Editor Laurent Sénéchal talks about the challenges of maintaining ambiguity around the lead character, the importance of precise pacing in revealing elements throughout the  courtroom scenes, and the many choices he had in dealing with flashbacks.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with editor Laurent Sénéchal who is nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing and an ACE Eddie for his work on the Oscar Best Picture nominee, Anatomy of a Fall. His previous work - for the last nearly 20 years - has been in French and European TV and features.

Congratulations on your ACE Eddie nomination and on editing an Oscar nominated Best Picture. Must be very exciting!

Thank you.

At the beginning of the film, a man dies. Was it scripted that we do not see him before he dies?

The idea was to start like a thriller movie. We were aiming to use this genre movie to lead the audience as far as possible in the complexity with our characters. It’s a movie that is not straight forward:

The point of view that you have about Sandra (the lead character), what is love, what is to be a father, what is to be a son? It’s really complex. So, you’re going to see a thriller, but an unusual one. We had to pay attention to this idea during the editing process.

Like many thrillers, there’s a pacing of the revelations – the things that are discovered about the death. When you were editing did you discover that the pacing of those revelations needed to change from the way they are in the script?

Yes. Not a lot, but it was really important to be precise with these elements because it was really hard to maintain this kind of ambiguity around Sandra (the accused party). We didn’t want to play a game, having the audience feeling that she’s guilty for 15 minutes, then she’s not guilty.

We didn’t want that game. We wanted the audience to keep their doubts about her, but to start to be endeared by her - to start to be with her in these intimate moments. It was a challenge for Justine [Triet, the director] to ask the audience to do both keep doubts, but also ask the audience to love her.

During the court room, for instance, it was hard to do because any slight detail could derail this contract between the audience and the movie. For instance, we had a very beautiful scene - the scene is still in the movie, but we had to redesign it a lot - when she’s drinking with the lawyer at her house at night.

There’s a lightness at the beginning of the scene, but the scene was very long. It was a ten-minute lasting scene, very much like a love story. They were talking about the past between the lawyer and her.

In fact, when we had this great scene that everybody loved in the editing room - even the producers – but in the mechanics of the trial, when we had this scene in the film, she she seemed really manipulative and we couldn’t stay with her in the courtroom when she was having very great feelings around her boy and around his handicap.

It was like, “Oh, now she’s playing again. She’s wants to seduce the jury.” So it was really important for us - and hard sometimes to create this path for the audience - not to think that she’s too innocent or too guilty. It was really important.

There’s a famous saying with scriptwriters that you start the scene as late as possible and you get out of the scene as early as possible. I felt that was one of the great things about this movie. Can you talk about tightening scenes from the beginning and from the end, or were they scripted like that?

Some of them were scripted almost like that, but it’s something that Justine is thinking about when she’s writing and editing. In editing we had to do it even more than in the script.

For instance, when the boy is in front of the judge Justine wanted to pop into it to have the audience be surprised, and also it has to be a bit harsh and rough the way we did things in the movie, because she wanted to be close to a documentary.

She wanted us to have the feeling like we were in reality - in a real trial.

Is that direction that she gave you before you started seeing dailies – or rushes - so that as you watch the rushes you would know that’s the way you should treat them?

For this movie, we decided not to make an assembly before she’s in the editing room. She was crazy about this step (the editor’s cut) previously. This is the third project we’ve done together.

And I lost her for maybe two weeks previously - as soon as she were in front of a rough cut. She’s so into acting. She cannot watch a performance that she didn’t choose or select. She has to do the journey with me.

She wants to be there. It’s a method that takes time, but it’s the faster way with her because she has to be there. Even if she’s really listening to what I’m feeling and my choices, she needs to be there when I do that.

So, since that’s an unusual way to work, can you explain how the process actually worked? Were you watching rushes at all during production or did you wait until the whole production was done?

I was watching the dailies when she was shooting, but we were only having a chat over the phone, maybe once a week. Maybe it was about some things that she had to know before shooting something.

She’d ask, “They are asking me to cut something (not shoot it). Can you tell me if you are okay with that?” It was broad conversations. The method is really simple. I adapt to her. So we watch all the material for each scene, and we are  take notes on paper - putting “+ + +” when it’s good and “not to see again” when it’s really bad.

We call this our market. We are going to the market to find where the good material is. That is the main goal for her: the acting, the performances of the actor. We start like that. She doesn’t want the ideas to overtake the quality of the acting.

She wants to be moved by the characters before thinking about what she’s going to say with it. She wants the performances in front of her. This is a very long method, but we are ‘digging galleries into the material.’ You are trying every option. At some point we have a scene, then we go to the next scene.

We are looking at maybe 20-minute sections before going to the next scenes. These are becoming movements - like in music - and we are editing section by section. The beginning is really a working process and very long and not fun at the beginning.

Though it is fun because the rushes were really good, and we were happy to have all this, but it all comes from the acting that we choose.

Avid timeline

There was a phrase in there that I didn’t catch. You said you were ‘digging galleries in the material?’

‘Digging galleries.’ We are discovering what is good. As if the material were a huge stone.

Does it also help you that you’re working linearly instead of editing Scene 14, then Scene 26, then Scene 3?

Yeah. That is one of the advantages of this method. Since we are not making an assembly, you can edit linearly. It’s really great. You can see it step by step. It’s great to do that.

I would’ve been scared not to do an assembly edit if the script was not like this. Because it’s a trial, it was easier for me to know where we were. We were not lost in this script because it was solid. It was not “everything is possible.” Because with Justine, so many things can be done.

When you are an editor, it’s hard not to have ‘walls.’ You have to close some doors.

I am always fascinated with the discussion of when to be on the person talking and when to be on a reaction. Can you think of an example? How do you make the choice of when to be off the person speaking?

Because we are using this method of putting pieces together, you are trying to make an edit cut properly, but sometimes it’s not working. Step by step, you are improving. Sometimes you are just touching it a little, but sometimes it doesn’t want you to touch it too much.

Because Sandra, Huller [the lead actress] is a very amazing actress we could be on her very long when she’s listening. That was great because sometimes it was a way to redesign other actors around her - even though the cast is great.

Justine is so into details. When everyone is speaking, we really had to use every tool to have the best acting. For instance, when the prosecutor is asking the student in the first courtroom scene, ‘Did you know that she was bisexual?’

I asked, Justine, “Are you sure you don’t want a shot on Sandra for this dialogue to see how she reacts to this information given to the court?” She told me, “No! The prosecutor is so great. Let’s stay there.” We kept the prosecutor in during this dialogue.

Justine’s view of editor Laurent Senechal.

Sometimes of course, she understands that we have to redesign things to make it all work. For instance, the 20 minutes scene at the end of the trial when they are talking about literature and all this, after the fight, there is a very long scene. Of course you cannot be boring. You have to surprise the audience. To find new angles because Justine is - at the beginning - very intuitive and very into acting, but when the, the movie is improving, she’s like everyone: she wants it to work and she can see that we have to cook things and not only put them together, we have to edit something that is fluid.

On one hand we are fluid. On the other hand, we are real rough. It’s really artisanal what we are doing. I spent 40 weeks on it to make it work. Sometimes that’s hard for the editor because Justine is really into acting. For her, the editing is going to work if the acting works. Of course it’s more complicated.

There’s a section in the trial where an audio recording of a fight is being played in court, and it starts with just the audio, but then it jumps to flashbacks of the actual fight, and at some point it comes back to the courtroom. Can you talk about the choice of when to be on various elements: when to be in the courtroom and when to be on the actual fight?

When I read the script the first time, I asked Justine and Arthur, “Are you sure you are going to do this flashback? Because I understand that it’s too long to stay in the course room with only the audio.

Which point of view will it be? Are you sure it’s going to work?” Because in the script it was a cut. I asked them to shoot it in a way that we have options. We can stay long in the courtroom before going in the flashback if we want to because I knew that this moment was going to be tricky for me.

They got very long shots on Sandra Huller. Also they got the audience in the courtroom.

What worked was to be long enough for the audience to be a bit lazy. The audience starts to get used to this audio thing, and that’s when I go into the flashback, and the fight is great and you are very soon taken by the fight itself.

Then, coming back into the courtroom we wanted it to be at the highest climax of the fight. But the climax – the words - what she’s saying to her husband - is so harsh. It’s really violent. The words are like weapons.

And, we wanted to come back to the courtroom then, because, like in the beginning of the movie,  we don’t see the violence in this movie. This is the contract. We are contradictory in a way making this flashback because it’s nobody’s point of view. It’s a brave cinema gesture, but it’s not the point of view of someone.

The discussion is around couples. What is to be an individual in a couple? How to balance this? What is the truth about what we are living in? This is the heart of the movie. It was great to have images and for the husband to be vivid and not only use sound here, but we chose not to show violence. We go back in the courtroom with the boy and with the contract of the movie.

The other intercutting that I’m very interested in is the scene of the son remembering a discussion in the car with his dad. Did you have a recording of the actual dad talking in the car? All we heard was the son reconstructing the conversation.

The father talking with the son was shot, but it was not chosen. We didn’t know if it was going to be the voice of the boy in the courtroom or the voice of the father, or both voices in the car.

For this scene, we also shot another version of Daniel, which was Daniel, but dressed like in the courtroom, but in the car, and he was talking as in the courtroom. We had all these options to build this scene, but it was too complicated. It looked like a very experimental movie: three Daniels in this scene was too much.

We wanted the audience to understand how complex it was, but we wanted to do it in a very accessible way. So we had to avoid all these huge ideas. I had several shots of the father and we kept only a close-up.

Very simple. He’s in it maybe twice. The voice of Daniel speaking while his father’s lips moved was ADR. We could have used the father speaking instead of Daniel but we had to cut too much. But Daniel was growing and his voice was changing, so we did the ADRs very early. It was tricky for the sound mixer to make it work, but they were great.

When the case concludes, there is an epilogue that goes for several minutes. Talk to me about the decision of how long to play the movie out after the verdict.

It was really a challenge editing this section because the last part of the story to tell was: what will their lives be like? We had to show how the mother and son reconnect and what their days and maybe years after that will be like.

We discovered that what was too much - after two hours and a half of the film - was a very long scene in the restaurant after the trial. They were drinking a lot. The idea was that it was so hard for Sandra to go back to the house and face her son that she was always asking for more alcohol and more.

The scene was great. As is often the case, a scene can be great, but we had to really cut it a lot because it was too much. What we kept was some lightness with the lawyer, as they are starting to quit each other, because it’s the end.

Even if you are having an ambiguous relationship with your lawyer, when the verdict has come, it’s the end. It’s really beautiful what’s happening - the chemistry between them at the end of the restaurant is really beautiful - but we had to compress the restaurant scene because we needed to get to what’s happening at home with her boy when they are together again.

Even in that scene we killed lines. Now it’s only: “I was scared to, to come back” and he answers “me too, I guess.” We have only the looks between the boy and the mother. It’s very complex, but for me it’s really nice at the end. There are no words to understand all the complexity. I think that the audience feels that ending.

We were not sure that this complexity and emotion at the end of such a movie would work? But it was great to discover that the audience was with us that far. We really felt that the movie was going to be hard for the audience, so it’s really great what’s happening around the movie.

I like the fact that you can - as an audience member - impose your thoughts on that scene. If there were words spoken so you knew what they were thinking, then that would be how you would feel about the scene. But I can think about the scene whatever I want, because they don’t say much.

Yes. Also, it’s fragile. It’s better not to say too much. It’s really precious and fragile. The conversation they have to have and the connection is not easy.

So in that scene where they’re in the restaurant - when they’re having their dinner with the lawyers - did you cut it originally the way it was scripted and then it was only in context or after several weeks or months of living with it that you said, “It’s gotta be shorter.”?

I cut it pretty long because the actors were allowed to improv. They were free to act what they felt, so it was like cutting a documentary. The scene was really good. It was hard for Justine, and it was the only scene where she left me, and I had two days to do something. 

It was very long, but that’s what she wanted because it was a really great scene, and it gave us some life after the trial. But when we were screening the movie, it was too long. We just couldn’t have it like that. One day we decided to cut it really short and it was better like that.

One of the great options we had when Sandra walks out with the lawyer was that Justine had them play the scene without any dialogue. She tried this idea many times for other movies and it’s a really great idea because even if you don’t use the whole thing, you can have some very great looks, very intense looks from the actors, and we use that.

I’ve heard of that idea of shooting an entire scene that has dialogue without the dialogue to use for reactions and pauses and that’s a great idea. I love it.

Were there any scenes that you cut entirely parts of the story that you felt didn’t need to be told or that you couldn’t fit them?

There was a scene - a very nice scene – with a medium that comes medium to the chalet in the room where Samuel was sleeping. The medium saw the dog vomiting with the pills. It was very nice scene when we had it alone, but in the mechanics of the movie it had the effect of Sandra being manipulative.

It was like she was using this opportunity to invent pills in the vomit and fake memories were coming instead of real memories. We had to cut it in order to maintain the ambiguity with her: Not too innocent, but not guilty either.

I mentioned the snowing scene when Sandra is drinking with her lawyer. It was a very long scene, very beautiful scene. We had to cut the lightness from Sandra Heller for the same reason.

Director Justine Triet and editor Laurent Senechal.

Those are some good examples. What about the photo montage under the opening credits?

It’s really interesting because it was really not supposed to be like that. We had this idea very late in the editing process. In fact, at the beginning, Justine wanted to have a lot of journalists around this affair, around this family.

And she wanted to use split screens, such as in the Boston Strangler - it’s a movie she’s really fond of. The beginning was supposed to be a split screen with the mountains and the boy and Sandra and the lawyer coming with the car. It was really complicated. One day we said, “Okay, only a beautiful shot of the car arriving.”

It was good, but it was a bit boring. Then she came up with this idea that we hear the son playing piano. This was beginning to be good, but we were very late in the editing process and we were looking for an idea to make the audience have some empathy for this family before the movie starts?

Justine had taken a lot of pictures of the characters - even with the costume design – so we used those pictures, and other personal pictures from the actors’ past, and we needed some VFX because the photos have other people in them or the baby was not there, so we used VFX to create a photo with the three of them as a younger family.

Laurent’s editing notes

One other picture that is really important is when the dog is climbing the stairs after the, the body is discovered dead. When the ambulances arrive, we are following the dog up the stairs with a Steadicam.

But the dog stops accidentally.  He didn’t go to from point A to point B like he was supposed to, so we used the photograph of the dead father from the point of view of the dog to cover the dog stopping.

That same picture of Samuel is the one that we see at the end of the movie. It’s just before the last shot when Sandra is laying on the sofa and the dog lays down beside her. That’s the idea of the structure: at the beginning and at the end, the dog and this picture of Samuel.

Tell me a little bit about music and what you temped with or maybe you didn’t temp?

There were never temp music in this movie because Justine wanted to not have score. We wanted the music to be like a character. It’s always diagetic (music that is playing in the scene). When we have music in the movie - the piano - it was a way for us to make the boy exist during the first hour.

Also, the music that represents the father is invasive at the beginning. It’s like the body of the father at the beginning. When the trial begins, we go back to this music. We start with the music played in the courtroom, and I think it’s very original and it is a way for us not to be in a usual thriller. We want it to be dry.

Was that a challenge for you as an editor, not to rely on that music?

For the first part of the film, I was wondering if it was going to work, as dry as it is now, because when we were in the courtroom, I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t need the music. But for the first part we have this strange climate in the house with the boy crying. We don’t know if the mother is lying or not. I was not sure that it was going to work, but I think it’s good.

Editor Laurent Senechal

Thank you so much for a great discussion. This is so fascinating. Congratulations.

Thank you very much for your great questions and your kind and warm welcome. It’s a great show. I’m very happy to have had this chat with you.