Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with ACE Eddie-winning editor James Wilcox, ACE, about his work on the Ron Howard film, Thirteen Lives.
James won his ACE Eddie for the pilot episode of the Genius series Einstein. I last spoke with James when he edited Hillbilly Elegy, which was also for Ron Howard. He also worked on the Aretha Franklin season of Genius as well as TV, including Filthy Rich, Hand of God, Roots, Hawaii Five-O, CSI Miami, Reno 911!, Everybody Hates Chris, and My Wife and Kids. Short on time? Read our 4-minute best of recap.
Art Of The Cut with James Wilcox on editing Thirteen Lives
Dan Hanley and Mike Hill edited Ron's movies for decades. Explain how you came to be in the driver's seat here for these special films with him.
Ron and I met back in 2017. Mike Hill had already retired, and Dan was working on the movies by himself. They were about to start Genius, and the idea was that Dan would start it, and he would have a second editor since Mike was retired. Ron was used to working with a kind of trio of him and two editors. I interviewed for the job, and they agreed to hire me. Dan called me and explained that he had decided to retire and was handing the position over to me. He wanted to kind of warn me that Ron shoots a lot, and no one knew what that meant more than him. I was used to directors who shot a lot, but once I got the job, I realized what Dan was talking about. “A LOT” was in all caps! So Dan handed the entire project over to me, which he thought was going to be a really daunting task, but I was used to working in television, and any pilot that I did, I was used to doing it by myself anyway. It was really an honor because he feels comfortable enough to hand over the torch to me to work with Ron.
So Ron was in Prague shooting the show, and I started sending him cuts of scenes so we could get a dialogue going and so he could understand what my approach to the material was and what he was looking for, and if I was hitting all the beats. Within the first two days of cuts, he sent me back the most positive feedback that I ever could have gotten. So it was encouraging to keep going and doing what I was doing. He gave me reasons why he was effusive about it. It was performance choices, and it was cutting it like a movie. I think that was a big sigh of relief for him that I was cutting it like a movie, and that's how I saw the material. You could see it was shot that way, and I didn’t want to be intrusive. I've been good with performances just about my whole career, so he immediately recognized that “He’s using the best,” and he’s got a great sense of when and where we need things paced up and where things need to play out. And letting the camera do its thing and letting him — as the great director he is — seeing his work unfold. When he moved over to directing Solo (Star Wars), he deputized me when he left Genius and said that I should make sure that the rhythm and pace, and style are in place for the remaining episodes. That was a really great vote of confidence.
On that pilot, we had no notes, which is unheard of. We didn't have a single note, and it ran longer than every other episode. The show ended up with Ron, some of the department heads, and actors being nominated for Emmys, and in 2018 I won the Eddie for the work on the pilot.
That was the beginning of our relationship because Ron needed an editor and the bond between the director and an editor is so precious. I just love working with him. He is like no other person that I've ever worked with. He understands what I bring to the table and gives me the freedom to do it.
When Hillbilly Elegy came around, we talked for about an hour and a half about my approach to the material — about my ideas on the script. I had read the book in preparation for my interview, and I told him, “Look. I’m from Western Pennsylvania, and this story is taking place in Western Virginia and Kentucky. I understand that region, and I’m willing to do whatever research is necessary to bring as authentic of an approach to the story as possible. He liked that. So then he asked me if we needed to bring on a second editor, and I said that I would be okay with that because I knew he was used to working with this kind of triangle with Dan and Mike. Then he asked me if I would be okay going to New York, and I said yes. About a month or two later, I was in New York cutting Hillbilly Elegy while he was in Ohio and various parts of Kentucky and Connecticut shooting the film.
Editor James Wilcox, ACE
There are some really interesting editing challenges and ideas in Thirteen Lives. The setup needed to be very quick to get them to that opening. Was it originally longer? Did you compress it like people so often do in Act 1?
We started with a script that had lots and lots of detail. It started to reveal itself as we had the whole cut together, which eventually turned out to be close to five hours because of the long dive sequences and picking the best material dramatically for the underwater storytelling and giving Ron all of his options. Once we started cutting together — and we had some screenings — we could see the redundancy, so we wanted to get out of the gate as quickly as possible. The idea was: why don't we establish them as a soccer team? The day it is, the timeline, and the audience understands the reason they went to the cave, which was part of this birthday celebration. They had a little time to kill, and so they go to the cave, a very normal thing for young teenagers to do in Thailand in that particular area. They've done it many times before. It wasn't a bad choice or stupid choice or anything like that. Monsoon season arrived early that year, and that's what the hitch was, it wasn't forecast at all. After a while, I discovered that a journalistic approach was probably going to be best for the film. Hit the sequences, hit the scenes for what value they have, and move as quickly as possible.
A brilliant idea from one of our producers, Karen Lunder, was that we originally had the movie title up front, but that set it up as a movie. So she suggested pulling the main title and putting it at the backend, which turns out to be a brilliant decision because it keeps the momentum going and keeps the timeline urgent, and then it doesn’t feel like: “Here’s a movie.” We were trying our best from production to the finishing of the movie to never have it feel like a movie. In its DNA, it felt like a documentary. The idea is that there's so much story to tell here with so many layers and moving storylines and geography. We thought it was just important to get out of the gate and get going.
One of the things I loved was the opening tension as the rain starts to come.
The weather ends up playing this very villainous character. It's that uncontrollable element where no one can do anything until the rain subsides to go into the cave. It just makes the conditions for the rescue that much more challenging.
Can you talk about building that tension with the rain coming as the boys are in the cave?
The rain is a huge deal in Thailand. Those monsoon rains are devastating. One of the things that we wanted to do is make sure it was front and center with everything. The water was flooding from all sides into the cave. So from beneath, they had the pumping going on, which turned out not to be enough until the water engineer, Thanet Natisri, came on the scene, who happened to be in Thailand, and offered up his services. So many brilliant people had so many ideas that were just born out of necessity. He had the idea that we have to divert the water from coming down into the cave. At one point, a submarine was offered up. That was impossible because of all of the crevices and twists and turns. It had to be human power that was going to save these boys. Building the tension was working with what was always there. It was raining at the base camp. Just showing that the audience got the idea that in the backdrop and in the forefront, the rain is always going to be an issue.
Director Ron Howard on the set of Thirteen Lives
When you saw the script did you think to yourself, “I don't know how to speak Thai?”
There’s nothing in the Thai language that is part of English like some of the other languages that English came from. That was the thing that kept me up at night. How am I going to cut a movie where the first 16 and a half minutes are in Thai? At first, the post was going to be in New York, so I thought it should be easy to find a post-production assistant who spoke Thai. When we were planning on cutting in New York, I was going to use my whole team from Hillbilly Elegy, and I tasked them with finding someone. We need to find someone to help us culturally and with the language. We struck out there, and eventually, the film’s post moved to London. Now I’ve got a whole new post team, and I’m asking them to do the same thing. And THEY can’t find anyone. Now I’m worried.
It's one of the most coveted stories of the Thai people, so I felt the pressure of the entire nation of Thailand on me. How was I going to get it right?
One of the pictures that have similar characteristics and challenges was Rush. It was in Italian. My assistant editor, Simon Davis, understood the methodology from that. He also was brilliant in his organization of understanding the dynamics of the race track in Rush and the dynamics of the cave chamber geography in our movie. He was a real asset, and he came to the table with two assistants and a VFX editor. But he didn’t find me a Thai PA.
I got the script. It's in English. There's a phonetic breakdown in Thai underneath it. But I was very worried about adlibs and anyplace where perhaps an actor misspeaks. He went through every one of the setups, and he subtitled them as best and as accurately as he could. Once I got enough material assembled, I brought in a translator, and then she began to look at scenes and tell me how accurate I was cutting things.
Here’s the amazing thing. After several weeks of assembling this material, your ear begins to develop a certain kind of tonality that it can understand even though you don’t explicitly know the language. You just hear the repetition of the lines, and you understand “OK, I can cut here. I can cut there.” I can do essentially the same things I would do in English. I didn’t mess with their pacing at all. I left that alone until we got further down the line and, for pacing, tried to decide, “Can I pull air from in there or in here?”
Language is so tied to culture. There are things like this: When the Thai people greet each other, they would do this thing called a “Wai,” which is similar to prayer hands, and you lean forward slightly as a greeting. So if you’re cutting that and you don’t use the same mirroring action, then that’s rude.
Another challenge we came across was the boys are from Northern Thailand, around Myanmar and the Laotian border. The people whom we were using to translate were from Bangkok, and that dialect is so different that the translators could only roughly tell us what they were saying. To finish the film, we had to have our producers and several cast members that were from up north help us with the language on set and with the cut. One of the actors who played the birthday boy’s father is actually a film director in Thailand, so he was able to help us with the language as well on set and during post.
Now it comes time for ADR. (both laugh). This is the first project I’ve ever done where I didn’t use my voice to do scratch ADR.
I was just talking to someone about the number of times you have to do scratch ADR on a project.
Certain scenes are moving and shifting. The information is getting compressed or we need new information because we’ve cut a scene out. Here’s an example: When we first meet Saman (a retired Thai SEAL) when he first arrived, Rick and John were coming into the airport in Thailand, and Saman sees them, and they were introduced. But we cut that introduction out in post. Then later, when people are in full rescue mode, Saman comes in, but now he hasn’t been introduced to Ric and John, so we needed to identify Saman and establish his connection with the captain of the divers. I came up with a line for the dive captain to say. I told Simon to just pull ANY audio of the captain speaking. It was just a placeholder and didn’t have ANYTHING to do with what we really needed him to say. The other issue was that there was the added challenge of this being an international story. My team over in the UK would subtitle things in their way and spelling. For instance, a word like “apologise” and “colour.” and I wanted to use all American words and phrases and spellings, so there was that whole pass. Taking it from the British point of view into the American point of view. We also had to deal with measurements being in meters instead of yards or miles.
Ron — to his credit — wanted to place this story alongside what else was happening in the world. The World Cup was the big event. This is the number one news story that captured the world's attention. We had news reporters from around the world reporting on this. We had reporters in Chinese and Japanese, and Arabic. All of that stuff had to be flushed out and vetted, and our sound team, our ADR, and sound supervisor, Rachel Tate and Oliver Tarney, were brilliant. We were changing ADR quite a bit as the story was evolving in its late stages. They'd have to get that stuff translated, send the material back to Thailand for the Northern Thai translation, and then get it back in the cut so we could see it and see if we needed it.
There's a lot of handheld camera work. How does that affect you as an editor? You're not just dealing with performance, but almost the performance of the camera.
I love it for a story like this I think it's so important to take the audience on a visceral ride. Part of the visceral nature of it is the instability of handheld that leans more towards documentary and less stabilized camera work. I had to carefully decide when and where I wanted to use a focus pull because it just felt real. There's a scene where the parents realize the boys are stuck in the cave, and they decide to get in the car and go there. As they're getting out of their cars, there's a shot where the focus is off, and it pulls into focus. I loved it so much because it felt so visceral and raw. From my old days in the news, I always lean on those moments where the camera's instability works in favor of the emotion of the story. For Ron, the decision has to be made to shoot in that style early on. He's been doing some outstanding documentaries, and some of that influence has crept into some of his feature work.
The decision to use it really depended on the scene. I thought it was quite effective because when we go into the cave with the divers, there's a camera on a crane. It goes from underwater to the surface. Then some cameras were at water level with the divers. There are three or four cameras here, so I can pick any setup that I want, but I always wanted to use a subjective approach because most people, even the divers that I talk to, have never done cave diving. The camera work added to the visceral nature of what those divers and the boys had to experience going in and out of the cave.
But handheld camera work also defines specific places where you can cut because of the movement. If we’re cutting this interview of the two of us, which is both shot with stationary cameras, you can cut anywhere you want. But if it’s handheld, you now are dealing with the transition point of the edit and the movement that the cameras are doing coming in and out of that edit point.
There can be a bump there if you’re going from motion and movement to something that’s a little more static. But my workaround is to just worry about the moments I love and to use them. If I’m going from movement to something that’s not moving so much, I've found over the years to always lean on what the material suggests is best. I’ll put a little resize on it and put a little creep on the shot, so there’s some motion going to some movement, and you still get some rhythm going in there. If needed, I can even send it over to VFX for them to add some camera shake to it. I wait on that until I know that shot’s going to end up in the movie, but if I’ll see that rhythmically we need a little something here. I always go for whatever's best and then manipulate what I need to for the rhythm of that sequence.
Sometimes jarring is a good thing. There are cuts that I made in here that normally I wouldn't make, but the jarring nature of it felt right, because it’s easy where we get into a certain rhythm of our own that can lull people to sleep. Sometimes you need a percussive kind of sound or a percussive kind of cut that gives you a feeling.
There are instances in the film where we go from underwater or in the cave to up on the mountain. I would cut to the tightest shot that I could find of the water raging towards the camera and really have it bang in there almost like a gunshot so that it wakes you and lets you feel the violence of the water. Our sound supervisor and our mixing team got it. A film like this that uses such restraint and relies so heavily on sound design, the rain, the water, the tanks clanging, the scraping, the guys bumping their heads, going into the caves, and all these things that are rare opportunities for them in a world that the audience is most likely to never experience on their own. Those things are the opportunity of a career for them. I was right on board with them about when and where we should try and spot music and when and where we're going to just let it go to the raw sound design.
You alluded to it a little bit the murkiness of being underwater and the fact that it's pitch black. Talk to me about trying to give the audience that sense of geography.
The geography was interesting. To Ron’s credit, he had the divers enter the cave right to left, and the exits were always left to right. That's the basic idea. Of course, there are times when the camera is center-punched, and the divers are coming towards us, or we're over the diver's shoulders, and we're experiencing what the divers are seeing. The general principle was the divers are always entering that cave, going right to left and returning left to right.
As an added reinforcement of that for distance, time, and direction, we overlaid the graphics. The red dot on the graphics shows you where the divers are, and the red lines show you where they're going. That was very helpful for the audience to understand. So you have to figure out the balance visually between what the divers were able to see and not able to see and what we can show the audience that best illustrates the task, the difficulty, and the objective. As we got the film, we can start turning over sequences for VFX to get some early looks at what's working because we added murkiness to the tank footage of the divers. What level of murk works? Where is current needed? Where is debris in the water where silt kicks up? What were the divers able to see and NOT able to see? What could we show the audience that best illustrates the difficulty of the objective? Because really, for the divers, it was just pitch black.
On top of that, we needed to have the divers vet that. How honest is the on-screen presentation of it versus what they experienced? At one point, my cut was down to about 2:45, and we brought Rick Stanton in to watch our cut. We were doing a spotting session with the composer while Rick watched the cut in a screening room. And we came into the room as he finished watching it, and I thought — as he turned around — “This is the guy. This is THE guy. A real-life hero that saved 13 people.” He has this big grin on his face. He said, “Ronnie, I love it.” We asked him about the murkiness and currents and the underwater stuff, and he said, “Don’t do a thing. You’re right there.” So from then on, that was our baseline for the murkiness and vision of what the divers were seeing.
What about the intercut between in the cave and out of the cave? Was that all as scripted, or did you find you needed to break it up more?
Some of it was scripted, but as we began to cut down this massively long story, we found that the scenes when we were leaving the cave and going back to the mountain didn't have the urgency we needed. With the timeline, it acted as this sort of governing agent to keep us on pace for the rescue. Sometimes originally, we had a scene in between a cave scene and a mountain-top scene, but we figured that we needed to pull those out because there was a one-to-one relationship between what was happening in the cave and above the cave. The water flooding down from the mountain is directly impacting what the efforts are and what's going on inside the cave. They're running out of time inside the cave because the monsoon rains are predicted to come heavier and more constant, so there's a ticking clock with the rain pouring down. A lot of it was scripted, but I have to give Ron the credit. He made the stuff he was shooting up on the mountain just as important as everything else that was going on in the cave.
How did you determine jumps in time? You've gotta decide when to cut forward. Talk to me about choosing those jumps and holds in time, like jumping past the arrival at the airport.
I think it was all determined by the day what was happening. It also had to do with really my idea of eliminating redundancy. Once we saw the divers go in and they find the boys, now we know that's possible to get to the boys. The dilemma now is how you're gonna get them out. If we've already seen the way that they go into the cave, then on the next approach, we can just see different aspects. What’s different about one dive and another dive? So we can jump forward in time and not repeat ourselves, which has to be a key component of keeping the audience engaged in a movie because if you continue to see the same pathway dive going in, it flattens out, and it gets boring. We never wanted the audience to feel comfortable even after the first rescue. The time jumps were really driven by what was happening on that day.
Ultimately we needed to get to those last three days. Day 10 was important because it was the first day that they were found. As you get to days 16, 17, and 18, you can accelerate that more and more as you get to each of the boys. When we got to day 18, Ron wanted to sell the fatigue that the divers have gone through. It's very exhausting. We found this bit of news from a Thai report that says, “They're at war with water.” One of the reporters said that. It was a great piece of news as the guys are coming out and deciding if it was okay to go back into the cave. Ultimately Rick Stanton says that they've got no other choice. Each day should present a different challenge. The challenge of the first day of the rescue is with the divers and the boys and the complications they've had. It just intensifies it that much more. They've been drugged to go out, so the question is, are they gonna wake up in the middle of it? Were they given too much? What happens if they don't have enough? There are all these things that I learned that are far more complicated than we were ever able to show.
Thirteen Lives project timeline
I have a question about how complicated this rescue was and how the audience understands how impossible this is. Talk to me about making sure what was in the script stayed in the editorial process.
I do a lot of research when I do a biopic. I try and talk to people who have done the thing that we're doing the story on. And in general, I also want to know what people — typical audience members — remembered. What most people remember was that the boys went into the cave and got stuck. They remember someone died, and they remember how they got the boys out. That was part of Ron's whole messaging of the anatomy of a miracle. It is miraculous that this medical procedure worked along with this crazy idea to even do it. All of those things are complicated.
We cut to the sequence of Joel Edgerton's character, Dr. Harry, trying to distract the boys so he can give him the shot. He has to give him this pill that controls the saliva, so you don't choke to death in a surgical procedure where you're breathing has been affected. So I have to learn all these things. There's a very detailed shot sheet that I was given of what these beats are. I didn't know a lot about these procedures and medical things. I cut it initially to be cross-cut so we could accelerate. You show a little bit of the procedure with the first boy, cut to the second boy having similar procedures done on him, then you cut back to the first. Now you bring along the third, and you cut back to the first, and you bring along the fourth, and so on. I was always worried about underwater confusion because most of the boys looked alike, especially once they were underwater. The first boy was all we needed to see to understand the degree of difficulty with getting that boy out. Ron saw that and thought it really worked. The first boy was so engaging. It’s all we needed to see to understand the degree of difficulty and the process.
One of the things that I want people to understand is that this was the biggest challenge of my career. I think we pulled it off. It's been well received in Thailand to critics and the audience. It's got a great message of what people can do and what mankind can do under the most stressful situations. I'm just happy that it turned out so well. Despite going through 382 hours of footage, we were able to get a damn good story out of this thing. Very intimidating, but I loved every minute of it. Some days we had more hours of footage than the hours in my shift. It all ends up being about people and how we can come together under the most adverse circumstances and help one another. It is an amazing story, and for me, I'm just happy to be a part of it. Maybe the hardest part of it for me was being in London without my family, away from America for 10 months.
It's a very powerful story. Thank you so much for your contributions to it.
It’s always an honor to be on your podcast. I listen to the other podcasts, and it’s inspiring to hear what other editors’ challenges are and the impact that editors have in storytelling.