By Zack Wolder
The Drew Pearce-directed Hotel Artemis is a dark action-thriller set in a riot-torn Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future. What is the Hotel Artemis? It’s a secret members-only hospital for criminals run by Jodie Foster with the help of David Bautista. The film boasts an impressive cast that also includes Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella and Jennie Slate.
Hotel Artemis editor Paul Zucker, ACE, has varied credits that toggle between TV and film, including Trainwreck, This is 40, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Girls, Silicon Valley and many others.
We recently reached out to Zucker to talk about his process on the film.
How did you get involved in this film?
This was kind of a blind date set-up. I wasn’t really familiar with Drew, and it was a project that came to me pretty late. I think I joined about a week, maybe two, before production began. I was told that they were in a hurry to find an editor. I read the script, I interviewed with Drew, and that was it.
How long did it take to complete the editing?
About seven months.
How involved were you throughout the whole phase of production? Were you on set at all?
I wasn’t involved in pre-production, so I wasn’t able to participate in development of the script or anything like that, but as soon as the camera started rolling I was cutting. Most of the film was shot on stages in downtown LA, so I would go to set a few times, but most of the time there was enough work to do that I was sequestered in the edit room and trying to keep up with camera.
I’m an editor who doesn’t love to go to set. I prefer to be uninfluenced by whatever tensions, or lack of tensions, are happening on set. If a director has something he needs me for, if it’s some contribution he feels I can make, I’m happy, able and willing to participate in shot listing, blocking and things like that, but on this movie I was more valuable putting together the edit.
Did you have any specific deadlines you had to meet?
On this particular movie there was a higher-than-average number of requests from director Drew Pearce. Since it was mostly shot on stages, he was able to re-shoot things a little easier than you would if we were on location. So it became important for him to see the movie sooner rather than later.
A bunch of movies ago, I adopted a workflow of sending the director whatever I had each Friday. I think it’s healthy for them to see what they’re working on. There’s always the chance that it will influence the work they’re doing, whether it’s performance of the actors or the story or the script or really anything.
As I understand it from the directors I’ve worked for, seeing the editor’s cut can be the worst day of the process for them. Not because of the quality of the editing, but because it’s hard in that first viewing to look past all the things that they didn’t get on set. Its tough to not just see the mistakes. Which is totally understandable. So I started this strategy of easing them into it. I just send scenes; I don’t send them in sequence. By the time they get to the editors cut, they’ve seen most of the scenes, so the shock is lessened and hopefully that screening is more productive
Do you ever get that sense that you may be distracting them or overwhelming them with something?
Yes, sometimes. A couple of pictures ago, I did my normal thing — sending what I had on a Friday — and the director told me he didn’t want to watch them. For him, issues of post were a distraction while he was in production. So to each his own.
Drew Pearce certainly benefitted. Drew was the type of director who, if I sent it at 9pm, he would be watching it at 9:05pm, and he would be giving me notes at 10:05pm.
Are you doing temp color and things like that?
Absolutely. I do as much as the footage I’m given requires. On this particular movie, the cinematographer, the DIT and the lab were so dialed in that these were the most perfect-looking dailies I think I’ve ever gotten. So I had to do next to nothing. I credit DP Chung-Hoon Chung for that. Generally, if I’m getting dailies that are mismatched in color tone, I’m going to do whatever it takes to smooth it out. Nothing goes in front of the director until it’s had a hardcore sound and color pass. I am always trying to leave as little to the imagination as possible. I try to present something that is as close to the experience that the audience will have when they watch the movie. That means great color, great sound, music, all of that.
Do you ever provide VFX work?
Editorial is typically always doing simple VFX work like split-screens, muzzle-flashes for guns, etc. Those are all things that we’re really comfortable doing.
On this movie, theres a large VFX component, so the temp work was more intense. We had close to 500 VFX shots, and there’s some very involved ones. For example, a helicopter crashes into a building after getting blasted out of the sky with a rocket launcher. There are multiple scenes where characters get operated on by robotic arms. There’s a 3D printer that prints organs and guns. So we had to come up with a large number of temp shots in editorial.
The assistant editors, Gardner Gould, Michael Costello and Lillian Dawson Bain, were instrumental in coming up with these shots.
What about editing before the VFX shots are delivered?
From the very beginning, we are game-planning — what are the priorities for the movie vis-a-vis VFX? Which shots do we need early for story reasons? Which shots are the most time consuming for the VFX department? All of these things are considered as the entire post production department collaborates to come up with a priorities list.
If I need temp versions of shots to help me edit the scene, the assistants help me make them. If we can do them, we’ll do them. These aid in determining final VFX shot length, tempo, action, anything. As the process goes on, they get replaced by shots we get from the VFX department.
One thing I’m always keeping in mind is that shots can be created out of thin air oftentimes. If I have a story problem, sometimes a shot can be created that will help solve it. Sometimes the entire meaning of a scene can change.
What do you expect from your assistant editors?
The first assistant had to have experience with visual effects. The management of workflow for 500 shots is a lot, and on this job, we did not have a dedicated VFX editor. That fell upon editor Gardner Gould.
I generally kick a lot of sound to the assistant, as I’m kind of rapidly moving through cutting picture. But I’m also looking for someone who’s got that storytelling bone that great editors have. Not everybody has it, not every great assistant has it.
There is so much minutiae on the technical side of being an assistant editor that you run the risk of forgetting that you’re working on a movie for an audience. And, indeed, some assistants just do the assistant work. They never cut scenes, they never do creative work, they’re not interested or they just don’t. So I’m always encouraging them to think like an editor at every point.
I ask them for their opinions. I invite them into the process, I don’t want them to be afraid to tell me what they think. You have to express yourself artistically in every decision you make. I encourage them to think critically and analytically about the movie that we’re working on.
I came up as an assistant and I had a few people who really believed in me. They invited me into the room with the director and they gave me that early exposure that really helped me learn my trade. I’m kind of looking to pay back that favor to my assistants.
Why did you choose to edit this film on Avid? Are you proficient in any other NLEs?
Oh, I’d say strictly Avid. To me, a tool, a technology, should be as transparent as possible. I want to have the minimum of time in between thought and expression. Which means that if I think of an edit, I want to automatically, almost without thinking, be able to do a keystroke and have that decision appear on the monitor. I’m so comfortable with Avid that I’m at that point.
How is your creative process different when editing a film versus a TV show?
Well first, a TV show is going to have a pre-determined length. A movie does not have a pre-determined length. So in television you’re always wrangling with the runtime. The second thing that’s different is in television schedules are a little tighter and turnaround times are a little tighter. You’re constantly in pre-production, production and post at the same time.
Also, television is for a small screen. Film, generally speaking, is for the big screen. The venue matters for a lot of reasons, but it matters for pacing. You’re sitting in a movie theater and maybe you can hold shots a little bit longer because the canvas is so wide and there’s so much to look at. Whereas with the small screen, you’re sitting closer to the television, the screen itself is smaller, maybe the shots are typically not as wide or you cut a little quicker.
You’re a very experienced comedic editor. Was it difficult to be considered for a different type of film?
I guess the answer is yes. The more famous work I’ve done in the last couple of years has been for people like Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow. So people say, “Well, he’s a comedy editor.” But if you look at my resume dating back to the very first thing I did in 2001, I edited my first movie — a pretty radical film for Gus Van Sant called Gerry, and it was not a comedy. Eternal Sunshine was not a comedy. Before Girls, I couldn’t get hired on comedies.
Then I got pulled on by Judd to work on some of his movies, and he’s such a brand name that people see that on your resume and they say, “Well, you must be a comedy editor.” So, yes, it does become harder to break out of that box, but that’s the box that other people put you in, I don’t put myself in that. My favorite filmmakers work across all types of genre.
Where do you find inspiration? Music? Other editors? Directors?
Good question. I mean… inspiration is everywhere. I’m a movie fan, I always have been, that’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m always going to the movies. I watch lots of trailers. I like to keep up with what people are doing. I go back and re-watch the things that I love. Listening to other editors or reading other editors speak about their process is inspiring to me. Listening and speaking with people who love what they do is inspiring.
For Hotel Artemis, I went back and watched some movies that were an influence on this one to get in the tone-zone. I would listen to a lot of the soundtracks that were soundtracks to those movies. As far as watching movies, I watched Assault on Precinct 13, for instance. That’s a siege movie, and Hotel Artemis is kind of a siege movie. Some editors say they don’t watch movies while they’re making a movie, they don’t want to be influenced. It doesn’t bother me. It’s all in the soup.
Zack Wolder is a video editor based in NYC. He is currently the senior video editor at Billboard Magazine. Follow him on Instagram at @thezackwolder.