By Daniel Restuccio
When David Fincher took on the film Gone Girl, he immediately started to round up the “usual suspects,” his most trusted collaborators, including Kirk Baxter, who has two Editing Oscars on his mantle from previous work with Fincher (The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).
Gone Girl is based on Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl; Flynn also wrote the screenplay. The film follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a husband who either knows or doesn’t know the whereabouts of his missing wife.
Baxter began cutting Gone Girl on September 16, 2013: day two of shooting. And for the first time in three movies with Fincher, Baxter cut this one alone and without his frequent co-editor Angus Wall. We wondered what that was like.
“Angus and I always had a great amount of trust with each other as we worked, so it wasn’t a double-checking thing with either one of us. It was more of a volume thing. There’s a lot of material to get through, so we tended to just divvy up the work. Sometimes we co-edited the same pieces. A lot of the times, we worked on different sections of the movie. I think without Angus being there, it just meant a lot more work. That’s really the main difference, and not having a buddy to commiserate with.”
Speaking of buddies, in our next Gone Girl installment we will touch base with tech guru Tyler Nelson and storage and workflow specialist Jeff Brue. So keep an eye on this space in the coming days for that piece of the puzzle.
For now, let’s dig into our conversation with Baxter.
You and David Fincher know each other pretty well at this point, but was anything different on this film?
Kirk Baxter: I guess every movie has its own new set of problems, but there’s nothing different about working with David. I think that’s why so many teams of filmmakers consistently work together; you develop a second hand that speeds the process up, but I never go into any day of working with David, or anyone else, believing that I’m not replaceable.
There was nothing different. The subject matter was different, but David and my interactions with David, the same as every movie.
The subject matter was different? Could you explain a little bit?
Yeah. It’s an interesting film because it’s a mystery. It’s a drama on the study of a marital decay. It’s a procedural. It’s a thriller. It’s got many faces. The movie evolves and becomes these different things throughout the journey.
It’s got a different temperature to anything that I’ve done before. The first act, or the first 40 minutes, is like loading the gun. That was the area that we really concentrated on, making it as lean as possible, because it takes a while until the audience gets in front of the film.
Then once it releases, it’s on rails and it races and it’s just full enjoyment. It is tormenting the audience on purpose at first for the first 40 minutes. That alone was a dynamic that I hadn’t come across before. It was fascinating. I love a new set of a problems or puzzles.
In the telling of the story, we both know that Fincher tends to shoot many takes and lots of coverage. Did he do that again on this movie?
We got what we needed. That’s probably a good way to put it… but there was 500 hours of material. It takes time to go through it, but it’s always a blessing in the long run. There’s never a case where we get to the end and go, “Oh God, I wish we had that and didn’t have it.”
I always say with David we’re always perfecting things; we’re not fixing things because he will get the coverage that’s needed. The most exciting moments to edit are when it’s been fully covered in depth, where there’s always somewhere for you to go because the camera is there. When it’s been thought through.
There’s a certain scene halfway through the movie, or an act halfway through the movie, that has at least 200 set-ups. It just goes like a rocket ship. It’s fabulous because it’s been thought out. It takes its time to film something like that, but I’m very, very grateful that David gets the coverage he gets.
In terms of the edit, how did you go about approaching the specific narrative structure of Gillian Flynn’s screenplay, the he said/she said? How did you deal with that?
It was scripted. It was very much Gillian’s puzzle and David’s puzzle to begin with. Then I followed what was the blueprint of the script. That got us 95 percent of the way there. In the end, we ended up removing some of the flashbacks that came through the diary. Amy’s side is presented from the grave through the use of her diary as a mechanism.
We ended up removing a couple of those scenes just because it was better to not interrupt the procedural element of the film, which was the present day. When there was a lot of back and forth all the time it got in the way and made the film feel longer.
In the end, we did less ping-pong and actually joined the two separate flashback scenes together so you still got the same amount of content and meaning but you weren’t bouncing back and forth as much. There are little, tiny structural things like that that we toyed with; ways to remove screen time without losing information in the first act.
Other than that, it was pretty much as Gillian wrote it. I think she did an excellent job of heavily condensing a lot of material.
Peter Travers says, in Rolling Stone, “No one does moral rot like Fincher.” How do you edit moral rot?
It’s content and it’s tone. One thing that I think the characters have — and have had in a few of David’s films— Is they’re unapologetic. The audience may think they’re doing wrong, but they’re standing tall. I think you just fully embrace and get behind your character and what they’re doing.
There’s a surefootedness to what David does. He’s not saying sorry for someone that’s doing bad deeds. He’s just presenting it as fact. There is no quest for happy endings.
The audience themselves can talk about whether it’s moral decay or a study of awful people or not, but the fascinating part that makes you stare at it is it’s reflective nature. There is a lot of façade going on in living in the world of, “Let me put my best face forward for this marriage or for my neighborhood.”
These are all things that are constantly swirling around in our society. David’s just illuminating that. I think it is a topic that David likes: the underbelly of our world, the dirty little cracks.
A lot of the reviews have praised the performances of all the characters. How much of the performance that we’re seeing on the screen is the actor and how much is that being crafted by you and the director?
Wow. I think everything is a joint effort. An editor can’t put it together unless they have the performances, unless you have all the angles. It’s David providing the material, and the actors providing the performances. I think because there’s volume, you’re really able to perfect things.
If the salute goes to anyone, I think it has to go to the performers for doing it. I can’t invent a performance. I can certainly craft one out of many takes, but you’ve got to get it in the first place.
Variety’s Justin Chang says, “Kirk Baxter cuts the picture to within an inch of his life, while still allowing individual scenes and the overall structure to breathe.” What do you think he means by that?
My interpretation of that quote is that it’s at an unrelenting pace. David and I are always on a constant quest to reduce screen time without reducing content. During that process I sometimes break it, but the nature of editing and the environment that I have with David, it’s not a problem because you just go back in and fix it. You find the sweet spot from the constant back and forth.
I think both David and myself instinctually know when it’s correct, when it reaches the “Goldilocks” moment. You know when to stop. What comes with that is the whipping of one’s self when it’s not right, sitting through a screening with other people and thinking, “Oh my God. This thing is lagging” or, “That moved too fast, and it didn’t land.” There’s this dreadful self-hatred that happens until you perfect it to your own set of standards.
Did you watch suspense movies? Hitchcock?
No. Not in reference for this. I think all of us have grown up watching movies. It’s second nature. It’s built into you, like the timings of how the scenes should be. David may have things in his subconscious from what he’s watched, but generally I follow the path that David has set through what he’s filmed.
It’s easy to decipher the “why” in what he’s filmed with most scenes. I never come into it with the baggage of a book or with expectations of other people. The beauty of the environment that Fincher sets up is it’s an illusion that I’m making a movie for one person, which is David. There is no other thing. I’m not concerned about an audience. I’m not concerned about a studio. I’m not concerned about anything except for pleasing David. David and the movie are one in the same thing. It’s an idyllic situation for a film editor.
How do you edit “suspense”?
There’s a certain scene that gets very bloody in this film. It’s suspenseful leading up to it. I think it’s letting the audience in on a sense of dread that something is going to happen. It’s taking your time getting there. Then when you finally arrive, you can blaze through it like a missile. I’m describing one particular scene where it really takes its time leading up to it, but the moment [a certain] object appears, you can race.
What informed your decision to move from editing on Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere?
That was really decided by (post supervisor) Peter Mavromates, Tyler Nelson and Fincher. For me, my interaction with an editing platform is just the interface. I’m the easiest person to please. It needs to move like second nature, so that your thinking isn’t in the doing; it’s in the goal.
I found Premiere very, very easy to work with and very user friendly, but the attraction to it is all of the Adobe After Effects (shots) and how we can be doing visual effects in-house and reducing a lot of that cost and increasing a lot of the speed of these things and the promise of what’s to come, I think.
They’ve very much promised to work hand in hand. They think we’re able to streamline the post with this series of tools that they want to provide. At the time, Apple Final Cut, it was blurry about what the future was. We were more than happy to try this new path. It seems to be paying off.
What’s it been like working with the system?
I enjoyed it very much. We had teething problems like anyone does, but there were engineers accessible to us. We fought our way through them and got what we required in order to do a movie of this volume and have its material at your fingertips.
Things like opening projects at first took five minutes. We reduced that down to 90 seconds. Things like that are a really big deal when you’re closing reel 6 and opening up reel 3, and I want David to stay in the room and not wander off. You just need to be able to work with maximum speed.
They were very, very open and willing to understand our needs. I hope that whatever we helped change benefits everyone else in the new versions coming out.
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton