Actors' nuances emerge in editing process

For the films that dominate awards season rosters, it’s a given that their raw materials are top notch to begin with. But for the editors who shape each story and the performances therein, the approach to the set of infinite decisions is nuanced, and inherently less than overt.

For Joe Klotz, who edited John Cameron Mitchell’s stark drama “Rabbit Hole,” the granular decisions en route to the final cut can come down to a single frame. “Subtle tidbits that could ruin the truth of a moment like an errant movement or eye blink” are among the considerations, Klotz says.

“It’s all about the eyes,” he adds, “who’s looking at who, what the eyes are revealing, what the corner of the mouth is revealing. That one frame is where you can decide to cut, because the truth is dropped.”

Still, consistency can also mean the ax when it comes to cutting. “Somebody can hold something nicely for five seconds, and (we) get the point after the first second,” Klotz adds. “Then it’s the rhythm that chooses the cut.”

It was rhythm that largely drove Jon Harris’ editorial decisions in Danny Boyle’s kinetic “127 Hours.” The film stars James Franco as the real-life Aron Ralston, a climber who cut off his own arm when he was pinned by a rock, and mostly features the actor deep in a crevasse, alone with his thoughts.

With just one actor on screen for much of the movie and scenes that toggle back and forth through Ralston’s memories, none of the traditional challenges of editing for performance applied. “The only way to compare is to documentary style,” Harris says, “because it’s like James just became Aron.”

Pacing, then, became the key. “I was trying to create little rhythms in the editing, so that I was taking moments and trying to create a rhythm out of them, a basic ‘dum diddly dum dum’ kind of rhythm, that gave it a shape and made it manageable to watch.”

For Lee Smith, who edited Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” his focus was on establishing and retaining clarity amid multiple lead actors and an often dizzying multi-layered plot. “Ensemble casts are harder in a way,” he says, “because if you’ve got six or seven characters, it’s not just about performances, it’s keeping them in the movie, because not every actor in every scene will have many lines, or any lines, so you try to be inclusive to keep all of their stories alive.”

One of the characters whose story was particularly pivotal in Smith’s approach to shaping scenes was Ellen Page’s Ariadne, the student side-kick to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, and who serves as a stand-in for the audience’s questions. “I was always looking for moments where you’d think to yourself, ‘If it was me and I was there, I’d be asking this question,’?” Smith says. “There’s a classic moment in a particularly complex scene, where she says, ‘Wait a minute, whose dream are we going into?’ I used to laugh and say, ‘I want to know that!’ Those were the kind of deliveries I was looking for.”

The choreography of characters and context was also integral to Andrew Weisblum’s work on “Black Swan.” The backbone of Darren Aronofky’s psycho-sexual ballet drama was a dance of supporting characters, whose performances were shaped to allow for dubious intentions that could be perceived as either helping or hurting Natalie Portman’s leading lady Nina.

Weisblum, who also edited Aronofsky’s 2009 drama, “The Wrestler,” says the director’s performance preferences were quickly apparent when they watched dailies. “But after that, I will generally ignore that stuff. I try and rip up the context as much as possible,” he says, by stacking versions of lines in order, scene by scene.

“By doing that, you find different surprises and different ways of juxtaposing performances or little moments of takes that you might not have considered otherwise,” Weisblum explains. “More often than not, without even thinking about it, I’m going back to the same two or three takes that got close to the approach. It’s not a wild hodgepodge.”

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