The Killer

Kirk Baxter, ACE, director David Fincher’s long-time editor, talks about the power of believing in the process, pacing, and voiceover changes on the action-packed thriller.

Kirk’s been on Art of the Cut before for Gone Girl and for Mank. He was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He won an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie for The Social Network.

He was nominated for an ACE Eddie and won an Oscar for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He was also nominated for an Emmy for House of Cards. He was nominated for an ACE Eddie for Gone Girl. He was nominated for an ACE Eddie for Mindhunter. He was nominated for an ACE Eddie for Mank and won an ACE Eddie for Love, Death, and Robots.

Thank you so much for joining me. The last time we talked was for Mank. This is a very different project than that.

Yes. David Fincher back to his punk rock status. I think I’m more at ease in this genre.

Tell me a little bit about pacing. The movie starts with a hit - a murder. Did the pace change from pre-hit to post-hit?

Yeah, it was something we spoke about. David had outlined that the movie is about process. When it’s the killer’s process - when he is in the driver’s seat - we’re going to be extremely deliberate about everything. The camera will be steady. The pacing will be steady, considered, and exacting. Continuity will rule the day.

Then when things go out of his plan - when chaos erupts - we’re going to introduce camera shake. I’m going to start to jump time slightly start - to clip action and have the freedom to kind of make it more exciting and out of control. It’s a classic thriller, horror, construction of stretch everything until you reach that point.

Most of the series of chapters or kills have this similar construction that is a stretching process - taking your time with it and then exploding into action.

There’s a great use of the voiceover line at the beginning where the killer says, “If you don’t have patience, this is not the profession for you.”

That’s definitely true for editors, too, don’t you think?

Oh, God, yeah. It’s last man standing.

Editing is also big on process. The killer is very into “This is the way I do it. I have this process. I’ve done this a million times.” And editors need that same understanding of process as well, right? Maybe things aren’t going as well at the beginning, but over the course of your edit, the process will get you there.

Yeah, I can relate to all of it. I mean, I don’t relate to being a psychopath. I relate to the faith in the process to see you through. If you follow all of your steps of survival, you will get to the other side with the result you’re after.

You mentioned the voiceover. When you were pacing out that opening before the first hit goes sideways. How were you pacing that with the voiceover? Laying the voiceover out? Laying the visuals out? Doing a little of both?

No, I would just start with the visuals on their own and then try to fit the voice to it. Voice-over is always a wriggly fish because you can keep changing it. Sometimes we would drop lines, then we rearranged it, and put it in different orders.

It’s rather pliable. We recorded voiceover with Fassbender four times and each time was getting it further and further snug to where the picture was ending up.

A lot of extra lines were written in certain areas. There was a lot of voiceover to kick it off up until the first kill or misfire. Then it started to streamline back into just a repeating of the mantra, but dropping away sections.

So the mantra got shorter and shorter as he was breaking his own rules and his own disciplines were starting to erode. So it was a much more simplistic approach at first with how much was said, and David wanted to expand upon it.

He was enjoying very much the sardonic humor that you could bring to it and a bit more insight into who this person was.

Director David Fincher, and editor Kirk Baxter, ACE

What were some of the reasons that the voiceover changed or that you decided to drop or rearrange lines?

A multitude of reasons. Sometimes they got longer. Sometimes we wrote to gaps. In the sniper scene, you’re working within frames of what can fit with blasting the music in his ears.

The Smiths song is up so high that it can’t fit voiceover so it became this rule in the movie from that scene, then sort of bled out in every direction.

Once we perfected that scene, saying, “When he’s in his POVs, what’s going on inside his head with sound?” No voiceover goes on his POVs in the movie. It all goes where the music’s not up at ten.

It needed to be paced in those gaps and it needed to fit in those sections so sometimes I could cut the shots to fit the voice, and other times I had to rearrange where the voice was landing.

Sometimes once you start with a voiceover like that, it becomes lyrical and it sort of comes out at a certain pace and you want us to to stay true to expectations of how it’s falling unless you’re deliberately playing with time. 

There was a section when the killer kind of stops and breathes and controls his heart rate and it’s a long section where you’re looking at him and there’s a nice piece of voiceover that can be put there that we weren’t utilizing, so David says, “Let’s write to this piece of film.”

And it became all about the bullet getting through stained glass of a certain thickness without losing trajectory. You could get a big, fat, meaty line in that space.

Actor Michael Fassbender in The Killer

So it was all of the above. It was me wriggling around with what I can do and sort of the mathematics of, “All right, when do I stop this?” If I start it too early -  from the time he squeezes the trigger - and if I worked my way backward on it… it was a lot of experimenting.

The first time I built it out, I didn’t even have the opposite side. I didn’t have the target. That was all shot in the studio much later. I had Fassbender’s side and I just built it out with blocked cards saying: “Maid walks across the room” and built all of that to the music and the voice.

That allowed me to get the best of the action on Fassbender’s side. 

But when you finally get the other side… well, “best-laid plans.” It doesn’t work and you’re rearranging the whole thing. I learned a long time ago with David’s stuff - well, really any form of film editing - that I’m not racing to be done.

I accept that I’m doing it again and again and I try not to have lots of versions of things. I just move forward and say, “Okay, I’m going to need to start this over.” Then Dave would say, “Let’s question the song. Why don’t we try something else?”

Then all of a sudden the edits all start changing because the music track is changing. So music changes, voiceover changes. It was a wriggly thing to pin down for me. 

I think it’s one of David’s best scenes ever and one of the strongest in the movie, and I was always pretty happy to be working on it and perfecting it. There was a moment when I kind of first really got it to work. I was very confident that it was working.

It’s not my style to send something to David with under the heading of “This is Working Now” - which is kind of what I did. I sent it to him: “I fucking fixed it!”

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

There are multiple angles of how to look at stuff, especially the POV of the target. There were five or six different angles of size you could be in. What was the scope size?

You could be in a master wide from across the street and David could give me three or four different sizes, looking through the window or getting closer.

There were a lot of variables. If I was using a gunscope thing, it became too easy to blow the guy’s head off all the time, so I had to use that sparingly. I always wanted to pair it with Fassbender’s eye up against the scope, so some of it was self-evident of where to be in the angle and some of it was not.

When I was in one of those wider shots where you’re just showing the target like a stage of the living room David’s note was: “It feels like ‘I Love Lucy.’”

Probably not what you want to hear.

It’s funny because that note gave me license to say, “Okay, start breaking the rules. Be less, I guess, pedantic about it.” But the first time it became a scene where you didn’t just get a POV following the killer’s eyeballs, I could start to cut back footage or the killer walking over to his bag.

Now you cut back to that, but he’s not owning every POV. Information can spill. And I can also cut shots together of the POV as pieces of action, so I loosened myself up to sort of say, “The goal is just for this to be cool.”

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

The other thing that makes it cool is the way the music was used based on what the POV is: whether you’re looking at the killer or whether you’re looking at the target.

Yes. I loved that. It just made everything about 100 times harder to execute and it became a super time-consuming scene. But it’s just incredibly enjoyable.

At first, I was hunting after every big guitar riff in that song saying, “I’ve got to exploit every guitar riff and they’re going to dictate the cutting pace.”  I managed to hold onto a few of them, but I couldn’t let that be the law of the jungle because what’s more important?

The performance or the voiceover or where you are in the particular story. And for me to be slave to the song at every moment was incorrect. I tried. I certainly tried.

But it sounds like you were originally not cutting to music and maybe the music changed as you went through the process.

It changed and then it went back and we had to sort of prove that the Smiths music was the right decision. So nothing else beat it. We tried so many different things. Music editor Sally Park was involved at one point and she tried classical and Brian Eno and even spilling it throughout the movie.

We did this early-eighties post-punk attempt, and then Trent Reznor chimed in and said, “Why aren’t you doing all Smiths? The Smiths is the great. Let’s go back to all Smiths.”

It was the cherry on top. Always for me, I just love playing with music: being part of choosing which tracks should go where to have the most black comedy in. It was really one of my favorite parts of doing the movie:

Dolores dying down the stairs, then hitting it with “Love… to… wish… you… a non-Happy… Birthday. I can really amuse the shit out of myself.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

Another music cue I wanted to talk about was the beginning of the movie. You’re seeing this killer surveil his target and it’s very boring. I mean, he’s saying it’s boring, right? It’s. It’s a great scene, But then there’s a moment where you realize the hit is going to happen, and there’s a music cue, which I think is score-based. Is that correct?

There’s almost no music in the opening except for two moments. We discussed it a lot. One was when the postman comes in and it interrupts this voiceover - which to me are the most enjoyable bits of the voiceover when they’re interrupted and they get cut off and they sort of teach the audience: “These are musings that are happening live. It’s not a narration placed on top.

It’s what’s rattling around in his skull at the time.” - And when that postman comes in, then we introduce score just to heighten the tension of that moment. Is he going to blow the head off this unsuspecting stranger with this high-powered rifle at close range?

It would have made quite the mess. It probably would have spoiled the whole plan. Most likely he would have had to get help. I’m sure the audience isn’t really aware of it, but it sort of comes in and it just helps boil.

Then the next cue is when he wakes up and something’s changed - the curtains have been opened - then score starts to come in. At that moment we debated it, “Do we do it?

Or do we keep it dry and not do anything until he puts the Smiths track on?” I think it does help put the squeeze on it and indicates, “All right, everybody, buckle up your sphincters, because it’s gonna get tense.”

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

Then after the hit goes sideways, he takes off on this little Vespa scooter.

It speaks to what David was trying to do with the character and what he wanted the movie not to be. There was no car that had machine guns in its lights. There was no Moneypenny.

He gets on the least masculine getaway vehicle because he wants to blend into the crowd and he sort of putters away. But the point of it was the “don’t look at me clothes,” the “don’t look at me vehicles,” the “don’t look at me seats on the plane.” He was not first class. He was not shaking martinis.

There’s a point in the story where he arrives at a beach house and the audience is left to infer what’s happening. It’s not spelled out.

No. The information in the movie just sort of slowly spills out on you. David was attracted to this idea of just dropping the audience into this genre that doesn’t require backstory.

Here’s a guy that’s on the outskirts of society, and you’re going to watch the process. We’re not giving a voiceover saying, “Hey, I’m driving home now and I’m going to be safe,” we’re leaning on Ren Klyce, the sound designer, to get a clue. 

As he gets into his car and drives away, there’s another language spoken, and it’s all very diesel-heavy in the beginning, and I’m cutting all these shots of traffic noise very quickly.

And it just gradually gets quieter and quieter and quieter. The piece of score for that moment is giving this impression of everything’s calm now, everything’s safe. Then as he pulls up to his driveway and sees the cigarette butts, that’s when that soundtrack spoils or curdles and gets cut off and now you’re slammed back into action editing again and the handheld camera gets brought back into use and the tempo increases.

You used a couple of close-ups, of course, during that opening hit scene of Fassbender’s face very close on the scope, that kind of thing, but you reserved a big closeup for an important moment in the hospital when he goes to visit his girlfriend and he makes a promise.

Early on in the process, Fincher said that the movie is all about the girl: the importance of why he pulls apart his own survival rules because he’s allowed his love interest to be harmed.

He put her in harm’s way. So that line to me was the point of the movie: “I will never allow this to happen again.” So it seemed obvious to me that it’s going to have the biggest closeup - the biggest exclamation point in terms of sizing and framing. I think most scenes as you tell them as film and as you’re telling them in size of frame, there is a choreography of space.

There’s always coverage with the way things are filmed. It’s going to be covered wide and then I’ll cleave it apart as they get closer and closer and closer into detail. But it’s up to us not to overuse that. I think each time you use a close-up, you sort of dilute its power in a scene.

I’m trying to remember from our previous discussions whether you are of the mind that when you have somebody like Fincher that’s delivering so many great setups - so many different angles and shots - that you try to not reuse them, is that correct? 

Yeah, it’s a goal of mine to not overuse things. I would love to be able to just use everything once. I don’t think that’s as important with dialogue. I do think you often just want to come back to…

…over shoulders and close-ups of the people participating in the dialogue…

Yeah, maybe over-shoulders. They’re a lot more complicated to get on the day because you have more elements in the frame and there’s more overlap with the actors.

Someone in the foreground talking at a pace that you’re not interested in and they’re more fiddly to perfect, but they just feel better always, I think, than just sitting on someone’s big close-up.

I prefer that side three-quarters of a person. I’d much rather be in an over-shoulder.  David always gets both so I’ll try to utilize everything he gives me. You don’t want to write yourself into a corner over some sort of nonsense that you’ve invented for yourself.

Actor Tilda Swinton in The Killer

Don’t stick to your own rules. That’s what got the hitman into trouble.

You use them as long as they make sense to you.

There are so many great shots. Everything is so cinematic. When you are looking at dailies, what does it mean to you to have the visual beauty of a shot?

They still are storytelling shots.

Oh sure. 100%.

It’s pretty rare in David’s movies to have a shot that’s not pushing things forward. Everything has to have its purpose. So I’m mostly looking at them as collective pieces. It’s hard for me to divorce myself and say, “Oh my God! How wonderful!”

It’s a mathematical brain that’s whizzing away, asking of each shot: “What do you do for me?” But he does have a way of shooting where even the most rudimentary shoe-leather things just fucking look good.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

How do you build tension with editing?

Some is designed in the screenwriting. But in editing, with the idea of showing a lot of detail and taking your time leading up to what’s going to be a high-impact action piece.

I think “marinating in the stretch” is building tension. More than any other movie I’ve worked on, this was one that really got to exploit that whole idea.

We’re not in a rush here until we are. That, to me is the suspense. 

Sound had a lot to do with it with this as well. We tried to not rely on score and music to always create the tension for us. In explosive action, absolutely, but most of the tension stuff leading up to something: I cut it dry.

Then Trent and Atticus sent us about 40 minutes of music pretty early on in the process, and I got to place most of the music. There was this wonderful sort of riptide undercurrent sound that almost worked like sound design. 

When the target starts to arrive in the first scene, then you sort of cue that music and it’s like, and something’s going to about to go down that’s only effective if you’ve not used it beforehand. So it’s the discipline of not overplaying the hand as well.

You mentioned sound. When the movie is in Florida, I definitely noticed the sound: bells tolling, dogs barking, insects whirring, that kind of thing. It added a great layer of dread.

I think [sound designer] Ren [Klyce] had a lot of room to move because it’s just so sparse. There’s so little dialogue and it was very reliant on Ren to sell where we were.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

Did he give you that sound design early in the process or only after you cut it? Or what did you put in to cut the scene originally?

I had assembled it - but because we knew that we didn’t want to lean on the score as much - after I had assembled the film, Fincher went and worked with Ren long before we were at a final cut.

I think they spent a few weeks up in San Francisco and came back with a really solid sound design pass of the film that I got to work with from that moment forward. It’s such a wonderful thing when you’ve got a temp mix in because it separates you from what you’ve been working on.

They kind of dusted off all my fingerprints for me and I got to see the movie and you can start to see where you’re taking your time to match and what needs to get pulled up.

I could watch it as a viewer. It gave me…

…some objectivity.

That was a much faster way to say it.

To get back to music… I just loved punching in and out of the volume of the music - from POV of headphones to blasting full.

It just became the style of the movie, and it was so successful in the sniper scene….in our opinion. We also used that technique when the killer was in the van and he was watching Delores across the street.

He’s playing music in the van dressed up as the delivery guy. It’s the same principle. It was blaring from inside the van, then using the POVs. It just sort of became a style of the movie.

It was obviously for story, but it definitely added to those cuts. It added to the power and punch of the visual cuts.

For some reason too, they seemed to allow you to sit in POVs longer. They kind of had more power and the whole thing became a bit more deadly in terms of if he’s got his eyes locked on something and we’re watching it:  “Ooh, things aren’t going to end well for you.” 

One of my favorite scenes is in the hallway when he gets up just outside the lawyer’s office and he’s doing his countdown with the door. It’s like a Swiss watch: “One, two, three,” as he’s doing his internal headcount.

And I was trying to do the same rules there with the counting. It was a fun, complicated task. The whole movie’s got very vertical sound editing. A good example of that is using both sides of the glass conversations with Dolores, where she’s laughing with the delivery guy and it’s sort of muted on his side, then you get to her side and it’s loud.

It’s just a lot of abrupt sound editing, placing everything in the perspective of the killer. So we do it visually and Ren’s doing it with sound as well.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

One of the things that I’m always interested in talking about is cinema time. There are jumps in time where you decide, “We don’t need to see him getting from here to here.” But then there are also times where you do show the shoe leather and he does walk from one place to another and he drives from one place to another or you stretch out time. Are those choices scripted, or discovered in editing?

Those sorts of things aren’t scripted. It could be a one-line thing in the script that takes 2 minutes on screen. It depends a lot on where it’s landing. If it’s in a montage-style setup, when he’s out looking for a green car with a light on top, then I’m trying to compress everything to be as quick as possible and just pack it with information.

If you sit on one shot for too long, it feels out of place in a sequence like that. But when you’re outside in the restaurant - when he’s tracking Tilde - they’re long, long shots of walking and forging his plan.

It’s really your question of: how do you create tension and suspense? It’s by marinating in it. 

That’s a good example, that scene, then writing to the scene because we want to sit in those shots for that length of time. Then David adds the extra layer asking, “Alright, let’s create a piece of voiceover here that it’s risky going in to do a kill and a public spot. And most people would be blaming the husband.”

Plus, he’s going after someone who could kill him right back.

The scene was written to be easily a third longer, there was a lot more dialogue in the hall about “We’re two samurais. You’re a craftsman. I’m a craftsman. Let’s be professional about this.”

There’s a lot more stuff about her trying to talk her way out of it, and she was terrific like she always is. I do think she’s become a prized possession for a lot of filmmakers. 

When I went the long way around (creating the scene in its full scripted form), I built the whole thing out, but the tempo was created around Fassbender doing nothing, saying nothing. He had two lines, something close to that.

I knew the parts I needed to include, but in between there were only so many times you could cut to him looking hard or not getting affected. Much like a close-up, each time you do it, it has a little bit less power.

There are these sorts of micro-movements that he uses to push it along and he’s amazing at doing the slightest little eye thing: “You’re interesting to me now” and “I’m not interested in this. I’m going to shut down.”

I use those things as the paving stones to think, “Okay, this is the best way to reduce this, by making them both equal weight, rather than being frustrated by his lack of participation.” There was a lot of experimenting and reduction in that scene. 

It was also another case of saving the close-up. There was one big, massive close-up. There’s a point when Tilda’s character tells him, “…and you missed!” and I save that close-up right for that bit. I hang in that big close-up.

You had to live in micro-movements, so I exploited them as best I could.

The Killer official poster

How do you note those? Do you use markers or something like that to say “Remember this little moment”?

I save them, select them, and stack them. I stack them in the places where I’d like to use them and then play through again which ones are the most effective. Fincher loves seeing a good alt.

Are you building the alts?

Sometimes he will give me a note: “ALTS” on PIX, so if I’m confident that I’m using the best one, I’ll show him one or two others. David’s clever with that. He can judge things without them being perfected into place. He’s not going to say, “Oh my God, you ruined the spell.

How on earth am I supposed to judge the best performance?” He can compartmentalize and compute pretty rapidly. Other times, I’ll just put a new one in.

I’m assuming you cut this in Premiere.

Yes. They’ve been incredibly supportive of what the team needs. I remove myself from the process because I’m a Luddite. Pete Mavromates, who’s the producer on the movie, is exceptional at understanding what the process is.

He’s Fincher’s long-time post-supervisor?

Yeah, though he’s more than that. I believe he’s a producer. He still is all things post-supervisor. And Ben Ensler, who has - since the end of this film - taken a job working at Premiere.

He’s now the guy that comes in and sort of sets up the pipeline. So if you’re going to use Premiere on your next movie, Ben knows everything about everything. There are a lot of people on the team there.

The stabilizing is happening in place (meaning at Fincher’s post-house). Some of the effects are happening there. There’s a lot of just handing files back and forth. I don’t really want my piano playing to be dictating what’s the best vehicle for us to drive.

I’ve been to that facility. Is that where you cut it or did you cut it home?

I cut it home when David was in Paris and when he was in the Dominican Republic. If Dave’s in the same city, I’m going to work in his office so that he can pop in and visit with me. I always find that you get subtext when you’re near each other. When I’m away from him, I just get texts… and I love the subtext.

Dave doesn’t have the interest to sit next to me and watch me edit. It’s much more about me presenting something that I’ve cooked earlier: “How do you like the taste of this?”

He pops in in the morning. Pops in whenever he’s got 10 minutes.

I find if I’m working from home when Dave’s not about, I tend to work more because I can have dinner with the family and then escape the dishes and go back to working.

Maybe I should cut that out.

When it’s knock-off time when you’re at the office, it’s about commuting and getting home and living a reasonable life, but it’s easier to abuse yourself when you’re under your own roof.

If I’m waking up at 5:30 in the morning, I could get 2 hours of work in before breakfast. You just can’t do that sort of stuff doing an office life.

Then, at one point on this film, we picked up and moved to Miraval at Brad Pitt’s.

He just set up this mixing studio that used to be on the property years ago, doing a lot of really amazing albums, and he’s revitalized and redone and created a couple of editing rooms as well.

We just went and lived in this wonderful setting. I don’t know how many weeks we worked -  very hard and very diligently, but we still had swims and drank rosé.

Director David Finch and editor Kirk Baxter

How are you working remotely? You mentioned you’re kind of hopping between cutting rooms. How is that all handled?

I wouldn’t have a clue. It’s a lot like a car. You just get in it and go. Every now and again, you need a mechanic. I started on film: assembling stuff physically. Cutting and splicing pieces of film together.

That was my assistant years. I started editing when non-linear came about, and ever since then, editing has been an arms race.

It is constantly evolving and changing. I just haven’t kept up with it. The real reason is: that I don’t have any interest.

Editing for me is more of a mind fuck. It’s about psychology. And where do you want to go? How do you want the audience to feel? I’ve always seen my role as somewhat of the fanboy that is the version of the audience that’s kind of trying to put it together for the end goal and experience it, and that’s what I’m focused on all the time.

The technical part of it doesn’t interest me. It never has.

You have your own post house, do you not?

Yes, it specializes in commercials. That’s the field I came up in.

Are you still doing short form? Is that using different muscles or do you find that one helps refresh you for the other?

In a 60-second commercial, you’ve got to exploit every frame and you’ve got to really compress time a lot. Some of them can be done really well. You get a lot of great directors working in that medium. I’ve done a bunch of commercials with Fincher.

I enjoy the discipline of the format. What changes in that world from my experience between doing movies and commercials is that in a movie, there’s one person, Fincher, and that’s all the interfacing.

I mean, on this movie, there’s a bunch of us and everyone’s helping. He’s got a pocketful of tastemakers that he’s going to show things to, and those opinions are welcome, but they’re not changing the movie unless David thinks they’re clever ideas. 

But when you work on a commercial, it’s a lot more of a blend of art and commerce. First, I make it for me, then I’m going to present that to the director, and then we’re going to show it to the agency creatives.

They have a boss and that person has a client, and then it can all reset back to the beginning again. Psychology comes into play because it’s about how you sort of navigate groups of people.

In my twenties, I was more at ease with just being a bully and I’m fine now as I’m older. I’m much better at adopting the role of: “I’m here to help” and helping can take many hats.

You mentioned that Fincher cuts spots. Is that how you met him?

No, we met on Zodiac.

Yeah, but how did you get on Zodiac?

I was editing at a company called Rock, Paper Scissors with Angus Wall who had been editing with David. They were fine-cutting a bunch of scenes based on performance and It was putting him behind keeping up with dailies, so he needed another body to do a few more of the basic scenes. That’s how I got the introduction.

Kirk, thank you so much for your time today. I hope everybody gets a chance to see this. It’s classic Fincher… and classic Baxter.

Thank you so much. Appreciate the interest.