Crafts Roundup: Editors Talk About the Journeys of Survival and Reinvention

Features
by Bill Desowitz
December 26, 2013 2:10 PM
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Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.

With such an emphasis this year on survival and reinvention, the journeys required special editorial attention to shifts in tone and unconventional arcs while at the same time conveying internal struggles that we cared about. Here's a sampling from "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity," "All Is Lost," "American Hustle," "Before Midnight," and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

For Joe Walker, "12 Years a Slave" marked an ambitious expansion of his two previous collaborations with director Steve McQueen ("Hunger" and "Shame"). The long takes, the 360-degree pans and the intense close-ups were in service of both an epic and intimate journey. A key moment occurs when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) surrenders to his plight, singing "Roll Jordan Roll" during the funeral ceremony. 

"We needed to explain why this journey becomes such an internal one for Solomon because so much of it is subtlety," explains the editor. "There's a deliberate choice to show that he's become part of that community. And there's some element of resignation on his face. 

"There was also some fine tuning in the pickups. We needed to remember his family and what he was missing at some point. We added the shot of his writing the names of his family on the crook of his violin."

"Gravity" co-editor Mark Sanger (who shares credit with Alfonso Cuaron) joined the project during pre-production, helping the director build upon his initial vision. They had a complete cut of the movie in animation 18 months before Sandra Bullock and George Clooney arrived, which they screened for Warner Bros. with temp sound and music, and Sanger and his assistant, Tanya Clark, standing in for the two stars. 

The camera was rarely locked to any spatial plane so it was a challenge to make the cuts work within the right geography. But the cyclical process with Cuaron and Framestore, the VFX company, allowed for changes in blocking that inevitably occurred. Sanger spent hours or days re-editing the rest of the scene to achieve the proper balance.  

"It's not often that the editor gets to work collaboratively with all of the other guys at the very beginning of the design process in pushing the film along," Sanger admits. "For me, it was very exciting because there were decisions that we were making early on that would obviously change the script." 

Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"

Pete Beaudreau cut the first assembly of "All Is Lost" as a silent movie to make it a purely visual storytelling experience.There's an arc to Robert Redford's Oscar-contending performance, going from confidence to bewilderment to emotional surrender and a state of grace. 

It became tighter as they went along -- in fact, too tight, and they had to open it up some and let it breathe. Yet the evolution of the editing style involved a lot of time and jump cuts. 

"And the time jumps gave us this immediacy and let us control pace," Beaudreau recalls . "So part of it was just snipping out the distance between actions and keeping the command of Redford's performance."Everything I need is in the script: I get all the tension, all the subtext, all the layers."

There were a trio of editors (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, and Alan Baumgarten) on "American Hustle," the screwball comedy about role playing and reinvention for the sake of survival. David O. Russell is clearly an actor's director, molding the narrative around the performances and allowing his talented ensemble to experiment in search of emotional truth, which often results in wonderful and bizarre surprises. Thus, there is no filtering as Russell shoots long runs of the camera and continually resets, allowing the editors to observe the interplay with the actors.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in 'American Hustle.'

Before they could even play with the intricate backstory flashbacks, though, it was imperative to establish that the attraction between the needy Christian Bale and Amy Adams was believable; otherwise, we couldn't care less about his wild plan or root for their prickly romance.

With "Before Midnight," we're already emotionally invested in the romance between Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine. But they grapple with a mid-life crisis that threatens to tear them apart. Sandra Adair, who cut all three films in Richard Linklater's trilogy, says the challenge was keeping the raw, in-the-moment honesty while raising the emotional stakes.

"There are themes that are touched on that are so real and so universal to long-term relationships where you struggle to be together, to stay together, you have all the pressures of finances and career and children, and it all was in the script," Adair adds.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight"

It culminates with a powerful encounter in a hotel room broken up by mood and divided by space. "If you watch the first two films and drop in on them now and are happy to see these familiar people again, you've really earned getting on the inside of what's going on here," Adair reveals. "There's a lot more edge to them now. A few resentments built up over the years."

For Greg Hayden, the challenge of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was balancing his fantasy life with his real world experiences, delivering a seamless flow between the two while also integrating different looks and graphics emerging from the landscapes.

It helped that Ben Stiller defined Mitty as an analog guy living in a digital world. He's the caretaker of our cultural heritage who rekindles the spirit of adventure in the 21st century.

"We work really hard on all the reaction shots in our pictures and I think that's where the comedy is," Hayden reflects."Sean Penn has a great reaction to meeting Walter. Ben was worried about his scene with Sean up on a glacier because they only had five hours to get it. There are subtle moments that are different from take to take but they were all good. I was surprised that Sean had such great comedic timing. You don't associate that with Sean Penn."

We're thrown out of our comfort zones, which is what this particular awards season is all about.

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