Today, we’re talking with Pippa Ehrlich, who – as editor, writer and director – just won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar for her very first feature production. She also just won the ACE Eddie for Best Edited Documentary (feature), My Octopus Teacher. The film was also directed by James Reed and was also written and edited by Dan Schwalm who couldn’t join us for this discussion.
Of all of the interviews to listen to, you don’t want to miss listening to Pippa’s lovely South African lilt. Listen here: podcast.
HULLFISH: I’ve watched the movie twice now and I just loved it. My wife loved it. Everybody I know that I’ve talked to loved it. Congratulations.
EHRLICH: Thank you so much.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit to start just about structure. Structure is always really interesting to me in a documentary. I’ve edited a bunch of documentaries and the structure changes. Did this change or were you pretty much on a scripted, “we know what’s going on” story?
EHRLICH: No, the structuring of this film was a very fluid process and it actually went through two major restructuring processes. I think the way we worked as a team was actually pretty unstructured. In the beginning, it was Craig and me with a pile of hard drives and we were sitting together, directing and editing at the same time. We started off with a story that was very broad because the challenge in an edit is you often are having to get so much information in an engaging way because you don’t want to lose people before you’ve even got to the story. So, there was a lot of background to get through because you’re trying to tell the story of 48 years of human life and what got this character to a place where they were in a space where making friends with an octopus was even a possibility for them.
We had all those kinds of options for structure and eventually we settled on something that was fairly linear. It was very different from the original treatment that we spoke about. Much of the scaffolding sequences that we started with, which were backstory, philosophical things about indigenous wisdom, and things that Craig had learned from the Kalahari San Bushmen. Even some more general natural history sequences about the kelp forest and how it functions as an ecosystem, those things started to fall away as soon as we got into the story of the octopus.
Then she actually created the structure for us. That’s quite an amazing thing because the story really is fairly contained: it’s a year of this animal’s life and all of the incredible drama that she experiences through the eyes of this human being who witnesses her. So, phase one of the edit was Craig and me sitting together for hundreds of hours chipping away. We had thousands of hours of footage. Some of it very deep archive. A lot of archive from the year that he filmed the octopus herself, and then other stuff that we were shooting along the way – shots of Craig in the water because there was very little of him when we started the project.
Anyway, we got to the point where we had a powerful story. A very well-established core narrative, which was the relationship between Craig and the octopus, her trials and tribulations, and also how it had changed him because it had been such a transformative process for him. But it was all scripted.
So, it was Craig’s voiceover but absolutely written according to a script. And what happened at that point was we realized that there was something in the voice that wasn’t working as well and as authentically as it should. And the film landed on the desk of my amazing co-director, James Reed. And I think our EP had a good sense that he would be the right person for the job because he’s made a number of films that rely on this kind of single-person narrative as told through an interview. So, he watched the film and he watched the footage, and he got really excited. And he was on a number of different jobs at the time, so we were delighted that he was willing to consider the project.
Immediately he picked up that what this film needs is an interview, and I was really excited about that because it was something that we had tried but just hadn’t got right. And I think part of the thing was: I was so deeply embedded in the story at that point. Craig had told me the story so many times in so many different forms that when I tried to sit him down in front of me with the camera, it wasn’t coming out spontaneously anymore.
So, James flew out to South Africa, sat Craig down, it was an absolutely grueling interview: three days of interviewing at the kitchen table. And we got gold. When Craig sat down with someone who had never heard the story before and had a completely fresh approach, he told the story as if he’d never told it before. Then we went back to Bristol and then it was actually an incredibly demanding process. Another editor came on during this part of the process, Dan Schwalm, also an incredibly sensitive and experienced natural history editor. I wish he could have joined me today. James and Dan and I sat and tirelessly went through… I think at that point we probably had 12 hours of interview which we needed to cut down to 90 minutes. And the entire structure of the film comes from the interview.
There’s not a single written line in that script. So, a lot of the time you are finding gems. Sometimes the interview just flows and matches the picture perfectly, and that was really great. There were some things that came across so beautifully in the interview that even though we hadn’t gone into them too much in the original cut, we needed to bring them alive. And then sometimes you’re just scouring those 12 hours for lines because you just need the right line to move the story along to the next place. It’s definitely a difficult way of telling a story but very rewarding for us because it really worked.
HULLFISH: Tell me about that interview process because if it took place over three days, I’m assuming you were listening in as it was shot to have a sense that you got what you needed for the cutting room?
EHRLICH: I was actually shooting second camera.
HULLFISH: Since you had three days, were you thinking each night, “Oh, we need this.” Or “We need this connective tissue. This story isn’t included.” Tell me a little bit about prompting more in those later days and hours of the interview.
EHRLICH: The incredible advantage that we had when we started the interviews is we knew exactly what the story was and we actually knew exactly what we needed from Craig. We couldn’t force him to say anything in a particular way because then the authenticity would have been lost, but we knew what we were listening for, and James and I did a huge amount of preparation before we even got to South Africa. And he made a point of only speaking to Craig once very briefly and not going into the story at all so that it would all be fresh. So I was sitting behind the camera making sure everything was in focus the whole time, but also, as you said, I had this list of questions running through my head and list of places where I was like, “Okay, well that line’s really going to work, but I think what he said here needs to be developed a little bit more.” And the advantage of doing something over three days, especially with a character like Craig, he’s quite an introvert and he’s shy and he was resistant to being on camera in this way, which is why we tried the other approach originally. But three days in he’d got to the point where he was actually enjoying the conversation with James, and he really trusted James. That’s why he was able to be so vulnerable.
HULLFISH: Yeah, it was a beautiful interview. I was curious because I’ve done those interviews before too, and there’s always something in my head going, “I haven’t got this yet. Okay, that’s in the can. Check that off the list.” Right? You were the perfect person to be there knowing the story so well.
EHRLICH: And because I wasn’t asking the questions, I had a bit more space in my head, but even despite that we had to do pickup interviews. So, then we ended up with 15 hours of interview that had to be cut down to 90 minutes.
HULLFISH: Did you bother shooting the later interviews? You could just do them with audio-only of course.
EHRLICH: No, we shot them. And actually, Sara Edelson, our EP at Netflix, came out from the States and helped us do those.
HULLFISH: Oh, nice. So, I was walking through the structure in my head: It starts with a cold open with the ocean and the octopus, and then there are these opening titles and the story of the Bushmen trackers, and then the diving and the octopus comes along.
I love the fact that the research that he does about the octopus isn’t until halfway through the film almost. You don’t front load it with, “We have to tell people about octopi.” No, people will find out later.
EHRLICH: We wanted people to go on that journey of discovery with Craig. There was a lot more facts that we could have put in and that we actually would have loved to put in. And those were not easy choices to make. You end up with a timeline with all of your golden lines that you desperately want to get into the film and many of them just don’t make it.
HULLFISH: Yeah. Got to kill your babies, right? Sadly. I’m interested in hearing your thought process because you said that originally, there was so much backstory about Craig’s life and how he got to this point where he felt broken. I thought that there was just enough of it, but I thought they’re really not explaining too much about how he got to this point, but it sounds like you actually had that in earlier versions.
EHRLICH: And later versions, and middle versions, and we were still pulling outlines in our final version before delivery. The end of this film was an absolute breeze to cut. The beginning was a jigsaw puzzle of epic proportions. We anguished over things. We would send that opening sequence to different people at different times to get their opinions. It was really hard to find the balance.
As you said, we cut one version where we went quite deep into his mental state and why he was depressed and what had caused his depression, but you ended up feeling really, really sad. And we were worried that if people were too sad and it went too low before we got to the octopus and the space of retribution, then we’d lose people. And that was putting in the pre-title, the hard opening that you spoke about. That wasn’t an easy thing to come to either. We started our story at the beginning, and we had a very linear opening at first. But we felt like we needed to give people a sense of what was coming along because we knew we had to deal with the backstory.
And what was amazing about this film is it really was a collaboration. There was not much of a hierarchy, and I think that was difficult in some ways. We probably took much longer than we needed to, but it means that every single thing that you see has been thoroughly interrogated by five or six different minds. We call it a hive-mind approach. And different ideas came in at different times like that shot of Craig walking along the coast and talking about how wild and rough this place is and what he remembers from childhood.
That was a story that he told to Sara Edelson, and we realized it was going to be so powerful and so visceral, and we knew that we could get the shots to bring that to life. That ended up being our opening to the backstory. I think it was an unusual film to make in that we made it on our doorstep. And it was a constant back and forth process. You were never thinking, “Okay, this is what’s in the can. This is what we have to work with.” Apart from the interview – and obviously, the octopus footage was finite because Craig captured what he could capture before she died – but other things? The possibilities were endless. If we needed a specific shot if I was sitting in the edit and thought, “I just need a close up of Craig’s feet walking along the path in the perfect dawn light.” No problem. We could get it.
HULLFISH: I have this fantasy that the beautiful light that’s falling on your face right now is coming from an ocean view.
EHRLICH: [she turns her laptop 90 degrees to point out the window on a gorgeous ocean view]
HULLFISH: Oh, my gosh, look at that! That’s exactly what I was picturing!
EHRLICH: That’s it.
HULLFISH: That is so funny.
It’s such an interesting film because you mentioned that you’d had ideas of, “Oh, we’re going to explain how the kelp forest works and all this.” It could have been a very “natural history” kind of take on it, but it felt almost like a character study instead.
EHRLICH: Absolutely. And that is the byproduct of having all these different minds and perspectives on it. It was a creative team that made these choices. It started off with Craig and me, and his wife Swati would come in and watch what we were doing, and she was a little bit distanced from us so she gave us a whole lot of input. Our executive producer, Ellen Windemuth, came on board. She has known Craig for a very long time. She really understood what makes him tick so she had a whole lot of ideas around that. Then James came on board and had this very fresh approach, but that was immediately what appealed to him. Then we had the other editors, Dan and Jinx Godfrey, our edit consultant. I’m a natural history journalist and writer so part of me was inclined to go that way, and we thought about interviewing octopus scientists. That fell away very early on in the process. The vision for this film emerged. It wasn’t absolutely crystal-clear right from the beginning. We were all flexible along every part of the process.
HULLFISH: I loved how one voice carried it, but I’d never really seen a documentary that was just one person talking. It’s usually, “Oh, let’s get the expert on octopus. And let’s get the expert on the kelp forest. And let’s talk to an oceanographer.” And there’s none of that. So, it’s very interesting that was an idea, but it fell away.
EHRLICH: Yeah. It fell away quickly as well.
HULLFISH: Oh, it fell away quickly? You felt like the octopus was your thread between the two of them? Or the relationship, I should say.
EHRLICH: Yeah. We felt like that octopus’s character was so compelling. And it’s a dangerous thing to say and you have to be very careful with it, but as much as we could, we wanted to get a sense of the world through the eyes of the octopus and get a sense of Craig actually through the eyes of the octopus. So, as much as he’s watching her, she’s watching him. The film is a portrait of a completely subjective experience. This is Craig’s story, Craig’s memories; a record of what he experienced and it’s his own testimony. Maybe that appealed to people because it wasn’t an expert telling them what they thought and more scientifically proven. It was someone who had an experience and sharing it as vulnerably as he could.
HULLFISH: I think that was definitely, for me, the thing that reached me about this film but, as you said, it could have been just a film about an octopus. It could have taken him completely out of it. It could have all been about the struggles of an octopus and you do it as a natural history film. Those are really interesting questions.
The most important thing that I thought that I needed to know as I watched the film – ’cause you said you left a lot of information out for the audience – the one thing I didn’t know before I watched this, is “how long does an octopus live?” Craig explained that early, and then on-screen graphics tell you what day it is. Can you tell me, did you try it without those? And what did you feel the value was of putting those graphics on-screen?
EHRLICH: it was to give people a sense of time passing, and I suppose it creates a sense of bittersweetness and urgency as well. We didn’t just arrive at that point. We tried a number of things. At one point, we had chapter headings, but there was something very powerful when Craig says, “What happens if I go every day? What happens if I never missed a day?” Those day markers just became a really powerful device for moving the story forward in time and space. And in earlier cuts we hadn’t had them. I think there were a lot of questions around, “Okay well, how long did it take for this to happen and how long did it take for that to happen?” This just was a really useful device for us and it helped to keep things simple as well.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me about when you chose to show Craig on- camera? They’re very specifically selected moments when you cut to him. Can you tell me about that?
EHRLICH: I think that’s a combination of the significance of what he’s saying. Of course, when he’s looking very emotional and he’s choking up it makes sense to see him on camera because it’s valuable for the audience to get a sense of how real what he was going through really was. Generally we had enough footage that we could just have beautiful footage, but there were times when he said things when you really, really wanted to see him say it.
I don’t think there were any rules, to be honest. It was intuitive. The underwater footage and topside footage was so engaging, so we didn’t want to use the interview too much.
HULLFISH: I noticed going to him on emotional moments or beats. There was also a bunch of stuff where it was motion-based. You cut to him when he was trying to explain something with his hands or he was moving a lot or there were a couple of match frame edits where the footage was moving in a certain way and then you cut to him and he’s moving in the same. He’s almost trying to explain the footage you’re seeing.
Another thing I was interested in finding out whether you felt like you needed to structure was the land-based stuff. Do you spread out the moments of him in his home and him on the beach and him above water?
EHRLICH: Absolutely. We started off with early cuts where almost everything happened underwater and there were very few wide shots; it was all close-ups and mids. And one of our associate producers, Sam Barton-Humphreys, had a look and said, “I feel a bit claustrophobic. And I feel like, I don’t know where I am.” So, then we went back and we started working with drone shots and some topside shots of Craig. And then we actually got into quite a difficult situation because the underwater world is so magical. It’s so otherworldly. It’s so organic, and it’s hard to match that with normal topside photography actually. It was really jarring.
Then we met this incredible young cinematographer called Warren Smart who shoots in a way that I’ve just never seen anybody work. He takes his lens off his camera and bleeds light in through the edges and he was able to create an underwater feeling above water. He was able to create very subtle shots because sometimes we didn’t want to go into too much detail about things, but we just wanted the audience to feel what we meant.
HULLFISH: I can think of two shots – I didn’t realize that was a style, but now two shots come to mind that are magical: in one of them Craig’s looking through a window and there are light rays or something, and it almost felt like he was underwater, and another was one when he was looking at his wall of stuff that was all pinned on it, that also felt like something special was done, something magical with the cinematography.
EHRLICH: Everything Warren does is magical. He never stands still. He never does a static shot, and he will shoot and shoot until the timing is perfect and the movement is perfect and the light is perfect. So as an editor, when I’m working with his stuff I always know, “Okay, just go to the last shot because he would have stopped when he was happy. Don’t even bother looking at the ones before that.”
HULLFISH: I know a lot of editors, in narrative, that start to learn actors that way. They learn this actor is always good on the first take, this actor’s always good on the last take. Just look at the first or the last. That’s so interesting.
I hadn’t thought about that: that it would be jarring to go from this magical world to a much more straight world. I never felt those jumps.
EHRLICH: It took us a long time to figure out how to get that right. This film has taken, if you include Craig’s year with the octopus, five years of working in a very focused way. A year of the octopus, three years of editing, and then another year of work before it released because of all the other things that have to happen with Netflix. It’s a long time. We could just experiment and experiment until we were happy. Very expensive to work that way, but you get a good result.
EHRLICH: We needed the top side world because not everyone can relate to being underwater all the time. We had to bring it back to the human world at times as well, and that was sitting Craig down at his kitchen table, which was James’s brilliant idea.
HULLFISH: I definitely would have felt that claustrophobia to be underwater that long. The other thing is: he’s holding his breath! He’s not SCUBA diving. That’s made clear at the beginning and you only show him surface maybe three times in the entire movie! So, I was definitely feeling, “Go up for air!”
I wanted to talk about one match shot. There’s a lovely shot where he’s brought his son down underwater with him to meet the octopus and the son goes up spinning up towards the surface, and as he goes up it cuts to a drone shot that’s also going up. Can you talk about how many of those things are happy accidents?
EHRLICH: No accidents. I love graphic matches and I love motion matches and I use them wherever I can. And there are a few more in there.
HULLFISH: That’s the one that I noticed, but I’m sure there were others.
EHRLICH: There’s a place just before Craig starts exploring the kelp forest in the beginning where I think I cut from a shot of the kelp moving this way and then there’s a seamless cast to him diving down from the surface moving. I think what I love about them is you can move quickly without having to transition too much. It saves you a lot of time, but it’s all dependent on finding shots that work together.
HULLFISH: With so much footage, can you tell me how you organized this?
EHRLICH: Craig has an enormous archive of hard drives, which he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of. In the same way that he tracks animals underwater, he can track his way through those hard drives. So, if I needed him to find something, he had a little desk on the other side of his attic where we were editing it and he could find shots. So, that was how most of the archive was handled. Then we had a master drive with the interview on it. We had bins with just interview stuff, and that’s a huge bulk of the edit because it’s 15 hours of interview. You’ve picked out your selects and you’ve got to label your selects within that according to the different themes that he’s speaking about at different points in the process. Then, there was a lot of incredible blue-chip footage which was shot on RED by Craig’s friend, Roger Horrocks, that was in a different folder. We had a topside folder, an underwater folder, many octopus folders. I’d never done a big film like this before, so I would have a much tidier workflow on the next one. I learned the hard way. But we made it work.
HULLFISH: The natural history stuff interests me. I’ve never done a natural history film, and there has to be so much stuff to go through.
EHRLICH: Especially when you’re dealing with two cameras when Roger comes in. So, you’ve got his amazing RED stuff and then you’ve got Craig’s authentic handheld stuff that he’s shooting at the same time. And even though they were filmed at the same time, you got to be quite conscious of “are these shots going to match if we cut them together?” It’s an awful lot of content, and there’s a lot that didn’t make it into the film, of course, because we had so much to work with, but you can tell when you’re watching something that’s really compelling, so, that stuff just goes in.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the use of sound. How much did you try to do in the picture cut and how much did a sound team do?
EHRLICH: I spent a long time playing with sound, especially in the first cut that we did. You figure out how you can warp things to make it sound like they’re happening underwater. It’s hard to do sound for underwater because if you make it very literal, it’s going to be a very quiet soundtrack. We took the approach of being a little bit more creative and using sound to give people an experience of what it was like to be there at the time. What does it sound like when an octopus throws her web over a lobster? It doesn’t sound like anything when you’re underwater, but what does it feel like? Well, it feels like a thunderclap that you’ve stretched out to 25% and warped slightly.
We had so much fun, and it went to another level in post-production when our sound mixer, Barry Donnelly, came on board. He’s actually been diving with Craig since they were four years old. The house that you see at the beginning of the film, Barry used to play with Craig there when they were little boys, so he knows the kelp forest backward as well. And he knew exactly the kind of feeling we were going for. And he knows how Craig’s work mind works creatively. So, he did things like bring kelp stalks into his studio and record them at different pitches and rub them together and do all sorts of things to give you the sense of a creaking kelp forest at an ominous moment. They had buckets and buckets of water in the studio for foley, where they were making these little splashes of fishes.
He came out into the water with us and recorded things underwater. He spent a long time just standing on the surface, stretching his microphone out to get Craig splashing at the surface and breathing at the surface. What does it sound like when he goes down? What does it sound like when he comes up and he’s gasping for air?
A similar process happened with the score. Craig’s son, Tom, who you see in the film, he’s a super talented musician. He’s super talented. He actually filmed all the drone shots that you see, except for the ones that he’s in.
They spent a long time recording different sounds that kelp can make, and all sorts of different sounds. They just went out and played really. And those sounds ended up in a folder which went to Kevin Smuts, our composer, and he warped them and changed them and put them together. And there are some places in the film, for example, the second chase sequence, where it’s not music; it’s a soundscape. And that entire soundscape is created from organic sounds from the kelp forest.
HULLFISH: That was actually a question I had because at that exact moment I’m like, “is this score? Is it sound?” I couldn’t tell. That’s beautiful. And so, they actually Foleyed stuff? Cause I was thinking of the crab: it lands in the sand and makes a noise, and you just don’t hear those things when you’re diving or underwater. So, none of those sounds were with an underwater microphone? They were done above ground?
EHRLICH: Some of them were. Not the crabs’ feet on the sand. We chose to take that creative approach. But the buzz track, sound that’s actually recorded underwater, there’s an animal called a cracker shrimp, which I still have never seen underwater. It lives inside the kelp stalks. So, there we went down and recorded the sound in the kelp forest itself. The sounds of the whales were recorded in real life as well. And then all of the top side stuff, Craig’s feet walking along the sand, that was from sound recording. So yeah, we just did what we could. We tried to keep it as authentic as possible.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about temping and how that changed when you got score.
EHRLICH: So, we brought Kevin and his partner, Matt, on as soon as we started working on the film. Kevin and Craig have also made three or four, maybe five or six, films together. So, he was really excited, and he actually wrote a whole lot of music right up in the beginning with Matt. And many of those songs, you actually hear in the film now, but of course, it wasn’t enough. And at the time we had no budget. I was living on a stipend from the Sea Change Project. Craig was self-funding everything. It was only later when Off the Fence came on board and then Netflix came on board that we could actually pay anyone anything. So, Kevin was very patient, and he moved on to other projects for a bit until we were ready. We had a kick-ass temp score. We didn’t play small either. We had Hans Zimmer in there. We had Ludovici Einaudi…
The temp score was really good, and I remember one of the first comments Jinx made when she first saw the film, and I have to give a lot of credit to Dan Schwalm for his selection of music when he worked on the cut; it was fantastic, the tracks that he chose, and Jinx was really excited about what we’d done. Netflix got really used to the idea that this was supposed to be the tone of the music and how the film was going to sound, so then when it got to Kevin, he was just one guy. He’s the same age as me. He’d never delivered a film to Netflix before. He was intimidated. We realized we really set the bar very, very high here. And he worked so hard and we rewrote things. Sometimes we kept improving the same song, otherwise, we went back to scratch. Scoring the film was really difficult, but I’m so happy that people love the music as much as they do because honestly, Kevin worked his butt off and really deserves the incredible response he’s gotten to his work.
HULLFISH: When you are trying to construct things early on, were you just building scenes or was it more like finding the structure and almost doing a radio cut and filling in the radio cut? Or a little of both?
EHRLICH: Our goal was to do three minutes per day in the beginning. That’s what we were aiming for. We started off with the beginning and we had something we were happy with, but it was difficult. So, we started off building scenes, and then I think actually the first thing that we cut that we were really happy with was the chase sequence. We knew that was a powerful scene, and sometimes you just need something that’s working really well to give you the confidence to get the other parts right. There was another one: I cut the scene where Craig goes down and he sees the octopus doing the strange thing and it turns out she’s playing with the fish, and then there’s this really bittersweet moment where he says, “this is the last time. I never saw this again and this was the last time we ever had this kind of contact.” And then you go into this really tragic but also beautiful end of the octopus’s life. And something about those 10, 12 minutes just worked so well and felt so magical and poignant that then you have a good feeling for, “how do we want this film to feel? How do we know when something’s really working?” And then you take that tone and that feeling and you go back to other parts of the story and you use it to inform them, and that was how we worked. Once we were working from the interview it changed slightly. I think that approach was more start at the beginning and went through to the end, but editing is hard and gets to a point where I’m tired of trying to make this work and you need to do something easy.
HULLFISH: Yeah, a lot of times that’s like organization or just finding another scene or, “I know I could do this scene that’s easy. Let’s do that. Get it out of the way.”
I was really interested in you self-identifying as a nature journalist. Do you feel writing and editing are similar? Did you come to editing because you were a journalist and you just learned editing, or it was the other way around?
EHRLICH: I studied documentary filmmaking. So, I’ve been editing since I was in my early twenties, and I’ve always really loved it. And then I think the last job I had, was an incredible job, but they needed me to write more than they needed me to edit, and that kind of sucked. So, I ended up doing a lot of editing on the side.
I think writing really helps you to learn about storytelling and helps you to really organize your thoughts. It’s definitely made me a much better editor, all of the writing that I did. It’s easy to experiment with structure when you’re writing something because you can just move the paragraphs around and change your transitions. When you’ve got a 19-minute sequence on the timeline and you have to make one tiny change, it’s an absolute nightmare and you twist yourself up into a knot. I think the two work hand in hand very well.
HULLFISH: Could you describe some of those beautiful moments you said where you had golden stuff that you had to discard? How and why do you discard great stuff?
EHRLICH: There were some incredible scenes of Craig’s son and experiences he’s had with sharks because before Craig had this amazing experience with the octopus, Tom was on his own journey where he’s been diving with his dad his whole life and he’s obsessed with sharks. And they’ve taught him so much. And we toyed with having a parallel storyline where – as Craig’s getting to know the octopus – Tom’s getting to know sharks. We had beautiful sequences of Tom and the sharks, but it’s a whole story on its own. We realized quite quickly we were trying to do too much.
HULLFISH: Sounds like you’ve got the sequel ready to go!
EHRLICH: That’ll be up to Tom. He’s very focused at the moment on music and drumming. Then there was this incredible scene in the beginning when Craig’s still learning how to move through the forest and learning how to deal with animals where he’s swimming next to a giant stingray.
This is the same type of stingray that killed Steve Irwin. Massive. Four meters wide. Huge animal. And he’s swimming behind it and suddenly it turns around. Then, it comes right back over to him and it just covers his whole body, and it’s like hovering above him for a second before moving off. So, it’s an incredibly dramatic scene and we really wanted to include it, but it became a block between the beginning of the story and getting to the story of the octopus.
We had other scenes where Craig is in the middle of a shiver of 30 2-meter sharks. It’s just visually mind-blowing. And we worked very hard to get those shots as well, so when you’ve been going out day after day after day, and you finally get them and you’re so excited and you come back to the edit and you cut the scene and they make it through various rounds of the approval process, but then you get to the end where you’ve just got to be so strict. That was kind of agonizing.
There was a point in the process where James had gone back onto his other projects ’cause he was working on a number of series at the same time and Craig had become the subject. So, it had become really difficult for Craig to make certain creative decisions because it’s hard to make decisions about your own story. So, then I was editing and directing on my own, which is actually not something that I would ever do again I don’t think, because you need an objective perspective. It’s very challenging. Amazing to have all the control, but you shoot yourself in the foot at the same time. What was so amazing was to have Jinx on. She guided me through different things in a very gentle and thoughtful way that helped me kill those babies.
HULLFISH: Just in the way that an edit can bump, a scene like the shark scene can bump your story. But I can’t imagine killing that ’cause you’re not worried about time, right? Netflix doesn’t care if it’s an extra 30 seconds long or a minute. So, what was it that made you finally make that terrible decision to cut that scene? You described it a little bit, but what was it doing to that exact moment that you couldn’t have it be doing?
EHRLICH: It was more like six minutes for a start. If you put the sharks and the rays together maybe four and a half. And I think what had happened is there was some backstory that we’d wanted to include that we hadn’t included beforehand. And we felt like it was very important to have that in there because you need to understand Craig. As much as you need to understand the environment, you need to understand the octopus. And once we’d done that, we just knew we needed to get to that octopus story. It was distracting actually to be dealing with these big, charismatic predators because it’s a whole other tangent that you could have gone on then. We had to stay focused, but that was two-and-a-half years into a three-year edit that we finally admitted to ourselves. It was in the last month before picture lock that we dropped those scenes.
HULLFISH: What was the actual schedule? When did Craig start filming this octopus?
EHRLICH: Sometime in 2015.
HULLFISH: Did you use cards on the wall for structure?
EHRLICH: No, and I wish we had. We had notebooks and sheets of paper and lots and lots of things going on in our brains. We knew what the different themes were and what the different threads were, and I guess we cut our scenes all on separate timelines before we put them all together. We had a more linear approach, I guess.
HULLFISH: Sure. And was there any concern, we talked about this a little bit, was there any concern that the audience doesn’t really understand the geography of the kelp forest? Do you really need to know where he is and where exactly the den of the octopus is in space? Was there any thought about that: inside the kelp forest how does he know where he’s going or the space that he’s in?
EHRLICH: Actually, in one of the earlier cuts, we had a whole sequence where he spoke about mapping out the forest, and it was just something that he learned from the Bushmen. We showed him going to different places in her territory, more or less.
HULLFISH: There’s a sequence with a hand-drawn map, right?
EHRLICH: Yes, exactly. So that’s there. And when you’re underwater, it is very disorientating. I guess we could have explained how big her territory was in terms of size and maybe it came into one of the interviews and we asked the question, but that’s where you’re limited when you make a film like this: you can’t write the line. You can’t explain exactly what you want it to be. You’ve got to work with what you have.
HULLFISH: I do believe he says, “it’s 200 meters square.” Something like that. I was just interested in trying to figure out where are these sharks? And does she have multiple dens? Where’s this den?
EHRLICH: Yeah, I think I think we used when he said, “Not far away is the den full of catsharks.” He also said something about, “I lost her over here, but I found her not far away, a week or so later.” These are all things that you start to think about as the process goes on and as you start showing it to people and you hear what their questions are.
HULLFISH: Pippa, thank you so much for spending this time with us. It’s just an amazing film. Congratulations on a great work.
EHRLICH: Thank you so much, Stephen.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.