By Amy Leland
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is marketed in a style similar to its predecessors — “the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino.” It is also the third film with Fred Raskin, ACE, as Tarantino’s editor. Having previously edited Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, as well as working as assistant editor on the Kill Bill films, Raskin has had the opportunity to collaborate with a filmmaker who has always made it clear how much he values collaboration.
On top of this remarkable director/editor relationship, Raskin has also lent his editing hand to a slew of other incredibly popular films, including three entries in the Fast & Furious saga and both Guardians of the Galaxy films. I had the chance to talk with him about his start, his transition to editor and his work on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. A tribute to Hollywood’s golden age, the film stars Brad Pitt as the stunt double for a faded actor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as they try to find work in a changing industry.
How did you get your start as an editor?
I went to film school at NYU to become a director, but I had this realization about midway through that that I might not get a directing gig immediately upon graduation, so perhaps I should focus on a craft. Editing was always my favorite part of the process, and I think that of all the crafts, it’s the closest to directing. You’re crafting performances, you’re figuring out how you’re going to tell the story visually… and you can do all of this from the comfort of an air-conditioned room.
I told all of my friends in school, if you need an editor for your projects, please consider me. While continuing to make my own stuff, I also cut my friends’ projects. Maybe a month after I graduated, a friend of mine got a job as an assistant location manager on a low-budget movie shooting in New York. He said, “Hey, they need an apprentice editor on this movie. There’s no pay, but it’s probably good experience. Are you interested?” I said, “Sure.” The editor and I got along really well. He asked me if I was going to move out to LA, because that’s really where the work is. He then said, “When you get out to LA, one of my closest friends in the world is Rob Reiner’s editor, Bob Leighton. I’ll introduce the two of you.”
So that’s what I did, and this kind of ties into Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, because when I made the move to LA, I called Bob Leighton, who invited me to lunch with his two assistants, Alan Bell and Danny Miller. We met at Musso & Frank. So the first meeting that I had was at this classic, old Hollywood restaurant. Cut to 23 years later, and I’m on the set of a movie that’s shooting at Musso & Frank. It’s a scene between Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably the two greatest actors of their generations, and I’m editing it. I thought back to that meeting, and actually got kind of emotional.
So Bob’s assistants introduced me to people. That led to an internship, which led to a paying apprentice gig, which led to me getting into the union. I then spent nine years as an assistant editor before working my way up to editor.
When you were starting out, were there any particular filmmakers or editors who influenced the types of stories you wanted to tell?
Growing up, I was a big genre guy. I read Fangoria magazine and gravitated to horror, action and sci-fi. Those were the kinds of movies I made when I was in film school. So when I got out to LA, Bob Leighton got a pretty good sense as to what my tastes were, and he gave me the numbers of a couple of friends of his, Mark Goldblatt and Mark Helfrich, who are huge action/sci-fi editors. I spoke with them, and that was just a real thrill because I was so familiar with their work. Now we are all colleagues, and I pinch myself regularly.
You have edited many action and VFX films. Has that presented particular challenges to your way of working as an editor?
The challenges, honestly, are more ones of time management because when you’re on a big visual effects movie, at a certain point in the schedule you’re spending two to four hours a day watching visual effects. Then you have to make adjustments to the edit to accommodate for how things look when the finished visual effects come in. It’s extremely time-consuming, and when you’re not only dealing with visual effects, but also making changes to the movie, you have to figure out a way to find time for all of this.
Every project has its own specific set of challenges. Yes, the big Marvel movies have a ton of visual effects, and you want to make sure that they look good. The upside is that Marvel has a lot of money, so when you want to experiment with a new visual effect or something, they’re usually able to support your ideas. You can come up with a concept while you’re sitting behind the Avid and actually get to see it become a reality. It’s very exciting.
Let’s talk about the world of Tarantino. A big part of his legacy was his longtime collaboration with editor Sally Menke, who tragically passed away. How were you then brought in? I’m assuming it has something to do with your assistant editor credit on Kill Bill?
Yes. I assisted Sally for seven years. There were a couple of movies that we worked on together, and then she brought me in for the Kill Bill movies. And that’s when I met Quentin. She taught me how an editing room is supposed to work. When she finished a scene, she would bring me and the other assistants into the room and get our thoughts. It was a welcoming, family-like environment, which I think Quentin really leaned into as well.
While he’s shooting, Quentin doesn’t come into the editing room. He comes in during post, but during production, he’s really focused on shooting the movie. On Kill Bill, I didn’t meet him until a few weeks after the shoot ended. He started coming in, and whenever he and Sally worked on a scene together, they would bring us in and get our thoughts. I learned pretty quickly that the more feedback you’re able to give, the more appreciated it will be. Quentin has said that at least part of the reason why he went with me on Django Unchained was because I was so open with my comments. Also, as the whole world knows, Quentin is a huge movie lover. We frequently would find ourselves talking about movies. He’d be walking through the hall, and we’d just strike up a conversation, and so I think he saw in me a kindred spirit. He really kept me in the family after Kill Bill.
I got my first big editing break right after Kill Bill ended. I cut a movie called Annapolis, which Justin Lin directed. I was no longer on Quentin’s crew, but we still crossed paths a lot. Over the years we’d just bump into each other at the New Beverly Cinema, the revival house that he now owns. We’d talk about whatever we’d seen lately. So he always kept me in mind. When he and Sally finished the rough cuts on Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, he invited me to come to their small friends-and-family screenings, which was a tremendous honor.
On Django, you were working with a director who had the same collaborator in Sally Menke for such a long time. What was it like in those early days working on Django?
It was without question the most daunting experience that I have gone through in Hollywood. We’re talking about an incredibly talented editor, Sally, whose shoes I had to attempt to fill, and a filmmaker for whom I had the utmost respect.
Some of the western town stuff was shot at movie ranches just outside of LA, and we would do dailies screenings in a trailer there. I made sure that I sat near him with a list of screening notes. I really just took note of where he laughed. That was the most important thing. Whatever he laughed at, it meant that this was something that he liked. There was a PA on set when they went to New Orleans. I stayed in LA, but I asked her to write down where he laughs.
I’m a fan of his. When I went to see Reservoir Dogs, I remember walking out of the theater and thinking, “Well, that’s like the most exciting filmmaker that I’ve seen in quite some time.” Now I’m getting the chance to work with him. And I’ll say because of my fandom, I have a pretty good sense as to his style and his sense of humor. I think that that all helped me when I was in the process of putting the scenes together on Django. I was very confident in my work when I started showing him stuff on that movie.
Now, seven years later, you are on your third film with him. Have you found a different kind of rhythm working with him than you had on that first film?
I would say that a couple of little things have changed. I personally have gained some confidence in how I approach stuff with him. If there was something that I wasn’t sure was working, or that maybe I felt was extraneous, in Django, I might have had some hesitation about expressing it because I wouldn’t want to offend him. But now both of us are coming from the perspective of just wanting to make the best movie that we possibly can. I’m definitely more open than I might have been back then.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has an interesting blend of styles and genres. The thing that stands out is that it is a period piece. Beyond that, you have the movies and TV shows within the movie that give you additional styles. And there is a “horror movie” scene.
Right, the Spahn Ranch sequence.
That was so creepy! I really had that feeling the whole time of, “They can’t possibly kill off Brad Pitt’s character this early, can they?”
That’s the idea. That’s what you’re supposed to be feeling.
When you are working with all of those overlapping styles, do you have to approach the work a different way?
The style of the films within the film was influenced by the movies of the era to some degree. There wasn’t anything stylistically that had us trying to make the movie itself feel like a movie from 1969. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, is playing the heavy on a western TV show called Lancer in the movie. Quentin referred to the Lancer stuff as, “Lancer is my third western, after Django and The Hateful Eight.” He didn’t direct that show as though it was a TV western from the late ’60s. He directed it like it was a Quentin Tarantino western from 2019. Quentin’s style is really all his own.
There are no rules when you’re working on a Quentin Tarantino movie because he knows everything that’s come before, and he is all about pushing the boundaries of what you can do — which is both tremendously exciting and a little scary, like is this going to work for everyone? The idea that we have a narrator who appears once in the first 10 minutes of the movie and then doesn’t appear again until the last 40 minutes, is that something that’s going to throw people off? His feeling is like, yeah, there are going to be some people out there who are going to feel that it’s weird, but they’re also going to understand it. That’s the most important thing. He’s a firm believer in doing whatever we need to do to tell the story as clearly and as concisely as possible. That voiceover narration serves that purpose. Weird or not.
You said before that he doesn’t come into the edit during production. What is your work process during production? Are you beginning the rough cut? And if so, are you sending him things, or are you really not collaborating with him on that process at all until post begins?
This movie was shot in LA, so for the first half of the shoot, we would do regular dailies screenings. I’d sit next to him and write down whatever he laughed at. That process that began on Django has continued. Then I’ll take those notes. Then I assemble the material as we’re shooting, but I don’t show him any of it. I’m not sending him cuts. He doesn’t want to see cuts. I don’t think he wants the distractions of needing to focus on editing.
On this movie, there were only two occasions when he did come into the editing room during production. The movie takes place over the course of three days, and at the end of the second day, the characters are watching Rick on the TV show The F.B.I., which was a real show and that episode was called “All the Streets Are Silent.” The character of Michael Murtaugh was played in the original episode by a young Burt Reynolds. They found a location that matched pretty perfectly and reshot only the shots that had Burt Reynolds in them. They reshot with Leonardo DiCaprio, as Rick Dalton, playing that character. He had to come into the editing room to see how it played and how it matched, and it matched remarkably well. I think that people watching the movie probably assume that Quentin shot the whole thing, or that we used some CG technology to get Leo into the shots. But no, they just figured out exactly the shots that they needed to shoot, and that was all the new material. The rest was from the original episode.
The other time he came into the edit during production was the sequence in which Bruce Lee and Cliff have their fight. The whole dialogue scene that opens that sequence, it all plays out in one long take. So he was very excited to see how that shot played out. But one of the things that we had spoken about over the course of working together is when you do a long take, the most important thing is what that cut is going to be at the end of the long take. How can we make that cut the most impactful? In this case, the cut is to Cliff throwing Bruce Lee into the car. He wanted to watch the whole scene play out, and then see how that cut worked. When I showed it to him, I had my finger on the stop button so that after that cut, I would stop it so he wouldn’t see anything more and wouldn’t get tempted to get sucked into maybe giving notes. I reached to stop, but he was like, “No, no, no let it play out.” He watched the fight scene, and he was like, “That’s fantastic.” He was very happy.
Once you were in post, what were some of the particular challenges of this film?
One of the really important things is how integral sound was to the process of making this movie. First there were the movies and shows within the movie. When we’re watching the scenes from Bounty Law, the ‘50s Western that Rick starred in, it wasn’t just about the 4×3, black and white photography, but also how we treated the sound. Our sound editorial team and our sound mixing team did an amazing job of getting that stuff to sound like a 16-millimeter print. Like, they put just the right amount of warble into the dialogue, and it makes it feel very authentic. Also, all the Bounty Law stuff is mono, not this wide stereo thing that would not be appropriate for the material from that era.
And I mentioned the Spahn Ranch sequence, when for 20 minutes the movie turns into an all-out horror movie. One of Quentin’s rules for me when I’m putting my assembly together is that he generally does not want me cutting with music. He frequently has specific ideas in his head about what the music is going to be, and he doesn’t want to see something that’s not the way he imagined it. That’s going to take him out of it, and he won’t be able to enjoy the sequence.
When I was putting the Spahn Ranch sequence together, I knew that I had to make it suspenseful without having music to help me. So, I turned to our sound editors, Wylie Stateman and Leo Marcil, and said, “I want this to sound like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, like I want to have low tones and creaking wood and metal wronks. Let’s just feel the sense of dread through this sequence.” They really came through.
And what ended up happening is, I don’t know if Quentin’s intention originally was to play it without music, but ultimately all the music in the scene comes from what Dakota Fanning’s character, Squeaky, is watching on the TV. Everything else is just sound effects, which were then mixed into the movie so beautifully by Mike and Chris Minkler. There’s just a terrific sense of dread to that sequence, and I credit the sound effects as much as I do the photography.
This film was cut on Avid. Have you always cut on Avid? Do you ever cut on anything else?
When I was in film school, I cut on film. If fact, I took the very first Avid class that NYU offered. That was my junior year, which was long before there were such things as film options or anything. It was really just kind of the basics, a basic Avid Media Composer.
I’ve worked on Final Cut Pro a few times. That’s really the only other nonlinear digital editing system that I’ve used. I’ve never actually used Premiere.
At this point my whole sound effects and music library is Avid-based, and I’m just used to using the Avid. I have a keyboard where all of my keys are mapped, and I find, at this point, that it’s very intuitive for me. I like working with it.
This movie was shot on film, and we printed dailies from the negative. But the negative was also scanned in at 4K, and then those 4K scans were down-converted to DNx115, which is an HD resolution on the Avid. So we were editing in HD, and we could do screenings from that material when we needed to. But we would also do screenings on film.
Wow, so even with your rough cuts, you were turning them around to film cuts again?
Yeah. Once production ended, and Quentin came into the editing room, when we refined a scene to his liking, I would immediately turn that over to my Avid assistant, Chris Tonick. He would generate lists from that cut and would turn it over to our film assistants, Bill Fletcher and Andrew Blustain. They would conform the film print to match the edit that we had in the Avid so that we were capable of screening the movie on film whenever we wanted to. There was always going to be a one- or two-day lag time, depending on when we finished cutting on the Avid. But we were able to get it up there pretty quickly.
Sometimes if you have something like opticals or titles, you wouldn’t be able to generate those for film quickly enough. So if we wanted to screen something immediately, we would have to do it digitally. But as long as we had a couple of days, we would be able to put it up on film, and we did end up doing one of our test screenings on 35 millimeter, which was really great. It added one more layer of authenticity to the movie, getting to see it projected on film.
For a project of this scope, how many assistants do you work with, and how do you like to work with those assistants?
Our team consists of post production supervisor Tina Anderson, who really oversees everything. She runs the editing room. She figures out what we’re going to need. She’s got this long list of items that she goes down every day, and makes sure that we are prepared for whatever is going to come our way. She’s really remarkable.
My first assistant Chris Tonick is the Avid assistant. He cut a handful of scenes during production, and I would occasionally ask him to do some sound work. But primarily during production, he was getting the dailies prepped — getting them into the Avid for me and laying out my bins the way I like them.
In post, we added an Avid second named Brit DeLillo, who would help Chris when we needed to do turnovers for sound or visual effects, music, all of those people.
Then we had our film crew, Bill Fletcher and Andrew Blustain. They were syncing dailies during production, and then they were conforming the film print during post.
Last, but certainly not least, we had Alana Feldman, our post PA, who made sure we had everything we needed.
And honestly, for everybody on the crew, their most important role beyond the work that they were hired to do, was to be an audience member for us whenever we finished a scene. That tradition I experienced as an assistant working under Sally is the tradition that we’ve continued. Whenever we finish a sequence, we bring the whole crew up and show them the scene. We want people to react. We want to hear how they’re responding. We want to know what’s working and what isn’t working. Being good audience members is actually a key part of the job.
When you’re looking for somebody to join your team as an assistant, what are you looking for?
There are a few things. One obvious thing, right off the bat, is someone who is personable. Is this someone I’m going to want to have lunch with every day for months on end? Generally, especially working on a Quentin Tarantino movie, somebody with a good knowledge of film history who has a love of movies is going to be appreciated in that environment.
The other thing that I would say honestly — and this might sound funny — is having the ability to see the future. And I don’t mean that I need psychic film assistants. I mean they need to be able to figure out what we’re going to need later on down the line and be prepared for it.
If I turn over a sequence, they should be looking at it and realizing, oh, there are some visual effects in here that we’re going to have to address, so we have to alert the visual effects companies about this stuff, or at least ask me if it’s something that I want.
If there were somebody who thought to themselves, “I want a career like Fred Raskin’s. I want to edit these kinds of cool films,” what advice would you give them as they’re starting out?
I have three standard pieces of advice that I give to everyone. My experience, I think, is fairly unique. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get to work with some of my favorite filmmakers. The way my story unfolded … not everybody is going to have the opportunities I’ve had.
But my standard pieces of advice are, number one — and I mentioned this earlier — be personable. You’re working with people you’re going to share space with for many months on end. You want to be the kind of person with whom they’re going to want to spend time. You want to be able to get along with everyone around you. And you know, sometimes you’ve got some big personalities to deal with, so you have to be the type who can navigate that.
Then I would say, watch everything you possibly can. Quentin is obviously an extreme example, but most filmmakers got into this business because they love movies. And so the more you know about movies, and the more you’re able to talk about movies, the more those filmmakers are going to respect you and want to work with you. This kind of goes hand in hand with being personable.
The other piece of advice — and I know this sounds like a no-brainer — if you’re going for an interview with a filmmaker, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with that person’s work. Be able to talk with them about their movies. They’re going to appreciate that you took the time to explore their work. Everybody wants to talk about the work they’ve done, so if you’re able to engage them on that level, I think it’s going to reflect well on you.
Absolutely. That’s great advice.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.