‘Steve Jobs’ editor – Elliot Graham – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk

Today the Film Doctor team bring you another one of our interviews

This time with the amazing Elliot Grahameditor of Steve Jobs, X Men 2 and Superman Returns!

 

Elliot Graham - film doctor interview
Elliot Graham – ‘Steve Jobs’ Editor

 

Where did you grow up, were you raised in a creative family and when did you realise you wanted to work in film and as an editor specifically?

I grew up in Claremont, California which is Southern California – not Los Angeles in any way, shape or form – it’s a small suburban town. My parents were academics, professors who didn’t have any relationship to the film or creative industries but we did travel to some cool places. My mum was an anthropologist so we lived in India and lived with native American fishing villages.

For whatever reason, I was obsessed with film from like 5 years old. Apparently, the first film I saw was Star Wars at 2 years old [laughs]. I fell in love with movies and ended up going to NYU film school where I cut my own films as well as other people’s films.

I seemed to be the only one who was OK with being locked in a small dark room – I enjoyed the process [laughs] – so lot’s of people started asking me to help them with their films and I fell in love with the art that way.





 
 

How did you end up getting jobs to begin with? And how did you wind up working on ‘Blade’ director Stephen Norrington‘s film ‘The Last Minute’?

I did some internships while in college in New York and in Los Angeles over the Summers. I did all kinds of internships – a couple as a runner in post – but the way I really got started was the Stephen Norrington film ‘The Last Minute’. He’d done a filmed called Blade and wanted to make a smaller film that he’d written himself and it cost about $5m and he shot it in London with the intention to edit himself so he didn’t cut during production.

He was living in the US and he moved back to LA where he was going to cut it at Lightstorm entertainmentJim Cameron‘s company – as he’d done practical effects on Aliens for Cameron so he had a relationship there and Cameron lent him some space.

Meanwhile, I’d been stalking an editor named Mark Goldblatt, a great editor who’s done a lot of films for Cameron, Michael Bay, Paul Verhoeven and so on and a family friend knew him – I’d written him postcards at NYU trying to get him to meet up with me    it took about a year for him to give in and meet up with me for lunch, mostly so I would stop bothering him I think. 

After a week of editing on film by himself, Norrington decided 1.) he needed to be on Avid and 2.) he needed an assistant to help.  So apparently he asked Cameron who a good assistant would be and then Mark Goldblatt was called, who I’d just had lunch with. And, as they were looking for someone to work for well below union, Mark recommended me!

I assisted Norrington who worked 7 days a week, 18 hours a day, so I worked 7 days a week, 19 hours a day. Then a few weeks in, I asked if I could use another Avid that Cameron had down the hallway and cut in my spare time and Norrington said ‘yeah sure, whatever’ [laughs], so in between assistant work I would work on scenes, late at night and over the weekend.

We were working 7 days a week around the clock and it was about 15 months of post. A month and a half in he said ‘you should start cutting full time because I like what you’re doing’.

In the end Norrington and I split editing the film and he gave me an editing credit which was really, really nice of him and, though the film wasn’t widely seen, there were some really cool sequences I was able to show people which helped me get some music videos and get started.








 
 

So next was X-Men 2. How did you end up on that?

Bryan (Singer), on X Men, hadn’t had his regular editor, John Ottman, who cut The Usual Suspects. Bryan had a rough time because he’d had such a close relationship with John and it was his first large studio film and that’s tough for anybody. Without your regular collaborator then I imagine even more stressful.

He was excited to have John back for X Men 2 but John hadn’t done a big action film and he’s also a composer so he goes to compose part-way through post and the studio thought it was clear they had to bring on another editor early on in production.

I had met Bryan socially via a few people we had in common. Steve Norrington, who I’d been working with, met him a few times and knew him a little bit. It took me about 3 months to get him to look at my reel but, just before he was leaving for Vancouver to go on location, Bryan looked at some of my music videos and a bunch of clips from Steve Norrington‘s film and I think was surprised that they were decent…if they were decent.

So he put me in touch with John Ottman, John invited me up as assistant editor – with the idea that in my spare time I could cut unofficially – and within the first month I cut a bunch with John and Bryan and they were very happy with it so, a month and a half in when it was time to bring in another editor, they promoted me instead.

So it was a lot of 7 day weeks, a lot of luck and some good people.

 
 

How did you find the transition between something like ‘The Last Minute’ and then something very effects-heavy like X-Men?

It’s all part of the same thing. It was still editing. Still putting the pieces together. Whether it was a crew of 2 or 3 people on ‘The Last Minute’, or a crew of a lot of people like on X-Men 2, it was still, mostly, me alone in a room, cutting scenes together.

As far as visual effects go, even though ‘The Last Minute’ didn’t have 1500 effects like in X-Men 2, the 150 visual effects shots that we did have, there was no VFX producer, VFX editor or VFX department. Steve Norrington came out of VFX, he taught me a lot about what kind of understanding you need to have to make it look good.

We worked together very closely for 15 months. So I think I had more of an indoctrination into VFX than most editors get and so I felt very comfortable playing in that playground. Also, with music videos, you have to do a lot of that stuff yourself.

I was pretty comfortable with it, but also you’re surrounded by fantastic strong people – a fantastic VFX supervisor on X-Men 2.

At the end of the day though, all that cutting – whether it’s a visual effects shot or not – comes from the same place of pacing, character, story and feeling. That doesn’t change too much, for me, whether there’s green screen or not.

 

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs - © Universal Picture
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs – © Universal Picture


 

Steve Jobs – at what point did you come on board?

I heard they were making a film about Steve Jobs with Aaron Sorkin writing it and Danny Boyle directing it which, to me, sounded like the best job ever. Danny’s been a hero of mine for over 20 years, and I love Aaron’s writing and find Steve Jobs to be a fascinating person.

I wanted to be a part of it, but suspected Danny would have his normal editors on it.  However, I reached out to a few people. I found out that Danny’s editor, Jon Harris – who is a brilliant editor and a nice guy – was going to be late, was not coming on until post and they needed somebody during production. In fact, I heard that they had somebody on production lined up as well, but I wrote Danny a note anyway and just said ‘if anything changes, I’d love to work with you’ [laughs]. It was an overly passionate note. His assistant was lovely and read it and emailed me and said she’d pass it on but right now they were crewed up.

However, as fate would have it, the editor who was going to cut through production didn’t make a deal for whatever reason, maybe he wasn’t available, I don’t know, but I got a call and we had a meeting and Danny was very up front and said ‘are you sure you want to come on and do a film that will be taken away from you half way through?’ [laughs] and I said ‘I don’t care if it’s one week or three months or whatever percentage of the film, I just want to work with you on this’. Stephen Daldry, who I’d worked with and is a lovely man and mutual friend, I think said some nice things.

So I got the job and what happened was Jon Harris‘s film that he was doing that coincided with Steve Jobs went over and it was going to be hard for him to come onto Steve Jobs in time and Danny and I had started working together and got on really well and were enjoying creating a language together, so he asked me to stay on the film. John’s film didn’t finish until when our film finished so it wouldn’t have worked. I was very fortunate.

I had a fantastic time with Danny and I think any editor will tell you – I know Jon Harris will – he’s just the best collaborator ever and an incredibly kind human being and amazing artist. You don’t get better than working with him. It was a joy.

 
 

Did you do much personal prep? Like watching Danny’s previous movies or looking through Steve Jobs archives?

I watched all of his films, of course, but when they came out . I didn’t do a review – in part because I already had his style ingrained. Of course his style changes from film to film. Steve Jobs doesn’t feel like Slumdog Millionaire and Slumdog doesn’t feel like Shallow Grave.

You’re playing in his world but within that world you want to create a voice that is honest to the film and not try and superimpose the style of some other film on top it. So, I wasn’t trying to superimpose Danny’s style on top of it. We just wanted to tell the story the best we could with the footage we were getting and that guides you to a certain extent.

It was a wonderful exploration. He certainly believes that editing is an exploration as is all filmmaking. He’s very good with that process.

 
 

What was the review process like? How do you go about that? Is it a case of finding one that works and going on with that or going through countless iterations of what the scene could be?

We shot in order which is unique – it made sense as each act/story was in one location (one per story, as opposed to 50 different locations). That was great for the actors because it is non-stop dialogue and every scene leads into every other scene. It’s one long scene in a way.

It was wonderful having those little breaks in between Acts 1 and 2, and 2 and 3, for about a week, so Danny and the actors could rehearse and it also meant that I could get caught up on a very rough cut of an act and we could see how that act worked before going onto the next.

One of the things he wanted every department head to do was to find every way possible to differentiate the acts, so that you didn’t feel oppressed by being backstage for too long and hopefully the different looks, styles and touches would buy us some time.

So we would take a look at the act before going onto the next act. He played around visually, shooting some pieces that weren’t intentionally scripted. Cutaways to audience or people who weren’t in the scene, waiting down the hall or somebody ironing. He wasn’t sure how, or if, they would work but he shot ’em and I started playing with them and we really enjoyed the way breaking the linear material up with non-linear material worked. It was refreshing and could add a certain amount of energy, particularly the way the audience was used. So he started shooting extra pieces throughout the acts that allowed us to create a language that wasn’t completely linear within this very linear story.

Then, in terms of the unique three act structure, we thought that was really exciting but it also came with certain pitfalls. For example, on most films there’s a beginning and ending and a build from beginning to end. What we had, which can be dangerous, is a build from the beginning of an act to the end of the act and then there’s an ending and then the film asks the audience to ‘please bear with us while we end this story and start this other story’ – twice – so each of those endings of Acts 1 and 2 are opportunities for the audience to check out. It’s hard to ask an audience to take a break, restart, get their bearings three times in a movie.

So creating a pace that wasn’t just useful for a particular act but served all 3 stories was an important challenge, so that you’re moving along at such a pace that you can skip over those endings and beginnings and hopefully feel, in some way, despite the fact that it is 3 stories, like it’s 1 story and not feel like you’re stopping to tell different stories. So we were approaching each scene as a scene, each act as an act, but then, most importantly, the film as a whole rather than in 3 acts.

That’s one of the reasons, along with Aaron’s writing and the actor’s performances, that there is such a momentum. There are scenes that came out, there are things that were shortened or put together in completely different ways. The beginnings of Act 2 and Act 3 – those first couple scenes – were cut in half and the beginning of Act 2 became something of a montage. That was in part because it was a bit deadly at the beginning of those acts.

What we felt once the film was assembled – and you can’t know it from reading it – was that we were losing the audience. So we really streamlined the beginnings of Acts 2 and 3 so that hopefully after an Act ends you immediately drop into these news interstitials, which initially were going to be actors playing newscasters talking at the audience, as scripted by Aaron  – but Danny wanted to find ways for them to be uniquely visual so that – instead of just being an information session – they could serve as a source of energy, by giving the audience a different visual experience than what they’d had previously or going forward. So you drop right from Act 1 or 2 into this visual experience and hopefully right after that, you’re dropped right into Acts 2 and 3 as a fast-moving train.

We wanted to get past the pitfalls of stop and start and, of course, this added to the feeling of intense momentum that many people feel the film has and is one of the various elements that hopefully make the film unique.

 

Michael Fassbender and Jeff Daniels in Steve Jobs - © Universal Picture
Michael Fassbender and Jeff Daniels in Steve Jobs – © Universal Picture


 

What did you edit on?

Avid and Mac-based Avid. It did feel, sometimes, like you were in some sort of Charlie Kaufmann wormhole of editing a film on a Mac, while getting phone calls on your Apple device, while watching people talk about designing the Macintosh. It was a strange little wormhole but it was interesting.

 
 

Reader Question: How long does it take to cut a feature film? How long did this one take? Did you have to work crazy hours or weekends?

I almost always work crazy hour and weekends which I don’t recommend. Most editors work quite intense hours and there never seems like there’s quite enough time. You always hear that the film gets ‘pulled away from you’ [laughs] so you want to get as much as you can in the time you have.

Certainly time away is good to freshen your palette and to have a little bit of distance. We started shooting the film in January and finished the film in October. We were working intensely the whole time.  I haven’t been on a film that took less than 9 months and I haven’t been on a film that took more than a year and a half.

On Avatar it might take 2 years. The big VFX ones generally take longer; the shoots are longer, there are multiple units shooting simultaneously and you have to factor in time to get all the visual effects complete.

 
 

The film was shot, 16mm, 35mm and Arri Alexa. Did the switch between media pose any unique workflow issues?

None. Danny and Alwin – the wonderful DP – came up with the cool idea of shooting on 3 different film stocks. I really enjoyed the different looks of them.

As far as the media goes and the way I worked, all of that footage gets digitised and presented to me on an Avid and I interact with it the same way regardless of format. So there wasn’t much of a workflow difference for me.

 
 

On average, how many times do cuts end up changing after the sound design process? Whether minor tweaks or whole scene shifts? Is there one example on any movie you’ve worked on where the sound design or an idea that’s come up in sound design process has caused a major shift to the cut?

Well, we worked with one of the wonderful sound designers, Glenn Freemantle – who has worked with Danny for a couple of decades and is one of the best guys in the UK. Everybody does it differently. I do a lot of sound design and the sound designers do generally come on later in the process.

I like it to feel, when I complete a scene or show it to the director for the first time, as polished as it can, so you can get a sense of what it might really feel like as a movie. That means working on the music and on the sound intensely.

I will do a lot of sound. On films like X-Men or Superman you’re gonna have tons and tons and tons of tracks because there are airplanes crashing, fireballs and lasers and so on. You still play with sound on a film like Steve Jobs, which won’t be with as many tracks as there aren’t as many sources of sound, but you can still get surreal here and there or make the film feel more alive by having a sound of the crowd offstage, or people milling around outside, or having an air conditioning unit on.  Playing with everything that could be touched by sound – experimenting – should it go completely quiet here and then loud there? That’s all part of the process even when we’re first assembling.

Danny really likes to play with sound too. He’s one of these directors who knows every single part of the process and wants to touch it. So, by the time we’re handing things over to sound, a lot of ideas have been played with.

That’s because picture and sound are, in fact, inseparable.  It’s silly to think sound can’t impact picture just as picture impacts sound. I think it’s one big stew. To just cut picture and not do an intense sound design, I think means you’re going to miss out because sure you can cut the picture with very little sound  – pass it onto the sound design team and they can sound design the picture as you have it cut – but you might discover when playing with the sound that actually what you do with sound will impact the way you want to do the picture.

This does not take away from the sound design department, they – just like me, the production designer and the DP – are allowed to bring on new ideas and if they have some new ideas the director and editor will and absolutely should consider them and if, for some reason, we thought it affected the picture, and the picture should change, we would pay attention to that.

 

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs - © Universal Picture
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs – © Universal Picture


 

Reader Question: What was it that inspired you most when making a cut – actors, script or music? What part of the film are you most proud of?

It was all an inspiration. We had the best actors in the world with one of the most unique, amazing writers that we have today with one of the best auteurs we have in Danny, so that was all an inspiration and it’s inseparable.

Working with Danny was the best experience of my life. I actually met him when I was 18 and when he screened Shallow Grave at my university and I cornered him for 20 minutes after the screening and talked his ear off, and he was incredibly friendly and told me about this strange film he was going to make about drug addicts but it was funny. I was like ‘OK, cool’ [laughs] and then I saw Trainspotting and since that and Shallow Grave, I’ve been a huge fan. He doesn’t necessarily remember that but I remember it and I’ve always wanted to work with him.

I wanted to do my best for him but also you feel that you’re telling somebody’s story, you want to do that story justice, you’re given incredible words – Aaron Sorkin does use incredible words – and you want to make them come alive the best you could, and you have actors delivering brilliant performances and you want to support those performances.

 
 

What was your most difficult challenge to overcome in the edit?

The hardest scene? I don’t know. The hardest thing was what we talked about earlier; the fact that you’re starting and stopping, that you’re entirely backstage with the same characters having similar conversations for 2 hours, though it easily could have been 3 hours. How do you keep the momentum going so you don’t outstay your welcome, when there is such repetition? That was a real question that didn’t just fall into place. In fact, our worries were founded – we did finish it and we were like ‘oh, OK we are outstaying our welcome’.

It doesn’t matter that the dialogue’s brilliant and the acting is amazing. There are points in the film where you wanted to blow your brains out during the early cut because it’s just too repetitive. So finding ways to pace the film up, within the confines of a linear story backstage with such heavy dialogue, was really a challenge. The biggest challenge I’ve had in my career and one of the greater challenges Danny’s had, as he’s expressed in other interviews. But it was an exciting challenge and a rush and a lot of fun, and it allowed us to come up with some unique ideas that weren’t scripted and helped create the language of the film.

One of the most interesting sequences was the giant flashback in Act 2. The giant battle between John Sculley and Steve Jobs in 1988 that’s intercut with when Sculley comes to Steve’s house in the mid 80’s to tell him he’s not needed at Apple any more. It’s also intercut with the boardroom vote to oust him from the company. When you read it, it felt like an action set-piece. I described the scene as an action film with words in a letter to Danny when I met him and was still interviewing for the job. It still seemed that way when he shot it. It felt like a big action film and that was the giant set-piece.

I cut it together as scripted and, despite the fact that the performances were brilliant and the words were brilliant, the film slowed down. It was a very long scene of about 11 or 12 minutes and it absolutely felt like we outstayed our welcome and instead of feeling it was propelling the film along, it felt like a stumbling block. I re-cut it in post and what we ended up doing was, instead of cutting back and forth in time, as scripted by Aaron, we cut it to the hum of the actor’s performances.

We would cut back and forth in time very much lead by Michael or Jeff – trying to connect moments of intensity or reflection in one era with similar or contrasting moments in the other era.  We found ways to link between the two eras through that, through the performance, rather than based on the words as scripted. So you still have the brilliant dialogue but you were riding the surface of the emotion as presented by the actors. When you have the best actors in the world, it’s not bad to use them that way!  That helped us build to a uniquely emotional pay off.

There was also this beautiful close up of Michael that we used in the beginning montage of Act 2 and then as part of this battle montage between Steve and Sculley in the climax, in the boardroom, we start cutting back to that. It’s abstract but the whole film, to a certain extent, is the experience of being inside Steve’s head – at least that’s how we thought of it from time to time – and we wanted to find ways to help the audience on that journey. One of the ways was this shot that we felt really helped put you in his emotional state. By putting it at the beginning of the act and bringing it back at the end of the act, we sort of hope to heighten the experience of being with Steve.

We were trying to create a cinematic language rather than only a linguistic language.

 
 

Seth Rogen and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs - © Universal Picture
Seth Rogen and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs – © Universal Picture

 

Reader Question: How do you refresh your perspective when cutting long-form narrative? How do you stop yourself from taking cuts for granted and watch a sequence that is very familiar as if it is new? Are there any techniques or disciplines that you employ in that respect?

It’s always hard. Danny would be involved a lot but also take time away. He would say ‘if I’m with you the whole time, we’ll always have the same opinions because we’re on the exact same journey’. So he would try to maintain a freshness. When we had gotten scenes to a place where we were relatively happy I would try to stay away from them for a while, knowing that I would go back and look at them again. If you can focus on different parts of the movie from time to time, it can give you a distance from the other parts.

So I would try not to watch the entire film all the time [laughs]. I was working on the film 7 days a week around the clock but not on the same parts of the movie. I would try to get distance as much as I could. Certainly stepping away from the editing room, now and then, is healthy, artistically beneficial and gives you distance. Screening it with new people – whether a crowd or people you know – is always different from watching it by yourself.

I’ll watch it from different sides of the room, sitting or standing, also. I’ll actually put a flop on the entire movie – switching left and right – because it makes the experience completely different. Your brain knows, having watched it a million times, exactly where every little movement is going to be. You’re reading what’s going to happen before it happens because it’s ingrained in your brain. But if you flop everything, you’ll find that it shifts everything and, even though you know what’s coming, your brain doesn’t predict things in the same way. It throws you off. I’ll do that every now and again.

It’s certainly hard to keep a distance, so every trick you can come up with!

 
 

Having worked with some major directors such as Bryan Singer, Gus van Sant and Danny Boyle – have you seen one singular trait that they all share that make them so good at what they do?

They’re very different directors but they’re all incredibly smart people. Razor sharp. They see the world in very different ways and they all use the tools of filmmaking in very different ways, and are all attracted to different things in terms of storytelling and cinema, but universally they are insightful and sharp.

 
 

What’s one piece of advice you can offer to an aspiring Editor?

Well, I suppose, you can get trapped in assisting. I have so much respect for great assistants because it’s an incredibly hard job. None-the-less, many assistants want to be editors and it can be hard to get that break. You know, from the stories I’ve been telling you, that I certainly got some breaks because I just cut even though I wasn’t the editor to start with on some projects. I’d cut on weekends or at night. I wasn’t being paid to cut on weekends or at night, and it meant giving up free time, seeing friends or going to the gym as much.

There’s that line ‘things are only worth what you give up to get them’. I don’t know if that’s true – it would be nice if everything was easier – but it’s hard and there were certainly sacrifices. I met an editor called Saar Klein (The Bourne Identity) the summer before my senior year of Uni, when I was a runner on a film down the hall from him when he was cutting The Thin Red Line, and he was this young-looking 30-year-old in shape guy of the 3 editors on that film and I was impressed by him. I thought ‘I want to do what you’re doing’. 

So before I went back to school, I knocked on his door very nervously and said ‘can I talk to you because it’s awesome that you’re this young guy working on this Terence Malick movie?’ and he was really friendly and said ‘yeah, sit down’ and he talked to me for half an hour and said ‘Yeah, just cut. It doesn’t matter what people say. Just cut. Spend your time at night and on the weekends cutting. Obviously do your job first but just cut. If people are saying you shouldn’t cut then you don’t want to work with them anyway. I just cut and it bothered some people but I always did it with permission from the editor and they noticed my cutting’.

That’s my answer. I work with assistants who work really hard and they need their time off and I totally respect that. But there are other ones who are willing to put in the extra time to cut. You’re not going to get noticed for your editing unless you cut. I always recommend find a way to cut and cut.

 
 

Top 10 films you feel all editors or filmmakers should watch?

10?!?! I have no idea how to answer that off the top of my head… hmm.. you should probably watch every single Scorsese film because his editing is a masterclass. Then again, not all films can be cut like that. Gus (van Sant) is famous for sitting on shots for a very long time. It’s a very different aesthetic to Scorsese but it has a powerful effect. The cutting of Scorsese, Spielberg and Malick are all extraordinarily different and they’re all brilliant.

I think if you want to become educated in cinema you should watch the great directors. But if I’m tossing films out there, you should certainly watch Bonnie & Clyde, Jaws, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Back to the Future. Scorsese. Bertolucci. They’re all so different but so powerful.  Watch everything!

 
Thank you, Elliot! You can find Steve Jobs in cinemas now.
 

 in Steve Jobs - © Universal Picture
Steve Jobs – © Universal Picture

 

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