How do you reward what you can’t see?
When it comes to editing, conventional wisdom holds that an invisible, unobtrusive approach works best — making the craft virtually impossible to judge. Apart from the director, hardly anyone knows what an editor had to work with.
That probably explains why, in the past 50 years, more than half the Oscars given in the category matched the year’s best picture winner. It’s the simplest way to vote.
Exceptions exist, from “Moulin Rouge” to “The Matrix” to “Memento,” where flashy examples that evolved the art were nominated. Innovators such as Thelma Schoonmaker (“Raging Bull”), Michael Kahn (“Saving Private Ryan”) and Alan Heim (“All That Jazz”) won, even though their producers went home empty-handed.
Which brings us to 2007, a year characterized by a fresh batch of editors working — if you’ll pardon the pun — on the cutter’s edge. Will self-consciousness count against them?
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Take Paul Greengrass collaborator Christopher Rouse, nominated last year for “United 93.” With the “Bourne” films, he helped develop an editing vocabulary specific to the series, a rapid-fire immersive approach that helps audiences identify with the instinct-driven, adrenaline-fueled hero.
“What I’ve attempted to do, apart from being aggressive, is keep the rhythms much more off-balance than I would normally because he’s a guy who’s not in tune with his environment,” he says.
That means looking for camera run-outs, whip-pans, flashes and focal adjustments — precisely the details other editors cut around. “The style forces you to participate in the piece,” he says. “It goes right to the core of what Bourne’s character is about, which is, don’t give the audience too many moments to sit back and become complacent, because he isn’t.”
An admitted “Bourne” fan, “Michael Clayton” editor John Gilroy looked to such ’70s films as “The Parallax View” and “Klute” to achieve that pic’s nervous tone. After the shock of the opening-scene car bomb, Gilroy rewinds to earlier events, employing a clipped, economical style that demands alert viewers reorient themselves with every scene.
As his brother, director Tony Gilroy, puts it: “Storytelling is about coming in too late and getting out too early. You’re always looking at what’s the last possible moment you can come in on the scene and the first possible moment you can get out.”
“Atonement” proves even more ambitious with structure, doubling back and leaping forward dramatically in keeping with Ian McEwan’s source novel. “It was a fascinating piece to edit, not least of all for those time jumps,” says Paul Tothill, who subtly injects a sense of foreboding to the film’s sunny opening.
In the scene where Briony first speaks to Robbie in the front doorway, Tothill explains, “There were a couple of takes that weren’t necessarily print takes where James McAvoy just slipped slightly when he was putting on his glove or tying up his shoelaces, and I used those specific takes and cutting on the action to make it ill at ease.”
On “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” director Julian Schnabel developed a novel first-person style to help audiences identify with a man suffering from “locked-in syndrome.” The script laid the groundwork, and d.p. Janusz Kaminski achieved many of the effects in-camera, but it fell to editor Juliette Welfling to assemble the virtual performance.
“It’s hard to be in a character’s head; it doesn’t happen so often,” she says. “I had to ask myself, where would he blink, what images would he have in mind, and things like this.”
The result borders on visual poetry — a fair label for the style director Sean Penn and editor Jay Cassidy stumbled upon while cutting “Into the Wild.”
“When Sean did the screenplay, it was basically a linear story,” Cassidy remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t feel like trying to figure out how to intercut this on paper, but I know we’re going to do it.’ ” Penn shot the film more or less in order, and then the two worked out a structure that alternated between the character’s final destination (Alaska), his travels along the way and flashbacks to his family life.
“Screenplays are kind of inadequate blueprints that we all have to use,” Cassidy says, expressing a philosophy shared among editors. “As soon as you photograph it, it’s a new beast.”
But even in the most experimental approaches, the material dictates the style, rather than the other way around.
“I would never dream of imposing the Bourne style on (another) movie,” says Rouse, who believes any good editor presented with Greengrass’ footage would arrive at a similar solution. “I’m not saying (they) would make every choice I made, but I don’t think they would be very far afield.”