By Randi Altman
In the scheme of things, we work in a very small industry where relationships, work ethic and talent matter. Brian Scofield is living proof of that. He is one of a team of editors who worked on Warren Beatty’s recent Rules Don’t Apply.
That team included lead editor Billy Weber, Leslie Jones and Robin Gonsalves. It was the veteran editor Weber (Beatty’s Bulworth 1998) who brought Scofield on board as a second editor.
Weber was Scofield’s mentor while he was in the MFA program at USC. “Not long after I completed graduate school, Billy helped me reconnect with the Malick camp, who I met while working in the camera crew on Tree of Life,” he explains. “I then became an apprentice on To the Wonder, and then an editor on Knight of Cups. When Billy came in as an advisor at the end of Knight of Cups, we reconnected in LA. He had just begun working on Rules Don’t Apply with Warren, and when I finished my work on Knight of Cups, he brought me aboard.”
Scofield recognizes that relationships open doors, but says you have to walk through them and prove you belong in the room all by yourself. “I think people often make the mistake of thinking that networking trumps talent and work ethic, or the other way around, and that just isn’t true. All three are required to have a career as a film editor — the ability to form lasting relationships, the diligence to work really hard, and having natural instincts that you’re always striving to improve upon.”
Scofield says he will always be grateful to Weber and the example he’s set. “I’m only one of over a dozen people whose careers Billy has helped launch over the years. It’s in large part his generosity and mentorship that inspires me to pay it forward any chance I get.”
Let’s find out more from Scofield about his editing process, what he’s learned over the years, and the importance of collaboration.
You have worked with two Hollywood icons in Terrence Malick and Warren Beatty. I’m assuming you’re not easily intimidated.
It’s been a transformative experience in every way. These two guys, who have been making films for over 40 years, are constantly challenging themselves to try new things… to experiment, to learn. They’re always re-evaluating pretty much everything from the story to the style, and yet these are two guys with such distinct voices that really shine through their work. You know a Malick or Beatty film when you see it. The Inexhaustibility of the cinematic art form, I guess, is what I really took away from both of them.
They are both very different kinds of filmmakers.
You would never think that working on a Terrence Malick film would prepare you to work on a Warren Beatty film. Knight of Cups is a stream-of-consciousness, meditative tome about the meaning of life. Warren’s film is a romantic comedy with a historical drama slant. Aesthetically, they’re very different films, but the process of constantly finding ways to break open the movie all over again, and the mindset that requires, is very similar.
Both Terry and Warren are uncompromising and passionate about making movies the way they want and not bending to conventions, yet at the same time looking for ways to reach people on a very deep level. In this case, both films were also deeply personal for the director. When you work on something like that, it adds another layer of pressure because you want to honor how much of themselves they’re willing to put into their work. But that’s also where I believe the most exciting films come from. That pressure just becomes inspiration.
How early did you get involved on Rules Don’t Apply?
Right after production wrapped. I was finishing up with Terry on the mix stage for Knight of Cups when Billy called. They had an assembly of the film when I joined — everything was in there — and that version was probably about four hours long. Interestingly, some things have changed dramatically since that version and some are remarkably similar.
I was on Rules Don’t Apply for just over a year, but I’ve been back several times since officially finishing. I took a good amount of time off and went back, and since then I’ve popped in and out whenever Warren has needed me. Robin became a true caretaker of the film, staying with Warren through that additional time leading up to the release.
Is that typically how you’ve worked? Coming in after there’s an assembly?
I’ve come in as an additional set eyes on some, and I’ve been on films during production, sending cuts to the director while they’re in the middle of shooting. This includes giving feedback on pick-ups they need to grab or things to be wary of performance-wise, those types of things.
Both are thrilling experiences. It’s fun to come in when there has been one specific approach and they’re open to new ideas. You kind of get to shake people out of the one way they’ve been going about the film. When I’m the editor that’s been working on the film since the beginning, that initial discovery period when you see the film take shape for the first time is always thrilling. The relationship you form with both the film and the director is hard to beat. But then, I’m always excited for someone to come in and shake things up, to help me think differently. That’s why you do feedback screenings. That’s why you bring other editors into the room to take a look and to make you think about things from a different angle.
How was it on Rules Don’t Apply?
When I came on, so much of it was working really well from the first assembly, but I did want to strengthen the love story between Frank and Marla and make their attraction more evident early in the film so that it paid off later. I started by going through all of the scenes and looking for little moments where we could build up glances between them or find little raindrops before the storm of that budding relationship.
There were a few storylines going on at the same time as well?
The story takes place over a long period of time — you’ve got Warren Beatty playing Howard Hughes, you’re dealing with a young love story, you’re dealing with an incredible supporting cast, all of whom could be bigger characters or smaller characters. When you come in a little bit later, it’s often your job to help figure out which storylines or themes are going to become the main thrust of the movie.
So there are different definitions of co-editor?
Well, it varies every day. Some days Warren would want to work on a couple of different scenes, so one editor would take one and I would take the other. Sometimes you would have worked on a scene for a long time and somebody else would say, “Let me have a stab at that. I’ve got a different idea.” Sometimes we were all together in one room with one of us driving the Avid and the others offering a different set of eyes — eyes that aren’t staring at the timeline — and they’re looking at it side-by-side with the director, almost as a viewer instead of within the nitty-gritty of making the cut. We would take turns doing that.
You’ve got to check your ego at the door, I suppose? Everybody’s on the same team these days.
There’s no pecking order, and I think Billy Weber is really the one who sets that tone because he’s such a generous and experienced editor and man. There are people out in the industry that might be protective of their work versus letting anybody else touch it, but there’s none of that in any of the editing rooms that I’ve been fortunate enough to work in. Everybody’s respectful of each other.
On this film we had Billy, myself, Leslie Jones and Robin all working at the same time. You’ve got almost three generations of editors in that room, and to be treated as an equal really opens up your mind and your creativity. You feel the freedom to really present big ideas.
How is it collaborating with Warren?
He is such a unique guy. His favorite thing to do is to have a fight — he doesn’t want people who are just going to accept what he says. He wants a fiery debate, which can make people uncomfortable, but I’m okay with it. I actually really enjoyed that, especially when you realize he’s not taking it personally and neither should I. This is about making a movie the best that it can be. He wants people that are going to challenge him and push back.
So it’s part of his creative process?
Yes, it’s all about the discourse. If he has a strong point of view, he wants to argue it to make sure that he really believes it. And if you have a strong point of view, he wants you to be able to tell him why. I would say the fiercest fights led to him being most happy afterwards. At the end of the screaming, he would always say, “That was such a productive conversation. I’m so glad we did that!” He surrounds himself with people he knows he trusts. He knows that’s what he needs to make him as productive and as creative as he can be.
It’s been a long time since Warren directed a film, how did he react to the new technology?
He was thrilled with all of the new abilities of technology. This movie was shot on the Alexa, for the most part, and we did do a good amount of combining it will archival footage. This is a very modern movie in many ways, but it also has a distinctive throwback vibe. We had to try to marry those things without going overboard.
We resized frames, added a few push-ins, speed ramps, and so on. Ultimately, all of these tools just allowed him to explore the footage even more than he’s used to doing. He really loved taking advantage of new editorial opportunities that couldn’t have been done even 15 years ago, at least not as easily.
How do you organize things within the Avid Media Composer?
Any time I start a new job, I send a Google Doc to the assistant that specifies exactly how I want the project set up. It’s an evolution of things I’ve learned in different editing rooms over time.
For every scene, I have a bin with a frame view. If the bin is the size of my monitor, I should be able to see all clips in that one view without scrolling. Each set-up is separated from each other, so I can see very quickly, “Oh there are four takes of that shot, there are four takes of that shot, there are three takes of that one.” I have the assistant prepare three sequences: one that’s just a pure string-out of all of the clips, so I can, in one sequence, scrub through everything that’s there. I do a string-out “clean,” which is when you take out all the slates and you take out all the director’s talking, so I can be impartial and just look at the footage. Then I usually have one more sequence that’s just circle takes that the director chose on set. Then I go through and I make a select reel based off of everything that I watch. That’s the basic bin set-up.
For films that have multiple editors, organization is really important because somebody else has to be able to understand how your work is organized. You have to be able to find things that you did a year ago.
Any special tricks, like speed ramps, sound effects, transitions? I’m imagining that changes per project?
Yeah, it’s pretty unique to the project. There are a lot of editors who have specific effects that they go back to over and over again in their own bin. I’ve got a few of those, but I almost always end up tailoring them and sometimes just starting from scratch. I go on the hunt for the right effect when I need it.
I’ve gotten pretty adept at tailoring the built-in effects to my needs as they come up, but people who use those effects all the time are working on more crazy action or stylized films because they’ve got a lot more demand for those than when you’re working on character-driven content.
Do you typically work with a template from a colorist, or do you do any temp color corrections yourself?
Most of the films have a look that the DP has already applied, and I do tweaking as needed. If we come up with a creative reason for color correction, I’ll do a sketch. I do a lot of work with sound, but with color, it just depends. If it needs to be changed in order to understand what the idea is or if we’re screening it for somebody that we don’t trust to be able to see what it is without color correction, then of course we’re going to go in and we’re going to tweak it. I’ve worked on a film where all the exteriors were really magenta, so we came up with our kind of default fix to be applied to all of those shots.
Can you elaborate on the sound part?
I cut as much for sound as I do for picture. I think people grossly underestimate the influence that sound has on how you watch a movie. I’m not a sound designer, but I try my best to provide a sketch for when we go into that next phase so the sound designer has a pretty clear idea of what we’re going for. Then, of course, they use their creativity to expand and do their own thing.
How do you work with your assistant editors? Do you encourage them to edit, or are they strictly technical?
It depends on the project and on the timeframe of the project. In the beginning, the priority is on getting everything set up. Then the priority is on helping me build a first sound pass after we’ve gotten an assembly. They help bring in effects and to smooth over things I’ve sketched out. Sometimes they’re just gathering effects for me and sometimes they’re cutting them themselves. Sometimes we’re kind of tossing them back and forth. I do a rough pass and I ask them to mix it, clean up the levels, add in a couple accents here and there. Once we’re through with that we kind of have at least a ground floor for sound to cut with.
When given the opportunity, I love to let my assistants get creative. I let them take a stab at scenes, or at least have them be present in the room to give feedback. When the director isn’t present, I rely a lot on my assistant just to check in and say, “Hey, is this crazy?” or try to engage them as much as I can in that creative process. It all just depends on the demands of the project and the experience level of the assistant.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Film is a collaborative art form, and in order to help a director do their best work, you need to be their friend, their antagonist, their therapist, their partner. Whatever it takes is what your job is. I was so fortunate to learn an enormous amount from Warren, but also from my fellow editors. I hope everybody has as much fun watching this crazy little movie as we did making it.
Finally, I’d just love to say that working with Warren will undoubtedly be one of the most cherished experiences of my life. Reputations be damned, he’s a kind, brilliant and uncompromising artist who it was endlessly inspiring to spend so much time with. I’ll forever be grateful I had the opportunity to both work for him and to call him a friend.
Main Image: Robin Gonsalves, Warren Beatty and Brian Scofield.