The Big Short List of Editors:
Oscar Nominees Talk Shop
by Edward Landler
photos by Gregory Schwartz
Every seat of the big theatre of the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre was filled Saturday morning, February 27, the day before the Oscars were awarded, for the 16th Annual Invisible Art/Visible Artists (IA/VA) presented by the American Cinema Editors (ACE). Welcoming the largely professional audience to the spirited discussion among the Oscar-nominated editors of 2016, Margot Gerber of the Cinematheque said, “I think we have a record number of editors here today.”
The six editors speaking about their work on five films nominated for Best Editing were: Hank Corwin, ACE, for Adam McKay’s The Big Short; Margaret Sixel for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road; Stephen Mirrione, ACE, for Alejandro Iña´rritu’s The Revenant; Tom McArdle for Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight; and Maryann Brandon, ACE, and Mary Jo Markey, ACE, for J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The following evening, Sixel won the Oscar for Mad Max, for which she already won this year’s BAFTA editing prize and ACE’s Eddie Award for Best Dramatic Feature editing. Corwin received this year’s Eddie for Best Comedy Feature, as well as the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Editing Award, and Mirrione had previously won an Oscar for his editing on Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000).
Alan Heim, left, Tom McArdle, Hank Corwin, Margaret Sixel, Stephen Mirrione, Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon.
To start the program, the audience was treated to a screening of a three-minute version of Post Proud
, documenting the efforts of the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) to get more shows to go union. Produced for MPEG by National Organizer Rob Callahan and Organizer Preston Johnson and edited by Board Member A.J. Catoline, the short won first place in the 2015 International Labor Media Awards competition for long-form videos. The complete film can be seen at www.postproud.org
Gerber then introduced ACE Vice-President and MPEG Board Member Stephen Rivkin, ACE,an Oscar nominee for his work on Avatar (2009). He thanked IA/VA producers MPEG Secretary Diane Adler, ACE, and Erin Flannery, and sponsors Blackmagic Design, AVID, Moviola Digital and MPEG, which also hosted the after-program luncheon at the Musso and Frank Grill for the nominees and everyone who had helped organize the event.
Rivkin also announced that Spotlight
editor McArdle would leave the program early to attend the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica where he had been nominated for (and would win) its Best Editing prize. Only its third year with an editing category, the Spirit Awards’ presenter, Film Independent, is among the growing list of organizations and festivals now recognizing editing due to the efforts of ACE and MPEG’s Committee for Creative Recognition, headed by Rivkin (see www.editorspetition.com
After introducing “the winners of this year’s Oscar nominations for film editing,” Rivkin turned the program over to its moderator, ACE and MPEG President Alan Heim, ACE, an Oscar nominee for Network (1976) and winner for All That Jazz (1979). Wishing all the nominees good luck, he started the discussion by directly asking the panelists how they got into editing.
Alan Heim, left, and Tom McArdle.
In a film course at Dartmouth, McArdle was intrigued when his professor said, “Editing was the final rewrite,” and later worked at the Shooting Gallery in New York as a production assistant and assistant editor. He said, “I got to edit a micro-budget feature and just kept editing after that.”
Following a girlfriend to New York City, Corwin took jobs like security guard and writer for the American Journal of Physics until, “By serendipity, I got a job carrying cans for a commercial editing house.” Now with his own commercial editing company, he said, “I’m blessed. I don’t have to take every film I’m offered. I can take time to chill and do commercials.”
Originally an English teacher, the South African Sixel was curious about film and immigrated to Australia to work in the film industry there. She said, “I met a woman editor and she hired me as a nanny. With her seven year old, I did a puzzle that no one else could finish — and she gave me a job as an assistant editor.”
At college, Mirrione saw his interests in music, psychology and performance combined in film. Assigned a production project to do a short documentary, he made it about a student a year ahead of him in the film program making his first 16mm film. The first day of that student’s shoot became a fiasco when he couldn’t figure out how to work the Arriflex camera. Mirrione said, “I got into editing because I could take this horrible thing that happened to him and turn it into this funny project.”
Hank Corwin, left, Margaret Sixel and Stephen Mirrione.
After majoring in English in college, Markey moved to Hollywood and gave up the idea of being an English professor. Working as an assistant for Robert Redford, she discovered the editing room. She said, “I saw parallels between writing and editing — storytelling, point of view, character analysis — and Redford helped me get a job as an apprentice.”
Brandon spent three years doing guerilla filmmaking while at NYU graduate school. Desperate to finish her thesis film, she wound up working at the Brill Building, the New York industry’s editing hub, and watched major features being edited around her. “Dorian Harris, who’s here today, gave me an apprentice job on The Cotton Club…and I do love to put puzzles together,” she said.
Noting Markey and Brandon’s starts as apprentices, Heim lamented the disappearance of that Guild classification. Setting off a spontaneous and free-flowing interchange among the editors, which continued through the morning, Heim asked the panelists for their advice on breaking into editing today.
Brandon answered, “There are so many jobs now peripheral or involved with editing, if you can get one, keep your eyes open…be eager and be present.” Corwin added, “Don’t allow yourself a unit of narcissism or ego; you have to do what no one else will do.” “I just heard that apprentices aren’t allowed to touch Avids. That’s not helping,” said Markey.
The moderator said, “I try to be pretty flexible in the cutting room…and try to have my assistants do some cutting.” While speaking, he was handed a piece of paper, which he read: “‘Under supervision, the apprentice can do a lot of stuff but a post-PA isn’t supposed to touch the Avid.’ We’ll put that in my pocket. Let’s stick to the flexible part.”
Mary Jo Markey, left, and Maryann Brandon.
Corwin said, “On The Big Short, we had a spectacular post-PA, Stacy Moon. I depend on young brains. It’s important to bring the kids up.” Brandon continued, “It’s also incredibly valuable to have another opinion. I rely on a second and third pair of eyes.”
“If you don’t let people edit, they will never learn how to edit,” said Heim, who then asked McArdle to introduce the clip he chose from Spotlight. Near the end of the film, the sequence was an extended montage leading to the appearance in print of the Boston Globe article on the Catholic Church’s cover up of child abuse by priests.
“I loved how you alternate the powerful mechanics of the press, intercutting that with the human touch…and the opening tracking shot that kicks you into speed,” said Heim.
McArdle said the sequence evolved during editing into showing that “the movie is really about old school reporting and journalism. There was a timeline issue and we decided to do a winter pickup shoot to get the shots of the actual printing. Composer Howard Shore kept the music up until one of the reporters stops just before dropping the newspaper on a priest’s front stoop; the sound of the paper dropping completed the music.”
Brandon asked why they kept to the one opening tracking shot to portray the decision to print the story. McArdle said, “It was really the only thing we had for that; it was the way it was shot.” Other panelists confessed to finding themselves in similar situations with only one option. “It’s funny to see it praised as a great scene when it was a desperation move,” said Markey.
For The Big Short, Corwin presented a sequence following Steve Carrell’s character from a Las Vegas lunch with financial managers to sharing his reaction to the extent of their manipulations with his wife (Marisa Tomei). The clip ended with a cut to Christian Bale’s character playing drums.
“Amazing use of sound and absence of sound,” said Heim. Corwin replied, “Years ago we used to say that sync is for sissies. This scene was an orphan and I love my orphans. What was not said had more resonance than what was said; I wanted to feel the moment. [The bombastic] Carrell was just devastated and Bale who was always internal becomes a lion.”
Sixel said showing Carrell just talking to his wife “could have been really ordinary.” Corwin replied, “It was deadly. One of the mottos is ‘Never give up.’ I had an additional editor, Liza Espinas; we were working on it a long time. Adam was open to doing it; I love this director. Most of those shots were B-camera.”
Brandon noted, “Ironic how all those close-ups opened up the film big time. It connects to all of our personal morals, not just about finance.” Asked about the blackouts intercut with shots of Carrell and the others leaving the restaurant, Corwin said, “It was like the ginger cleansing the visual palate.”
Heim now brought up a question he had earlier asked the panelists to consider about the lengths of recent films: “Where is it written that films have to be two hours or more?” Sixel responded, “Is that bad? People want their money’s worth. Mad Max at 90 minutes wouldn’t have worked.”
Mirrione said they cut The Revenant to a version 10 minutes shorter than what was released. “It felt like a movie,” he said. “But is that what we wanted? Then again, at one point, after a two-hour and 55-minute preview, Alejandro said this will never be shorter, but we made it shorter.”
When he was sound editor on The Producers (1967), Heim recalled telling Mel Brooks, “Do you want a dull 93-minute movie or a peppy, Mel’s word, 88-minute movie?”
Sixel said Mad Max was exactly two hours to the frame but came out some minutes longer with credits: “Then George wanted to see the movie listed at exactly 120 minutes on the ads,” and she cut it down as the director (who is also her husband) requested.
The editor screened the fight scene between Max and Furiosa: “It was my first fight sequence and it’s a springboard to talk about how we approached the film,” she said. After the clip, she described the movie “as a totally live-action film with 2000 visual effects shots. The action was the narrative. Through the fight, character was revealed, but it’s also about the rhythms in the scene…the shape and structure. George really wanted it to feel like it could have really happened.”
Sixel made it a point not to use the same shot twice and to make sure each shot moved the story forward. Using speed ramps, she said, “I cut out a lot of frames to create more energy. There was a fair bit of comping to make it work; we’re very anal-retentive in the editing…‘Oh, look what you left out.’” When Heim noted that she could have used CGI, she replied, “That wouldn’t have felt right,” drawing huge applause from the audience.
Visual effects editing was mainly used for rig removals and other simple erasures. With 450 hours of material to edit, eight people worked in the cutting room for almost two years. Sixel said, “We just couldn’t tolerate the length and the action sequences had to come down.”
Mirrione asked, “Having all the effects tools, do you think about how you can change things with them?” Sixel replied, “When you’ve got all the tools, you should use them.” Markey added, “I did a low-budget picture, Perks of a Wallflower (2012), and put in some visual effects, some little speed-ups and slow-downs. They didn’t have the budget for them, but they did them.”
The scene from The Revenant depicted Leonardo DiCaprio’s character being cared for by a Native American shaman and dreaming of the ruins of a church in the forest. Arthur RedCloud, who played the medicine man, was a truck driver who happened to answer the casting call on location. Mirrione said, “This character is really the soul of the film. I had two hours of footage of him making the fire, building the sweat lodge…this guy taught himself over months how to do all that stuff.”
During production, the director wanted Mirrione as close as possible to everything going on. “Alejandro wants to get opinions and feel more confidence about things,” he said. “But as an editor, you want the objectivity when you come back and screen the footage.” Almost all the film was shot at 48 frames a second: “You don’t need to use the computer to generate frames for speed changes; you have them. It allows a lot of freedom to be more expressive.”
Starting the sequence with more objective shots, the editor said, “I slowed those shots down to be more dreamlike. Then when it was Leonardo’s point of view, you sense a change to something more normal. I used the variations to suggest a change in point of view.”
Mirrione remembered editing this sequence: “Just the power of the emotion of me in the room alone with that material, and then it was done and we never changed it. Once you start to overanalyze it, you start to lose what was magical about it.”
The sequence from Star Wars showed Rey and Finn escaping from tie fighters. Markey said, “We have a joint claim of ownership. The first two and a half minutes in the village are mine; once we get on the Millennium Falcon, they’re Maryann’s. We work together…and we work on it with J.J. together. But, as far as the cutting goes, we split it up.” The Force Awakens is the fifth film they have worked on together with Abrams.
While cutting the scene, something in the Falcon bothered Brandon. She said, “They’re still on a planet with gravity. Wouldn’t Finn smash into the glass?” “The laws of gravity go out the window when you’re cutting a film like this,” said Heim, who went on to ask about the sound dropping out after an explosion, leaving only music.
Markey said, “It’s really Rey’s POV. The sound drops out to reflect the deafening experience she would have from the explosion.” Brandon added, “That’s part of the sound design. J.J. gives you — all the emotion.” Markey continued, “His material is fun to cut and we always have tons of options. We had so many shots of them running through the village, but we tried to pick one thing to follow.”
Mary Jo Markey.
Brandon also pointed out that the robot BB8 is a live puppet. Markey added, “Actually there’s one shot where he’s CG, the one where he’s thrown; we didn’t want to lose a puppet. It was really fun to cut him, [deciding] where to have him speak and which little head cock to use.”
All of Rey’s piloting the Falcon in the scene was shot outdoors. Brandon said, “She’s on a gimbal and the shadows and the sun moving across the dashboard are really there. We did as much real stuff as we possibly could.”
With the session nearing its end, someone from the audience asked what the panelists had learned editing their nominated films. “I learned to use speed-ups from Mary Jo,” said Brandon. Markey said, “I’ve relearned stuff that I already know — not to intercut too much and to keep things unified.” Mirrione said, “Every single movie feels like it’s a new set of rules. It’s letting your personality guide the decisions you’re making and I’m learning to let that be in the background more.”
Sixel noted, “Now if something bothers me, I go back into the cutting room and explore and see what it was.” Markey added, “If you really think the director’s wrong about something, it’s really hard to let go.” The Mad Max editor continued, “But you have to find your time and place. I learned to shut up until I find a solution and have something to show. If you don’t know how to deal with it, you’re stuck with it sometimes.”
Heim summed it up:“I always learn something from a movie. If not, I’m bored.”
The next question was about dealing with studio notes. Sixel spoke about the 12 test audience screenings that Fury Road went through: “You can’t act on everything, but you do have to listen. The number of times we heard how they hated the guy with the guitar — and now he’s the most popular thing on the Internet.” Still, reacting to the test screenings enabled her to work in more of a back story for Max in the movie. Corwin agreed, “You can’t discount notes. You get something that you think is stupid, and you try it and it works.”
About The Revenant’s first producers’ preview, Mirrione said, “We knew it was a mess but they really loved it. They were supporting us for the things we did right. If they had been negative, it would have ruined us.” Heim said, “You can’t dismiss anything. You just have to absorb.”
Finally, someone asked about the pressure on the makers of Star Wars: Episode Seven to make a movie that everyone would love. Brandon said, “We had one test screening; no reaction. We were devastated, totally confused. Nobody wanted to say anything because of the nature of the project. So we had limited private screenings and in came 10 pages of the John Lasseter screening notes and five pages of the Ava DuVernay screening notes…”
As the audience cleared the theatre, the Cinematheque started preparing for that afternoon’s panel discussion with this year’s Oscar-nominated production designers and set decorators. Meanwhile, the nominated editors and all who contributed to presenting IA/VA strolled across the street to Musso and Frank’s to continue their own conversations at the MPEG luncheon.
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.