Don't Worry Darling

Steve Hullfish | October 6, 2022

Today on Art of the Cut, we talk with Affonso Gonçalves, ACE, about his work on director Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling.

Affonso has been nominated for an Emmy and won an ACE Eddie for his work on the TV series True Detective. He was nominated for another ACE Eddie for his work on the documentary, The Velvet Underground. His other work includes the films Carol, The Lost Daughter, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Winter’s Bone.

Affonso Gonalves Discusses his Work on Olivia Wildes Dont Worry Darling

Let’s talk about the nonlinear nature of the movie itself. It jumps around in time a little bit. Does that give you more freedom in the structure of the story?

Does it give you more freedom? That's an excellent question. It's a hard thing to say because, yes, it gives you freedom. But no, because it's very structured. It gives you freedom in a sense of the language of the flashbacks. Even saying they're flashbacks is a little bit of a misnomer. The little flashes or the information gives you the freedom to decide which one. How long? What image comes to mind? So that's a freedom. But you have to be careful. You have to be structured in the sense that you can't give too much away, and you have to be very specific and precise. Otherwise, ultimately, it won't make sense. So it's both. You have the wealth of imagery, but you have to be so precise in how you use them. So it's a little yes, a little no.

Is that something that you found that you needed to play with more once you had the structure of the film more or less in place at the beginning? How much do you reveal to the audience, and when?

When I came in, the film was already laid out. When Olivia and I were in the cutting room, we played around and tried different structures and different ideas. What’s super-interesting about the film is that it’s not only a visual coda. It is sonic because of the humming. So many of the triggers — if not the biggest trigger — is actually a piece of music. How to use that and when to use that was the key. Is this something that you hear Alice humming? Or do you hear Jack's humming? And how much is singing the words, or is it just humming the melody? So we played with that in the cutting room. But we kept moving, the structure kept changing. It was very fluid because of how much we would reveal or how much would be abstract. Does it pique your interest? But doesn't really reveal that much. The length of those flashes was something we paid close attention to.


How much experimenting did you do with how long those flashes were? Some of them are very short — two or three frames, maybe.

I think that the shortest one was four frames. It might be when Alice sees her friend with the pill, and the curtains pull. That's the one I really played with for a long time. If I added two more frames, it was too much, but if I took one frame less, it just didn’t register. There's just the right amount of frames that the eye and the brain can register. If it's too short, it's just a blip. Once we found the language or the image that we want, then it was that kind of playing with how much we were showing.

I noticed in your filmography that you've been a music editor several times on the films you've worked on. There's a lot of music in this film. Can you talk about using that music? How much of it was scripted? And then playing with the silences too.

I find the silences are so important because it's the only way to have a contrast. I love working with music. I love creating music out of what we have. We did have a great music editor. Of course, there's the music of that time, the music that people listen to. So much of it Olivia really loved. She hand-picked those. But for the score part of it, I worked closely with the music editor, and if I can, I try to do my own music editing. I come from the independent world. Most of the time, we can't afford a music editor. It is such a luxury. I also like doing it, but I had worked with John, the music editor, before, so it was great to have that collaboration. But I do try to experiment. Before we sent it to John Powell, the composer, I like to lay down the idea and the tone of the music. That’s super important. So that's what I was working with the music editor so closely to achieve.

Can you talk a little bit about those strategic places where you did want silence or where you felt like you needed that contrast with the music?

I had never worked with Skip Lievsay and Paul Urmson. Skip was the mixer, and Paul was the sound designer. They're the best in the industry. It was an incredible pleasure and gift to me to work with the two of them. The sound design is musical. When I was working with them in the mixing stage, there was a lot to play with, like when she's in the desert, you’ve got to feel the world. Sometimes there’s sound, and sometimes there’s music around. You want to feel how dry and really away from civilization she is. That's definitely one of the places where the quietness was super important. It's just when we get to be close to Alice's experience that silence is important.

That's a really interesting idea: the closer you get to the character's inner world, the more silence matters. There's a great moment when Alice goes to the top of this mountain, and when she reaches the summit, there's some crazy sound design. Obviously, the sound design team did a great job. How much of that — when you were doing the editor's cut or the director's cut? Did you feel like you needed some kind of sound design in there to give you the proper pacing for the visuals?

When I came in, there was sound design there, but it was so much. But in working with Olivia, the idea was to pull it out. She wanted that breathing sound and that singsong thing that’s part of the music. But it was a sound that was kind of luring her near. So she needed to be quiet. But that place needs to be something that kind of like there's a vibration that comes from it. When she's leaning it to touch it gets louder and louder and crazier and crazier. And the sound design is really awesome because the music goes to that point, then it drops, and they put in this sound, like a lion roar. It helps to give it a sense of danger. We wanted that sense that it was bringing her in.


Let's talk about tension a little bit. How do you support that tension in editorial?

So much of it is the pace and the variety of pace. It needs to have contrast sonically, but the cutting has to have contrast too. This idyllic happy world from the beginning slowly shifts and shifts. The first time you sense it is when she goes to Shelley's ballet class because it's so structured. That, to me, is the first step of the tension. Somebody's controlling your cadence and the people around you. Any kind of control to that level is tense. From that point on, you just have to tighten the screws of the tension. You can quicken the pace and then slow down again. You keep giving them more rope and then pull them back and give more rope till the moment that Alice really unravels in her head. Then the clock is ticking.

So it can be a metronome at some point, and then it just goes fast. So I think it's that push and pull. Also, with the flashes, it starts to make you uncomfortable. Then you meet the character Frank. Frank is always around. She wakes up in the morning, and Frank’s on the radio. It’s sort of like Big Brother. He's around at all times. If you don't see him, you hear him. Tension was super important. It was something that Olivia really wanted to make sure existed. And that it keeps ratcheting up. In the beginning, you feel tension, but it needs to change. It needs to get more and more and more. You have the literal walls closing in, in her mind, but also, in her world, they’re closing in in general.

There's a great point where Jack is on stage, and he's doing this crazy dance, and you're intercutting that with Alice having a meltdown in a bathroom. Was that scripted to be intercut? Then did you have to change the intercutting once you saw the footage you were dealing with?

I believe it was scripted. That scene was super complicated because of what was happening in front of you at the party and the gamesmanship from Frank. There are the looks between Frank and Alice. Alice escapes that room to go to the bathroom. This is the point where things start becoming clearer in her mind. She fully remembers what happens to her neighbor. Her eyes are opening to everything. And she realizes Jack is just a pawn in Frank's world. So it was complicated to determine how much of Alice and Bunny in the bathroom you show compared to the crazier and crazier dancing by Jack. It was something that we worked on for a long time, just to hopefully get it right.

For Olivia, there was one scene in the film that was probably the most important scene in the film, which was the dinner scene, which happened right after the dance. This is the real showdown between Alice and Frank, but it's eight people around a table. So to cut eight people around a table, you have to feel like everybody's involved in what's happening. They need to react to what Alice is proposing because Alice is laying out what she thinks is going on, so you have to see how people react to that revelation: How Frank reacts to her making the revelation. How Frank reacts to people hearing the revelation. So that scene was really the one that we worked on the longest and had to be most careful about how long we stayed with each person around the table. I feel great because, in the end, I think it worked out really well.


I just spoke to a college editing class, and they asked, what's the hardest scene you've ever cut? I couldn’t think of the hardest ever in my career, but I explained that in every movie where you have a multi-person table scene, that's the hardest to cut, right?

There’s this amazing scene in The Godfather when all the heads of the Mafia family come, but that is like 18 people around the table. I watched that scene before I cut this scene. It’s so much about the coverage, but it’s so beautifully done, and again, it’s about the rhythm. It's just fantastic. You get to see everybody, and there's the move around the table with the camera. That’s a different film, but it is complicated. People think that action scenes are hard to cut, but these dialogue scenes are very, very complicated to cut.

There’s a Steadicam scene that circles a different conversation. I’ve had those. What is complicated about editing a scene with a Steadicam circling the actors?

When I came on, that scene was already cut and remains very close to the original edit. You have to cut the dialogue the way you want it and let the camera hit where it hits. You can get away with many things if the dialogue makes sense. It was so smartly done, by the way. The actors and the camera move, and the idea behind it was so well directed. But yes, that's also a complicated scene.

I have worked on films and a TV show with a director who was also an actor in it, so I know that has some unique… landmines to it. You're interacting with the director in the editing room, but you're also criticizing or looking at her analytically as a character on screen. Can you talk to me about that?

Yeah, it is interesting. Olivia is great at it. She was very open. Whenever I refer to her character, I never said, “You are doing this.” I would use the character’s name, like, “Bunny should be doing this.” For instance, in Bunny’s final scene, where she explains why she’s in this world, Olivia was never really happy with her performance. The one we ended up with in the film is great, but we had to change a little bit of dialogue. It was interesting to see Olivia reacting to Bunny there. She would say, “I don't like what I'm doing there.” But I would revert to using Bunny. “We need to hear Bunny say that.” It makes a total difference. You just have to be conscientious that that's happening, that the director is a performer in the film.


Let's talk a little bit about your approach to dailies and rushes. When you're watching dailies, what are you actively doing or nothing?

In this film, I didn’t really go through my usual process, but when I’m starting a film from the beginning, I watch all the dailies, and I take really careful notes. What I'm looking for, first and foremost, is performance. I'm tracking the performance, and I put markers in the Avid. This one was different because I didn't do the assembly. Another editor assembled the whole film. Olivia worked with that editor on picking the performances she liked. When I came in, I did watch older cuts, and if there were specific scenes, like the dinner table scene, that I thought needed work, then I would go back to the dailies.

Got it. But when you start a film from scratch, do you like to cut from the bins with frame view (thumbnails)? How do you start a scene once you've watched the dailies?

Once I pick the performance I like, I like to create the shape of a whole scene. For example, I really want to start the scene on a two-shot here, and then I'm going to go to the close, then maybe I’ll jump to the wide for when they cross the street. So the shape of the scene is my next step. I really have to imagine it that way. In that first pass, I leave all the dialogue there. I don't cut anything at that point. So I pay attention to the architecture of how I'm telling that story. And then, if there's something that I don't like, I’ll mark that in notes.

I do the same thing. To me, the shape of the scene is the beginning. But then, when do you start bolting the scenes together? Is that something you do as soon as you have scenes three and four? Or do you wait a longer period of time usually to do that?

For the most part, I wait unless scenes three and four inform each other. Or sometimes, if they're shooting fairly close in order. I'm about to start cutting a film shooting in Savannah, Georgia, and I’m staying in L.A. In this case, there will be some downtime — like a week — where they stop shooting before I start to work in person with the director. That’s when I’ll put the sequence of scenes together and then start playing with sound and other stuff. So when they’re shooting, I’m just worried about keeping up with the camera, then when I have some free time, I start assembling scenes together.

When you start putting them together, and you start getting context and seeing those juxtapositions between one scene and the next, what are some of the things you see in the context of the larger film that changes the scenes internally?

When I’m watching dailies, I’m paying attention to performance and coverage so that if I see something wrong, I can just raise the flag to the director. I immediately get in touch with production. That’s one of the reasons why I like to start when the film starts.

Did you restructure? Did you move the position of the scenes?

We did a little bit. At the beginning of the film, for the first 15 minutes, we did shuffle things around.

When you shuffled the scenes, did it also reveal things that had to change inside the scenes? Like, “Now that these scenes are next to each other, it would be cooler if we lost this line,” or something like that?

Yeah. In the beginning, it was about trying to keep this fresh, happy world for a longer time. Originally there was some starting and stopping, but we changed it so that when things start going sideways, we just stayed with that, rather than “you start, you stop, you start, you stop.” Once we did that, it made certain things unnecessary. We didn’t need to overexplain. So definitely, there were some shifts.


How much did you find that you had to play with the macro pacing of when do we get to this point? Like, “We want the happy fifties life to be longer or shorter than the rest.”

We felt that we wanted to have a more relaxed “getting to know Alice” before the shift, so by delaying when Alice’s world starts to go sideways, you have a little more time in that lifestyle.

Much of the film is left to the audience to piece together the clues. Did you have screenings to determine if people were really getting it?

We did. There were two big screenings that the studio wanted to have, and there was specific feedback about clarity and why the characters are doing what they're doing and what exactly is happening. It's super hard to decide how much you give away and when. After the screenings, we’d think, “OK, we need to clarify this.”

But we’d also ask, “Do we need to clarify this?” You risk saying too much too soon, and then the audience thinks, “I got it. You don’t have to tell me again.” Or there’s the risk that you get to the end, and the audience says, “Wait. What happened?” You’ve got this feedback from the audience, which in and of itself is a complicated thing to gauge because you can have 50 people that get it, but two people completely didn't get anything of it. What was it that wasn’t tracking? You have to be careful when reading audience feedback.

I’ve talked to others about the problem of doing screenings in LA, where there are so many industry people.

Yeah! Because the audience in L.A., they know. Basically, the world doesn't know this, but Sherman Oaks is deciding what people watch all over the world. No disrespect to Sherman Oaks, but that is the audience that's making big decisions in the world of filmmaking. I come from the world of independent film, where you do a cut, call ten filmmakers or ten people you know, and get a much more intimate conversation afterward.

For me, it's about feeling the audience more than getting the notes afterward.

You know that as an editor, you cut with the director, but if you put another person in the room with you, it shifts. You can feel, “Oh, this is so slow,” or “This does not work at all.” It's an interesting concept. You can't explain that to people, but it happens.

You bring your assistant editor in, and all of a sudden, everybody feels differently. Was there another big challenge for you in dealing with this film?

The biggest challenge was the tension. So how much information is passed to the audience and when to do it, and how to use it.

How do you pick projects? Is that something that you feel like you really need to control? The trajectory of your career? And is that something you do with an agent or your wife or what?

It's funny, my wife is a cinematographer, so it's nice to have somebody in the room to talk about it. First and foremost, it’s the script. They send me the script, and if I like it, then I talk to the director and have a feel for their ideas about how it will be and maybe the cast, and that's it. That's how I do it. I also like to work with first-time filmmakers and up-and-coming filmmakers because there's an energy. I like to keep improving my skills as an editor, and I think that's a good way to do it. I'm lucky that I have filmmakers that I work with that keep coming back and that I feel very loyal to, but also leave space for discovery and new relationships.

Affonso, thank you so much for spending time with us.

Thank you. My pleasure.