From “Moneyball’s” baseball backrooms and “The Artist’s” 1920s Hollywood, to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s” wintry Swedish landscapes and “The Descendants’s” sunny Hawaiian vistas, and finally, to the fantastical “Hugo,” set in a 1930s Parisian train station, the Oscar nominees for film editing have distinctive settings that not only add flavor to the stories but also compete with characters for the audience’s attention.
So the editors’ philosophies on the notion of “canvas versus character” were crucial to shaping the pictures.
For several editors characters ruled, but as part of a delicate balance. For Kirk Baxter, who co-edited David Fincher’s adapted Swedish thriller, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “character is steering everything. You could pick the story up, move it to a different spot with the same script, and we would still follow the point of view of the character.”
And yet, their canvas still counts. “Sweden is a big character in the movie,” says co-editor Angus Wall.
Adds Baxter, “The fact that the locations were so harsh, they help tell the passage of time. Most of the movie takes place over the course of one year, so the winters stand out incredibly.”
The warmer climes of Hawaii play a similar role for “The Descendants” editor Kevin Tent. While he sees the film’s characters as the story’s drivers, he says the film “wouldn’t be quite the same if it took place in Los Angeles.”
To Tent, the Hawaiian canvas is a metaphor. “The loss of the land, its natural beauty and its planned development, mirrors Matt King’s (George Clooney) feelings about his life. His marriage he’s neglected. His children he hasn’t made the time to appreciate.”
In “Moneyball,” Bennett Miller’s biopic of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, “a big aspect of the editing was how much baseball to leave in,” says editor Christopher Tellefsen. One method was to go easy on field time. “It was a concept from the beginning that we would never see a real game until the 20th game (of the winning streak), the climax of the movie.”
Instead, Tellefsen tended to Beane’s (Brad Pitt) relationships. A scene that underscores his approach is the last, when Beane is in his car, debating between a contract with the Boston Red Sox or his ailing local team. “The beauty of those shots is the simplicity of their trajectory,” Tellefsen says. “There’s this intense close-up of his eyes, and you feel his emotions, and you know the decision that he’s made.”
Canvas was the raison d’etre for Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” in which, he says, the characters are vehicles for the format. “What you’re allowed to do with silent movies is very different. You can be lyrical; you can dare to do sequences that I wouldn’t in a talking movie.”
One such scene features ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) slipping her arms into the jacket of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), and acting out an imagined embrace. “Because the story is told by images, I think people are willing to accept a lot of strange ways to tell the story,” Hazanavicius says.
The dual influence is also key for Thelma Schoonmaker, who edited “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s adapted, 3-D story of an orphan who rediscovers Georges Melies, the pioneering filmmaker who slid into obscurity.
“Finding and nurturing the emotion in the movie was very important, because the relationship of the bitter old man and this child who is lost, there was something remarkable about it,” she says.
Still, the film is “all a fairy tale,” Schoonmaker says. “There was a balance that we struggled with between the fantastical and the real. We were constantly going for it, in every way we could.”
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