Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

Longtime editor-director teams tend to develop a working shorthand together over the years, which carries from one project to the next across their bodies of work.

Yet after a decade or more of collaboration, how do editors keep their work fresh, while infusing films with a director’s signature style?

Often, the helmer’s approach to projects is key. The editors of “J. Edgar” say Clint Eastwood’s decisive approach to filmmaking makes every project feel fresh — even after 36 years as a team. Joel Cox says Eastwood’s belief in both trusting one’s gut and letting the film find itself allows for creative freedom and brings energy in every project.

“There’s something about your first instinct when you see something that you hold as a memory,” Cox says. “When you start to play around with it … you can’t do the films like we’re doing, the emotional films, you can’t edit them that way, because emotion is moments.

“Films — they’re like a special wine,” he adds. “If you allow them to breathe and open up, sometimes you find magic that is not on the page but ends up on the screen.”

That philosophy inspired Cox and co-editor Gary Roach to split a cut between them for the first time on “J. Edgar,” in a crucial segment in which Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), have a fistfight that’s taut with romantic tension. The scene, with its slow build and ultimate explosiveness, was the film’s most challenging for the editors. Dividing it helped them manage the sequence, as well as achieve Eastwood’s signature emotional style.

In Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which examines a family’s dynamics after the wife/mother suffers a mortal injury, editor Kevin Tent was driven by the dynamic that’s evolved through 16 years of working with the director, as well as fresh hurdles in the material.

“We are both hard on each other and hard on the film to make sure it keeps getting better.”

In their latest collaboration, he says, “The challenge was trying to keep it light with comedic moments, but to not cheapen the heartfelt sorrow.”

“We also didn’t want to make it such a heavy drama that people were going to slit their wrists afterward.”

The twin importance of the director’s approach and a history of collaboration is also key to a fresh take for Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been cutting for Martin Scorsese for more than 30 years. “(Scorsese) is always pushing himself, he wants to experiment, and that means I get to do that too,” Schoonmaker says. “Hugo,” a period piece about a young boy who helps rediscover forgotten movie pioneer Georges Melies, is their latest collaboration, and their first in 3D. “Every cut is a new problem to solve, or something to enjoy,” she says.

One of Schoonmaker’s biggest challenges in “Hugo” was incorporating Sacha Baron Cohen’s improvisational style with the rest of the performances.

In one particularly tricky scene, Cohen’s socially inept Station Inspector approaches Emily Mortimer’s soft-spoken flower-seller to make a romantic overture. Schoonmaker left extra pauses in Cohen’s dialogue to balance their performances and enhance the comedy — a trick she learned on Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film, “Goodfellas.”

Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing
Thesps up f/x respect | Longtime teams keep work fresh | Randy’s Rules for top sound | Sound editing: Always make dramatic sense | Sound Mixing: Making it all feel real | Digital tools add quality, cut costs

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