Editors connect ensemble characters for audiences

Ensemble pics with multiple storylines are nothing new — indeed, one such film, “Crash,” scored the best picture Oscar last year — but they still challenge the editors who must keep it all moving in the same direction.

“This was almost like a new form, because thrillers don’t usually have so much strong character development and such original humor,” says “The Departed” editor Thelma Schoonmaker, helmer Martin Scorsese’s regular cutter.

“At first, it felt at times like a collision between the plot and the strong performances. We started restructuring and intercutting scenes, particularly contrasting the lives of the (Leonardo) DiCaprio and (Matt) Damon characters, and were still able to preserve the tension that is necessary in a thriller. Audiences seem to like that — they don’t know what is coming next.”

Stephen Mirrione, who edited “Babel,” worked to anchor the central themes for viewers.

“You really have to be careful in movies like this, because you’re bouncing back and forth to different stories,” he says. “There’s still a carefully crafted emotional throughline that you have to be true to as a filmmaker, regardless of where you are in the story.”

It’s the complex interconnectedness of the characters that hooks auds in such ensemble pics, Mirrione believes.

“Things start to blend on top of each other,” he says. “If you do your job as an editor, viewers aren’t confused by seeing many different characters and stories. They’re just pulled into the story more deeply by seeing all of that.”

For Schoonmaker and Scorsese, a supporting character became the key to revealing more about the male leads, played by Damon and DiCaprio.

“The woman’s part (Madolyn) in the original film had been reduced to almost nothing,” says Schoonmaker. “But Vera (Farmiga’s) part was so strong in our version that she became a catalyst for the two men, and we moved up some of her scenes as a result.”

While putting together a film with a multitude of stories and characters does put extra pressure on delineating each piece for the audience, the essential process doesn’t change for Mirrione.

“Editing a film with many different stories and characters isn’t that different in some ways, because editing a film is an extremely schizophrenic process to begin with — things aren’t done in order and you’re getting footage from many different places in the story anyway,” says Mirrione. “At the end, whether there are many characters or one, you want the audience to come away having experienced something meaningful.”

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