Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time with the editor behind new Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine western Hell or High Water – Jake Roberts!
Tell us a bit about your relationship to film growing up. Were you raised in a creative family?
My father is a screenwriter and my mother is an artist who has a lot of friends in the film industry so I grew up surrounded by that world.
I guess my love of film stems more from my dad who let me watch wildly unsuitable films like ‘Jaws’ and ‘American Werewolf in London’ at a very young age which left an indelible impression. This was during the advent of VHS so I also watched less shocking but equally formative films like ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’ literally hundreds of times by the time I was 10.
Cinema trips included ‘Star Wars’ at 2 months old, ‘Bladerunner’ at 5 in an open air theatre in Rome and the 25th anniversary reissue of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ when I was 9. I was completely captivated by these alien, adult worlds and so the only thing I ever wanted to be was a filmmaker.
When did you decide that film and editing in particular was what you wanted to do? You travelled around a bit in the early days it seems…?
Like I say as soon as I understood the concept that you had to do something for a living I always wanted to make films but editing happened by accident. I left school at 18 having decided that university would be a waste of time in terms of becoming a director, by then what I’d come to understand as a ‘filmmaker’.
I moved from London to New York and then Sydney doing whatever jobs I could find on or around movies and television. At various times working as a runner, art department assistant, directors assistant, lighting assistant and set builder in between stints as a waiter.
I did this for a few years but still felt a million miles from where I wanted to be and then I met a guy in a pub in Scotland who asked me if I’d ever thought about editing. I hadn’t but after a few beers he said he was starting a post production company and if I answered his phones and made the tea he’d teach me to use an Avid. So that’s where editing began for me.
What led you to Serious Facilities and why?
The company in question was called Serious Facilities and when I started there it was simply one Avid, my boss Simon (the guy from the pub) and myself. It was based in Glasgow so I moved there from London imagining that it would be about 6 months and simply be another string to my bow on my mission to becoming a director.
However as soon as I began to observe and learn about editing I realised that this was the closest thing I’d come across to my childhood fantasies of making films.
The alchemy that occurred when you juxtaposed certain images or performances and added music or sound effects was ‘filmmaking’ to me in the most literal sense. I’ve been editing ever since.
How did you make the transition from TV into feature films and how did you find the first foray into features? What changed for you process-wise?
I actually cut a feature very early on in my career. When I was 23, about two years after starting at Serious, I edited David Mackenzie’s first film ‘The Last Great Wilderness’ for his and Gillian Berrie’s company Sigma Films. I had no assistant and no experience working on anything longer than 10 minutes, mostly corporate videos up to that point, so I just made it up as I went along.
I’d receive the rushes each day on DV Cam tape, typically about two hours of material. First I had to clone them in real time, then I had to digitise the picture and audio separately, again in real time, sync them and create the bins. It was often 6 or 7 hours work before I could even start cutting, and that was the easy part.
I’d only edited one dramatic short before this so I didn’t have a clue in terms of craft or technique however I knew what I thought worked in storytelling terms so thanks to the arrogance of youth, basically not knowing enough to know what you don’t know, I muddled my way through learning as I went. Shortly after that David went on to make ‘Young Adam’ but the producers considered me too inexperienced (I don’t blame them) so we parted ways professionally but remained friends.
After that I drifted into documentaries and television for the next 6 years. It wasn’t until I had my first child that I realised I had to get my act together if I was ever going to get back to editing features so I turned down all documentary and factual work until I started to land drama jobs.
At first it was a few short films, then a TV drama before eventually recutting a feature for Sigma (‘Donkeys’) that had been languishing on the shelf. This led to my working with David again, 10 years after our last film, we made ‘Perfect Sense’ together. I have now cut 5 features for him.
In terms of process the difference between TV drama and film is minimal other than the time available and the pressure to hit cliff hangers every 10 minutes. The difference between documentaries and films is too varied to go into here except that it’s all fundamentally storytelling and your role as editor is to make the material be as articulate as possible no matter what the medium.
I still use a process cutting drama that I developed doing docs which is to lay all the rushes I like into a chronological timeline creating what I call a ‘palette’. I then assemble the scene by chipping away at it, so it becomes a somewhat sculptural process. Being self taught I’ve no idea if is this is normal or not?
When you work on a project like Starred Up, The Riot Club, Brooklyn or even Mr. Burberry – all projects which went on to get a lot of national attention – do you feel that importance and that potential attention during the edit?
Truthfully no. By that I mean you always feel pressure but for me never more than the first time I play a cut for a director. After that you work towards your producer screening, then your financier screening and then the test screening.
At each stage you’re working as hard as you can to preempt potential issues and address any feedback from the last screening. I get incredibly anxious before each one but you’re only ever thinking about that next audience rather than attention on a national scale.
The theory of the process is that if you navigate all those hurdles successfully then a wider audience will naturally follow, of course it doesn’t always work out that way.
You worked on Kanye West’s All Day/I Feel Like That. Tell us a bit about how you got that gig, what was interesting about that project and what it was like working with Kanye.
I was cutting the commercial ‘Mr Burberry’ with Steve McQueen and he bumped into Kanye one evening and they decided to do a music video together. I believe it was a Tuesday night and the video was shot on the Saturday.
I got the gig by virtue of being present and to say I edited it is a stretch because being Steve it was one shot and he only did 4 takes, so effectively all I did was choose take 4 (although I remember considering take 2). Easy work if you can get it. It did involve going to Amsterdam for 2 days to hang out with Steve so strolling around the canals with him is my abiding memory of it.
Tell us a bit about your dynamic with David Mackenzie. You’ve worked together on quite a few projects now. What makes you keep working together?
Over the 5 films and 15 years it’s obviously changed a lot and it continues to evolve with each film but we’ve developed a style of cutting very fast so that David can watch pretty sophisticated cuts of everything he’s shot at the end of each day. We then screen these cuts to the crew at the end of each week and then screen the whole film at the wrap party.
We’re able to do this partly because I know his taste so well that I make a majority of the same choices he would and partly because he trusts me enough that I can bypass the tedious process of doing an ‘assembly’, meaning a slavish representation of the script in it’s entirety, these tend to be both very long and full of beats that don’t quite work. Because of our history I’m able to go straight to trying to make the scene ‘play’ which often means losing parts or restructuring it.
I guess it’s the ability to have this short hand combined with our friendship that has kept us working together.
You’ll have seen a fair few performances by now – including Michael Fassbender, Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek – what do top level actors offer up/possess that makes them so good at what they do?
Firstly they’re all brave, I think it takes enormous guts to expose yourself in that way, initially in front of the crew and often hundreds of extras and then ultimately 50 feet tall in front of an audience of millions so as someone who likes to stay several miles behind the camera I’m in awe of that.
Now it just sounds like I’m sucking up to them but I also think you need a fairly high level of intelligence, even if it’s simply innate emotional intelligence. If you’re going to imbue a character with enough complexity and truth that an audience is prepared to spend 2 hours fixated by them you need to be pretty switched on to what makes human beings tick. I’m sure there are a few dunces that get away with it but certainly all the big names I’ve worked with have been bright.
After that they are of course each very different. Some are great at delivering their lines, some are brilliant at improvisation, others can convey incredibly complex emotions with a subtle change in facial expression. Any or all of the above and more besides.
And good looking doesn’t hurt.
Tell us a bit about Hell or High Water. What was the prep and post time on that? What interested you about the project and what was especially challenging?
I have never had a prep period on a film, I tend to arrive the day before the shoot and as long as someone has plugged in the Avid I’m good to go.
The post was I think fairly standard for an American film but felt long to David and I. We had a cut that everyone was pretty happy with after about 10 weeks but then we began a series of test screenings which somehow took months so having started in July we didn’t lock until February. No sooner had we locked than we cut another 7 minutes out the next week.
In terms of what attracted me to the project… The script was amazing, the dialogue, the characters, the sense of place just leapt off the page. Plus it was a chance to play with all that American cinematic iconography that I’d grown up with. Here we are, two guys who started off in a small room in Glasgow and we’ve got guns, highways, cowboys and Jeff Bridges. Hell yes!
The challenges were mostly about tone and pace. It’s a serious film but has plenty of laughs in it so we had to be careful not to let it get too heavy or too silly and walk a line between it’s extremes. Likewise we wanted the film to be languid in places and for the audience to be able to hear the space and the silences but equally for it to play plausibly as a mainstream thriller.
For me the most gratifying aspect of the response so far has been the number of comments on Rotten Tomatoes saying how well paced it is. Those last 7 minutes really counted.
What tech developments have you seen that you like, dislike and would like to see – both in filmmaking generally and specifically with editing?
For an editor I’m remarkably untechnical. 95% of what I do is in my head but of course you need to be able to translate that to the screen so I’ve certainly picked up some tricks along the way.
It’s only been recently that I’ve fully discovered the extent to which you can digitally alter the rushes to suit your needs. So for example you can have an actor say a line in a shot but you don’t want them to say their next line of dialogue (either it no longer fits the story or simply isn’t necessary), in the past that would force me to cut to a different shot, potentially now we can digitally freeze their mouth so we can hold the shot but lose the line. There are lots of digital adjustments like this that we are now able to make which add dimensions to your choices as a storyteller.
As an editor I love shooting digital because you tend to get more options because they need less lighting time so shoot faster plus it’s free (film is expensive, ones and zeros cost nothing once you’ve got the camera) but the standard of digital projection in cinema chains is appalling. When we were testing ‘Hell or High Water’ we put the same DCP on 3 different screens in the same multiplex and each one looked completely different, none of them good.
Likewise we work incredibly hard on the soundtrack and mix to something called Dolby 7 which is meant to be a globally standardised volume setting but then theatres play movies at Dolby 4 because they’re worried about the sound carrying through their badly built walls into the screen next door. I took my kids to see the new Star Wars and it was so quiet you had to lean forward in your seat to hear the dialogue.
Film and especially cinema going has so much competition from TV, video games, the internet and now virtual reality that surely the least we can do is ensure that the audience that pay their 20 bucks get the experience the filmmakers intended.
What advice would you give to an aspiring editor?
Never stop asking questions of the material. What do I (as the audience) want to see next? What information, be it visual or expositional, do I need to follow the story? What don’t I need? What is repetitive? Why don’t I like that character as much as I should? Why does it feel slow here? etc. etc. On, and on, and on…. for months. As far as I can tell that’s the whole trick.
Top tip to give to new/existing directors or producers that would make an editor’s life easier?
Don’t start shooting until you have a really well crafted script and the right cast in place. Yes we can ‘fix it in post’ but editing works best when you’re putting the icing on the cake not baking the whole bloody thing. It’s no coincidence that the best films I’ve worked on have been the best scripts with the best actors involved.
What films do you think are worth other filmmakers/editors checking out?
I don’t have anything avant garde or interesting up my sleeve but off the top of my head some films I love are… Jaws, Butch Cassidy, The Last Detail, Punch Drunk Love, Seven, JFK, Rust and Bone, Chinatown, Shame, Memento, Dr Strangelove, Sunset Boulevard, Out of Sight, Dog Day Afternoon, Groundhog Day, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, Attack The Block, Terminator 2, The Rock, Trains, Planes and Automobiles, Risky Business, The Colour of Money, Midnight Run, Spinal Tap, Hearts of Darkness, Gimme Shelter, When Harry Met Sally, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Irreversible. Something for all the family.
Thank you, Jake!
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