Not all films are tested with audiences, but when the process is effective, it can help filmmakers clarify and hone a movie’s message. That was the case with Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater,” which utilized audience feedback to help editor Tom McArdle shape the opening moments of the drama, which opens July 30 in theaters.
Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a construction worker from Oklahoma, who is first shown, in quick succession, surveying a wrecked construction site post-hurricane, applying for a new job and eating dinner with his mother. Then, suddenly, he’s packing his bags and heading to Marseille, France. He’s not there for a vacation; he’s trying to free his daughter from prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit.
Through the test screenings, McCarthy and McArdle found that audiences began to connect with Baker when he visits Allison (Abigail Breslin) in her prison cell. She’s serving a seven-year sentence for the murder of her lover, Lina. A letter she gives her dad to present to the judge, asking for the case to be reopened, sets the story in motion.
The Opening Sequence
Since audiences wanted to see Baker with his daughter sooner, McArdle had to significantly cut back the Oklahoma section. “We ended up doing short snatches of his life in Oklahoma, and then we start revealing things,” McArdle says. “We had to establish that he was a screw-up and not a talkative guy fairly quickly.” (For instance, he eats dinner with his mother in near silence.) To show Baker’s familiarity with Marseille before the prison sequence, McArdle settled on quick snapshots: He knows the hotel staff when he checks in, and when he visits the prison, the stamp shows he has been there at least 20 times before.
Moving From Drama to Romance
Another editing challenge appeared later in the film. Virginie, a single mother played by “Call My Agent!” star Camille Cottin, helps Baker — who doesn’t speak French — track down a mystery man Allison says could exonerate her. Baker and Virginie become close and eventually go on a date.
Transitioning from a scene with Allison in prison after a dramatic moment and cutting to the date proved tricky, but notes from the test audience were helpful in finding the right pacing. “We tried at least 50 different versions of that transition,” McArdle says.
He worked with the sound editing team to heighten realism. He points to one sequence where Baker and Virginie travel across town for a dinner with Virginie’s friends, but Baker is preoccupied with his dealings with the French justice system and a tip he’s received. “He’s so consumed with this, and he can’t listen to the conversation in front of him. We took the sound out and we pushed the music up,” McArdle says, to show that Baker wasn’t fully a part of the moment.
Cutting to Accent Humor
“Stillwater” deals with heavy subject matter, but it was important to make the lighter moments also land. McArdle tinkered with a sequence when Allison is on parole for good behavior, spending time with her father and Virginie. She tells Virginie her father is a screw-up — a serious moment that originally led into a more playful scene with the three of them. “The scene that followed was when they’re sitting down for a meal, which was supposed to be light and fun, so it put a damper on that,” says the editor. “So we moved it after, and it gave the film a better flow.”
Ultimately, the driving factor that guided the way the film was shaped was the relationship dynamics among the characters. “It was really about what felt real and what felt warranted or not,” says McArdle.