Getting to the Core of Apple
Elliot Graham Edits ‘Steve Jobs’
by Rob Feld
There are two ways to run one’s career: Take whatever opportunities come or pursue the ones you want. The former strategy might lead to an ideal situation, but it also might get you pigeonholed as the go-to editor of carpenter ant documentaries. Take the case of Elliot Graham, ACE, who’s relentless tenacity has brought him feature work as varied as X-Men 2, Superman Returns, Milk and now Steve Jobs, which opened in limited release October 9 through Universal Pictures.
Graham started editing at NYU where he found he enjoyed it and that he could improve the cuts of his classmates’ films. “I seemed to be the only guy willing to sit in a small dark room and play around,” he says.
The parents of a friend of a friend knew editor Mark Goldblatt, ACE (Terminator, T2), and gave Graham his contact info. They had a phone conversation and Graham proceeded to keep in touch with him with postcards and letters from New York. It took over a year but he finally was able to get Goldblatt to meet him for lunch while he was working a runner job the summer after graduating, and living with his parents a few hours from Los Angeles.
A week later, he got a voicemail on his parents’ machine that he didn’t fully understand — it was a British accent, which said something about a job referred by Mark Goldblatt and Lightstorm Entertainment. It turned out that director Stephen Norrington needed an assistant to work for low wages to help him cut The Last Minute. Graham literally moved into the Lightstorm offices, sleeping on the couch for six weeks, and wound up with an editor credit by the time they were done.
Though there were some impressive visuals to the film, the credit wasn’t getting him more feature work, so after a year and a half of music video work he began “stalking” Bryan Singer, whom he’d met a few times socially. Singer was prepping X-Men 2. Graham reached out to him for several months until he finally got him on the phone; Singer was about to leave for Vancouver and had no time. “Okay, then I’m coming over,” said Graham.
Graham showed him his reel and, 90 minutes later, Singer put him in touch with his editor/composer John Ottman, ACE, who hired him as an assistant. Ottman gave Graham opportunities to cut scenes at night and on weekends, and as the studio was looking to bring on a second editor for this big action movie and Ottman had to move on to composing, Singer and Ottman fought for Graham to be bumped up. Six weeks into the shoot, he became co-editor. Suddenly he was employable.
Much as he loved working on action films, Graham didn’t want to be typecast to a single genre, so when he heard that Gus Van Sant was prepping Milk, the stalking commenced again —LA, Portland, San Francisco — until Van Sant, who had been thinking of cutting the film himself, began introducing Graham as, “Elliot,; he might be doing some editing with us.” He was never officially offered the job but one day the line producer called and asked him what crew and equipment he needed. Graham received an Oscar nomination for his work on Milk and established himself as a versatile editor with a matching career.
Steve Jobs, however, would provide a wholly unique challenge — in essence, a remarkable, high-octane Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk. The film is divided into three acts, each a different time period before Jobs (Michael Fassbender) unveils a new product in an auditorium or convention all: the Mac, the Next computer and the iMac. He moves from room to room and in and out of flashbacks, bumping heads with the people whom his arrogance (he calls it “reality distortion field”) and his genius have abused. A Sorkin script has an engine and rhythm all its own but keeping up with it and finding ways with director Danny Boyle to make it visual would require of Graham the same tenacity that got him to where he was.
“Elliott makes me look lazy in the edit time and I'm known for being pretty obsessive,” comments director Boyle. “A great storyteller on this film, he's using dialogue like the ingredients of an action film — restless, explosive, constantly seeking the friction and conflict. The real thing; pukka, as we say in the UK.”
CineMontage interviewed Graham in early October.
A scene from Steve Jobs. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
CineMontage: Let’s start with your work with Bryan Singer and Gus Van Sant. You've done two films and two TV pilots with each of them. How do you differentiate your collaborations?
Elliot Graham: They're extraordinarily different people, interested in different things. Most of the films Bryan and I did together were shot on soundstages so editorial was always nearby and it was a nice break for him to come visit in between setups. He would come by several times a day. He wants the first cuts he sees to be very presentable. Those big films have a lot of storyboards and pre-vis, though he definitely feels complete freedom to shoot differently, whatever feels right once on set. Regardless of the VFX planning involved, they’re still building a cut from scratch—there’s just a pressure to present something that feels like it could be in a movie theatre with the first pass, which is not actually a bad thing. I brought that approach to all the other films I’ve worked on. I don't necessarily enjoy the pressure of it, but I do like having a cut that you can really watch and evaluate as a tighter movie early on so you can spend more time in post experimenting rather than cutting down. There's 100 ways to approach editing and they all work.
I would see Gus once a week during production. He would look at first cuts, which might wind up in the movie. However, he would want to start from scratch and try lots of different things anyway. Sometimes you end up back where you started, but there would also be these magical discoveries that you would never have otherwise come up with. He'll try 1,000 things and sometimes on experiment 999 you go, “Oh, that was all worth it!” What you thought would never work is what makes the whole movie special for you. “Sure, let's throw a Russian children's choir onto some street scene in Milk.” I don't know why but it works. We went up to Portland after shooting Milk in San Francisco where he has a big warehouse artist loft. It was just us and his friends who work out of the office, so it was a very family-like environment. It was therapeutic for me. I had always wanted to be a part of something that felt like those early days you read about with Coppola and Scorsese making films with their friends, and that's much more what Milk felt like.
CM: Taking Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and making a visual movie out of it is a unique experience. What was your initial approach with Danny Boyle?
EG: I had an interview with Danny and he sent me the script. It was exciting; an action film of words. It feels like a series of fight scenes, certainly the flashback sequence between Steve and Scully in act two does. It's like two boxers going at it. If it were an action film, that would be the big set piece. We talked about Steve Jobs' infamous reality distortion field and how we might visually express that, though in the end it became clear it was through Michael Fassbender's performance that we could best access that idea. We talked about the need for the film to feel propulsive, to move and rarely stop, because it's a long script set in similar locations, and you don’t want to outstay your welcome.
We did experiment a lot with how fast the pace of dialogue in any given scene needed to be. We found quite quickly that the words necessitated a propulsion in a way that's just different from any other script because Sorkin does his own thing. You’re surfing a tidal wave of amazing, brilliant dialogue and if you're riding on top and it's rushing along, it's a rush. But if you fall off, it stops and you have to get back up, surf back out and try and get on another wave, losing all momentum. Then you're dead.
CM: David Mamet is the only corollary I can really think of.
EG: It's totally like that. So Steve Jobs was a dialogue driven movie and there's no question about it. But it’s also cinema, and needed to be. Danny shot a huge portion of the scenes on steadicam. And he shot all the scenes from beginning to end. Even if it's a 10-page or 20-page dialogue scene, the camera doesn't stop. The steadicam would follow Kate Winslet for seven takes and Michael for seven takes, then a two shot for seven takes. It would swirl around them in wide and then in close. So there was a lot of coverage, but always from beginning to end, so there were a lot of choices to be made. You could affect the energy pretty significantly. Danny wanted to give the actors the freedom to ride the energy of the words throughout the scene, but always with the plan to come into editorial and really chop it up to create a more cinematic than theatrical intensity.
Acts were shot in order. In between shooting each act, production had a week off for the actors and Danny to rehearse and get a sense of it. For me, it was chance to catch up so we could watch an act and get a sense of what we had before they went into the next one. Danny didn't come in for the first two weeks, so I had nearly a third of the film to show him, which was incredibly nerve-racking as he's one of my idols. Usually, you start out small with just a scene. I asked if he wanted to see sequences separately, but he didn’t. You just have to buckle your seatbelt and hope they like what you did. Danny loves movies and loves working with other creative people. He just fills you with enthusiasm. After that first screening of the 30 minutes of Act I, we talked about all the things that worked, didn't work, and how we could make Act II and III feel different; stylistic evolutions that could also perhaps feel like part of Jobs’ evolution. Danny gave me a lot of confidence going forward.
A scene from Steve Jobs. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
CM: So what choices did you make approaching Act II?
EG: Throughout the film, we were looking for ways to make it more cinematic and give you a visual experience as well as a linguistic one. We found the ways here and there. In Act I, there are cutaways to the crowd throughout, a moment alone “dreaming” in an elevator, and there’s poetry projected on the floor and walls at the end of Act I. Then we created these interstitial sections between the acts, which were also ways to perhaps rest your brain from the wonderful but overwhelming flow of words. Danny differentiated Acts I, II and III in multiple ways: by shooting them in 16mm, then 35mm and then Alexa, respectively, and by choosing very different locations, with very different color palettes. You could say in some ways it reflects the evolution of the character.
In editorial, we didn't know at the beginning exactly what differentiations we might bringing because it's not as straightforward in planning as choosing a different camera or color palette. We spent a lot of time thinking about different editorial approaches — more cutting, less cutting — but the reality in the end was that the cutting needed to be dictated by performances, camera movement, words and an overall sense of pace as usual, rather than imposing some style in advance that might not be right given what was shot. Of course, the acts are cut a bit differently, as they were shot differently, but in the end it was an overall approach to the pacing — keeping things moving, enhancing the cinematic experience of the film as a whole. It was really about finding a strong linear narrative within a inherently cyclical script.
CM: You could have gone so many ways with the character since our view into him is so incredibly performance-based, as opposed to event-based. How did you chart his evolution?
EG: Michael's performance dictated a lot. He doesn't necessarily look or sound like Steve Jobs, but he more importantly was absolutely capturing some essence of who this guy might actually have been. He did give us multiple options in his performances, which is a joy for an editor. There were levels of cruelty, humor, cockiness and reflection. How to finally tune that was something Danny and I played with from beginning to end. Was Jobs a difficult guy? I think that that's without a doubt the case. He was also a genius, and not without compassion for certain people. It's a movie trying to give a sense of a person rather than tell his entire life story. You want to be as honest as you can be. He's not just an asshole he's also, but an incredible leader and a brilliant man.
Obviously Kate Winslet has the most screen time with Michael and they just clicked from day one, so it was never about just Michael’s performance. It was about the connection between the actors. I can't talk about the film without talking about Kate because she and Michael had an instant onscreen chemistry. Everybody in the movie is playing off of Michael for obvious reasons and it became clear early on that Kate wasn't just playing Joanna, she was also playing in some ways the role of the narrator. Somehow through her performance, she’s able to let us understand how to feel about Steve in any given situation. From the beginning, you could tell from the twitch of an eye what this character felt about him and how perhaps we should. So she became a real tool for us; here's someone who can allow us to understand what's going on with him. Her reactions to him were just as important in many ways as what he was doing.
A scene from Steve Jobs. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
CM: Boyle is known for his musical choices and they became important ways to chart the film’s progression, as well.
EG: There are definitely three different kinds of music from Act I through III and Danny wanted to use it for further differentiation between acts. And that was something he and I were involved with from early on because our composer, Daniel Pemberton, started sending us ideas based on the script before production even began, which we could engineer into any scene we felt a piece we liked might be right for. It was interesting because the music affected the cutting and vice versa in a way it doesn't when you temp it with other movie music and pass it off to a composer at the end. So it was a vocabulary that was part of editorial.
We discovered in Act I that by throwing some of Daniel's pieces in that this propulsive, early electronic sound felt right for it. There are different sounds in “present day” 1984 than in the flashbacks in the garage. It gave it all an interesting energy. Act I’s very electronic sound led us to want to try something very different in the next act, which is part of how we ended up with classical music in Act II. The orchestral music was so different, it gave us a new wave of energy. It also felt appropriate for an act that took place in an opera house and dealt with themes of revenge.
CM: There are interstitial scenes between the acts. How did you approach cutting them?
EG: We also wound up cutting down the between-act interstitials, which updated us on events between the acts. At first, they were much longer and had more of a pause before starting, — a cut to black and music — followed by much longer stories with information about the time period, what happened to the Mac and the Next, and the return to Apple. It became clear, though, that we couldn't spend too much time in these sequences for the same reason we talked about earlier: Once you're on Sorkin's dialogue ride, you've got to stay moving.
We thought that we might need longer breaks to prepare the audience for another 45 minutes of verbal ferocity, but in fact the brakes didn't work. Instead of refreshing you, they dropped you out of the movie. So we made the interstitials very rapid-fire to throw you right into them and then right into the next act without a moment to breathe. It became clear that Sorkin’s motor, as expressed visually by Danny, had to be serviced at a very intense speed.
One of the pitfalls of a three-act structure, though, is that you have to start a story and end a story three time,s rather than start one story and build it to an end. It's hard once you start over to get the audience back on board; that momentum thing again. So instead of starting to talk about the Next at the beginning of Act II and the iMac in the beginning of Act III, we just excised some material — great lines — and dove into the middle of those scenes to keep the momentum. You finish Act I and are hopefully whisked through the interstitial and dropped off again in Act II, and it just keeps moving.
A scene from Steve Jobs. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
CM: Were you afraid of tiring the audience out?
EG: There's obviously the risk of wearing people out, but the greater risk was losing people and having to pull them back. That was our conversation throughout the movie and I think why there's a unique intensity to it. The best action movies just keep moving and this felt like it had a lot in common with those as far as pacing and intensity.
CM: Is there a particularly functional quality of Boyle’s that you appreciate?
EG: He's decisive when he needs to be decisive; he wants to see everything his collaborators can possibly throw at him, hear everything they have to say. And then he'll make a decision. And I respect that. It's what makes his films his. He'll spend lots of time with you, but then also leave you alone because he knows if he’s at your side at all times he may end up with the same opinions as you. Whereas, if he stays away and then comes in with some distance, he can have more objective opinions. He's also one of the kindest, most gracious human beings I’ve ever known.
The combination of that, and his being an incredible leader and great artist is pretty unique. This was without a doubt one of the best experiences of my life.