The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Darrin Navarro, ACE, on his long-time and final collaboration with director William Friedkin, 22-minute takes, a three-day director’s cut, and more.

Today on Art of the Cut, we speak with Darrin Navarro, ACE, who started his career with the legendary Roger Corman and has edited films including The Lovers, The End of the Tour, Killer Joe, and I Love Dick.  Darrin has worked with legendary director William Friedkin for years, starting as an assistant editor. Today, Navarro talks about Showtime’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, his final collaboration with Friedkin, who passed away recently.

Did you watch the original movie?

I had never seen either previous movie iteration of this material when about a year ago, I found out we were we were going to do one. Having worked with Mr. Friedkin for many years, I knew he loved the original Edward Demetric The Caine Mutiny (1954).

In particular, he loved Humphrey Bogart and Humphrey Bogart’s performance in that movie. He never really talked much about the play — The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which is a separate piece of source material but written by the same guy. 

So I went back, watched The Caine Mutiny, and enjoyed that. And I watched Robert Altman’s version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which he did in 1988 with a terrific cast. And I was curious at that point about what Billy wanted to bring to it that hadn’t been done before and that was to be revealed. I eventually found out. 

It is a different take, for sure, in a number of respects. He’s updated it to modern times when both earlier iterations were faithful to the World War II setting. He definitely went for a leaner, sparer telling of the story than even Altman did. 

So yeah, I did my homework just in time to start this one, but in a way, I almost wish I hadn’t seen the movie because the cool difference between the novel/movie of The Caine Mutiny and the play and the movies that have been made from the play, is that the play doesn’t show you what happened. 

You, as an audience member, have to put together in your own mind a picture of what happened on the ship based on the testimony that you’re getting from all of these various people, and you have to make up your own mind, which is, for me, a more interesting experience as an audience member. 

And certainly more in keeping with the kind of movie that Billy wanted to make and was always interested in making. He always wanted to make movies that were fraught with ambiguity and that invited the audience to sort of grapple with the question of right and wrong throughout and never give them an easy way to either judgment.

You alluded to the fact that you aren’t sure whether you were happy that you watched the original. And that’s one of those things I’ve talked to many editors about. And it’s split about 50/50 of people saying, “Of course, I had to do my research. Of course, I needed to know what had happened before me.” And other people who say, “No, I don’t want that in my head.”

It’s interesting. I just had a little viewing party at my home last night with a group of friends and editors. There were no special screenings in LA, so I said, “Well, come to my house. We’ll watch it over here.” I saw it at the Venice Film Festival about a month ago, and then before that, it had probably been several months before I had seen a cut. 

And so now I’m a year away from having watched The Caine Mutiny, and I’ve been through this process. Even in my own involvement in the material, I feel like last night, when I watched it with friends, it was the first time where I really was able to just throw away my experience of having seen The Caine Mutiny and having “witnessed” what happened on the ship and really just regard this material for what it is, which is that you’re not meant to know, and it played differently for me last night. 

And that’s always a hugely pleasurable experience for me as an editor and always catches me off guard, even though it happens constantly, which is that I’ve gone through the whole process of editing the film. I’ve gotten in so deep with the director and sometimes with the writer — if that’s a different person — and the producers, and I feel like I know the material inside out. 

I feel like I know the movie and all of its themes and certainly know its details. I can quote it verbatim. I don’t even mean to quote it, and it just becomes part of my inner monologue, you know? 

And then, months later, I’ll see the movie again, and all of a sudden, I’m seeing it in a different way, and I’m seeing things in it that I never saw before, even though I was involved with it. 

It may be just because my emphasis was different creatively as I was working on it, and there were themes that were embedded in the material that I wasn’t even really working on. 

Sometimes we’re using one lens or a set of lenses when we’re doing the work, and then when we have an opportunity to walk away from it and come back, we’re granted a whole different set of lenses through which to see something that we ourselves were involved with. 

And it’s like, “Oh, here’s how another person might be experiencing it.” That’s always a really sort of positive development for me, and I had it last night.

Could it be the specific audience? That….


I mean, yesterday was an invited group of editors, right?

Yeah, it was an invited group of editors. It was all people I know, editors, and other friends of mine. Venice was a weird experience for me. I loved being there. I loved being there for Billy’s last film. 

I wanted Billy to be there, obviously. I knew ahead of time that it was probably the last one we would do together — probably the last film that he was going to make — that seemed the most likely reality.

And as soon as we knew that it was going to be at the Venice Film Festival, I bought my tickets. I went. I wanted to be there. We were going to premiere what was almost certainly going to be his last film. And then he didn’t make it. It was a real bummer. 

At that screening, I probably wasn’t even paying as much attention to the movie as I might have in another situation. It was a celebration for him. Damien Chazelle went up and introduced the film for the Venice audience in a really, really lovely tribute.

They had developed a relationship over the last several years. Anabel Dunne, who was one of our producers, went up and introduced the film, but in a way that had as much to do with Billy and his legacy as it did about the film itself.

So that’s really where my head was at, and it was kind of emotional, and I don’t know that I really experienced the movie in that setting. 

And last night, I really just got to relax and enjoy the movie. Because it had been now a year since I watched The Caine Mutiny, I really felt like I was able to watch this film without too much background noise, as it were.

Tell us a little bit about your relationship and how you went from the beginning of your relationship with him to editing his last film.

My first experience with any movie of his was the end of 1994 on Blue Chips. If you were anywhere in the editorial community in 1994, you heard about Blue Chips because it was a real headache for Paramount.

It was the movie where Billy had had enough of editing on film. He really, really wanted to move into editing on the new digital systems that were becoming available. Unfortunately, the way he got there was a bit of a bloodbath.

He fired an entire editing crew, and Paul Hager, the head of post-production, the Paramount at the time, had to deal with the fallout and find new editors. 

Fortunately, I came in very close to the end of that. I was aware of the nightmare that had preceded me, but by the time I got there, David Rosenblum was the last of probably at least five editors who had been on the picture, and I was just helping out.

I was a second assistant, essentially, even though I think I was being paid as an apprentice. I did like six weeks on the project or something. I never crossed paths with Billy on that. 

But about a year later, one of the editors Billy had been introduced to on the Blue Chips experience was this guy Augie Hess. And Billy really liked working with Augie. Augie just had an encyclopedic understanding of what the material was. He managed to get it all in his head and keep track of everything.

He was a very good organizer and also a very good editor. So Billy decided from that point forward that he wanted to continue working with Augie. They did a Showtime thing in the interim, a little thing called Jail Breakers.

And then when they started Jade about a year later, which was a big Robert Evans-produced, Joe Eszterhas-written thriller for Paramount, Augie went looking for assistants, and my name was put into the hat.

And when he found out that I had even set foot in an editing room that was one of Billy’s projects, he said, “Okay, you’ve got the job. You’ve probably come into contact with what’s necessary to make this work.” 

I took the job fully expecting that we were all going to be fired within four months and I would walk away with great stories. But Billy wound up being just very happy with the way the editing room ran, and so that team — pretty much Augie and me with another team of sort of assistants who sort of came through — wound up doing like his next four pictures.

So I developed a relationship with Billy. He really liked working with us as a team. And those were all at Paramount, with the exception of a 12 Angry Men remake that we did for Showtime.

And then, when the Paramount regime changed in the early 2000s, Friedkin was no longer there. His wife had been the head of the studio for that whole period of time, so I think when the regime changed, it was a natural move for him to leave the studio as well. 

His first picture after that was this relatively smaller-budget theater adaptation — another theater adaptation — which he hadn’t done in many years. He went to Augie with it, and Augie was busy.

He had a job on a TV show as both a producer and an editor, and Augie is an extraordinary editor, but I don’t think he was ever naturally inclined toward weird material. And Bug is very definitely weird material. I was very drawn to weird material, and Friedkin knew that from our interactions.

I had — by that time — edited one independent film on my own. I had done my first feature. Friedkin never asked to see it or anything like that. He just knew from our relationship that I could probably handle the job.

So when Augie turned down Bug, Billy came to me and said, are you ready to take that chair? And I said, absolutely. 

I’d gotten a tip that he was considering it. It was a couple of months between that tip and when he finally called, and I had sort of already rehearsed in my head what I was going to say when he offered it to me, which was to say very little other than just yes.

Yes, would be the thing to say!

Yes, and thank you. 

I was upstairs at Amoeba Records in Hollywood in the movie section, and I got a call from an unlisted number. Almost nobody had an unlisted number at that point, so when I got a call from one, it was probably from Billy’s office, and so I took it, obviously, and it was about a two-minute call, and I said, “Yes and thank you and let’s get started.”

That was it, and that was in 2005. And that’s when we did Bug. 

When Billy called Augie to say, “I’m thinking of having Darren do it,” after Augie had turned it down — “What do you think?” Augie said, “Absolutely. Go ahead and do it.” 

Augie was a great passive teacher. He was really good at vocalizing everything that he was doing and the decisions that he was making as an editor, both in terms of editing room management, but also creatively.

We talked a lot creatively about the movies that we were working on. It was never a situation where he was saying, “Sit down and let me mentor you, young man.” He never really saw himself as a teacher. But because he was so open about how he did things, it was easy to learn a lot from him. 

I just had lunch with him yesterday, and I did have an opportunity to tell him that. When he and I worked on the first season of CSI, he gave me scenes to cut, and he seemed to be happy enough with what I was doing and gave me a few notes.

That was a more typical editor-assistant-mentor relationship. I think when we were working with Billy, he really felt a stronger need to really control every part of the process, so that opportunity didn’t come to me in that context.

But I think he had just seen enough to know that he could give his endorsement to Billy’s idea to bring me on. 

Friedkin and I — our relationship was that we would talk about movies. We would talk about the movie we were working on, but he would turn to me and say, “You haven’t seen Two for the Road? You have to see Two for the Road.”

And then I would write that down, and I would go watch Two for the Road, and I would come back and talk to him about it. My best relationship with any of my collaborators, particularly directors, is our shared love of movies and specific movies.

And that was definitely at the heart of how Billy and I got along. It was a little different — the value that he placed in Auggie.

It struck me, as you were describing Augie bringing you on for that first picture with him, that none of it really had anything to do with your skill set. It was: “You survived this show. He likes you. You talk to William about movies.” Like you said, William probably didn’t watch the first independent movie you edited.

He tended not to hire people based on having seen their work. He based his hiring decisions based on conversations with those people and realizing that he had common ground with them. I don’t know that he had ever seen anything Augie had done.

He famously said that when he hired Owen Roizman to shoot The French Connection, he had never seen a frame of any movie that Owen Roizman had shot. It was his conversation with Owen about how he likes to shoot, and he said, “Okay, this is the guy for the project.” So it’s atypical for sure to do it that way, but it served him well throughout his career. 

With editing, I think about 80% of my job is conversational. So much of what goes into the film has to do with my conversations with the directors and with others, but I’m really just trying to absorb what is the director’s vision for what we’re doing here, what are they after, and how it compares to other things that we’ve seen — the things that we love?

All of those things feed into sitting at the Avid. Making cuts in the film, ultimately, is really only about 20 to 30% of the intellectual work that goes into making the movie. 

I think so much of it just has to do with getting to a common mindset with your collaborators.

I want to use that as a transition to get into talking about this actual film. But first, I wanted to ask you two things about Blue Chips and Jade. Both of those were cut on Avid or no?

Blue Chips started out as a film show, and one of the reasons it became such a headache is these basketball scenes were shot basically like live TV. I think he had 10 or 11 cameras on the basketball footage, and if my memory serves, he literally had five Nagras going (audio recorders). So he had audio being recorded: the commentators, he had the players mic’d, he had the coaches.

So there were just an insane number of cameras and mics. He was basically just staging these basketball games. 

Cameras were expected to exhaust their rolls and reload during the games. So it became very documentary-like. As a film show — which was being cut on KEMs — the dailies were this huge library of film that they had to get through to make this cut. 

Billie was famously disinterested in watching the editor’s cuts. It was not a part of the process that he could handle, and this became maximized exponentially in the Blue Chips setting. He didn’t want to look at an editor’s cut.

So Bob Lambert’s initial cut — they made a dirty dupe, and then it all had to be reconstituted back into film rolls At that point, it became a Lightworks show, and everything got digitized into Lightworks over a period of weeks.

New editors were brought on, and that’s how Augie wound up on the project because he had gone from editing into consulting for Lightworks and so was considered one of the most knowledgeable editors in Lightworks. And that was really his route back. Jade was also done on Lightworks.

I was primarily the film guy at the beginning. There was another guy who was sort of quote-unquote, the Lightworks assistant, and I was running the film room as the assistant. And then, by the time we did 12 Angry Men, which would have been the next project, we moved over to Avid, and that was really my first Avid show.

Lightworks was kind of running out of steam at that point as a kind of going concern.

We won’t tell Thelma.

Oh, I love that Thelma cuts on Lightworks. I loved Lightworks. I still get nostalgic about that controller.

Let’s talk about this film. It’s based on the play. It’s in very few locations. There’s like a hallway that’s outside the courtroom and then in the courtroom and then, finally, a party location. Tell me about trying to keep that interesting, trying to keep it visually dynamic, and what the challenges were there.

Beyond what you pointed out: everybody’s wearing the same costume because everybody’s military. They’re all in uniform. And it’s a very naturalistic, realistic kind of courtroom. There’s nothing interpretive about it.

For instance, in Altman’s version, he stages it in a basketball gymnasium that has clearly been sort of repurposed as a courtroom, as though it’s just kind of like a makeshift courtroom, which gave it a kind of visual angle that Friedkin didn’t go for.

He just really presented it as you would expect. So the only thing that can keep that compelling is great actors. And he found a dozen great actors to come in. 

I went to the planned table and read before we shot — turned out not to be a table read. It was mostly just a session for the actors to sort of give questions to Billy about what they should be doing, to talk about the text, and to make any final changes that they wanted to make before they went forward.

He said — in that meeting — “The thing that I want more than anything out of any of you is spontaneity. I don’t want it to feel canned, and it is absolutely critical that everybody show up knowing their lines.”.

The length of some of those scenes! Oh my gosh, the memorization alone would be crazy.

Kiefer Sutherland testifies twice in the trial. The second time is for the defense, and he’s on the stand for 22 minutes. Kiefer did that in two perfect 22-minute takes.


One was slightly more manic than the other. So he had two slightly variant energy tones, and I could use parts of both depending on which part of the testimony he was in.

He gets a bit more amped up as it goes along, so I used his first take for roughly the first half of that scene and then emphasized the second, more manic one for the second half.

Shot with how many cameras?

Generally, there were two cameras on everything. I think there were a few parts of the film where they went to three. Every scene is defined generally by a witness taking the stand, a particular witness — there are a few other little scenes in there that are not about witnesses — but generally, it’s 1 or 2 setups emphasizing the witness, 1 or 2 setups emphasizing the counsel and the judge panel, and that’s it.

And Billy wanted to do everything in one take. So if there was a mistake or an actor really, really wanted to have another go at it, he’d go for a take 2 or 2, take three. But it was a minimum of takes, which meant that I didn’t have a huge amount of footage to go through, barring the length of some of the takes.

They were long takes, but there weren’t many of them. But it also meant that when maybe the blocking wasn’t perfect, or there was a mistake or a flub or something like that, there always wasn’t a lot to go to. 

I really had to make the most of minimal options, but the thing that keeps it exciting is the actors. Every actor came in off the book, and they just killed it. There’s not a weak link in the cast. Every witness is just phenomenal.

I loved some of the storytelling that the editing did with moments that were either held on an actor — like Kiefer after he spoke, revealing after he spoke what he was thinking — or the reverse — that you would cut to him a moment before. I was thinking about the intercutting the first time the judge asked Queeg questions, just choosing when to be on the person speaking and when to be on the person thinking.

In general — just in anything I do — I am always at least as interested, if not more, in someone hearing the dialogue than in the person saying the dialogue.

Putting the emphasis on the listener allows you to really pick and choose which lines of dialogue you want to hit so that when you do go to the person who’s speaking, you’re putting an emphasis on whatever they’re saying at that moment, rather than giving equal weight to everything that they say.

And it also gives you a much more interesting experience — for me anyway — which is watching an actor’s face who’s listening and thinking. 

As you say, you get much more interiority through an actor’s expression, the little gestures of their hands or their eyebrows or whatever it is, than you necessarily get from what they’re saying. I’m always looking for ways to put the emphasis there.

And then, when you do make that cut away to the person who’s speaking, you make sure that it’s something that will have a greater resonance because you withheld it for a while.

Your story about Kiefer doing two 22-minute takes makes me think, for many of us as editors, you would say, “Yeah, I had to cut there because there was a mistake, or the actor went a little south in the performance or something.” But truly, it sounds like you could say, “I’m going to be on the close-up now. I’m cutting to this shot for that specific reason, not to cover some technical issue.”

Yeah. Obviously, it’s always a mixture of both, and this film was no exception. You certainly try to make as many decisions as you can based on the pure creative needs of the scene and the moment.

Then you encounter a technical issue of some kind, and you have to do your best to build a workaround that feels as intentional as the work that you’re doing everywhere else in the film. Right? 

Billy used to call it “hanging a lantern on it.” When there’s a mistake that you can’t hide, then you lean into it and highlight it so that it feels intentional. “Oh, they meant to do that.” 

Because there were so few takes and because there wasn’t a lot of advance rehearsal — he didn’t meticulously choreograph the scenes — he was really just letting the counsel characters — Challee, who’s played by Monica Raymund, and Greenwald, who’s played by Jason Clarke, letting them just kind of roam freely.

Very often, the blocking was tricky because they would forget when the cameras would turn around exactly what their path had been back and forth. The witness would be looking in exactly the wrong direction. We’re not even talking about a 180 issue here. Right? The 180 issue does not apply in this movie.

It’s much more about eye-lines. Literally, the witness is looking to the left side of the courtroom, and the prosecutor at that moment is standing on the right side of the courtroom in the reverse shot.

And I would have 1 or 2 takes of this. Sometimes, when I’m staying with a character, it’s because I’m waiting for the blocking to realign. But also, using that kind of cutting tempo throughout the film makes it more acceptable in those moments where I’m also doing it for a technical reason.

Like, for instance, on the Urban character — who’s played by Gabe Kessler. Great performance. He did one take. It was out of this world, right? Just a terrific one-take performance. 

The blocking didn’t match at all on the prosecutor. I actually went to Billy because he was like pressing me every day. “You know, I don’t want this thing over-cut, Darren. But it’s got to move. It’s really got to move.”

And I said, “Okay, I hear you, Billy, on both points.” He said, “Let us know if we’re not getting everything.” So, of course, the trick with Billy is he’d say, “Let us know if we’re not getting everything. Let us know if we need to pick something up.”

And then I’d come to him, and he’d say, “Why do we need that?” He would tell you to come to him, and then when you came to him, he would mount such resistance to the idea that he needed to pick something up, and so I did a cut the best I could with the footage that I had.

There were some points where the blocking just didn’t match. I showed him the scene, and he said, “This is a great performance. Why would I want to reshoot this?” And I said, “Well, it is a great performance, but he’s a great actor, and he’ll give us another great performance if we just get him back in the chair and we know which direction he should be looking at, and we do a take like that.” He heard me.

We got the actor back and put him in costume. He sat around for two days in costume, waiting for his reshoot. The producers and I would be reminded, “William, Gabe’s here. We’re ready to do his reshoot.”

He said, “Can I see his take again?” And we would we put we would put it up in video. You would walk in and say, This is great! I’d say, “I know, but…” At the end of the day, he didn’t reshoot it.


Sent him home. And I thought, “Okay, just make the best of what I’ve got.” And there is a point: I had to find a way to disguise it, but if you’re really paying attention in that scene, there’s a point where — I used the judge as a round-robin to get away from it for just long enough.

And we put in a few little like Foley steps to make it seem like the prosecutor had walked to the other side of the room. But really, like she’s over here a few seconds later without actually the camera having moved with her to the other side of the room, she just pops up on the other side of the room and:

“That’s it. We just got to go with it.” But it was a combination of staying away from her for just long enough that it was plausible that she had crossed the room, and you’re just so caught up in everything else that’s going on that you don’t notice.

But that’s the kind of stuff that you press, and you press for that pickup or that reshoot, and then you don’t get it, and then you just have to make it work with what you have and pray that no one notices.

So you’ve got long stretches of a scene, but luckily it sounds like you didn’t have a lot of takes, so maybe organizing that wasn’t too bad.

The kind of process that we go through in terms of organizing was much less of a deal on this one. I think all in, there were maybe 20 scene numbers. No, it had to be more than that, maybe like 30 scene numbers or something.

And again, minimal takes, minimal setups. Really it’s a very austere shooting plan, which was by design. And as you mentioned, there’s the party scene at the end. We have two scenes back to back in the early going of the movie where there’s clearly a recess that’s been taken and a conversation both in the courtroom, and then it moves out to the hallway.

And then, immediately after the trial, there’s a short scene in the hallway. There were a few other little hallway scenes that we took out — other little breaks that happened that we just decided were unnecessary — and that really did keep the emphasis on the witnesses and keep that pace up. 

You’ll notice, with rare exceptions, that we didn’t let any witness get out of their chair and leave the room. We would lead them in a little bit — let them be introduced by whichever counsel was calling them to the stand — but almost all of them we cut while they’re still in the chair, and then immediately introduce the next witness and have them basically already standing about three feet from the chair.

That was all very intentional. In fact, he staged it that way. Really, most of those witnesses just walked to the chair from about three steps back. He didn’t even put them in the hallway to begin with.

Only Queeg walks in from outside, and really, only Queeg leaves the chair and walks back all the way outside. Only he’s given that sort of entrance and exit. Merrick, who’s in the room the whole time, has an entrance and exit to his own chair.

Everybody else, it’s just: get in at the last possible second, get out before the last possible second, and already be introducing the next witness. Billy wanted no shoe leather. Entrances and exits were not interesting to him.

That was his intention was to just keep it moving. Never let the audience’s interest in the proceedings flag.

I’m trying to think of score in the movie. Can you talk about that?

There isn’t any. We have a single drum march at the beginning of the movie — there used to be two, but then we simplified the main title, so we ended up with one little very, very short burst of a drum march, just to say, “This is a military setting” at the beginning, and we have a needle drop at the end.

It’s Boz Scaggs’ “Low Down,” which is sort of the music that’s playing in the party sequence when Greenwald goes in. The music is sort of turned off as he starts to make a speech, and then it comes back as the end-credit theme. 

Billy loved an unexpected needle drop at the end of a movie, and it just makes it fun. It ends the movie on a very sort of upbeat note and makes you question whether or not everything that you’ve seen is perhaps just a lark. Billy basically always said he didn’t want any score in the film.

He knew from the get-go. The question did come up from producers and executives — not in any kind of pressured way — it was sort of like, “Do you think there’s room for music?” I kept thinking about it, and I don’t know what it would do other than just distract.

The movie is so minimal and, again, so austere. I can’t imagine the music that would feel like it belonged in the movie. And usually, I can.

Was there any difference in the way the film started? It always starts in the hallway with the discussion of the guys coming in.

That is the first scene of the play. I think there’s a little bit of a preamble in the text about article 1108, which we dispensed with because that comes up in the trial and is the law that Merrick cites in justifying his mutiny or his alleged mutiny.

We got rid of that at the beginning. But the first scene of the play is Greenwald and Merrick walking in, and Greenwald basically telling him that he would rather be prosecuting him than defending him and just really laying down the terms of the tension between them throughout the whole thing, which is that Greenwald isn’t even sure he’s doing the right thing by having taken this case. 

The exterior of the building was shot in San Francisco on Treasure Island. That is a Naval headquarters.

I don’t think it’s actually a courtroom. It is, historically, an actual naval building, so they dispatched the AD up to San Francisco to make that one shot that opens the movie, and then after that, we’re basically indoors the rest of the time.

You mentioned that Friedkin doesn’t like looking at an editor’s cut. And there are definitely directors that feel the same way. Like, “What is the point of torturing myself with this?” But tell us what the process is if there’s no viewing of the editor’s cut.

There are a number of directors that I worked with multiple times, and so as you work multiple times with a director, you get to know their comfort level with certain things, how they like to work, and what their expectations are.

For Friedkin, who was a director who obviously has — for most of his career — wielded a certain amount of power. Basically, what he wants, he gets. If he doesn’t want to look at an editor’s cut, he won’t look at it, and nobody will talk him into or out of it. So that was how he always worked. 

He expected us to do a cut because he knew that that was how we would get to know the footage and how we would get to know any potential problems in the footage.

That’s how we would get to know that, for instance, we needed pickups, even if he would push back when you asked for them. He expected you to go through that process, and then he would come in a few days after shooting and really just put up the footage.

Start with scene one. We would put that together. Then we would move on to scene two, and honestly, he was very decisive. He was very quick. When we did Killer Joe — in that way — I think we had his first cut of the movie — he and I sitting shoulder to shoulder — in two and a half weeks, something like that?

Just blazed through it and had a really, really credible first cut. 

The reality is Billy was himself a great editor. He didn’t know how to use an Avid, but he always said he could never proceed with making any movie until he had already seen the movie in his head.

And when you have spent years with the guy, and you realize the clarity with which he remembers the most insignificant events from 30 or 40 years ago, you really understand that he has this incredible visual memory, and so once he has conceived the movie in his head, he knows exactly how he wants it cut.

He would come in with clear notes in his notebook and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the two, and now we’re going to go to the wide, and now we’re going to go to the insert.” He knew exactly how he wanted to cut it. 

He would count on my familiarity with the material to solve problems because his clarity of vision did not preclude errors.

Like the blocking issues, right?

Yeah. It didn’t mean there wouldn’t be mistakes or problems to solve. So he needed me there to help solve the problems. But he definitely came in knowing how he wanted it cut. And with at least one other director I work says, “Do the best cut possible.

I don’t even need to see the whole script. Just keep working on it.” He wouldn’t even come in for two weeks until after shooting, letting me do what I thought was the best version of the movie, even if it meant deleting scenes or writing ADR and doing all this stuff. He said, “Show me the best possible version.”

The polar opposite, right? In between, there’s a range of expectations and levels of comfortability with the work that I present them with initially, right? 

So to address the elephant in the room, Billy was not in great health when we made this movie, and it was hard for him to get around. So he came to the cutting room for the first two days of this project, we worked in the usual way, but we were working very slowly.

We hit that Urban scene on day three — the scene where we had the dodgy blocking — and he knew that I had asked for a reshoot. I said, “This is the scene that I asked you to do the reshoot on, and I’ve done the best I can with the footage that we have. I’d rather just show you my cut so you don’t have to deal with the blocking issues.”

And he said, “Okay, show me what you got.” 

So we looked at that scene, and he said, “That was great. What else you got?” And then we looked at the next scene, and then we looked at the next thing.

And for the first time in my history with him — and as far as I know, going back decades — he looked at an editor’s cut. We watched the whole rest of the film. He told me: “That’s too long on her. Pull that back a little bit.”

Maybe that note a couple of places. He had me cut the movie’s end short, that final moment. I had initially just sort of left that take through its natural end and let Greenwald leave the frame. He said, “No.

We’re going to cut that shorter.” And then he left, and he said, “I don’t know what I would have done differently.” He left me with like half a dozen little notes, which was not the expected outcome of that. None of what had happened in the previous two hours had been expected. 

Then he called the producer Annabelle the next day, and he said, “So when are you going to come see the movie?” And she says, “Well, I want to give you your time with it.” He says, “We’re done.”

Three-day director cut.

Three-day director’s cut. I mean, really, three half days. It was nuts. She said, “Are you guys really done?” I said, “Well, he seemed to like my cut.” So she and Matt Parker, the other producer, came in. They looked at it.

Over the course of the next week or two, we brought the studio in, and they said, “Thank you. Thank you for showing us the film.” They had no notes. Sherry Lansing — Billy’s wife — looked at it. She had one note, which was a very good note, which is that she felt like she wanted to see more of Merrick in the first half of the movie.

Billy didn’t really spend a lot of time covering Merrick during all of the various witnesses’ testimony. He basically did one long take on him. I’m pretty sure it was during Queeg’s initial testimony, and then never really bothered to put the camera on him, specifically during all of the other witnesses, so I just had to mine that one shot of Merrick for all of the reactions that we use throughout the movie, She needed a little more of that. She said, “This is the guy whose life is on the line. We should probably see him a few more times in the first half.”

And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” I went and found those shots, and that was it. I mean, I think the version that we locked — which by the way, was v 4 — was somewhere between 8 and 10 minor changes away from my editor’s cut, and that was unexpected.

Definitely, a twist ending on my 30-year career with Mr. Friedkin. And it was very gratifying. And at the same time, I thought, “I was supposed to have a job this year.” But the producers were very cool. They kept me on.

We couldn’t really move the mix dates or the color correction dates. Those were kind of locked in based on the schedules of the facilities.

Ten weeks later!

Yeah. I kept myself available, I was available to come in and consult on main titles, and we obviously had a few little digital things that we had to push through mics and things like that that needed to be cleaned up.

But it was a very minimal sort of supervisory role. And they were very, very kind to sort of keep me on for the whole process, knowing even in February that a writers strike was probably imminent. I was deeply appreciative of their generosity in that way. 

We really locked it — I mean, locked, locked — with everybody’s input within two weeks.

Thank you so much for chatting with us about your involvement and about Mr. Friedkin.

Thank you, Steve.