drunk and he’s sad and Danny gives him this really long speech about women and how you have to treat them and how important they are and it’s this heartfelt scene and Danny is so funny in it, but on the back of Will’s head you hear “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish.” (laughs) That’s an ADR joke that’s huge and it’s one of those things that we do in all of our movies. We do an ADR pass where we add jokes that we don’t have from on set.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the Times Square ghost battle at the end.
WHITE: There is this huge fight. We had this great group of stunt performers and a great second unit guy. I got to go to Boston and was on set for the big action sequences just to be another pair of eyes. I cut here in Los Angeles but I go out for those action sequences and this is the big tail of the movie and we spent a week putting this together and it’s helpful for me to be on the set while they’re doing this so I can see the intention of what they’re trying to do and it helps me create that moment. The first version of the big Times Square battle was cut to an AC/DC song, “Shoot to Thrill.” And it was five minutes long and it was badass and it was great, but because that song is five minutes of the same kind of rhythm then each character in the scene is kind of compartmentalized and has their own battle and their own sequence it worked out really well as a template and now that I had all of that stuff, I had to figure out a way to compress it and I think it’s not even two minutes in the final film. It was really hard to see what it was going to look like because it’s all guys standing around on green-screen with nothing coming out of their guns and it was really one of the most fun things to cut and we really had to fight for it.
HULLFISH: Tell me about how difficult it is to edit VFX when you can’t see what’s happening around the character or where the stuff is going that’s coming out of his gun. When you’re editing something that is real, a lot of what informs when you cut is what happens within the frame, but with VFX, a lot of that information is missing.
WHITE: That’s the thing. You have to see it in your mind and Paul does a lot of things practically, so even if there’s greenscreen, there’s a real guy playing the ghost, and there are real people interacting with each other. Then you turn it over to the VFX guys and hope for the best. But we also do a lot of early temps in the Avid. We’ll have some post-viz, we’ll have some pre-viz stuff that I will use as template for stuff I don’t “own” yet and intercut it. Then we’ll do these really cheesey, bad, terrible comps in the cutting room. My crew has really learned to do a lot of effects work and they spend a lot of their day doing that, because once the dailies are done, they have more time so they turn their time and abilities to creating these temp effects and getting the movie set-up and cutting sound and pre-mixing and adjusting stuff so that when we sit down and look at it, it’s all correct. That’s the other thing that’s really great about my crew is that they allow me to cut so that I don’t have to do a lot of that other stuff. You temp it out and you fake it and you take things from other places and you turn it over to the visual effects guys and say, “This is what we’d like to have happen” and eventually you get it back and you have to fine tune it. That’s how these things get to be really, really good. But that Times Square fight was a bone of contention. “It’s too expensive, we should just cut it out…” but it’s really good – the girls going up against that horde of ghosts. Sure, it can come out but it won’t have them working their way through all that bad stuff. That’s really good for each of the girls and each of their characters. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m glad it turned out the way it did.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. It was really fun to hear about your work.
WHITE: Great. Happy to do it. Talk to you later.