‘Inception’ editor nabs dream job

Lee Smith discusses the arduous work behind the WB thriller

Few people in Hollywood can say they worked on a “dream job” this past year. That is, unless you’re Lee Smith.

The Oscar-nominated editor of “Master Commander” and “The Dark Knight” was summoned by friend and frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan in 2008 to work on an extraordinary new project called “Inception.”

“He said it was going to be the most difficult editorial challenge of my life,” Smith recalls with a chuckle. “And that I better start doing push ups.”

Having edited both of Nolan’s Batman films, the 57 year-old Aussie was quite familiar with the director’s orphic imagination (Smith refers to Nolan as a “walking script”). Still, “Inception” was an entirely new ballgame.

Nolan’s mind-bending tentpole, which is estimated to have cost Warners $160 million, features, among other things, a forty-five minute action sequence that inter-cuts between not one but four separate dream worlds. In other words, it’s pretty far out.

“It was so complicated, reading the script and looking at the dailies,” Smith recalls, “but I think we were so hyped up for it in its early construction that it was just thrilling to be a part of.”

Shot around the globe in Paris, Tokyo, England, Calgary, Los Angeles, and Morocco, Nolan began production on “Inception” with Smith’s assistant doing the initial assembling and cuts as Smith was still finishing up Peter Weir’s latest film “The Way Back.” It wasn’t until months into the shoot that Smith officially boarded the project himself.

“The one thing that we were very mindful of was that you want this film to be dense but entertaining,” Smith says. “Nobody wants to see a film that messes with their head and doesn’t give them the enjoyment of watching it.”

As soon as principal photography wrapped, Smith and Nolan traveled back to Los Angeles where they holed up in Nolan’s editing bay and began cutting, reviewing, and watching the film relentlessly. Conceptually the structures were all in Nolan’s script, according to Smith, but the duo spent a lot of time varying the footage to get the best effect in the editing bay.

“Chris sits in the cutting room with me all day, pretty much from 8:30am to 7 o’clock and everything else that happens on the movie happens outside of those hours or at lunch-time,” Smith says. “He loves the editing process.”

Like all of their previous efforts, Nolan and Smith would screen the film very Friday in its entirety before making changes and moving on to the next week.

But Smith says that by the first cut, both he and Nolan knew that something special was in the works.

“It can be quite depressing to watch at such an early stage in the process,” Smith admits. “But this one worked on so many levels. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it.”

Another interesting fact about Lee Smith and Chris Nolan? They’re both color blind.

“We found this out during ‘Batman Begins,'” Smith laughs. “Neither of us like to admit it but it’s true.”

Luckily, the duo only have trouble with the color green so it doesn’t really pose that much of a challenge, especially when they have an assistant nearby to give them the “green-light” on an issue when needed.

The most challenging parts of the “Inception” edit, according to Smith, was the pic’s culminating action sequence, in which a van plummets off a bridge in slow-motion (nearly forty minutes to do so) as action transpires simultaneously in real time in three dif-ferent dream worlds. Again, not your typical editing gig.

“With that sequence you just have to mark time with it and every time you cut back to it cause it’s really only a single shot. And then obviously the trick ultimately was not having a bad reaction going back to the other layers. The transitions were jarring but as gentle as possible,” he says.

At the end of the day though, the biggest question remained: what would Warner Bros. think about such an unconventional product?

Despite the studio’s confidence in Nolan after “The Dark Knight” a film with such mind-bending attributes was a shaky prospect, no matter their relationship, Smith recalls.

“We’re never convinced that everyone else is going to agree with us, especially when you show up to the studio for the first time. “‘That’s one of the most expensive art films ever made’ they could say.”

But in the end, WB execs loved it and auds apparently do as well. “Inception” has grossed over $100 million in its first two weeks at the domestic B.O.

“It was such a gamble on Warner Bros.’ part. No, is such a gamble,” he laughs. “Chris hates it when I make the ‘art film’ reference to this film but I think I can genuinely say it’s unlike any major summer project I’ve ever seen.”

Smith will next edit Nolan’s third installment in the Batman franchise in late 2011.

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