Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
You come from a film industry family, so to speak – was there ever any consideration you wouldn’t pursue filmmaking? And what would’ve it been?
Not really. I grew up being able to visit film sets that my father Ernie Day was working on as a camera operator, on some of the biggest films of the 60’s and 70’s – films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter. Even as a young child I found it terribly exciting and instinctively knew that one day I would end up working in the film industry in some capacity.
After I left school I joined the BBC and whilst there got very interested in the art of editing and thought it would be best not to follow my father into the camera department for fear of being accused of nepotism, which may be unfounded, but I think not.
As soon as I started to work in a cutting room I knew that I’d found the right place as it suited my personality and has a kind of ’womb like’ serenity and security that isn’t normally apparent on a film set, which is very active and exciting I have to admit, but unless you’re part of the core team it can get a wee bit tiresome after a short while.
If I hadn’t have entered the film industry then medicine would have been my career choice as it fascinates me but editing grabbed my imagination and unfortunately I don’t think I was clever enough anyway!
Tell us how you started, a bit about editing the TV shows you cut in the 80s and what it was like cutting back then. According to IMDB you started as a Dubbing Editor…
I didn’t actually start as a dubbing editor. As I mentioned, I joined the BBC and became a trainee assistant film editor and as part of the course you got to work in the cutting rooms of various genres which included documentaries, current affairs, children’s and drama (which was my favourite). As an assistant editor on drama in those days, on film, you got to ‘tracklay’ on mag (this was way before digital) the dramas you were working on which was fantastic as it was the most creative you could be as an assistant once the picture was ‘locked’. By laying the sound fx tracks and music on many projects it made me appreciate how very important sound design is in the picture editing process which is why when I first started to edit drama I used to lay a lot of sound FX tracks to aid the overall experience of watching the cut.
I was then promoted from being an assistant to an editor after having edited a number of music and arts documentaries and then got my big break in drama via a lovely producer by the name of Innes Lloyd. I ended up working with amazing directors like John Schlesinger, Jack Clayton, Paul Greengrass and Richard Eyre. I was still pretty young and was so excited and grateful that I had started to realise my ambition.
This was, mind you, pre-digital, in the days of film, and TV dramas were shot on super 16mm. So it was a case of hundreds of cans of film and trim bins overflowing with celluloid and mag – something I would never go back to, despite the nostalgia some people feel.
As someone who’s built a strong record in both TV and film, what would you say are the key differences in cutting for film vs TV shows?
The key difference is the schedule I would say. When I was editing TV dramas the editing schedule was quite tight but I believe it’s even tighter now and I always maintain that if you come from a television background into film it’s easier than the other way round because one is used to working fast.
For example when I worked on State of Play, that was a six part series, and each episode was sixty minutes in length. It was shot in eighteen weeks and we had two weeks to fine cut each episode once I started working with David Yates, the director. Obviously I had a very good ‘assembly’ by then, but compare that to a film schedule and the difference is immense. However, the overall process is exactly the same. You may have a lot more footage to deal with on a film and more set ups per scene but then you will have a longer schedule to edit usually, so it’s all relative.
Also, on larger films like Harry Potter for example, you have to deal with a studio and all that entails. Many more people are involved when it comes to the various screenings that happen and there are many more notes which have to be addressed than in TV but the best way to deal with that is by embracing the notes with a positive attitude and cherry picking the good ideas which can only make the film stronger. Film making is best when it’s collaborative and not autocratic in my opinion and luckily nearly every director I have worked with has agreed.
How did you make the transition from TV to film?
Having worked with David Yates on a number of TV dramas he was offered Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was an incredible break for him, because David Heyman had recognised a great talent in his directing. David then wanted me to join him as we’d done so much together and were great friends and trusted each other implicitly. I met with both David Heyman and David Barron (the producers) and they gave me the green light too which was truly amazing as neither of us had worked on anything as big as Harry Potter! We then did four of them almost back to back and had the best time and also learnt a great deal about visual FX and the politics of working with a big studio.
Since then I have concentrated on feature films but still watch a great deal of TV drama and think back very fondly to my days in TV as I worked with so many great people and learnt so much from them and the films I edited.
You worked with Robert Redford on ‘The Company You Keep’. We’d love to hear a little about working with him. What were his thoughts on approaching narrative and editing performance and what did you learn from him generally?
After we’d completed the last Harry Potter movie David Yates decided he was going to take a well earned break. But I love working and after a couple of months rest I was itching to get going again and knew David wasn’t going to be asking for me to join him in the immediate future. Out of the blue I was contacted by a producer by the name of Craig Flores who asked me if I’d be interested in working with Robert Redford on his upcoming feature. ‘ROBERT REDFORD’ I said calmly. Yes, I think I’d be fairly interested! They’d seen ‘State of Play’ and liked the way it was edited.
I was sent the script of ‘The Company you Keep’ and I really enjoyed it and to cut a long story short within a few weeks my long term assistant Hermione Byrt and I were winging our way to Vancouver for the shoot and that’s where I met Bob for the first time with his lovely producer Bill Holderman.
I don’t usually get star struck but I have to admit that working alongside Robert Redford was pretty special. I mean the man is a Hollywood icon and has directed and starred in some wonderful films. Not only that, he is really nice and treated us so well.
As always, when I work on a film, I put everything I can into the first cut as I want it to feel like a ‘proper film’ experience when we have our first screening, albeit one that is probably over length due to the fact that I never lose scenes or dialogue in the first cut as I feel it is only fair to see the film as it was scripted in the first place in order to be able to properly ascertain what is superfluous to the narrative.
So when I started working with Bob we would go through scene by scene and he would comment on what he thought needed changing and also would want to view alternate performances on some scenes, especially his, but that’s not surprising considering he was directing and playing the lead character. We then shaped the film over a number of weeks and he was nothing but pleasant to work with.
The film had a star-studded cast and we edited it in Santa Fe which is a fabulous place to work and we mixed it at what was Skywalker in San Francisco, which is beautiful, so all in all it was a wonderful experience and one I will never forget. Unfortunately the film just did not ignite and didn’t even get released in England which was a great shame but hey, you can’t win them all.
Tell us a bit about the creative difference between cutting something dark like Ex Machina and something light like About Time? Of course the core system/craft is the same but let’s hear what the differences are…
These two films could not be more different but the bottom line is, it’s all all about story telling and that’s hopefully what a good editor does.
I love comedy, especially good ones, and working with Richard Curtis on ‘About Time’ was a lovely experience. We’d worked together before indirectly as he’d written ‘The Girl in the Cafe’ that David Yates directed so I knew him from that and of course like Alex Garland he is a writer/director which can sometimes be problematical as some writer/directors are reluctant to lose any dialogue but neither Richard nor Alex were precious about their scripts and were totally willing to experiment and alter the narrative in order to improve the film.
With comedy it’s quite important to test the film a number of times to gauge where the ‘laughs’ come and where they can be improved. We did that with ‘About Time’ and it played quite poorly the first time we tested it in the UK and so we went back into the cutting room and re-assessed where it was working and where, according to the focus group and questionnaires it wasn’t. We then used that information and our own thoughts to recut various scenes, changed some of the temp music and when we took it to Los Angeles a few weeks later we got 95% which was very satisfying.
However that didn’t matter to Richard as he likes to noodle the cut which is fine and absolutely his prerogative, but I did printout pages with 95% on them and stuck them to the walls around the cutting room just as a reminder!
I couldn’t quite believe how good the script was for Ex Machina and read it three times before meeting Alex and the producers. I had never met Alex before and knew very little about him and as it was his first film as sole director I was a little wary that it could be quite a tricky experience. It couldn’t have been more the opposite as he is a very gifted director and knew exactly what he wanted and did not flip flop on anything. If the scene was working we would move on, if it wasn’t working we would experiment and reshape it and move on. He’s a very focused director and I am so proud of Ex Machina because I think it’s an excellent film and for the budget and schedule it had I think it’s way better than a lot of films made for ten times the budget
With something like Ex Machina, for example, we get a really good sense of where we are. Does geography and space become a constant consideration as well as character, story, pace? I.e. Were you and the director thinking of ways to ensure the actual shot selections allowed breathing space for the viewer, and weren’t too close too often
In Ex Machina we used those evocative landscape shots as mini montages and as a good way to transition from one scene or timeframe to another, especially as most of the film was shot within the house and could have become overly claustrophobic. The landscapes gave the viewer time to breathe as well as the characters in the film.
Could you walk us through the editing process on The Legend of Tarzan? Like, e.g. on Ex Machina you were actually based in Pinewood Studios, working on the rushes day to day – what was the workflow like on Tarzan?
As with most films in my experience the editor normally comes on board the day before they start shooting principal photography and this was the case with Tarzan. We were based at Leavesden Studios which is owned by Warner Bros and my assistants Hermione Byrt, Erline O’Donovan and Rachel Durance alongside our trainee Sam Shelton had already set up all the Avids linked to an Isis with the invaluable help of Hireworks who provided all the equipment.
Then the rushes started to flow in on a daily basis for the next twenty weeks with two units shooting multiple cameras so there was a fair amount of footage for my assistants to sync up, organise and hand over to me so that I could start editing the sequences together and because this film had a huge amount of CG in it we had to start handing over edited scenes to the visual fx department at a fairly early stage so they could start blocking in post viz (fairly basic animations) in order to get the pace, rhythm and narrative flow of the film working. I would show sequences to David Yates most days to get his feedback and we’d also go for walks in the morning when they were setting up for filming where we would discuss the sequences he’d seen or the scenes he was about to shoot which would give me good insight into what he intended to do.
I love working with David as he’s one of the nicest guys you could meet and very talented but with very little ego and totally open to suggestions and ideas which is a great way to make films as we both love to collaborate and try things out.
What challenges did you face on The Legend of Tarzan?
The biggest challenge was that we didn’t have a release date which meant we could carry on editing and that’s exactly what happened and it was a tricky film to ‘land’ for various reasons and I have never done so many versions on any film I’ve worked on as we had a lot of feedback from the studio executives over the many months we were editing. We hadn’t completed it by the time Fantastic Beasts started to shoot so I’d be editing Fantastic Beasts rushes in the morning then switching over to Tarzan in the afternoon which certainly concentrated the mind but in some ways it was very refreshing to switch from one project to the other as they are so totally different films in every way and I always find that if you step away from something you are editing and then come back the next day you see it fresh again and come up with different and sometimes better ideas.
We also had Tim Grover, our excellent post production supervisor orchestrating everything so well that we were able to run both films in tandem but I can’t deny it was a wee bit hairy every now and then.
And what about the 3D aspect? Do you cut in 3D to see what does and doesn’t work between that and 2D? Tell us a bit about your interplay with that part of things.
Tarzan wasn’t shot in 3D but we did a post conversion with Prime Focus in the UK and it is actually highly successful and really adds another dimension to the film, literally and metaphorically as there are some wonderful vistas and scenery that lends itself well to 3D.
I’m not usually a big fan of 3D I have to admit but if you have the time, as we did, to really get in there with the 3D conversion team and treat it like you would any part of the film making process, in other words be incredibly meticulous, then you can get very good results but it has to be handled diligently otherwise some shots can look ridiculous and that immediately takes you out of the story and ruins your enjoyment of the film.
Where do you see the next technological breakthrough/change to come, in terms of post-production workflow? Or what would you like to see happen/progress? Either with editing or filmmaking as a whole?
Here’s the thing, I’m not overly technical, in fact I leave most of that to my incredibly able assistants but when non linear editing first came into being all those years ago it was such a leap forward in technology it totally reinvigorated my love for the craft of editing and I just can’t imagine what could come next that would improve on that but there are some very smart people out there who are bound to come up with new technology that reinvents the wheel once again and I’m all for that as long as we can still do the basics, in other words, tell stories on whatever format appears over the next decade or so.
You’ve worked with Director David Yates several times – What would you say is key to building a successful working relationship between a Director and an Editor? And what are the benefits of working together time and time again?
It’s like having a good marriage (which by the way I do!) It’s based on trust, friendship and mutual respect for one another but unlike most marriages I know David and I have never had a cross word or argument in the sixteen years we have been working together which I think tells you how well we get on as friends and workmates.
It’s very special to enjoy working with someone time after time and that’s the thing, we have a good time, a good laugh and of course work hard but film making should be fun, OK it can be very stressful but we aren’t working down a mine or dealing with life and death, all we are trying to do is entertain people for two hours or so and make them forget about all their own troubles for that short amount of time and if you can have good fun doing that then so be it. Call me old fashioned but what could be nicer than that?
— Film Doctor (@film_doctor) May 16, 2016
What can make you say “No” to a project?
The only things that would make me say no to a project would be if the script was no good, as that’s where it all starts, with the writer and also, if on meeting the director we didn’t gel that would be awkward as one has to spend a huge amount of time together moulding and sculpting a film and if you don’t get on then it would be agony beyond imagining! Luckily I’ve never really had that problem. I’ve come close but managed to get through it unscathed and the thing is you learn something new from everyone and every film you work on.
Films to recommend? – Either as examples of stellar editing or personal favourites (or both)
So many, but in alphabetical order and you did ask! – Alien (the original) Amelie, Annie Hall, Amores Perros, Birdman, Chinatown, City of God, Citizen Kane, Don’t Look Now, Double Indemnity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ex Machina, The Godfather, The Ice Storm, Jaws, LA Confidential, Lawrence of Arabia, Oh Brother where art thou? One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, Seven, Sleeper, Some Like it Hot, Spinal Tap, There will be Blood, Terminator 2, Toy Story……..I could go on and on but all of these films have transported me in some way or another and just confirmed my love for films, the film industry in general and all the talent that exists within it.
What qualities do you feel a person has to have to be an editor?
Diplomacy, empathy, patience, tenacity, enthusiasm, passion and a damn good sense of humour.
What piece of advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers looking to follow in your footsteps?
I know how hard it is to get a break into editing drama these days but the best thing I think a young editor can do is edit as many short films or documentaries as possible with as many directors as they can because one day one of those directors may be offered a low budget feature film or an interesting TV drama and if you have formed a good friendship and good working relationship with them, then hopefully he or she will ask for you to edit that new project and from there other work may come your way.
The other advice is NEVER give up. It may take awhile but as long as you are passionate and dedicated to being a part of the film making and post production process then it will happen.
Thank you, Mark!
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