Tell us a bit about your upbringing – where did you grow up, did you have a creative family and what was your relationship to film?
I grew up in Garden City, Long Island, a suburb of New York City. My dad headed up the computer/information systems for Penguin Books and other companies and my mom was a banker. I always loved movies, but we didn’t know anyone who actually worked on them.
When did you realise film – and specifically editing – was your calling, and how did you go about it? What exactly inspired you to choose editing and not, say, directing or producing or acting as your career?
I took some film courses in college. I found myself getting more and more obsessed with film. Also, one of my professors mentioned that editing was the final rewrite for films and I liked that idea. Additionally, I really enjoyed working in the edit room for hours and dealing with the footage and shaping it. So many factors come into play with editing: picture, sound, performance, and content.
Did you start out as an assistant ? If so for how long?
I was an assistant for a few months then I got the opportunity to edit a micro-budget feature, so I took it.
You seem to have worked quite steadily since 1992. How did you start and continue getting work?? Luck, proactivity, ‘networking’, hard work?
Well, I guess I was lucky to get involved with The Shooting Gallery when I was starting out. They were doing very low-budget movies and, even as a young inexperienced person, I got the chance to work on films right away. But, by and large, I think it is hard work and attention to detail that helps to keep one in the game and moving forward. I am not really much of a networker. I also think it is key to be patient sometimes and wait for good scripts.
This’ll vary obviously, but on average, how many cuts do you think you go through, both from first assembly through to something that resembles the final story – and from something that resembles the story to an exhibition/final cut?
The usual edit takes about six to eight months. From the first assembly to a final story version would be about a dozen different cuts or versions, maybe more. At the end, it would just be a couple of passes through the cut to go from a final story version to a locked cut.
On big projects, do you often have actors in the edit suite? If so, what sort of things get discussed?
Actors might come by occasionally to record an off-camera dialogue line that we need to add to a scene. Towards the end of the edit, we will let the actors and their reps see the film before we lock it.
On Tom McCarthy’s films, we have little rough cut screenings in the edit room every three weeks or so and Tom will invite actor friends from his previous films (not the current one) to come in and give feedback, along with filmmakers and other friends. On Spotlight, Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson came and saw the film and gave some good notes.
What’s the biggest change/upheaval you’ve had to do on a movie because the direction you guys had gone in wasn’t working, and why?
It was probably on a particular film a long time ago, where we did a lot of jump cuts and skipping around in time in a cut, sort of emulating The Limey, but then we went and looked at what we had done and realised that, oh no, it wasn’t working. So we changed it all back.
What’s your typical workflow? And how far do you go with sound?
I cut the first rough cut on my own while they are shooting, for the first couple of months. Then I show the cut to the director and we start working together and we do a pass through the movie and screen it every three weeks or so. We also usually do a two-day pick-up shoot during the edit. I work until the end of the sound mix.
You’ve worked on quite a few documentaries – how has this informed your narrative editing or vice versa?
In documentaries, I think you search for the essential piece of information that is needed and then try to get out and cut to the next thing. So you make a transition based on ideas. That type of style affects my narrative work. Also, doc edits can go on for a long time, so you get accustomed to trying to refine things further and further, in an attempt to whittle things down.
Do you work on set much?
I pretty much never go on set. I like to see what is on the screen in dailies as objectively as possible. I don’t want to know if a shot was difficult to get or if there was on-set drama.
What do you cut on?
How do you ‘refresh your eyes’ for the edit?
I think having the regular rough-cut screenings does that for me. Sitting behind a group of people watching the film puts you on the spot a little bit—it stresses you out. Then, that state of heightened sensitivity forces you to look at things anew.
I think I use the same approach for drama or comedy. It all just has to have a rhythm that feels “right.” Maybe in comedies there might be a few more cuts and a little more time spent in the coverage.
How was Lake’s process? Was it totally scripted or improvisational? What stage did you come on board?
Lake’s film was scripted but she would occasionally let the actors improvise a line here or there. I remember her letting Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro try various improvs. Work-wise, I started, as I usually do, at the beginning of the shoot.
So you’ll have seen absolutely dozens of performances, good and bad. You’ve worked with some amazing actors – Spotlight, for example, has just won a SAG award for ensemble. What makes for a good performance do you think?
I think it’s when every moment feels real. Tom McCarthy is great at casting his films (working with Barden/Buchan/Knight/Schnee). He also is great at getting a specific tone for the performances on-set. In the edit, Tom and I work at adjusting the performances for months.
How far do you take a sequence that needs work before going back to the movie as a whole? Because obviously you want that sequence to be great self-contained but, at the end, in most movies, it isn’t…
I guess I might work on a scene for half a day at most, before going back to work on other sections. It is important to see the film all together as many times as you can stand it during the process.
How involved are you in the pre-production and/production phase – both with Tom, on Spotlight and generally? Do you discuss the editing/pacing and how the story develops beforehand or does it unfold during? Do you give script notes on drafts with Tom for example?
I usually read a few drafts of the script and give notes. On some films, Tom and I will get together and have a meeting where we talk about every transition—which shot we end a scene on and then which shot we start the next one on, or maybe there is a pre-lap sound effect or something to help a transition. In terms of pacing, I think we have a general style that we are comfortable with, and on each film the pace evolves somewhat according to the needs of the story.
What challenges did you face on Spotlight and how did you overcome them? How long was post and why?
We focused a lot on clarity and pace. We found out in our little edit room screenings that people started connecting emotionally with the film when the first survivor, Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) came into the office, so then we went back and tightened everything before that scene and cut out as much as possible. We also found out that people didn’t like being away from the investigation too long during the 9/11 sequence, so we cut out a scene there. We also cut out some scenes about the reporters’ personal lives, because we just wanted to stick to the investigation. As for clarity, we did things like change some of Mark Ruffalo’s off-camera dialogue on the phone with Michael Keaton so that people could understand the importance of the documents.
We edited for eight months. We just wanted to keep refining the film. We cut out five scenes plus some segments of other scenes. Often we would just cut out a line or two to make a scene a little tighter.
READER QUESTION: “Loved how un-flashy Spotlight was. I’d be interested to your perspective on cutting something where the editing really was invisible, yet the whole thing was such a well crafted, tightly wound mechanism.”
I think it is always a goal to have the film feel as tight as possible, while avoiding over-cutting. In my opinion, the editor’s main priority is to serve the story–to make sure that it flows and that things are clear. I don’t think the edits should be flashy or call attention to themselves. If a viewer is noticing the edits, then maybe that person is getting bumped out of the story.
READER QUESTION – “Do you find working on material that dark takes an emotional toll? If yes, how do you reset your equilibrium?”
I felt this film was more about the reporters doing great work and pursuing the investigation. So that is mostly what I thought about. I didn’t let the darker aspects of the story affect me too much. But, in general, I think it is good to have hobbies and interests and other things to do after work and to try not to think about the film when you are not at work.
What’s one piece of advice to an aspiring Editor wanting to be in your shoes?
Study the editing in the films you love and make sure you have the right temperament for the job. Editing takes a lot of patience and the ability to focus on small details. It’s not a job for ADD types.
What top 10 films would you recommend to aspiring Editors or Filmmakers in general?
Well, looking over to my DVD shelf, I can pick out ten films that I currently love. This list is always changing. Some are perfect films, and some are imperfect but have interesting editing (for me):
All That Jazz
The Wild Bunch
Thank you, Tom, and the best of luck with the Oscars!