Art of the Cut readers responded to surveys on Facebook and Twitter with the types of editors they wanted to read more about. Documentary was the top choice followed by trailer editors and indie editors. So here is the first of several documentary film editor interviews.
Chad Herschberger is an editor with many documentaries to his credit. His latest is the fascinating exploration of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “Psycho.” The documentary is called “78/52” for the number of camera set-ups and edits in the sequence. He has also edited “Being Evel,” “A Lego Brickumentary,” and “Doc of the Dead” among others.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in how you guys were able to make a movie about a three-minute scene in another movie. How did you organize this? What was the structure for you to organize things so you didn’t feel overwhelmed?
HERSCHBERGER: We knew there were four major “buckets” that this film was going to touch on. We knew that there was one part that was the oral history of the film. There was only going to be a handful of people that we could lean on for a couple of authentic first-hand accounts, in our case, Marli Renfro. We wanted to talk about film and society at the time Psycho came out, and so that was another bucket. We wanted to do this structural breakdown of the film. I think that was something the director, Alexandre was really interested in from an early stage. He’s a huge film buff and academic and teaches writing, so he really wanted to break it down. Then the fourth bucket would be the cinematic influences both leading into the film and flowing out of the film.
The film plays on this idea of opinion and how different people have interpreted Hitchcock’s work. The interviews tended to be really long and we asked almost everybody about every topic whether or not it was necessarily in their area of expertise, just to see if we could tease out some interesting answers.
I think the way a lot of these films go: you read a lot of transcripts and you have your categories and you start deciding. We knew early on we wanted to set the scene of the film. We knew that was really important. I think that cinema of the 1960s is not cinema today, and for this entire conversation to take place, people have to understand that context, so that was where we started.
You start building these scenes out, you place them together, you realize we need a little bit more humor, a little more levity, or you start deciding what feels right and what doesn’t feel right, then building up to the deconstruction scene – what we call the deconstruction scene – which is where we start watching through it with mostly editors and directors and we have them start talking shot for shot what’s going on. Once you have the history of Hitchcock’s psychology and what was going on at the time, then the deconstruction becomes a lot more meaningful. You start to hopefully have a little bit better sense of the context of some of the motivations there.
HULLFISH: I’m fascinated so many editors were chosen. What were the other choices? Did you interview cinematographers?
HERSCHBERGER: We did not unfortunately speak to a lot of cinematographers, which I would have liked to, but it wasn’t for lack of reaching out. We had a difficult time scheduling cinematographers. I think we got a lot of editors for the film because it’s a lot easier for an editor in L.A. to just swing by and give us a couple of hours in a studio. We had a lot of guys that came in right between their morning run and their edit session or whatever. But at the same time, editors spend a lot of time thinking about film and how it’s put together so it made a lot of sense. We talked to Walter Murch. We talked to Bob Murawski who has done I believe most of Sam Raimi’s films, and his wife, Chris Innis who edited The Hurt Locker.. We talked to Jeffrey Ford who cut Avengers and the Captain America films.
HULLFISH: Fred Raskin.
HERSCHBERGER: Yeah, not very long after he finished Hateful Eight, he was also a great interview. For me the real treat of this particular film was that it really just amounted to a lot of nerding out with other filmmakers about a subject that was easy for us all to nerd out on.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the melon stabbing scene that we can show. How well do you remember putting that whole section together? There’s some great, black and white, textural footage of melons and stabbing. It’s a great little sequence. Talk to me about putting that together.
HERSCHBERGER: That was actually a really fun sequence to edit together. We knew we wanted to tell that casaba melon story. Through his research, the director had already chosen this story around the casaba as one of the things he wanted to talk about, and Stephen Rebello, who was a super smart guy and was really fun to interview, wrote the Hitchcock book that the Anthony Hopkins film that came out was based off of, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.
So, we asked him about the casaba. That was just his response and we all knew as soon as we heard him tell that story that we were going to anchor the entire scene around it. He told it in such a fun way. Actually, it’s not even that edited. That is almost exactly as he told the story in the original interview.
The director took it upon himself to just find every melon he could possibly find anywhere. I mean he’s hitting all these Asian markets and health food stores and just trying to find every obscure melon that they could find. They took a day to shoot that sequence, so they spent almost four hours just shooting shots of melons and then another four hours of stabbing stuff. Early on, it was just about trying to find things—obviously we’re riffing on the shower scene, the DP did a great job of giving everything this really moody backlight feel. There are experts who shoot nothing but food and spray from food. We have none of that. We’ve got a guy with a knife just stabbing the heck out of fruit. You spend a lot of time just watching stabs and trying to suss out the handful of them that have that moment where you can see a little bit of the goo and the juice, trying to get some of those things that felt like they were iconic horror images, like a knife with a little bit of juice dripping off of it. And that was a scene that was handed off back-and-forth between the music and Stephen Rebello in terms of its rhythm, you know, there’s places where it’s cut very tightly to the beats of the music, but then there’s other places where Stephen gets into his own rhythm and he’s like melonmelon melon, melon melon melon, so he takes over the rhythm at those points. I think scenes like that are the most fun to put together for an editor, honestly. It’s entertaining. It’s got strong rhythms to work with, and it’s got strong visuals to work with.
HULLFISH: I cut a theatrical feature-length documentary last year and it was almost exclusively based on interviews with very little visual stuff. I got this comment back from the producer: “There’s too many words in this movie.”
HERSCHBERGER: Yeah it’s tough. I’ve done a few of films that are more “talking head.” I have to give the director, Alexandre, a lot of credit in that respect. I think those films live and die by their characters and if you don’t find the right people to create some engagement with the audience, then these films just don’t fly. It has to be more than just a resuscitation of information. It has to be that you care on some level about the person that’s actually talking to you. We’ve done three of these films together now. We did this and Doc of the Dead together and we did The People vs. George Lucas together as well. I think all of those rely on the strength of their characters. In all of those films there are a couple of outliers who might not be the first name that comes to your mind on a particular topic, but they’ve got the right voice or they’ve got the right humor and they can bring a little perspective to it, and they can break up the monotony that some of your more intellectual people might have.
HULLFISH: I like the casaba melon guy. You can just tell he’s a storyteller.
HERSCHBERGER: With a film like this in particular, you’re talking to a lot of storytellers. I think when you’re talking to people that A) already inherently understand how to tell a story and B) are very excited to talk about the things that you’re asking them to talk about, then that’s the magical combination where you really start getting – not just a great telling of a story – but a great telling of a story where people have that glint in their eye and a smile and you know, you can feel it through the screen that they’re excited to be sharing with you the things that they’re talking about. And I think almost everybody, in 78/52 in particular has that emotion.
HULLFISH: I like the two audio guys who were sitting next to each other and I can’t remember, one of them uses some word and the other guy goes, really? Look over at him.
HULLFISH: That’s right. Viscera, huh? Good word.
HERSCHBERGER: Yeah, “Viscera. Good horror word.” Actually that exchange went on for a little while and in a longer cut we went on with that for a little bit with them ribbing each other about their vocabularies. This was a film that I think the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor was a lot of just inside filmmaker jokes. Bob Murawski who is just a really fun guy—we had him in a conversation about “the wet hair” cut. One of my biggest concerns was that this is going to end up as a film by nerds for nerds and that it would be a little too dense for a general audience. I’m happy that that’s not the case at all, but there are some fairly detailed discussions. For example: Murch points out a cut in the shower scene that he has dubbed “the wet hair” cut. We’ve seen a couple of shots of Janet Leigh showering, but her hair is not actually wet yet, and then we cut to a shot–it’s a jump cut. The framing of the shot is not that different. But suddenly now her hair is completely wet, and so that spurs a conversation about jump cuts and where we use them and how we use them, and Murawski’s adding to that; this idea of jumping time and making the audience aware that you’re jumping time. So, I had a little editor’s joke there where I put a jump cut in where he was talking about it (and his hands are down) and then it cuts and he’s scratching his head. “It’s a time cut”. It was a totally stellar editor’s joke.
HULLFISH: That’s awesome.
HERSCHBERGER: That unfortunately didn’t make the final cut.
HERSCHBERGER: Yeah. I know.
HULLFISH: C’mon! I’ve got to see that one. That’s great. I love that. That’s very funny. When are we going to be able to see it? I know it was at Sundance.
HERSCHBERGER: IFC plans for a fall release.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that before you could really get to the deconstruction of the scene you need to first set up the context. Tell me the structure, without giving away the movie. Did you intersperse the “buckets?” Why did you do the “buckets” in a certain order?
HERSCHBERGER: There’s logic to it in the sense that you work backwards from the things you want the audience to know. In this case, the whole film is working backwards from that deconstruction. We want to do that deconstruction, but we want the audience to be armed with the information that we need them to have in order for that deconstruction to actually be meaningful.
HERSCHBERGER: I think it helps to start with the human story. Marli Renfro is the first interview in the film, and was also the first interview of the film we shot. She was the body double for Janet Leigh. She was also one of the first Playboy Playmates and one of the most charming human beings on the planet. She was super sweet. And so we wanted to use her as an entry point, mostly for human interest. I’ve done a lot of work around art and done some other artist process films and I think for me one of the important things any time you talk about art and creative people in general is that you’ve got to humanize them. You’ve got to bring them down onto a level where they feel a little bit more relatable. Certainly Hitchcock, but you could say this about any number of artists: that they reach a certain level in their work and we suddenly don’t feel like they’re the same as us anymore. So I think the first part of the film was about bringing in Marli because she’s somebody who’s actually met Hitchcock. She can give us a little bit of a taste of “Hitchcock the man” from her perspective.
Then we get more into a little bit more of the telling of Hitchcock’s psychology of the time. That’s from people speaking to the films that he had made in the past, or the public statements he’d made. We interweaved certain interviews that he’d given. We used some of the Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews, some of the stuff he’d done of BBC Monitor. Understanding Hitchcock was important. You need to know that this is not just an art piece, but he’s a guy with tastes and personalities and hang-ups and turn-offs and all those sorts of things. So that’s the first part of it.
Then I think the second part of it is to understand the context of the film. Not just in filmmaking broadly but in his filmmaking because I think in this case, they’re both unique. This film was a big departure from his oeuvre at that point. He’d been making these big, sexy, color thrillers and then he does this black and white independent horror film that felt like it was coming out of left field for a lot of people. But the genre of horror was changing quite a bit at that point, and the psychology of the country was changing a lot at that point. We were shifting away from the triumph of the greatest generation into the worries of Communism and the Cold War and Vietnam and all these sorts of things. There was just a lot of emotional transition, and so we attack each of those things.
We talk about horror films changing from being cheesy, campy, sci-fi, horror things to psychological horror where it’s like now the monster is actually another person doing unspeakable things. One of the more interesting conversations–and this was something I think it wasn’t in the early research but it came out in a lot of the interviews we started doing–was this whole concept of “Momism.” Which obviously plays really well into Psycho and the psychology of that film. It’s this notion that throughout the 50s and into the 60s, there was a growing group of people who really felt that mothers were too nurturing; that they were coddling American youths to the point that we were becoming incapable of taking care of themselves. So we spent some time talking about all of those things. And I think once you have that context then we could start getting into the construction of the film itself. We talked about the production of it, the cinematography of it.
We talk about the production process, rehearsing, and then we get in to the editing and the music. We talk about the choice of melon for sound design in the melon scene.
The other thing too, that makes the film interesting is that when we talked to other filmmakers, they started making their own connections to other films. One interesting one was Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead –they were the directors of a film named Spring, and they made this really interesting connection between Psycho and Jurassic Park. Those moments are the things that we found in interviews and those become the tangents that we break off into as we’re deconstructing the film. Every time we come to an interesting moment, we’ll stop the deconstruction briefly and we’ll just ride that tangent out, then come back and pick up Psycho and start talking about that scene again. The last half of the film really is built out like that. We’re working through the deconstruction but then there’s also these great other stories and ideas.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in that idea of breaking away from the main story, which is this deconstruction, to show a B story. It’s always a question for an editor of “how long can I be away before I have to come back to where I was,” right? What were some of those questions or problems or decisions?
HERSCHBERGER: In this particular case I think we had this really great anchor, which was the scene itself. It’s a talking head film, so there’s a lot of tricks, there’s a lot of use of music, there’s a lot of jump cuts and flash cuts and things like that that are by design meant to bring you back. We use a – I hope not too campy of a rewind device – we’ll break off on one of these tangents for a second and then we’ll cut to a little bit of the scene rewinding really quick and re-queuing to the bit of the scene that we’re talking about again. I thought it worked really well as a way to reset the audience. I think a film like this benefits from the fact that there isn’t a strong single narrative arc that goes through the piece. It really is a thought piece in a lot of ways. We are going through the scene in a linear way. We are going through history in a linear way at some point, but there’s not a huge A to B arc where we’re trying to get from one to the other.
It was really important for me from day one that this felt like an accessible film. I want my mom to like this film. My mom knows nothing about filmmaking and she is not a film buff, but I think that this is a subject that even non-film people will enjoy. As we point out in the film, the music – the strings and the “eea-eea-eea-eea” – is something that’s a touchstone. It’s seared into our common psychology at this point. You have little kids who have never seen that film that know what that sound is. So hopefully the film to satisfies both of those audiences, something that filmmakers can watch and enjoy and find to be insightful but not be so Inside Baseball that my mom won’t enjoy it. That’s what a lot of those stories are to me. They’re these funny, human moments where people are actually relating it to something else and it’s hopefully something else that’s familiar and in that way I think gives insight. And they’re short for the most part. You saw the melon scene. Most of these departures are not terribly big departures. It’s a two to three minute moment where we just stop the flow of the deconstruction and riff on one particular scene for a minute.
HULLFISH: Well they’re two or three minutes now, but at some point I’m guessing they were not two or three minutes.
HERSCHBERGER: The first outline I got for the deconstruction sequence—just the deconstruction sequence – which was going to be the main point of the film, was about 75 minutes long by itself. Our entire film now is 90 minutes. But a lot of that is duplication. You go through and listen to your interviews – you mark the two or three best takes – and then you put all of those in the timeline and see them in context. It’s not only about who’s telling the best version of the story, but we were trying to find this chorus quality. We like to have a cadence of speakers. There are some times when you just can’t avoid that there’s a large section of the film where Walter Murch is Walter Murch and he’s the guy we want to hear from, so there are some passages where we hear from him a lot. Stephen Rebello is clearly our Hitchcock authority so there are certain moments of the film where we’ll hear from him a lot. But when and where we can, we want to try and have as many different voices speaking to a topic as possible. That will inform my decisions a little bit too. If I have two people and I feel like they’re both pretty strong on a particular subject, but then a lot of Speaker B is coming up in the next five minutes, then I’m probably going to go with Speaker A just so I can keep that variety of voice, which I think helps create excitement, helps create interest.
HULLFISH: That makes sense. You said you were trying to keep the film from nerding out too much, but that probably meant a lot of “killing your babies,” right? What is informing those difficult “kills?”
HERSCHBERGER: For me it had to be entertaining first. I think the director certainly wanted this to be a gold standard in terms of the information in the film. He wanted the audience to understand it was thoughtful and well researched, but for me it basically comes down to: “Is this really interesting or is there a point where it becomes just too technical?” There was a scene at one point that we had in there where we let guys talk a little bit about opticals and what opticals are and how hard opticals are to do, and I think people like you and I and people who work with film are really super interested in that conversation but to take one step back from it and think, “Does the casual observer really give a shit what an optical is or do they really care about how hard it is from a processing standpoint to do that? Probably not.” So instead we had Bob Murawski, who I think is a trusted character in the film just say “Opticals were really hard.” That’s all you need. For me it always comes back to, “Is there an interesting story behind it or is it just stating the fact for the benefit of stating the fact?” Like, getting into the difficulty of doing that final shot where they pull off of Janet Leigh’s eye and they go to the newspaper and they go to the process shot out the window of Norman coming down the stairs. There was more of that discussion we wanted to talk about. If we could have found somebody else to corroborate this idea that they had to break that shot up into two pieces, we would have done it. The piece of the story that we had that they did this shot, they cut the film, everything was good, they were watching a press screener or a pre-release screener right before it went out and Alma [Reville] and Hitchcock notices that Janet Leigh blinks during the take. They had to go back and cut in a shot of the showerhead to cover this moment where she blinks. But when you scrub through it, there’s another cut in that move as the camera is moving out of the bathroom and across the wall into the rest of the hotel room, there’s very clearly another cut there. You can totally see the change in grain structure. We were trying to find the story for that. That’s one of those things we wanted to point at but we felt like it was mostly subjective and hearsay and didn’t actually go anywhere. So those things end up going away.
There are a lot of jokes that go. There are a lot of things that we interject in the film early on that we just feel are comedic relief, or we were particularly charmed by one interview subject or another and we want to try express that in the film a little bit. But there comes a point in time where you just have to admit this person is funny as hell, but this isn’t really driving our narrative forward and we’re just losing time. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast formula. You ultimately look at: What are the goals of the film and do these things align with those goals? I like when there’s a little bit of oddball stuff. I like when there’s a little bit of non-sequitur. I’m not opposed to putting a few things in just because they are interesting or they have a little bit of their own individual merit, but I do think everything at some point has to align with what the goal of the film is. In this case, the goal was to make an accessible film about an important piece of art that a general audience could get through and hopefully walk away with some insight.
HULLFISH:. What were you cutting in?
HERSCHBERGER: I’ve been cutting in Premiere for the last few years, so I think I’ve probably used every editing platform on the planet at one point in time or another, but this was cut in Premiere 2015. It’s what I’ve generally been using for most projects anyway, but this film was entirely Chroma key–there are over 411 keys in there.
HULLFISH: Did you online the film as well?
HERSCHBERGER: My shop here, Milkhaus in Denver did all of the post. We did the offline edit. We did the keying and compositing here. The only thing we don’t really do is sound and mix. Premiere is particularly handy in that the Premiere and After Effect interchange becomes very useful. I actually don’t use the proper Adobe exchange. I don’t even know what they call it, but the fact that you can copy and paste clips back-and-forth between the two platforms and it retains time code is super huge in a project like this. It’s just so insane to manage. We (milkhaus) did the compositing in Being Evel a couple of years ago, which was another entirely Chroma-key film, and we were able to learn a little bit from that process in terms of where the bugaboos were.
So much about editing is planning for that last mile. You’ll always have plenty of time in the beginning. When you start a project there’s nothing but time. You’ve got assistant editors, everybody is just busily going along, but at some point you get to this place down the road where you’re on a deadline and time is running out, and that is when all the weaknesses in your workflow come back to bite you in the ass quite heavily. We learned a lot on Being Evel and it was the first time we had done a feature length film that was entirely Chroma-key. I know 78/52 has 35 interview subjects. I think Being Evel was close to the same in number. That becomes a huge tracking challenge. You have all of these different characters that have all these different key situations and tracking changes become very difficult. With Being Evel we broke the film into reels for the keying, which I think is how a lot of people work. Breaking it into reels made sense just because it’s how we do color, it’s how we do mix. There are so many things we work with in that way. But then again in that last mile we were having problems where we would fix or change or modify a key in reel one and sometimes that stuff wasn’t getting translated into that same character’s appearance in reel eight. It’s that tracking thing. In Being Evel in particular, you have not only each individual character but also each individual camera, and when you make an adjustment on this character’s C Camera, tracking that and making sure you find that in every other instance of the film. So, coming back to Premiere and After Effects and 78/52 and how those were helpful is that we decided on this film that instead of breaking into reels, we were going to break it into characters, which was a little tedious on the front end, but it was great in the back end. It’s is great though to be able to search for a characters clips, copy in Premiere and then paste in After Effects and have those clips retain show time. In After Effects every character in the film has their own timeline and we can see every instance that they have throughout the film, and when we make a change on one person’s A Camera shot, it propagates through the rest of the film and we were able to track that a lot more smoothly. And we have an After Effects guy here, James Durée, who is fantastic and he actually did a lot of custom script work to help make sure that changes were being propagated correctly and try to minimize the human error. I think anytime you take on a project that has on this much technical shit going on– Chroma-keys, I think over 200 film clips, the majority of which had to be up-rezzed or treated or dealt with in some way. There are several animation sequences. It’s just a lot of assets, and so everything you do from a workflow perspective is about trying to minimize human error and make sure you’re not asking people to try to keep track of too unwieldy a list .
HULLFISH: When I did my feature film in Premiere, it was certainly broken into reels but I did it all as one project. When I interviewed Kirk Baxter about Gone Girl and Julian Clarke about Deadpool, both of them were instructed that Premiere would not really be able to handle that much material in one project, and so they were advised to break the film up into reels, where each reel was a project.
HERSCHBERGER: Here’s the thing that I’ve learned working with Premiere over the last few years is that it’s timelines that kill you more than media. I have cut 6 films in Premiere, documentaries with huge amount of media and narratives with a little source. The thing in Premiere that has been the bug-a-boo for me is timelines. What I tend to do is version up my projects and walk away from all the older edits. I’m a total hoarder. I like to have every instance of my edits going back to day one but to keep all of that in one project tends to make it an inefficient project.
So what I end of doing is make a copy of the project, delete all the other timelines. I’ll still have the other project. It is really easy to move timelines in and out of Premiere jobs. If you decide to go back to an older cut rather than breaking things into reels and managing projects in that way, I try to keep only the most relevant stuff in my current job. And I also in the last couple of years, I changed my workflow a little bit, I rely a lot more on markers that don’t seem to bloat up Premiere as bad. I think, myself, a lot of editors that I’ve talked to got into this habit, maybe long time ago, where the main process of sorting and selecting footage is making a gazillion timelines … that’s a great way to work, but in my experience I found Premiere to bog down and be less effective, so over the years I started relying more on markers and color coding and things like that, just using all the other meta-tools that are in Premiere to keep the timeline count down.
HULLFISH: That’s fascinating advice. With so much green screen and the effort that it takes to composite it, were you doing all your rough cuts over green-screen? And since the film was black and white, how much did it matter that the background was probably just grey?
HERSCHBERGER: The whole film is black and white, except for, the film clips of color films that are referenced.
HULLFISH: So my question is about how much it affected your edit to be cutting with green-screen interviews that were not composited, but since they were just black and white, it wasn’t as bad as having to stare at hours of glaring green in the background on every shot.
HERSCHBERGER: We didn’t view it composited because the plates were shot very late in the process. When we cut, everything was made black and white, but we were watching the Chroma-key footage without any backgrounds behind it.
HULLFISH: Well a greenscreen in black and white wouldn’t be too bad to watch.
HERSCHBERGER: Here’s the funny thing you notice, greenscreen footage in particular – because video cameras carry so much luminance information in the green channel – I found that I have to throw a green-channel supressor on it before I made it fully black and white or else the wall would be this weird shade of grey. It felt like it was getting brighter as I de-saturated it. I don’t feel like it affected me as much, I do a lot of compositing work, so I got used to doing a lot of pretending. We’d been watching it for 6 months with blank wall behind the interviews and once the interviewees are in a room and it did change a few edits. There were a few choices that felt different once the shots had backgrounds. So you go through it and play with those things a little bit.
When we did the film, Being Evel, that was probably more a case where the Chroma-keys were driving the edit and that’s why we did Ultra-key and rough mattes while we were editing it because the conceit of that film was that all the characters were in a movie theatre up on the stage and the screen was active behind them with archival footage relevant to the moment in time they were talking about. That was a visual dynamic that had to be maintained through the edit. This one was a lot easier because they are just in a room.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for talking to me about 78/52.
Special thanks to Jada Sacco from Moviola, who transcribed this interview.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book that reads like a virtual roundtable of some of the world’s best editors, each discussing topics like storytelling, pacing, project organization, structure, music and sound design.