Category Archives: Director

Chatting with The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola

By Iain Blair

Sofia Coppola may belong to one of Hollywood’s most successful movie dynasties (see our recent interview with her mother, Eleanor), but she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum.

After making her acting debut in her dad’s iconic Godfather trilogy, and appearing in a number of his other films, Sofia gradually moved into writing and directing, and made her directorial debut with the 1999 feature The Virgin Suicides, which earned her an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker and marked her first collaboration with Kirsten Dunst.

Her next film, Lost in Translation, won her the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Picture (as producer).

Since then she’s made an eclectic group of films, including the sumptuous and playful Marie Antoinette, which starred Dunst in the title role, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and the hour-long holiday special A Very Murray Christmas. The latter received Emmy Award noms for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Music Direction and a DGA nom for its director.

Her latest film is The Beguiled, an atmospheric thriller that won its writer/director the Best Director award at Cannes recently. With an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning, the story unfolds during the Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school where its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries. Taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.

A Focus Features presentation of an American Zoetrope production, the film also features a behind-the-camera team that included Academy Award-nominated DP Philippe Le Sourd, editor Sarah Flack, production designer Anne Ross and executive producers Fred Roos, Ross, Roman Coppola and Robert Ortiz.

I recently met with Coppola to talk about making the film.

This is your first remake. What was the appeal of redoing the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film?
I didn’t know the Clint film. My production designer, Ann Ross, told me about it and said, “I think you need to remake it.” I was like, “I’ll never do a remake — what are you talking about?” But after I saw it, it just stayed in my mind and I thought it so weird and full of twists and all from a man’s point of view. So, I got the book it was based on and began thinking about writing it from the women’s point of view, and I loved that it had all these women, ranging from age 12 to their 40s. So it’s more like a reinterpretation.

What sort of film did you set out to make? It seems like you really embraced the whole Southern Gothic genre.
I did, completely, and that was so much fun since I’ve never done that before, but I also wanted to keep it in my style, with my voice, and also make it very entertaining and also, hopefully, artful.

You assembled a great female-heavy cast. Poor Colin, surrounded by all those women.
I know, and it took a real man to be able to handle it and also be an object for them — and Colin was definitely up to the task.

Any surprises?
All of them surprised me in some way or other. Nicole was exactly how I imagined she’d be as I writing it, but then she brought so much more to the role — and it was the same with Kirsten and Elle. It could easily have become female a camp-fest, but they all hit just the right notes and tone.

Is it true you shot at the same historic plantation Beyonce used for Lemonade?
Yes, Madewood, which is a two-hour drive outside of New Orleans. We did a lot of location work there and also at another plantation.

How long was the shoot?
Just 26 days, as we were pretty low budget, so it was a mad dash. That was very challenging, especially as we had so many young actresses playing schoolgirls. We’d be in the middle of a scene and half the cast would have to leave. But Nicole’s such a pro we would shoot her alone, then fill in stuff later.

Where did you do the post?
All in New York. My editor Sarah Flack lives there, and so do I. My great sound designer Richard Beggs, who’s done all my films, also came to New York for post. He did most of his work in Northern California, but came over for the mix.

Do you like post?
I do, very much. For me it’s a real relief to get there after the craziness of the shoot. You’re under so much time and money pressure on the set, and then you can finally sit down and try things out and actually start putting the film together. I really enjoy that part. I feel post is very manageable.

You worked with your longtime editor Sarah Flack. What did she bring to the project, and was she on set?
She stays in New York and cuts while we shoot. I always love working with her and sharing her feedback. She loved this project and all the humor, and she helped me from early on. I showed her the Don Siegel film, and we put together a short reel to show the studio, so they knew what we wanted to do. While I shoot, she lets me know if I have everything covered or if we need any pick-ups.

What were the main editing challenges?
Finding the right pacing and rhythm, because we wanted it to feel very slow, like those long, hot days, at the start, but then things start to pick up, so the pacing in the second half is much faster. Then finding the right tone is crucial, but Sarah and I are on the same page, so I feel we kept all the humor without it going full-camp.

There’s a great score by the French group Phoenix. Talk about the importance of sound and music in this.
As they say, it’s half the film, and after working with Richard Beggs for so long, I think far more about the sound and music than I did when I first began. I wanted this to have a lot of tension, so I wanted a very minimal approach. There are these electronic tones underlining that, and not taking away from the very rich visuals. I also wanted to really establish a sense of time and place, so you hear all the cannons in the distance, as the war is still happening all around them. Then you have that continual sound of the cicadas and nature around the school. All the sound design was very important in helping to tell the story.

Sound can be really challenging when it’s a period piece like this.
You’re right, and this was especially challenging as we shot some stuff in a home in New Orleans and the sound guys had to take out all the modern sounds like traffic, which wouldn’t even be noticeable in a contemporary piece.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there must have been a fair amount of VFX?
Yes, mostly for Colin’s leg and the amputation stuff, and then the scene with the chandelier, and with the sound — taking out a lot of modern visual stuff and clean up. We had a great VFX supervisor, Joe Oberle, who worked with Darren Aronofsky, and he did it all.

What about the DI?
We did it at Technicolor Postworks in New York, and the colorist was Damien Van Der Cruyssen. He did a great job. We shot in 35mm, and I wanted to keep that great film look through the DI, and I’m very happy with the look we got. I’m very happy with the way the whole thing turned out. It’s like I imagined it while I was writing it – only more so, as the actors and then all the post people bring so much more to it.
What’s next?
I don’t know. I don’t have anything lined up. It’s nice, but a little scary too.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
The good news is that there are so many young women going to film school now, so that’s changing. And with “Wonder Woman” being such a big hit, hopefully people will be more open to women directing and telling stories. I’d say, don’t take “no” for an answer. Just keep going. It’s always a struggle. The majority of executives are straight white older men who aren’t always interested in the sort of stories I’m interested in. I’m thrilled I was able to make this.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Paris Can Wait director Eleanor Coppola

By Iain Blair

There are famous Hollywood dynasties, and then there’s the Coppolas, with such giant talents as Francis, Sofia, Roman, Nic Cage and the late Carmine.

While Eleanor, the matriarch of the clan and Francis’ wife, has long been recognized as a multi-talented artist in her own right, thanks to her acclaimed documentaries and books (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, Notes on a Life), it’s only recently — at the grand age of 81 — that she’s written, produced and directed her feature film debut, Paris Can Wait.

Eleanor Coppola on set in France.

It stars Oscar-nominee Diane Lane as a woman who unexpectedly takes a trip through France, which reawakens her sense of self and her joie de vivre. At a crossroads in her life, and long married to an inattentive movie producer (Alec Baldwin), she finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a garrulous business associate of her husband. What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a journey of discovery involving mouthwatering meals, spectacular wines and picturesque sights.

Maybe it’s something in the water — or the famed Coppola wine, or her genes — but like her many family members, Eleanor Coppola seems to have a natural gift for capturing visual magic, and the French road trip unfolds like a sun-drenched adventure that makes you want to pack your bags and join the couple immediately.

I recently spoke with Coppola about making the film.

You began directing feature films at an age when most directors have long since retired. What took you so long?
I made documentaries, and my nature is to be an observer, so I never thought about doing a fiction film. But I had this true story, this trip I took with a Frenchman, and it felt like a really good basis for a road movie — and I love road movies — so I began writing it and included all these wonderful, picturesque places we stopped at, and someone suggested that we break down. Then my son said, “You should fix it,” so I gradually added all these textures and colors and flavors that would make it as rich as possible.

I heard it took a long time to write?
I began writing, and once I had the script together I began looking for a director, but I couldn’t quite find the right person. Then one morning at breakfast (my husband) Francis said, “You should direct it.” I’d never thought of directing it myself, so I took classes in directing and acting to prepare, but it ended up taking six years to bring all the elements together.

I assume getting financing was hard?
It was, especially as I’m not only a first-time feature director, but my movie has no aliens, explosions, kidnappings, guns, train wrecks — and nobody dies. It doesn’t have any of the usual elements that bankers want to invest in, so it took a long time to patch together the money — a bit here, a bit there. That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. You can’t get the actors until you have the financing, and you can’t get the financing until you have the actors. It’s like Catch-22, and you’re caught in this limbo between the two while you try and get it all lined up.

After Francis persuaded you to direct it, did he give you a lot of encouragement and advice?
I asked him a lot about working with actors. I’ve been on so many sets with him and watched him directing, and he was very helpful and supportive, especially when we ran into the usual problems every film has.

I heard that just two weeks into shooting, the actor originally set to play Michael was unable to get out of another project?
Yes, and I was desperate to find a replacement, and it was such short notice. But by some miracle, Alec Baldwin called Francis about something, and he was able to fly over to France at the last moment and fill in. And other things happened. We were going to shoot the opening at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, but a Saudi Arabian prince arrived and took over the entire hotel, so we had to scramble to find another location.

How long was the shoot?
Just 28 days, so it was a mad dash all over France, especially as we had so many locations I wanted to fit in. Pretty much every day, the AD and the production manager would come over to me after lunch and say, “Okay, you had 20 shots scheduled for today, but we’re going to have to lose four or five of them. Which ones would you like to cut?” So you’re in a constant state of anxiety and wondering if the shots you are getting will even cut together.Since we had so little time and money, we knew that we could never come back to a location if we missed something and that we’d have to cut some stuff out altogether, and there’s the daily race to finish before you lose light, so it was very difficult at times.

Where did you do the post?
All back at our home in Napa Valley, where we have editing and post production facilities all set up at the winery.

You worked with editor Glen Scantlebury, whose credits include Godfather III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Francis, Michael Bay’s The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers, Conair, The General’s Daughter and Tomb Raider. What did he bring to the project?
What happened was, I had a French editor who assembled the film while we were there, but it didn’t make financial sense to then bring her back to Napa, so Francis put me together with Glen and we worked really well together. He’s so experienced, but not just cutting these huge films. He’s also cut a lot of indies and smaller films and documentaries, and he did Palo Alto for (my granddaughter) Gia, so he was perfect for this. He didn’t come to France.

What were the main editing challenges?As they say, there are three films you make: the one you wrote, the one you shot and the one you then edit and get onto the screen. It’s always the same challenge of finding the best way of telling the story, and then we screened versions for people to see where any weaknesses were, and then we would go back and try to correct them. Glen is very creative, and he’d come up with fresh ways of dealing with any problems. We ended up spending a couple of months working on it, after he spent an initial month at home doing his own assembly.

I must say, I really enjoyed the editing process more than anything, because you get to relax more and shape the material like clay and mold it in a way you just can’t see when you’re in the middle of shooting it. I love the way you can move scenes around and juxtapose things that suddenly work in a whole new way.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
They’re so important, and can radically alter a scene and the emotions an audience feels. I had the great pleasure of working with sound designer Richard Beggs, who won the Oscar for Apocalypse Now, and who’s done the sound for so many great films, including Rain Man and Harry Potter, and he’s worked with (my daughter) Sofia on some of her films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.

He’s a master of his craft and helped bring the film alive. Also, he recommended the composer Laura Karpman, who’s won several Emmys and worked with Spielberg and John Legend and all sorts of people. Music is really the weakest part for me, because I just don’t know what to do, and like Glen, Laura was just a perfect match for me. The first things she wrote were a little too dark, I felt, as I wanted this to be fun and light, and she totally got it, and also used all these great finger-snaps, and the score just really captures the feeling I wanted. We mixed everything up in Napa as well.

Eleanor Coppola and writer Iain Blair.

Do you want to direct another feature now, or was once enough?
I don’t have anything cooking that I want to make, but I’ve recently made two short story films, and I really enjoyed doing that since I didn’t have to wait for years to get the financing. I shot them in Northern California, and they were a joy to do.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
Well, first off, it’s never too late! (Laughs) Look at me. I’m 81, and this is my first narrative film. Making any film is hard, finding the financing is even harder. Yes, it is a boy’s club, but if you have a story to tell never give up. Women should have a voice.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Dell 6.15

1stAveMachine makes coffee for Nespresso

People take their coffee very seriously. They want it brewed and served in a certain way, and any aberration could ruin the entire experience. With this in mind, 1stAveMachine and director Roman Rütten showcased the intricate brewing process of the Nespresso VertuoPlus (for agency 360i) in a mysterious way that actually shows little of the machine itself.

“You’re taken on this really interesting journey, and in the end this complex structure collapses into the actual machine, which makes it feel quite slick and sophisticated,” says Rütten. “We’re making the complex, hidden art of coffee-making from the inside look simple.”

1stAveMachine got involved in the project early on. “We really collaborated with the agency to come up with a concept that deconstructs the Nespresso machine and shows coffee brewing in an artistic way,” explains Rütten. “We wanted to inspire and surprise people with visuals that are usually hidden inside a coffee machine.”

Highlighting the inner workings of Nespresso’s VertuoPlus required a bit of creativity since all parties agreed to shoot everything in-camera. “We had to basically create a rig to show something in a way it has never been seen before while working with the real coffee on a macro level in high-speed,” he explains. “It’s just a really fragile process of fine-tuning adjustments, which just adds a lot of variables to the shoot as we’re dealing with real physics. So, you need the patience to keep pushing for the perfect shot. It can come quick or take a little bit longer, but in the end, every shot looked really pretty and very classy when we walked away from it.”

Why not go the visual effects route?  “An in-camera approach may add complexity but also creates a warm and tactile feel,” explains Rütten. “There is something really intimate about working with the product on a macro level like this, which you might not get when strictly using post. A practical approach is more difficult to achieve and replicate which shows a certain level of expertise and craft. This works really well with the Nespresso brand and their level of craft that goes into the development of their products.

The spot was was developed over a period of weeks and shot in two days with a Phantom and Bolt rig. “These were really challenging and long days since we were dealing with real physics at a macro level and just a slight adjustment gives a complete different result,” reports Rütten.

According to the director, embracing the spontaneity and unpredictability of any shoot can lead to such an ultimately rewarding result. “With an interesting creative concept, some unconventional framing and the natural epic-ness of high-speed photography, you get some really stunning results that are quite mesmerizing,” he says. “Every time it’s slightly new and we always learn a lot about how certain rigs perform and physics react. You try to set up the stage with some interesting variables and embrace happy accidents. When no take looks the same, it’s a blessing and curse at the same time. But with the right patience and talented crew, we can push the boundaries, come in with some fresh ideas and try to have a little fun.”

The spot was edited in Adobe Premiere and color graded in Blackmagic Resolve.


David Michôd on directing Brad Pitt’s latest, War Machine

By Iain Blair

Aussie writer/director David Michôd first burst onto the scene with his 2010 feature film debut Animal Kingdom, a gritty crime drama that won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and 10 Australian Film Institute awards. The film was also earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).

David Michôd

Michôd followed that up with his second feature film, The Rover, a dystopian drama set in near future Australia following a global economic collapse. It starred Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

His new film, War Machine, was inspired by the book “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” by the late journalist Michael Hastings. It stars Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a successful, charismatic four-star general who leaps in like a rock star to command coalition forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by the quagmire of war, his own hubris and a journalist’s no-holds-barred expose.

Joining Pitt in this cautionary tale of the rise and fall of a larger-than-life military hero is a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace, John Magaro, Alan Ruck and Meg Tilly.

Michôd also assembled an accomplished team behind the camera, including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, production designer Jo Ford, editor Peter Sciberras and sound designer Sam Petty. War Machine has premiered globally on Netflix and opened in select theaters on May 26.

I recently talked to Michôd, who began his career making short films, about making the film, working with Pitt and his love of post.

What was the type of film you were trying to make with War Machine?
Something that was bat-shit crazy! That’s kind of glib, but it’s true. I’d been looking for a way into a war film for a while, and given my natural sensibilities I thought it would be a dark and menacing rumination on the horrors of war. Then when Plan B gave me Hastings’ book and I just couldn’t put it down. I began to see the film as a much larger thing, although I never lost sight of that kernel of an idea I initially had for a war film.

Suddenly the world around that idea got bigger and wilder and more interesting. I began to see a movie about the entire war machine, a multi-layered story that spanned the sort of hubristic buffoonery at the top levels, and the real impact and grave consequences that had on the troops on the ground. There was this huge chasm between them. So, I wanted to make a film about that absurd delusion at the top, but also the real horrors of war.

How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning black comedy and the increasingly serious nature of the film?
It was very challenging, but the way to deal with it was to stay true to the tones we’d chosen to use, and to use them to show the huge disconnection between the upper and lower levels of the machine. So, I amplified those two tones — the black comedy and the seriousness of the situation. Where the movie starts to shift tonally is with the intimate scenes around Brad’s character, and that begins with the scenes with his wife, played by Meg Tilly. You start to see something underneath all the braggadocio for the first time. You see the ambitious little boy inside this man through her eyes, and around then the edifice starts to crumble.

What did Brad Pitt bring to his role?
He really got the character and the arc, from this vain, ambitious, comically-heightened general to a tragic figure. Today, these top generals often seem to be more academic, but this guy is more old school — the kind of guy who still thinks he’s like some great WWII general, like a MacArthur or a Patton. Brad loved that concept and really ran with it.

Any surprises working with him?
Not really. When I began writing this, it was under the assumption I’d be writing it for Brad, although it wasn’t guaranteed he’d play it. But that was the plan, and I was excited to write it in this comedic vein for him, as I think he’s been under-used in comedy roles. Usually, they’re just supporting roles here and there, like Burn After Reading and Inglourious Basterds, but this was a chance for him to use that skill set in a much larger way, as I wanted McMahon to be amplified and absurd, yet also sympathetic. I felt we should just swing for the fences and go big and go delusional. I knew he would do a great job with the character, and he did.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
The big one was finding the right desert locations to stand in for Afghanistan, as we obviously couldn’t shoot there, and it’s not easy to recreate all its different terrains. We had to find somewhere in that part of the world to shoot, but so much of it now is very volatile. All the old go-to places like Jordan and Morocco are becoming tricky if you’re there for a long time with a high-profile cast. We also needed somewhere with access to all this military gear, and we knew we wouldn’t get any co-operation from the US military.

In the end, we used the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which stands in for Afghanistan, and then we did most of the interiors on London soundstages. We also shot stuff in Paris, Berlin and LA. The great thing about the UAE was that we had access to all the military hardware we needed, and the moment we started shooting there you could just feel the scope of the movie opening up. You’re looking at all the tanks and the Black Hawk helicopters and the hardware, and you start to feel the frighteningly attractive pull of it all, its raw power. I could really understand how if you were in charge of all this machinery, how it could start to make you feel very powerful. It’s a bit like a drug. If any one of these elements had collapsed, we probably couldn’t have made the movie, but it all fell into place.

How tough was the shoot?
We shot over 55 days, and it was tough because you had the heat and dust and so on, but no tougher than usual. Despite its size, it honestly didn’t feel any harder than making any of my shorts. When you’re on set and the clock is ticking, it’s the same anxiety, adrenaline and sense of joy of creating something out of nothing.

Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, the editing and doing the sound — the whole thing. Like the shoot, we were all over the place doing post. We began cutting in Sydney for four months and then moved up the coast for a while so we could work alongside my sound designer, Sam Petty. Then we moved everything to Goldcrest in London for another four months. The plan was to finish post there, but this movie’s so complex, with so many colors and layers, that we decided to keep working on it and then moved to LA for another four months, and kept cutting there and then went back to London to finish off the music and VFX and other stuff. It ended up being about a year on post.

You cut this film with editor Peter Sciberras. How did that relationship work?
He wasn’t on set, as he feels redundant and in everyone’s way, but he followed us around while we shot so we could talk and I could have a look every day. But I don’t like to pore over my dailies while I’m shooting. We shot Sony CineAlta 4K digital with three cameras often, so there was more footage than he knew what to do with. The big challenge in editing was dealing with that complex, strange triangle between politics, information and tone. The essence of the movie didn’t really change over that year — just the way in which we were framing it. We spent a lot of time getting that framing right.

Can you talk about the importance of the film’s music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the sound design by Sam Petty?
Because we were making a movie about the insanity of war, I wanted it to have that schizophrenic tone, and that fed into how we dealt with all the sound design and music. Sam did an amazing job, and I just love the music that Nick and Warren did, as it really embodies the tone I wanted. Their music drifts in and out of tones and tunes and time with all these layers. Really, it makes no sense, yet it all hangs together. We did the mix at Goldcrest.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a role. Who did them?
BlueBolt in London, and we had a lot, mainly recreating the look of Afghanistan, set extensions, augmentations, clean-up and so on.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Also at Goldcrest, and it’s so vital now, especially with this brave new world of streaming. The danger is you spend so long on your theatrical grade, yet this is a movie that’s largely going to be streamed. That applied to my last two movies; I spent two weeks doing a beautiful theatrical grade when they were mainly being seen on cable TV. The challenge is for me to pay as much attention in the DI to all the different platforms and formats out there now. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

What’s next?
Not sure. I always come out of a movie feeling like I never want to make another. I need a break to recharge.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


Behind the Title: Sibling Rivalry director Gerald Ding

NAME: Gerald Ding

COMPANY: Sibling Rivalry

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Sibling Rivalry is a creative studio that combines immersive storytelling with a distinct design sensibility. It was founded by Joe Wright, Mikon van Gastel and Maggie Meade in 2011.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Directing a commercial, short film or music video is similar to being a chef at a restaurant. You handpick a team of individuals based on their specific talents to execute the vision you have in mind. It’s up to the director to bring out the best performance from each person working on the film for it to become what you imagined.

House of Marley

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I think the misconception about directing is that you’ve got to be difficult to work with if you want to be respected in this industry. I don’t believe that. I think how you present yourself and treat others is just basic common sense and respect. You can find your way of communicating what’s important to you while staying focused on the bigger picture.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
When there’s a genuine mutual respect and trust between the artists you’re collaborating with; it really elevates the project and raises my expectations because it evolves into something greater than what I first imagined it as.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My least favorite part of the job is not working!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
The time that I can get a coffee in my hand.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’d like to think I’d still be making something that I could show or share with my friends.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I think the excitement of watching films as a kid never left me. I still remember each film and how it affected me, and I loved talking about them after and retelling the stories I had seen. I got into directing so I could tell my own stories, but now the process of making a film is more exciting to me than watching one.

I got into directing through animation because I saw Akira as a kid and wanted to be an animator. As a character animator you’re stoked on just owning a sequence or portion of the film, but eventually I just wanted to work on the whole story and got into directing.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
HPE Tech Actually, G-Dragon x Airbnb Superstar Superhost, Google Android Handshake and House of Marley The Get Together.

Tech Actually

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I’m currently working on a short documentary about this female fighter; we just filmed a portion of it in Belarus. It’s nowhere close to being finished right now but there’s a lot of great talent involved and it’s a story I’m really excited about.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My 35mm film camera Fuji Klasse S film camera (RIP, I’m sorry I broke you), my future Contax T3 35mm point-and-shoot and my Miele washing machine (it’s a life goal after years of renting apartments in New York).

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Instagram

CARE TO SHARE YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC TO WORK TO?
Filming on set I don’t listen to music unless it’s a part of the scene. I always have hip-hop and RnB in my head but when I’m writing treatments or scripts I usually listen to Frank Ocean or some sad girl pop. I don’t know why, but it works.

THIS IS A HIGH-STRESS JOB WITH DEADLINES AND CLIENT EXPECTATIONS. WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I just try to do my best each time and show up prepared because it’s a privilege for me to be here and I embrace all of it, good and bad. I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu jitsu for quite some time so hard sparring with your friends is a great way to get rid of stress (as well as your ego).


The A-List: Director Ron Howard discusses National Geo’s Genius

By Iain Blair

Ron Howard has done it all in Hollywood. The former child star of The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days not only successfully made the tricky transition to adult actor (at 22 he starred opposite John Wayne in The Shootist and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but went on to establish himself as an Oscar-winning director and producer (A Beautiful Mind). He is also one of Hollywood’s most beloved and commercially successful and versatile helmers.

Since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto (when he was still on Happy Days), he’s made an eclectic group of films about boxers (Cinderella Man), astronauts (Apollo 13), mermaids (Splash), symbologists (The Da Vinci Code franchise), politicians (Frost/Nixon) firefighters (Backdraft), mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind), Formula One racing (Rush), whalers (In the Heart of the Sea) and the Fab Four (his first documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week).

Born in Oklahoma with showbiz in his DNA — his parents were both actors — Howard “always wanted to direct” and notes that “producing gives you control.” In 1986, he co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer, a powerhouse in film and TV (Empire, Arrested Development) production. His latest project is the new Genius series for National Geographic.

The 10-part global event series — the network’s first scripted series — is based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” and tracks Albert Einstein’s rise from humble origins as an imaginative and rebellious thinker through his struggles to be recognized by the establishment, to his global celebrity status as the man who unlocked the mysteries of the cosmos with his theory of relativity.

But if you’re expecting a dry, intellectual by-the-numbers look at his life and career, you’re in for a big surprise.

With an impressive cast that includes Geoffrey Rush as the celebrated scientist in his later years, Johnny Flynn as Einstein in the years before he rose to international acclaim and Emily Watson as his second wife — and first cousin — Elsa Einstein, the show is full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

We’re mostly joking, but the series does balance the hard-to-grasp scientific theories with an entertaining exploration of a man with an often very messy private life as it follows Einstein’s alternately exhilarating emotions and heartlessness in dealing with his closest personal relationships, including his children, his two wives and the various women with whom he cheats on them.

Besides all the personal drama, there’s plenty of global drama as Genius is set against an era of international conflict over the course of two world wars. Faced with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, surveillance by spies and the potential for atomic annihilation, Einstein struggles as a husband and a father, not to mention as a man of principle, even as his own life is put in danger.

I talked recently with Ron Howard about directing the first episode and his love of production and post.

What was the appeal of doing this and making your scripted television directorial debut with the first episode?
I’ve become a big fan of all the great TV shows people are doing now, where you let a story unfold in a novelistic way, and I was envious of a lot of my peers getting into doing TV — and this was a great project that just really suits the TV format. Over the years, I had read various screenplays about Einstein but they just never worked as a movie, so when National Geographic wanted to reach out to their audience in a more ambitious way, suddenly there was this perfect platform to do this life justice and have the length it needed. It’s an ideal fit, and it was perfect to do it with National Geographic.

Given that you had considered making a film about him, how familiar were you with Einstein and his life? How do you find the drama in an academic’s life?
I thought I had some insight, but I was blown away by the book and Noah Pink’s screenplay, and everyone on the team brought their own research to the process, and it became more and more fascinating. There was this constant pressure on Einstein that I felt we could work with through the whole series, and that I never realized was there. And with that pressure, there’s drama. We came very close to not benefiting from his genius because of all the forces against him – sometimes from external forces, like governments and academic institutions, but often from his own foibles and flaws. He was even on a hit list. So I was really fascinated by his whole story.

What most surprised you about Einstein once you began delving deeper into his private life?
That he was such a Lothario! He had quite a complicated love life, but it was also that he had such a dogged commitment to his principles and logic and point-of-view. I was doing post on the Beatles documentary as we prepped, and it was the same thing with those young men. They often didn’t listen to outside influences and people telling them it couldn’t be done. They absolutely committed to their musical vision and principles with all their drive and focus, and it worked — and collectively I think you could say the band was genius.

Einstein also trusted his convictions, whether it was physics or math, and if the conventional answers didn’t satisfy his sense of logic, he’d just dig deeper. The same thing can be said for his personal life and relationships, and trying to find a balance between his career and life’s work, and family and friends. Look at his falling in love with his fellow physics student Mileva Maric, which causes all sorts of problems, especially when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. No one else thought she was particularly attractive, she was a bit of an outcast as the only female physics student, and yet his logic called him to her. The same thing with politics. He went his own way in everything. He was a true renaissance man, eternally curious about everything.

In terms of dealing with very complex ideas that aren’t necessarily very cinematic, it must have helped that you’d made A Beautiful Mind?
Yes, we saw a lot of similarities between the two. It really helped that both men were essentially visualists — Einstein even more so than John Nash. That gave us a big advantage and gave me the chance to show audiences some of his famous thought experiments in cinematic ways, and he described them very vividly and they’re a fantastic jumping-off point — it was his visualizations that helped him wrap his head around the physics. He began with something he could grasp physically and then went back to prove it with the math. Those principles gave him the amazing insights about the nature of the universe, and time and space, that we’ve all benefitted from.

I assume you began integrating post and all the VFX very early on?
Right away, in preproduction meetings in Prague, in the Czech Republic, where Einstein lived and taught early in his career. We had our whole team there on location, including our VFX supervisor Eric Durst and his team, DP Mathias Herndl, our production designers and art directors and so on. With all the VFX, we stayed pretty close to how Einstein described his thought experiments. The one that starts off this first episode is very vivid, whereas the first one he has as a 17-year-old boy is done in a more chalk-board kind of way, where he faints and can barely hang on mentally to the image. All the dailies and visual effects were done by UPP.

Where did you do the post?
We did all the editing and sound back in LA.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love the edit and slowly pulling it all together after the stress of the shoot.

It was edited by James Wilcox, who’s done CSI: Miami and Hawaii Five-O, along with Debby Germino and J. Kathleen Gibson. How early was James involved and was he on set?
Dan and Mike weren’t available. It’s the first time I’d worked with James and he’s very creative and did a great job. He wasn’t on the set, but we were constantly in communication and we’d send him material back to LA and then when I got back, we sat down together.

The show constantly cuts back and forth in time.
Yes, I was fascinated by all those transitions and I worked very closely with my team to make sure we had all that down, and that it all flowed smoothly in the edit. For instance, Johnny Flynn plays violin and he trained classically, so he actually plays in all those scenes. But Geoffrey doesn’t play violin, but he practiced for several months, and we had a teacher on set too. Geoffrey was so dedicated to creating this character.They both looked at tons of footage of Einstein as an older man, so Johnny could develop aspects of Einstein’s manner and behavior as the younger one, which Geoffrey could work with later, so we had a real continuity to the character. That’s a big reason why I wanted to be so hands-on with the first episode, as we were defining so many key aspects of the man and the aesthetics and the way we’d be telling the whole story.

Can you talk about working on the sound and music?
It’s always huge to me and adds so much to every scene. Lorne Balfe wrote a fantastic score and we had a great sound team: production sound mixer Peter Forejt, supervising sound editor Daniel Pagan, music editor Del Spiva and re-recording mixers Mark Hensley and Bob Bronow. For post production audio we used Smart Post Sound.

The DI must have been important?
It was very important since we were trying to do stuff with the concept of time in very subtle ways using the camera work, the palette and the lighting style. This all changed subtly depending on whether it was an Einstein memory, or a flashback to his younger, brasher self, or looking ahead to the iconic older man where it was all a little more formal. So we went for different looks to match the different energies and, of course, the editing style had to embody all of that as well. The colorist was Pankaj Bajpai, and he did a great job.

What’s next?
I plan to do more TV. Remember, I came out of TV and it’s so exciting now. I’m also developing several movie projects, including Seveneves, a sci-fi film, and Under the Banner of Heaven which is based on the Jon Krakauer bestseller. So whatever comes together first.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


Saturday Night Fever director John Badham looks back 40 years

By Iain Blair

English-born director/producer John Badham had never even been to Brooklyn, and admits that he “also didn’t know much about disco and dancing” when he took on the job of directing Saturday Night Fever. But that didn’t stop him from capturing the colorful street life of the gritty borough and making one of the most beloved, joyful and seminal films of the late ‘70s.

John Badham on the set of Saturday Night Fever.

With John Travolta’s electrifying Oscar-nominated performance (which launched his movie career), the Bee Gees’ earworm soundtrack (including mega-hits “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love”), and, of course, the unforgettable dancing (and that white suit), Saturday Night Fever perfectly captured the angst, hopes and disco-mania of a simpler time and had an indelible impact on popular culture.

Forty years later, the film about a Brooklyn kid with no prospects who lives for Saturday night continues to resonate, and Badham worked with Paramount in 2016 to restore the film in 4K using the original negative and update the surround sound mix to further enhance the soundtrack. During this process he also added scenes to the theatrical R-rated version that round out character and plot, making it the definitive representation of his original vision.
The result is the 40th anniversary brand-new Director’s Cut of Saturday Night Fever, which arrived on Blu-ray and DVD on May 2 from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD.

Over a career that has now spanned five decades, Badham has directed over 60 projects, including the films WarGames, Short Circuit, Bird on a Wire and Stakeout, and popular TV shows as Supernatural and Psych. He’s also written books on his craft, including “John Badham on Directing,” and heads Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts directing program.

I talked recently with Badham about Saturday Night Fever, his long career and his love of production and post.

How do you look back on Saturday Night Fever?
If you’d told me 40 years ago we’d be talking about it today I’d have never believed you. We made what we felt was a good movie — but it was a small movie, just $2.5 million, and to be frank, it was intended as a place-holder for John Travolta while he was waiting to shoot Grease. That was how the studio viewed it, but I was thrilled as I had an amazing script, the best I’d seen in years, and it really spoke to me. It was so powerful, and coupled with the Bee Gees’ music, I felt it was irresistible. But a lot of people were worried that the movie wouldn’t last, that it would be here and gone. Instead it turned into this huge hit.

How do you explain its lasting appeal?
Some people like to say it’s the dancing and music, and I know that’s part of it, but I really believe it’s mainly the strength of the characters and how we see ourselves in them, wishing for more exciting, better lives, and the chance to escape the dreary world we’re in. Audiences all over the world seemed to feel the same way.

It made Travolta a star. What did he bring to the role?
Talk about perfect casting. He had this tremendous life force and energy and appeal that he brought to it, along with an innocence and darkness to his character. Tony Manero is this funny, cute kid, but there’s also this really dark side to him. There’s a lot of anger and resentment, and he’s mean to the women and his parents. He’s trying to be one of the cool guys on the street, the gang leader, and he has this wild, wacky sense of humor, but he’s also very nervous around girls who give him a hard time. We see ourselves in that confused mix of behavior.

What were the biggest challenges of restoring it and redoing the mix?
Restoring any film is a huge job, and we had to go through every single frame of 10,000 feet of film times 24 frames. Every frame has to be looked at and examined and fixed for any scratches, damage and flaws, as well as things that weren’t quite right in the first place because we shot this so fast and on such a low budget. Now it looks better than our original release print, and it certainly sounds a lot better. Thank God we were able to fix the Dolby mix, because the original was Dolby 1.0 stereo for 35mm and it was still really buggy back then. So our new 5.1 Dolby mix is out of the surround speakers. Back in ’77, 95% of our prints were mono because we had so much trouble with it, and we just had 25 stereo prints. So this is like a whole new film.

You basically redid post on the film. Do you like post, and why?
Post is my favorite part of the whole process because you have control of almost all the elements — and where you don’t, you can repair it in post. It’s where you’re molding the material into the image you have in your mind, and it’s wonderful to be able to have that ability.

What are the biggest changes in post you’ve seen since you started?
It’s miraculous what we can do now thanks to the digital revolution, especially in editing, sound and VFX, compared with what you used to be able to do. When I began on mixing stages, you had to mix 10 minutes of material at a time, one pass straight through, and if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Now it’s all digital and sound possibilities are endless. Tools like Avid have freed up and sped up editing, and systems like Dolby Atmos jack up the level of excitement in a theater. I’m a big fan of digital.

You began your career in TV, and currently you are mainly working in TV. How has the TV landscape changed?
It’s unrecognizable, and it’s blossomed beyond belief — both creatively and in business terms. It’s gone from the three main networks and PBS to hundreds and hundreds of channels and platforms like Netflix, Amazon, HBO and so on. That means both the quantity and quality have really gone up. I’m watching the new Fargo, and thinking, “What a great show — as good as any movie.” And TV is doing stuff now that no one dares do in movies anymore, because it’s so willing to take risks, and the writing is so strong.

You’re also still teaching. What advice would you give to a young person wanting to become a director?
I’d say, thank God we can make films even with our iPhones. Ten years ago you wouldn’t even think of it. That’s what you have to do — get out and make a film that you can then show and discuss with people. Sitting about and reading and thinking about it won’t get you anywhere. You have to get out and actually do it.

What’s next?
I’m just about to start shooting the third season of the ABC sci-fi murder mystery Stitchers, which I love doing. I’m also doing a lot of Supernatural, which is now in its 13th season, and I really enjoy that too. I’d love to do more movies, but getting financing is so hard now, and TV keeps me very busy.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The A-List: Veteran director Walter Hill

By Iain Blair

Over the course of a long and storied career, writer, director and producer Walter Hill has done it all. His career began in the early 1970s with screenplay credits for The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, and The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 1975, he made his directorial debut with Hard Times, a Depression-era street fighting drama starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Since then, his projects have ranged from classic sci-fi (Alien) to classic westerns (The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill) and from action-packed thrillers (Extreme Prejudice) to buddy comedies (48 Hours, Another 48 Hours).

With his unique visceral style, Hill also made a successful foray into television, receiving both the Emmy and DGA Awards in 2005 for the pilot of the neo-western Deadwood. He also directed AMC’s acclaimed Emmy Award-winning debut television movie, Broken Trail, and was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards — he won an Emmy for producing and a DGA award for directing. Hill was also executive producer of the Emmy-nominated series Tales from the Crypt.

He has also written two graphic novels, which have been published in France, the second of which served as the basis for his provocative new film, The Assignment. The neo-noir, pulpy thriller, which he co-wrote with Denis Hamill, stars Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia. It tells the story of hitman Frank Kitchen, who is given a lethal assignment, and after being double-crossed discovers he’s not the man he thought he was — he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman (Rodriguez). Seeking vengeance, Frank heads for a showdown with the surgeon (Weaver) who transformed him.

I talked with Hill, whose eclectic credits also include Brewster’s Millions and Bullet to the Head, about making the film.

Many movies take years to get made, but this must be some kind of record — it’s been nearly 40 years since you first read a script for it. Why the long wait?
Denis wrote it back in ’76, and I was very taken with it. I thought it was an amazing and very unusual revenge story with some great twists, but I was very busy with other projects, and time went by before I called Denis and optioned the material. I then co-wrote a script, which I didn’t like, and so I let it go. About 20 years went by, and some five years ago I came across Denis’ original script in my basement, read it, still loved it and called Denis to find out if the rights were available. So I re-optioned it and this time figured out how to do it.

Walter Hill, directing The Assignment.

You did this as a graphic novel first. How did that help in terms of realizing the film version?
I think having done Tales from the Crypt and my first graphic novel in the meantime, all that really helped with my visual approach this time around. I did a draft in just two weeks and it worked. So the script became the graphic novel and then the film.

What sort of film did you want to make?
A neo-noir thriller in the graphic novel vein, with the freedom of a low-budget project. My agent and I knew it wasn’t a studio film, and he suggested I meet with producer Said Ben Said, who’s worked with Polanski, Verhoeven on Elle and Cronenberg, so I met him in Paris and made the deal.

This is your first film with female leads. How early on did you decide to have the male lead, Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle?
It took about six months to figure it out, and one big problem about casting for me was that I felt that if we cast a male actor as Frank, the movie would then become too much about the make up and VFX — and you also have a big challenge for the actor, playing this low-class, underworld Darwinian survivor who’s very macho. I felt that casting a woman would be far more interesting, so I changed that to a woman and I also changed the doctor from a man to a woman. That’s when it all fell into place.

What did Michelle bring to the role?
We had lunch, and she told me, “You’ll never find anyone better for this role,” and she was right. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. It takes a brave actor to play the part, and Michelle’s very brave. I admire her performance a lot.

The whole outrageous, forced sex change angle has pushed a lot of buttons. Was that intentional?
No. Look, we live in an age of gender fluidity, which is a good thing. We also live in the age of the Internet, where opinions are instantaneous and everywhere. The movie’s not a comment on transgender issues and was never going to be about transgender issues. For the record, there’s nothing that disputes or ridicules the current transgender theory.

Frank Kitchen is not a villain, and he’s not a hero. He’s simply a protagonist, and he doesn’t become a transgender woman. He stays what he is inside his head, a macho and heterosexual male. Genital surgery and feminization aren’t the same thing as being transgender. Frank didn’t want the surgery.

But the film and story are obviously and intentionally lurid.
Yes, which is why I used the comic book panels every so often as devices to let the audience know it’s not your everyday reality in the storytelling. I wanted that freedom you have with the comic book or the graphic novel.

Where did you shoot and how tough was it?
We shot it on location in Vancouver, in just over 20 days, which is the shortest shoot I’ve ever had for a movie. Of course, that presents problems, and every director always needs more time and money. We just didn’t have it, so we were very inventive.

Where did you post?
We cut in LA, but did the rest of it — sound, color correction, VFX — all in Vancouver.

Do you like post, and why?
I’ve always loved post. After the madness of shooting, it gets you back to a civilized life. Some directors make their movies in prep, some during the shoot, and others during post. It’s probably a bit of all three for me, but with the emphasis on post. I follow the lead of greats like Sam Peckinpah and Kurosawa, and Sam always said, “Directing is 75 percent casting.” I think he’s right. You get that right and the shoot’s relatively straightforward and you just let the actors do their work.

There’s definitely a big misunderstanding about what a director does — that he’s basically an acting coach on the set. But that’s often the least of his skills. It’s finding the right tone and all the stuff you add in post that’s so important to the job.

Tell us about editing it with Phil Norden, who worked with you on Broken Trail.
He was up in Vancouver with us but rarely came to the set. That way he stuck close to me and cut almost as fast as I shot. As this was so low budget, there wasn’t much room for error. We had to get it right the first time (laughs). Happily, I love the editing part.

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker.
They’re both so important, and without either any footage, however wonderful, just looks flat. We did all the sound work at Sharpe and some ADR at Wildfire in LA.

What about the VFX?
Stargate did the VFX, and we had some greenscreen work, especially in the assassination scene, and some clean-up.

Where was the DI done?
At Encore Vancouver, with colorist Claudio Sepulveda (working on Blackmagic Resolve). He really captured a great look.

What’s next?
I’m co-writing a script, I co-wrote another graphic novel, a sci-fi story, and I hope to direct something this summer. So I’m very busy.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


A conversation with editor Hughes Winborne, ACE

This Oscar-winning editor talks about his path, his process, Fences and Guardians of the Galaxy.

By Chris Visser

In the world of feature film editing, Hughes Winborne, ACE, has done it all. From cutting indie features (1996’s Sling Blade) to CG-heavy action blockbusters (2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy) to winning an Oscar (2005’s Crash), Winborne has run the proverbial gamut of impactful storytelling through editing.

His most recent film, the multiple-Oscar-nominated Fences, was an adaptation of the seminal August Wilson play. Denzel Washington, who starred alongside Viola Davis (who won an Oscar for her role), directed the film.

Winborne and I chatted recently about his work on Fences, his career and his brief foray into house painting before he caught the filmmaking bug. He edits on Avid Media Composer. Let’s find out more.

What led you to the path you are on now?
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I graduated with a degree in history without a clue as to what I was going to do. I come from a family of attorneys, so because of an extreme lack of imagination, I thought I should do that. I became a paralegal and worked at North Carolina Legal Services for a bit. It didn’t take me long to realize that that wasn’t what I was meant to do, and I became a house painter.

A house painter?
I had my own house painting business for about three years with a couple of friends. The preamble to that is, I had always been a big movie fan. I went to the movies all the time in high school, but after college I started seeing between five and 10 a week. I didn’t even imagine working in the film business, because in Raleigh, that wasn’t really something that crossed my radar.

Then I saw an ad in the New York Times magazine for a six-week summer workshop at NYU. I took the course, moved to New York and set out to become a film editor. In the beginning, I did a lot of PA work for commercials and documentaries. Then I got an assistant editor job on a film called Girl From India.

What came next?
My father told me about a guy on the coast of North Carolina, A.B. Cooper, Jr., who wanted to make his own slasher film. I made him an offer: “If I get you an editor, can I be the assistant?” He said yes! About one-third of the way through the film, he fired the editor, and I took over that role. It was only my second film credit. I was never an assistant again, which is to the benefit of every editor that ever worked — I was terrible at it!

Where you able to make a living editing at that point?
Not as a picture editor, but I really started getting paid full-time for my editing when I started cutting industrials at AT&T. From there, I worked my way to 48 Hours. While I was there, they were kind enough to let me take on independent film projects for very little money, and they would hire me back after I did the job.

After a while, I moved to LA and started doing whatever I could get my hands on. I started with TV movies and gradually indie films, which really started for me with Sling Blade. Then, I worked my way into the studios after Crash. I’ve been kind of going back and forth ever since.

You mention your love of movies. What are the stories that inspire you? The ones that you get really excited to tell?
The movie that made me want to work in the film business was Barry Lyndon. Though it was not, by far, the film that got me started. I grew up on Truffaut. All his movies were just, for me, wonderful. It was a bit of a religion for me in those days; it gave me sustenance. I grew up on The Graduate. I grew up on Midnight Cowboy and Blow-Up.

I didn’t have a specific story I was interested in telling. I just knew that editing would be good for me. I like solitary jobs. I could never work on the set. It’s too crazy and social for me. I like being able to fiddle in the editing room and try things. The bottom line is, it’s fun. It can be a grind, and there can be a bit of pressure, but the best experiences I’ve had have been when I everybody on the show was having fun and working together. Films are made better when that collaboration is exploited to the limit.

Speaking of collaboration, how did that work on a film like Fences? What about working with actor/director Denzel Washington?
I’d worked with Denzel before [on The Great Debaters], so I kind of knew what he liked. They shot in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t go on location. There was no real collaboration the first six weeks but because I had worked with him before I had a sense of what he wanted.

I didn’t have to talk to him in order to put the film together because I could watch dailies — I could watch and listen to direction on camera and see how he liked to play the scenes. I put together the first cut on my own, which is typical, but in this case it was without almost any input. And my cut was really close. When Denzel came back, we concentrated in a few places on getting the performances the way he really wanted them, but I was probably 85 percent there. That’s not because I’m so great either, by the way, it’s because the actors were so great. Their performances were amazing, so I had a lot to choose from.

Can you talk about editing a film that was adapted from a play?
It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so I wasn’t going to be taking anything out of it or moving anything around. All I had to do was concentrate on putting it together with strong performances — that’s a lot harder than it sounds. I’m working within these constraints where I can’t do anything, really. Not that I really wanted to. Have you seen the movie?

Yes, I loved it. It’s a movie I’ve been coming back to every day since I’ve seen it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Then you’ll remember that the first 45 minutes to an hour is like a machine gun. That’s intentional. That’s me, intentionally, not slowing it down. I could have, but the idea is — and this is what was tricky — the film is about rhythm. Editing is about rhythm anyway, but this film is like rhythm to the 50th degree.

There’s very little music in the film, and we didn’t temp with much music either. I remember when Marc Evans [president, Motion Picture Group, Paramount Pictures] saw this film, he said, “The language is the music.” That’s exactly right.

To me, the dialogue feels like a score. There’s a musicality to it, a certain beat and timbre where it’s leading the audience through the scene, pulling them into the emotion without even hearing what they’re saying. Like when Denzel’s talking machine gun fast and it’s all jovial, then Lyons comes in and everything slows down and becomes very tense, then the scene busts back open and it’s all happy and fun again.
Yeah. You can just quote yourself on that one. [Laughs] That’s a perfect summation of it.

Partially, that’s going to come from set, that’s the acting and the direction, but on some level you’re going to have to construct that. How conscious of that were you the entire time?
I was very conscious of it. Where it becomes a little bit dicey at times is, unlike a play, you can cut. In a play, you’re sitting in the audience and watching everybody on stage at the same time. In a film, you’re not. When you start cutting, now you’ve got a new rhythm that’s different from the stage. In so doing, you’ve got to maintain that rhythm. You can’t just be on Denzel the entire time or Viola. You need to move around, and you need to move around in a way that rhythmically stays in time with the language. That was hard. That’s what we worked on most of the time after Denzel came back. We spent a lot of time just trying to make the rhythms right.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs an editor has, is choosing when to show someone saying something and when to show someone’s reaction to the thing being said. One example is when Troy is telling the story of his father, and you stay on him the entire time.
Hughes: Right.

The other side of that coin is when Troy reveals his secret to Rose and the reveal is on her. You see that emotion hit her and wash over her. When I was watching the movie, I thought, “That is the moment Viola Davis won an Oscar.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I agree.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs as an editor, knowing when to do what. Can you speak to that?
When I put this film together initially, I over-cut it, and then I tried to figure out where I wanted to be. It gets over-cut because I’m trying the best I can to find out what the core of the scene is. By I’m also trying to do that with what I consider to be the best performances. My process is, I start with that, and then I start weeding through it, getting it down and focusing; trying to make it as interesting as I can, and not predictable.

In the scenes that you’re talking about, it was all about Viola’s reaction anyway. Her reaction was going to be almost more interesting than whatever he says. I watched it a few times with audiences, and I know from talking to Denzel that when he did it on stage, there’s like a gasp.

When I saw it, everybody in the theatre was like, “What?” It was great.
I know, I know. It was so great. On the stage, people would talk to him, yell at him [Denzel]. “Shame on you, Denzel!” [laughs]. Then, she went into the backyard and did the scene, and that was the end of it. I’d never seen anything like it before. Honestly. It blew me away.

I was cutting that scene at my little home office. My wife was working behind me on her own stuff, and I was crying all the time. Finally, she turned around and asked, “What is wrong with you?” I showed it to her, and she had the same response. It took eight takes to get there, but when she got it, it was amazing. I don’t think too many actresses can do what Viola did. She’s so exposed. It’s just remarkable to watch.

There were three editors on Guardians of the Galaxy — you, Fred Raskin and Craig Wood. How did that work?
Marvel films are, generally speaking, 12 months from shoot to finish. I was on the film for eight months. Craig came in and took over for me. Having said that, it’s hard with two editors or just multiple editors in general. You have to divvy up scenes. Stuff would come in and we would decide together who was going to do it. I got the job because of Fred. I’d known Fred for 25 years. Fred was my intern on Drunks.

Fred had a prior relationship with James Gunn [director of Guardians]. In most cases, I deferred to Fred’s judgment as to how he wanted to divvy up the scenes, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with James when we started. I’d never done a big CG film. For me, it was a revelation. It was fun, trying to cut a dialogue scene between two sticks. One was tall, and one was short — the green marking was going to be Groot, and the other one was going to be Rocket Raccoon.

Can you talk about the importance of the assistant editor in the editorial process? How many assistants did you have on Fences?
On Fences, I had a first and a second. I started out cutting on film, and the assistant editor was a physical job. Touch it, slice it, catalog it, etc. What they have to do now is so complicated and technical that I don’t even know how to do it. Over my career, I’ve pretty much worked with a couple of assistants the whole time. John Breinholt and Heather Mullen worked with me on Fences. I’ve known Heather for 30 years.

What do you look for in an assistant?
Somebody who is going to be able to organize my life when I’m editing; I’m terrible at that. I need them to make sure that things are getting done. I don’t want to think about everything that’s going on behind the scenes, especially when I’m cutting, because it takes a lot of concentration for me just to sit there for 10 hours a day, or even longer, and concentrate on trying to put the movie together.

I like to have somebody that can look at my stuff and tell me what’s working and what’s isn’t. You get a different perspective from different assistants, and it’s really important to have that relationship.

You talked about working on Guardians for eight months, and I read that you cut Fences in six. What do you do to decompress and take care of your own mental health during those time periods?
Good question. It’s hard. When I was working on Fences, I was on the Paramount lot. They have a gym there, so I tried to go to the gym every day. It made my day longer, because I’d get there really early, but I’d go to the gym and get on the treadmill or something for 45 minutes, and that always helped.

Finally, for those who are young or aspiring editors, do you have any words of wisdom?
I think the once piece of advice is to keep going. It helps if you know what you want to do. So many people in this business don’t survive. There can be a lot of lean years, and there certainly were for me in the beginning — I had at least 10. You just have to stay in the game. Even if you’re not working at what you want to do, it’s important to keep working. If you want to be an editor, or a director, you have to practice.

Also, have fun. It’s a movie. Try and have a good time when you’re doing it. You’ll do your best work when you’re relaxed.


Chris Visser is a Wisconsin kid who works and lives in LA. He is currently an assistant editor working in scripted TV. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Chatting with Scorsese’s go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker

By Iain Blair

Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese go together like Lennon and McCartney, or Ben and Jerry. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Simply put, Schoonmaker has been Martin Scorsese’s go-to editor and key collaborator over the course of 23 films and half a century, winning Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. Now 77, she also recently received a career achievement award at the American Cinema Editors’ 67th Eddie Awards.

She cut Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s that Knocking at My Door, and since Raging Bull has worked on all of his feature films, including such classics as The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, New York Stories, GoodFellas (which earned her another Oscar nomination), Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York (another Oscar nomination), Shutter Island, Hugo (another Oscar nomination) and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Their most recent collaboration was Silence, Scorsese’s underrated and powerful epic, which is now available via Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand from Paramount Home Media Distribution.

A 28-year passion project that reinforces Scorsese’s place in the pantheon of great directors, Silence tells the story of two Christian missionaries (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) at a time when Christianity was outlawed. When they are captured and imprisoned, both men are plunged into an odyssey that will test their faith, challenge their sanity and, perhaps, risk their very lives

I recently talked with Schoonmaker about cutting Silence, working with Scorsese, and their long and storied collaboration.

Silence must have been very challenging to cut as it’s very long and could easily have ended up being a bit slow and boring.
(Laughs) You’re right! It was one of the things we were most concerned about from the start, as it’s a very meditative film. It’s nothing like his last films, Hugo and Wolf of Wall Street, and it couldn’t be more different.

Wolf had all the crazy stuff and the wild humor and improvisation, but with Silence Marty wanted to make an entirely different movie from the way most movies are made today. So that was a very brave commitment, I think, and it was difficult to find the right balance and the right pace. We experimented a great deal with just how slow it could be, without losing the audience.

Even the film’s opening scene was a major challenge. It’s very slow and sets the tone before the film even starts, with just the cicadas on the soundtrack. It tells you, slow down from our crazy lives, just feel what’s going on and engage with it. The minimal score is all part of that. It’s not telling the audience what to think, as scores usually do. He wanted the audience to decide what they feel and think, and he was adamant about starting the film off like that, which was also brave.

It feels far closer to The Age of Innocence in terms of its pacing than his more recent films.
Yes, and that was definitely a big part of its appeal for him, as it’s set in another country and also another century, so Marty wanted the film to be very meditative, and the pace of it had to reflect all that. Along with that, he was able to examine his religious concerns and interests, which he couldn’t do so much in other films. They were always there, but here they’re up front.

Did you stay in New York cutting while he shot in Taiwan, or did you visit the set?
I was in Taipei while they shot, working on the dailies, but I didn’t go on set as the locations they used were very arduous — up these steep mountains — and it took two hours just to get up there. There was bad weather and mud, wind, mosquitoes and snakes. Really, I just didn’t have the time to go on set, so I never got to see the great beauty of Taiwan, since I was back in Taipei in my editing room.

I do go on sets sometimes, and I love to visit and watch Marty work with the actors, and it’s always fun to be on the set, but as an editor, I also want to be unbiased when I sit down and watch footage. I don’t want to have my eye prejudiced by what I see on set and how difficult it might be to get a particular shot. That has nothing at all to do with my job.

How long did it take to edit?
Almost a year, but we had a couple of interruptions. Marty had to finish up his show for HBO, Vinyl, and then there was a family illness. But I love having that much time. Most editors simply don’t get to live with a film that long, and you really have to in order to understand it and understand what it’s saying to you. You’re editing the work of 250 people, and you have to respect that. You shouldn’t have to rush it.

Last time we talked, you were using Lightworks to edit. Do you use Avid now?
No, I still use Lightworks, and I still prefer it. It’s what I was trained on during the early days of digital editing, and it’s used a lot in Europe. Our first digital film was Casino, and back then Lightworks sent a computer expert to train me, and I’ve loved it ever since because it has a controller that is like the old flatbed editing machines and I love that — you can customize it very easily. It also has this button that allows me to throw stuff out of sync and experiment more, and that’s not available on Avid. So I’ve been editing on Lightworks ever since Casino.

When I last interviewed Marty, he told me that editing and post are his favorite parts of filmmaking. When you both sit down to edit it must be like having two editors in the room rather than a director and his editor?
It’s exactly like that. I do the first cut, but then once he comes in after the shoot we make every decision together. He’s a brilliant editor, and he taught me everything I know about editing— I knew nothing when we started together. He also thinks like an editor, unlike many directors. When he’s writing and then shooting, he’s always thinking about how it’ll cut together. Some directors shoot a lot of stuff, but does it cut together? Marty knows all that and what coverage he needs. He’s a genius, and such a knowledgeable person to be around every day.

You’ve been Marty’s editor since his very first film, back in 1967 — a 50-year collaboration. What’s the secret?
I think it’s that we’re true collaborators. He’s such an editing director, and we know each other so well by now, but it’s always fresh and interesting. There are no ego battles. Every film’s different, with different challenges, and he’s always curious, always learning, always open to new experiences. I feel very fortunate.

What’s next?
Right now I’m working on the diaries of my husband, (famed British director) Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), and then Marty and I will start The Irishman later in the summer. It’s all about elderly gangsters, with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s exciting.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.