‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ Editor – Valerio Bonelli – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk,

The Film Doctor team are delighted to bring you another In Conversation.

Today we speak to the editor of Stephen Frears‘s Florence Foster Jenkins – Valerio Bonelli!
Valerio2 copy


Tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up? 

I was born in Naples but I moved to Florence when I was around one and grew up there but I have many great memories of Naples. It’s my favourite city in Italy. It’s the rawest experience you can have in Italy. Palermo is very similar, very intense, visceral and visual.

I wish I could make a film in Naples. I’m actually doing a film about my Grandfather. Quite recently, my Auntie handed me a box of old Super 8 films, around 150 of them, and I’m now trying to condense them down to make a short documentary about him.



Did you come from a creative family?

Not really, my family weren’t a creative family although my Grandfather was a tenor. In the 60’s, my mum and dad actually moved to Florence for political reasons and like a lot of young Italians at the time, they became very left wing and were militant in a Maoist party. So I kind of grew up in a communist commune with lots of my parent’s friends from Chile.

It was a very intense upbringing and a very left wing background and that’s really where my formative years began, surrounded by communist chants. [Laughs] My dad ended up working for several businesses and my mum worked at the University of Florence, so they weren’t creative at all.

I would never say I have been interested in film since I was a little boy. I was actually interested in music. As a child, I would only buy classical records and when I played them I tried conduct to them. I dreamed of being a composer or a musician but, knowing where I ended up now, it’s not that far away from editing.

Editing is rhythm and it’s storytelling and I often think that editing and music have something in common. The flow of a narrative is very much like the flow of a musical piece and you have to have that rhythm inside yourself. I tried to learn an instrument but I somehow got deviated.

So around 17 years old, I started to realise I was unhappy in school and didn’t like any of my studies. As soon as I finished school, my dad told me “You don’t have to go to university, you can do what you like, so what do you like?” At the time I was thinking about classic design, designing furniture, cars, etc and then I thought the other thing I really like is films. From the age of 13, I started watching around 6 movies a week at either the cinema, at home or taped from TV and my taste started to become very eclectic.

I had a big passion for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Italian B-movies and at the same time the American classics of the 80’s such as Rocky and Back To The Future. I suddenly realised maybe I should pursue this passion and see where it goes so I found this little film school in Florence. I went there and wanted to do the Directing course but it was full so the guy told me I could attend the editing course instead that it ran in parallel with the Directing course. I asked “What’s editing?” so that was the first I ever thought about editing.

I went to the course and started cutting shorts for my friends at the school and one of them called La Madre turned out to be quite successful. We shot it in three days and I helped with everything on that film; I cut it, I was on set and everything. It was a real labour of love. It was distributed in some Italian cinemas and featured at all the English film festivals and that’s one the reasons I came to England. I just thought that England was a better place to pursue my passion.

From 18 or 19, I realised editing was what I was really interested in and I really liked that close connection and intimacy with the Director and actually creating something personal and focusing on a specific target in a one-to-one dimension. When you’re on a film set there are tons of people around you and lots of distractions and still now I find that quite difficult. I hear stories of Martin Scorsese only talking to three people on set and I understand that.



After you moved to England, how did you go about finding and getting work?

To make a long story short, I wanted to go to a big film school and I was debating whether to go to the Centro Sperimentale in Rome or move to England.

In the end, I decided to go to London and applied to the National Film & Television School in 1998. It’s a very complicated process; you send your material with only 150 people going and they only select 10 or 20 initially and then you do the induction week and then they select 5 or 6 for the final places. Thanks to my passionate work in Italy, my material was good and I managed to get in. I had a great time there and I think everyone who was in my year is still working now. I actually met my wife there, she’s a documentary filmmaker.

I think the biggest thing to happen to me after film school was having the chance to work as an assistant editor with Pietro Scalia while he was in London cutting Gladiator. So I started school in January and by February I got a call from a friend who used to work at Avid and he said “Listen, there’s this guy called Pietro Scalia and he’s cutting a film but he hasn’t got an assistant, do you want to meet him?” and I said “Yeah!”

I remember shaking and being very nervous and heard he was very temperamental and didn’t like any of the assistants in England but I immediately bonded with him and we became very good friends over the years. I worked with him as an assistant for 5-6 years although not continuously as I wanted to finish my course. I always felt that working with Pietro was a good way to learn how the big films and cutting rooms worked and the politics of the studio that go with them but also knew that if I wanted to be an editor then I’d have to carry on doing my own small projects. 

Thanks to the film school, I managed to cut a lot of documentaries which is a genre of filmmaking that I never had a chance to do in Italy as there are no schools for that genre. With a documentary, the material is so malleable, you’re writing the story in the cutting room and it’s like a sculpture and you go in any direction you want. I remember meeting some editors at that time who would tell me “If you want to cut fiction then never cut documentaries as they’re two different things” and actually I say exactly the opposite to students when they ask me how I managed to get into editing.

It’s very easy to find a long feature film as a young editor, people always tend to go for the one with more experience. It’s understandable as editing is one of those crafts in filmmaking where the more you do it, the better you get. You can be a young cinematographer and very talented and promising and straight out of film school you can do the big films, like Eduard Grau for example, but that’s almost impossible in editing unless you grew up with a Director who brings you with him. 

So you have to find your way and cutting those documentaries as well as assisting on huge Hollywood blockbusters was my stomping ground for those first few years and really helped to progress my career in editing.


Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant – photo by Nick Wall - © Pathé
Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant – photo by Nick Wall - © Pathé
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What did you learn from being an Assistant Editor and what does it involve? Also, what advice would you give to an aspiring Assistant Editor?

That’s a good question. I think the role of Assistant Editor has changed drastically over the last 15 years of filmmaking. I think digital technology has ruined the ‘passing the baton’ method of education, like it used to be. My perfect example of this which I tell students, in Avid you have a button called match frame’ which basically allows you to load the current shot in the timeline on the left monitor with your rushes. You can then find your shot in your bin and then look for other takes. That process which now takes 2 seconds used to be the job of an Assistant Editor. As an Assistant Editor, you were actually there in the room with the Editor and the Editor would tell you “We need to find the takes for this”, etc. There was another bench, another Steenbeck on the corner, you went through the rushes and you used your brain and sensibility and said “Hey, look at this, do you like this?’ to the Editor and the Director. You were actually a part of the process of cutting the film.

Nowadays, unless you actively try and ask to look at the process with the Director, it’s very much staying in a room syncing up technical stuff. The way I did it, it was the beginning of the transition from film to digital technology. I remember being very frustrated at the time as I thought I would never learn to cut a film being in a room.

So when cutting Gladiator I would go and annoy Pietro and ask him to stay in the room. With Gladiator, I was very lucky – Pietro actually hired me as he didn’t know how to use Avid very well, he was used to cutting on Lightworks. So I had to sit next to him and help him and I would from time to time ask him if I could cut a scene, etc.

I say the same thing to my assistant now, you have to ask for things to do. I try to reinvent and spin it a little bit with my Assistant but it’s really up to them to push themselves and learn when you can make a comment and be part of the process. The politics are the hardest thing to learn and that takes time. You’re never going to learn if you’re outside the process and the technology nowadays doesn’t allow that.

I had an Assistant on Palio, this documentary I did with my wife which was a really labour of editing, who helped me a great deal with the process. He was very smart and active and he managed to understand the dynamics between me, the Director and my wife as well. As an Assistant isn’t actually cutting the film, the best thing you can do as an Assistant is to help the process.

When I finished Black Hawk Down, I went for a little spell in LA and came back to London to loads of offers for work as an Assistant on a lot of Bruckheimer films they were shooting in England such as King Arthur and Veronica Guerin and I turned them all down. I thought, if I went down that path then I will get bogged down into being a professional Assistant Editor. 

When I had an offers to assist, I only ever took them if I was interested in the film. For instance, I ended up doing a Bernardo Bertolucci called The Dreamers and I thought that is an incredible experience, I must do that. When I was 16, I went to see Last Emperor with my parents, I remember they were literally crying in the cinema about all their Maoist ideals and I was crying because it was such a wonderful film. It transported you to this place with cinematic poetry and I suddenly realised what real directing was.

So when I got a chance to work for him, it was a dream come true. I’m still very close to Bernardo, he’s a wonderful man and he’s very inspiring filmmaker. I wish he’d make more films!


You’ve worked with Ricky Gervais on a couple of occasions, how did working on comedy compare to your earlier, more serious jobs? Did it change the process at all?

I admit I actually didn’t watch The Office until my agent called me and told me Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wanted to meet me for their first film and then I thought “Ok, now I must watch The Office“. I thought it was going to be some kind of classic comedy but what really struck me about it, other than the documentary side, was the characters and the writing. You were rooting for characters and that goes from one episode to the next and the narrative thread that they managed to keep going from the beginning to the end was what I thought was very successful.

I thought “these guys aren’t writing comedy sketches, they actually writing about people and characters.” When I met Ricky and Stephen, we bonded immediately about our passions. Cemetery Junction reminded a lot of this Fellini film called I Vittelloni, so I brought it along to the meeting and showed it to them. Ricky knew Fellini but had never seen it and Stephen actually knew the film and they immediately realised I understood what they were trying to do. They were trying to do something more than just comedy, they wanted it to be more of a poetry piece and trying to capture this romantic idea of England in the 1970’s during the recession with a ‘little village’ mentality.

For me, I actually enjoyed the process with them. They are both very clever and their writing is very sharp. Stephen in particular is very much into editing and did a lot of cutting on The Office. He asked me during the meeting whether he could have his own Avid which was fine with me as long as we make the best film we can. I remember joking with him on who would make the best cut.

We shot the film, I cut the assembly and Ricky was really excited after only seeing the assembly. I had 4-5 weeks of cutting together with Stephen and then he abandoned his Avid and we worked together for another 5 weeks. I think that’s when me and Stephen really bonded and he said that was his first time working with a film editor. In TV, maybe he felt he didn’t have the time to go through it with an Editor as in film you have more time to go through takes and discuss ideas. 

We’re still in contact and Stephen recently sent me a script for film he wants to do next year. With Ricky, It’s unfortunate that I got on a train of working for Stephen Frears for 4 years in a row and I missed working with him on a few of his projects.

In the same way I am quite eclectic in my taste of film, I always try to mix the genre of films that I work on and I like to be seen as an Editor who can cut action, comedy, horror, anything. I am a film Editor and I like to tell stories and narratives. For a while, I kept on looking for the right people to work with and my dream was to find a Director with whom I could do a body of work with.

I graduated with Nicolas Chaudeurge and his path is very interesting because he worked with Andrea Arnold after film school and his career was forged from that collaboration. With me, I was here, there and everywhere and could never find a Director with whom I could do 5 years of work together. That was a bit frustrating.

Through Steve Knight, for whom I cut his first film called Hummingbird, I then reconnected with Stephen Frears who was actually one of my tutors at film school. Stephen, by chance, came to a screening of this documentary that I cut and produced with my wife called Without Gorky. It’s about my wife’s Grandfather who was a famous American abstract-impressionist painter. Stephen was preparing Philomena and he lost both of his Editors, that he usually works with, to other projects. I got an interview with him and then got a call a month later and he offered me the job on Philomena. I loved the script and it touched me on a personal level but the way it got that comedy twist inside the film was what made the film really special.

I think working with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant really helped me to cut Philomena in the way we did. It can be quite tricky to cut comedy into drama and you have to know when to drop the bombs. There were a lot more jokes in the script and in editing we cut some of them out. For example, there was a line where Steve Coogan said “Fucking Catholics!” and we cut it as it was too offensive and the suddenly we put it back in a slightly different position and it worked much better.

With instances like that, my job is very satisfying. You’re behind the curtain, finding the rhythm and finding ways to make certain lines land at the right time and place to get the right emotional impact in the film.


How many test screenings do you generally do? How did the audience’s reactions help to sculpt the film?

Almost every film I’ve done, we have probably done two sometimes even three test screenings. It’s a tedious process but I now know what to get from it.

For me, it’s like a reset button in a way. I sit down in the middle of the audience and I watch the film with the audience and it’s like watching it for the first time. All my senses are actually reset to scratch and because I know the material and because I know where I can change the film and make it better, I actually work with my instinct. I feel when the film is slow or drags and I feel when the film is working at its best.

Often you get prescriptive notes from people trying to tell you the problem is here and actually you know the problem is not there but it’s around there. What they’re suggesting to change is actually not going to solve the problem. The way we always did it with Stephen (Frears) is that you have to read through the notes and the best notes are always the ones where they’re not telling you what to do but they’re giving you their general thoughts. Then you know your material so you know how to address that problem or maybe there isn’t a way to address that problem so you have to take away that problem and you have to cut it out.

It’s all about where you’re leading the audience to. Sometimes an audience might be confused because you have led them down the wrong path and somehow you haven’t closed that circle in the right way. It’s as simple as cutting it out or clearing it.

The problem is often maybe a producer might suggest you put an ADR line on a shot of the back and expose what you’re missing. That’s crass, that’s terrible but that’s the kind of note sometimes you get from studios.

We did a little reshoot towards the end of Philomena to fix a couple of things in a scene. It’s a little scene where Philomena and Martin go back to the convent. They park the car in front of the entrance and he recites a T. S. Eliot poem. That poetry was Steve Coogan’s way to address a note that came from the studio.


How much do the final edited films differ from their original script?

Luckily, there is still a mystery between what the script is and what ends up on film. If you ended up with exactly what is in the script – there’d be no fun, there’d be no mystery, there’d be no creative process.

There are some scripts that are very solid – Florence was a very solid script. We did do a change that made the film very different but only at the very beginning. The film was very solid throughout, we hardly did any ADR on it. It was literally recorded so beautifully, all the singing was live.

We designed a whole system for the post-production of Florence so that we would use the real performance including piano performance from Simon Helberg. Simon is brilliant, he actually plays the piano really well. It’s not playback, it’s actually him playing a mute piano connected to a MIDI. They have an earpiece and the MIDI is connected to a radio frequency that sends what he’s playing in cam to both Meryl and him and the directors and us on set. So she could sing clean and we could get his piano clean separate.

Then we took the MIDI and we had a great team of music editors and they would basically fix all the mistakes that maybe Simon did. Then we went back to Abbey Road and re-recorded with the proper pianos. Like those old western pianos that play by themselves. So we put the MIDI back into this special piano that was specifically built for the film and it would play again but all with the alternations so that it sounds perfect and beautiful. It was a liberating process because the actors could just go with the flow.

It’s Meryl singing, she did two and a half months or more coaching with a music supervisor who helped her. It’s her interpretation of Florence.


Simon Helberg Cosme McMoon Florence Foster Jenkins
Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon in Florence Foster Jenkins – photo by Nick Wall – © Pathé


How long was post-production and shooting?

We started shooting exactly a year ago, the beginning of May 2015. We shot until the middle/end of July. I normally always cut during the shooting and by the end of the shoot I have an assembly. We watch the assembly with Stephen and the producers. Stephen and I get to the cutting room and we present a cut to the producer maybe 4 weeks later. So we go quite quick to prepare a first cut. It’s a good process – it varies from director to director but I think with Stephen that works pretty well.

We kept on cutting through the Autumn and we finally mixed the film at the end of December/January. We did a preview in New York and in LA in the first week of January and then we came back and we did two little changes, finalised the sound. The film was ready in February. It was pretty quick on Florence.

We had a long process on The Program, the film on Lance Armstrong. That was a very hard beast to cut – a lot of changes, we kind of re-scripted a lot in the cutting room. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I think that’s when I had the chance to prove my narrative skills to everyone and to myself as well. It’s quite rewarding to actually be able to take a film and manipulate it, to a certain extent, in the cutting room.

With that film it was easier because the material allowed me to do it. He shot a lot of footage plus we had a lot of documentary footage so we were able to use different tools of storytelling. It’s quite funny that we ended up going for a narrative which was much more simple than what the original script was. In the end, giving Ben Foster the right narrative arc and the right performance. He delivered a really good performance and I think the final cut of the film reflects that. It’s a difficult film and a difficult subject. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I became almost obsessed with Lance Armstrong and the whole psychology behind cheating in sports.

For me, it was quite funny because at the same time I was cutting Palio which is a film about an ancient horse race in Siena where you are allowed to bribe in order to win. It’s part of the game so it’s an open game of rivalry. It’s like a reproduction of a medieval warfare where the jockeys become mercenaries and they can sell themselves to enemies. You pay the jockey in order to win but you pay the other jockeys in order to let your jockey win and all the deals are done by the jockeys on the pitch on the day of the race. The tension is so incredible. It’s similar because it opens this whole conversation about questioning whether sport is pure. Is entertainment a pure thing? I think the machination behind a sport is what makes a sport interesting. I’m not saying that you should be allowed to cheat but there’s no way to get cyclists not to cheat. They will always cheat. It’s an impossible sport, you go up the mountains for so long.

Going back to your question, the process of cutting changes from film to film. There was a lot of material in Florence particularly with the singing. That was the challenge of cutting those sequences – to make them funny but then you can’t just laugh at the bad singing, you have to laugh at the drama. Behind every singing sequence there’s something narratively that you have to bring forward. You can laugh up to a point and then suddenly you get immune to the singing. That was the biggest thing for me, not to be immune to her singing. By month one, it’s just normal and you’re not affected by it. That’s why it was very important to show the film early on to see where people react and where they’re not reacting.


Meryl Streep Hugh Grant Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep as Florence and Hugh Grant as St Clair in Florence Foster Jenkins – photo by Nick Wall – © Pathé


When did the score come in?

Pretty early on. We temped with some Nino Rota music – very little, not too much. Alexandre came in around September/October and he started delivering cues. He did a very original score.

It’s a whole classical world with Florence but then he counter-balanced that very nicely with some more kind of jazzy Henry Mancini type of score which is very much of the time as well. The 40s. I thought that was a good idea, it was really clever and he gave the film an extra layer, a narrative layer that otherwise it wouldn’t have had. 


The film is amazingly cast. Tell us a bit about performance and any advice to actors?

With actors like Meryl or Judi, they are brilliant and they are so good that their takes evolve. You watch a first take and you’re really thinking “that’s great” and then the second and further takes get even better and better and better. That’s your first approach when you watch the rushes. To have that luxury of good material. It’s a big responsibility as an editor because you know that in the end you can always go back to the footage and find subtleties and changes that actually can help you shape the character in the right way.

Sometimes you work on films where you have actors who maybe they’re good in the first one or two takes but they’re not able to sustain that performance for ten takes. So the further down the takes, the worse they become or the performance becomes a lot more convoluted. Hugh was very constant, very good. His character is full of imperfections so he had to give a very stable performance all the way through and it was very easy because he pulled a very good performance.

With Simon it was different because his character is like a Buster Keaton type of character. He’s physical comedy. He moves in a funny way so you have to be careful to use those moments when you need it. He gave all of that to us. He performed it high and low and medium and then it’s up to us to make it work in a way.

With Steve Coogan’s performance in Philomena, that was the way. They would roll many takes and there was a lot of variety but you need to do that for that type of character. Where you know that that character drives a comedy narrative and they’re giving you that kind of fun twist in scenes where maybe it’s very dramatic and so somehow you need to have many choices. Steven just does it, he lets the actor go. All he says for feedback to an actor is faster or slower. I agree with him. You can’t tell an actor how to act. The actor should know how to do it.


Meryl Streep Hugh Grant Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – photo by Nick Wall – © Pathé


What filmmakers should other filmmakers check out?

Sam Peckinpah. My favourite film is The Wild Bunch for editing and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. They’re one of the two films where I started to notice editing.

For me, Westerns are one of the genres where editing is at its best. Sergio Leone’s use of extreme close up to wide shots are the best example where editing is doing narrative and style and it’s just at its best. It’s made in the cutting room in a way that no other film is. You have the lovely connection with music and how the music works so well with those cuts. It’s just the perfect marriage of narrative and storytelling and poetry as well.

The final scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for me is still one of the best scenes ever. All the shooting scenes in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are just stunning. He’s one of the first guys who cut 8 frames into a celluloid – cutting and really fast. Peckinpah was brilliant, one of the best.

Thank you, Valerio!
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