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.
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.
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.