I last spoke to Lee Smith, ACE, when he edited Dunkirk, which won him an Oscar for Best Achievement in Film Editing and the ACE EDDIE for Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic. He has cut numerous other films with Christopher Nolan, including Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception (for which he was nominated for an ACE EDDIE), The Dark Knight (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing), The Prestige and Batman Begins. And that’s not to mention his work for a host of other directors, like David Ayer, Sam Mendes, and Peter Weir.
He was also nominated for an Oscar for editing Master and Commander.
This is my third interview with Smith, since discussing his work on the James Bond film, Spectre. Take a look at Smith’s imdb page for a list of awards so long that your fingers may tire, scrolling through. I counted 84 awards or nominations going back to the 1980s.
In this discussion, we discussed editing Dark Phoenix – the latest in the X-Men universe of films.
HULLFISH: Lee, as we’re chatting, you’re off on another movie, cutting Sam Mendes’ 1917. Are you excited? Exhausted? Overwhelmed? Energized?
SMITH: It depends on what part of the process you’re in.
HULLFISH: Tell me about that. What part of the process is the most difficult for you or the most draining?
SMITH: I would say the director’s cut is probably the most intense. So the period between the end of the shoot and the first screening for the studio. That’s the part that I find the most intense and I have to be the most focused. During the shoot, I’m left to my own devices and that’s a different kind of pressure because I’m always looking for anything that’s not working or something that could be better and then thinking about whether it could be reshot or could it be picked up or do I need another shot?
That is a different kind of pressure, but I think the looming first studio screening is always number one on the hit parade because that sets the tone for the rest of the project. If you have a good screening you have a good run. If you have a bad screening then you lose the faith of the studio and that can be problematic for the film — depending. Thankfully I’ve never had a disastrous screening.
HULLFISH: I was thinking that exact same thought.
SMITH: I’ve had ones that didn’t go as well as you would have hoped. But the potential was all there and we can all see it, and that’s a good thing. Obviously there are films out there where they had their first screening and everybody’s pants fall down and they realize they just basically launched a turkey and then it’s all hands on deck and everybody has to get involved and sometimes that can spiral out of control, especially if you’re on a high-budget film with a looming release date. Things will happen and happen quickly. But having said that — even on a small budget film — success is just as important. You know if you’ve got a big budget film you’ve probably got a premium release date and they will move heaven and earth to hit that release date.
HULLFISH: I just talked to Jeff Ford about cutting Endgame. You just mentioned something similar to what he said which is: part of your responsibility when you’re by yourself during those early days while the production is going on is to determine if you think there’s stuff that needs either reshooting or that you need a pick up or, “Hey, I need this transition shot.” Can you tell me a little bit about the responsibility of that and what you feel like you need to do when you’re in dailies?
SMITH: Well, I think for most directors — on the films I’m working on — they’re so busy shooting and so busy getting prepared for the next day that they really are banking on their editors to be watching the film behind them. And only alerting them to a problem — which, hopefully, is few and far between. They’re trusting that you’re watching their film come together. And that you’re making a judgment call that you’ve got everything you need, which is a little bit predictive because obviously as the film comes together — very few films are shot in a linear fashion — so even though you might think, “Hey, I just cut a great scene.”
By the time a couple of months passes and you get the connecting scenes you might realize, “Whoa! Dude! This scene is suddenly standing out as very strange because of the evolution of how the rest of the film is being shot.” And you would have to be trying to figure out if you’ve got the wiggle room in the footage to be able to manipulate that. And sometimes you just don’t come to that that quickly. There is always a lot that is discovered further down the track when you’re finished shooting so you just do your best to make sure the film works for you as an editor. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been running stuff and the director is just saying, “that doesn’t work,” because if it didn’t work I’d be jumping up and down saying it didn’t work. I’m not talking about the physical act of cutting two shots together it’s more that the scene just doesn’t work or you can see a problem that’s going to bite you somewhere later down the track. It’s kind of hair-raising and worrying. Just keep a good sense of humor, Steve.
HULLFISH: There are a bunch of different approaches to dailies. Do you spend a lot of time trying to get to that perfect first dailies cut or are you saying, “I want to get the structure and understand the scene first and then I’ll go back and start looking at performance a little more thoroughly?”
SMITH: Generally, on the first pass I’m just doing whatever takes my fancy and then I’ll watch the scene. I watch every take whether it’s a “print” or not. Back in the day you only got print takes, circled takes. Now I get everything. And I do tend to watch everything because it is surprising what you can poach and steal from outtakes. There might be something remarkable in there that you can fish out. But in general terms, just getting it working, and I know that I’m going to have time to swing around again because some days you get easy workloads and some days you don’t. And I’m always going back into the scenes that I’ve cut and tidying them up or looking at them and going, “What was I thinking?” (laughs) Having another crack. But I just want to make sure the scene fundamentally works and I want to stay up with camera.
I never fall behind camera because everybody’s focus is what we’re shooting and what we just shot. There’s no point if they were asking you about something and you say, “Oh, I haven’t really looked at that. I’m three days behind you.” No one is going to thank you for that. So you’ve got to keep up to camera. I know — just through experience — that I’ve got time to swing back around, even if I haven’t perfected something, I know it’s going to work. It might need a bit more trawling — a bit more investigative work. But I can pick that up when they’re having a couple of days on the set where they’re not pushing through that much footage. In general terms, that allows me to be ready by the time we finish shooting.
HULLFISH: From a management perspective when you walk in the door in the morning during this period, do you try to do any time management at all? Like, “OK, I’ve got four scenes. One has 40 minutes of footage, two are pretty short and one of them is a oner, so I’ll do them from easiest to hardest or hardest to easiest — or devote a certain amount of time before moving to the next?”
SMITH: No. I have no time management. I never think about it. Whatever they shot, I just start cutting it, because I just figure I’ll get it done. I understand why you could think like that, I just don’t think I’m always just eager to get into it. Normally, whatever they shoot the day before, I can have done pretty quick. And then I can sit back, relax, have a cup of tea, watch it again. It’s never really the editing that I get stumped with, it’s more the intent of the scene and making sure that I’m hitting the right points. And of course, your entries and exits are fairly irrelevant because you don’t know what’s coming or going — yet. And then I’ll go back and finesse that once I get the material that connects to it.
I was giving some of my assistants a bit of cutting experience I did notice they were burning a ton of time worrying about how to get in and out of a scene, I explained just to have an educated guess and you can always change it later once you have the connecting scenes.
SMITH: And I said, “Don’t sweat it.” If you make the wrong decision you’re going to have to fix it anyway. It’s not a big deal. It’s just — get the scene together, make it seem like it would work. You can guess in the script where you’re coming and going from but sometimes that’s not how it works out. So don’t burn hours worrying about the starts and the ends. For the majority of coverage it’s kind of obvious. But you can go completely “Euro” and try and start in close up and see how that works and sometimes it’s fun but eventually when you get to bolt-on to either side then you’ve got to figure it out AGAIN. Or you get lucky. One of the two.
I think I know through experience what to not waste time on, because I know that I’m going to get multiple goes at these scenes. I really just get in there to just make sure the scene works and make sure I’ve got the coverage and make sure that it makes sense, basically.
HULLFISH: How quickly do you start doing that bolting of one scene to another?
SMITH: Oh, as soon as I can. I build the movie as it goes. As soon as two scenes can be connected I connect them. It’s always a bit loosey-goosey at the beginning of a film because you’re getting stuff from all over the show. And then as the shoot proceeds, you start to build it. I’ll always connect scenes that can be connected as soon as they’re connectable. So if I did scene 20 three weeks ago, when scene 21 comes in, I’ll put scene 20 up, which maybe just exists by itself and the first cut will be added to the end of scene 20 so I’ll immediately do the join and then start working. And then look at how that works and make sure I’m satisfied.
And that’s not to say that’s not going to change later, but it’s just that if I already know where I’m coming from, it helps me to know where to start and then at least I can check the end of this scene and the beginning of the next one and say, “OK, that’s cool. That’ll work.” I can see choices and ways to manipulate it and away we go.
HULLFISH: Transitions between scenes are so critical, so then you might realize that maybe you don’t have a transition that you can use necessarily.
SMITH: But if it’s been directed properly you should have about five different ways to skin that. I’d be very disappointed if I didn’t have much choice because really if they’re covering it properly, it would be unusual that you’d be relegated with one choice of a transition. But having said that, it’s not like that’s never happened before.
Transitions — in a way — you should be looking at when you’re reading the script, making sure that it’s just not going to be visually a mess.
HULLFISH: Is it different for you editing something that has such a kind of a mythos to it – such a level of fan involvement? Is that something you need to consider when you’re cutting something like Dark Phoenix?
SMITH: You’ve got to be mindful of the story and the fans to a point. But I just think if you make a film that you want to see… I always just rely on my own instincts. I don’t think it really matters. Let me qualify that. Clearly, there are things in fandom that I don’t know with certain films that I work on, I don’t have a depth of knowledge that some of the fans have. I’m assuming that’s been put into the script. And more often than not, it is. Where I’m aware of it clearly I won’t lose it unless it seems like something that’s complete nonsense that someone has jammed in. If it’s not helping the film I would argue against having it at all because I’d rather have a really cool working film than a film pandering to a select group of people. They might appreciate it in the moment but not in the overall. A good film trumps putting scenes in pointlessly just so fans get excited about it.
It’s a tricky one because it is a talking point on a lot of these films and I know that there are some films in the fanbase universe that very much won’t step outside of making sure that they’re doing everything to please their fans. But Is it to the detriment of the film? I don’t know because I didn’t work on those films. Maybe not. If it’s in the DNA of the script it will remain in the film, but I don’t like injecting things that make no sense and then having someone say, “Well, we need that because that happened in the last film.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s okay, but you should have integrated it as an idea not just floated in in sort of in a lazy fashion,” because you know it’s all in the writing. All of these fan moments can be very skillfully written in.
HULLFISH: You obviously have tremendous experience and people that trust you. How much do you feel like you can make those more story-type suggestions to the director where you just say, “Hey, look I don’t think this is written right and maybe it should be reshot or something.”
SMITH: So far, I’ve had a great relationship with everyone I work with and different directors respond differently to different levels of that kind of creative input I have to feel pretty strongly that I’ve got a case before I say anything. I weigh it up in my head basically, and then if I am going to launch into it, you’ve got to be prepared to stand behind your argument and a lot of times it does work. You can point something out and sometimes it’s something that people just weren’t thinking of at the time and they’re very thankful that you mentioned it. And it’s a good idea to mention that when you can actually do something about it rather than sort of whine about it later. Sometimes it’s just put down to personal taste, and that’s fine too.
I think an editor’s job is to basically speak their peace, but I’ve said to a few people you only need to say things once. People always listen. If you’re one of the people who just say something once and then the ball’s in their court. If you keep banging on about it you become very painful very fast because then it ends up becoming just simply what you like and what they like and what you don’t like and what they like and that’s ridiculous. If you’re skilled and respected in your job you only have to say things once and then normally, even if it doesn’t go down exactly right then, it’s surprising how — a few days later things change — I have had directors come back and say, “You know that change you were talking about? Can I see that?” You didn’t have to have an argument or anything. You just say, “Sure. Here’s a version of that.”
I remember once a director said to one of my suggestions, “That won’t happen! That won’t happen over my dead body!” A week later he comes back and says, “Kill me.”
HULLFISH: I’m guessing we don’t get to hear who that director was.
SMITH: No. I can’t say. But it was great. I think when you work with people who really are experienced and at the top of their game, you’re not that precious. You learn to listen to other people’s thoughts and you don’t immediately go on the defensive. If you’re being told that something that you think is working is not working you have to listen and gauge EXACTLY what’s not working. Just be calm. Everyone listens to calm voices. When people go off on a bender, you’re like: you’ve lost the argument because you’re hysterical. You’re not even thinking about what the real problem is. So that’s my other top tip Steve: be calm.
HULLFISH: I love that. And you have worked with probably every top director in our current pantheon of great directors. Do you think that a lot of your desirability to those people is ONLY what’s on the screen or is it so much about the way that you deal with them in an edit suite?
SMITH: It’s definitely both. You spend so much time with people in the editing room. You have to be able to deal with everything. There are a thousand decisions to be made that have got nothing to do with putting two shots together. Everything that goes into making a movie is discussed and talked about and dealt with and supervised. From visual effects to sound to the music to color grading to everything. It’s just how you deal with it and how you interact with other people.
People just appreciate when you get the best result because you all worked together — and not necessarily agreed on everything but who cares? I don’t agree with my wife all the time but we’re still married. The whole idea is you’re just aiming for a good end result. And trying to enjoy it as much as you can under the conditions that you’re under as well. Just stay positive. If you’re on a film that’s struggling then you just have to stay positive that you can make it better. And you CAN make it better. It’s remarkable how you can turn a film around.
HULLFISH: And you’ve done that with several films in that specific role — film doctor.
SMITH: And it’s fun. Some films end up in a pickle, not of their own making. It’s just something like a Rubik’s cube. You just sort of give it to someone else and let them spin it for a while and see if they can see a way through. And that’s a lot of fun to do that. And, of course, if everybody’s happy, it’s just a win-win. You get a great feeling that you helped a film to get out there and be the best it can be. And the other thing is not every film is a genius film. It’s just the nature of filmmaking. Everybody does their best. No one sets out to make a bad film. So you just have to make it the best version of itself. Also being reasonable that it’s not going to be Lawrence of Arabia. But it’s going to be as good as it can possibly be. If everyone thinks that they’ve hit that mark then generally speaking they’re pretty happy.
HULLFISH: When we talked about the last film that you cut — which was Dunkirk — you talked about how great it was that they shot so many of the effects like the airplane stuff where you can actually see the other airplanes in the shot instead of green-screening them in. This, I’m assuming, is a very different film.
SMITH: Yeah I went down to the green screen hole! (both laugh) It was just different. We had a lot more stuff that wasn’t in-camera, that had to be created. That’s just a different challenge and Dunkirk was wonderful in the fact that yes, I pretty much had everything in the frame to look at. But then you do another film and it tests your brain in a different way because you’re back to doing stuff where you’re imagining and plotting and watching people’s eye-lines and things that you know will be in the shot. That’s another specific challenge for dailies is doing rough comps very quickly — having them done so you can raise the alarm if you can see something wrong. Or something missing from a sequence for example that’s predominantly blue screen or green screen. It’s just people getting hauled around on rigs. Generally, at the end of the day, everyone’s happy that they could haul actors around on a rig, but you’re the bunny that has to make it work.
HULLFISH: Did you like having X-Men in the middle of Dunkirk in 1917? Are those similar films?
SMITH: It was a good palate cleanser. (laughs) It’s kind of perfect because I so love war films as a genre, but you wouldn’t want to do two in a row. Having a superhero film sort of shakes out the cobwebs of my brain for working in a completely different manner. And now I’m back basically in the trenches so to speak but in a very different methodology and with a very different filmmaker. So, that again is very different.
HULLFISH: You were talking about your assistant editors and how you were giving them a chance to cut some things and how maybe the biggest thing that you noticed was they were taking too much time on that opening shot. Are there other things that you definitely catch happening with early editors that you notice happening a lot of times that you try to explain to them what they need to be doing differently?
SMITH: Some of the early things are that you talk about a scene before you cut it — as if the director was talking to you — and I talked to them. And what would sometimes happen though is that they’ll take that talk very literally. And I said, “This is a problem that happened to me and I was very young where I would hang off of every word that the director said and I’d merrily skip off and try and accomplish EXACTLY what they said, but rather than doing what I thought worked, I’d be trying to do what they told me they wanted to work” or, they gave me some information about a shot that they loved and I would sort of dance around the entire scene trying to incorporate the shot like it was the lifeblood of the scene, then I’d look at it and I go, “It’s not very good.” I’d show it to the director only to be told it’s not very good, only because instead of doing what I instinctually wanted to do, it’s like you’re fighting with two halves of your brain.
You’re trying to accommodate something that you don’t like. And then you just end up with a pretty shitty scene. So what I was telling them was: don’t spend so much time analyzing what the talk is and what should be done and what you’ve got to achieve. Just — on the first pass — just put it together how do you want. However, the chips fall. Just do it. And I think that gets you more confidence, and then once you’ve basically assembled the scene and made a perfectly working cut scene, you can get past the issue of the mechanics of cutting the scene and for young editors that’s a big deal. The actual cutting the scene takes a lot of their brain bandwidth because they’re worried about the cuts working.
And the other thing is, I always smack them on the head and say, Enough with the continuity editing. Continuity is great, only when you see it bump is there really an issue. Get away with what you can get away with because you’ve just cut a scene that could put me to sleep for a week, because you’re waiting for everybody to do everything as if you’re “vision-switching” (British/Aussie term for live-camara switching or TDing) and you don’t have the ability to compress that time. They’re all worried about the exact continuity of everything — “there’s a guy right in the deep distance and he’s got his arm up and then he’s got his arm down” — I said, “Well, what are you looking at in the frame? Are you watching that guy or are you watching the guy who’s earning ten million dollars to be the star?” Cut for the money.
HULLFISH: There’s some good advice for you. “Be calm. Cut for the money.”
SMITH: Cut for the money! You’ve got four characters in the scene, and one of them, for example, is Michael Fassbender. I’ll tell you where I’m going to cut. You cut for the best performance, the best actor, and yes you’ve got to shape the scene. Obviously, the scene’s written around people who are stars or very very accomplished actors and they will naturally dominate the scenes. There’s not much point worrying about cutting to an ancillary character who barely exists. Just cutting to them nodding. This is not a news broadcast. You don’t have to cut to someone nodding to give you a place to cut. Stay on the money.
HULLFISH: As somebody that cut news 35 years ago I can tell you, that’s not the way you should even cut news.
SMITH: I get it. With news, you’ve got one camera and you’ve got nowhere else to go. That’s how the dreaded “noddy” came into existence — as we called it in Australia — “the noddy.” You always see these shows with people just acknowledging and shaking their heads and I’m going, “What is that?!” You just cut to a day-player who doesn’t even know what they’re listening to because they’ve never read the script. It’s like, “Jesus! There’s James McAvoy! Cut to him!”.
HULLFISH: That’s brilliant. When you are cutting a scene for the first time are you cutting from selects reels at all or KEM rolls or are you cutting straight out of each individual clip of a daily in Frame view in the bin?
SMITH: If it’s a really really complex scene — normally an action scene, truthfully — I’ll possibly make a select reel. I don’t normally like to do that because being an old film dude, I like going through all the takes again. So the only time I’ll make a select reel is if there’s some physical action that is worth double checking: something that happens of a physical nature where you’ve got a complex camera move and a complex thing happening and I might get my assistants to string out that moment so I can just check that I’ve got the best framing and I’ve got the best action.
But in general terms, no. I’m not a big selects. It’s more that I’ll do it for directors when they don’t want to wrap their head around watching it over and over with all the takes then I do get my assistants to do a string out and then we can just watch it. But as a standard operating procedure, very rarely do I do it.
HULLFISH: Were there structural changes that had to happen in editing that were different from the script?
SMITH: Oh yeah. Dark Phoenix did go through a lot of changes. There were some decisions made where we had to change the film after principal photography was completed, and we went back and did quite an extensive reshoot, which I’ve really never done before. It was kind of fascinating because we got to basically have the film built, and then a whole chunk of it was going to be very different, so it had to be reshot.
I got to work with the director to create a new ending to a movie because now we had a movie that existed and we had to fold into it and it was very very tricky and complicated and it was a huge budget. We did a lot of previs and a lot of testing to try and figure out whether this was going to be the thing that everyone wanted prior to shooting it. So that was very different for me.
I got to work with storyboard artists. I don’t normally do that, and previs people, which I have done. It was just a whole process to basically rejig the ending of the movie. We did it and I think it turned out pretty seamless. I don’t think anyone would know. Aside from when they read your article, Steve.
HULLFISH: Working with those storyboard artists — was that because the director had so much faith in you that he figured that you would know what you needed to cut the scene together eventually? Or because he was off doing something else?
SMITH: He was also writing and working with the writers and what they would do is, they’d give ideas and then we’d storyboard them because it was the fastest way to start to see how we could get this to work. Because it was a bit of a complex weaving job that we had to do — several things had to be injected into the film prior to the final scene — the easiest way for everyone to sit through a screening and understand it was to storyboard it and throw up a lot of changes. You could actually start to storyboard it and realize that the location that was being talked about wasn’t necessarily the best location when you watch the film running into it. So, we’d re-storyboard it and put it in a different location.
The action was heavily storyboarded And you can realize that you only want this much action and now we’re getting overloaded. Now we’re dominating one character and we really need to introduce another character. The studio, quite rightly, wants these things storyboarded because they want to see what they’re going to spend their money on. And it also helped us to narrow it down. And I think when we shot it, it was a very surgical shoot. It was a very big shoot, but it was very surgical. Everything we shot went in. We really had to be sure that this is what we wanted, and also be sure that we got it because there certainly wasn’t any going back again. You’re dealing with actors that have very complicated scheduling issues, there was a lot of actors in Dark Phoenix that are all very heavily booked, so the whole scheduling was — in itself — a nightmare. I wouldn’t want to be a first assistant director for any money.
HULLFISH: Was it interesting for you to again be back in dailies at the end of a movie basically?
SMITH: It was really weird. We were all back up in Montreal. We’re sitting there getting dailies and I said, “Isn’t this weird?” We were hustling so fast to get it done and there was a lot of complex stunt work going on. You really didn’t have time to think. Everyone was so hyped up with checking and rechecking that we’re getting everything, because, actors’ availabilities are so tight that signing off on people was pretty hairy. A couple of times we jumped back in to get a couple of extra shots because when we started to see the footage we’d say, “It’d be so cool if we had Fassbender do this.” And they’d say, Great! We’ve got an hour as he’s traveling between one set to another and the second unit guy would grab him and squeeze the shot off. It’s pretty thrilling really. And the great thing is, we got it! It was a real adrenaline rush to get it happening.
HULLFISH: Was that a dark period for the production or the director or producing team or editorial team when you realized, this is not going to work unless we do this hairy reshoot?
SMITH: Not really because it wasn’t that it wasn’t going to work. It’s a complex issue which is about basically ownership of characters. I don’t want to get into the whole thing because I don’t know how much I can say. We could have done an easier retrofit, but it wouldn’t have been satisfying. So, to their credit, the studio said, “Now that we’ve had this problem put to us, let’s come up with what’s the perfect world solution? What do we want to happen?” And that’s what we did. So all credit to them because basically you could have done an ad hoc version and it would have been OK. But, “in for a penny in for a pound.” So there was no darkness because it wasn’t like, “You’ve made a film and we don’t want that.” It’s like you’ve made a film and we have to change that. And it’s like, “OK, so if we have to change it, let’s make it better?”
HULLFISH: All right, Lee, I know you’re working on another film right now, and I am too, so I think we should both get back to our respective cuts.
SMITH: Get on with it, man!
HULLFISH: I’ve got an editor’s cut to wrap by Friday, so I’ve got a lot of work to do. And I know YOU have a lot of work to do.
SMITH: Well, good luck to you. And don’t forget my mantra: Stay Calm. And Steve, “Cut for the money, man! Cut for the money!”
HULLFISH: I will keep both of those pieces of advice top of mind. That helps. Thanks, Lee.
SMITH: Have a good one. See you, Steve.
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.