In Conversation: Barney Pilling (Editor of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Never Let Me Go, An Education)

Hello Film Doctor friends.


Fresh off the heels of the BAFTAs, we are thrilled to share with you our interview with the winner of this year’s ACE Eddie award, BAFTA and Academy Award nominee, Barney Pilling


Barney Pilling - Film Doctor interview - photo by JC Prince
Barney Pilling – Film Doctor interview – photo by JC Prince


Where did you grow up? Did you come from a creative background?

What was your relationship to film growing up?

I came from non-creative family in North Manchester – my mother was a teacher, dad an industrial vacuum salesman. School was also non-creative – more academic. We had a little film studies module in the sixth form lead by a pretty cool teacher, which was a bit of an oasis, because I’ve always loved film.

Not in a scholarly way, it was solely as a consumer of the popular North American films at the time: Scorsese, Spielberg, ScottStar Wars, etc. I never thought a career in film was even a possibility. It was just a world that I loved. I used to bunk off school to watch films, actually!

I didn’t make films at school, but I was always creative, spending time building models, drawing, painting fantasy figurines, as a child. And to be honest, I get the same feeling now editing as I did when I was a kid, playing.


How did you get into film?

I stumbled into it, really. Growing up amidst the cultural explosion of music in Manchester in the early 90’s, that’s where my creative urges were pointed. I DJ’d house music for a bit, then dabbled at making some music, where I first became aware of the digital timeline in the sound editing sense.

Then I went to a recording arts college in Canada, in the mid-90s, trying to turn a pretty second-rate DJ career into a more solid music production career. But I was only musical to a degree – I wasn’t that good at writing music or playing an instrument, which you need to be if you really want to succeed in that industry.

I was good at taking samples of other people’s music and chopping them up on the computer or record decks and having fun. So the music thing didn’t last long. I stumbled into location work whilst I was in Canada, just as a way to make money: I had a friend who was doing it and they needed an extra pair of hands on a film that was shooting in Toronto; it never occurred to me to work in film, until that week.

As soon as I saw the set – the size and the scale of it – I was absolutely smitten and I ditched the music as a potential career almost instantly.

I stayed in Canada doing some location work, then my visa ran out and I returned to the North West to nothing. I was back living with my mum at the age of 24! I thought, “Where’s the film industry at in the UK?” and started all over again. I ended up volunteering at the Manchester Film Office, working with Dawn Evans, who used to help productions that were coming to Manchester find locations and crew.

After about a year of that, a show called City Central returned to Manchester for its second series and I landed a job as an Office Runner. Within 3 weeks of being there I had to help carry equipment into the editing suite – I’d never seen one before. And again, once I saw it, I was smitten even more.

It was an environment I knew: I understood what the timeline was, I knew about digitally sequencing sound and music together, I knew about the signal path, the audio-video mix, etc. It felt very comfortable. So I sat down on the Avid, as a Runner and thought ‘I could do this’.

I made friends with the Editors, they showed me how the machines worked, then on night shoots when they went home, they’d leave them switched on and let me work on them into the night. I got to play around with the Avid software using their material, they’d look at what I’d done, give suggestions and guidance… they gave me a real leg up in terms of that.


So is that when editing became a job for you?

Not long after that, yes. My first editing job was “As If”, a Channel 4 production. Andi Peters was Executive Producer. It was a bit of a wild idea, with loads of music and edits. It was low risk, I suppose, as the budget was modest and expectations not too big. It allowed the Producers, Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps to take a chance on me.

The lead director, Brian Grant, had seen me doing some music editing, while I was assisting and thought I may have the skills to contribute to the show – they just threw me six episodes to edit – picture and music!

It went on to win the RTS Award for editing that year and that was pretty much it: a career in the can!! There was a bit of a spell doing building work back up North, when I was turning down assisting jobs and trying to focus on the next edit.


So from then on it was all referrals, pretty much?

Yes. Then I got referred to Simon Crawford Collins at Kudos Film and Television who had made Spooks – I came on board for series two and ended up doing it for about 4 years. Then I did Life on Mars.


The Grand Budapest Hotel - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The Grand Budapest Hotel – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


How did you make a transition into film?

Well, like with most paths in this industry, it’s the people you’ve worked with. On Spooks I’d ended up working with the lead director – Bharat Nalluri– a great director, very aware of the camera and the blocking, his shots were very filmic.

He started many successful shows for Kudos who then made a 2-part film for HBO, called Tsunami: The Aftermath. So I edited that with him. Then, on the back of that, he got his first feature film – “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” – for Focus Features.

He had to fight to get me on it, as I hadn’t done a feature film before that. I owe him an awful lot – not just for using me to edit his projects, but also for learning so much by working with him.


Did you find that was more difficult, doing longer form editing? More pressure?

I don’t know, it’s just editing, ultimately. The pressure I feel is always put on me by myself. I’m dedicated to doing what I do. So things like executives, schedules, studios, I don’t feel pressured by that. The pressure I feel is about doing good work. So the actual job itself, I’ve approached exactly the same way in film or television.

Of course, there was an adjustment period: I’d spent 10 years cutting on a 19-inch monitor. I bought myself a huge TV, 52 inch plasma and just sat myself in front of this big screen, to get a more day to day feel for what the edits were looking like up on a big screen. It was a bit of a shock when I played it through the big screen for the first time [laughs].

To be honest, when I started editing film I was well armed with story craft, having worked on Spooks, which was effectively a mini movie each week: there were no adverts, the stories were individual, there were things to be worked out narratively, etc.


Then you got An Education?

Yes, it was through the Producer on “Tsunami”, Finola Dwyer. My career, like most of my peers, is largely shaped by referrals and connections you make while working on projects. The film community in London is pretty close-knit.

Having said that, “Never Let Me Go” was directed by Mark Romanek, who knows Wes Anderson – so he recommended me to Wes for The Grand Budapest Hotel.


You’re credited as an arranger on Quartet. Now we know you’ve got a musical background, but what was the deal there?

It’s Haydn’s string quartet in B flat major – op. 76, No. 4 – Sunrise. It is played on stage towards the end of the film: the whole community of retired musicians of this house put on a show.

Some of the action was taking place on stage, where you see this piece being performed, but obviously the real drama of the characters is taking place behind the stage – but you can hear what’s being played in front.

The way the Haydn piece was written just didn’t suit the rhythm of the drama and there were certain sections it that I wanted to move around and re-edit to fit. I ended up quite radically restructuring the whole piece, which we then re-recorded in a studio with another string quartet. So that’s where I got that credit.



With The Grand Budapest Hotel – at what point did you come on board? Did the script change much during the process?

First day of filming – which is actually pretty normal for a Film Editor. Actually, I was sent out to Germany two days before the filming – we filmed in Gorlitz on the Polish-German border.

Wes must be one of the most well prepared Directors in the world when the camera turns over. It’s so well thought out. He’d written the script this time as well, so was very ‘under the skin’ of it. Everything he wanted, in terms of scenes, camera movements, it was all laid out. There was a wonderful blueprint for everybody, the cast included.

The set is a money pit – production burns cash when you film – and Wes is very aware of that. When he’s on set, there should be no expensive accidents, no working out how to get around certain shots, movements – as soon as the camera starts filming Wes wants the whole energy to be about performance. It’s very economical – right from the first frame you get very usable material.

The only thing that happened to the original script whilst editing was that it shrunk a bit. For example, Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs scenes contain huge passages of dialogue –when you see it in the script it’s pages long.

We didn’t get bored watching it at all, because its so well written and performed, but Wes is aware that there is a very fine line between overdoing this very verbose dialogue and not. Everything has to sail just underneath the ridiculous.

Embellishment is nice, overindulgence – not so. But as a whole, there were very few changes.


Wes does a lot of takes..?

Yes, because it is all about the performance. And variety – without it you’re a bit stuffed in the edit suite. You will never hear me complaining about too many takes – the more you have, the better chance of editing yourself out of a corner.

Of course, he doesn’t just roll the camera to cover all the bases, he does have a very distinct delivery in his head – you get a lot of takes, if he hasn’t heard what he wants yet.


And when faced with that variety, how do you go about it??

Well we deal with it meticulously and methodically. He’s incredibly good at assessing 20 lines in a row and honing it down to 2-3 versions. Once we’ve got the picture set, we then build the words.

It’s infinitely detailed work that we did on The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Every single inch of it has been thought out with care and precision – be it the stitching on the German uniform collars or the little fox medallion that Ed Norton wears, the precise sound effects, the wonderful design and sets… all of these things have had the greatest love and attention. Which is why I think it’s a beautiful objet d’art as well as a good film – these things have a legacy.

I’m pretty sure that Wes, as I am myself, is very proud that filmmaking is the one of the last truly handmade industries left: you can’t just stick a bunch of ingredients into a machine and out comes the film at end of it. Yes, there’s a lot of technology involved now, but it is still bespoke as an industry – you have to get many talented men and women to put their hands to things, to build stuff, to make stuff, which is wonderful. 

There’s no motion capture either, no digital replay at the end of these elaborate camera moves, he [Wes Anderson] just got the best people in the world. Like Sanjay Sami, as the key grip, who’s just wonderful at his job – he’s been with Wes for 4 films now – repeating these moves time and time again. You can never get it exact, but these guys are so good, that it’s near enough so that we can resolve any issues in the Avid.

We did do a few pick-ups while we were in Germany. Roman Coppola came over to shoot second unit in the last week, to vacuum up a lot of the inserts and pick-up shots that Wes didn’t get time to shoot with the main unit. Roman has a great eye and is very much like Wes, hugely efficient – let’s get what we need, it all fits beautifully, thank you very much, let’s go home now [laughs]


The Grand Budapest Hotel - photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The Grand Budapest Hotel – photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


Were you asked to, or did you decide to, do any personal preparation?

Yes. Obviously, I watched all of Wes’ films again [laughs] which was the best place to start, as they all have a through-line in style and humour.

Wes recommended I take a look at Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner – a really good signpost for the kind of era and aura that was to be recreated in The Grand Budapest”. Jacques TatiMonsieur Hulot – that was more for sound design and the general use of sound effects – Tati was way ahead of his time in the way he used very specifically placed sound for storytelling and comedy.


The formats (aspect ratios) – was that ever an issue?

The issue came towards the end technically, to make sure that what we intended with the differing aspect ratios is what the audience ultimately saw: the aspect ratio could be changed by an inexperienced projectionist and if they did that on this particular film, it would be awful; you’d be losing a 1/3 of the frame, top and bottom.

Thinking further down the line, for DVDs: there is a handshaking protocol between the player and the TV that automatically sets the aspect ratio, but then the signal coming through is with a different aspect ratio, etc.; it all had to be preserved.

There were tests, like with everything Jeremy [Dawson, the Producer of The Grand Budapest Hotel] or Wes were concerned about, we just rigorously tested it until the problem was resolved.


What’s your usual workflow?

Well, I’ve only edited one film that was digital, the rest has been Super 35 mm. And “Suffragette” we actually shot on Super 16 mm, with some ARRI Alexa for night times.

So yes, film: off to the lab, scan it, send me the media, get it into the Avid, job done!


What’s your typical back and forth with the Sound Department?

It’s grown more and more, as I’ve been in the industry longer. As an Editor in television, you don’t have the luxury to have a great deal of sound work – other than the sound that you’re putting in the Avid to begin with. Coming from a music background it’s always been my sensibility.

Also, I can’t assess the rhythm of a scene properly unless it sounds pretty good. Whether it’s clarity of dialogue, cleanliness of backgrounds, believability of props – subtleties, like rain on the roof, can do so much for atmosphere. So I do build quite a lot into my Avid – I always have. As I do more films now, I get the chance to spend more time with the Sound team.

On “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, Wayne Lemmer, [the Sound Designer] was on board really early on – 6 weeks or so before we locked the picture. He and I were working together, building up the tracks that Wes and I had created in the Avid, and then polishing them, perfecting them and making them work well in a 5.1 mixing environment. It was very symbiotic.

I really enjoy the mixing process. I’m pretty much all over sound – I’m probably the Sound team’s nightmare, in a way [laughs]


The Grand Budapest Hotel - Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


How do you “refresh your eyes” for the edit?

I don’t think I’ve ever really needed to. I think because of my personality and also DJ-ing previously, I can switch between engagement: things can play and I can assess them for different things, and I’m not actually looking for the overall effect, just watching it for this or that, sifting out problems.

Then I can go ‘Right, back to the beginning’ and watch it for how it actually feels as a viewer. I’ve never found that hard to do.

The only thing I don’t like is being on set – I don’t like seeing things filmed. I think that affects my perception of what I see on the screen and it’s damaging.


Did you always know you’d be where you are today?

That’s a hard question to answer… All you can know is what happens this second. All you have is this second and then it’s gone, and another one is coming, but that one is not here yet!!

All any of us really know is the moment we are in. I have been working very, very, very hard. I’ve been determined to work on as high quality material as I can get my hands on and to work on this material as best I can.

I’ve never found there was a boundary, mentally, for me to think “Oh I can’t do that” or “That’s beyond me”: you just work really bloody hard and deal with what comes your way. That’s what’s taken me to the place I am now.

It’s an insane amount of hard work, the hours are ridiculous, the sacrifice – it comes at a cost, my missus and my daughters don’t see me sometimes for weeks at a time.

In a way, it’s a pretty selfish way to live a life and I’m hugely grateful for their understanding and support. But…I’m very driven to edit. I’m not driven to get nominations, just driven to edit – I love it [laughs].


One piece of advice for aspiring Editors?

Work very, very, very hard. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that “Hard work is a talent” and I like that. Its been a huge component in where I’ve ended up.

Also, edit anything you can get your hands on: corporate videos, adverts, promos, anything. Every cut you do informs you and becomes part of the curve in terms of your knowledge.

I’ve never been arrogant or sniffy about the projects that I’ve worked on. Anything I’ve been asked to do, if I’ve been available, I’d do it – just to get in the chair. Time in the chair – it’s everything.


Congratulations to Barney on his ACE Eddie Award – “Best Edited Film – Music or Comedy” – The Grand Budapest Hotel – and good luck to him at the Oscars!


The Grand Budapest Hotel - courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The Grand Budapest Hotel – courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


Come back Friday to see Barney’s Favourite Film picks!



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