Tag Archives: James Gray

The editors of Ad Astra: John Axelrad and Lee Haugen

By Amy Leland

The new Brad Pitt film Ad Astra follows astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) as he journeys deep into space in search of his father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The elder McBride disappeared years before, and his experiments in space might now be endangering all life on Earth. Much of the film features Pitt’s character alone in space with his thoughts, creating a happy challenge for the film’s editing team, who have a long history of collaboration with each other and the film’s director James Gray.

L-R: Lee Haugen and John Axelrad

Co-editors John Axelrad, ACE, and Lee Haugen share credits on three previous films — Haugen served as Axelrad’s apprentice editor on Two Lovers, and the two co-edited The Lost City of Z and Papillon. Ad Astra’s director, James Gray, was also at the helm of Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z. A lot can be said for long-time collaborations.

When I had the opportunity to speak with Axlerad and Haugen, I was eager to find out more about how this shared history influenced their editing process and the creation of this fascinating story.

What led you both to film editing?
John Axelrad: I went to film school at USC and graduated in 1990. Like everyone else, I wanted to be a director. Everyone that goes to film school wants that. Then I focused on studying cinematography, but then I realized several years into film school that I don’t like being on the set.

Not long ago, I spoke to Fred Raskin about editing Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. He originally thought he was going to be a director, but then he figured out he could tell stories in an air-conditioned room.
Axelrad: That’s exactly it. Air conditioning plays a big role in my life; I can tell you that much. I get a lot of enjoyment out of putting a movie together and of being in my own head creatively and really working with the elements that make the magic. In some ways, there are a lot of parallels with the writer when you’re an editor; the difference is I’m not dealing with a blank page and words — I’m dealing with images, sound and music, and how it all comes together. A lot of people say the first draft is the script, the second draft is the shoot, and the third draft is the edit.

L-R: John and Lee at the Papillon premiere.

I started off as an assistant editor, working for some top editors for about 10 years in the ’90s, including Anne V. Coates. I was an assistant on Out of Sight when Anne Coates was nominated for the Oscar. Those 10 years of experience really prepped me for dealing with what it’s like to be the lead editor in charge of a department — dealing with the politics, the personalities and the creative content and learning how to solve problems. I started cutting on my own in the late ‘90s, and in the early 2000s, I started editing feature films.

When did you meet your frequent collaborator James Gray?
Axelrad: I had done a few horror features, and then I hooked up with James on We Own the Night, and that went very well. Then we did Two Lovers after that. That’s where Lee Haugen came in — and I’ll let him tell his side of the story — but suffice it to say that I’ve done five films for James Gray, and Lee Haugen rose up through the ranks and became my co-editor on the Lost City of Z. Then we edited the movie Papillon together, so it was just natural that we would do Ad Astra together as a team.

What about you, Lee? How did you wind your way to where we are now?
Lee Haugen: Growing up in Wisconsin, any time I had a school project, like writing a story or writing an article, I would change it into a short video or short film instead. Back then I had to shoot on VHS tape and edited tape to tape by pushing play and hitting record and timing it. It took forever, but that was when I really found out that I loved editing.

So I went to school with a focus on wanting to be an editor. After graduating from Wisconsin, I moved to California and found my way into reality television. That was the mid-2000s and it was the boom of reality television; there were a lot of jobs that offered me the chance to get in the hours needed for becoming a member of the Editors Guild as well as more experience on Avid Media Composer.

After about a year of that, I realized working the night shift as an assistant editor on reality television shows was not my real passion. I really wanted to move toward features. I was listening to a podcast by Patrick Don Vito (editor of Green Book, among other things), and he mentioned John Axelrad. I met John on an interview for We Own the Night when I first moved out here, but I didn’t get the job. But a year or two later, I called him, and he said, “You know what? We’re starting another James Gray movie next week. Why don’t you come in for an interview?” I started working with John the day I came in. I could not have been more fortunate to find this group of people that gave me my first experience in feature films.

Then I had the opportunity to work on a lower-budget feature called Dope, and that was my first feature editing job by myself. The success of the film at Sundance really helped launch my career. Then things came back around. John was finishing up Krampus, and he needed somebody to go out to Northern Ireland to edit the assembly of The Lost City of Z with James Gray. So, it worked out perfectly, and from there, we’ve been collaborating.

Axelrad: Ad Astra is my third time co-editing with Lee, and I find our working as a team to be a naturally fluid and creative process. It’s a collaboration entailing many months of sharing perspectives, ideas and insights on how best to approach the material, and one that ultimately benefits the final edit. Lee wouldn’t be where he is if he weren’t a talent in his own right. He proved himself, and here we are together.

How has your collaborative process changed and grown from when you were first working together (John, Lee and James) to now, on Ad Astra?
Axelrad: This is my fifth film with James. He’s a marvelous filmmaker, and one of the reasons he’s so good is that he really understands the subtlety and power of editing. He’s very neoclassical in his approach, and he challenges the viewer since we’re all accustomed to faster cutting and faster pacing. But with James, it’s so much more of a methodical approach. James is very performance-driven. It’s all about the character, it’s all about the narrative and the story, and we really understand his instincts. Additionally, you need to develop a second-hand language and truly understand what the director wants.

Working with Lee, it was just a natural process to have the two of us cutting. I would work on a scene, and then I could say, “Hey Lee, why don’t you take a stab at it?” Or vice versa. When James was in the editing room working with us, he would often work intensely with one of us and then switch rooms and work with the other. I think we each really touched almost everything in the film.

Haugen: I agree with John. Our way of working is very collaborative —that includes John and I, but also our assistant editors and additional editors. It’s a process that we feel benefits the film as a whole; when we have different perspectives, it can help us explore different options that can raise the film to another level. And when James comes in, he’s extremely meticulous. And as John said, he and I both touched every single scene, and I think we’ve even touched every frame of the film.

Axelrad: To add to what Lee said, about involving our whole editing team, I love mentoring, and I love having my crew feel very involved. Not just technical stuff, but creatively. We worked with a terrific guy, Scott Morris, who is our first assistant editor. Ultimately, he got bumped up during the course of the film and got an additional editor credit on Ad Astra.

We involve everyone, even down to the post assistant. We want to hear their ideas and make them feel like a welcome part of a collaborative environment. They obviously have to focus on their primary tasks, but I think it just makes for a much happier editing room when everyone feels part of a team.

How did you manage an edit that was so collaborative? Did you have screenings of dailies or screenings of cuts?
Axelrad: During dailies it was just James, and we would send edits for him to look at. But James doesn’t really start until he’s in the room. He really wants to explore every frame of film and try all the infinite combinations, especially when you’re dealing with drama and dealing with nuance and subtlety and subtext. Those are the scenes that take the longest. When I put together the lunar rover chase, it was almost easier in some ways than some of the intense drama scenes in the film.

Haugen: As the dailies came in, John and I would each take a scene and do a first cut. And then, once we had something to present, we would call everybody in to watch the scene. We would get everybody’s feedback and see what was working, what wasn’t working. If there were any problems that we could address before moving to the next scene, we would. We liked to get the outside point of view, because once you get further and deeper into the process of editing a film, you do start to lose perspective. To be able to bring somebody else in to watch a scene and to give you feedback is extremely helpful.

One thing that John established with me on Two Lovers — my first editing job on a feature — was allowing me to come and sit in the room during the editing. After my work was done, I was welcome to sit in the back of the room and just observe the interaction between John and James. We continued that process with this film, just to give those people experience and to learn and to observe how an edit room works. That helped me become an editor.

John, you talked about how the action scenes are often easier to cut than the dramatic scenes. It seems like that would be even more true with Ad Astra, because so much of this film is about isolation. How does that complicate the process of structuring a scene when it’s so much about a person alone with his own thoughts?
Axelrad: That was the biggest challenge, but one we were prepared for. To James’ credit, he’s not precious about his written words; he’s not precious about the script. Some directors might say, “Oh no, we need to mold it to fit the script,” but he allows the actors to work within a space. The script is a guide for them, and they bring so much to it that it changes the story. That’s why I always say that we serve the ego of the movie. The movie, in a way, informs us what it wants to be, and what it needs to be. And in the case of this, Brad gave us such amazing nuanced performances. I believe you can sometimes shape the best performance around what is not said through the more nuanced cues of facial expressions and gestures.

So, as an editor, when you can craft something that transcends what is written and what is photographed and achieve a compelling synergy of sound, music and performance — to create heightened emotions in a film — that’s what we’re aiming for. In the case of his isolation, we discovered early on that having voiceover and really getting more interior was important. That wasn’t initially part of the cut, but James had written voiceover, and we began to incorporate that, and it really helped make this film into more of an existential journey.

The further he goes out into space, the deeper we go into his soul, and it’s really a dive into the subconscious. That sequence where he dives underwater in the cooling liquid of the rocket, he emerges and climbs up the rocket, and it’s almost like a dream. Like how in our dreams we have superhuman strength as a way to conquer our demons and our fears. The intent really was to make the film very hypnotic. Some people get it and appreciate it.

As an editor, sound often determines the rhythm of the edit, but one of the things that was fascinating with this film is how deafeningly quiet space likely is. How do you work with the material when it’s mostly silent?
Haugen: Early on, James established that he wanted to make the film as realistic as possible. Sound, or lack of sound, is a huge part of space travel. So the hard part is when you have, for example, the lunar rover chase on the moon, and you play it completely silent; it’s disarming and different and eerie, which was very interesting at first.

But then we started to explore how we could make this sound more realistic or find a way to amplify the action beats through sound. One way was, when things were hitting him or things were vibrating off of his suit, he could feel the impacts and he could hear the vibrations of different things going on.

Axelrad: It was very much part of our rhythm, of how we cut it together, because we knew James wanted to be as realistic as possible. We did what we could with the soundscapes that were allowable for a big studio film like this. And, as Lee mentioned, playing it from Roy’s perspective — being in the space suit with him. It was really just to get into his head and hear things how he would hear things.

Thanks to Max Richter’s beautiful score, we were able to hone the rhythms to induce a transcendental state. We had Gary Rydstrom and Tom Johnson mix the movie for us at Skywalker, and they were the ultimate creators of the balance of the rhythms of the sounds.

Did you work with music in the cut?
Axelrad: James loves to temp with classical music. In previous films, we used a lot of Puccini. In this film, there was a lot of Wagner. But Max Richter came in fairly early in the process and developed such beautiful themes, and we began to incorporate his themes. That really set the mood.

When you’re working with your composer and sound designer, you feed off each other. So things that they would do would inspire us, and we would change the edits. I always tell the composers when I work with them, “Hey, if you come up with something, and you think musically it’s very powerful, let me know, and I am more than willing to pitch changing the edit to accommodate.” Max’s music editor, Katrina Schiller, worked in-house with us and was hugely helpful, since Max worked out of London.

We tend not to want to cut with music because initially you want the edit not to have music as a Band-Aid to cover up a problem. But once we feel the picture is working, and the rhythm is going, sometimes the music will just fit perfectly, even as temp music. And if the rhythms match up to what we’re doing, then we know that we’ve done it right.

What is next for the two of you?
Axelrad: I’m working on a lower-budget movie right now, a Lionsgate feature film. The title is under wraps, but it stars Janelle Monáe, and it’s kind of a socio-political thriller.

What about you Lee?
Haugen: I jumped onto another film as well. It’s an independent film starring Zoe Saldana. It’s called Keyhole Garden, and it’s this very intimate drama that takes place on the border between Mexico and America. So it’s a very timely story to tell.


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.

The sound of two worlds for The Lost City of Z

By Jennifer Walden

If you are an explorer, your goal is to go where no one has gone before, or maybe it’s to unearth and re-discover a long-lost world. Director James Gray (The Immigrant), takes on David Grann’s non-fiction novel The Lost City of Z, which follows the adventures of British explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett, who in 1925 disappeared with his son in the Amazon jungle while on a quest to locate an ancient lost city.

Gray’s biographical film, which premiered October 15 at the 54th New York Film Festival, takes an interpretive approach to the story by exploring Fawcett’s inner landscape, which is at odds with his physical location — whether he’s in England or the Amazon, his thoughts drift between the two incongruent worlds.

Once Gray returned from filming The Lost City of Z in the jungles of Colombia, he met up with supervising sound editor/sound designer Robert Hein at New York’s Harbor Picture Company. Having worked together on The Immigrant years ago, Hein says he and Gray have an understanding of each other’s aesthetics. “He has very high goals for himself, and I try to have that also. I enjoy our collaboration; we keep pushing the envelope. We have a mutual appreciation for making a film the greatest it can be. It’s an evolution, and we keep pushing the film to new places.”

The Sound of Two Worlds
Gray felt Hein and Harbor Picture Company would be the perfect partner to handle the challenging sound job for The Lost City of Z. “It involved the creation of two very different worlds: Victorian England, and the jungle. Both feature the backdrop of World War I. Therefore, we wanted someone who naturally thinks outside the box, someone who doesn’t only look at the images on the screen, but takes chances and does things outside the realm of what you originally had in mind, and Bob [Hein] and his crew are those people.”

Bob Hein

Gray tasked Hein with designing a soundscape that could merge Fawcett’s physical location with his inner world. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is presented with physical attacks and struggles, but it’s his inner struggle that Gray wanted to focus on. Hein explains, “Fawcett is a conflicted character. A big part of the film is his longing for two worlds: the Amazon and England. When he’s in one place, his mind is in the other, so that was very challenging to pull off.”

To help convey Fawcett’s emotional and mental conflicts, Hein introduced the sounds of England into the Amazon, and vice-versa, subtly blending the two worlds. Through sound, the audience escapes the physical setting and goes into Fawcett’s mind. For example, the film opens with the sounds of the jungle, to which Hein added an indigenous Amazonian battle drum that transforms into the drumming of an English soldier, since Fawcett is physically with a group of soldiers preparing for a hunt. Hein explains that Fawcett’s belief that the Amazonians were just as civilized as Europeans (maybe even more so) was a controversial idea at the time. Merging their drumming wasn’t just a means of carrying the audience from the Amazon to England; it was also a comment on the two civilizations.

“In a way, it’s kind of emblematic of the whole sound design,” explains Hein. “It starts out as one thing but then it transforms into another. We did that throughout the film. I think it’s very beautiful and engaging. Through the sound you enter into his world, so we did a lot of those transitions.”

In another scene, Fawcett is traveling down a river in the jungle and he’s thinking about his family in England. Here, Hein adds an indigenous bird calling, and as the scene develops he blends the sound of that bird with an English church bell. “It’s very subtle,” he says. “The sounds just merge. It’s the merging of two worlds. It’s a feeling more than an obvious trick.”

During a WWI battle scene, Fawcett leads a charge of troops out of their trench. Here Hein adds sounds related to the Amazon in juxtaposition of Fawcett’s immediate situation. “Right before he goes into war, he’s back in the jungle even though he is physically in the trenches. What you hear in his head are memories of the jungle. You hear the indigenous Amazonians, but unless you’re told what it is you might not know.”

A War Cry
According to Hein, one of the big events in the film occurs when Fawcett is being attacked by Amazonians. They are shooting at him but he refuses to accept defeat. Fawcett holds up his bible and an arrow goes tearing into the book. At that moment, the film takes the audience inside Fawcett’s mind as his whole life flashes by. “The sound is a very big part of that because you hear memories of England and memories of his life and his family, but then you start to hear an indigenous war cry that I changed dramatically,” explains Hein. “It doesn’t sound like something that would come out of a human voice. It’s more of an ethereal, haunted reference to the war cry.”

As Fawcett comes back to reality that sound gets erased by the jungle ambience. “He’s left alone in the jungle, staring at a tribe of Indians that just tried to kill him. That was a very effective sound design moment in this film.”

To turn that war cry into an ethereal sound, Hein used a granular synthesizer plug-in called Paulstretch (or Paul’s Extreme Sound Stretch) created by Software Engineer by Paul Nasca. “Paulstretch turns sounds almost into music,” he says. “It’s an old technology, but it does some very special things. You can set it for a variety of effects. I would play around with it until I found what I liked. There were a lot of versions of a lot of different ideas as we went along.”

It’s all part of the creative process, which Gray is happy to explore. “What’s great is that James [Gray] is excited about sound,” says Hein. “He would hang out and we would play things together and we would talk about the film, about the main character, and we would arrive at sounds together.”

Drones
Additionally, Hein sound designed drones to highlight the anxiety and trepidation that Fawcett feels. “The drones are low, sub-frequency sounds but they present a certain atmosphere that conveys dread. These elements are very subtle. You don’t get hit over the head with them,” he says.

The drones and all the sound design were created from natural sounds from the Amazon or England. For example, to create a low-end drone, they would start with jungle sounds — imagine a bee’s nest or an Amazonian instrument — and then manipulate those. “Everything was done to immerse the audience in the world of The Lost City of Z in its purest sense,” says Hein, who worked closely with Harbor’s sound editors Glenfield Payne, Damian Volpe and Dave Paterson. “They did great work and were crucial in the sound design.”

The Amazon
Gray also asked that Hein design the indigenous Amazon world exactly the way that it should be, as real as it could be. Hein says, “It’s very hard to find the correct sound to go along with the images. A lot of my endeavor was researching and finding people who did recordings in the Amazon.”

He scoured the Smithsonian Institute Archives, and did hours of research online, looking for audio preservationists who captured field recordings of indigenous Amazonians. “There was one amazing coincidence,” says Hein. “There’s a scene in the movie where the Indians are using an herbal potion to stun the fish in the river. That’s how they do it so as not to over-fish their environment. James [Gray] had found this chant that he wanted to have there, but that chant wasn’t actually a fishing chant. Fortunately, I found a recording of the actual fishing chant online. It’s beautifully done. I contacted the recordist and he gave us the rights to use it.”

Filming in the Amazon, under very difficult conditions presented Hein with another post production challenge. “Location sound recording in the jungle is challenging because there were loud insects, rain and thunder. There were even far-afield trucks and airplanes that didn’t exist at the time.”

Gray was very concerned that sections of the location dialogue would be unusable. “The performances in the film are so great because they went deep into the Amazon jungle to shoot this film. Physically being in that environment I’m sure was very stressful, and that added a certain quality to the actors’ performances that would have been very difficult to replace with ADR,” says Hein, who carefully cleaned up the dialogue using several tools, including iZotope’s RX 5 Advanced audio restoration software. “With RX 5 Advanced, we could microscopically choose which sounds we wanted to keep and which sounds we wanted to remove, and that’s done visually. RX gives you a visual map of the audio and you can paint out sounds that are unnecessary. It’s almost like Photoshop for sound.”

Hein shared the cleaned dialogue tracks with Gray, who was thrilled. “He was so excited about them. He said, “I can use my location sound!” That was a big part of the project.”

ADR and The Mix
While much of the dialogue was saved, there were still a few problematic scenes that required ADR, including a scene that was filmed during a tropical rainstorm, and another that was shot on a noisy train as it traveled over the mountains in Colombia. Harbor’s ADR supervisor Bobby Johanson, who has worked with Gray on previous films, recorded everything on Harbor’s ADR stage that is located just down the hall from Hein’s edit suite and the dub stage.

Gray says, “Harbor is not just great for New York; it’s great, period. It is this fantastic place where they’ve got soundstages that are 150 feet away from the editing rooms, which is incredibly convenient. I knew they could handle the job, and it was really a perfect scenario.”

The Lost City of Z was mixed in 5.1 surround on an Avid/Euphonix System 5 console by re-recording mixers Tom Johnson (dialogue/music) and Josh Berger (effects, Foley, backgrounds) in Studio A at Harbor Sound’s King Street location in Soho. It was also reviewed on the Harbor Grand stage, which is the largest theatrical mix stage in New York. The team used the 5.1 environment to create the feeling of being engulfed by the jungle. Fawcett’s trips, some which lasted years, were grueling and filled with disease and death. “The jungle is a scary place to be! We really wanted to make sure that the audience understood the magnitude of Percy’s trips to the Amazon,” says Berger. “There are certain scenes where we used sound to heighten the audience’s perspective of how erratic and punishing the jungle can be, i.e. when the team gets caught in rapids or when they come under siege from various Indian tribes.”

Johnson, who typically mixes at Skywalker Sound, had an interesting approach to the final mix. Hein explains that Johnson would first play a reel with every available sound in it — all the dialogue and ADR, all the sound effects and Foley — and the music. “We played it all in the reel,” says Hein. “It would be overwhelming. It would be unmixed and at times chaotic. But it gave us a very good idea of how to approach the mix.”

As they worked through the film, the sound would evolve in unexpected ways. What they heard toward the end of the first pass influenced their approach on the beginning of the second pass. “The film became a living being. We became very flexible about how the sound design was coming in and out of different scenes. The sound became very integrated into the film as a whole. It was really great to experience that,” shares Hein.

As Johnson and Berger mixed, Hein was busy creating new sound design elements for the visual effects that were still coming in at the last minute. For example, the final version of the arrows that were shot in the film didn’t come in until the last minute. “The arrows had to have a real special quality about them. They were very specific in communicating just how dangerous the situation actually was and what they were up against,” says Hein.

Later in the film, Amazonians throw tomahawks at Fawcett and his son as they run through the jungle. “Those tomahawks were never in the footage,” he says. “We had just an idea of them until days before we finished the mix. There was also a jaguar that comes out of the jungle and threatens them. That also came in at the last minute.”

While Hein created new sound elements in his edit suite next to the dub stage, Gray was able to join him for critique and collaboration before those sounds were sent next door to the dub stage. “Working with James is a high-energy, creative blast and super fun. He’s constantly coming up with new ideas and challenges. He spends every minute in the mix encouraging us, challenging us and, best of all, making us laugh a lot. He’s a great storyteller, and his knowledge of film and film history is remarkable. Working with James Gray is a real highlight in my career,” concludes Hein.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.