In Conversation: John Gilroy (Editor of Suicide Squad, Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, Michael Clayton)

Hi Film Folk!
With the awards season in full swing, there’s no better time to talk to the creatives we admire and find out more about their craft, creative process and career.
That’s right, we have another special interview guest! This time ACE and BAFTA nominated editor (for Nightcrawler), John Gilroy! 


Film Doctor - John Gilroy interview
Congratulations on your Nightcrawler BAFTA and ACE Eddie nominations! You started as an editing trainee. Were you committed to editing straight off the bat or did you try other things first?

Our dad, Frank D. Gilroy is a writer/director, so we were exposed to the business early on. My initial reaction was to go the other way. I thought I wanted to become a lawyer. I was a government major at Dartmouth College, and I planned to go to law school from there.

By the time I graduated from Dartmouth though, I didn’t have the appetite for three more years of school. Not having a next move, I became a bartender in New York City for about two and half years, which was a lot of fun. From there I found my way into film editing.

How exactly did you find yourself on the editing pathway? What exactly inspired you to choose film editing – and not, say, directing or acting, as your career? And how did you go about it?

Well, as I contemplated a movie career, my aspirations were to become a director. That’s where I set my sights. Some of my favorite directors were film editors first. Robert Wise, Hal Ashby and of course David Lean. I was obsessed with David Lean as a kid. The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia were two of my favorite films. They still are.

My dad knew an editor, Rick Shaine, who he had worked with, and I got in touch with him. After my bartending shifts Rick would let me come up to his cutting room and hang out. I had no film school background and had never really handled film before so hanging out in Rick’s cutting room was like a crash film school course for me. Eventually he gave me my first job as an apprentice editor on Herb Gardner’s movie, The Goodbye People.

OK – Nightcrawler, how long was the visual post-production process for it? At what point did you come on board?

I believe it was 27 weeks from the first day of shooting until picture lock. The actual shooting was only 28 days, which is incredible when one considers the number of locations (I believe it was 80). The whole schedule was compact. Nightcrawler was done very economically and part of that equation was obviously how long we took to turn it into a finished film.

I usually come onboard in preproduction in an advisory way, but as soon as the shooting starts I’m off to the races. I try to work quickly to find the movie in the footage, not just to meet deadlines, but to inform the director I’m working with. Doing this while shooting can be incredibly helpful.


What was the most challenging sequence in the edit?I think one of the most challenging sequences for me was the scene at the KWLA control room, where Nina is directing the news anchors during their broadcast of the Horror House story as Jake watches on. It was shot at the end of a very long day for the production and there wasn’t a lot of coverage, and it’s a very complicated scene. Everything the audience has been watching for the last fifteen minutes has to culminate there and pay off. It’s crucial for the rest of the movie.

It was also tricky tonally. It had to be both believable and outlandish at the same time. Luckily Rene Russo really hit it out of the park with her performance that night. It took me about three days to put it together. There was a lot of footage that had to be worked into the monitors which was done by my excellent assistant, Kevin Hickman.

When I look at what we started with and what it became it makes me very happy. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom - photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom – photo by Chuck Zlotnick

Do you know something is special when you’re working on it?

That’s an interesting question. Maybe….but I certainly don’t work on a movie any differently because of it. You’re always trying to find the truth in the footage you are given when you edit a movie. Moment by moment, scene by scene, act by act. You do that on every movie regardless.

Editors have a special responsibility. Most people that work on films do their jobs and cross their fingers. They hope the movie they’ve invested their talents in will live up to their expectation when it’s finished. As editors we don’t have to do that. We have the ability to roll up our sleeves and fix things….solve problems after the shooting. Maybe not everything, but a lot. Making a fair film good or a good film great….this is possible for an editor.

So, getting back to your original question, I guess I hug the notion that everything I work on at least has the possibility to be something “special”.
You previously talked about the specificities of editing a fast- paced action movies, like The Bourne Legacy – like, almost, editing as some material was still being shot and very tight deadlines. How similar and different was this experience to editing something like Nightcrawler?

I would say there is a similarity. A film like Bourne Legacy just has more moving parts than a movie like Nightcrawler so it takes you longer. I work in a similar fashion regardless of the movie’s scale.

If there is a complicated sequence that needs to be shot over a number of days, I will usually start building components of that sequence as soon as there’s anything available to cut. These edited components often inform the director and the production team about how it’s going. Is there anything that’s missing or, more importantly, is there anything that can make the sequence even greater?

We had one good time-saving example of this on Nightcrawler. At the end of movie there is a car chase sequence. They shot all the macro car work first. Mike Smith did a great job. I put that footage together, then I made slugs where we would want to be inside the car with the actors. Dan and I then came up with all the banter that Lou and Rick would say when we cut inside. Finally, they shot the interior coverage using the partial cut as a guide.

When it came to the cutting room, it was really very surgical, how it just dropped right in because we had worked it out against the cut ahead of time. 


Did you refer to any storyboards or previs?

On Nightcrawler there was little need. On bigger action films, of course….they are essential, especially previs.
Do you work with actors much or ever? And, if so, what kind of conversations usually take place?During ADR certainly, but not much during shooting. I think it’s important for a director to really bond with his actors during production and I try to not interfere in any way. If I have thoughts about an actor’s performance, etc. I will usually only convey them to the director. Clarity and chain-of-command are important to movie making.

Nightcrawler - John's brother, Dan Gilroy, directs Gyllenhall and Ahmed - photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Nightcrawler – John’s brother, Dan Gilroy, directs Gyllenhaal and Ahmed – photo by Chuck Zlotnick

How close or different is the final cut of a movie to the shooting script? What are usually the main reasons for changes? How much freedom and say do you usually get as an Editor?

It really depends on the movie. The better the script, the less likely you’ll have to make drastic changes in the cutting room. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb…but things on a movie might not be properly realized for all sorts of reasons. Performance, bad logistics, weather…a lot of things can go wrong.

When something isn’t right, an editor has to come up with a creative way to fix it and hopefully that fix will feel as organic and natural as the rest of the film. That’s the mission. I’ll do pretty much anything to fix a problem and make a movie work.
Do you have any particular ‘favorite cuts’ or sequences in Nightcrawler – or any previous projects – and, if yes, what makes them stand out for you?

Well, I mentioned the Horror House scene, already. I’m also quite fond of the Mexican Restaurant scene between Nina and Lou. It’s such an interesting scene, because it’s this wonderful chess match that’s been won by Lou before the game has even been played, and yet you just don’t know where it’s going from moment to moment.

I’m also quite proud of the sequence that leads to the big shoot out and chase at the end of the film. The test there was to keep people on the edge of their seats for a much longer period than is usual before the shit really hits the fan. I think we really pulled that off well.
What movie you worked on has seen the most material on the cutting room floor? Or the most re-shoots/pick-ups? What are the reasons for this and can it be avoided?

These days with all the digital shooting going on, the amount of dailies a typical cutting room receives is increasing because it’s not expensive to keep the camera rolling. That can be a problem for an editor.

I did a movie called Miracle with Gavin O’Connor, when everything was still shot on film, and I think we printed 1.3 million feet. It happened because there was a lot of sports action and Gavin didn’t want to miss anything. That was a staggering amount of film at the time and it took me a while to dig my way out of that one. 

It’s normal to have some reshoots on any film. When there are a lot, it means they’ve probably had to rewrite a good deal of the movie in the cutting room. The surest way to avoid that, as I have said, is to have a great script to start with.

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo - photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – photo by Chuck Zlotnick

What do you see as key to a successful Director-Editor collaboration?

Two things…There should be a good line of communication between a director and an editor, even during shooting. It’s hard because directors are dealing with so many things then, but it’s important.

The second is for the editor to truly dial into the director and understand what it is he or she is trying to accomplish. During the filmmaking process a director will usually dial into an editor’s mind as well, but it’s important first for the editor to do so.
You’ve worked with Coppola, del Toro – is there one common trait that all successful Directors share?

It’s very interesting to me how many different types of people become directors. I guess there are a few common traits…they tend to be driven and hopefully they are natural storytellers, but I’ve seen all types of people do the job successfully.

How closely do you work with Cinematographers?

It’s important for a director to form a special bond with his or her cinematographer, so I really try not to interfere with that. As we’re shooting and things come up, I often become more involved with them, but I let that happen organically. 


 Same question for producers and/or studios? What kind of stuff often comes up?

I am primarily working with and for the director, but of course I deal with producers and studios all the time. Each movie has it’s own unique power dynamic, so the situations I encounter can really vary greatly from movie to movie.
What are the top 3 technological developments that have impacted your job the most? Which ones did you embrace the most?The biggest one happened 20 years ago, so I don’t know how new it is, but that’s when we all started cutting on computers instead of film. That sped up the editing process by about ten times in my estimation. It was the biggest change for me. Another one is the fact the CGI has become so advanced and affordable. We’re making movies today that wouldn’t have been visually possible twenty years ago. Even on more conventional shows this technology allows me many more options to fix things that didn’t go perfectly during production.The third advancement is sound technology. The advances that are available on Protools and even Avid, which I work on, are amazing. For a picture editor, I do a lot of sound work as I’m putting a film together. The tools at my disposal these days are amazing.
Can you share with us a piece of advice your father, Frank, told you (or continues to!) that you have perhaps always found to be true?

My dad has given me and my brothers a lot of great advice in our careers. It’s been a tremendous advantage to have him and each other to bounce our problems off of.

Two pearls of wisdom pop into my mind: “Even when they have you on the ropes, keep punching”It’s a boxing metaphor but it works for the movie business and life in general.

And…“Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.” I like that one too.

I think he also said “All ties go to the director”, but that’s when I was editing his movie so that may have been self serving on his part.

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo - photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – photo by Chuck Zlotnick

You’ve cut with film and digital. What do you miss about chopping with film and what important elements of physically handling the film have you carried into cutting digitally? Do you feel there are lessons essential to the process/craft that new editors will be missing out on by not having experienced it?

Apart from nostalgia, I can’t say I miss cutting on film. It was a slower and physically more exhausting way of working. I can say that it was a superior way to learn editing, because as an assistant you were usually in the actual cutting room, feeding the editor his next shot. You really watched the movie get made.

When they did finally trust you behind a moviola, you had to know what you were doing, because you couldn’t just chop up the work print. It was great discipline and forced you to learn the craft.
A lot of the films you’ve worked on have something really important to say about society or politics – like the excellent Michael Clayton – how important is it for you to connect with the material and share that view? And how important do you feel it is for films to say something?

I do need to connect with the films I put together but connecting covers a wide spectrum. There are movies with a socio-political message. There are movies meant to inspire. There are some that are simply meant to entertain.

I enjoy all these and I’ve been blessed to have worked on all types of films in my career. The big thrill for me is when I feel I’ve helped make a great movie, whether it’s a drama, or comedy, or what have you.
You worked on comedies, like Billy Madison – what changes for you there? How does one ‘cut funny’ or, at least, enhance humour through editing?

Rhythm is a big part of editing anything properly, but throw comedy into the equation and it seems to get even more specific. Comedy from an editorial stand point is very much about timing. It’s very mysterious how sometimes just a few frames either way can get you a laugh…or not.
You’ve also turned your hand to Producing (Duplicity) – how did you find that experience? Which skills/previous experience have you found to come the most helpful?I really started my editing career in independent film, with movies like Tumbleweeds and Narc. At that level, to get things done, I often had to act as a producer. I’m a very hands-on sort of a person anyway, so I carried this way of working with me as I moved onto bigger and bigger films. More often than not I’m involved in all aspects of finishing the films I work on. Not always, but often. The producing side of movie making comes very naturally to me.

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal - photo by Chuck Zlotnick
Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal – photo by Chuck Zlotnick

What advice would you give to an aspiring Editor hoping to reach your heights?

OK well…There’s a lot more technology you have to know to be an assistant editor today. I say learn it quickly, but don’t get hypnotized by it. The computers we use to edit movies are merely tools, like a hammer or screwdriver.

I do essentially the same thing I did 25 years ago – I build movies… I’m just using better technology to do it. For an assistant to break into editing you have to embrace your own humanity. You have to become a good story teller. Get caught up on the technology and its possible that you’ll never really see the forest through the trees and you won’t realize your dream.
What advice would you give to a Writer, Producer or Director wanting to make a name for themselves in the industry/world?

It really is an amazing time to be alive, because if you have a burning desire to make a movie, you can do it with your phone if you want to.

I think maybe the most important thing is to find smart like-minded people to collaborate with. Movies are a uniquely collaborative art form. To make them you need others. The people you surround yourself with is very important to growing and developing as a filmmaker.


MANY thanks to John for his time and insight and good wishes to him at the BAFTAs this year! Nightcrawler is still showing at select cinemas and is released on DVD in March.

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