By Amy Leland
John Gilroy, ACE, comes from an impressive storytelling family. His father, Frank D. Gilroy, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, as well as a screenwriter and director for film and television. His older brother Tony is a screenwriter and director, known for films such as Michael Clayton and the Jason Bourne films. His fraternal twin Dan is also a screenwriter and director, whose work includes the film Nightcrawler. John’s editing credits include his brothers’ films Michael Clayton and Nightcrawler, as well as many others, including Warrior, Pacific Rim and Rogue One.
While the Gilroy brothers have often worked together, they have all also made significant films independently. With a family filled with such storytelling talents, it is no surprise that John ended up where he is now, but it turns out his path wasn’t as predestined as one might think. I sat down with him to talk about that legacy, his path toward it, and his most recent editing project, Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film stars Denzel Washington, and yes, it was written and directed by twin brother Dan.
Did you want to be in this industry because it’s the family business?
It may be the opposite of that. My brothers and I grew up around the film industry because our dad’s in the business. He’s a writer/director. We didn’t live in Hollywood. We lived in upstate New York, but we were in orbit of all that throughout our childhood. I decided to go the other way. I actually thought, “You know what? I’ll be a lawyer.”
I majored in government at college, but by graduation I really didn’t want to go through another three years of law school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I worked as a bartender for a couple of years in New York, which was a lot of fun. Then I just started gravitating toward the film business. I really wanted to be a director, like everybody else. I looked around at how I could get my foot in the door. My father knew an editor, Rick Shane, who let me hang out in his cutting room between my bar shifts. I didn’t go to film school, so I picked up what I could there. Then I got into a cutting room on a job as an apprentice, and really just worked very hard and very steadily for a bunch of years. Finally I became an editor. My brothers became screenwriters. They wrote together early on, and then separately. But editing was my trajectory.
Do you remember having early heroes who were filmmakers, or did that come later?
When I was young I was “wowed” by the same films that a lot of people were: Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather for instance. Many of the films I really loved were made by directors who had been film editors. I was a big fan of David Lean, Hal Ashby and Robert Wise. It’s sort of one of the logical reasons I gravitated to editing I guess — I thought this is a good way to get in, because some of my directing heroes started as film editors.
I think the movie that really made me think about editing early on was Slaughterhouse Five, which was edited by Dede Allen. It’s a great movie — a lot of nonlinear cross cutting. It must have been a lot of fun for her in the cutting room making that movie. But that was the first film I ever saw that I thought, “Ahhh, isn’t it interesting how it’s put together.” I really hadn’t thought about how a movie was put together before that; it just seemed like an invisible process.
I teach editing classes, and one of the things I tell my students is that you have to accept that if you do your job well, people shouldn’t see it. So it’s nice that occasionally it’s okay to see the editing and be impressed by that. That’s a very tough thing to do. I felt that way about Whiplash. When I saw it, I thought, “I’m seeing the editing, and that’s a good thing because it’s really fascinating how this was put together.” That is unusual.
Every once in a while, there is a movie like that. I cut a movie years ago called Narc, where the editing was kind of up in your face like that. Every movie tells you what to do, but you’re right, usually it’s an absolutely invisible and seamless experience. You shouldn’t be thinking about it at all, if it goes right.
You’ve worked a lot with family. In fact, your brother Dan — with whom you did Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. — is your twin. Does that make that working collaboration easier? Does it make it harder? How does it affect that process?
It makes it easier for sure. We’ve all worked with many other people, independent of each other but working with Danny or Tony is easier because there’s a shorthand. You develop a shorthand with a director if you work with them on more than one picture no matter who it is. I guess it’s even stronger if it’s your brother, and then maybe even more if he’s your twin.
We’re very different sorts of people, however…. we’re fraternal twins. You wouldn’t even know we were brothers to look at us, but we definitely have a similar sensibility. So in terms of pace and what’s right and what’s wrong, that kind of thing, we’re pretty much in lock step. Our process moves very quickly. The decision-making is fluid because we’re not debating very much. We’re both looking at our movie in the same way.
For the whole thing to be a success, it’s very important for an editor to be able to climb into a director’s brain and to sync up with them on some level. If there’s some sort of weird tug-of-war going on, it’s never going to happen… You’re not going to find the magic.
How did this particular project come about? Were you involved from the beginning?
Romans J. Israel, Esq. sprang from the fertile imagination of my brother Dan, who is turning out some really interesting spec scripts these days. He wrote it for Denzel Washington, and then Denzel said yes. It’s a brilliant script, and it quickly attracted a lot of people. We were fortunate to have the same production team we had on Nightcrawler. Robert Elswit shooting and Kevin Kavanaugh doing production design, James Howard doing the music, and then me editing of course, so there’s a lot of experience there. Dan has been wise enough to surround himself with a lot of talent. And he’s also a great boss. He is everybody’s compass in finding the movie, but he’s very open to ideas, and the process is pleasant, highly creative and fun. He makes it that way.
Robert Elswit worked with you and Dan on this one and Nightcrawler. He’s such an amazing cinematographer. When you’re talking about the guy who takes Paul Thomas Anderson’s visions and brings them to life, this is clearly somebody with an incredibly strong sense of the visual. What was the collaborative process like for the three of you?
I have an opinion about everything (laughs), but I try to step back in the pre-production process. I step back and let Robert and Kevin and Dan do their thing, and I try not to be part of that because I’m going to have a big say later on. So I’m sort of circling that pre-production process, just looking in, happy to answer any questions, look at anything. It’s fine. I’ll do that.
Once we start shooting, though, my cutting room becomes command central, and I’m building the movie. That’s me taking what’s been shot and looking ahead to see what they’re doing. But I’m trying to put the movie together as quickly as possible. And things are occurring to me, things that I might need. If I say, “Could I get something, I need something quickly,” it’s attended to in the course of the shooting. I just kind of build the movie from the very beginning as quickly as possible, and finding the truth in every scene. That’s what I’m thinking about.
So you are cutting scenes as the production is going on. Are you on set?
I’ll be on set the very first day to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” Then they probably won’t see me very much. Occasionally I’ll come out if their shooting something I’ve asked for, but you don’t see me much on set.
Let’s talk about the technical aspect a little bit. What did they shoot on?
Robert Elswit is a big advocate of film and we actually were able to shoot film for all of the day stuff. Film is not as forgiving at night, so we shot on an Arri Alexa for our night scenes.
What about your edit process? What’s your set up for your edits?
I’m as technical as I need to be. I’m actually one of the last guys that started cutting on a Moviola, like a million years ago. So that’s where I learned how to cut. I had a very good team. Richard Molina was my first assistant and Corey Seeholzer was my Second. It was a small, experienced crew. In terms of the workflow in the room, I tend to delegate that to my First. Basically, the way I work is my First runs the room.
If my first assistant is running the room, I can be focused on my Avid and I thinking creatively about the movie all of the time. There are many technical aspects to our workflow that I only sort of look at peripherally. I obviously have a deep knowledge of how our cutting room operates, but I couldn’t do Richard’s job. It’s too technical for me. I’m doing the same thing that I’ve always done. I’m getting my dailies, and climbing into the movie — thinking about the story — what is the story and where is the truth?
Sound seems so important to this story. His constant use of headphones, his devotion to his iPod, his reaction to the construction next door to him, and especially the way he was experiencing sound to show his emotional state. The couple of times where, in moments of anxiety, sound would drop out. How much of that was worked out in the edit, and how much was left for the sound mix?
In terms of knowing where certain sound design elements are going to happen, again, the movie is telling us what to do. Margit Pfeiffer, our sound supervisor, assembled a really great team. Andy Koyama and Martyn Zub mixed the film. Martyn and Ann Scibelli were our sound designers and Del Spiva was our music editor. Many of us had worked on Nightcrawler and again, there was a shorthand between us… a collaboration which made it easy for the sound of our film to evolve very quickly.
I work hard to make my first pass of a film feel like a third or fourth pass, and the sound has a lot to do with that. That’s how you can make a crazy deadline like what we were shooting for, which was a little (laughs) ambitious. Danny started shooting in April and wasn’t really done until early June. Then he was like, “Hey, what about the Toronto Film Festival?” And I was like, “Okay (laughs some more).”
So one and a half months?
Yeah. We ran for it, and we made it. After the Toronto Film Festival, we saw some ways to make the movie even better and more streamlined, and we acted on that. That’s the version that’s in the theaters now.
What do you look for in an assistant editor?
It’s a complex skill set. They have to be very knowledgeable technically to offset my ignorance on some level. There’s a lot of temp VFX work that we do in the room, wherever we can — filling in green screens and that sort of thing. The assistants have to be quite knowledgeable with VFX tools in the Avid and/or After Effects.
I also mentioned that I do a lot of sound work, but when I’m really working hard on my cut of the film, I delegate a lot of the sound work to them so they must have a deep background in sound and sound design. Those are two important skills they need to have —that and being able to keep the room running smoothly.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
Whatever I know now that I’d like to pass on to my young self took thousands of hours to come by, and I’m not sure I could articulate it, but I do think it is harder to become an editor today. It’s a good news/bad news thing… the good news is that you can make media and edit on your phone if you want to — the tools are available. You could start being an editor instantly or at least start practicing. It wasn’t like that when I was young. There was film, and it was expensive, and you had to learn a lot and wait much longer before you got an opportunity.
But these days, an assistant’s job is even further removed from what an editor does. They need to absorb a lot more technical knowledge to work in a cutting room. When I was an assistant, I was often working in a cutting room with the editor shoulder to shoulder, handing him his next shot. You learn a lot by being close in on the process. With computers, editing is a much more solitary endeavor.
Editorial is a ladder. It’s a transition from apprentice to an assistant, and then assistant to editor. From assistant to editor, you’re actually doing two entirely different jobs. It’s always been that way but the chasm seems greater to me now, because assistants need to know more to do their jobs.
Is there anything else about Roman J. Israel, Esq. that you would like people to know?
In some ways, I think this is one of the most important films that I’ve ever worked on. I think it’s an emotional and brainy piece of filmmaking, in terms of Danny’s story and what Denzel brought to the character. I’m very proud of it. It also portrays our criminal justice system accurately, which might be eye opening for some people.
It was also really interesting and refreshing to actually to see a movie where the main conflict was somebody simply trying to hold onto their morals. It’s almost rare now that that’s something to strive for.
I know… It’s kind of a throwback. It has a ‘70s feel to it, and Roman is also sort of a time capsule throwback himself. The movie works, I think, because Denzel is fascinating to watch, and at the end of his journey, he is ultimately a hero. It was a lot of fun working with Denzel too. He’s a great filmmaker himself, and was extremely helpful to Dan and I in the cutting room. We had a lot of fun together.
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.