Art of the Cut with Nicholas Monsour the Editor of Nope
Nicholas also edited Peele’s previous film Us. Additionally, his work includes the features Keanu, Action Point, and Last Looks. He’s also edited TV series, including The Twilight Zone, Whiskey Cavalier, Cobra Kai, Brockmire, and, of course, Key and Peele. Short on time? Read our 5-minute best of recap.
One of the things that I wanted to talk about in Nope is how much is not shown. I thought that was really interesting. It's almost like the Jaws concept of "never show the shark." You don't see things early on. I don't think this is a spoiler, but someone important dies very early on and you don't actually see it happen. You're on the other character when somebody dies. Talk to me about why those decisions were made.
MONSOUR: I think that's really an astute observation because Jordan [Peele] really gave himself a challenge with this film to make something that operates as really entertaining, really exciting, and also respects the things about the medium and storytelling that he finds most interesting and engaging as a filmmaker. To try and do all of that at once was really exciting.
There's a certain amount of that in the script in terms of the desire to see more and to capture an image, for the audience to be playing along with that and going along on that same ride that our characters are going on of trying to understand, get a closer look, and trying to capture that image for whatever reason; which hopefully makes us as a viewer think about our own desires a little bit more or at least be more aware of them. It makes you ask why you wanna see it and what you want it to be. So, it puts a little bit of pressure on it in hopefully an interesting way.
Then, I think he also made a really great decision with Hoyte [Van Hoytema], the cinematographer, to really root most or all of the movie in a specific character's point of view, so you really get to see what our characters get to see. We break that only very occasionally. You wanna feel it when the camera is liberated from that. It should feel exciting.
I think a trap that some action or sci-fi can get into is building a whole world or creating some unique thing no one's seen before, so you want to see it from every angle, up close, far away, upside down, and everything. That can take some of the mystery and wonder away. I know Jordan was extremely interested in capturing some of the wonder he felt at watching movies that were really important to him growing up.
Did he give you a list of things that he wanted you to watch of the things that inspired him? Were there things that he asked, "Oh, have you seen this? Can we talk about this? Maybe you should go watch this."
MONSOUR: I think he's really respectful and careful to not pollute his collaborator's minds with everything he's thinking about so that from the get-go, we're all locked into trying to just color within the lines. He does want us to bring our own references and things that we might be reminded of, whether it's visual art, music, other films, or fiction, any of that which sparks different things for different people when you're seeing the footage or when you're reading the script.
Also, I've worked with him on a number of projects now, so I think I have an idea of some of the big formative elements or formative films and filmmakers that I know played a part in his love of film and want to be a director.
There's no denying that if you're gonna make a big action movie that's a little bit scary and with interesting fleshed-out characters that are really fun, you have to deal with a few directors. You have to be aware of what they've done, what audiences are aware of, and respect the originality of those works while trying and bring your own originality to it. We definitely couldn't have made it through the whole edit without talking about Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Alien, Aliens, The Abyss, or a number of other genre films that felt incredibly original, exciting, and innovative when they came out.
The one film that he did gather the whole crew to watch before production was a tip of his hat to his collaborators at Universal, King Kong , the original, in a theater.
MONSOUR: The original because there are multiple versions of the Kong story, obviously, but we went back to watch the black and white original with all the stop motion effects and miniatures.
Again, he didn't wanna fill us up with his own way of thinking about everything, but I believe his intention behind that was to have us look at what we're doing in a historical context, to think about how the movies that people love and watch are always tied to the time and place that they live in. There was kind of a gauntlet thrown saying, "They could do this a hundred years ago almost. What are we gonna do that's going to be as exciting and terrifying to people?” That was the challenge.
Also, what can we learn from this film that maybe it wasn't aware of that should have been more aware of in terms of its role in its own society?
I had not thought of it until you mentioned it, but I could definitely see the parallels to Close Encounters.
MONSOUR: It's such a loaded scenario, right? People encountering life from another planet for the first time. We're so loaded up with other stories about that and ways that could go, and you come in loaded up with assumptions of either, "That's gonna go really badly. Uh, oh. It's probably dangerous," or "Maybe there's a communication that can happen," and that's the Close Encounters version or the E.T. version. It's interesting how those trends shift and, what it says about any given time in our culture, how we're thinking about an encounter with a completely different intelligence or species.
My first question about not seeing everything is at the beginning where you see this chimpanzee with bloody hands and you don't get to see why they're bloody or how they got bloodied because the point is the perspective, right? The perspective of the character and also wanting to reveal it later.
MONSOUR: Definitely, and sections like that where we give a glimpse are a perfect example of when it is a POV angle, but you only learn that later. For a moment, you're not tied into a character's subjectivity. It's just an image coming to you directly from a filmmaker. Those moments get intense scrutiny in terms of the frame, the sound treatment, and the audience experience because they're not the norm in the movie. They really do carry a different weight because they come as a direct communication between the film and the filmmaker.
That said, the bloody chimpanzee was completely added by Jordan later on in the edit based on a continuous grappling he was doing from the beginning to the end of how to balance the themes and inject the themes in specific ways into the movie. He knew he had these kinds of powder keg moments and scenes that he had written in, and the fallout of when they explode in the movie was something he was always balancing right up to the end of the edit. It was a great feeling when it did gel.
This was a really interesting project as an editor because, like I was saying, it's a very loaded scenario. It was so original in terms of the setting, the characters, and the meta nature of dealing with Hollywood and image making. In a way, I haven't quite seen it done from the below-the-line angle. There's so much originality in it that.
I did feel like I had to do a bit of detective work—even though I know Jordan and I've worked with him before—to really get to the tone that he was thinking of. There was an immense amount of collaboration where I would hear what he had worked on with the composer and that would give me a little bit more information that helped me understand a little more about the specific shading of mystery, excitement, fear, or elation that's happening in this scene for Jordan.
He would communicate this to me, but there's a nonverbal way you get it too when you see the footage the first time, when you hear the music, hear what he's working on with the sound designer, or see a new concept visualized by the visual effects team. It was a lot to figure out throughout because it's a really unique tone, and you don't get to rely on a lot of the tropes that you might think you would in a UFO blockbuster movie.
Was the storyline we were talking about with this chimpanzee not originally written into the script?
MONSOUR: There is a whole storyline that ties into our present-day storyline, involving a chimpanzee and a sitcom, which was always in the script, but the idea of introducing it as flashes at the beginning of the movie was a later adjustment that Jordan came up with when we were boiling the story down to rhythm really in terms of, "How long does it feel? How distant do certain images feel by the time you reach new scenes and new revelations in the movie?” That's just a balancing act, like cooking. You're highlighting certain flavors as you go, and you're boiling things down as the thing takes shape. That was a later discovery from Jordan.
That was one reason why I was talking about having to make discoveries along the way or do a little detective work is because that whole sequence with the chimpanzee is one that felt so bold when I read it and made so much sense to me conceptually, but is such a really daring gesture in a movie that is as generous to the audience in terms of fun and excitement. It is also demanding. You have to think about it. You can't just tune out during that section. You have to think about some of the themes and try and put it together in your own head a little bit, and that felt really bold.
I was trying to be aware to always show Jordan all the options I could think of but be completely open to throwing out anything I thought was working when he had a brain flash of trying something different. Even though I might be tied to something that I had made 30 or 40 versions of or whatever, it didn't matter because if he had an intuition, I had to immediately try and help him construct it in the edit so that he could test his intuitions.
It's all experimentation, so I feel like a lab assistant or something. A lot of the time, I just have to mock up what he's imagining or feeling because we're feeling our way to the right movie as much as thinking it.
I always think that's an interesting idea when you are experimenting with the director's vision of what he's trying to accomplish. Even if you try something that doesn't work, you've accomplished something.
MONSOUR: Absolutely. You have to think about it like that because there is so much work involved. There are so many dead ends and things you could consider a waste of time if you didn't know that you would never have gotten to the end without those steps.
MONSOUR: That's what is brilliant about working with Jordan — and especially as he takes on bigger and bigger challenges with every movie — is he's not getting more rigid in his ways. He's challenging himself. He's always coming in every day with fresh eyes. Somehow he resets and thinks about it fresh, which can be challenging if you let yourself get too tied to something you thought was working. He's always open to hearing that, but the real way is to give everything its day in court, as they say.
Did you ever try to completely eliminate or almost eliminate the chimpanzee section?
MONSOUR: Well, I did, when I first read the script. Actually, before I read the script and he just told me this story. Then, maybe the only thing I really noted in the script was I said, "That is going to be the thing we are wondering if it belongs there? Should it move? How long should it be?" Because it definitely calls the most attention to itself. There are other parts of the movie that I think do that as well, but in a big, obvious way, it breaks the chronology. We definitely debated the placement and timing.
He also definitely has in mind a whole other set of filmmaking language that he loves and thinks about and I think incorporates into his films that brings a level of maturity and adult-level enjoyment like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and a number of other filmmakers I would let him name as his influences. I think he wants his films to work on all these levels because he wants people to enjoy them on those levels.
If you are watching an amazingly fun action movie or alien movie, that's great, but you might tune out a little intellectually. I feel like he's trying to make things that people enjoy on all of these levels in a really generous way because that's the movie he wants to see.
This was a really interesting project because despite working on all these incredibly demanding formats of IMAX film, 65mm, Atmos sound, IMAX sound, and all the visual effects, he still went in with a core story. Then, when they built all these incredible environments and had these incredible actors, they played around and invented stuff on the day. They went kind of maverick and gonzo out there in Agua Dulce and shot a lot of things that aren't in the finished edit, obviously. Sort of like how in the edit, we have to go down a lot of cul-de-sacs, they did that in the shoot and it resulted in scenes taking shape in ways that they hadn't on the page or in the production meetings or in the previs.
They did it all respectfully and while keeping an eye on the budget and the time, but they used what freedom they had really wisely, which meant during the edit there were a lot of tough decisions because it wasn't slotting together A to Z. It was moving a lot of pieces around and trying things, watching the whole movie, sleeping on it, coming back and saying, "You know what? I do miss that one angle. I do miss that one breath at the end of that word. I do miss all these things," or, "I don't need that anymore. That's now sticking out to me even though I loved it a week ago."
Although I could see why — especially if you're trying to summarize the movie in your own head — that [chimpanzee] storyline pops out, but I think without it, the movie loses a big part of its core feeling of being mischievous, of saying something about the darker side about spectacle, media, film, fame, celebrity, and all of those themes that are in there. I think it would lose a big part of the honesty of the movie.
Music is so important to this film — which I would call a horror film in many ways, although it's a UFO alien story. Talk to me about the music choices. How did you use temp score? Obviously, Jordan was talking to the composer, so you were getting stuff you didn't even request necessarily, but that he had requested. What was that process like?
MONSOUR: Jordan's firing on all cylinders from the moment he decides on a project. He starts writing, he talks to me, he talks to Michael Abels, and he's talking to cinematographers or Hoyte. It all starts all at once and the pieces all start falling into the bucket. There are early conversations where we're all sort of excited, but confused. Then, things start to emerge as we see the script, as we see who's cast, and as we put all these pieces together.
He's worked with Michael Abels now on Us and Get Out, so I have some idea of how Michael approaches these things, how he talks about music and film music, and I also know that Jordan likes to go into production with a bit of a musical palette already being discussed with Michael. That said, this movie is definitely the most experimental one, I think, compared to Us and Get Out. He remained open and there was a fearlessness in how often we were just like, "Nope, scrap that, let's go again. Let's try a new thing."
Occasionally, we would go back and dig through the scrap pile to find something that we actually did realize worked, but there were a lot of musical ideas. Michael's an incredibly versatile composer. We have yet to put any temp in there that he doesn't beat or capture the essence of why it was there. He doesn't copy temp music, but he captures the essence of why we were interested in it, usually in a surprising way.
It's a dialogue back and forth where once the music starts to take shape from Michael, it might mean we're recutting a little bit to work with that music. We're all working towards the same goal of the storytelling and not letting any stylistic element of music, sound, or visual effects dominate in a way for the sake of dominating or for the sake of being super cool. That's built into the idea of the story already, so we're just trying to push that forward. We would continue to work on and adjust the sound effects and the music in the edit.
The way I started was — as we've talked about before — really DIY and involved art videos, indie stuff, and using Final Cut to do all the music, the sound, the temp VFX in After Effects, and all that. So, I've had to learn a lot about delegating and taking things off of my plate. One thing I really wanted to make sure was that our sound designer, Johnnie Burn, and our composer, Michael Abels, really didn't feel like they didn't get their first swing at it because we had already crystallized the sound of music exactly.
We brought Michael in obviously early and I tried to give him as many of our rough edits dry as possible, where it wasn't misleading. There are definitely sections that are musically driven, where it would be misleading not to have something there to signify that if we hadn't at least discussed that. We did the same with our sound designer, who came on actually in pre-production, helping to strategize how we would deal with a number of big challenges in the movie. One is being shot on incredibly loud IMAX cameras that make production recording a challenge. Another is, making sounds for things that do not exist in the world and you have to invent from scratch.
As well as a sort of dance with the music in sections as there are at times, hopefully, in Nope where the goal was — and I feel it in the final mix — that sometimes you're getting a really musical feeling from the sound design emotionally. Sometimes you're getting a very sound-designed feeling of atmosphere or psychological effects from the music, so they also had their own conversation, all under Jordan's puppet mastery.
You mentioned Michael Abels is a regular collaborator musically for Jordan. Did you get score early in the cut or were you truly dropping temp stuff in? Because there's a lot of Western-themed stuff. Were you temping with Western stuff, or did you actually get that from the composer?
MONSOUR: Both. So I think the best way I can describe it is Jordan and I will work together, like I said, through production when I'm putting together the first versions of scenes, and they're shooting all out of order and there are tons of shots without VFX. So, there are slugs in there and there's previs cut in and all of that.
I tried to present and make as much of it work rhythmically without the music, partially because I didn't yet know what the score of the movie sounded like. The way they filmed it didn't scream, "He is going exactly this way or that way musically." It was really open to interpretation. So, partially out of not wanting to set our course before I understood it too much, a lot of the first stuff was dry and then Michael would start working on that.
Basically, when I'm working with Jordan, we're trying stuff. I'm throwing temp, I'm using Michael's music from other films with Jordan, then he'll go in and work with the music editor and with the composer, or we'll all go in there depending on what else we're trying to do that day or week and they'll throw it out or try something else. Maybe I'll then hear what they're working on in that section. It's this back and forth that goes on pretty much until they start arranging to record the score. Things are getting recombined and themes are getting developed.
Some tent poles emerge musically, so the big Western action cue that is near the end of the movie and the climax is actually a piece that Jordan heard of Michael Abels, the composer, before he tapped him to do Get Out. It was a thing that he knew Michael Abels could do and had in mind when he was working on the script for that part. So, that was a tent pole we always knew was there, so you could imagine how the other music would play against that.
That, as well as the needle drop and other music choices that are in the movie, start to form this palette that plays together once you watch a mix in a preview and then you feel like, "Okay, now I'm feeling maybe like we could beat that section," or, "This is feeling slightly overscored or underscored." The phases were very blurred together throughout the entire edit. There wasn't a strict, "Pictures done. Now you score it." It was constantly moving together.
You mentioned sound effects and how you wanted to give the sound designer and the composer a sandbox that didn't have a sandcastle in the middle of it. Talk to me about how difficult it is that you don't have that to rely on. There are certain scenes where I would think, "Man, I need sound design to know how long I can sit on this shot."
MONSOUR: Right. I should definitely caveat what I said because if Johnnie Burn or Michael Abels are listening, they'll go "Uh, no." I know Jordan wants to be able to walk into the edit bay and talk about music and talk about sound, and he wants to be able to walk onto the sound stage when I'm there and start talking about the picture edit. Not because he doesn't know the process, but there isn't really any reason we can't all talk about those things. He prefers it to be this group discussion where the best ideas emerge.
Of course, I had to have 40 tracks of audio and fully fleshed out ideas for these scenes with temp music. They were just muted in turnovers, and Michael or Johnnie could decide to click 'em on or not. You could hear what we'd been messing with. Weekly or biweekly throughout production and then every day through the edit, basically, I would talk with them once or twice, more so with Johnnie because Michael would have to step away and go compose and spend that focus time, but Johnnie's always in there tweaking like I am, moving tracks around and auditioning new sounds.
So, we would touch base all the time and I would let him know why we were exploring something slightly different in the offline or edit audio tracks, or Jordan would tell him and then he could put that in his pipe to smoke and what would come out the other side would be some weird hybrid.
So, we had two different sound mixes running the whole time. One, my best I can put together in the Avid, and then his glorious Atmos thing he's working with on the stage. Of course, we had to keep developing it throughout.
Johnnie was very understanding of me trying things and was also aware that he had license as the collaborator with Jordan to try absolutely anything else he thought made sense. We would also talk about the edit. He would give me thoughts on the edit as he was working on the sound. I'd give him thoughts on the sound as we were working on the edit. So, it felt very egoless in a lot of ways.
Very nice. One of the things I noticed as an editor is that there's a flatbed in the movie.
MONSOUR: That was particularly fun. Yeah. We talked about that immediately because I thought, "That's so interesting." I was already salivating about the idea of editing editing. There's a lot more material where that came from. Like I said, as soon as they created an environment, they really explored it in the footage and the performances. Michael Wincott really gets into that whole process. Then, you figure out that when you're watching the movie keeping Michael Wincott's character a little mysterious and maybe not fully understanding him feels more exciting in the story we're telling.
So, they found that flatbed that's a Prévos — which I think is an Italian flatbed editor — and it has that extremely stylized fancy espresso machine or sports car look to it. It was still working. There's a great company in Burbank that still has these things and maintains them. I believe they actually use a Prévost on Christopher Nolan's movies still. It's his preferred flatbed editor.
We knew we wanted the actor to actually be able to take a reel of film, throw it on there, mark it, cut it, and splice it. He sat there and learned how to do that with the flatbed editor, and that was a lot of fun to film and put together as well as the archival material which we had to find and put together for him to be looking at and working with.
That's very interesting. I don't actually remember a lot of jump scares in this movie. There are one or two, and that's about it. Is there a key to either building up to a jump scare or doing the jump scare?
MONSOUR: You're in good hands when you have Jordan writing it and filming it because a lot of it is gonna come down to the framing, the lighting, and stuff you don't get to control as the editor necessarily.
At the risk of talking about scientific things I don't fully understand, I know that there are electromagnetic rhythms that people have because your heart has a little bit of electricity and your brain has a little bit of electricity in it, and I know I've heard about or read about experiments where over time if you put people together next to each other there's a bit of syncopation or synchronization that can happen. I don't think that's literally what's going on, but I do think that you start to internalize rhythms when you're watching.
That's what's really exciting about a feature-length project to me is that it's long enough that you get to embed rhythms in people. If you're really paying attention and sinking into a movie, you then have the opportunity to subvert that rhythm that you have set up. So, I think it can start quite a ways back before the jump scare or the moment you want to really be startling to somebody to set up the rhythm that you're then subverting probably at that moment.
I think people are very savvy and familiar with the different types. There are types where that moment comes when you're expecting it. Maybe you've left a part of the frame empty for too long, so people expect something to emerge. Maybe you've been always cutting on action and then you leave a shot past the action so that it calls attention to itself. People expect that. Then, you subvert that by hitting them right at the moment after they expected when they've maybe relaxed just a bit, or you hit them right before, or sometimes it's funny now to do it right at the moment they expect it because they're not expecting that [laughs].
I think it's actually a real live part of filmmaking where it really depends on what people have been watching very recently, how much they've been watching, and how they watch things, which is maybe why horror remains a sort of a playground for some more experimental filmmaking techniques. You have to be really up to date because it all has to do with your expectations of what you're gonna see. I don't know that there's a rule as much as just being aware of the audience's expectations and messing with that.
That's a great point. We started out talking about the things that aren't shown. I was curious about two things that I was wondering if they were written in and got edited out. One is a horse statue that is seen earlier as part of an old west town. Later on, at least a very similar-looking horse shows up on the ranch, and it's either stolen or it's not stolen but you don't know it because you didn't see it.
MONSOUR: Well, I guess my question would be, "Do you think it was stolen? Or what do you think happened?"
I think it was stolen.
MONSOUR: So, I guess that's sort of my answer. I think you know what happened, and I think part of Jordan's ethos in the movie was to give the audience that credit. I guess there are certain moments where you wanna be absolutely certain you haven't left anyone behind, but I think he knows that people really enjoy being pointed to keep an eye out and look where we linger, look what's in the frame, look what you don't get to see, look what you do get to see, and then do the math yourself. I think the idea is that that's another kind of fun and satisfaction you can have when watching a movie.
Right. You don't need to know whether it was stolen or not.
MONSOUR: No, and it is actually surprising for a movie, like I said, where they shot and wrote so much more than they needed and we were honing it down because that was never shot or written. That's a very intentional thing. If they had, I'm sure there's a really funny scene you can imagine with Kiki Palmer sweet-talking the Western theme park employee into helping her load an aluminum horse into her trailer, but it's almost funnier in your head maybe.
Yeah, maybe so. The other one that I was curious about is: do you ever see the children of the owner of the old west town? Do you ever see his kids before their “big scene” in the movie?
MONSOUR: They appear in the final edit on a poster when you first go into the office of the theme park owner, Steven Yeun. The sequence starts with a close-up on a reality TV poster that he and his family are now in, that I think is the only time you see them currently. That is one where they had made a couple of peripheral appearances in other moments that were cut by the final edit.
These are things that I think through testing and through watching with other people who hadn't seen it, we tried to gauge how these things play out. Jordan is always bringing in the actors to watch the cut and trusted people to watch the cut. He has very good instincts about when people have annoying confusions or things they feel are left out of. But I'm always curious once it gets let out in the world. I would wonder, was that confusing to you?
It wasn't confusing to me because as soon as the kids are introduced, it's immediately explained who they are, but you don't have any setup for them.
MONSOUR: I see.
Which is storytelling. Do you need to set them up or do you not need to set them up?
MONSOUR: Yeah, I'll say it was never overt. There's a big misdirect in that scene, but I think there are enough cues that throughout, you're thinking, "Hold on a second. This isn't probably what's happening. It's almost not the right point in the movie. This doesn't feel right for some reason."
I can see what you mean that to fully work out what was happening from the get-go, you may be one little step ahead of it or there might be a little bit more detective work you get to do, but Jordan never really planned it that way. I think if anything, afterward, you still have the same "oh" moment, and the intention of that scene is to really go on that ride and then laugh at yourself for going on that ride afterward, more than being a step ahead of it.
Right. If you'd gotten it, then you wouldn't have gone on the ride, and you don't wanna be behind the audience. You don't want the audience to be ahead of you in figuring out what's about to happen or what just did happen.
MONSOUR: Definitely. I think Jordan is just really always trying to make sure people don't feel like he thinks they're dumb. He's really trying to operate at the level of somebody who loves movies and wants to love the movie they're watching as much as they can. That said, you do have to try and say objective when watching because they did film a lot of those details and there is a lot more of this world in the footage.
It's intoxicating because the craft in it is incredible, so you do have to gain a sort of ruthless sobriety when working on it to think, "I'm sure a lot of people would love to see all of this," but there's a bigger task here to make something that feels as iconic as Jordan wants it to be so that it doesn't have any obvious pieces that fall off it necessarily.
That's what happens with a lot of fan material is they listen to these interviews sometimes and they think, "Oh, there was a four-hour editor's cut. I wanna watch that," and you're thinking, "No, you really don't."
MONSOUR: Jordan is very candid about this all being about culture and pop culture and a dialogue happening. His movies are intentionally getting bigger to be able to talk about ideas in a really intuitive way.
There's a part in which the marketing and the theme park ride that you can now go on to this Western town is all sort of part of this project. Hopefully, the movie stands on its own without knowing about that stuff, but there is a part of it that's this bigger pop cultural experiment intervention guerilla tactic. They designed custom Icee cups. They really went into weird avenues of pop movie culture in a funny way and in an aware way, I hope.
If and when this extra material ever does see the light of day after watching the movie, I think there is something interesting to that because the movie's partially about movie making, so the idea that there's this other stuff which then you could keep digging into is interesting. But you do still have to figure out what that one first viewing is and how that works the best to not tax your patience.
As you said, it's about movie-making. They're on the set of the sitcom and I'm thinking, "Oh, that looks like an authentic craft services table there."
MONSOUR: Absolutely. The detail is absolutely amazing in there.
Or the interactions between people on the set and how they think and feel about the other people that are on the set. It's all very authentic and very real.
MONSOUR: Definitely. It's actually funny to me. How many movies try that and can't do it, considering it's the thing people know the best working on a movie, but it's actually really tricky to boil it down to tiny little moments of interaction that feel like they represent the way that system works in a bigger way. It's hard to do, especially in a funny way, but that was fun to work on.
Were you working remotely through this, or how were you working?
MONSOUR: This was my first job back in an office after working from home for a while, and we talked a lot about the best way to do that safely and responsibly. It was worth figuring out the safest and best way that we could be interacting in person and organically if possible. After working with Jordan on Us, just knowing that he loves this big tent conversation to happen, that can happen remotely — and it did in a lot of cases — but we always liked the idea of this kind of atelier setting where in one corner the sound's happening over there, the music's happening, the picture's happening there, and they're talking about the theme park ride over here. It's all swirling around.
I think it's a really creative atmosphere that we all like. We tried to get as close to that while using HEPA filters, wearing masks, not congregating in one spot to all eat lunch and all of that sort of thing. We tried to be safe about it and everybody was being tested, but it was cool to be back in an office. I think there is a part of it that you can't ever replicate virtually.
I was working on the Taika Waititi movie, Next Goal Wins when the COVID lockdown happened, so I worked on that from home and then did a TV series and did passes on two features from home. Anyway, I did a number of jobs from home and got pretty used to it and comfortable. It has huge advantages, obviously, in terms of work-life balance, but there is a part of that group collaborative atmosphere that is hard to replace, so it was worth jumping through all the safety hoops to make that happen.
Before COVID, we were talking about this movie when we were working on Us and we were talking about how we would like to set these things up. Jordan is always thinking about not taking anything as a given on how movies are made. He's always looking at it critically, as I hope I am too. We've always talked about, "I would rather that we didn't have to go there to do this. It would be better if this was happening in one meeting rather than two." So, we wanted it to feel like that. There were, of course, limitations with space and with how many people you would wanna get together all at once because of COVID.
Also, Johnnie Burn is based in the UK, so we were figuring that out for part of it. Then, he ended up coming out to do a preview mix, and, God bless him, he ended up being here for the entire rest of the project just because it was great having him here. He ended up living on the dub stage — not literally — but we weren't only on the stage for the mix. He was on the stage pretty much for the entire process being able to work in a theatrical setting, which was great.
So, he was mostly there, but we did make sure we set up a surround room with Evercast in editorial because part of the time he was in London. We had him on a little iPad and a microphone, so Jordan could go in and sit there and basically do his virtual spotting session. Johnnie would drive from the UK, and there'd be the screen in a surround room. Jordan could sit there and talk to him but it was all happening virtually. That was great for me, too, because I could go in and listen to a surround file sent by Johnnie at any time and give thoughts on that because I wasn't working in that full of a surround space.
Were you working in surround at all when you were editing?
MONSOUR: Generally, stereo. We discussed this at length and it seemed like part of it was to create that clarity between our stereo offline and our mix. Also, we both love a great stereo mix. To be honest, I think there's something — maybe it's generational — where so many of the movies I think are the best movies I've ever seen; I heard and saw them on stereo. Maybe there's a link I have to that, but anyway, I think there is a clarity in a stereo mix that then, if you can pull it off there, we'll be able to pull it off in surround.
It's quite possible that on the next one, we're working in 5.1 the whole time, but on this one generally was with stereo with a sub to be able to feel some of the impact. We did do a fair amount on Evercast when Jordan was at home or if somebody had someone they knew tested positive for coronavirus, so they would stay home for a few days. We had to be able to work virtually that way. That was another reason that stereo generally made sense for the edit and because we wanted to try so many things.
Just easier to manage in your timeline?
MONSOUR: Absolutely. Easier to manage and also easier to then pass off to Johnnie to continue to work with. Thankfully, I have incredibly patient and brilliant assistant editors that I work with. Matt Absher, who's been with me on Us and Keanu, I will always try to work with whenever I can.
We all strategized with Johnnie's assistance from his sound team on how to keep this constant back and forth going. What it ended up being is basically a split timeline where my timeline always had both an offline and his mix. As I was working, I would stick with his mix as much as I could. When we were getting into really granular changes that affected the sound or the music edit, then I would slice that part out, mute it, and work with my tracks. So, he would always get a bit of a Frankenstein back from me where he could see why we went into the track level to make adjustments. Then, he would conform it, and do his next pass with that added information.
Same with the dialogue editor, because there was an immense amount of dialogue editing and ADR due to the shooting on real locations, stunt work, practical effects, and these incredibly loud IMAX and 70mm cameras cranking away. We were all there, but we were also running Evercast systems that, at any point, Jordan would be able to chime in or we could connect with the UK. Our music editor was on site, and Michael would come in and do his spottings with the music editor but work from home the rest of the time.
How do you approach a new scene? When you're getting dailies, what do you do? Are you a selects reel guy? Do you use frame view?
MONSOUR: I guess left entirely to my own devices, I would use frame view. I come from a visual interface background of working graphically with design and effects and doing those things myself. A lot of those programs work that way. So, I use frame view and then try to encounter the dailies as blank-slated as I can at first, trying to really respond to what's actually in the footage and not what I was expecting from the script or even the script notes.
At first, I want to look for what I find really funny, really engaging, and really scary in there and register that response. To me, that's the closest thing I have as the next year goes on of the edit to knowing how an audience might respond to something. It's that first emotional impact. I try and record that high watermark, and then I might even build out a whole scene before I then turn to the script notes.
If I have the time to do that, that's what I'll do because I wanna know what I think the scene is based on the actual physical material. If I don't have the time for that, then obviously, I have to make sure that the director has the ability to see what he shot as quickly as possible to continue and make an informed decision if they work that way.
Jordan gives me a lot of credit to decide when something's ready to show him. I know he would like to see it soon, so I always have that pressure, especially if it's an action sequence or scene that takes place over multiple shooting days. It's a great advantage to be able to see something put together. We even discussed possibly cutting on set, but it wasn't feasible because of their locations most of the time.
Anyway, I'll work from frame view and try to emotionally load it up with all of the theories and concepts that we've been talking about for months, to see what I think is there, then I'll test it against what's in the script notes. If there are previs or storyboards, I then start to make alternate versions immediately.
Then — because I know Jordan does like to see it fleshed out and it doesn't seem to cloud his judgment very much — I will often throw on and spend maybe more time on the sound and music for a section if it feels like a big enough section in which that makes sense to work on, especially when something really depends on effects for the emotional impact or psychological impact.
Then, I'll send that to him. There was a little bit more of a delay here because it was film. I wouldn't get it till two days after they shot it. There were a couple of instances where I would request the tap from the video assist to be able to immediately see something and test something for action purposes, or just to make sure they got it.
Then, that rolling back and forth where I'm giving him first a scene and then three days later, they shoot the next part, I'll add that back on, send him a version two of the first scene and a version one of the next scene. So, you very quickly get these very complicated mixtures of sequences that some scenes had been gone over six times, and then there's a brand new scene in the middle of it that was just shot that day.
We very quickly get into this branching project with lots of different versions of scenes and keeping track of those, as well as keeping track of the versions of these bigger and bigger sequences that eventually become reels.
The goal is that as soon as we're done with the production, there is a watchable movie, not just a complete "Hey, remember you shot all this, and these were all your circle takes," because some directors do wanna see that. I understand that approach, but Jordan knows what he shot. He remembers his circle takes. He's actually really interested in getting onto the next part usually. We've been talking the whole time and he is been watching, giving me notes.
Often, when he sits down and watches the editor's cut, we could be up to version 15 of a sequence. We've already done a lot of work by that point.
Totally makes sense. I'm very similar in that I do not look at the production notes until after I've gone through the dailies and sometimes done the first cut because I just don't wanna be colored by those choices yet.
MONSOUR: Totally. That's cool to hear. I've met a lot of directors and production people who totally understand that. I've talked about it with Jordan but I've even read him say in other interviews that the thing that you thought was great on set might not be great in the footage and vice versa.
Exactly. Lots of directors and lots of editors say there'll be a quadruple-starred take from the director in the production notes, and then the director comes into the quiet and solitude of an edit bay and says, "What did I see in this take?" They can't even explain why it was so beloved on set.
MONSOUR: It's true, but I am very glad to have those notes and do need them. I absolutely rely on a script supervisor being there, taking those notes, and doing a great job at that, which I still think is one of the most underappreciated roles in film production. It should maybe be its own department even. That job is so crucial because I respond emotionally to the footage first or instinctively and see what I think is there, but it's another way that I get that direct line of communication.
For instance, some actors will give you from take one to 10, 10 completely different reads. Some actors will give you an increasingly refined version of the same read. It really varies wildly.
When you start to see, a pattern emerge of, "Oh, the director's consistently choosing this type of take with this character," that gives you an insight into how the director sees that character in a way that might be really hard for them to explain to you or tell you. It might not be the take that lives in the movie. Still, it can tell me a lot about how the director is thinking about that character or the type of performance they're interested in because I can imagine how maybe that performance felt on set. I see that they're going for maybe a more internal type of reaction rather than a broader reaction. Maybe actually, this other take does that better, I think, so I'll at least audition it with them.
I agree with you on the script because on the last project that I was working on, that was a non-union project, and I actually turned the script supervisor into my assistant editor.
MONSOUR: That makes a lot of sense. Totally. It feels like part of the editorial department. It feels like we're all on the same team. They're our eyes and ears right next to the camera and the director.
Exactly. I've learned a huge amount today, so thank you so much for your time.
MONSOUR: Thank you so much, Steve. I love the podcast and it's always fun to talk about these projects with you.