John Refoua has nearly 30 editing credits going back to the early 1990s, starting with TV including “Law and Order,” “Ally McBeal,” “CSI:Miami,” and even “Reno:911.” His feature credits include “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Southpaw,” “The Magnificent Seven,” but probably most notable is his 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Editing for “Avatar,” co-editing with James Cameron and Stephen Rivkin.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the schedule for “Magnificent Seven.” When did you start shooting and when did principle photography end? What were some of the milestones of the post-production process?
REFOUA: We started shooting May 18th, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was there a week before we started shooting, so I got a chance to talk to Antoine (Fuqua, the director). We went right from doing the movie “Southpaw” into doing “Magnificent Seven.” This is my fourth movie in a row with Antoine. I got a chance to talk to him quite a bit before we started shooting. As we were finishing “Southpaw” he was developing “Magnificent Seven:” casting for it and talking about the characters and who he wanted for each part. So it was great to be involved in all of that as he was trying to get the movie off the ground. This isn’t something an editor gets to be involved in months before they start shooting. Being that I was in the room with him finishing “Southpaw,” I got a chance to do that and observe that process, as Antoine was moving through it, finding the characters and seeing how each character develops and they each have their own individual things they bring to the movie. Antoine is really good with performances and working with the actors to get the best performances possible. Plus he has a great eye for camera moves and framing.
HULLFISH: Tell me about what kind of input you were able to provide him with while you were prepping.
REFOUA: We just talked about the westerns we liked, like “Magnificent Seven” itself, “Seven Samurai,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Sergio Leone movies, some of the Clint Eastwood movies. We talked a lot about the characters. He would mention certain things he liked about the movies: the pace and the look and the beats you work in a western. The thing about a western is sometimes you can take your time and kind of let a character do nothing but stare or watch the water drip like they did in the opening sequence of “Once Upon A Time in the West” with Woody Strode. These days we can’t really take as much time because we have to keep the pace going.
HULLFISH: Obviously you talked about Kurosawa…
REFOUA: Yes, the new “Magnificent Seven” is sort of a combination “Seven Samurai,” “Magnificent Seven,” and “The Wild Bunch.” They built a whole town about 45 min north of Baton Rouge. They basically rented a farm in the middle of nowhere and built this town specifically for the movie and then it was gone. There is nothing there now except the guy’s farm again. They had to bring in electricity, water, everything. For the crew, it was quite a difficult shoot because we were there in May in Louisiana until the end of August. Then the crew went to New Mexico to shoot for three more weeks, at which time my crew and I went back to L.A.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your sense of pacing and what driving some of those decisions.
REFOUA: The thing you can do in a western is that characters confront each other in the middle of the street and everybody has their gun. You know that there is going to be violence. Everybody knows there is going to be violence, so that moment of waiting for it … with that anticipation, you can elongate that moment. As Antoine said, “Torture the audience.” They know it’s coming. You just hold it back longer and longer and just when you think it’s going to happen, you hold it back a little bit more. That is something that westerns are very good at. The good guy and the bad guy look at each other and you’ve got all these close-ups. We had seven good guys and a few bad guys, so we could naturally take even more time. There is a sequence in the movie when the Magnificent Seven come back to town and when I put it together, I thought, “Man, this is going to have to get shorter.” But It never did. It worked and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little about your collaboration process.
REFOUA: You know I started working with Antoine on “Olympus Has Fallen” and even then he would allow me to have a week or two weeks after the end of the shoot to put the movie together. We developed sort of a trust that I can do whatever needs to be done to make the scene the best it can be. I don’t have to put everything together and show him everything before he says, “Yes, let’s take that out.” On the other hand, I want to make sure that he gets to see every scene at the best that it can be. We work very well together. As we’ve gone through all these years, he talks about what he wants the audience to feel in each scene and what should the audience understand about the character, and what should the character go through. Most of our discussions are about what is happening in the scene emotionally and what sort of impact we want it to have or how it relates to what happens at the end of the movie. He points the direction of where to go and he is open to suggestions and possibilities, so we discuss things throughout the editing process. As far as collaboration with the actors, Antoine improvs quite a bit as he shoots the scene. Denzel likes to improv. A lot of the actors that he works with like to improv. Sometimes, the scenes are not what you see on the script. It changes on the day. I try to take the best moments and show him the best way a scene can be.
HULLFISH: What about finishing the scene off with sound design and music?
REFOUA: When you present your cut of the movie, you do all of your bells and whistles. You put in all the sound effects in that you can, and I have a good first assistant, Will Paley, that helps me quite a bit with that.
HULLFISH: What did you temp with on this? Did you go to a western palette?
REFOUA: I have a large library of music. I’ll put in different cues and different pieces, so when the whole movie is put together it is a jumble of different sounds from all these different movies. Antoine is very specific about music. He will experiment a lot with the music. About 4-5 weeks into his cut, a music editor starts. Joe Rand was the music editor that came on. Joe took a lot of that work off my hands. We used a lot of orchestral things. Classical music. There is no rap music or anything like that in it. We tried a few different things, but it just didn’t seem right to have rap music or even modern music. It is a lot of classical-sounding, orchestral score.
HULLFISH: Some people don’t use any type of temp at all. Do you edit without temp and just put it in for the screenings? Or do you find when you are trimming or revising scenes that you pull the temp out because it locks you into a pace or rhythm?
REFOUA: It does sometimes do that, but then again there will be some music there eventually so you have to account for that. If you don’t have music sometimes you tend to cut things a little faster. Music sort of fills out things and lets you take a few moments here or there. A lot of the score we used was from a movie called “The Missing.” I tried to use a lot of James Horner stuff because James wrote some themes for the movie before he passed away, even though we hadn’t started shooting yet. At first, he didn’t want to do the score because he said the score from the original “Magnificent Seven” was too great and he felt he’d never be able to do anything like it. But then Antoine convinced him to do it. He was very excited and wrote seven different themes before he passed away. We hadn’t even started shooting. He just did it off the script. He sort of used the bass drum rhythm that was from the original and he built a different melody on top of it. If you put Horner’s and the original next to each other, they are different, but the feeling that you get is the same. I used some of that music and I tried to use some of James Horner’s music from other movies that he has done, “The Missing” is one movie that I remember finding a lot of really good stuff from. There was also music from “Thunderheart” by Horner and “Dances with Wolves” by John Barry. There were many more but I just can’t remember right now. Joe Rand expanded and refined the temp beautifully once he started. The final score was completed by a close associate of James Horner, Simon Franglin, who is an accomplished composer on his own.
HULLFISH: Give me your approach to a scene. You sit down and your assistants have prepared a bin for you. What do you do to get that empty timeline filled in?
REFOUA: A lot of the stuff I do is instinctual. One of the things I did on this movie: I wanted my First Assistant, Will Paley, to have a chance to edit some things and work with him on it. That was one of the few occasions where I actually got to verbalize some of the thoughts that I have. So there is a scene where the Native American character is first introduced. That scene was an interesting scene. The Native American character is looking at these six people and kind of seeing who they are and he has to decide whether he wants to join them. At the same time, they are looking at him to see if he is dangerous and also would he want to join them on their trip. There are two elements in there. You could cut it so that they say, “Hey, you want to join us.” There is another element where using looks and pauses and reactions you can see the Indian pausing and thinking about, “Who are these people? Are they safe? Do I want to join them?” And they are also looking at him with the same questions. A lot of this is nonverbal and through editing, you can define and emphasize it.
HULLFISH: Of course that would affect pace.
REFOUA: If you cut to somebody and you see them thinking, you have to pace it right so the audience gets, “Oh, he is thinking.” As soon as they understand he is thinking, you don’t need to stay on it any longer.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about performance and how you are shaping and molding and collaborating with Antoine about those performances that are so important to him.
REFOUA: Sometimes you want to change the character arc because it’s more interesting a certain way. In “Southpaw” we had to do that quite a bit. Sometimes it’s just to compress time but also some other things come up as your cutting a movie and telling stories. You say, “It would be great if he had a moment here and thought about this or that.” So those are the kinds of thing we talk about. Would it be good if we could manufacture a moment where he thinks this or that? Antoine would say, “I know I shot the scene that way but I think it would be great if we could make it so that this happens.”
HULLFISH: When you string all the scenes together you realize that the temperature that you gave to certain performances or certain takes or whatever is wrong because of what you see when you see the movie as a whole. You think, “Oh, this guy can’t be in this emotional state here because it needs to happen three scenes down.”
REFOUA: Yes that happens all the time. You get a scene and you cut it the best you can. You embellish. You make a meal out of it. It’s a feast. You say, “That’s a beautiful scene. I love it, it is delicious.” Then you get another scene the next day. You do the same thing and at a certain point you put them all together you say, “Wow, that is a lot of delicious stuff but I can’t eat all of that.” You need to pick something. You can’t have a 14-course meal, even though each one is beautifully done. You gotta cut it down. In the same way, the beats that you spent on somebody thinking about something… well, you don’t need those any more. These lines of dialog you don’t need or this piece of action you don’t need. That is a normal process that happens with every movie.
HULLFISH: What about structure? What were some of things that happened when you cut together your editor’s version of the thing? What decisions got made to change the structure?
REFOUA. I can use the “Magnificent Seven” as an example for that. It happens in every movie. You shoot more scenes than you need. It’s better to have more scenes when you go into the cutting room than not enough. Then hopefully, you don’t have to go back and shoot something. So with “Magnificent Seven” they get to the town and liberate it. They had shot a number of different scenes for this part of the story. Various things happening in the town before the big bad guy comes back with his army. We had a hard time figuring out how many of those scenes we needed and how much interaction between the Seven and the townspeople we needed. You know what I’m saying.
REFOUA: You won’t know until you put the whole movie together.
HULLFISH: How do you view dailies? It seems like a very simple process but I’ve interviewed fifty different editors at this point and everybody does it a little bit different. Are you taking notes? Are you watching on your Avid? Are you doing it in a theater?
REFOUA: We don’t do it in a theater. That’s the old film days.
HULLFISH: Well a couple people do.
REOFOUA: Who does? That’s great!
HULLFISH: I will have to look through my notes. I think Tarantino does it with Fred Raskin.
REFOUA: That figures.
HULLFISH: That lucky bastard!
REFOUA: I don’t take notes. I want to know, “OK, how many close ups do I have? How many wide shots do I have? What happens in each setup?” I quickly scan through what I have. I have four of these close ups. I have seventeen of these wide shots where this happens. Of course, the action and the composition changes from take one to take seventeen. I just quickly try to figure out a mental picture of all the different angles that I have because that helps me figure out what is going to happen in the scene. Then I start from the first take of the first set up. I go through it up to the point where I think that is where my cut is going to be, then I go to the next take. By the time I’m done with the scene I have gone through all the dailies. I go through the scene in little bits at a time.
HULLFISH: So you never watch a take all the way through?
REFOUA: I do. A few of the takes I’ll watch all the way through just to get the feel of the take. I’ll watch the first take of a setup then I’ll watch the last take of that setup and I’ll see what is different between them. I don’t sit and watch all the takes. I can’t do that. I’ll basically do it as I’m cutting the scene. I’ll go down certain roads and I’ll hit a dead end. I’ll save that, so I have little alt cuts of different scenes. If I need a line or a look I audition every little piece that has that line and around it. That sort of helps me pick the best performance.
HULLFISH: So you’re editing as you’re watching dailies. The process of watching dailies and editing is combined for you?
REFOUA: Yes. We’re all on Avid now, so you can make as many cuts as you want and you can change it. I cut in a take. I think, “That’s a good take.” Then I look at the next one, and I say, “This one is better.” So I cut that one in. I take the other one out. It’s so easy to have different versions. It’s so easy to replace takes and move takes. Then I talk to Antoine and he says, “Can we emphasize this moment?” That’s something that I do with looks. I go through everything again. I am a guy that really tends to tweak quite a bit. Even if Antoine says, “I love this scene. It’s great!” I still go back and try different things and Ideas come to me. I am always changing things. I am a pain to my assistants because they keep having to give change notes.
HULLFISH: Basically your collaboration with Antoine is to give him different version of things, then get notes and revisions.
REFOUA: Notes you’re going to get. Anytime someone sees the movie, you’re going to get notes. Often, people give you their reaction, but their reaction might not be coming from what it is they are talking about.
REFOUA: It might not be that specific thing they are talking about. In those cases, Antoine and I say, “So in this area, these kinds of feelings are coming out. What can we do to address it? What is in this area?” We generally take the notes and we look – not at those specific things – but at those general areas. That seems to work very well because invariably you find something you can do differently that addresses the note, but it still maintains the integrity of the scene.
HULLFISH: How do you judge the editing of other people? What tells you another editor has done a good job?
REFOUA: It’s the feeling if the story really works and I watch it and I don’t become aware of any editing things. Sometimes I see things and I say, “Oh that’s really cool!” But If I’m sitting there thinking, “Why am I looking at this shot? What’s the point of this?” then it’s not good. If I don’t question any of the shot selections and the pace, it’s good editing.
HULLFISH: What do you think has drawn you and Antoine together for so many movies? Tell me a little bit about that relationship.
REFOUA: You try to find people that you share the same aesthetic with, so what I like is what he likes, and what he likes is what I like. It makes it that much easier. There are fewer notes that way. We are on the same page and we are headed the same way and we are on the same frequency. Antoine likes people to sort of take charge. He is a good collaborator. By that I mean, he doesn’t want to control every little thing. He just wants it to work. If it does what it needs to do then he is fine. That works well for me because I’m very self-motivated. I want to make a great movie as much as Antoine wants to make a great movie.
HULLFISH: Obviously editors are storytellers by their very nature. Can you think of specific things where you can tell the story with an edit instead of just by following the script?
REFOUA: That always happens. You read the script, and on the page it’s great. But when you’re on location there are so many things that are different. You can’t just blindly follow the script. The script is something you read but a movie is something that you watch. You watch things differently than you read things. For example, it’s easy to read the script and see that the guy is angry or he is worried, but how do you convey that visually?
REFOUA: I respect the script. We can’t really do anything until we have a good script. Then again the movie lives and breathes on its own.
HULLFISH I have always been Interested in this fact that the structure of movies can change so much from the script. Obviously, the script is something that people have gone over thoroughly and a development team has worked on, and you’ve got a great script writer, otherwise no one would be making the script into a movie in the first place. Yet it changes in editing. The editor is actually the first person that gets to experience the movie through time over the course of time.
REFOUA: It’s very different when you have music and visual things going on.
HULLFISH: The script has a line like, “I hate your guts!” but you can cut that line out of the movie because you can see it in the guy’s face. So why do both?
REFOUA: Right. Denzel is really good with that. He actually won’t say certain lines but he does it with a look. He actually says, “I can do this with a look. I don’t need to say it,” and he’s right.
HULLFISH: Wow! That’s awesome. Any restructuring you can remember?
REFOUA: “Magnificent Seven” is sort of a linear story. One thing that we played around with: when they get to town and they kick the henchman out. Now they know the bad guys are coming back. That area of the movie we restructured quite a bit. They walk through the town. They talk about how they are going to defend it. Then they do some preparation for it. They do a lot of different things. They talk to a lot of different people. That area of the movie, we spent weeks shortening some scenes, lengthening some scenes, taking scenes out, moving scenes around. At one point there were two montages there. We reduced it to one montage. To begin that whole sequence, when they walk through the town, that was supposed to be the next morning. The first thing we did is have them ask, “How do we defend this place?” And we moved that to almost the end of that sequence, a day or so before the bad guys show up.
HULLFISH: Do you remember why you made that decision to move that from the beginning to the end?
REFOUA: Yes. It’s a whole little montage sequence where they go inside the saloon. They are talking about what the plan would be. At the same time, they are walking through the town talking about what they could do, and how they could defend this town. It used to come much earlier but afterward there was a lot of preparation and there were a number of scenes that happened. And so it actually made it seem better to move that closer to when the actual action happened when the bad guy shows up so that the audience remembers what the strategy was and what they were doing. It also made it seem a little harder to figure out how to defend the town if they spend more time in the town before they figure it out.
HULLFISH: Could you comment on this clip I have from the film?
REFOUA: Strange looking at this clip. The edit here is slightly different than in the film for some reason. This scene was much longer in its first incarnation. Chris Pratt’s character starts to give Haley Bennet’s character lessons on how to wear a revolver on her hip and how to pull it out and aim. There was a lot of subtle and not so subtle dialog where Faraday was coming on to Emma and she was also attracted to him but they both knew that it was improper and an impossible thing to get involved. She was a recent widow of course.
When we assembled the whole movie together it became obvious that this semi-romantic back and forth did not belong in the movie. It was one of the first things to come out. What you see now is the beginning and the end of the scene sewn together.
HULLFISH: John, thanks so much for sharing with us.