Today we’re talking with Dan Schalk, ACE about editing A Good Person which was directed by Zach Braff and stars Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman.
Dan’s filmography includes The Superhero Movie, She’s Out of My League, Judd Apatow’s The Bubble, and Girl in Progress. His work also includes TV like Kevin Can Fuck Himself, Parks and Rec and New Girl.
Dan Schalk discusses editing A Good PersonTell me a little bit about working with a director that has also written the material. I've done that a couple of times. What are the benefits or drawbacks of dealing with a director who's written the material?
The benefits I would say are, obviously, they know the material really well. They know the intent of it. There's no confusion between the intent of the director and the writer. You wonder about the intent of a scene when a director isn't the guy who's written it and you have different ideas about it. Drawback would be, obviously, writers love every word they write, and it's often very hard for them to get rid of any of it. That was not the case with Zach and we actually cut a lot. He was extremely collaborative, which was great. I've worked with writer/directors who are a little less willing to take notes.Tell me about the structure of the film at the beginning. Was that something that was scripted the way it was or something that you found in post the, starting with the model railroad and then into the engagement party?
It was scripted from the beginning. We did add the swimming at the top, the pool shot, just to open up that world a little bit. I like movies where there's a shot that feels out of context. The audience may think “What is this?” and hopefully it's explained later in the movie, but other than that the movie was pretty close to as scripted.
We cut some stuff. We were long in our first pass and took some stuff out. For the most part, the train thing in the basement was scripted that way.With Daniel, Morgan Freeman's character, I loved that you don't know that he's an alcoholic at the beginning, but that's revealed. Is that something that was maybe changed in the script, or was it always planned as a revelation.
It was always just a slow burn: letting the information out instead of having everybody come out and lots of exposition at the top.One of the things that I noticed editorially that I really liked was the jump cut sequence of Allison cutting her hair. I'm assuming that was pretty much the shot and there wasn't a lot of coverage.
She actually cut her hair for that! We just had the bits and pieces. They just were very specific about every angle, how much hair she took off, and we just worked our way around her.What do you think the power of a jump cut is? Why do jump cuts?
I love using jump cuts. We had to there. First of all, when a scene is playing out, sometimes it just takes too long to play out, and that sort of disturbance in the flow of the scene really helps with the character or the storytelling.
I've mostly cut comedies and use 'em a lot in that too. It's not just as a way to move through the scene faster, but as a way to change the momentum and the rhythm of the scene and catch people off guard a little.I even think I remember another jumpcut near the end of the movie when she's in rehab, walking down a hallway.
Yeah. She comes around the corner of the long hallway and then just jumps right to front and center it. That wasn't about time or anything. It was just about the feel of the scene and her journey.Talk about that nighttime withdrawal scene. There's 60 seconds or something of her trying to go to sleep.
Zach shot a lot of really uncomfortable angles. We're just trying to make it as uncomfortable and painful as possible. I think Florence did an amazing job. I don't know what to say about it other than again, jumpcutty and trying to convey somebody who's completely uncomfortable in their own body. A wide shot of them laying there, tapping themselves and shaking and switching positions in bed. We had a lot more where we were jumping her around in different positions and it just felt a little like it'd been done a million times, so we just stuck with being uncomfortable in her body instead of jumping around in different positions.There are great scenes of incredible emotion, but so many of those very emotional scenes played without music.
I think that was a decision going in. I feel like when we used music, it either made it too heavy or a lot of times in the movie we were checking ourselves saying, are we going too far? Is this too melodramatic? It's a hard movie to gauge, so we had to sit down with an audience a couple times and watch it, but we wanted to make sure we were pulling back from that.
And what are you gonna temp it with? There's only certain music that's appropriate for scenes like these and oftentimes the music just put it over the top. It was a decision to pull it back a little bit and just leave it in her head. Most of this is what's going on in her head and what she's struggling with. We didn't need to add to that.Somebody referred to that once as putting a hat on a hat. You've got the emotion. Why do we need more of it? There's a great scene that I wanted you to talk about, a couple of things. Choosing performance when you're looking in dailies. There’s a great scene where Florence and Morgan’s characters are having coffee and he says, “I used to come here all the time when I was a cop.” That scene is a slow burn. It starts out friendly and becomes more and more emotional. Can you talk about building that and creating that scene?
I loved that scene. I think it's so good between the two of them. Morgan Freeman's amazing. Florence as always was amazing. It's built in a standard way. We start wide, just them getting to know each other and we work in closer and closer until we're pretty tight on Florence and you see that she's just broken.
We took our time with that scene and I think it makes it feel very real. Not that it's less melodramatic, but less manipulative. We start wider and they're just getting to know each other and just keep coming in tighter. The amazing thing is they're both so good at reacting, they're both in the scene. I'm sure you've dealt with this too: sometimes actors, even very good actors, when it's not their lines, they're just not in the scene. You can almost see them waiting for their lines. That was not the case with these two at all. So it was an embarrassment of riches.There's a great prelap edit from the train to the AA/NA meeting. What's the power or value of a prelap?
A mentor of mine was an editor named Bob Jones who passed away last year. Wonderful editor. Worked with Hal Ashby. Bob once told me that on projects that he ‘film-doctored’, “The first thing I do is I remove every pre-lap. I show it to the studio and they already love it so much better.
There is a place for pre-laps and there are times to use it. But he felt like it was the most overused thing that there was, so I don't do it very often. In that case, it was the close-up of the side of the train whipping by and it just felt like really good transition energy and movement from where we were into the AA scene.
In that case it was so useful for energy and motion and keeping the story moving and that's why we did it there. I understand what Bob was saying. If somebody's talking, he'd much rather see the character that this line is landing on, especially in a drama. You want to see how it impacts the other character rather than burying it into the next scene. So unless there's a reason energy-wise or story-wise to do it, he'd prefer not doing it.One of the uses of a pre-lap that I love is: when you start to hear somebody saying something, and it's really maybe almost what the person is thinking from the previous scene.
When it's like a well-planned thing, it's great. Just a lot of times people don't know how to get out of the scene, so they say, “Well, let's put a little dialogue from the next scene under this.” A lot of directors don't really shoot transitions. You just cut it off and they don't think about the visual transitions into the next scene, so sometimes you have to do that.Let’s talk about the section that’s kind of like a montage after Florence Pugh’s character is having a coffee with Celeste.
Yeah, it's her drug trip. She falls off the wagon because she's just learned that her ex-fiance is dating somebody else. She goes home and snorts whatever she's crushing on the table, then it's a bit of a drug trip scene. It started out that way. We took it well beyond where I think it was scripted to go, so we started using reverse shots of her on the bike. It was just everything coming undone for her. We're going to the ceiling fan and superimposing her over her on the opposite side of the screen and stuff. And that was a really fun scene to cut. And I really love how it came out. I'm really proud of that montage ending with Molly Shannon knocking on the door and talking about Shark Tank, which is also just amazing.Improvised, or not?
Shark Tank improvised, yeah. I think that was about all the improv she did. She’s hilarious. I love the lightness that she brings to it. It’s a great counterpoint to her daughter looking in the mirror saying, “You're such a piece of shit. I hate you so much.” I thought that was really powerful.There's another montage where Allison goes into rehab and she sits and plays piano, and you use that piano song as the bed for another montage of her recovery. Can you talk about building that or was that built from scenes or was that meant to be a montage?
It was actually meant to be a montage. They just shot a lot of her in meetings, camera moving her out, enjoying the day where she's, looking up at the leaves and the trees and things like that. So it was shot as a montage. The one thing that was shot as a montage, and we used as a scene, strangely - we did the reverse - would be at the end when she gives the speech to the group and hugs her mom. That was all meant to be part of that montage and end with her seeing Morgan Freeman outside of the AA meeting when she graduates from the group. It just felt like it made the Morgan Freeman scene land so much harder when she gave this little speech first. So we sort of separated it out, had her give this speech, thanks everybody, then she sees Morgan Freeman.I could totally see how that it would need some more setup that Morgan shows up than just being in a montage.
Yeah, exactly. And you can sort of tell: the dialogue Florence was doing wasn't as precise as the dialogue that we'd been seeing. It was just sort of her winging it, thinking that it was gonna be laid way under music and we weren't really gonna hear it. She did a good job and we thought, “Boy! It hit! It lands so much stronger when she hugs the mom and it's all part of this scene.When you temp, do you think, “Okay, I'm cutting this kind of a movie? What other kind of movies are similar?” How do you choose what temp to listen to or cull from?
Normally it’s whoever's composing it, but we didn't have a composer at first. I'd rather temp with the composer's stuff. I have a huge library of temp score and I end up going to Thomas Newman and stuff I like. I actually temped from Shawshank Redemption at the beginning. But then I thought, “We can't have Morgan Freeman voiceover and use the temp from Shawshank.” It's just too much. But it felt right. It's just that you don't wanna be too on the nose, and obviously you're aware everybody falls in love with the temp if you do it right, so I didn't temp a crazy amount.
Normally I'll have the scene cut and then bring the music in so I'm not cutting to a beat that's a temp song or, or doing anything like that.A lot of the music often came in at the end of the scenes.
I think we sort of got in the habit of doing that because it's a slower movie. It is longer, meatier scenes. It started to feel like, “If we score this whole scene, it’ll just be too much weight. So we'd wait for whatever was at the end of the scene that sort of sparked something. It's being used as a transition and to avoid making them too heavy.I love talking about when NOT to cut. Like the first time Florence's character, Allison, opens up at the NA/AA meeting. Her performance is so solid that you just obviously didn't want to cut off of it.
That was the only moment I had a little bit of a twinge. There is a cutaway from her at the very top. It just bumped me a little bit so I wish I didn't have to do that. But I remember the discussion and we DID have to do that. Just for a technical reason. Her performance was so amazingly strong. I would've preferred not to cut away there. I would've preferred to just stay on her the entire time and do this push. We had to use the beginning of one take and the end of another. We couldn't use either of them all the way through.
We tried not to over-cut. Certainly there's a lot of cuts, like when Allison and her mom are fighting in the bathroom - you're gonna add a lot of energy. We want that to be cut, but whenever I could stay in something, especially with performance, I did. Why should I cut away just because I'm getting itchy. It's a great scene and it's a great performance and I think I always sort of feel like I should stay in it as long as I can.And in that shot you used, and I believe it was the cutaway to her sponsor, right? You just had the scene with the sponsor, so it was a very motivated choice.
I think it was reasonable to do and certainly you want to see Daniel’s response to Allison talking about his daughter.
When I was starting out, the hardest thing to learn was, “You don't have to cut just because you have all these angles. You don't have to use them. You don't have to overcut. If the performance is strong, stay in it.”
If you have an amazing reaction that tells you more than you're getting off of this person's face who's saying the line, then use that.Do you think editors are cuttier early in the process and then pull back on that?
I think I'd probably go the other way. I think I'll lay things out. I'll pick my performances. I think it happens more often that I'll add a reaction. I came from film. We used to sit and watch dailies together. I can't do that anymore. I have a little bit of A.D.D. I just zone out if I watch that much dailies in one sitting and it means nothing. I find it much more useful to do a cut and then watch dailies because now I know what I'm looking for. Now I know what beats I need. So, I'll cut the scene together, then I'll go watch the dailies of the scene and all of a sudden I'll see a reaction on the B camera that I never noticed. I’ll think, “Oh my god, that's perfect.”
I work with ScriptSync on the Avid. I'll just go through every line and that's where sometimes you'll miss a line or you'll miss a beat, but I'll click on the first line and I'll watch every take of it. Sometimes there’s something so strong in the closeup that you'll wanna start there. I know kind of the shape of how I'd like it to be, but then the performances dictate where we end up.
I just go through every take of this line. I put the line in. If there's another line from another actor, I'll go through to the next line. So I'll do two lines of an actor, find the best performance, then I'll do the line in the middle. Every take, just look through every take. It sounds tedious and slow, but it actually goes pretty quick. A lot of times there's actors who are like robots and every line is the same and you just start going through it a lot quicker.
Then I'll go through and make it flow a little bit and try to breathe some life. That's when you make the decisions to stay on characters and not go back to actors for lines. How do I make the scene good and not just bounce back and forth between these two characters? It's always sort of a balancing act trying to do that.
If it's a smaller scene - I do it in TV a lot more - I watch each master of the scene, pick the best one, and put in the whole master. Then just start chiseling away from there. As I'm watching it I think, “I should be out of this here and find the best place to go to.” Which I think is a better way to not be ping-pongy like you were saying. It's better for the flow of the scene. But if it's a six-minute scene - or something that’s really long - that's a waste that because you're gonna just carve up everything anyway.I do like that methodology. Understanding what the scene is about before you choose specific takes or specific angles helps because then you know more about the scene.
I think it's really helpful. That was always my problem watching dailies. I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't know what I'm looking for in terms of a performance. don't know the levels this actor should be at yet because I don't have the scenes before it. I'm not there. I just find it a waste.You mentioned how in later screenings of the movie you realized kind of the need to kind of get rid of music or to not have music. Did you also, in those later screenings, find that you needed to choose different?
No. We didn't change performances a lot. This is the most emotional movie I've ever done. Zach and I were very conscious of: “Where is Florence in this scene? Is she at a 10?” It was also tough because she's so powerful and she's so raw and emotional. But you don't wanna overdo that either.
I can't remember a single case where we went back in and said, Let's bring this down, or let's bring this up.” I think we mapped it out pretty good from the start. We're pretty conscious of what levels they were at within those scenes.Did Florence and Morgan give you those shades of temperature?
Yes, in the heavier stuff, not as much. For instance, the bathroom fighting with the mom, I think Florence knew what that was gonna be, and that's what we got. She definitely gave us options. As did Molly, as did Morgan.Were there any scenes that were tricky that you needed to rework for one reason or another?
Well, actually, the first one you talked about, we went through quite a few drafts of the montage where she's in the bedroom. I would say that's one of the things we spent quite a bit of time on at the end of the day, sort of reducing it was what helped us.
The scene in the basement the first time Florence and Daniel are down there took some work. It was one of those scenes where they were short on time. That was the only place where I felt like we had coverage issues. I was super impressed by Zach’s directing and obviously he's an actor, so he knows how to talk to actors and he's a very good writer. He’s the most collaborative director I've worked with, I would say ever.You mentioned how long the first cut was and trying to get it down to length.
I think our first cut was around 2:39 and I don't think Zach cared about the time. He just cared about when it feels right. When you’ve been cutting for 8 or 10 weeks, it gets very difficult to tell: when do things drag? At 2:39, we were definitely fat. There were scenes that we both felt were repetitive and maybe not necessary. We started cutting them. We'd try it without them and we'd watch it. To his credit, he'd say, "Yeah, let's lose it." There were one or two that I wanted to cut that he didn't wanna lose, and I understand why completely. It can be a painful process, especially for a writer. We would just watch it and he'd say, “Do you have any ideas for cuts?” and I'd say, “Yeah, I do.” And he said, “Do it and let's watch it.” And if I cut two things out, one would go back and then we'd do the same thing a week later. He’d say, “I'm thinking about cutting that scene, but let's leave it in for right now.” And sometimes we'd get back to taking it out and sometimes we wouldn't.
They were all great scenes, but it's also information that we've already got. So the question becomes: What's the most efficient way to tell this story? Do we want this one in or that one in? Or both? And in quite a few cases we picked just one.Did you do cards on a wall to figure that stuff out, or was it just in your head?
We did do the cards on the wall. I always do the scene cards and often I don’t refer to them. But with this we were on the wall quite a bit because we did shuffle some things. Just trying to get a grasp of where we were in her story and what we could afford to lose. It's the first time in a while that I really referred to them quite a bit. It's so easy to quite literally not see the whole picture when you're saying, “Let's take this out,” then you think, “Oh my God, what were we thinking?” But when you're looking at it on the wall it's just much easier to sort of understand, “Oh, no, no, no. You can't do that.”How were you interacting with your assistant editor if you were remote most of the time?
Same way we're doing here: on Zoom. I find the process pretty good and pretty efficient. There are some producers who hate Evercast. There are some who would rather stay home than drive into Burbank.
My assistant - whom I've worked with a million times - is a good friend, so it's just call him up and I don't see really much of a difference to be honest with you whether he's in the next room or 3000 miles away. I'll text and say, :Please find a song for this,” or “please get a train sound effect” or whatever, and boom, it's done. I love the remote thing only because it's given me the freedom to be near family now, which was always sort of a dream for me. I loved what I was doing, but my whole family was 2000 miles away. Now I get to see them all the time and it's great.Technically, how were you dealing with that? Were you both on shared storage of some kind? Local storage?
Our vendor was Digital Vortex. They had our Avids set up. They didn't have them in editing rooms at Universal or anything. They're stored in a data room at Digital Vortex. So they'll have each individual Avid set up, tied into a Unity or Nexus, then I have this little Mac mini and two monitors and I Jump Desktop into it. I was shocked how well Jump Desktop works. I've never had a problem at all. The picture's beautiful. There's no latency. It works perfectly. I did The Bubble for Judd Apatow. I did Kevin Can F**k Himself for AMC. I did Minx for HBO, and this movie for Zach all on Jump Desktop with Evercast.
For Evercast, you definitely need a good internet. I think personally I'm more efficient remote because on Zach's movie, for instance, if it was a weekend and I didn't feel like I had much to do, I just start messing with scenes. I would never, when I lived in California, drive to Burbank on the weekend and say, “Oh, I think I'm gonna go cut for two days on my own.” I get a lot more done and I still get to have dinner with my family, which is spectacular.
The other thing too about it being more efficient is - if you've done tv you know - I sit in an editing room with a director and people just love to shoot the shit. We'll just talk politics and whatever for hours. Never do that here. If I'm at my machine, I'm working.Totally get it. Much more efficient in many ways. It's wonderful to chat with you about this movie.
Yeah, I'm glad to do it! Thanks for having me.