By Randi Altman
People love movies for their ability to transport us to another world, or another version of our world, and that’s exactly what Guillermo del Toro’s magical The Shape of Water does. And speaking of love, the film has been getting some now that awards season is upon us. The Shape of Water was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won two: Best Director — Motion Picture for del Toro and Best Original Score for Alexandre Desplat. It also got plenty of Academy Awards love as it was nominated for 13 awards, including Best Director and Best Film Editing.
This film takes place during the Cold War, at a government run lab in Baltimore and focuses on a cleaning lady who follows her heart and does the right thing.
We recently checked in with the film’s editor Sidney Wolinsky, ACE. An industry veteran, he has cut such acclaimed TV shows as The Sopranos, House of Cards and Ray Donovan, among many others.
Wolinsky was recently recognized by his peers, earning an ACE Eddie nomination from the American Cinema Editors for his work on Fox Searchlight’s The Shape of Water. Let’s find out more about the film, this editor’s second collaboration with del Toro and his process.
You have worked with Guillermo del Toro before?
Yes. About three years ago, I cut the pilot for a series called The Strain, which Guillermo created. He also directed the pilot.
How did you get involved in the film, and when did he bring you on?
The film’s producer reached out to my agent before it was greenlighted. I’m based in LA, but the film was shooting and cutting up in Toronto, so my wife and I found a place to stay and went up there about a week before they started shooting. I started cutting the second day of production when I got my first day of dailies.
Well you were near set, but were you ever onset?
Not really. The sets and the cutting room were at Cinespace Studios in Toronto, but Guillermo knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need an editor there to talk to. Occasionally, I might have walked over to the set because I had a question to ask Guillermo or something to tell him, but primarily I was in the cutting room.
What kind of direction were you given in terms of the edit?
From day one, I had Guillermo in the room with me working on the material, and that continued throughout the production. He would come in before call, and on his lunch hour, and we’d work together. When they were shooting at local locations, my assistant and I would go out to the set on his lunch hour to show him cut footage on a MacBook and get notes. Guillermo and I worked together continuously throughout the production.
How did that relationship work?
Once I started getting film, I’d show him my cut of the scene and I’d modify it based on his notes. When we had two scenes that were contiguous we’d work on transitions. As the show grew we would watch whatever could be watched continuously and make changes. I’d get an idea and we’d try it, or he’d say, “Try this other thing.” It was very collaborative. I really felt like he was my partner throughout the whole cutting process. It wasn’t like in most shows where you finish your cut, you show it to the director and then you start working with him.
Does Guillermo shoot a lot of footage?
He does not. He’s very specific about what he wants, and he moves the camera all the time. That works against the possibility of shooting a lot of footage because you have to plan your setups based on where the camera starts and where the camera ends, and plan in conjunction with where you’re going to pick up the coverage next. So, often it’s interlocking coverage. He rarely shot multiple cameras.
The film’s two main characters don’t speak in the traditional way. Was that a challenge for your process?
It did not affect my editing per se, because regardless of having no speech, Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa has sign language. You had to let the person say their line, so to speak, even if Elisa was doing it with her hands and not her lips. The creature had gestures and expressions too, so you play a scene for what the scene is about. It’s the same way if people are talking or yelling at each other. You’re still playing that scene, and that’s the challenge of editing generally — just making the scenes work.
I never felt that I was slowing things down because of the sign language. For example, if you think of that scene where Sally tries to persuade Giles (Richard Jenkins’ character) to help her free the creature, it’s a giant dialog scene in which Giles speaks for both of them by repeating what Elisa says in sign language back to her. Elisa only talks in sign language, but you never miss a word.
That was an intense scene.
It was. The editing challenge was to coordinate his saying the line with her signing it, and make sure they were more or less in sync.
Is there a scene that is your favorite or most challenging?
The scene I just described with Sally and Richard is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Those two actors are so good. That scene is so moving, and they both give such a good performance. They really nailed it.
The most challenging sequence is the heist, because it involves all of the characters. They start off in different locations and come toward each other leading up to the clash at the end. That’s really the most challenging part of the movie, in terms of pacing and making sure everything’s working and the people following it … it’s not too slow, and stuff like that.
You used Media Composer for the editing. What is it about that system that you like?
I’ve cut on Avid for years, so I know it really, really well. It has so many ways of doing the same thing that can be used for different situations. It’s an amazing tool.
How do you work with your assistant editor?
It depends on the show and who it is. On this one I had a first assistant, Cam McLaughlin, and a second assistant, Mary Juric. I had worked with both of them on The Strain pilot, and was glad to work with them again. Mary was on the show through a couple of weeks beyond the end of shooting. Her primary job was setting up the dailies in ScriptSync, which is a fabulous tool within Media Composer. She also did a lot of the complicated temp effects. She also created most of the Russian and ASL subtitles.
My first assistant, Cam, primarily put together the dailies … although Mary helped with that as well. He also did the temp effects and chose and cut most of the temp music. My assistant editor is always an ally, somebody I show cuts to, ask for feedback from and bounce my ideas off. Cam’s a wonderful colleague in the cutting room. He’s very smart and talented. I believe he is cutting a feature right now.
Let’s change gears. You’ve cut a lot of television, a lot of really good television. Do you wear a different hat when you’re cutting one over the other?
The nice thing about features is the shooting schedules are longer. And what you’re doing is a unique piece; it’s one of a kind. You show it to audiences, you get feedback and you work on it. Usually, you work closely with the director until the project is completed.
In some ways this is very much like a television pilot — it’s never been done before and a lot is riding on its success. Depending on the project, the director of the pilot will follow it through to the end. This was true for The Strain, where I believe Guillermo had final cut. In series, you usually work with the director through the end of his cut, and then you begin working with the show runner and the studio, and finally the network to complete the project.
I always hope to be working with someone who has a clear vision of what the project should be and the stature to make the final decision. On features it is usually the director, in television if is the showrunner. However, as an editor I always must retain my own vision of the best way to edit scenes, solve story problems and be prepared to work with anyone who is shepherding the show to its completion.
Do you prefer one over the other?
I prefer features because of the time that’s taken and the close relationship you have with the director. That said, I’m proud of the work I’ve done in television, and the most important thing to me is to be able to use my skills to help realize the projects I’m working on.
What’s next for you?
I just got back from a trip to Italy to visit my son and his family, who live there, so really just taking some time off. I’m hoping that this film will help me another film. In this industry, it’s easy to get buttonholed as a television editor, so hoping another film opportunity comes my way soon.
Based on the attention this film has been getting, and your recent ACE Eddie nom, I think you’ll have that opportunity. One last thing before I let you go. Do you have any advice for an editor just starting out?
Most editors who are starting out have already been assistants and are trying to make the transition to editing. You have to be careful to make sure people perceive you as an editor and not as an assistant, and that could be tough because it could mean turning assistant jobs down. Obviously, if you need the money you may not be able to, but the most important thing is to grab any cutting opportunity that comes along. Don’t be picky. If you want to become an editor you have to be cutting. Also you never know where something will lead, and you want the people you meet along the way to see you as an editor — and hopefully, the editor of their next production.
Main Image: (L-R) Golden Globe-winner Guillermo del Toro and editor Sidney Wolinksy.