Jeff has been on Art of the Cut previously to discuss editing Joker, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie. His other feature credits include Cherry, War Dogs, Project X, and Entourage. His TV credits include Entourage — for which he was nominated for an ACE Eddie — Community and the pilot for Ballers.
The other editor on the film, who was unable to join us, was Pietro Scalia, ACE, who has been a previous guest on Art of the Cut for The Martian. Pietro has won multiple Oscars and ACE Eddies for films like Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and JFK.
Art of the Cut with The Gray Man Editor Oscar nominee Jeff Groth
Jeff, thanks so much for being with me. The last time you and I talked was on Joker, so it's been a while.
It has. I did Cherry with the Russo brothers in between this, which I started immediately after Joker was finished. I went through that and then started this pretty much immediately after Cherry was finished.
And your last film Cherry was with the Russo brothers as well.
I actually worked on the first season of Community with them and cut the director's pitch reel for the first Captain America movie that they did back around 2009. I hadn't worked with them since then. They've been busy, obviously.
When Joker was ending, I saw that they were shopping Cherry at Cannes that year, so I texted Joe [Russo] and just said, "Hey, I'm gonna be free. It looks like you're about to shoot a movie. If this works out, then this works out. It could be great." The other connection that I had to it was that I'm from Cleveland, and they're from Cleveland. The story of Cherry takes place in Cleveland and is based on a very Cleveland-centric book, so I was really interested in doing it even though it ended up being a very low-budget production to cut my rate to go do it with them, but it was worth it.
They made it up to you.
[Laughs] Yeah, this was definitely not a low-budget production. (The Gray Man had a reported budget of $200M.)
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, L-R, Actor Chris Evans, Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Tell me a little bit about working with them as brothers. How do they collaborate with you in the editing room?
They're very busy, so half the time, while we're working on this movie, Joe goes to Prague producing Extraction 2 or he needs to run to Atlanta for a series that they're doing because they've now got AGBO (their production company). They're not working through Marvel anymore. They're working through their own production company and AGBO is really a studio at this point.
They are extremely busy, so a lot of times, one of them is coming in looking at things or I'm sending things via PIX or something like that, saying, "Okay, here's a list of changes that we talked about." Then, I'll get on the phone with them or we do a zoom or an Evercast. We used a number of different things just depending on who's got a stable internet connection.
With Cherry, I spent six months remote for them. With this one, I was remote for the production but once production ended, I was going back into the office. I was the first one back in and then the assistants gradually came back in. Within about a two-month period, pretty much everybody was back in the office.
Were you physically together?
Pietro [Scalia] didn't come on until around say October of 2021, so it was after the principal was finished; which does highlight a mistake of mine that at the beginning, they asked, "How many people do you want cutting this?” and I said, "I can do it." There was somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-95 days principal and 50-55 days at the end of the second unit, much of which was running concurrently.
Jennifer [Stellema], one of our two assistants, was talking about it at the very beginning before we ever started shooting, saying, "Even with weekends, we might have a little trouble getting this done." We had two first assistants, John To and Jennifer Stellema. I said to Jennifer, "No, it'll be fine. We'll have to do an occasional Saturday." As it turned out, there was a lot to do.
When we did finish production, I had a couple of large unfinished action sequences, the square and the tram being the foremost among them because we had weeks worth of footage sitting in there. I had done a first pass on the square and hadn't even touched really the tram. David Kern, the second unit editor for Spiro Razatos, actually had done a preliminary cut of the tram that they were doing as they were shooting. They fill in so that the second unit knows what they've got and knows what they need to do.
The problem with those cuts is they don't have any context. They're essentially building a mini movie out of the tram sequence, so when you get it, it's this long thing. Ultimately, the entire action sequence is shorter than what you get at the beginning. They've included every beat that they shot, and in the end, of course, you can't do that for time's sake. So, when we got to the end of shooting, I took three weeks and just continued to assemble it. Even then, it wasn't finished at that point. They asked, "Do you want some help?" I said, "Yes, I would like some help," and so we ended up getting Pietro.
Pietro was initially going to come in and really tackle the action sequences, but ultimately the first thing that I remember him doing specifically was to go through and do a pass and look at everything that Ryan [Gosling] was doing because his character is designed to recede into the background. To make sure that we were showcasing him as the lead of the movie was the first thing he did. Then, from that point, we just traded sequences back and forth.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, Actor Ryan Gosling
Once you finish those sequences, then you've got a movie that is still probably too long and maybe in context needs some work. How did you divide responsibilities or figure out how to work with the Brothers Russo? Did you take different reels or sequences? How did the movie itself become what it became?
I tend to work in reels. Once I've got the reels, I work in the bin and I work in the reel. I don't make subsequences and work on things and then reinsert them. If I work on the movie, I'm working on the movie. So, I'll have reels open.
I convinced Pietro to work in the same way, which is to just take this reel, take that reel, and do the notes there. It wasn't that there was anything particularly assigned to one or the other at that point. It was pretty open, which is how I like to do it when I'm collaborating with somebody else.
As far as editors, everything is open to everybody. I'm not going to be protective of any given sequence because if you can improve it, then it improves. Once I'm done with it, I'm done with it and somebody else can do whatever they will with it. We can always get it back. As long as you're saving, it's a non-destructive process.
Was there anything that you learned or stole from Pietro? I always like working with other editors because there's always something to learn from them. Anything that caught your eye about the way he thinks or the way he cuts?
It's funny because we weren't down the hall from each other. We weren't close to each other, but I was able to identify some of the things that he does. I did learn things from him; whether or not I incorporated them was a different story. The stuff that we incorporated was really mundane little things like naming conventions on the cuts.
I did a little fill-in right afterward for Extraction 2, and he had worked on Extraction. He moved over to Extraction 2 before I left Gray Man, then he was leaving Extraction 2 and I quickly went and did a week over there. But there was a coloring convention that went along with the naming conventions, and I was telling Pietro's assistant about it and he said, "Oh that's where he got that." I thought, "Oh good. He did take something from me."
I would've had the same question for Pietro with you, of course.
As far as cutting, I wouldn't be able to answer that if there was anything that he took from me cutting-wise. We definitely passed things back and forth. I would be working on something and if he was walking out the door or something, I might say, "Hey, come over here. Watch this even though it's unfinished. You can tell what the idea is. What do you think of this?" He'd say something like, "Oh yeah. That's great, but you gotta let that one go." I’d be kind of rolling out a shot in real time with him. He'd say, "Longer, longer. Yeah, there you go."
So, we did a little bit of that tandem thing where the two of us were in the room, but a lot of times, it was just us doing our notes and just watching them over at the end, especially because he was working some of the time remotely.
I got back to the office and I never left just because I didn't really have a system at home to work remotely. So, I was always in the office. Other people still had the ability to work remotely, so some of my assistants, visual effects, Pietro, and everybody really had remote systems.
It still wasn't the consistent cutting room air, if you will, that you have when you've got five or six people in a suite and you're closely collaborating that way. It was more like he'd call me and say, "Hey, I’ve got these three sequences. I tried it three different ways. Take a look, see what you think, incorporate it if you want, or make changes if you want."
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, L-R, Actors Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling
What were some of the big challenges on the film? Was it the big action sequences, or was it something structural or tonal?
The action sequences, no doubt. There's no question that that's a big challenge. One of my favorites was the fight in the hospital with Dhanush, which was one of the first ones to get shot. They did the first part and then it started to change. The choreography was changing, and then the second unit was still working out some things, so you'd get the second pile of dailies and the third pile of dailies that didn't necessarily connect to the first. You didn't get all the clues telling you, "We scrapped this bit, we want to go this way, and it's gonna do this now." So, they changed moves, they'd cut things out, and they'd add pieces. They realized, "Okay, this isn't believable now that we see it on screen. Let's try something else."
Then, they said, "Well, whatever works, put it in." The choreography can be pretty specific, so then when it's changing, we ultimately kept having versions of it. I'd do something, then Pietro would do something. This was more during production, but I would hand it off to one of the assistants and John [To] would try something just to try and keep up with it. I believe they were putting together some video tap footage even on set just to make sure that they were getting the pieces.
In the end, we came down to something that was about three to four minutes long and missing these five shots, and so they went in and finally just did those. There were many iterations of that and that one was the most exhaustive in terms of still getting more shots, just really working out what the moves are gonna be with the stunt doubles, and then you bring in an actor here to work with stunt doubles, another actor over there, and then make sure you're getting everything. In the end, it's about a minute and 30 seconds.
All those action sequences get shortened a lot, don't they?
That's what I was saying with the tram sequence, which was many more beats, and, ultimately, how long do you wanna watch them ride on a tram when you just watched them sit in the square being surrounded by all these people? At one point, those two together — which are just two things that really run together — I'd say they were 15 to 20 minutes maybe. I don't know if they were ever timed out in their original forms as a long string, but they were quite long. It was just exhausting. That's before you even really got all the sound in there and all the bullets, which we found — even at its current length — the more you bring in the bullets and the louder you make everything, the more exhausting it became.
So, you obviously weren't on location for any of this stuff. Do you see any need to be on location, or is that actually a bad thing?
It's good and bad. I don't really like to be on the set just because I don't wanna know what it took to get this shot or that shot. Viewing it as an audience member — so not knowing what's outside the frame — is important to me.
For a world-traveling movie, they started shooting in March of 2021 — which was right at the time that COVID was spiking in Los Angeles so they actually had to delay production. They were originally meant to start in January and actually had to delay production by about a month or two because there were no emergency room beds in Los Angeles at all, so you can't have stunts happening. If somebody gets hurt, you can't send them to the emergency room, so they ended up — specifically because of COVID and the surge that was happening in Los Angeles — delaying production.
But the other thing is there's this huge hangar down in Long Beach, which is where they shot most of the movie. They really only ultimately traveled to a few places for a short period of time to make sure that you're getting the extent of what it is, but if it's an interior sequence, for the most part, it's done on those stages at Long Beach. There was no being on location for me there. I traveled down to Long Beach once a week to get tested for COVID and I'd stop in. I think once or twice there was something that they requested I come down for, but I don't live in Long Beach, so it was a 40-minute drive to go in and have a meeting.
Ultimately, it wouldn't have made sense for me to go on location. Three weeks in Prague is about the minimum that it would make sense, but if you figure the lost time that I have by the time they're going to those places, it just doesn't make sense for me to lose the editing time to travel, especially when remote work has become so common by that point.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, L-R, Actors Chris Evans, Deobia Oparei, and Julia Butters
This movie is one set piece after another. The amount of action throughout is really pretty impressive. Is there an approach that you take with these big set pieces to just try to wrap your brain around the complexity of them?
No, it's really just diving into it and seeing what works. It's just not shying away. I know this is going to take me a long time and it's going to put me behind on everything else, but it's gotta be done at some point. Let's just go and do it.
As far as the way it's set up, the flow of set pieces is the thing that you've gotta be concerned with in something like this because there are so many, and everything's trying to top each other. It's making things feel different and giving each thing a reason to exist. So, it's not just presenting another fight like this and another fight like that, it's something that they paid attention to in production.
I think there were even more fights that were even longer when it was as scripted. We asked ourselves, "How do we make each of these things feel different?" Some of that is built into the script as it is or the original concept.
For example, you might have something on a firework barge and you've got something in an airplane, but then there are shooting styles that make those different and cutting styles that make those different. Some are more hand-to-hand combat, some are more of a chase. It's about just paying attention to how this fight is not gonna feel like a repeat of the last fight, even down to music.
Some things are more heavily loaded with music, some things are less. Again, because you want to make it feel like it's something different and that it's advancing the story, that you're going someplace new as opposed to going back, thinking, "Okay, here we go again with this."
You were talking a bit earlier about how many days of footage there were, for example, with that tram footage. How do you even organize that so that it is easy for you to start working on and get your head around it?
It's kind of like any other scene, just bigger. The bins get bigger and you have part one, part two, and part three, but ultimately to do that, you organize it as much as you can chronologically, at least we did.
For the stunt coordinators and everybody, they would break those into beat sheets. They wouldn't just say here's our script page because it's woefully inadequate to describe what's going on in the script with all the choreography. So, they'd have these beat sheets, which would be three times as long and describe every moment that you're going through. We'd organize it along the beat sheet. That's the thing that helps you figure out this is what this is for.
It's almost like you're breaking these little fight sequences up into acts. We're thinking, "Here's the beginning of the fight, here's where our hero is in trouble, and here's where our hero prevails or somebody else prevails depending on how the fight's gonna go." So, you've got the turning points even within those fight sequences or action sequences.
Let's say in the square, he's put into that position, you see all the players then move in, and then it runs out and you see how he solves all those problems. That was one of the things about Ryan's, or Six's, action sequences specifically. We are looking at him as a problem-solver once he's in a situation, and we see how he methodically works his way out of that situation.
Just thinking about that as an organizing principle, how are the problems getting solved by the person?
Once you take from that idea, it answers the way the cuts are assembled because there are all these things that are happening simultaneously, but you need to watch Six problem-solve methodically. So, it might be that he sees that Dani Miranda is being shot at in the car, and she sees that he's being shot at. You need to convey those two pieces of information. Here are the two problems. Now he's gonna see this. He turns around, shoots the guys shooting at him, and shoots the people that are shooting at Dani in an organized and methodical fashion. You can almost watch his thought process. He looks, evaluates, and then acts.
The beat sheets are interesting to me. I'm assuming that you had access to those beat sheets as well as if they were script?
Yeah absolutely. It's a lot harder to line a beat sheet, but a lined beat sheet doesn't really happen. They try, but it's difficult to really be able to do that, and you can't script it. I typically work with the script function in Avid (script integration), and you really can't script action sequences that way. It would just be so time-consuming for somebody to be scripting action beats. The way that these changed, you would've needed two people full-time just to try and do that.
You're flying a little bit more blind with those action sequences. Ultimately, they're good about getting everything. They're checking off their lists, so I'm rarely at a point where I say, "I don't have anything to cut to here. You missed this beat." But if you're not so beholden to all those beats, you can just say, "Okay, this looks cool. Does he really need to hit him three times? Is one good hit enough? Where can we just say that we've had enough hitting here, and it's time for a kick and a throw?
Within the fight sequences, it's making sure that the fight feels like it's moving forward and that it has a reason to go to the place it's going. Not just hit, hit, hit, and then the other hit, hit, hit, and then back. With too much of that, it ultimately feels like nobody's even getting hurt.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, Ryan Gosling
I would think another trick with some of those action sequences is when you drop a portion of an action sequence for time, trying to figure out editorially how to make the jump from one place to skip over the thing you're dropping to get to the next spot. Did you have any of those, and how did you solve some of those problems?
We definitely did, but I think in the end, it's just making sure that people are near to where they are as far as physical continuity. It's just making sure that somebody isn't suddenly on the ground. Those pieces are easier to deal with than when you wanna really lift a whole story piece and you say, "This is important because this is where maybe his arm would've gotten broken, and he's got a broken arm for the rest of this, so how do we get him to break his arm now that we've taken this out?" That doesn't actually happen but that's an example of more story continuity.
Instead, we're sometimes thinking, "This has gone on too long. How are we gonna get that?" In this specifically, some of the ways that you can solve that are you've got Chris Evans sitting there in a control room watching his mercenaries get taken out one by one through the entire square and the tram sequence. If you can cut to Chris Evans and have him tell you what happened, you can lift a piece of the action sequence that might have just gone on too long or you needed to make clear. That certainly was a useful tool in making sure that people knew what was going on in the square, knowing who's the police, who's the mercenary, where they are, and where they were going all together with a little bit of guidance from one of the characters. Six isn't gonna tell us. He's just looking. Again, he's doing his look, evaluate, and act, but Chris Evans is directing these people.
So maybe reshoots saved the day occasionally?
We did add some things, but the big thing that we added to the movie was actually Lloyd's introduction scene where he is torturing the guy in the basement and then gets on the phone with Dani. We felt that he was such an important character, and initially, you only heard about Lloyd from Dani and Suzanne but you didn't see him until he got to the funeral with Fitzpatrick. He's such an important character and they're saying all these things about him where he's crazy, unhinged, and effective. They're saying all these things, and then there are a couple more scenes and we just needed to see him.
We talked about different ways of seeing this guy immediately. Because he's got such a great ramp in, to not see him just took away from the power of his character. Obviously, we wanted to get him in the movie as the menacing figure earlier, and with his verbal introduction, now we actually get to experience and know exactly who he is and why he’s there.
Show don't tell.
Exactly. Ultimately, there was more from Dani and Suzanne but the whole phone call between the three of them then becomes the intro and the assignment for him.
Other than that, did you have structural changes, or was the story pretty linear?
The story was pretty linear. It's linear and a lot of things are happening at the same time, so there was an ability to shift things around, especially in that area. Once Six finds out that somebody's playing him and Dani finds out that Six has got the drive, there are all these things that are happening at once. Dani's putting things into motion to go after Six while Six is trying to get out of Bangkok, and he's split up with Danny, who's now being sent to Berlin. You've got all these things that are essentially happening concurrently.
Depending on what you feel like you wanted to see next, you can move some of those scenes or you could shuffle some of those scenes. I might think, "We've been with Fitz and Six for a while. Maybe it's time to go over and find out what's going on with these people." So, that was more of a matter of feel when we would look at and just all agree that this one feels better coming earlier, this one feels better coming later, but they're all happening around the same time and there's no sense to necessarily intercut them and make them into more than they are. It's just these scenes you need to see as a whole to understand what it is.
Now, if you look later when he's trapped in the well, everybody's converging on him, so you've got Dani who's found out that he's there, you've got Lloyd that's found out that he's there. Those things are all happening at the same time. Those scenes did get broken up.
It's not like you sit there on the plane and figure out that he's going. You see that he's trapped, and again he's doing his thing where he's solving his situation. While he's doing that, everybody's coming after him. Everybody's finding out that he's trapped while he's actively working to become untrapped.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, Ryan Gosling
Is there any trick to doing concurrent editing in those situations where everything is supposed to be happening concurrently?
I don't think that there is a trick that you could say is all-purpose. There are tricks that you would use in any one of those situations. You're playing something in a linear fashion that is still happening concurrently. It's just about feeling which needs to go in front of the next. Now, when you're mixing up like that, some of the things that make it feel more concurrent is maybe running audio under picture.
Especially in the well, you hear about the Gray Men, you hear the story of what the Gray Men were from Denny as he speaks to Anna, but Six is building the pipe bomb basically that gets him out, so what you're seeing is that. You know that these things are basically happening at the same time, but you're running different audio with picture, so it feels even more concurrent because it is technically.
That's where you get an advantage of cinema over print. For things that are happening at the same time in print, you can only read one word at one time - one sentence at a time. You can listen and watch and read all at the same time, so you can have multiple things going on. In a sequence like that, you're using the full firepower of cinema, if you will, to tell stories.
Let's talk a little bit about your career as a whole. I'm interested in how thought-out your career path has been. Do you think, "I should do this film or work with this director" or "I need to be doing this type of movie because I don't want to get pigeonholed"? How actively are you thinking these things, or are you taking the next job that comes your way?
These days it's a difficult mindset to get out of because I spent a long time just saying, "I need to be working. I'll take what I can get." Certainly, there are things that I want more than others, but I don't feel like I'm in a position where I can just pick and choose. It's an interesting position. Directors have people that they work with for a long period of time.
I'm fortunate to have done several movies with Todd Phillips and done several movies now with the Russo brothers, so when they call, I say yes to them because I know them and we have a relationship already. I'm not saying, "Well, what's this one gonna be?" I say, “I trust you. I've worked with you before, I like what you do, I'm gonna work with you again, and you just tell me what movie you wanna make and I'll help you make it.” I haven't done a lot of movies recently that are outside of those two, so I haven't necessarily explored beyond that too much other than small things here or there.
In the last few years — probably at least the last five years — I haven't been looking to avoid or stick within one genre. I'm following the people that I wanna work with. That's the thing that I try to be available for them. If it's with Todd, for example, I'll just say, "You tell me when it is and I'll figure out how to be available."
With Joe and Anthony, they have so much going on it's not possible to be available for them for everything because you couldn't be available for all their projects even while you're working on one of their projects. They had several things going on during this. This was a long one. I think in the end, it was about 15 months, but in the middle of that, they've had several other things between writing and producing. I'm not sure if they're actively directing today, but it probably starts tomorrow, whatever the next thing is.
Is it something that you talk to your agent about or that you have discussions with other people professionally? Or is it — like you said — just taking the jobs with the people that you're used to working with?
As far as talking to my agent, four or five years ago, it was more about wanting to work on things and I didn't care necessarily what the genre was or whether or not it was going to be up for awards. I just wanted to work on a movie that I would want to watch, something that I thought was cool. I feel like I want something that has an appeal, at least to me directly in regards to who's in it and the idea of it. Even if I don't know yet what the story is, if you give me the initial appeal, I ask myself if there’s something about it.
That's what I'm most attracted to because scripts change so much. You read a script and you think, "Okay, well, that's not all it could be," but three months till production, everything's going to change in this script. I'm not going to say no based on the script right now because I know it will get better.
What I'm always looking to do is to be faithful to that idea. Then, when you're actually working on the movie, no matter how the script has changed, it's faithful to the idea that we're making something that was cool or that has something that I wanted to see. I'm not gonna let it go off the rails in that way no matter where the script goes, no matter who gets cast and all these things, let's just keep it faithful to that idea. For example, I never read the book “Gray Man” because I knew that the script wasn't going to be following the book specifically. I thought, "If I read the book, I'm gonna be tied to certain ideas and I don't want to be. I want to make the best movie that I can make and make it a great movie as opposed to try and be faithful to the book."
Now with Cherry, I did read the book a couple of times as well as the script because the script was condensing and picking certain pieces out of the book, so it was helpful to try to be faithful to that idea, even visually. There was a different rhythm to the book, even the way that the language was written. It wasn't specifically traditional, so it was trying to keep cuts and scenes in that rhythm.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix, Ryan Gosling
Did that change your work style, or did that change the way you organized footage between something that is maybe a little more low budget like Cherry and this? Did you find that you had to change the way you work?
Not really. I just was more behind on this one. Not to say that I can't change the way that I work, but what I like to do in constructing a scene is to watch the footage and pull selects out of the footage into a timeline as I'm watching.
So, it depends on the director wherever that director's best takes typically land. Joe and Anthony are actually quite good with the script notes. They say when they've liked something and they generally do, but it's usually the last or second-to-last take.
With their footage, I'll generally start from the end. So, I'll start with, let's say, take seven or five or eight, and I'll watch that one or the selected take if it was one before that. I'll watch that first and say, "Okay, that's my baseline for what they were looking for from this particular take and shot and scene."
I watch that, pick out all the stuff, and generally use that as my initial select. Then, I'll watch all the other takes and look for anything valuable. Is there anything that I see in this that they didn't expect that I might be able to use to goose this moment a bit?
Then, I'll cut that into the scene in approximately the spot where it goes. I don't spend a long time trying to line everything up. I just say, "Okay, this is the beginning, middle, and end of the scene," and I throw everything in their spots. I go through the entire set of footage doing that, and then I watch that and throw out about 25% of that. Also, there are a few moments that I know are really spectacular, so I say, "I know I'm gonna use this, I know I'm gonna use that. I know I'm gonna use that," so I build around those pieces.
It's really basically like taking a giant piece of marble or ball of clay and just trimming things out and leaving shavings on the floor.
Totally get it. There are the builders and the cutter-downers. I need to condense things and get them so I can get my brain around them, even if it's saying, "For this line, is this better than this?" Once I've made at least one decision, I can start eliminating what I don't want.
Ultimately, it's all about context. In a micro-sense, you're creating the context for that scene. That's what makes doing dailies for the first week or two in a movie so difficult because you don't know the context at all. You could have five great options. Each one of these is valid right now. I guess I just gotta pick one and say, "I think this is the direction we're going." Then, as you go, you build more context. It's the same thing in a smaller fashion with a scene. You pick three good things and that's my context for the rest of everything else.
How much of a “bolter-together” are you as far as the scenes themselves? I just feel like I have so much to do during dailies that I never assemble scenes, but other people say, "As soon as I have scene 32 and scene 33, I've gotta put those two together."
Depends on the movie and how it's being shot but also how linear it is. Joker, for example, I was cutting in linear order, so no matter when the scene came in, I was just cutting from 1 to 100. If I've got scene 1 on day 1, then I'm cutting scene 1 as long as it takes to do that. Then, if scene 1 and scene 5 came in, but then the next day scene 4 came in, I just go from 1 to 4. The later ones just kept getting pushed back, so even though, let's say, scene 93 would've been shot on day 2, I didn't cut it until Day 50 or something like that. It was always just working in order.
That was a very specific thing because there was a progression over a long period of time, and they wanted to see how things were progressing, as opposed to this one where there is so much disparate stuff. You're dealing with a lot of locations and a lot of sets that need to be struck. The most important thing was to make sure that we're getting the scene and that the scene will fit, but there's a lot of this stuff that I didn't necessarily construct until later. So, it really just depends on the shooting demands.
But I don't need to necessarily see it in order. Generally, I have it in my head as to what that scene was. In fact, what I typically do is I've got my bins organized, and in my daily bin I've got that select sequence that I've talked about that I'm shaving things off of. I also have the first cut of the scene that lives in that bin. Now that will live in that bin forever, so even when I assemble it later, I've got all the dailies, I've got the select sequence, and then I've got the first cut.
10 months later, I can still go back and see that first cut of that scene, or go back and just quickly look at the things that I thought were cool early on. If something needs a new feeling, that's the sort of thing that's helpful. If it's just lines that you're changing, then that's where the scripting function (ScriptSync or Script Integration) comes in.
I work the same way. I like to have that selects reel, KEM roll, which is everything, and I like to have the first cut of the edited scene in the bin and it never moves.
I don't like the KEM rolls. They're just too unwieldy. It's a 2-3 hour sequence that I can't look at in one timeline, even if it's just a series of straight cuts. I don't want to look at it in a 3-hour timeline because if you're dragging through, you can't be precise with it. You're just getting a general idea of what's there.
I do look at the pictures up in the bin window. The way it's usually arranged is if there are three cameras and I've got three takes, each one is a different camera. So, I'd flip to a different camera so I can see generally what the camera angle is in the small picture representation, but I don't drag through it to look at that. Other people want KEM rolls and it's been supplied to me, but I generally don't use it.
credit: The Gray Man, Netflix (L-R), Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans
I understand that. I think that I'm getting smaller amounts of footage than you are, so I'm thinking, "Okay, I can look at 30 minutes of footage, 45 minutes, or even 90 minutes of footage for a scene, and I'd be okay." But for something that's longer than that, what's the point of watching 4 hours of dailies on a scene?
When it comes to audio editing with sound effects and music, are you happy to pass on those responsibilities to an assistant or a music editor, or is that something you want control of?
A little bit of both. I'm generally very happy to pass sound effects along if I can just because I don't want to take the time to really get it right, so I love to pass those along.
As far as music goes, if I have the right piece of music, I don't wanna wait to send it to the music editor. It always just feels like I'm two steps behind doing that, but where it's valuable is when you've got somebody good on the music editing side and you can say, "Hey, I don't have the right piece of music in here for this scene. I can't spend the time looking through all our music bins to figure out a temp piece to make this work. Can you put something on it or give me a few options?"
But if I've got the piece of music, I prefer to work with that piece to make sure that it's fitting the edit in the right way because I'll have a specific idea as to how the music wants to go, and a lot of times that will clash with composers and music editors.
When you were editing, did you monitor in LCR, stereo, or 5.1?
I'm trying to remember if we were in LCR, but I think during production, we were stereo. I think we ended up going LCR once everybody got back, but because I knew it was all going out over PIX and when you're collapsing LCR into PIX or something like that, it throws your mix off. So, I like working in LCR because I can crank the music and still hear the dialogue, but unfortunately, when the LCR then gets to stereo, I feel like the music gets lost a lot.
Especially these days with so much remote work, stereo's the easiest thing to translate. I'm considering going forward using stereo just because I know that PIX and Evercast and all these things will be more accurate representations into everybody's headphones than LCR or 5.1 collapsing into it.
5.1, to me, is too much to deal with. I'm more focused on other aspects of storytelling than where the sound is coming from specifically, for the most part. If it's left or right, I can go with it, but when it needs to come from behind and all that, when I'm still dealing with picture and story, I don't feel like dealing with that aspect of it yet. To me, that's what the mix is for. Other people do 5.1 in the cutting room, and I understand how showing in its best possible form — if you want to take the time to do that — can have its advantages too.
What are the advantages of having the editor in the mix? If you had to sell the producer who said, "You don't have to go," or, "We don't have the money for you to go," what would you say to them?
Certainly, nobody knows what is coming out of the Avid better than I do or one of the assistants. So, if the director's happy with what's coming out of the Avid, let's say you're more in a safeguard role, but of course, the call that sound editors hate to hear is, "Make it sound like the Avid." That's what we always want because we lived with it for 9 or 10 months.
There's another part of safeguarding is that sound editors also tend to want you to come in and work with them. They want to give you everything and then have you take away and trim things out. The picture editor thinks, "We gave you all these sounds. Doesn't it sound amazing?" Yes, but we need to isolate certain things. We need to make sure that this isn't overtaking that.
As the person who's safeguarding the story overall, what you're hearing becomes another aspect of the storytelling. That's important because somebody who's been spending 9 to 10 months with that story is gonna be more attuned to it than somebody who's been spending their time building the sounds of what's on screen. They've gotta pay attention to what's on screen and what makes noise and make sure that has noise if somebody wants to hear that noise.
It's the collaborative time when you come in as an editor and ask, "Do we want to hear that noise? Here's why I don't think we do," or "I do think we do because I did all these things in the edit to make sure that this was emphasized. This is a really important shot because we need to know that — let's say for Gray Man — he's holding the amulet with the thumb drive in it." If I didn't hear that thing open, I might be looking at Ryan's face and not the way that he's opening the thing. I need to make sure that I hear that open. That's part of the storytelling.
Now that's an obvious example. I'm not saying that somebody would necessarily miss that, but it's the same thing with the DI. It's nice to have at least a pass in the DI to say, "Hey, could we maybe lighten up this little area because it's an important thing that's on screen." We've paid attention only to his face, but there might be another story point.
So, it’s the same thing with sound and picture. Let's emphasize this story point. Let's make sure we hear this thing even if it's a little unrealistic. In terms of explaining to somebody who says, "You don't need to be there," I’d tell them that I'm safeguarding the story.
This film was also a huge undertaking. It's really amazing how much they were able to do in those hangers in Long Beach. It's an old Boeing facility, this massive building. I don't know how many 747's could fit in there but it was something like 7 or 8. They just built all these big stages in there.
Now it seems people are going places and people are traveling and all that, but if you think back to what was January of 2021, at the time, there was a huge surge in Los Angeles. The fact that they actually were able to make this movie during that time with the world-hopping locations with all the stunts doesn't feel like a movie that was made during COVID. Credit to everybody on the production for being able to make that happen. For me, it was not very different, but for everybody else, I can only imagine how much harder it was to do something that was already hard.
Jeff, thanks so much for talking to me today.