Today on Art of the Cut, we talk with Monika Willi about her work on Cate Blanchett’s new film Tár.
Monika is based in Vienna, Austria, and has won numerous film editing awards throughout Europe. Her editing work includes the features The White Ribbon, Amour, and Funny Games, and she directed and edited the documentary Untitled, which won the Austrian film award for Best Documentary. She also edited the TV series Funeral for a Dog.
Art of the Cut with Vienna based editor Monika Willi on her work on director Todd Fields film Tár starring Cate BlanchettI watched the film last night and loved it. It's very powerful and beautiful. As an award-winning documentary filmmaker, do you think there are any skills or “documentarian editor muscles” that you bring into narrative?
Yes. I think the important thing to bring in is the obligation to watch the whole material. To not — in a negative way — trust the decisions that have been made on set, saying, "This is a good one, this is a bad one." Stuff like that because the reception on set differs very often from the reception in the editing room and what is valued for the film. Another skill is to be open to what the story could be because, with a documentary, the film is more created during the editing process than a feature film.This film has a very unique opening. Can you talk about the discussion around how to open it? Even to the point of running the credits before the movie?
This was a decision made by the director Todd Field. We had a placeholder for that opening, and it was used to calm people down, to have this concentration to prepare for what is coming. To reflect on the little scene that has been shown before. This was always meant to be a long sequence before the long interview with [New Yorker staff writer Adam] Gopnik starts.At the beginning and end of the opening, there's a shot of the back of a woman's head from the back of the auditorium. That was Krista, right?
Yeah, in the red hat.That brings up an interesting point that's not really discussed or explained. Can you speak to the value of that?
Yeah, that is the way Todd Field works, which is a pretty challenging way to work for me. To leave the answer to the audience, knowing that there are a variety of answers and feelings that might come with that.
Do you think that is a more European style of filmmaking than an American style?
[laughs] I remember when we showed the film in LA, and I heard one remark saying, "This looks very much like a European film.” I have to say I was pretty happy to hear that.One of the things I love talking about in editing is brought up in the narrative of this film when Lydia Tár mentions, "The way you know how to conduct a piece of music is to understand the intent of the conductor." I feel like that's very true in editing. The way to know how to edit a piece of film is to understand the intent behind the script and the intent of the scene. Can you talk about how your understanding of intent helps you in editorial?
I think that we editors have the tendency to explain a lot of decisions by saying, "It was my intuition.” In German, we say, “It's from the belly.” I don't know if that's a phrase used in the US.I think Thelma Schoonmaker or Anne Coates told me you “cut from your gut.”
It's true, but still, your gut has to be fed, and your intuition has to be fed. You must know something about the characters you're telling the story about. You have to know something about the world. You have to know something about relationships You have to know something about people. This is the reason why you can work intuitively. Editing is very physical work to me because you have to absorb and watch the material over and over again, and you really have to let it into your body and your brain, but also your stomach and your guts and everything. You have to react to it. It is very often a real physical reaction.That's very interesting. The physicality of editing was much more apparent when editing on flatbeds and Moviolas. It's a little less so now on computers. Do you edit standing up by any chance?
Yes, I didn't do it on this film because Todd was mostly present in the cutting room. When I'm working alone, I'm standing up, stepping back really. In my own editing room, I have a large projector, so I really try to feel it physically, especially for the audio. We worked a lot on the audio, even going so far as recording our own Foley. It was important to get the feel of the audio right because Lydia Tár is so affected by sounds. We had to feel it and build out the right soundscape.
Many scenes in this film felt like they went by the old screenwriting rule of “get in as late as possible and get out as early as possible.” Can you think of specific scenes where you were going by that rule? Did you cut things in editorial that were scripted to give more of that compactness?
The script is really precise, and the shoot was really precise. We didn't invent the film in the editing room. There was some smaller stuff, but this is a very precise script. It's like the rule that Michael Haneke, a beloved director I work with a lot, says, "Hold it until it hurts, and then hold it a bit longer."I love that advice. I noticed you don't see people entering and exiting, but sometimes you do. When are those points where you feel like a character needs to come into the room and there needs to be space?
When you want to pinpoint the character or when you want to show that a specific person is there. Maybe when Lydia is entering the office of her second conductor Sebastian, for example. We want to show you that she is not intruding, she has the right to be there, but for him, it feels like intruding, that someone is coming into his space. If you show people coming in and leaving a space, it always has to have meaning.Exactly, it gives you a story. It tells you something about her and who she is.
There is another scene when she comes home, and her luggage is all laid out. We use that to show what her home is like, to view where she's living and the circumstances before she makes a bad joke to her partner about the electricity she's using.
Another good example is, oftentimes, we see her in meetings, but the meeting starts with her already in place. You don't show her coming in. However, in the end, when she finally meets the board, things start unraveling, and you see her come into the room.
Yeah, we are very much with her at this point. We see her life collapse in a way, and she now has to be confronted by the board. She knows this will be a difficult one, so we see her approaching. We see her gaze. We see the gaze of all the other people on the board, and then we cut out of the scene because everything is told. If you don't understand it at that very moment, then you understand it a few minutes later. There is no need to tell more of the story. It's all about her being with her feelings and how messed up her life is. This is such a difficult moment, and we show it. In other moments when there is a surprise, we don't have to show it because the difficult moments are within the meeting.In that scene where she goes into the boardroom, and they turn around and look at her, did you actually shoot what happens in there, or was it not even filmed because you knew it wasn't going to be in the final edit?
It was shot, but we chose to remove it because it's unnecessary to show it. It's all explained by her looking at the people and them looking at her, and then the next cut, we see her sitting in the auditorium, knowing that she probably will never come back.It's fascinating to me that this confrontation was not only written but shot but then ultimately cut out.
Yes, we tried to get rid of everything that was unnecessary, and that might show things that you — the audience — already understand. We didn't want to explain things in a broader sense but instead leave it to the audience.
I have to say that's a pretty brave choice. Editing is referred to as an invisible art, and for this film, I don't feel the edits at all. The editing is careful and deliberate. There's not a lot of fast editing in this film, but every once in a while, I feel an edit is made to have an impact. I noticed a striking cut during the scene with editing the Wikipedia page. There's some audio of an interview that's going on underneath it, and in the middle of the interview, we cut to street noise and Tár’s assistant, Francesca, walking.
Yeah, it's the kind of cut that shows something that might go on. It's really a time cut rather than a hard cut, which has more of an impact on the action or dialogue of a person.You've alluded to the idea of when do you let the audience know something and when do you hide information from them. I felt that conflict was happening during the scene with the audition for a cellist. There are five or six people in a room taking notes, and the whole thing is played essentially on the reaction shot of the judges and not on the cellist who's doing the audition. We eventually know why, but can you talk about holding that information back from the audience and judging the right time to share it?
It's all about the reception of the musicians by the people on the board up to the point where we see that Lydia Tar has a specific reaction to one of the players when she realizes it's the person she just met in the bathroom. It has to show that it's all about the music that they're playing and all about their performance. It's not about the people there, so we need to learn how they are listening and receiving it.
Let me point out, for those who haven't seen the film. The truth of the scene is that they don't want to be biased by knowing who the cellist is. So the cellist is playing behind a screen so that they can't see gender or race or anything. The information that is being held from the audience is that we don't know that the judges can't see the cellist. So you hold off that revelation till the end for us to see that the judges and Lydia don't know who is performing.
Yes, and this is the reality of auditions. It just shows that in an ideal world, it is all about the performance and not about the appearance of a musician.I never knew that auditions were held blind. It was interesting to see and then also to not reveal that it's a blind audition at the very beginning of the scene was a fantastic instance of the question, "When do you reveal something to the audience?"
Oh yeah, in my opinion, as late as possible.There are a few scenes in the rehearsal scenes where the scene relies heavily on reaction shots of the orchestra to Lydia. Can you talk about those reaction shots and the strength of a reaction shot instead of showing it on the person speaking?
It's all about the new cellist, and what we wanted to tell is how this one person feels; who usually should have this role? And how do the other orchestra members feel about it? This is what it is all about, to see what the dynamics will be within the orchestra and maybe the mistakes or the bad actions that Lydia has taken. The effect of her decisions is much more interesting in that moment than her own because we know about her decisions. It's not so important to show it. It's more important to see the effect and deduct from that what possible future things might happen.
There is also a lot of footage of these rehearsals where Lydia is speaking, and there's also the music of the orchestra's performing and Lydia's conducting. Can you talk about the difficulty of cutting performed music within a space that has to be edited with dialogue?
The fabulous thing with this film is that they really recorded so that when Cate Blanchett was conducting, they played it all live. It was all really happening on stage, and they shot it with several cameras from multiple angles. Todd never wanted it to be a stylish cinematic experience but rather more like the videos that we have seen from actual real-life rehearsals.
It was quite a challenge because there are different takes to cut together so that it fits together rhythmically and with the acting and dialogue. I was on set during these rehearsals, and I cut it simultaneously to see if we caught everything.Were you dealing with a direct line feed, or were you getting stuff a couple of hours later from a camera card?
My assistant Andrea, ran between the set and the cutting room, and I got the material every 30 to 60 minutes to make sure they caught everything.Music and editing to me are very similar things. They both deal with rhythm, pacing, tone, and dynamics. Did you feel that comparison strongly while you were cutting this?
Yes. It's all about musicality, and music is at the center of editing. I know that the word “rhythm” is very hated by many editors, especially because they don't want to be reduced to just the rhythm. Maybe musicality is a more beautiful way of describing it. It's not just the music scenes, either. A dry scene on the street has its own musicality too. Of course, in this film, we had the wonderful challenge of dealing with the music and the musicality of the scenes.
I never went to film school. I know that all my colleagues who went to film school get allergic to the word “rhythm” because it's so difficult to describe what we do and what our work is. A lot of other people describe our job as finding the right rhythm, and a lot of editors hate that.
It could be seen as reductive, but the interesting thing is at the very beginning of this film, the person interviewing Lydia remarks that he feels he is insulting her by saying that part of her job is just rhythm and timekeeping, and she says, "That's true, but a lot of it is keeping time!"
Yeah. She says it's no small thing to keep time. This is part of our work, and I think personally it's a beautiful part of our work. I just know that the word rhythm should be avoided. [laughs]Were there considerations of cutting specific scenes out and things that maybe you took out and then realized were better put back in?
The film in itself would be much longer. We cut out all the unnecessary scenes that distract from the film, especially during the last third. We cut out a lot of smaller, more minor stuff but nothing major. Once we decided the things that had to go, they went.Was it possible to move scenes around?
Yes, it did happen, but mostly, this is such a strong story that is built in one flow. We did juggle around some things, but no major scenes.Some of the scenes must have had a lot of takes and coverage, but many scenes felt like the coverage might have been very minimal. Is that how they were shot, or is it just the wonderful feeling I got from your editing?
There are scenes that are shot only in oners, like the long 10-minute scene with Max and the student. There are also scenes like the rehearsal at home with Olga, the new cellist, which are shot in oners but also shot with coverage. However, in editing, we decided that the oner was more effective and more powerful. It shows the development within a scene better. It shows this real-time feeling and is something that is very powerful. It's better if it's not cut apart.I have talked to many people about the fact that anytime there's an edit, I feel there's a little bit of a lie there — that we've introduced an untruth. However, when you see the scene play out from beginning to end, it feels somehow more truthful.
It is truthful if it's acted well enough. I know so many young filmmakers who try these long oners, and it really is an art. You need to not only have it scripted correctly, but you also need the actors to be able to play it and act it right. You need cinematography that is able to hold it. Oners can get incredibly boring quickly if the content is not strong enough.
There was a oner that I want to know if there was any coverage of. It was ahigh-speed car ride, and the whole thing was played out of the backseat, looking at the passenger instead of the driver.
Yes, in this very moment, it's all about Sharon (the partner of Tár). It was shot that way, so we didn't have options to cut. This is a oner, a very good one where Cate Blanchett was driving the car herself. It was amazing.Oh wow, she was? That was pretty involved. It looks like she is almost crashing into people.
[laughing] Yeah!It's essentially a car chase. You would think there would be edits throughout that whole thing, but as you said, the whole point was this was Sharon's perspective.
It was a moment to realize what she is doing to her because so far in the film, there was little to show what effect Lydia's actions have on Sharon. At this moment, it's clear that she realizes a few things about her new cellist, but also her power games. It's slowly showing Sharon realizes what Tár is doing and what effect her actions have on other people. This is the moment of truth for her.Speaking about that great car scene, is there a scene or a part of the film you are proud of?
I'm very proud of the rehearsal scenes. I think they work well, and a lot of effort went into them. With this film, it's the overall pace and precision that I'm proud of.That is exactly how I would describe the editing of this film. Just sharp and deliberate and considered. Thank you so much for joining me today. You said many excellent pieces of wisdom, so I really thank you for your interview.
Thank you so much, Steve.
Todd Field, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss & More on TÁR | NYFF60