Editors Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo on the value of being close to production, epic battle scenes, and more on Ridley Scott's latest film.
Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Oscar-winner Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo about editing Ridley Scott’s Napoleon.
Claire won an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie for editing Platoon. She won a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar and an ACE Eddie for The Constant Gardner. Other films include Nine, Wall Street, and The Last Duel.
Sam Restivo has been an additional editor on several films, including The Greatest Showman, The Last Duel, and House of Gucci. He was also an additional editor on the TV series Raised By Wolves.
SIMPSON: We did, yes. We edited in England while it was shooting, and then we moved to Malta when they moved to the Malta locations. We did our director’s cut in the south of France, where Ridley has his home, and finished in London with the dubbing and visual effects.
SIMPSON: I think it’s very valuable. I think it’s important that we have access to the members of the production team. We have a very close relationship with all the heads of department and a lot of the technical crew. It’s very much a family, and we can prevail on them in the evenings or weekends. That closeness, I think, is very important.
Plus, it’s important to have Ridley close at hand for several reasons. If we have any fear of not understanding something or wondering about shots that he’s done - if we don’t quite know where they belong - we always have him at weekends. We keep right up to camera so he can see stuff that he shot a day before already assembled, so it’s helpful for him, and it’s really helpful for us because it helps us get the work done quickly and efficiently.
RESTIVO: We can solve problems way faster. Being close enough that any of the department heads can just come to see it, plus Ridley himself, we could just get through it way faster that way.
SIMPSON: I did reading. I did a lot of music research from the period. A lot of those songs you hear in the film, from the period, the revolutionary songs, the Edith Piaf song at the beginning of the film is from the revolution itself, and also the song that they use in the theater piece where they do that spoof of Marie Antoinette’s head getting cut off.
That’s also a song from the Revolution. So yes, I did a fair amount of research, but it wasn’t based on any one particular book.
We had a music supervisor on during prep, actually, who gave us access to a whole volume of different options. Her name is Kathleen Wallfisch, and she did a fantastic job for us.
She found that specific Edith Piaf recording and then a variety of other things. It really helped us understand what the tone was going to be when we started cutting the film.
SIMPSON: Oh, absolutely. Certainly for battles, it’s really difficult with production sound to cut a battle sequence and make it presentational. You’ve really got to have a sound team. Sam is very good at tutoring assistant editors about doing sound design.
It’s very important for assistants to understand how to fill out a scene and to think creatively, sound-wise.
RESTIVO: With that opening specifically, Ridley was really enamored with the guillotine sound so we were using that. On those cuts to black for the title cards. It developed this sense of threat for that scene. From the beginning, and knowing that this was such a giant action film, we had the members of sound editorial - one or two of them - come on early, supervised by Oliver Tarney and James Harrison. It was a team effort to get the design of the sound going as soon as we could.
Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)
RESTIVO: It was a little bit of both, to be honest. We, as editors, have developed a sound library that we have for the quick and dirty stuff, but then there would be specific cannonball sounds that we would really impress upon the sound editorial team to give us some options for things like that - and the muskets.
SIMPSON: Oh, no. He gave us some variety. He would always do a straight performance. Then he would do variations and they would get more extreme. He was wonderful, actually.
He also was very cognizant of giving us the continuity of those performances through the various takes. He’s a true professional. He really understands what we need editorially.
RESTIVO: As an actor, he’s clearly staying in the moment for absolutely everything and trying to make it as real and personal and emotional as it can be for him in the moment, which makes it exciting for us to see something that’s kind of a surprise each time out and Ridley encourages the actors to to do that so that it stays fresh.
That’s why he doesn’t really like to rehearse a whole lot. He wants to see how it can just live in the moment with these actors.
SIMPSON: We don’t always arrive at that final choice immediately. We work at it. We work with various options, but we do multiple cuts until we really hit on the core theme of the movie. Editing is the final rewrite in a way, so you don’t just arrive at it immediately. It’s really a question of elimination and trying different things.
From my point of view, I like to go for the most extreme and then I pull it back. But it’s important for me to be able to explore how far I can take the scene before it just becomes silly. So it’s trial and error.
RESTIVO: We’re always looking for the most authentic moments. Joaquin will play a bunch of different emotions and same for Vanessa.
We always go for the extreme stuff because that’s the most interesting and compelling to us, but then pull it back when it was really a question of, “Well, do you believe this right now?” What emotions read the most truthful in the moment? That was the guiding light for us in that case.
Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)
RESTIVO: Claire did the scene where Napoleon and Josephine have an argument overnight, and the performers played it in a lot of different ways - some very extreme ways - and then some some moderate ways. Ridley was confident about how this was going to work: that it was ultimately going to be like the kind of couples argument that lasts all night.
There were times where initially it was too dramatic per se - not that we wanted to make it funny or anything - but it helped to soften that a little bit. It made Josephine’s performance really strong.
Her choice of readings on some of the lines was very deliberate and was very strong, and it made for a fantastic toe-to-toe performance against Napoleon.
SIMPSON: The letters were actually in the script, though not all of them. We did elaborate some of the letters. Napoleon was a prodigious letter writer and he wrote to Josephine many, many times. She did not write very much. After they divorced, she in fact wrote more. So a lot of the letters are taken from original source. It was always intended.
We did a cut without the letters just to see if we really needed them. Joaquin, during the shoot, did record the letters, so we had his audio to work with. Then we started to introduce Josephine’s letters.
I think it works quite well because she dies about three-quarters into the film, so it does keep her present.
RESTIVO: It was a lot because we were evolving what the idea would be in those moments. Obviously, with Josephine, there really aren’t many sources of her letters back to him, so we had to kind of create an amalgam of what she actually said to get the emotion we were going for in that moment.
The choice to do a letter of hers after her death was a very controversial one for us. Does it logically make sense? But we liked the hauntingness of it. And it makes for such an interesting thing to end the film - his constant hearing of her in his head.
It was a trial and error thing with that too, but the actors were very keen to record multiple times for us and follow Ridley’s lead of how the letters were going to evolve for the film.
Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Handy, and Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon (2023)
SIMPSON: You couldn’t use the production sound. I have different ways of approaching a scene. Sometimes I just cut a scene visually and then fit sound afterwards. Or I’ll do the reverse sometimes.
Sometimes I’ll just take a dialogue scene and just cut the dialogue sound and then I’ll fit the picture. It’s a way of me getting into a scene. Those scenes, you could not use the production track at all.
Obviously, where there’s any kind of conversation, we would use the production. We were very fortunate because we did have - working concurrent with us - our sound team, who really helped us out a lot in making it much more presentational, bringing on a wealth of sounds. Then, when the main team came on, they would develop more that design element and record a lot of stuff, like the whistling sounds of the cannons and stuff to give it detail, but also being much more succinct about what sounds you play at any one moment.
If you were in the field, what would you hear flying overhead? But that sort of came a little bit later.
Then we experimented a lot in the mix as well. We did many temp dubs to try and establish what kind of sound design we were going for. Of course, we’re also very dependent on visual effects because we didn’t have the visual effects at that point, so as soon as the visual effects start to come in, then you have to elaborate on the soundtrack.
It becomes a very organic thing as you’re getting more and more material and also the scale, because you don’t know necessarily what the scale is. Of course, we have these huge wide shots, but they haven’t been filled in.
And so once you start filling in those wide shots and you realize that there’s many thousands of troops and marching, you have to obviously create a sound for that.
RESTIVO: We were definitely wanting all of the battles to have their own feel - their own sound. And with Austerlitz (the frozen lake sequence), knowing that we had the underwater stuff, it’s going to be a low-end sound - really intense - it’s probably the most intense battle we have in the film.
We have voiceover at the very beginning, and there’s the practical sounds - like the muskets firing and then the cannons and then the music - which thing is going to drive the most? I think in the mix we leaned a little bit more toward the music because it just highlighted the tragedy, even though Napoleon’s this military genius, it’s at a massive loss of life.
And we used the underwater sound of things to kind of drive a lot of the deep sound design for the end of that sequence, specifically.
RESTIVO: There’s no reason not to trust Ridley Scott with battle scenes. We know there are going to be thousands of people in these shots and our VFX supervisor Charlie Henley is one of the best. And we had also Ridley’s storyboards that he would draw to give us a written approximation of what it’s going to ultimately look like.
And we just we knew there would be more people. That’s what it ultimately came down to - that the shots were going to work eventually, so we just had to use our imagination in the moment.
SIMPSON: They shot in some of the strangest locations. For the one siege, that location where Napoleon is on the hillside looking down on this great white expanse - which becomes the frozen lake - well, the frozen lake was part of a disused airfield.
There was no snow on it, no ice. It was just runways. The first assembly looks really strange. In fact, Joaquin couldn’t quite grasp the whole idea of the ice because he couldn’t see it. He would say to Ridley, “Why am I giving these orders? I don’t quite get it.” He really didn’t understand until he saw the final film.
SIMPSON: For me, a lot of it is intuition, and a lot of the way I cut is purely intuitive. I just feel my way through the drama. Sometimes it’s stronger if you’re on the person that’s listening, maybe not even reacting, but just listening. For me, it’s totally intuitive.
RESTIVO: I’m the same. I would say we have two actors here with Joaquin and Vanessa who are so expressive. The thing that’s most interesting to me as an editor is I love watching people when they’re not saying anything, even if they’re not emoting.
Editing creates these emotions through the cut. Vanessa is just magic when she’s just watching him and he’s droning on about “I do everything for the people of France” and all of that stuff. Being on her and watching her slowly realize that the end is about to happen is the thing that just highlights the drama.
You just get such a clear picture on this character, even when she’s not saying anything.
SIMPSON: Well, I think some of it is experience. I would never undervalue experience. And just being very sensitive to life in general. Sensitivity and empathy are really important attributes to have for an editor.
That’s a very philosophical question. But if I can figure out what the rhythm of the scene is, then I feel I’m kind of halfway there. And it’s not necessarily about having music in the scene, and it could be that this just is punctuated by some external sound that might be not even part of the scene itself.
It might be something from outside in the window or something rhythm and just being empathetic to the characters, I think is very important.
RESTIVO: For me, empathy is the number one skill. By the way, Claire’s level of experience is an incredible thing, so I defer to her always with this stuff. She was always spot on, on choices of character moments.
It really just comes from knowing people, I think, and knowing what’s a truthful emotion that you’re seeing on screen.
SIMPSON: Yeah, I think that’s important. I think authenticity is really important.
Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)
SIMPSON: It’s interesting: when do you use a wide shot? When do you go in close? It’s always that kind of internal tussle you have. When is it important to go in close? Sometimes just using a wide shot can say it all, really, because you want to have a sense of the room. You want to have a sense of the other people and their reactions, and you don’t want to go close-close-close-close-close.
Some people’s reactions to body language is very important. When you’ve got an intimate dinner scene, it’s easier to be in close, but when you’re in a public setting and you’re declaring something, then it’s much more useful to be in wide shots because it suddenly goes from the personal to the impersonal, from the intimate to the public. So trial and error really, it’s all kind of testing how these things play.
RESTIVO: I would say it goes back to just classical film editing in some cases. The scene before the divorce - with the two of them at dinner - we start with a wide two shot just to establish the distance between these two people at the table. Then there’s this burning fire between them before we move into the closer stuff.
Then for the divorce itself, using the wide shot upfront highlights the kind of insanity of this moment. It’s not a wedding. It’s the exact opposite. They’re having to read speeches together and it’s a very, very awkward thing.
She is trying to hold her emotions in, but they get the best of her at a certain moment. Using the wide shots just highlight how sad and tragic this whole thing is. So trial and error and the intuition of where the character was going to be in that moment.
SIMPSON: I think also what’s interesting is at some point to create a little shock in the scene to maybe just suddenly pull out wide or reverse, suddenly jump-cut close. It’s all about reminding the audience that they have to pay attention, so I really like to do these little shocks in the scene to help orientate people and grab their attention.
RESTIVO: I also think with an actor like Vanessa, it’s more than just the acting on the face and in the words. She has a real delicacy with the way that she moves her arms and her hands. In some of those wider shots with her hand on the divorce letter you read her uncomfortableness in that moment by staying on a wider shot.
Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)
RESTIVO: So that’s a really controversial scene, actually. And it’s really interesting.
RESTIVO: So that was the ultimate hope for it. Because when you think about this, what an insane thing this guy is bringing this baby to Josephine, It’s actually quite a cruel thing. And that, like, if you were Josephine, like, there’s part of you that might just want to throw the baby in the lake because, like, that’s what an awful thing to do.
RESTIVO: And so the question was, do we need this scene? Do we not need this scene? There were a lot of different feelings on it. Ultimately, I know that Ridley loved the emotion that was getting played in that because Vanessa barely has to say anything in that scene. However, her facial reactions when she turns away at the beginning, once she realizes what’s about to happen, is a really expressive moment for her, where you get a sense that this is a horrible thing. Why is this happening?
But then she kind of accepts it. Napoleon doesn’t think he’s being mean. He thinks he’s just “Oh, look, this baby I brought you.” We trimmed that scene down to the barest amount of shots needed.
The scene just says it all. Then she just has to accept that this is what her life has become. That’s why the line of: “One day you’ll understand what I have sacrificed for you.” It works because of that.
SIMPSON: We had a composer, Martin Phipps, who I think did an excellent job. Some of his score is just outstanding and very unusual. We did have a kind of clue at the beginning: Ridley mentioned that we should watch Barry Lyndon.
He was sort of fascinated by Barry Lyndon, as am I. It’s one of my favorite films. He uses music in a really interesting way - uses a lot of classical music. It underscores the satire of the film as well. I think that some of the music we use also underscores the satire and also some of the humor.
When you’ve got a humorous scene and you’re playing a very straight piece of music, it seems to make it funny in a way. We used a lot of classical music.
We had a great music supervisor, Kathleen Wallfisch, who brought in a lot of period stuff, and we have a wonderful music editor, Tony Lewis. Tony’s wonderful at weaving things together and that was very helpful.
It was Ridley’s idea to use the Corsican music because Napoleon’s Corsican and he wanted to have the sort of rough edges of that music, the choir singing peasant music. The composer was very gracious. He picked up on them and ran with them and I thought he did a sterling job.
RESTIVO: Martin gave us his whole catalog of music to temp from, so he had the variety of things that he’s done before, and that was very helpful to find that tone. Tony Lewis had to temp, Waterloo and Waterloo was a beast. It’s a long sequence. It ended up being 15 or 16 minutes and there are a lot of different moments, and that would have been hard to temp from just one source. Tony made it happen from a variety of different sources - some Martin, some others, and just created the tapestry of it. Ridley said, “Yes, this is the emotion that I want for this grand, grand battle at the end of the film.”
Martin took that and ran with it and gave us something that we thought was really, really special for that battle.
SIMPSON: There was also one point in the Battle of Waterloo, where it was really a complicated, dramatic transition and it was really musically difficult to achieve that. It was Ridley’s idea to bring in the choir at that point, and it just transformed the whole thing. It was amazing, actually, very impressive.
RESTIVO: Then we also had the both sides of the battle. The French and the British had their guys playing drums and we were having to make that work with the overall musical feel of the whole thing. It’s a feat of music editorial that this works and our fantastic rerecording mixer, Paul Massey.
SIMPSON: Paul was a music mixer originally. He was just loving it, loving the challenge.
Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023)
RESTIVO: Well, that’s a good question. Strategy wise, we had a blueprint of how we were going to get from A to B. Martin did a really great piece of music for us at the beginning of that scene that set the tone - established “here comes a battle scene” with Wellington. We wanted to make it seem a little threatening.
And so the tone in the music changes a little bit as well. And once the cannon firing and all of that happens, we go kind of pure effects for a little while in the battle. And it’s just an assault on your senses because the cannon fire is so huge and the volume of people being murdered on this battlefield… it’s just an overwhelming thing.
Then once you get to the moment where all of the charging is happening, we have all of the the horses coming down while the infantry is going on on both sides. It’s just a testament to Ridley’s genius of shot construction.
When I was putting the thing together, we’d look at dailies in the nine-bank Avid multi-cam screen. I’d say, “Okay, well, at this moment it’d be really great to have a wide profile tracking shot of the horses charging down the hill.”
Well, guess what? That’s what Ridley Scott gives you. So, this insane embarrassment of riches. It just allowed us to find the exact right size and exact place to be in every moment in that scene, to keep the audience engaged with a foreknowledge, because everyone knows he’s not going to win this battle.
So you just have to have it be this impending sense of dread that builds throughout the sequence.
SIMPSON: Also, what Sam mentioned about the drumming, it’s not one steady drumming throughout. The English have their set of drummers, and the French have their set of drums and they’re all in different rhythms. That gives you - when you cut from one to the other - this kind of weird, sense of dislocation that helps build the tension.
Whereas if you had one drum beat going on all the way through, it would be very, very monotonous.
RESTIVO: Claire was talking about it earlier. That’s when we introduced the Corsican music back to it, because that centered it on Napoleon in that moment. At this point, he’s going to lose. Then we get real close with him and follow him out to where it’s just a march to the death.
That was a really strong thing when Ridley said, “This is where we’re going to do this. And it really transformed the second half of that scene.
SIMPSON: Oh, that was a long time ago. I cut a film for Oliver Stone called Salvador, and Ridley saw it. I was working on Platoon at the time and he called me up and said he’d just seen it and he’d love to meet me.
He hired me to work on Someone to Watch Over Me, which was a smallish film, but it’s a very tender film. We got on very, very well. He asked me to do other films with him, but we got out of sync.
I was scheduled to do Wall Street, but we always kept in touch. In fact, one day - because I have a house in Italy - he called me up and said, “I’m in Rome. Are you in Italy?”
And I said, “Yeah, I am, yeah.” “Come down and have dinner with me.” So I went down and we chatted, reminisced about old times, and he said, “I’m here scouting something. You interested?”
And I said, “Send me the script.” I always enjoyed working with Ridley, so actually it wasn’t really even a question of reading the script. I said, “Yeah, sure, I’m free.”
RESTIVO: I’ve been a long time assistant editor on the big movies, and then I worked as an editor on a lot of independent films. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to get to work with a lot of truly great editors, and for a time I was working with Joe Hutchings, who worked with Claire on Wall Street, and I had just a fabulous time working with him for a couple of years.
He was leaning towards retirement after we’d worked on a show. When I told him that I saw this availability to be a first assistant for Claire and for Ridley on Raised by Wolves - going to South Africa. He said, “Take it! 100%! Go work with Claire. And it’s Ridley Scott, man! Just do it. You’re going to have an absolute blast.”
I met Claire at the airport in Cape Town. We interviewed over the phone, but we hadn’t actually met each other in person and we hit it off right away over our shared love of tennis and movies and wine and good food and all of this stuff.
It was a fabulous collaboration from the from the Jump on “Wolves.” She’s very giving and very supportive. She gave me an option to edit a few scenes early on in that show, and she liked what I did and Ridley liked what I did, and it just blossomed from there.
On House of Gucci the creative collaboration just expanded to the point where, I still can’t believe that she asked me to a to edit Napoleon with her. This is a dream come true. It’s an incredible partnership.
The last five years have been a whirlwind for me, starting from being a first assistant to now taking on a project of this size.
SIMPSON: Sam is wonderfully gifted and he’s very, very talented editor. I was lucky to meet him. It works both ways.
RESTIVO: Yeah, the emails are coming in fast and furious, and the dailies.
SIMPSON: I think it’s wonderful being able to have a co-worker, looking at the stuff when it’s done because it just seems such a solitary occupation. To have the benefit of a talented storyteller before it actually goes to the director.
To have that kind of input is invaluable. It’s been an absolute gift, for these very big movies with lots and lots of footage and with such broad scope. I think it would take twice as long for one person to do the work. And it just gives a freshness.
We have a good time in the morning. We start off with coffee talking about the latest tennis matches and politics. We’re very into politics, so we go through the papers and check each other’s opinion on such-and-such, and then we go in to our rooms and start our own solitary work and at the end of the day, or at lunch or whatever, sometimes we just sit in the same room and work out a cut together.
Once we get the film in some kind of shape, we often just sit down together and just chew the fat, as it were.
RESTIVO: It’s been incumbent on us to be up the camera because of the breakneck pace of the production, and the only way that’s possible is two editors, simply. Thankfully, I’m working next to Claire Simpson, one of the best ever.
And her first editor’s cut is what a lot of editors’ fourth or fifth cuts look like, so I’ve got to play at that level, which is a challenge that I welcome.
Our fabulous assistants, by the way, led by first assistant Danielle al-Hindi, they have a serious job on their hands with the amount of cameras and the amount of speed changes and whatnot with what’s photographed.
They do all of the grouping and the syncing and get everything in 24 frames for us to be able to just view it. So the two of us will sit and watch the previous day’s dailies and then just say, “All right, what scene do you want?” “What scene do you want?”
Then we go our separate ways for a while and then trade our cuts and give feedback to each other.
A great thing about Ridley Scott is how respectful of editing he is. So, during the shoot, he will come and see us usually on Saturdays, and we’re a total respite for him from the madness of being on production.
So it’s a way more relaxed thing when he’s with us. One of his mantras is always: “Don’t show me till you’re ready” because he respects the process so much. So he’s letting us put the movie together and putting our spin on his vision of it.
Then he’ll come in, and the three of us will watch a short chunk or the whole thing. And he just loves out-of-the-box ideas about where the film should go at a certain point. So, it’s been a fabulous collaboration.
SIMPSON: Absolutely. It just works better that way. I think there’s no sense in crafting a room set up as a hierarchy. We all work symbiotically, from the runner to Sam and myself. Everybody has a huge contribution.
I can’t give enough praise to the assistants and visual effects people… Michael Chang, visual effects, works alongside us. He’s part of our team, and we don’t have this sense of separation.
We all work together and we all appreciate each other and what contribution each individual brings. And that’s the way it works, and it works well.
SIMPSON: Oh, thank you very much, Steve.
RESTIVO: Thanks very much, Steve, It’s really nice to meet you.