Baxter, Wall describe intricate process
When people close to a film whisper that a performance was made in the cutting room, they usually mean it as a slight to an actor who couldn’t deliver on camera. But in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall had no other choice than to cut around Brad Pitt.
The movie follows the Button character from the cradle to the grave, reverse-aging all the way, so director David Fincher opted to shoot the majority of his scenes using appropriately sized body doubles (a young boy in leg braces, a shortish old man flexing in front of the mirror, a 50-year-old beaming outside the bordello), edit the footage into rough scenes and have Brad Pitt supply the facial expressions to be superimposed in post.
For Baxter and Wall, that meant taking three major passes at the film. First, they assembled the scenes with the stand-ins, who had been cast more for their body shapes than their acting ability. “It’s literally part animated movie, in a way,” Wall says. “David asked us to put a black wipe over the guy’s face so we weren’t influenced by the facial performance.”
Initially, the only timing cues the editors had to go by were the actors’ physical gestures and rough-around-the-edges vocal delivery, which the pair swiftly replaced with audio of Pitt doing a straightforward read-through of his dialogue.
Schedule-wise, Pitt wasn’t available while Fincher was shooting the footage with the three stand-ins, though he had met the body doubles and discussed his intentions extensively with the director early on. “There was a leap of faith we really had to trust David with, where he said, ‘We need to be longer here because Brad’s going to do this.’ It was basically like cutting the plates together with the knowledge that you needed that time to do the performance,” Wall says.
Once Baxter and Wall had assembled the scenes, Fincher presented the edited footage to Pitt, who then did the face performance and dialogue. “He looks at a finished piece and performs to it,” Baxter explains. “He’s exceptional at it, like in the Thanksgiving scene, he was literally frame-accurate.”
Armed with Pitt’s performance, the editors went back a second time, this time using a split-screen method: On one side, they could see the background action, on the other was Pitt’s face.
“When you’re roughing this thing together, you want to make sure you have a little bit of leeway just in case he does something amazing, which happened a lot,” Baxter says. In cases when Pitt’s choices didn’t match the body perfectly, the editors might adjust frame rates slightly to tighten or loosen the footage, though “adding frames is a problem,” Wall admits.
Once the director was satisfied with their cut, Pitt came back in and looped his lines (it was at this ADR stage that Pitt hatched Button’s characteristic raspy voice), with the editors doing a third and final pass to get the timing just right. Even then, Fincher would continue to add layers after the final cut had been locked, such as birds flying through the frame or an effect that made the footage look as if it had been shot through a lace curtain. “It’s almost like 3-D chess with David,” Wall says. “He keeps refining the images until the last minute.”