ART OF THE CUT with Kelley Dixon, ACE on editing “The Goldfinch”

Kelley Dixon, ACE began her career in in the early 90s assisting on movies like Reservoir Dogs, Leaving Normal and Good Will Hunting. She moved on to edit TV series like Luck, Shameless, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire and Better Call Saul, plus TV Pilots and TV movies.

Kelley recently completed her first big feature film as an editor, The Goldfinch.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Kelley, looking at your filmography, you were right on the cusp of the film and digital transition. Did you really do much of a transition from film to digital editing? When did you start cutting digitally?

DIXON: I feel like my career has always been on the cusp of the changing of the business. I was a production assistant when things in television were going to digital — or tape really, I guess analog tape — but cutting, I guess on computer. But the film business was still cutting on film and on KEMs and with lots of bins in the hall and trims hanging down. And so what I realized at that point — and I had some really good mentors back then — who basically told me you need to know both.

One of my first experiences was, I was a production assistant on thirtysomething. I was working on thirtysomething when Edward Zwick was directing Glory. And so when he brought the film back to Los Angeles I would ask my boss at thirtysomething, “When I’m done with what I need to do, can I go over across the street to the cutting rooms of Glory?” And they said, yes as long as you know answer our calls and do what we need to do. So I would go over there and those assistants taught me how to do trims and how to recon and stuff like that. So I was learning the film side and then I really realized that I needed to learn dailies. In film dailies is a huge, huge deal. I mean it’s very, very involved and you have to be very fast and you have to be very dexterous and you really need to know what you’re doing. So I approached the woman who handled post over at — at the time it was called CBS Radford Studios — and her name is Alicia Hirsch, and I went to her and I said, “I would like to learn how to do dailies,” and she put me in touch with her shipping department so I learned from them how to do dailies on film. So I was really kind of going around trying to learn the film side and on the TV side — on the digital side — I was already cutting on digital. They would give me scenes on thirtysomething and I would cut them for the editors. I wasn’t cutting for air I was cutting for practice, and they would give me notes and I would go back and do the notes, so that’s how I learned both sides.

So as an assistant, I was kind of learning how to be a switch hitter.

HULLFISH: You and I talked about three years ago, and you said that those thirtysomething edits — a lot of those did end up on the air unbeknownst to you.

DIXON: Yeah I found that out much later. Maybe five or six years ago. They weren’t supposed to do that. I hope I’m not getting anybody in trouble. It was very nice to know that they really thought a lot of what I was actually doing was great. “Plop this right in the show.” I learned from that long ago. I will give scenes to my assistants and I always believe in paying it forward. That’s how the work is supposed to go. Assistants are supposed to learn from editors. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as much nowadays. The business has changed so much. My first thing is that I have to be responsible for the cut. So I feel like if the scene passes muster for me, then — yeah — I’ll put it in the cut.

A lot of assistants nowadays ask, “Well, if I cut something, will you tell the producers that I did it?” And my answer to that is, “Yeah, if they like it. If they like it I’ll tell them that you did it. If they don’t like it I certainly won’t throw you under the bus.”

Again, I’m responsible, so usually if an assistant does something that is good, I’ll put it in the show, and if the producers have an issue with it, I will just say, “Okay, let me take a look at that.” And if the assistant is progressed enough, I will tell them, “Hey, here are the notes. You want to do the notes?” Sometimes I’ll let them do the notes, sometimes I’ll do the notes.

I’m in the position that I’m in because I had a lot of great mentors and a lot of people who did that kind of thing for me. My mom was a schoolteacher on the South Side of Chicago. She was a single mom. I used to think that you could only be in the film business if you had parents in the film business. So for me to actually be here is kind of mind-boggling and baffling. I know that it’s because when I got out here, people treated me like family. They gave me a lot of second chances and they helped me out, so I try to do the same thing.

HULLFISH: You’ve cut a ton of TV series as an editor — Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, Walking Dead — but this is your first job as an editor for a feature, correct? What’s different from TV to cutting a feature?

DIXON: The way I approach the material is the exact same way. We get the scenes in on a daily basis. It’s scene by scene. I read the script and I try to understand it and understand the narrative — hopefully I like it and it speaks to me.

I’m really picky about scripts, so I will say that I’ve gotten a lot of scripts where I just said, “No, no I’m not interested in doing that.” And luckily I’ve been able to turn work down. It’s not that I’m turning a whole lot of work down, but it’s really important to me — the story is really important. But I read the script and I see what speaks to me. And I try and picture it in my head. And then once the dailies start coming in I look at what the director gave me. And maybe they gave me exactly what I saw in my head. Maybe they gave me more maybe they gave me less. But at that point — this is what I have. So then I try and take what I have and mold it into something that still speaks to my heart like the original material did. And so that’s how I approach all of it. When I started cutting The Goldfinch, I didn’t approach the material any differently.

I spent a year in New York. So I was away from home. It was kind of like camp or boarding school or something. I was working away from home and I was there for an entire year. I knew very few people, although I did make some friends. I used to think that I would just hate working on something for so long. I always wondered, “What on earth do they do on a feature for all this time?”

I had such a really great experience working with my director especially. I remember sitting in my apartment last year around October and I thought, “Boy, this thing could’ve gone really really badly, but this thing went really well because I had a great experience with the people that I was working with.” But if you’re working with people when it’s not a good experience, man that could go very badly.

I was working with John Crowley the director and I absolutely loved working with him. A lot of our days would consist of a lot of conversation. This book is a long, full-of-metaphor book. It is very very thick on deep metaphor — a lot of conceptual stuff. So a lot of our talk was about the metaphor and about what was actually happening in the film at that point and what we wanted to be happening at that point and was it happening at that point? Things like that. John Crowley director and writer Peter Straughan did a lot of restructuring of the story from the book and we did a lot of restructuring from the script to the actual film and that takes a lot of time and mind bandwidth and it’s a 770-page book. I think one hundred and fifty page or hundred and sixty page script. That puts it at 150 minutes and definitely, the editor’s cut was way longer than that.

It was one of those things where we were having to lose darlings — and trying NOT to lose darlings. What’s another way of getting this information? So I spent a good bit of time with all of my secrets and tricks and talent, trying to mold this thing and get every single last bit of what they set out to get on the screen and not let it just get cut away. I just pitched a lot of things and John would pitch and we’d try things and it was a really fun experience. And I think a lot of it was because he and I just worked together so well. I just kind of thought, “If they’re all like this, then this is great.” But I know from other friends of mine that they’re not all like that. And so I thought well this could have gone really badly and it would have been just miserable.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about how you collaborated and how much of that was done through your editing skills and how much of it was done through your storytelling-communication-talking-thinking skills?

DIXON: All during the shoot, John would come in on the weekends and watch the week’s work — usually three or four hours on Sunday — and we’d talk about it and he was really respectful because he wouldn’t really give me a whole lot of notes. He understood that that wasn’t really fair and that I had enough to do with the next week’s work. He would say what he liked and what he was going for, and I was really happy that he was very happy with the cuts the whole way. There wasn’t a whole lot of: “You missed the point here. I wanted to do this.” It was more, “Oh yeah. I really like that.”

And I think that he liked that I would take a few liberties here and there. Maybe he had a scene where two people were sitting at a table and they were just talking back and forth and then I would really work with the rhythm of the cut and maybe I would do something a little bit that you wouldn’t expect. It wouldn’t just be a back-and-forth. And so I think that he liked that I was comfortable enough with the footage and comfortable enough with him to do that. And I always knew that he’ll tell me if he doesn’t like something and I’ll change it.

They started shooting I believe on January 23rd and principal photography ended April 26th. I delivered an editor’s cut on May 14. And so he started working in mid-May and the first thing that we just watched the editor’s cut and then we just started in, and I think for the maybe the next day or definitely that afternoon all we did was just talk. We had each made notes about what we thought was working and what we didn’t think was working.

One of the things that I was a little nervous about was that I had some really, really, really, big ideas about some things that were not really working. It was one of those things where I sort of had to feel out what his thoughts were before I started in because I knew that we had big structural issues — things that worked really well in the script but weren’t quite working as well once it was done. It was things like: “This needs to happen 20 minutes before this.” Big, big things like, “We need to get Theo — the main character — here by this time.” We’re spending 30 minutes or 40 minutes until we get to a certain point and that needs to move up. I knew all that about a week before I presented my editor’s cut, so I was just making a lot of notes.

Once Jon came in he was very amenable to listening to my thoughts. I was very worried that we would spend a good bit of time trying to ramrod this structure and we didn’t. The first week or so was spent moving things around and then watching again and seeing: Are we liking structurally where things are happening? We would spend time talking about what was happening at a certain point in the film and was it enough? Were we connected? How did we feel?

A lot of it was being connected to our main character. And if we aren’t how do we get there? The movie and the book start in the Amsterdam hotel room where Theo — the main character — is reflecting on this tragedy and how it affected him and as an audience were sort of brought into the story this way. And for Jon and I in the editing room, this is the structure that has been determined by John and the writer and they worked very very closely together. There are various sections of the movie that need to happen before other sections. But we were trying to figure if we were spending too much time in a particular location.

I definitely don’t want to think of myself as a TV editor but I want to think of myself as a storyteller. Because there’s such a time issue with TV, I brought all those skills with me. I would say, “OK, I think that we should be in this location at this point or I think this needs to happen to Theo you know at 20 minutes. Right now it’s happening at 40 minutes I think that’s too long. How do you feel about us moving this up?”

So we would just take big chunks and move them around. And of course that kind of messes with everything that comes later. At one point the young boy’s glasses are changed in the middle. There were a couple of times where we thought, “Oh, let’s get that one scene with the kid in his room…” then we realized that we can’t because he’s got a different pair of glasses on.

I really, really, really worked hard in trying to change the structure to what we wanted but we had our hands tied in some ways. John would suggest things like, “Maybe we don’t need that scene between these two other scenes.” And when I would pull something out of the middle and join the two sides together, it became a question of “how are we going to make that transition?”

I remember one that was really, really tough and I had to throw a crazy idea out to him. He basically took out a scene where the two scenes coming together were now going to be in the same location but at a time jump and I said, “OK, how do we explain how this just happened?” I came up with a really interesting and brave pre lap. I said you know this is kind of nuts but let me try it. He was always open to trying new things.

HULLFISH: I just cut a feature that’s out right now and we had the same thing. We pulled 15 scenes out of the movie, and when we pulled some of those scenes out, we had the exact same issues. When a scene got pulled, how do we now make the transition between two scenes that were never supposed to go together? We introduced one of our main characters 40 minutes into the editor’s cut and we knew that it needed to be at 20. This guy can’t show up 40 minutes in! We have to somehow lose 20 minutes out of the first 40.

As you mentioned, lots of discussions about structure it sounds like you said all all those places where those things come out makes the joins strange.

DIXON: The movie starts out as the book starts out in an Amsterdam hotel room with adult Theo reflecting on you know his life and what has brought him to this place and that is exactly the same as the book but in the book he jumps back and you meet him as a child and he’s living with his mother and he’s gotten in trouble at school and his mother is taking him to a meeting with the headmaster or something and they’re early so she wants to show him something at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She shows him one of her favorite paintings which is the Goldfinch. It’s a real painting. The story is a fictional story but it is a real painting. And they sit there and they look at the painting and then his mother goes off to see another painting that she wanted to look at. And then there’s an explosion.

Peter Straughan, the writer, and John Crowley worked together on the script and they wanted to adjust the chronology of events in the movie and so in the movie we jump to just past the museum. We don’t see the museum. They’ve been showing the explosion in the museum on the trailers. We definitely don’t show that until probably two-thirds in to the movie.

John was very specific about the fact that we see the back of the mom walking away. It was a very, very important to him that Theo was always having a hard time seeing his mother again after that. The last thing that he remembers is her walking away from him. And it’s really devastated him for his entire life.

One of the discussions that I had with John — probably towards the middle of the director’s cut — John was very, very specific about wanting to show the relationship between young Theo and Mrs. Barber — the character that’s played by Nicole Kidman — and it’s a very, very complex and kind of odd relationship that they have. Mrs. Barber has a lot of subtext. And I was incredibly impressed with Nicole Kidman because I’d get her dailies and she had so many ways to play the complexity of Mrs. Barber.

In the book, Mrs. Barber is very protective of the way that she appears — the way that the public knows her — the way that she’s got issues in her family. It’s this very, very high-class, Park Avenue, perfect demeanor. This boy comes to her early one morning after this tragic event and she couldn’t really turn him away. She had to take him in. She doesn’t really want this kid there. But what else is going to happen to him? She doesn’t quite know what to do with him. One of the first things that she says is, “Are you hungry? Tell us how we can help you?” And this is a 13 or 14-year-old kid whose mother just disappeared.

When I read the script and I had my interview with John to get the job, I told him, “I really can identify with this character a lot because my mother died when I was 14 from a brain aneurysm.” It changes your life. I was an only child just like Theo. I went to live with family. When that happens you become a perpetual visitor. You are not in your own home anymore. You try to leave as small a footprint as possible. And I don’t think it changes until you probably start to make your home somewhere else. For me I think it was probably starting at college. For this kid, he’s just kind of like an interloper. He’s had this tragic event happen and they don’t really know how to help him deal with it. They try and involve him in the family, but not really.

Getting back to my discussion with John. I think that there is an issue because what you’ve done by taking the explosion and the museum section out of the middle is you’ve set up a mystery for us as an audience that we are sitting there trying to figure out how to solve rather than really connecting with Theo in his relationship with this family that doesn’t really want him or know what to do with him. And I think that that was a tough one. And when I brought it up to him I think he really understood my point. So we discussed how we can solve that problem.

Adult Theo in the hotel room sort of explains to us that his mother died but we don’t really know what happened and immediately we’re thrust into this story of this kid, he’s dirty and he shows up at these people’s house at six o’clock in the morning. As an audience we want to know what happened, instead of settling into moving on from that. It was a tough one. So I thought, if you’re going to set up a mystery in the very beginning I think that it’s a lot to ask an audience to not want to understand what happened.

One of the things that I had to do at one point is that there’s a scene where Theo and the little boy that he’s friends with — Andy — they’re sitting in the dining room and they’re doing homework and Mrs. Barber is just listening to them laughing in the hallway. And there’s a scene that came next and John decided let’s take that scene out and let’s just butt that up. But the next scene was in the same hallway. Mrs. Barber — in totally different clothes — asking Theo if he wanted to come to Maine with their family. And I was like, “How am I going to make this work? What am I going to do here to join these two together? We now have an entirely different subject. Days have passed and we’re in the same location with Mrs. Barber. How am I going to make this work?”

At one point I suggested to John, “Why don’t we cut some of this early dialogue in the scene and let’s just say, ‘Theo would you like to come to Maine with us?’ And we’re gonna put it on the scene before I’m just gonna put it on Mrs. Barbara as she’s listening to them laugh — in her own voice.” It’s almost like a thought that she’s having but she’s saying it herself. It’s basically a big pre-lap. And it worked. That’s pretty bold. It was not a style of the film at that point. It just wasn’t. It just was not something that we were doing stylistically. But I didn’t know of any other way to get around it, so I just suggested it. He said, “Yeah let’s try it.” And we liked it.

I can’t remember at what point during the director’s cut that it happened, but I think it’s been there since three or four weeks in. It’s been that way and it stayed that way. Once you remove something in the middle you have to join the two sides and you’ve got to figure out transitions that didn’t exist. I did a lot of that in this. I pulled out a good hour from the editor’s cut.

I couldn’t have done this a couple of years ago. I could have cut the movie but all the things that I came up with to do it and also to kind of fold time in on itself and try to lose things and stuff like that.

People ask, “How does your skill level change over the years?” And I can’t tell you how. But boy it does. I was very lucky with Breaking Bad because I was working with a very confident showrunner, Vince Gilligan, and he was appreciative of any other creativity that came around. He used to say things like: “Don’t rob me of any riches.” And so I got really lucky because I could try creative things. Be brave. And it was a safe room. Not only could I try them, but I also started getting good at them. So with The Goldfinch, it was: OK, here’s the problem. “What can we do to solve it?”

I sort of felt like those guys on the movie Apollo 13? You know when they have like all the stuff and they’re like, “OK, we have to make a filter that’s round and we have to make it out of this.”

I was also really lucky with John. I think that he trusted me enough because he had already seen the work throughout the month that he was doing the shooting. So he was already confident. I wasn’t going off book then. And so now when it came to us joining all the pieces and us really making something that was cohesive and we had to really, really change a lot of the structure over the course of the director and producer cut. There were months — probably May to early November — that we were working. And like I said, I have changes now. There are several scenes that I really really wish that we could have fit in there and it was just about time.

The movie is I think somewhere around 2:20.

In television, they have four days with an editor to do a director’s cut whereas in features they have 10 weeks. And usually, it’s more to do two hours whereas these guys have four days to do one hour. And what I find especially in television is there are some directors who are very very understanding of the process and they know their role in it. And there are some directors that want you to do a Page One recut and they want to get really really into it and they think they can do it in four days and it’s just not possible. A lot of them don’t really understand that editors work for the showrunner. It doesn’t matter what they do. The showrunner is going to mold that stuff into what they want.

The difference to me in features is that you spend much more time with your editor as a director than probably you spend with anybody else. Once production is done — once everything is done — we are your writers room and you probably should have a great relationship and a great trust in your editor to collaborate with you because now we’re shaping the production the way you want it. The more people understand that the better.

HULLFISH: It’s crazy to me — and I’ve experienced it like everyone else has — that shooting and seeing the story on-screen changes the perception of the story so much from the script.

DIXON: I have so much respect for the writing and for the writer because I always have this feeling with directors: you read this piece of material and it really touched your heart. It touched your heart so much that you spent years to develop and shoot this — and so much money. So how in the world can we just throw away the writing that really was the first thing that really touched your heart about this material? Things work on paper because our brains work a different way. You know our brains are really really complex.

When I first got the call for The Goldfinch it was early November 2017 and I had made a decision to leave Better Call Saul at the end of Season 3. I was going to look for a feature. The call came for The Goldfinch and I asked my agent, “Do you really think that I have a chance at this job?” I’m hoping to get a five million or eight million dollar movie. There’s no way they’re going to hand me a 45 million dollar movie. It just is not going to happen.

I got the call on a Friday and they sent me the script. They always say, “If you connect with the material we’d like to talk to you A.S.A.P.” So I knew that I had to read this thing right away and I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the book and I am a reader, so immediately I looked up on Amazon and it’s 771 pages. The audiobook was 32 hours and I thought, “OK, I have the weekend that’s doable.” And I started listening to the book on the way home from work that day and I read the script the next morning after breakfast and then I kept listening to the book. I finished the book early Monday morning and I was ready. Immediately — as I told you before — I connected to the aloneness but it really to me was just the feeling of never really having a home again. That’s very apparent in the movie and that’s what I really locked into.

I felt — and could see in my head — how this kid navigated the world and it is an unusual existence. These are the things that we would discuss. We would discuss where the character’s headspace is and all that kind of stuff and I said to him, Theo still hasn’t really moved on. He has not made a new home for himself. He’s still trying to find home because he lost it in such a horribly sad and tragic way.

HULLFISH: That interview with Crowley: what do you appealed to him about you? How did that interview go? And when you walked out do you think, “Oh, I got this!”.

DIXON: It was a Skype interview — which kind of sucked because I had a friend working on the production. She worked for one of the executive producers. I said to her, “I don’t have a chance at this.” And she said, “I think you do. You’d be surprised. He’s making some unusual choices.” This was my first feature and this is a big gigantic one. This is unheard of, right? I have a really good track record of getting jobs that I interview for, but this is a big studio feature, and why on earth would they hire me?

But I did tell him about my connection to the character and I talked to him about the script and what I always tell people when they ask me is that I always want to read any material that’s going to help me understand this as as much as possible, so if there is a book I will read it or I will start reading it or I will get the audiobook.

I did a pilot a couple of years ago for Amazon called The Interesting that was also a very well-loved book. The first thing I did was get the book. I remember not getting through the book before my interview. At the time my interview was with Mike Newell, but though I hadn’t gotten through the book, I had gotten through enough of the character stuff that pretty much my interview was really about the character stuff from the book, not the script. I knew the characters and I knew motivation well enough and that’s what helped me here as well. I had read the script. That was the easy part. I read that in a couple of hours on a Saturday. It was really the book and honestly — as I said earlier — this is 771 pages of metaphor. There is a lot going on here, and I think that that coupled with my ideas about what this boy was going through and how it manifested itself in being the man — I don’t remember having a lot of discussion in the interview about necessarily editing style. I remember him asking a few questions about Breaking Bad. Sometimes they’ll ask things like, “Well, do you like to work alone or work with people?” I told him, I’d rather have collaboration. I like that better. A hive mind is better than one. But I’m perfectly able to work on my own. Whatever way you want to work.”

It was about 45 minutes and I remember that at the end of it he was sort of smiling and he was saying, “You’re great. I’m, sorry we have to cut this off but you’re great. And it was good talking to you” or something like that. I remember I was at work and still had to work for a couple more hours and I remember being done with that interview and just feeling amazing that I had a good meeting. Because I was just thought, “This is not going to happen.” But I had a great meeting and honestly that’s kind of the way I look at all my meetings. If I had a really good meeting I felt good about it.

On every single one of the other features that I interviewed for I had a great meeting, and a couple of those jobs I actually did think I had. This one I was like, “This is ridiculous but if I do get it, it was supposed to happen.” But two days later I was driving to work and I was taking a canyon road and my agent called me. Whenever your agent calls in the morning you know it’s serious at least for me. If they call in the morning — especially Monday or Tuesday — it’s serious.

I remember driving through the canyon and it rang and I saw who it was and I immediately pulled over and he said he got an email from the producer and she said, “Wow! You really hit it out of the park.” Like HE hit it by suggesting me. It was a really, really great feeling. I remember when I got the script I had sort of a friend relationship with the assistant that I ended up hiring and I said, “Are you interested at all?” He was a big feature assistant. He had done a lot of features and I said, “Are you at all interested in leaving town and working on this?” And so I immediately called him up and said, “Dude! It happened. Do you want to go to New York?” He said, “OK.”

I was really glad that they let me bring my own assistant. His name is Eric Kinch. Then he ended up hiring a second assistant in New York named Michael Fleming. Michael is a New York assistant. I’m going to give a plug for him. He just finished being a first assistant on the new Will Smith movie where Will Smith plays himself.

HULLFISH: Yeah, Gemini Man I just interviewed the editor, Tim Squyres.

DIXON: I can’t remember the show Eric was working on, but I told him, “You need to stop assisting in features if you want to edit.” This is the best time that I’ve ever seen to become an editor. You need to get out of assisting in features because it doesn’t happen in features but it happens for assistants in TV. So I counseled him, “I want you to get with an editor who will help you move up.” And I also knew that that probably wasn’t me unfortunately because — not that I wouldn’t — but I was trying to move to features, so the chances of me getting on something where he could actually move up were a little bit less.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to several editors that were very honest in saying that when they were less experienced they wouldn’t move their assistants up to the editor position. But now that they’re established, they can help move their assistants up to editors.

DIXON: Yeah, it’s true. This is the easiest time in the world to move up. The plethora of talent that we need now is just crazy. But for you to actually get the opportunity? The lottery has never been this good. But in features, there’s less features being done. There’ve been a lot of assistants who will cut features on the side. I’ve seen it. I know plenty of people that have been assistant editors and they’ve cut a lot of features. The problem is that they don’t get approached for THESE features. They approach me.

I find that there’s so much resumé snobbery going on. It’s even in TV, but there’s so much resumé snobbery. They won’t give me a feature because I’d never done one. But they won’t approach an assistant that I know who’s done three. None of that makes any sense, right? But that’s what they do. What I also find is that some of these guys will cut something that will do really, really well at Sundance. And a studio will buy it, but then they want to go back in and who do they call? They look at the top of the list! They want to call my friend Joe Hutsching or they want to call Billy Goldenberg or somebody like that. You know what I mean? It’s kind of nuts! It happens all the time. A low budget feature will need an editor and they won’t pay much and they’ll do it tier one or tier two and they won’t pay much. But then when they get successful they want to go look at the top of the list and get that editor. I’m not going to say that doesn’t make sense but I will say that that seems to me that that happens a lot. People call me a lot and say, Do you know any editors who might be available? And I have to say, “I don’t know anybody that’s available.” Everybody I know is busy. Everybody.

I think that for assistants there’s never been a better time for assistants to move up. If there’s a way that they can just get practice, they need it. They really do. Assistants need practice I’ve met maybe two who were amazingly excellent starting out. The other ones? They need practice. I needed practice.

HULLFISH: When you think of practice for an assistant you think about giving them a scene. But one of the things that you and I have just spent so much time talking about today is that what the real skill is is not necessarily the scenes, it’s the macro of the story.

DIXON: I always say to them, Here. Along with all your other duties, cut a scene a day. It doesn’t have to be a big scene maybe it’s just a scene with two pieces of coverage, but just start getting in the habit of cutting a scene a day. When you can do that, then start cutting two. I’ve had assistants save their scenes up till Saturday and they come in on Saturday and just cram it all. That’s not going to accomplish what I’m trying to get you to accomplish and I’m not going to say that I’m the owner of this. This came from a friend of mine who I sort of apprenticed under when he was an assistant and then I assisted for him when he became an editor, and his name is Juan Garza. He told me to cut a scene a day and I really didn’t get it. I tried to cut a scene a day. Maybe I’d cut two on one day and none on three days or something like that. But what he really meant — and what I really mean — is that you have to start learning how you approach material, and that’s by doing homework or basically cutting something every single day. What you’re doing is you’re building up your chops and you’re starting to really see how you approach material.

I approach material very differently than I did 10 years ago or 12 years ago. I approach material different;y than I did five years ago. You develop a thought process and all the different shows that you do or all the different kinds of dailies that you see starts to make you be very flexible in how you have to approach it. I remember with Breaking Bad the average written scene would be about five to six minutes, where on a lot of shows the average time of a scene would be maybe a minute and a half to two minutes. So it’s a very different way of approaching a six-minute scene with dailies and you might have dailies for one scene for like three, four, five hours.

The second show of Breaking Bad that I ever did was the one that had that marathon long scene with the family in the living room talking about Walt’s treatment with the talking pillow. That scene was nine minutes. I’d never approach anything like that. I can’t even tell you what my process was on that. I got through it and it ended up being quite good, but I remember just being overwhelmed.

HULLFISH: The last time we talked, you told me about a Better Call Saul show where you got nine hours of dailies for the scene where they’re trying to con somebody out of a bottle of tequila or something.

DIXON: And actually the first part was nine hours and the little addendum to the scene where they moved to another part of the restaurant was another three. I remember that well.

HULLFISH: You have to have some chops and experience to be able to take on a scene of that size.

DIXON: Yeah exactly. But by then I had a whole different way of approaching things. I knew how to approach a nine-hour scene, but when I first started I didn’t. When I started working on Shameless, it was so crazy the amount of shooting that they did, the amount of cameras that they had. Every single camera and every single take even at the same setup was vastly different. Everything was just moving so crazy and so fast that I had to approach these in a very different way. I started to learn how to watch dailies in quad split. I started to say, “OK, my plan in this is to watch everything that I can and just remember that I’ve seen something.” There was no way to sit there and watch every single frame by itself and digest it the way that I had learned how to do. I had to come up with a whole new way. There are so many editors out here now. Everybody can match. It’s not about that. It’s about what is your approach to the material.

One of the things I worked on with an assistant that I had when I worked on Castle Rock — when I had him cut for me, the first question that I would ask him is, “OK, in this scene that you’re going to present me, what has just happened and what is going to happen?” And at first he couldn’t answer those questions, and I said, “OK, I need you to be able to tell me what happened before and what happens after. And it’s not that I’m trying to quiz. You on it I just need YOU to know, because you need to know when you’re approaching this stuff. Get yourself into the way these characters think or into the way this story is being revealed to us.”

One of the things that I started really really looking at — especially on The Goldfinch — and I think that it helped me a lot, was I started really, really looking at audience perspective and manipulation and how I as an editor would approach the audience perspective and also the character’s perspective and where in that triad — if there were two characters — we were at any given time and how it needed to change and how I was at the helm of making that change.

For instance, if you have a scene with two characters, is the audience connected to one character and experiencing the scene from that character’s point of view? Or is the audience objective. Are they watching it like a tennis match? Which is perfectly fine, but then at what point does the audience reconnect with a character and experience it. That really, really gets into the weeds. I’ve had these discussions with writers and sometimes THEY can’t even keep up with that. When you’re reading the script or reading a book, where is your perspective and where do you want it to be?

We would get into very, very, very complex discussions, John and I. One of our discussions was that there’s a big reveal in the film. When I got the scene, I thought that there is a very, very specific job that I have here as an editor because not only am I in charge of revealing to the main character but I’m in charge of revealing to us as an audience. That’s two different entities at this point. And what is it going to do to us as an audience as we keep going further and further along in the plot of this story?

What is the motivation of the scene and how do we manage all the different entities that we need to? And if we are managing it, are we getting what we need to out of it? Are we connected to the character? Are we experiencing what we need to experience as an audience? Are we in the right place as an audience with the right character at the right time? And if we are, great. If we aren’t, how do we get there? That’s like crazy “weed work.”

I wasn’t thinking about these things three years ago. That’s kind of how for me, things have evolved. I like to talk with assistants — when I’m looking at their work — “What are you trying to get at here?” Everybody can tell an objective story. It’s pretty easy. It’s stuff that you watch. But I always used to say with Breaking Bad, it’s way more interesting to be with Walt and Jesse as they did stuff. Not just watching them do stuff. That’s not that interesting. You want to be with them. You want to understand the situation the way they understand it. You want to be revealed when they’re revealed. Going back to my first ever Breaking Bad episode, it was the one where Walt is talking to Crazy Eight in the basement and he realizes that Crazy Eight is going to kill him if he lets him go and he goes back upstairs.

HULLFISH: This is where Crazy Eight has the bike lock around his neck, chained to the pole?

DIXON: Yeah. The twisted mind of Vince Gilligan. I was so enthralled with the script, because when I read the pilot I was thinking, “This is just a madcap adventure and who knows where it will go” and when I read that script I’m thought, “Oh shit. I had no idea that it was going to even go close to this kind of darkness.” And boy did it.

When I read the script for the next scene after he talks to Crazy Eight in the basement where he comes up into the kitchen and he starts to look at the pieces of broken plate and realizes that one piece is missing and it’s shaped like a dagger. And I was scared of that because the dialogue is not going to give me any help. It’s only me. I’m the one that’s going to set the suspense, the reveal. We can’t be revealed as an audience too quickly. Walt has got to tell us, but we have to be close behind him. We can’t know before he knows. And I just knew, “Oh my God! This scares me so much. Am I going to be able to pull this off.”

When I got the scene, it was pretty easy and I thought that I had nailed it. And I don’t think there’s any changes in it from the editors cut. I was really, really excited about that. But I will tell you this: I was not able to put that into words back then. I sort of understood what my job was, but now I’m able to put much more into words. I also realized a couple of years ago I cut a pilot and I was working with an assistant that was trying to work in pilots to get moved up. So he was sort of ready to be moved up and you need to practice as well. And I remember watching some scenes that he had cut and I remember at that point being able to verbalize why things needed to go in a certain direction. I was able to verbalize that it wasn’t just about feel. It was more about: how can I explain to him why we need to cut this a certain way? We were having trouble with a character. People were not connected to that character and this was the main character. This character wasn’t as vibrant as he needed to be.

I explained to the assistant that I wanted him to keep this character as close to us as possible in the screen — meaning that, yes I understand that you need to go behind his back or something like that, but be with him as much as possible. It’s hard to explain without showing you the footage, but be with the character, make him close to us even in proximity on the screen as much as possible because we’re gonna need to use every trick in the book to make sure our audience is very, very, very on point with this character. But at that point I thought, “Now I’ve learned how to verbalize what is happening in my head” and not only does it help my assistant but it helps me because if I can speak about it, then it’s going to make it easier later for me.

It’s not about helping you if there are no problems. It’s about identifying problems. You’ve got to recognize a problem before you can solve it. Especially when you have problems in editorial, what I find is if you’re able to talk about them and verbalize them, then you’re much more able to figure out the problem and solve it rather than throw things like spaghetti against a wall.

Back to my discussion with John early on about the mystery he had set up for the audience by not showing the explosion earlier — the audience wonders what happened, so they’re thinking, “Is there a clue? What happened? What happened?” instead of moving on from that point and understanding what kind of life this kid has and how it’s going to shape him later.

What we ended up doing to solve that problem was working with the inner voiceover and storytelling that is told by the main character in that Amsterdam hotel room. That changed quite a bit. We gave him a different conceptual dialogue to help us as an audience so we could move on from that mystery.

“OK, we’re going to tell you that there was a mystery. We’re going to tell you what the character is feeling. But we’re not going to reveal the mystery. But you’re going to know enough to know.” One of the things he says is, “My mother died when I was a kid and I felt like it was my fault.” We felt was we needed almost a thesis statement. So you could understand, “OK, something happened. We don’t need to be as concerned about it, yet we will tell you later. But understand that this boy is going through a horrible, tragic event that he experienced and now he’s an adult and he can’t stop thinking about it.”

HULLFISH: Kelly, I’ve taken a lot of your time. I really appreciate a wonderful discussion.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

DIXON: Thank you so much for asking. Have a nice afternoon.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

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.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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