Evan Henke is the the talented editor behind Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston Christmas comedy Office Christmas Party, Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Brothers Grimsby and Seth Rogen and James Franco’s North Korea caper The Interview.
Today he joins us for another Film Doctor In Conversation.
Ladies and gentleman, meet Evan!
Tell us where you grew up, how you related to film growing up and how you specifically ended up choosing the role of editor?
I grew up in St. Louis and in Texas in a creative family. My mother was a school teacher and my father was the creative director at an advertising firm. My parents would have movie watching parties for friends and I would sneak in to watch whatever they rented. I think that’s why I’ve always seen movies as a medium that brings people together and start conversations.
I always wanted to work on movies but I didn’t find my love of editing until college. First year of school, I looked around and saw hundreds of students in film school who wanted to be directors, myself included. As the years went by, we all sort of fell into our niches and once I mastered the technology, editing was where I felt most comfortable and valuable.
Did you study film anywhere? How did you get your first film job and how did you maintain getting work?
I studied film at The University of Texas at Austin. My junior year, right about the time every college student starts to panic about what they are going to do after they graduate, I met someone who worked as a production assistant on a large studio film in Austin. I begged him to introduce me to anyone who could hire me as a PA. I found out where the production office was and brought my resume and a bottle of wine to the front desk. I told them that I’d do anything in any department. They needed a PA in the art department and I jumped at the chance.
The movie turned out to be Alan Parker’s, The Life of David Gale. I ended up taking a semester off of school and learned what it was like to work on a big production with very talented professionals. I went back to school for a year but I had the bug so when John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo came to Austin, I used contacts from the previous film to get a job in the art department.
I made great friends and those turned out to be the people who encouraged me to move to Los Angeles when I graduated. They helped me find my first work when I moved to LA.
Tell us about your big break?
By 2010, I had worked as an assistant editor on a handful of films. After landing the job of 1st Assistant Editor under the great Sally Menke on Inglourious Basterds, I moved on to the Seth Rogen film, The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry. I developed a good working relationship with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as well as Michel.
There came a time when the film needed another editor to keep up with all of the footage and changes. When the editor, Michael Tronick, was asked who he’d like to bring on to cut beside him, he chose me. It was a huge surprise and a tremendous honor. I felt like I had hit the assistant editor lottery. I was able to learn from Michael, one of the greatest in the business, and start my career as an editor.
You worked on projects with Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino and James Bobin (The Muppets) as an assistant. Tell us what you learned from those people and the editors you assisted.
I was very fortunate to work with smart, generous and talented editors in the beginning of my career. I assisted Ned Bastille on my first 3 studio projects and he became the model for how I want a cutting room run. In addition to being a great editor, Ned was a teacher and a mentor and always made the process fun.
I then had the opportunity to assist Sally Menke on Inglorious Basterds, which was a film show, so we had an Avid team and a film team. It was amazing to see how Quentin and Sally worked together. There was complete trust and today, it’s something I look for in relationships with my directors.
I assisted James Thomas and Alan Baumgarten on The Muppets and those guys are just pros. It was my first time working with two editors at the same time. It was a great experience because I’ve gone on to cut multiple projects with another editor.
It seems like it is becoming more common these days with comedies and I think it’s a great way to work. You always have someone to bounce ideas off of and, if the dynamic is right, you have a friend in the trenches.
Is comedy something you had always leaned towards? How do you feel cutting for comedy and drama/action differs?
I didn’t plan on working in comedy but it was where my path led me. I enjoy cutting comedy for a few reasons. First, I think it’s one of the more complicated genres. Jokes are like mini puzzles – you have to put the pieces together just right so the laugh lands. Those mini puzzles then have to fit into the larger puzzle of the story as a whole. That’s one of the challenges I love the most.
Second, when cutting comedy, I get to laugh everyday. Of course it’s difficult and there are always issues, but I get to see comedians do what they do best.
I think, whether you’re cutting comedy or action or drama, the goal is the same. Tell the best story you can and do it without being noticed. With comedy, you’re cutting the joke and with action, the punch, and drama, the emotion. But in the end, the story has to be king with all of them.
How did you make the transition from assistant editor to editor? Was that something you had to push or did it happen naturally?
I was rewarded with the opportunity to become an Additional Editor on The Green Hornet. I feel very lucky that I was able to make the transition on such a big project. After that, I had to take smaller projects to prove that I could do it at that level.
There was a time where I told myself, “I will not take any more assistant jobs.” I had to commit to editing and deal with pay cuts and smaller projects, but in the end it paid off.
What’s your work method on a project from first call, script read to picture lock/testing?
It usually starts by getting the script for the project. That’s where I’ll start to map the film out in my head. The editor isn’t around much for pre production so when the crew starts filming, that’s when I begin. I try to stay up to camera so it’s important to cut the material as it comes in so the director knows if they have all of the material they need or not.
As I’m cutting a scene, I usually break it into a beginning, middle and end. With improv comedy, you can get overwhelmed by the amount of footage and lose sight of the purpose of the scene. As I watch dailies, I make handwritten notes and use locators to mark things that I think might be valuable. I like to lay down a blueprint of the scene with very basic coverage. That way I know the scene is there.
Then I go back and incorporate the good moments I found earlier. I do a few passes of the scene and then I move on. With the help of my assistant editor(s), I’ll add SFX and music where needed.
Once all of the individual scenes have been cut, I’ll create a rough assembly and watch the initial cut of the film. It might be twice as long as the film’s final running time, but it’s a great way to see everything that was shot in context. From that point, we start working in reels, or about 20 minute chunks. The first round is the director’s cut. Together, we’ll experiment with structure and performance and go through a series of potential alternate jokes.
Once we have a cut that works beginning to end, the testing begins. We’ll screen the film for different sized audiences and learn what works and what doesn’t. We’ll try different jokes and move things around. A fresh audience is so important to a comedy. It helps with timing and identifying the slow parts that can bring a film down.
Once we have a cut that everyone is happy with, we go into the final phases of the process. The score will be recorded, final VFX will start coming in, and we start the color timing and final mix. That’s where a film really comes to life.
So tell us about Office Christmas Party from the first call/offer to release. How long was prep, how long was post, what did you have to consider with this project?
We had a relatively quick post production on Office Christmas Party. We wrapped production in May and had to lock final picture by the beginning of November. With this being a Christmas movie, we had a hard and firm date that we could not miss. Otherwise, we’d be a 2017 movie!
Since there were two editors (myself and Jeff Groth), we were able to manage the tight schedule. The fact that the film resonated with early audiences helped as well. We were in good shape from the get go so there wasn’t any major restructuring that we had to do that would have slowed things down.
Of course, there is always chaos but we had a great team and we’re able to get the movie locked and finished in time.
What were the challenges on this project?
I would say the biggest challenge was deciding which stories to tell. We had so many characters with their own arcs. We had to determine which ones served the movie the best. Sometimes that meant cutting wonderful storylines from minor characters which is always hard. It was amazing to see how audiences grabbed on to different characters.
During the early part of the Director’s cut, we would assume certain things would stay and things would be cut. Audiences would connect with this character or that more, or they might not react to a certain storyline. So we’d pull things out and put things back in.
We always had a great “A” story with our lead characters, Clay and Josh, but it was deciding which minor characters to surround them with that was a challenge.
It feels different to a lot of other Christmas comedies. It also feels very hinged in reality rather than in a comedy universe where anything can happen. Is that something that felt obvious from the script? And was that the idea you and the guys were going for?
One of the things that attracted me to Will and Josh is their comedic anchor in reality, which gives their work an authenticity that audiences can relate to. Everything you see is something that could happen.
Oftentimes, that’s a more difficult path in comedy, where the temptation is to simply create wacky situations for the sake of the joke. It was obvious in the script that they tethered their comedy to the everyday realities of office life.
With comedies do your Eddie Murphys, Jason Batemans and Sacha Baron Cohens come into the edit suite to look at gags and suggest things?
It differs from project to project. Some actors and actresses don’t want to see anything until the film is finished. Others want to be part of the process and I respect both styles.
I was fortunate to work with a few actors that were very involved in the process. Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Sacha Baron Cohen all produced the projects I worked on so it was very valuable to have them in the cutting room.
Seth Rogen especially has an amazing understanding of what audiences like and don’t like. He’s so confident with comedy and I think it shows in his work. Danny is a true collaborator and welcomes all opinions. Sacha’s respect of the audience drives a lot of his choices during the screening process.
They all work differently, but each know how to get the most out of the performances.
Tell us what it was like working with Josh and Gordon. How is it working with two directors? Do they split themselves into different areas? How does it work?
This was my first time collaborating with Will Speck and Josh Gordon. I had been fans of their work for a long time and I was excited to work with them. They have been directing together for so long that it was like working with one person.
You could have one or both of them in the cutting room, but nothing made it into the film until both had signed off on it. Josh is a master of the craft of filmmaking and loves the editing process. Will is a genius with performance and tone.
It was like two sides of the same brain. They are also really fucking cool guys.
What projects are you planning to work on in the future?
Having had jobs overlap continuously for over two years, I’ve taken a little break after Office Christmas Party. Now that I’m rested, I can’t wait to dig into something new. I always look for good projects — not just good scripts and productions, but good people. I want to help tell interesting stories that make the audience feel something.
It’s one of the great things about this job. Every year I get to become part of a different story.
What piece of advice can you give to an aspiring editor who wants to work on projects the scale you’re working on now – both technically/creatively and in terms of strategising a career?
I owe a lot of my success to the relationships I’ve made. Directors want to work with people they trust and can stand to be in a room with for months on end. It’s important to connect with the people you are working with instead of being a pair of hands executing commands.
Meet everyone you work with on the crew. You never know who may be looking for an editor one day.
Your favourite comedy films and/or Christmas films?
I’ll never turn the TV off if I see Raising Arizona. I was 13 when Dumb and Dumber came out so that’s gold for me too. Oh, and my dad showed my Stripes when I was way too young so that has always had a special place in my heart.
My favorite Christmas movie is Office Christmas Party!
Thank you Evan!!
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