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ACE Eddie Awards: Paul Greengrass Rewrites the Rules for Editing

Filmmaker of the Year honoree's "chaos" is carefully choreographed

With all due respect to Godard, who declared, “Every cut is a lie,” Paul Greengrass has pioneered a style that relies on editing to bring audiences closer to reality than any other studio director working today.

That achievement more than justifies the American Cinema Editors’ choice to name Greengrass the org’s Filmmaker of the Year, to say nothing of the edited feature (dramatic) nomination awarded to his chief cutter, Christopher Rouse, for “Captain Phillips.”

Over the span of 10 years, Greengrass and Rouse have rewritten the rules for action editing, bringing an illusion of spontaneous immediacy to carefully choreographed set pieces. The duo wouldn’t dare take credit for inventing this immersive, documentary-style aesthetic — which has roots in such pseudo-newsreel productions as 1966’s “The Battle of Algiers” (placing auds in the midst of dynamic, unpredictable situations) — though they have virtually perfected it in their five features together.

“Paul is one of several directors inherently encouraging something important: exploration of visual styles to tell new stories,” Rouse tells Variety. “And just as Paul was influenced by great filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo, Paul is influencing many of the great filmmakers of tomorrow.”

Certainly, Greengrass’ impact can be detected in films as diverse as “The Hunger Games” (with its jittery handheld lensing and skittish cutting) and “Short Term 12” (which applies restless multi-cam coverage to a low-budget indie drama).

But the director’s immersive eyewitness aesthetic shouldn’t be reduced to so-called “shaky cam” shooting and editing that intensifies the action onscreen with quick cuts and dynamic cross-axis jumps between angles.

As Rouse suggests, these strategies work in service of a new way of telling stories, one that relies just as much on recreating factual events (“United 93,” “Green Zone” and “Captain Phillips”) as it does heightening the impact of Hollywood thrillers (the “Bourne”” sequels).

Greengrass and his writers rigorously research the episodes in question, then cast the key roles with faces who look the part, many of them inexperienced actors. Instead of storyboarding the most impactful angles in advance and blocking accordingly, he stages scenes in three-dimensional space, covering the action with multiple, always-moving cameras, and then handing the footage over to Rouse to synthesize.

“Because I spend so much time with him as he’s developing and shooting his piece, I’m deeply in tune with him. As a result, though Paul’s material can be as raw and unpredictable as documentary footage, I generally know where to take it,” Rouse says.

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