The Immigration Game
Jake Roberts Cuts ‘Brooklyn’
by Edward Landler
stills courtesy of Fox Searchlight
A little over a year ago, the Irish-British-Canadian co-production Brooklyn was greeted at its Sundance Festival premiere by a standing ovation that set off a fierce bidding war for distribution rights won by Fox Searchlight. Released in late November 2015, the film has drawn Oscar nominations for Best Picture, for Nick Hornby’s screenplay of Colm Tóibín’s novel, and for Saoirse Ronan’s performance as a young woman who leaves her Irish home in the early 1950s for a new life in New York.
Directed by Irish-born John Crowley, this deceptively gentle film builds a deeply emotional resonance as Ronan’s Eilis Lacey grows into a full sense of her future and her own very individual self. Strengthening this resonance is Jake Roberts’ deceptively unobtrusive editing, always drawing viewers into the story and the characters with subtle but precise craftsmanship.
Roberts was eager to cut the film. In conversation with CineMontage, he said, “I had just done two very masculine films with a lot of violence and I didn’t want to be typecast.” When Crowley’s regular editor turned out not to be available for Brooklyn, director Lone Scherfig recommended Roberts for the project because of his work on her film, The Riot Club (2014).
For research in advance of the shoot, Roberts had looked at other films directed by Crowley, including Intermission (2003) and Boy A (2007), although they differed enormously in both style and content from Brooklyn. The editor said, “I was motivated when I met John. It was a departure for him as well as for me; he wanted a fresh approach, which wasn’t going to be either self-consciously classical or jump-cut contemporary.”
The editor read the screenplay several times, he said, “to calibrate myself to its very subtle tone.” Yet he never read Tóibín’s novel. He recalled, “I discussed that with John and we decided I shouldn’t read it. My role wasn’t to adapt the novel but to make the movie.”
Brooklyn was filmed over eight weeks from April through July, 2014, in three different countries — Ireland, Canada and the US. It was shot by Canadian cinematographer Yves Bélanger, best known for his work with director Jean-Marc Vallée on The Dallas Buyers Club (2012) and Wild (2014), also scripted by Hornby.
After three weeks in Ireland, cast and crew spent four weeks filming in Montreal, the locations of which stood in for the Brooklyn of the mid-20th century. The production then moved to New York to shoot Eilis and Emory Cohen’s Tony Fiorello at the unmatchable Coney Island in one day. Over just one more day, they shot Eilis several times in different wardrobe walking down a Brooklyn street of brownstone buildings decorated and redecorated for different times of the year.
With the editing process going on during production, director Crowley chose not to micro-manage. Roberts said, “I assembled throughout the shoot and barely got a note. I could instinctively feel how it needed to be put together...it really just presented itself. When John and I finally sat down together and watched the first assembly, I was really embarrassed because I was crying at the end. I looked over at John and to my relief he had tears streaming down his face, too. I knew then that we were in a good place.”
The director’s cut of the movie was completed over eight weeks with Crowley back in London. It took another six weeks up through the end of September to lock picture. Throughout, the editor was concerned with being faithful to Hornby’s “very specific” screenplay.
“The thing I wanted to be truest to was the humanity of his insight, the way he was able to piece together Eilis’ character,” he said. To achieve this, though, he and the director found that a great deal of incisive cutting had to be done.
He continued, “We didn’t cut away many of Nick’s scenes, but we distilled several of them down. We were watching every word; we only wanted what had to be there. We went through each scene taking out any text that felt unnecessary to make it as tight as possible.”
From their first meeting before the shoot, Roberts realized that Crowley “wasn’t interested in scale. He didn’t want landscapes or vistas. We were simply going to be following this girl on her journey. The focal depth of the film was going to be very intimate.”
This approach to shooting suited itself perfectly to tracking Ronan’s performance within a scene so the audience could register her emotional reactions. The perspective in the tracking long shots also allowed the editor to take the viewer into closer shots of Ronan’s Eilis with almost seamless cutting.
Another major editing concern was clarifying the passage of time. Roberts said, “We cover a whole year in about 40 scenes, and Nick and John were very low-key in marking this passage of time. Scenes that feel like they happen immediately after one other actually have weeks passing between them. This was really effective in subtly illustrating Eilis’ assimilation into American life but proved a problem when she returned to Ireland. It felt like she just forgot Tony and had her head turned by Jim [Domhnall Gleeson] far too quickly. We did quite a lot of restructuring to clarify how much time had actually passed to help the audience understand Eilis’ actions.”
More central to Eilis’ character than being torn between two loves, however, was the conflict she feels between the tradition-bound Irish culture she was leaving and the possibilities offered by a new and foreign American society. The editor created a number of immersive, dream-like montages to visualize this contrast; he interwove shots smoothly from her new and old worlds under voiceovers of letters between her and her sister or her mother and, later in the film, letters between her and Tony.
Roberts explained, “The letter sequences were very specifically written by Nick and then shot by Yves and John in such a way that I was simply assembling an IKEA kit, but there were a few moments where we wanted to create additional montages to highlight or clarify Eilis’ emotional state. There we had to get creative in cannibalizing footage shot for other scenes to suit our needs. At one point, we recycled a shot of Eilis crossing the street on her way to work and we digitally altered the color of the coats the extras were wearing to disguise the fact that we’d already seen the shot. At another point, we created a whole new letter from Rose, so that she was more present in the film — and then we asked Nick to write new text for us.”
Throughout the film, Roberts also made excellent use of close details to introduce scenes with sharp bits of cultural observation. “A common approach to editing is either to start a scene with a wide establishing shot or on a small detail,” he noted. “If I’m given the details, I often like to start a scene that way — either as a means of punctuation or to draw the audience’s attention to a particular object.” Opening close shots on such images as a cigarette in a tin being picked out for individual sale in an Irish town market or a pneumatic message tube in a Brooklyn department store helped heighten the viewer’s awareness of Eilis’ response to her experience.
Shooting in Montreal created another hurdle that had to be overcome in post. The editor recalled, “After a few weeks cutting, John and I felt like something was missing but, we couldn’t put our finger on it. Then we realized it was American accents. Almost all the principal characters have Irish accents, all the day players were Canadian and all the extras were French-speaking Montrealers. We made a point of getting actors speaking authentic Brooklyn accents in during group ADR ,and placed them in as many of the ambient environments as possible to help generate the visceral sense of place.”
Born and raised in London with a screenwriter father, Roberts grew up close to the industry. He said, “Growing up, I always wanted to be a filmmaker and, after school I spent a few years working on sets hoping to somehow become a director.” Then, at age 21, he met a friend of a friend who was starting an editing company called Serious Facilities in Glasgow, so he moved there to train with him.
He continued: “I found editing was probably closer to what filmmaking had meant to the seven-year-old me than directing was. I just fell in love with it. The magic that happens when you juxtapose certain images, or find the right piece of music, or cut one performance with another — and suddenly the material comes to life and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It never stops being thrilling.”
Over the next 15 years, Roberts said, he worked on “anything I could get my hands on. It’s been beneficial for me working in so many different media.” He has edited shorts, commercials, episodic TV (fiction and non-fiction), documentary and dramatic features, and music videos. His most recent music video was Kanye West: All Day (2015), directed by Steve McQueen.
The editor is now finishing up his first made-in-America film, currently titled Comancheria, set for release this year. A contemporary Western starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank robbers and Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger, it was written by Sicario (2015) writer and former Sons of Anarchy (2008-10) actor Taylor Sheridan. Scottish director David Mackenzie shot the movie in New Mexico last year.
In Glasgow in 2000, Mackenzie directed a short called Somersault, which was Roberts’ first full editing credit. Between 2002 and 2013, they worked together on four features in the UK and Ireland. For their last film, shot in Northern Ireland, a prison drama called Starred Up (2013), the director and editor “developed a working method, an immediate process” to stay within their 1-million-pound budget, the editor said.
He added, “We both felt that assembling the cut during the shoot is about morale and keeping momentum. We had a 24-day shoot and locked the film three-and-a-half weeks after we wrapped.” To maintain the pace, Roberts worked with a co-editor, Nick Emerson.
When Mackenzie signed to direct Comancheria in the US, he argued strongly to have Roberts edit the picture. “Over four features and 15 years we have a very strong relationship,” said the editor, who came to America to work on his first Hollywood feature and become an active member of Local 700.
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.