Editors cut in on tricky sequences

Category's winners usually win picture prize

Oddsmakers predicting last year’s “Crash” Oscar upset might have found a clue in the editing category, where “Brokeback Mountain” wasn’t even nominated. Not once in the past 25 years has a movie won the picture Academy Award without an editing nod to match (which suggests this year, the top prize is a contest between only two contenders: “Babel” and “The Departed”).

So, given the importance of the category and the artists nominated, we checked in with this year’s editing contenders and asked them to explain one particularly emblematic or challenging scene-cutting example from their films.

Stephen Mirrione (with Douglas Crise) on “Babel”:

A lot of people single out the sequence in the park when Chieko takes the pills (and moving) on into the disco. I’ve actually never taken drugs, I’ve never even had a drink of alcohol, so I’ve never been ‘high,’ but when you are cutting a scene where people are taking drugs, it allows you to edit in a really free and expressive way.

The thing that’s tricky about a sequence like that is you don’t have the crutch of dialogue. You have to somehow make the audience feel like they are reading the mind of the people they’re watching. We start outside that group, and you’re like the voyeur. Then we move into the square, and that’s where the editing gets a little crazier. From park to disco, it probably took me half an hour in all to cut, and then from the disco to the end of the disco probably took another two weeks.

The key to unlocking what the scene would become was to have the music start to hit its biggest climax at the moment when (Chieko first appears in the disco’s) stairs. You see it in her face that she’s seeing something that she can’t even believe, then we cut to her p.o.v. of the lights and drop the sound out at just the moment the music is about to completely climax. The first time we did it was like watching it as if you knew nothing, and that’s what you’re always trying to do in the editing room.

Steven Rosenblum on “Blood Diamond”:

The big scene of Freetown being shot up and them escaping encapsulates all the possible difficulties of dealing with a movie of this nature: We made a message movie that was also massively entertaining. When you have conflict diamonds and our heroes essentially running through a battlefield, you’re dealing with both of those issues and how much weight to give one as opposed to the other.

I tried to cut back to Leo and Djimon as much as possible, because for me, a movie without the stars in peril is just spectacle with no emotional value. But if you cut to the most heinous activity and you cut to your hero in shock, the juxtaposition is so strong that audiences just make huge leaps.

But as you look up and see 12-year-olds firing guns and killing people, that’s the opposite of entertaining. It’s disturbing. When you show that once, right at the beginning of the movie, you never have to show anything that terrible again because it flavors the entire film.

Alfonso Cuaron (with Alex Rodriguez) on “Children of Men”:

For me and Alex, the most important aspect of editing is the rewrite. The whole process was about how to get rid of verbal information and translate that into visual information.

There was a lot of backstory we shot, like Clive Owen’s character stealing petrol coupons in his workplace, that helped us to craft the character, but we didn’t need to show it. When we cut that out, coming directly from the moment the explosion happens at the beginning of the film to Michael Caine’s character, everything was making sense. Same thing with all the exposition we had for the Julianne Moore character.

Clive was a big help. I would send a group of scenes to him, and then I would hear his feedback and instincts: “Let’s get rid of this,” or, “You know, the camera’s in my back. Why don’t we change this dialogue?”

On the editing of the “single-shot” action sequences:

Maybe I’m spilling a big secret, but sometimes it’s more than what it looks like. The important thing is how you blend everything and how you keep the perception of a fluid choreography through all of these different pieces.

Thelma Schoonmaker on “The Departed”:

The problem was how to keep the great character material and humor and still make it a thriller. In the psychiatry office scene, we decided to start intercutting the violence the DiCaprio character was seeing in his life so that his slightly cocky, cynical attitude would be playing against the powerful emotional effect viewing this violence was having on him. He’s a little resentful about being there, but he’s working (the psychiatrist) over a little bit. When he says, “So you had a parent who was a drunk,” we started cutting away to DiCaprio looking at photos of his dead mother and then slamming into violence with Ray Winstone.

We needed a little more of what DiCaprio was experiencing, so we actually shot some scenes of people throwing a Molotov cocktail under a car and things like that.

We also wanted to shoot a scene where Vera Farmiga confronts Matt Damon about the fact that sometimes he’s impotent with her. We found that Vera was acting as a catalyst for the two men, so inserting that ahead of the psychiatry scene gave us another level. You realize there’s some trouble in her relationship.

Christopher Rouse (with Clare Douglas and Richard Pearson) on “United 93”:

Because we were dealing with different environments, the rhythms are very different and they change, particularly as the day progressed and events unfolded. During the buildup to the first plane going into one of the towers, we tried to establish the day as a normal day, even though we had this sense of foreboding. In the interior of the plane, the rhythms start out in a much more deliberate fashion. United 93 reaches its cruising altitude, and there’s this long fluid shot that takes one of the stewardesses from the aft section all the way to the front of the plane. At that point on the ground, American 11 had already gone into the tower of the World Trade Center, so the civilian air traffic control in New York and the National Air Traffic Control Center in Herndon, Va., were much more animated.

We consciously tried to make our editorial choices reflect the information that had been received by a given environment at a certain time, as well as the nature of that place. With the military, I tended to cut a bit more aggressively because they are the reactive part of ourselves.

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