Dean Zimmerman, ACE, on his long-time collaboration with director Shawn Levy, what it’s like editing a best-selling book adaptation, and building suspense.
Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Dean Zimmerman, ACE, about the limited Netflix series All the Light We Cannot See, directed by his long-time collaborator, Shawn Levy.
Dean’s been on Art of the Cut before for Free Guy, Stranger Things, and Mazerunner. He’s part of a legendary editing family, headed by his father Don Zimmerman, who just received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cinema Editors this year.
Dean won an Emmy and was nominated for an ACE Eddie in 2017 for Stranger Things. And then in 2020, two more Emmy nominations for Stranger Things. Other work includes The Adam Project, Holmes and Watson, and Night At the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.
So I was an assistant way back when with my dad, who was an editor. My dad got hired to do this movie, Just Married, and it was essentially a first-time director. Shawn had done Big Fat Liar.
It’s fantastic! It’s amazing! Obviously, it put him on the map and got him another big movie with, Ashton and Brittany Murphy, but Fox wanted a really seasoned, strong editor and the one that cut Big Fat Liar, wasn’t available.
So they called my dad. He said absolutely. So, they hired him and that was it. And so we did Big Fat Liar. We all fell in love with each other. Then we went off to do a couple of other big movies, and Shawn had kind of gone back to his other editor.
And then on Night at the Museum, I think Shawn, really missed my dad and how he was putting together stuff, and so the worlds aligned, and we were available, so we did Night at the Museum one together.
That was the first time that I kind of got my associate editor credit on that, with my dad as the lead. But that definitely started to forge our relationship. And ever since Night one, I’ve done everything else with Shawn — everything he’s ever done, I’ve cut.
So that really kind of started the 20 year — if you go back to Just Married — relationship with Shawn. And it’s been amazing ever since. With Shawn and my dad, on Night 2, that’s when I sharpened my teeth and really started cutting a lot where I actually got a co-cutting credit on Night 2.
The next movie that Sean was going to do was Date Night, which was a kind of a smaller budget, obviously, than the Night at the Museums, which were very big spectacles and tentpole movies for Fox, and they didn’t necessarily have the budget for an editor of the caliber of my dad at that point.
That was the time when Shawn really felt like, “Okay, I’m going to give this kid his shot, if his dad would let me.” Obviously, my dad was more than happy to release the handcuff and let me go do this with Shawn. And and then literally from that point on, I’ve done everything since.
He did. Absolutely. Yes. It was a spectacular event. Definitely something that he deserved for a really long time. He’s a legend in his own right, and I’m just trying to fill those shoes, my man. Every day.
Don Zimmerman, ACE at 2023 ACE Eddies, photo courtesy of American Cinema Editors, Peter Zakhary and Tilt Photo.
They are. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job. I like to think I am. He tells me I am all the time, so I appreciate it.
This is not our first time doing an adaptation of a book. We did a movie together a few years ago called This Is Where I Leave You, which was based off a book as well. Shawn didn’t want me to read them because then I would be attached to the written word.
I’ve kind of never done it ever since. I usually don’t read the material that I am going to be editing because he wants me to have a completely fresh, unvarnished view of the material and have it come in and have me react to it as he’s directing it.
So that’s what we did on this one. And so I had no preconceived notions of what the book ended like and how it diverged from one to the other.
All I knew was the script, and what the material was that was coming in, and I kind of crafted the show based on all of that and my own personal kind of, “Well, if we did this, it may be better,” which I think is ultimately the way Shawn likes to work.
He wants me to be that kind of unvarnished and untainted creative view.
It’s a very interesting thing because growing up with my dad as a big editor, he did a movie called The Prince of Tides with Barbra Streisand. And that was obviously a very famous book.
And he read it and one of the big things that he kept coming home and telling me — because I would always ask about it because we actually flew down to Buford, South Carolina, and were there when they were shooting — so me, just wanting since 13 to be in the cutting room — I would just park myself in his office and just watch him.
And the one thing that definitely resonated with me and him in all of his conversations with Barbra was, “Well, the book is this! And the book is this!” And they always kept fighting over it. They were always saying, “We’ve got to get off that.” And so I think from an early age, it kind of molded me into thinking, “You need to be able to have a fresh perspective and a fresh outlook on stuff and not be tainted, but just, informed of what could have been there or what should have been there.”
It’s definitely a trending thing when you do big studio movies, they always kind of go back to the creative aspect of writing the script. And so there’s so many iterations of a script and things fall away and things come back and new ideas form and old ones go away.
And, sometimes studios really love something that went away in the script, and they try to kind of get that moment back but that doesn’t exist anymore, but we want it, and so how do we do that?
Having grown up in the industry, it’s something that I learned right away and early on. You just kind of deal with the footage that you got and try to mold the clay into what obviously is the best sculpture, but at the same time, when you get those kind of weird, offbeat notes that think, “Wait, where is this coming from?”
Because it’s not in the script. Then you realize, “Oh wait! You’re thinking of five scripts ago” then it’s that delicate balance of how do you kind of merge the two worlds and still stay true to the story you want to tell ultimately.
And that’s the hardest part. And yes, sometimes that leads to reshoots and sometimes that leads to going down avenues that you wouldn’t necessarily go down, but you never know where an idea will take you.
And that’s the beautiful thing. And what I also love about editing is, I don’t care where an idea comes from, if it’s a good one, that leads to something better I’m all in.
Let’s try everything, let’s turn over every stone that we can to see if there’s a piece of gold underneath it. And if there’s nothing, then all we did is waste a little bit of time and now we know that what we have is exactly what we should have.
So that exploratory process is something that I actually love doing in post for sure.
Zimmerman and Levy editing
It was pretty “as scripted.” There were a couple scenes that fell away. There was a thing in episode four where we kind of discovered there was the death of Etienne which originally happened literally at the beginning of the episode.
So everything that happened with Marie and Etienne and their bonding moments — them fishing and riding the motorcycle and her kind of bringing him out of his shell and all that kind of stuff — that all happened post his death. It was a very interesting thing that when we put it together, we got a note — I think, from one of Sean’s creative executives.
I think it was actually the assistant at that point — that the Etienne arc just isn’t resonating enough. And we kind of figured out: “Oh, wait! It’s because he dies. And then we have this tender moment of them being connected together.”
And so thought, “Oh, wait!, That’s wrong. We’ve got to put that first and then have him die.” And so you have all this wonderful time with them together, bonding, if you will, and her kind of bringing him out into the light after being in that attic for, 20-something years like he was.
Director Shawn Levy, rearranging scenes with cards.
Yes. And you know what? That is definitely a tribute to the writing because we kind of did it seamlessly. And there’s a picture that we took: Shawn feverishly writing on index cards — “What’s the next scene? What’s the next scene?
What’s next” — and literally he had them all in front of him on his little table, and he was sitting on the couch, and it was like a puzzle for him. And he was literally jigsaw puzzling this thing around. He said, “Okay, I have the structure.” He took a picture of it and said, “Now do it this way.”
And by the way, it worked prior, too, but, it was just that when that realization that they had in the attic with her and Louis, when she’s remembering Etienne and he says, “He died, but the tiger is happier than in a cage.”
And that was because of her, so that moment connected so much more because we got to see her take him out of the cage and into the world. There was a fair amount of like restructuring of when Werner decides to run on the rampart and all that kind of stuff and take off.
Yeah, so there was a little bit of a jigsaw, but it was definitely something that was so easily managed because, the writing was so strong and the connections to all the characters were so built and so deep already. It was about, “How do we make this even just more heartbreaking?” Like you said, it’s seamless.
Thank you for saying that because it was a bit of mastery, just kind of getting through there and cutting. Those are those rocks that get unturned and you think, “Wait a minute, we dig a little bit. We could probably get a little more.” And we did, so it was great.
END SPOILER ALERT
And that’s exactly what we were kind of all feeling: “Yes, the scene is good, but why isn’t it landing harder?” Shawn and I wear our heart on the sleeve.
I’ll cry at a commercial for the love of God, but it’s one of those things where when we’re not feeling it together, then we know that there’s something that’s off. It was really just until someone said, “Well, maybe it’s because he’s already died, and it’s all a flashback.”
When you read it as the script it reads perfectly and it’s very emotional. But this is where you have to abandon the script once you get all the footage — and the footage is what speaks to you.
So it’s that final construction of the words that happen in editorial, which is so great because you can do anything. You really can. And when you can make a moment that wasn’t landing how you wanted to or how it should have landed, and then how you experienced it in the script, and you’re able to fix that?
Those are those big kind of win takeaways that make you feel that all the long hours and hard work is worth it.
We made way more of it than was originally there, let’s put it that way, especially in episode four, because obviously that’s when he gets the information that he knows where she is and he’s on his way.
Another big thing in four is, is we needed to have that kind of ticking clock, right? We needed to have: oh, wait, this guy knows where she is and he’s now on the way.
So she has a finite amount of time to get whatever needs to be done, done. Louis has that finite amount of time to get to her to save her because he knows that that’s coming.
So from the very beginning, we were always conscious about von Rumpel’s role (the villain) in his pursuit of her and those first three episodes. And that’s where a little bit of that restructuring with Etienne came in, because we kind of used some ADR and over-shoulder stuff.
As he’s dying, he’s saying to Werner, “You’re a good boy, but now you need to go protect her because she’s in danger.”
That was ADR’d because we needed to set up that thing where Etienne tells him he has to go get her, because Etienne knows that she’s in trouble where he doesn’t.
We kind of built this whole ratcheted tension — this is the magic of editing — we reused shots. I used different angles and flopped them of his travel, walking through burning stuff.
One shot, we kind of took out the background and put a new background of him walking down a different alley, just to kind of set up that cutaway to that constant ticking clock of him in pursuit.
And so that was definitely something that we amped up a lot in episode four to create that heightened tension.
At the end of every episode — the brilliance of his writing was those big cliffhangers. I call them the Stranger Things series-enders, where you are just on pins and needles.
You have to hit “watch the next episode” because you just can’t wait, right? “Wait, did she die or did she not?” “Did he shoot her or did he not?” So we kind of built those moments with sound and music, like we would do on a Stranger Things episode and really create that moment of: you got to click next to see what’s what happened.
They were written that way, but it was utilizing all the tools that we’ve come up with and found together in our 20-year history. We kind of poured all of that into this series.
That was definitely scripted. But again, it’s all about Shawn and our relationship with all departments. So it’s not only just visual effects which we used on many projects and sound and it’s music and those are all tools for us. And we work so harmoniously hand-in-hand together.
Before even starting to cut all that stuff, i’ll talk to our sound supervisors and the visual effects guys and the music guys and say, “This is where I’m going to be heading with this, so start to think about how we can either drop music out and just have sound working — like when he’s doing those footsteps up — and do we need music to support that stuff?” It’s really that hand in hand synergy of editorial.
And when I say editorial, I encompass everybody because I personally feel without the other departments, we would fail, right? We’re a team. They also will say, “Well, what if we did this and this and this,” right? And then that will spark me to think about cutting it a different way.
That actually did happen. Craig Hennigan, our sound supervisor, would say, “God, it would be really great if we could go off of footsteps of rubble to her getting up or finding the thing,” whatever it may be, or locking the door and all that kind of stuff.
And we can bridge those with, you know, sonically. And then, James would come in and he would bridge it musically as well, and so all of that would kind of create this escalating tension that then would pop and it would either be a big jump scare of some kind and or it would be that moment of, okay, now we can need to let the audience breathe.
So it’s always that delicate balance of how far can you ratchet the tension before you need to let the audience sit back for a second and have a little breath before you hit them with the next big thing?
Because it doesn’t just end right then and there, right? There’s so much more story to tell. So that balance of, I call it “set fatigue,” right?
So when you’re in these big set pieces too long, that’s when the audience can start to feel like, “Oh my God, here comes another one. I’m not ready for it.” You need those breaks.
And so that’s where, when you watch it as a whole, you say, “Okay, wait a minute. We’re too long here. This is too much. And we can’t go from this beat to this beat so quickly because we’re asking too much of the audience.”
You need to have those moments where you can kind of let them relax a little bit before they gear back up into the next thing. So it’s definitely that delicate balance of working with your teams.
And they bring so much to the table as far as what they can do and ideas that they have, that their experiences have brought them and taught them. So that’s the collaboration that you must have.
For me, it’s such an intimacy because I’ve worked with these guys for so long that it’s all kind of second nature to us. So we are all kind of in this team doing it together. Unity.
The other thing is we have such a good time. It’s not work! We all feel like we’re kids playing in a sandbox and it’s like the best idea wins, right? The best game wins.
So again, don’t care where a good idea comes from, and I and I look for them, right? I want them because that’s the only way I feel like we can get the maximum creative brilliance out of anything.
Exactly. Because some are Academy Award winners, some are Academy Award nominees. These are the professionals at the height of their industry so why wouldn’t you want people that are experts in their field to give you input if it’s going to help you make it better?
Because my job is to make Shawn look as incredible as possible and all these actors to have these amazing performances, but also to make it as seamless as possible so that nobody knows what we’re doing behind the scenes and that they just thought all this was done: no “problem.”
You cut off the slates and here it is. That’s the biggest compliment for me is when I have people reaching out to me saying, “What you’ve done is not only so relevant for the time in the world, in history right now with what’s going on and what this is,” but just how kind of weirdly the joy, but also the heaviness of the material that we were working with, which, by the way, was something that I was completely unprepared for.
It was a very interesting thing having Shawn be this Jewish man. When I first saw that swastika, it hit me so hard. I can’t believe I’m looking at this right now!
That this really exists in the world, and that people are wearing these uniforms. And I would call him every day: “Are you good? Are you okay? How is this affecting you?”
It was definitely not lost, and it could be so easily. And every now and then I would be working, working, working, and all of a sudden I would stop and think, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.
This is some really heavy stuff” because you get used to it. It almost becomes like paint that you don’t even realize you’re using. It’s so traumatic to see this imagery.
And that was definitely something that I always kept in the forefront of my mind. It did affect me very deeply, so it was one of those things that I wanted to make sure the audience knew the stakes and the gravitas and the pure evil of the situation.
The fact that almost history is repeating itself a little bit. The weird thing that these are kind of aligning and the messages that I get are: “this is something that we not only need, but the world needs to see because good always triumphs over evil,” and this will happen as well in our current state of affairs.
But it’s that reminder that there is evil in the world, and we need to live in a place where that doesn’t exist. And that’s where Marie-Laure lives. She lives in a in a world of darkness, but all she sees is light.
No. This is where I was talking about, those hard, dark moments and those elevated tension moments is where you would need those intimate, soft moments, Shawn will always shoot those kind of moments:
Werner saying goodbye to his sister out in front of the orphanage before he’s taken away to the German Institute, right? It’s such a beautiful moment between a brother and a sister saying goodbye, potentially for the last time ever. There was a version of that where it wasn’t so emotional.
Then there was the emotional version and then, probably a couple versions in between. And this is where Shawn and I always say, “All right, go all the way to 100! Or to 11.” And then we’ll get the note: “that’s a little too heavy handed.
Let’s back off a little bit.” And we always kind of meet somewhere in the middle. With this one, because of the weight of the material, there were a few scenes that we were able to go to 11, and I’m so happy that we did because they really, definitely needed to be there.
And it’s all about resetting the audience. Engaging them back into the characters. Because when you’re in that darkness for a bit, you can kind of lose touch with the kind of human and the the relationship and the beauty of what the material is.
Structurally they were set there, but we definitely extended most of those beats just because, like you said, in script form, they kind of read fast and they are kind of like:
“Oh, this is a quick reset, and then we’re back into the next big action thing,” right? With Shawn, we always figure out a way to elongate or extend these kind of moments, building the connection between the characters so that you are invested enough to where you can allow the darkness to be there and go through it, but still be yearning for the actual character pieces and the beautiful part.
I’m so, so happy you brought that up, because Jonathan Corn, who co-edited The Adam Project with me and Shawn and Ryan Reynolds, I was so busy kind of finishing season four of Stranger Things, when Shawn was shooting All the Light that we definitely need to have a little bit of help at the very beginning, kind of putting some stuff together.
And so John came on — Jonathan Corn — came on to kind of put that stuff together, and that was one of the first scenes that he kind of got to do.
We had talked about how we were going to cut it, and I said, “Listen, man, just kind of how Shawn would want it, but then just go have fun. Give me something completely different.”
He did that kind of hyper-sound of dead quiet, of him running, and you’re just hearing him breathe. And then that hard cut to just galloping horses of feet running after him and intense sound, and then just those hard cuts back and forth, and when I saw it, my heart was racing.
I asked, “How did you do that?” He said, “You inspired me with the Stranger Things hard cuts to sound and all that kind of stuff.” We showed Shawn and he lost his mind! He said, “We need to do it all the time!” But I said, “No, no!
That’s why you can’t,” right? Because that moment needs to be a standout. And it was and it was one of the most exhilarating things that I was not a part of, although John will say differently, but it was all him.
And it was one of those moments where two minds are so much better than one, and I don’t think I would have cut it that way. I think I would have done it “our way,” the way we do things, and maybe it would have gotten there, maybe not.
But the fact that he kind of went very bold and did it that way, that edit never changed. And it kind of actually informed me how I did some of the other parts of it, because that was him getting hazed, but then there was also this training montage of him.
And so I kind of learned, grew and stole from John. I did it in a different way, not to copy it.
Exactly. And just and also with the voiceover that you can do because all those moments, it was a very interesting thing. The way it was scripted was he was getting chased by the kids and before they actually caught him, he was saying his narrative: writing a letter back to his sister, Jutta.
The original script called for an intercut there to go back to Jutta, setting a table by a fire.
It would have. So we had it that way, and it was a very interesting thing. So that’s the way John originally cut it, and when I watched it, I thought, “Oh, it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”
Then he’s said, “Well, let me show you what I did here.” And as soon as he showed me his cut, I thought, “Oh my God! Insanity!” And then we showed Shawn, he says, “What happened to Jutta?”
And I said, “You don’t want to see it. You just don’t. It’s so much better when you stay with him and what he’s going through, and you’re contrasting that with his letter back to his sister. Let his voice be the intimate part of that piece.”
He agreed. You’re never too old to learn or try new things, and that’s where, you have to be so open all the time because you never know where you’ll find the diamond in the rough.
John obviously knew Craig from Adam Project, and so he knew to call him. That was a collaboration between the two of them, where Craig said, “Let’s do this hyper-sound Can you cut to feet running?
Can you get that? Do we have it?” So they kind of put that together. It was definitely something that I would have done with Craig, but I don’t think I would have approached it the way John did.
Him jumping in straight away and just “hugging the tree” as hard as he could, right? And embracing all of how we like to work paid off for him in spades as well, because he was able to come up with this incredible sequence, and that’s just one of many that he’s done.
When Seidler goes to the orphanage, when he picks them out and says, “I need you to fix this radio.” That was another scene that John cut and he showed it to me, and my initial instinct was, “You’re on Werner the whole time, and we’re not seeing Seidler’s face when he’s whapping him in the head.
Is there a reason for that?” He said, “I just think it’s so much more powerful to stay on Werner and be with him in what is happening.” So he showed me both ways and I thought, “Man, that’s just so smart.”
And it was one of those things that weird kind of synergy kinship that I think all editors share: to be able to learn and grow and to work so intimately with someone and be so collaborative with someone and allow yourself to be collaborative is something that I pride myself on. It’s how I obviously work.
My willingness and wanting to harness all the new talent of the industry and mold them, and impart every ounce of knowledge that my father gave to me, to them, for better or worse, right?
My dad was a pretty tough editor and kind of kept things very close to the vest, and I kind of went the opposite way. You need to be able to be open and try things and, but back then the directors kind of ran how material was put out.
And now — just because of the money aspect and how much is there — you have that balance of studio notes and production notes and all this kind of stuff that you have to deal with that didn’t exist back in the days when he was cutting with Stallone and Barbra Streisand.
What Stallone and Streisand said? That’s what it was! No one told them how to redo their story.
Just that learning curve, and I want to be able to keep it as open as possible and being able to have people around you that not only embrace that, but just accept it and want to push that envelope even further is what not only look for, but it’s what you need nowadays and it shouldn’t be work.
This should all just be fun. I’m so grateful every day I get to do the job that I get to do, which is ridiculous. It’s amazing.
That’s a very interesting question because after the whole thing we had this tender moment between them where they danced to the song that they listened to as children.
Ah! And her hearing him broadcast that! Killer! Killer! Every day I would tell Shawn that the dailies were like paintings. Tobias Schliessler did such an incredible job shooting this thing.
Simon Elliott production designed this entire thing so stunningly beautiful. Every day I was blown away by how gorgeous every shot is. That scene in particular is something that I’m very proud of because I stayed in that scene way longer than anyone should, but.
It emotionally felt so good to have that slow pull back. Shawn said, “let’s go out here.” and I said, “Nope.”
It was definitely something where we want to stay in that shot forever because it was just magic what she was doing. And that actress was phenomenal from start to finish. They all were.
By the way, having the young Marie played by Nell, and Aria playing adult Marie having been legally blind, and all the stuff that came along with shooting a little girl and a woman that were legally blind brought its own set of challenges.
But the way that we pulled all that stuff off was a miracle. And also just to deliver the performances that they did was so raw and organic. It set the bar for everyone else to reach.
And you’re talking about Hugh Laurie and Mark Ruffalo and all these monster actors rising to the level of these people that have never even been in front of a camera before, ever! So that was something that was so incredible.
Simon Elliott, production designer
But to get back to your original question, we felt that we had the audience so well with the characters that we had, that we felt we can indulge a little more than probably what you would normally get away with.
The other thing that we did, and this goes back to the harmonious trio of the sound and music and also visual effects — having us navigate this road together and know where to put humps and valleys in the music so that things could either breathe and we could have these moments that really kind of dictated how long we could be in the scenes.
And, I think, James Newton Howard wrote — before we even were shooting — he wrote a couple sketch pieces of music, and I took the one theme — Marie’s theme — that he was working on and fleshing out as a sketch. I took that and laid that in at the end for my guide as to how long I could be in the scene.
And so that was definitely a big indicator of, “Okay, I can stay here a little longer because I have these three things to do left,” but when I cut those and put those in, I still had some more time in the music.
So it can work because the music worked. We had the the luck of having James Newton way before we were shooting to be able to even write stuff that we were able to use and kind of play with the footage against.
It was those kinds of things that made it a perfect storm for how it all ended up, to be honest.
There are, and it’s definitely one of those ones where it challenged me on a daily basis because I felt like the story that we were telling was so important that it wasn’t lost on me.
I took it very, very seriously — probably too seriously — but it was definitely weighing on me a lot to make sure that every single thing was absolutely perfect. But if there was any way that I can impart any wisdom… This was also during Covid, so I was working in a bubble.
So we used Jump and I would remote into a…
Yep. Jump desktop. So that’s what we used. That was the approved Netflix work from home thing. So we would remote into a NEXIS that we were all hooked up to. So it all worked perfectly.
Shawn and I talk about it all the time: if you’re not in the room together, that magic’s lost. There’s something lost in the creative process with the director, editor and any creatives that you’ve got.
So when we could go back into the office, we did immediately because I just wanted that connection so badly. So halfway through shooting, we were able to go back, but I never got to go out to set, which is what I love to do.
Be there as they’re shooting and then go down and visit Shawn on set and say, “What if we did this? And what if we did this?” So it was always kind of one of those: “if you could get me this, that would be great.”
“We already wrapped that set.” “I know, but can you build it somewhere else? I just need this one little shot. I promise I’ll use it.” But he’s always so good about, “What do you need?” And he usually gets it. 98% of the time he gets it.
But again, that’s just 20 years of trust, and knowing that I’m seeing stuff that he’s not seeing on set and and that’s why he relies on me. That’s the checks and balances we have with each other.
Thank you so much. This was so much fun. I really, really enjoyed talking to you. We can talk for hours. It’s amazing.