The editing team discusses what it was like collaborating with director Matthew Vaughn, cutting for comedy versus action, that train scene, and more.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with two of the three editors of Matthew Vaughn’s comedy/action film, Argylle. Joining us for today’s discussion are Tom Harrison-Read and Oscar-winning editor Lee Smith, ACE.

Lee’s been on Art of the Cut several times including for Dunkirk, 1917, Dark Phoenix, and Spectre. Lee was nominated for a BAFTA for The Piano, for an Oscar and an ACE Eddie for Master and Commander.

Nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie for The Dark Knight. Nominated for a BAFTA and an ACE Eddie for Inception. And he was nominated for a BAFTA and won an Oscar and an ACE Eddie for Dunkirk.

Tom has edited Tomb Raider, In Darkness, and Children of the Corn. He’s also been an assistant editor or additional editor on lots of major tentpole films, including Wonder Woman 1984, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Captain Phillips, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Quantum of Solace.

There were three editors on this film, but we've got two on the call. Tom, can you tell me a little bit about the third editor?

HARRISON-READ: Yes. That’s Colin Goudie - or Col Goudie. He was editing film Tetris that Matthew was producing. When that finished, Matthew invited him as a consultant on this film to bounce ideas off and try things.

He was super helpful. I’d worked with him before on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and he was a friend of mine so that was all really harmonious and great. Then this movie was finishing and I was going onto another film, but unfinished visual effects meant it couldn’t finish and we had to just keep waiting for them.

Colin kindly said he would sit in until the visual effects are done. Unfortunately, that went from five weeks to five months and he stayed on a lot longer than he’d signed up for. In that time other things happened and Matthew had other ideas about the movie, so a few changes were made after that point. I was very grateful that he could take all that on.

Director Matthew Vaughn is certainly somebody who knows his way around an action film. Both of you have previously worked with him, correct?

HARRISON-READ: No, I hadn't. Lee had. 

SMITH: I did X-Men: First Class with Eddie Hamilton and that was my first outing with Matthew. This was the second.  

What is his collaboration style or how do you collaborate with him in the editing room?

SMITH: Well, this was an interesting project ‘cause we were in COVID while it was being shot. I was in Santa Barbara editing. My assistant, Pearce Roemer, was in Montana.

Tom was following the shoot on set around England and our crew - the rest of them - were all in based in offices near where Tom was. Then eventually I ended up in London but only for a couple of weeks before I went onto another film.

But by then we’d achieved a first cut of the movie and then I handed it off to Tom. The post was a incredibly protracted and long because of visual effects. So there was a little bit of interchanging of personnel coming and going to get it to the end ‘cause we were all off doing different films.  

HARRISON-READ: Lee managed to do a whole other film and then come back on to Argylle for another few weeks on his way back.


So Tom, it sounds like you did a lot of the collaboration after the initial cut with Matthew. How does he like to interact with you? Is he a “notes” kind of guy or is he a sit-behind-you-and-work-alongside guy?

HARRISON-READ: Because we started off working a lot on Evercast, working remotely, we were all spread out. Matthew wasn’t always keen to come into the cutting rooms because of COVID, so he would usually spend an intensive three or four hours working remotely on Evercast.

Or I’d go to his house or occasionally he’d come into the cutting room and blast through stuff and make notes - try things. Then he’d usually say, “Okay, you get all of that done and I’ll see it tomorrow.” He is not a director who sits and fiddles with frames at all. If he’s got a big idea, he wants to see it fully involved.

So you could try and talk about it and say, “Well if we do this, this has a knock-on effect for this.” And he will stop you, saying, “Look. We’re gonna waste time talking about it. I just want see it.” He’d be happy to spend two weeks doing an idea that he’s not even sure himself is worth trying just to prove it to himself.

He gets very intense about and excited about his own work and his own ideas and he just wants to do a a one-on-one: “Let’s try this. Let’s try this.” until he gets to the point where he says, “Okay, now you finesse it” then he’ll go away and want to see it the next day. 

Lee, I'm really intrigued with the idea that Tom just mentioned, which is that Matt’s somebody willing to do two weeks of work on something that may not prove fruitful, just to prove it to himself. Can you talk a little bit about the value of working on a scene or working on an idea that doesn't end up in the movie?


SMITH: I think that’s the job of being an editor. It’s experimentation and if you’ve got the joy of having enough personnel and enough time, then crazy ideas can get an outing.

When I was an up and coming editor, I used to basically be given all the crazy ideas knowing that the odds of them working were slim. It is one of the joys of working on a film with a reasonably large crew.

Obviously on a lower budget film with one editor, you’ve only got so much time to do what you can do because these are such wild and crazy ideas sometimes they take weeks to flush them out and then perhaps amount to nothing.

Tom’s got a great personality where he can do that and if it doesn’t go the right way, he doesn’t throw himself out the second floor window.

Director Matthew Vaughn and furry feline friend

HARRISON-READ: Matthew was delighted with the first assembly. He actually said, “I’m not used to this, I haven’t really got any initial notes because it all works.” There’s some crazy stuff in this film, and he knew he was sort of pushing the envelope a bit and he was just so delighted that his idea had come to fruition - how he imagined it.

So we were starting from this point where he was very pleased with the movie. Obviously we had to compress stuff and tighten it up. A lot of these ideas he was having was because he was happy and he had his feet on solid ground so he just wanted to try to rearrange stuff and see if it was fun.

It wasn’t ever at a point where none of this was working. We never were at that point where you get to - I certainly have with directors cuts - where there’s bits that work and there’s bits that the director isn’t happy with and the film needs some re-imagining.

We started off from the point where he said, “This all works and this is basically the movie that I had in my head.” So we had the luxury of being able to experiment early on. Because of the long visual effects process, I think he just thought he had time to play and try out things.

Almost invariably there was something that came out of his experiments.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Argylle

There's a lot of comedy in this film and a lot of action. Do you approach those two types of scenes the same way or does the comedy take a different mindset to work on? 


SMITH: For me it’s just editing. I enjoy a laugh like everyone else and I enjoy good action. I have talked to a lot of comedy editors who are very specifically comedy editors and they have some very specific rules that they apply to comedy editing.

It’s interesting because I’ve never thought in such a specific sense. I can tell what’s funny and what’s not and I can tell good action from bad. The film was shot with the intent to be humorous - enjoy the ride, don’t take it seriously every possible moment. 

At the train fight - when Aiden was being held out the window, just before he throws the guy out the window, I laughed a lot because he said, “That beard’s real, you dick!” as the guy goes out.

He literally pulled his beard and I guess the glue stuck, but it was hilarious. Things like that are comedy gold, we call it “the laugh bank.” Audiences love to laugh, but having said that, I don’t work in comedies normally… I’m a funny guy, right Tom?  

HARRISON-READ: Absolutely. I think Australians have the same sense of humor as Brits, so I always go straight into the ‘taking the piss’ kind of sarcastic sense of humor.

Quite a few of them have said, “What’s your problem? Why are you doing that to me?” But Lee’s not one of them. He’s a very droll character. We have a similar sense of humor, but I agree with Lee completely as well.

I don’t think that there’s a different hat or head that you screw on for action editing or comedy editing. 

Both of them are rhythm and timing in my mind … and taste, really. If you trust your own taste of something that you think feels good for action or it makes you laugh for comedy - how long to hold it before the eyebrow gets raised or before the retort comes back.

I just think it’s something that comes naturally in the judgment that you have to have if you’re an editor and the confidence you have to have in feeling if something’s working or not. It’s almost exactly the same thing. It’s a rhythm thing. It’s a timing thing.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Samuel L. Jackson in Argylle

What about action scenes and how they're organized?

HARRISON-READ: We had a specific approach that there were stuntvis made for every single action scene for all the set pieces. A lot of them were designed by Brad Allen before he tragically died in prep for this film.

So people were very keen to honor his choreography and it was shot very much in line with the stuntvis in a way it had its own way of organizing itself. So it made it quite easy to put the initial build together because you had something to reference.

Lee and I approached this actually differently because I was in a trailer in the unit base on set. I tended to assemble the cut of the action using the template of the stuntvis. ‘cause I knew that the second unit director was gonna come in and wanna have a look at it and everybody was gonna refer to it.

Lee, on some sequences, preferred to not reference a stuntvis at all and just judge the dailies as dailies which was a great luxury that we could do that. I’d never really had a film that had so much wall-to-wall stunts.

Everything was planned out with cardboard boxes and stunt guys and quite elaborate stuntvis with visual effects and temps - AfterEffects stuff done to them. So we had that template if we wanted to use it.

Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in Argylle

SMITH: I literally don’t refer to stuntvis at all. I look at it maybe once, but to me, I knew Tom was there and I knew that the second unit director was there and I knew that they were covering it so there was a way out of whatever they were doing.

But I preferred the more freeform thing of just cutting it from what I was seeing. Coming from a world where we used to do action films with no stuntvis I think obliging yourself to stuntvis gets you all tied up in knots and you don’t get the best out of the material.

But if you can be doing it simultaneously both ways, then you get the best out of everything ‘cause there were things that were very awkward then Tom would look at the stuntvis and we’d realize that they changed something  or the actors couldn’t quite do it..

So then you’ve gotta cut around that, you’ve gotta use other angles or think it through, It was a lot of fun to cut those action sequences and the ones that were in-camera were the most fun for me. The ones that had a lot of visual CG work that had to go in were probably the harder ones. The smoke dancing scene had to be kind of followed because it was a dance routine and also because of the amount of smoke.

That was a very tricky thing to use with visual effects. I remember when I went off and came back after doing Empire of Light, I think Tom had finally received one of the smoke shots and it was very gratifying ‘cause I said, “Fuck this could work!” If you wanna do a trippy hallucinogenic smoke scene, these are the people to do it. 

Henry Cavill, Dua Lipa, and Jon Cena in Argylle

Lee, you've got several credits earlier in your career as a sound designer. Talk to me about the importance of sound design and how much of that you still do to sell these action sequences.

   SMITH: I always love to cut with as much sound work as I can possibly get. Pearce Roemer's my assistant and we started building libraries, but if a cut's gonna have music, you wanna be playing it with music and this film was obviously gonna be driven by music so getting appropriate temp in there right from early is crucial.\ \ I think that's why Matthew was so happy with the assembly: because it played like a movie. We're always trying to make things work with sound, even as rudimentary as you can do in an Avid and taking a lot of time to fill stuff out and making it work and Tom's equally interested, invested and good at it and we all are.\ \ So I just think it's the only way to know that the rhythms are working. You've gotta put the sound in. I worked on a particularly bad movie that'll remain nameless, really early in my career and the editor had given me this sequence that had someone being pursued by a guy with a rifle and he's shooting, but every shot and ricochet, even though it was the same distance was different in time between the ricochets.\ \ I had to go back to the picture editor and explain that this is just not making any sense to me, which is tricky when you're 19 and you're telling someone who's been editing their whole life that and I remember his response was: “Well fucking cut it yourself then.” And I did.  Great way to learn: on B-grade movies.  

Thomas, you assisted for Eddie Hamilton and for Lee both. Tell me about the progression from assistant up through additional editor or whatever, associate editor and getting the editor’s spot. I know this isn't your first editing job, you've had several, but talk to me about that climb.

HARRISON-READ: I was an assistant for 16, nearly 17 years. I went to the National Film and Television school after my second movie I was on as a second assistant.. I went to film school because I couldn’t get on an Avid.

The first assistant wouldn’t let me near it. He was not the nicest guy and goaded me into applying to the National Film School saying, “If you wanna learn how to be an editor, go to school.” So I did it - learning everything I could.

I could have come out and cut tv - there were jobs offered straight out of film school for it - but I went back to features as a trainee even though I’d been a second ‘cause it was the first job that I could find. 

Then I quickly went up to a first assistant within a couple of years - basically let everybody I was working with know that I was interested in the storytelling and interested in the creative side.

I had to get very good at all the other stuff just so I could keep getting hired and build a reputation up. But I just sort of took my time making relationships and spending every single day talking about how to make the story and the movie work the best way it can and, and learning. 

There was - in every film that I worked on - a version of the cut that usually wasn’t the end version that worked the best and I had to try and work out “why was this better?”

I kind of gave my own additional film education by working on big budget movies with all the talented people who were on them and discussing it the whole time. I was very lucky to get lots of stuff to cut. I always did the sound on every film. 

I was almost always thrown a rough sequence - just a production track sequence - and was told to track it sometimes with no time at all before people were coming in to watch it. It just really helps you learn how to make something instantly work and feel like a proper scene - feel like a movie. 

But the way I eventually got my break was I was on Star Wars Rogue One. I got told about a low-budget film, by the same company who made Gareth Edwards’ first film, Monsters. That film had a very low budget. All the HODs were on a flat, very low flat rate, much less than my assistant rate.

I spoke to Gar about it and he said, “I know those guys who are producing that. If you wanna do it, I’ll write you a recommendation.” which he did. I left just before I had to go to San Francisco on Rogue One. I didn’t assist again from that point. 

Dua Lipa and Henry Cavill in Argylle

What are some of the things that you learned as an assistant that you didn't learn in film school?

HARRISON-READ: Working in big-budget, broad entertainment feature films, it’s a very specific discipline of having to be able to tell a story in a short amount of time where you have to establish your characters very quickly. You have to keep the excitement and entertainment level up at a certain level all the way.

They can’t drop because the notes are always the same on almost every film that you ever work on. Reel one is too long, introducing the characters. The set-up of the movie is always: “You’ve gotta get through this. This is boring.” We joked on Tomb Raider - which was sort of the first big film that I cut - that “you had to get to the island quicker.” 

Then I heard someone talking about that on a film that didn’t have an island, that there was a literal island in that film. It’s the same in every film that you work on.

There’s always a point where everybody says, “You need to meet this character much sooner. How long does it take before this person comes in or how does long till we get to this set piece?”

I think the thing that you have in feature films is that you have to keep the nucleus of the character set up and the story set up interesting. 

Make you invest in it before you get on with the movie and the plot because the plot is usually the least interesting thing about a film in my opinion.

Particularly these big budget films: they’re a framework that’s there to hang set pieces and funny characters and charisma on top of very often there’s a version of a film where you speed it up so much at the beginning that you just don’t care about anybody anymore. 

That is a tipping point that you can quite quickly get to that point if you worked on a lot of films and say, “Look, I know you’re gonna wanna get rid of this scene but this is the scene where you connect with a character and if you cut this down too much - you may be bored of it after 800 times of watching it - but an audience member watching it for the first time needs this in order to understand who our protagonist is. 

That’s the sort of thing I learned working on all these big-budget films that I don’t think you could ever learn at film school. Just being around the evolution of a feature film from a long first assembly to the final product. It has so many forms and versions - so easily you can go too far cutting the heart out of a story.  

What about this film? What was the moment you were trying to get to?

   HARRISON-READ: Meeting Aiden on the train. Well there's two points. It's meeting Sam Rockwell and then the action sequence which follows straight afterwards. The train sequence.\ \ That's the template of what the film really is 'cause the film pulls a rug on you and kind of wrong-foots you all the way through. But at the beginning of the film particularly, you're not sure what kind of a movie that you're watching for quite a long time until the moment where that action sequence on the train starts.\ \ That is kind of the paradigm of what the movie is. Two different worlds are gonna overlap, it's gonna be action, comedy is sewn into it. There are character beats and before that what you’re getting isn't the whole picture. 

Lee, can you talk about that scene on the train? Specifically the intercutting of the two different heroes flashing back and forth. How did you choose those moments or were those tightly scripted when you were cutting between the two of them?

SMITH: That was one of those scenes when I was putting it together, I was just responding. The joy of that scene was that it was shot with both the lead characters - Well the three leads were basically stepping into each other's roles - between Henry and Sam and the stunt material was shot fairly quickly afterwards.\ \ So what was great with that particular scene is you had it all in camera so the choices of where to cut were sometimes dictated, but mainly I would just cut it for the lines like you were cutting a scene and then I decide that this is where we'll flip to Henry for two words, then we'll flip back to Aiden, then we'll flip to Bryce blinking. It could have been done a million different ways. 

In other words, there was no reason or rhyme, it was just fun. I was just enjoying it and never worked on a film with that style of editing, where you had down-the-barrel coverage of Henry Cavill as if she’s seeing him and then there’s the little blink visual effect.

I cut it without any visual effects of the blink and I thought it worked really well and Matthew kept saying “There has to be a blink visual effect.” We saw some early iterations and thankfully it’s quite tasteful in the final product ‘cause the early iterations were kind of weird, but it was a lot of fun. 

You just wanted to go on this ride with this crazy bearded man and this is where we had to set up just the whole dynamic and it came together pretty swiftly and everything just seemed to work on that scene and it wasn’t so heavily reliant on visual effects.

There was only one external train shot where the camera goes outside of the train and comes back in. The rest of it is just blue screen movement in the background and some fabulous stunt work in there. That was shot really early. That was almost the first sequence wasn’t it?

HARRISON-READ: Yep. That was the first sequence and the main unit moved on to something else but left Henry and Sam with the second unit. So we had almost two weeks of the train and my unit started shooting some other stuff with Bryce concurrently towards the end.

As Lee said, it all came together very well and Matthew came and saw it and immediately said, “Yep, this is the tone of my movie, this is the touchstone.

We need to kind of look back at this and make sure that everything has the same level of comedy.” The zany action, the character beats. He never changed Lee’s first cut apart from a few tiny bookend things didn’t change all the way through to the end. 

There’s always a scene in a movie that kind of nails it. Tone is so important in this film and that one was definitely the touchstone for the tone. Matthew said, “Yep, this is all gonna work. That’s what was in my head.”

Our assistants actually helped us find the piece of music and then Lee cut it so that it stayed in from the first cut all the way to the end. We tried millions of other things but we never got close to it. That was very fortuitous. We were told it needed to be a funky disco kind of vibe. It just instantly stuck like super glue.

SMITH: Temp music was fascinating because some of these sequences the three editors came up with everything for the first cut and then past that point, when I came back after doing another film, Tom through Matthew had probably tried about 40 or 50 iterations, different kinds of music and it was an ongoing thing that’s for sure. A lot of experimentation. 

HARRISON-READ: Music was definitely a big thing for Matthew in this. He wanted to not just fall back on the tropes that he’s done before and he specifically said, I don’t want it to be masculine rock stuff. We’ve got a female league character. Sam Rockwell is always dancing. Disco is the right thing to go for here. So there’s only so much disco-sourced music that you can use. 

SMITH: Surprisingly little. I think we heard every eighties disco track known to man.  

HARRISON-READ: I think we used the only one that had a high enough BPM to to be exciting ‘cause usually they have a good start and then they level out, with no gear changes at all. So the Sylvester track we used had loads of gear changes and it also was quite good at feathering in bits of score into it as well.  

I didn't realize there was score feathered in there.

   HARRISON-READ:It doesn't have score in that sequence but we used score based on that song. We did a whole bunch of stuff where the Argo themes were played in the disco thing using the the beat, the cowbells from that track which came and went from the film. 

I was surprised because I'd seen the trailer, and of course there's no Henry in the trailer. Was there a trick to choosing that first moment where you're kind of flashing between the heroes?


HARRISON-READ: His appearance was in the script and choreographed. We pan away and we come back again. We pan away when he says “all the other people in this car are spies,” we are in her POV and we pan away and come back and he’s turned into Argylle - into Henry.  

SMITH: That was a very sort of scheduled moment for Henry’s arrival.  

HARRISON-READ: The thing that you are maybe talking about is then he’s talking at her while she’s freaking out explaining that it’s all gonna go bad and that everyone’s gonna attack ’em and flicking between the two of them there.

It’s an interesting one because you had to be able to follow what they’re saying to a certain extent but also play it for the insanity of the moment and very much from her experience you didn’t want to cut too much on every, every line.

You didn’t wanna cut the words up to too much because he wanted a better follow and also to land the important parts. It was very funny and that first cut was the point that Lee chose that stayed all the way through.


You mentioned early on that Matthew was very happy with that first cut and you were able to do some experimentation because of that. What were some of those things that were experimented with?


HARRISON-READ: Two things that we spent absolutely ages on were probably the two most exposition-heavy sequences. The one in the log cabin where Aiden is telling Ellie what’s happening.

She wakes up and it’s the first kind of reveal of what you thought was reality and introducing the bad guys and then the actual introduction of Brian Cranston’s character, Ritter. They were two separate scenes completely. 

The scene with Sam Rockwell explaining to her - it was a good scene but it was quite a long piece of dialogue and then it’s followed by another dialogue scene to try and make the parallels between what she’s written in her book and the real bad guy. Matthew said, “This scene - I didn’t design it like this - but I think this needs to be intercut.” 

We tried so many different ways to cut that using the CCTV security footage that’s revealed to be on the screen that’s been spying on her life - going through that screen ‘cause he’s looking at the same thing in the Brian Cranston scene and then cutting between them.

We did that for a long time and then the other scene which was probably even more elaborate was when Aiden’s telling Ellie in the vineyard when she says, “Tell me everything” and then you have to have a lot of backstory filled in there. 

That changed the order of which things were being revealed and all the many layers of exposition to try and keep it interesting but so you didn’t feel like this is just a long dialogue scene - to feather in flashbacks and visualizations of what he’s talking about.

And that was a big thing. We experimented with different things because the visual effects were taking so long.

Matthew likes to put cuts together that he’s happy with for the visual effects sequences and then turn it all over and say “I’m not gonna change it until I can see what this is.”

Which is unusual because usually you have a studio head of VFX saying “No, no. The shot count has to be exactly what the shot count is. We’re not gonna have 400 shots. If you’re gonna cut a hundred of them out do it now. 

But because Matthew’s paying for it himself, he’s not beholden to that. He thinks, “This is kind of what I want it to be, but maybe it’s too long until I can see what it is actually gonna look like and feel like I’m not gonna cut anything out.

I want you to get it up to a certain point before I do that.” Everyone was saying, “Aren’t we gonna cut this down? We’ve cut everything else down.” But Matthew said, “No, I’m waiting for my versions before I do that. When you’re waiting for visual effects for a long time, you end up tinkering with a lot of other stuff.  

Is there an amount of management that goes into a movie of this size that's above and beyond the work in the timeline or is someone else managing that? Collaboration between departments, that kind of thing?


SMITH: Most of the films I work on don’t have that extended protracted timeline that was involved in Argylle because we’re just working to studio release deadlines.

So you know, Argyle was an anomaly where we got to the first cut and then I left thinking that, by the time I finished the other film I’d be coming back to supervise the mix.

And of course when I came back it had virtually not moved forward from a visual effects standpoint. It was a surprise that it took that long. But from a management layer, I don’t think it’s dissimilar to what you are doing if you were on a film that had six months in post. 

It would be laid out in front of you as to you’ve got this long to get the cut, you’re gonna do this many test screenings, you’ve got this long to make audience adjustments and then you’ve got this long to mix.

So when you have a kind of an open-ended end, there is no schedule, it just goes off into the horizon. That in fact does tend to make it kind of an unwieldy beast because I think the entire post schedule was simply dictated by visual effects.  

HARRISON-READ: Your question about whether big films like this needed a different way of approaching the managing or the running of the cutting room: This film was actually really different from all the other studio films that I worked on because on this film, the director is also the producer who’s also the financier of his own film.

And so there isn’t a studio, there isn’t a kind of pyramid level of people being worried about someone looking over their shoulder, or it was Matthew and then he has his producers and people who work with him regularly. 

The producers are all longtime collaborators and he’s the main producer. So there’s no politics in this. On other films, there’s more producers, more studio executives and the pressure that comes with kind of keeping all those people happy, keeping them all involved, we didn’t have any of that with this film.

Even though it’s a big budget, big movie, that is a definitely a thing that is a different vibe from working on small films. 

The first assistant editor on a big feature film is sometimes someone who has to be a little bit more like a first assistant director in terms of the way that they have to say, “No, we’re not doing this.”

They have to protect the editor a bit and the director and try to dictate when things get released. You have to be strong and confident enough to keep everybody back and communicate with the directors and the editor. It wasn’t the case in this film, ‘cause it was Matt’s rhythms that we had to follow. 

There are a lot of people involved in the post process and they all want to be up to speed all the time and that’s obviously not possible if you’re in the middle of a recut of something. It’s pointless for people to react to it when it’s not a new line in the sand or it’s not a new version.

Keeping everybody happy, keeping people at arms’ length when they need to be kept at arms’ length is a thing that very much is more specific to big budget films and…  

…Falls to the first assistant…

HARRISON-READ: Well it depends. There are some editors who like to be really involved in the politics and the running of things and some - many more - who don’t want to have to deal with that stuff. The first assistant’s job is to kind of protect the editor and the director and let ’em get on with cutting the film and also to look three or four turns down the road at what’s coming up and preempt it so no one’s gonna get caught out.

I’ve worked with some editors when I was an assistant who wanted to be involved in some stuff and most of them just said, “Look, if you need me to put my shoulder behind something, tell me, but if not, you just get on with it and tell me the things I need to know.”  

Lee, other than this opening train sequence that we talked about, was there a scene that was either very difficult and challenging or that you just loved cutting that you could talk about?

   SMITH: I think the train was the most fun for me because visually it was the most complete for my time on the film. I think the Hyde Park scene - Tom did a really good version of Hyde Park that was intercutting with everyone.\ \ I did a good version and then I looked at Tom's and then I took some of Tom's stuff and incorporated it and that was a great collaborative moment where we realized we're both very much on the same page but with this style of overlapping editing where people are finishing the last statement and everything, I hadn't done any of that before and I did find that a lot of fun and enjoyable. 

I saw a screening of it here in Santa Barbara for the first time, which was a shock to me because I’m seeing completed sequences that I’d never seen and a mix that I’d never heard.

So there was a lot going on in my head and changes that I didn’t know had happened. But there was a lot of good hard editorial work. That scene in the vineyard that Tom was talking about that was recut, cut, recut, recut, recut, cut, reorganized…

It was reorganized differently to how I did it for this final screening. The first scene between Ellie and Aiden, when Aiden was explaining to her that she used to be CIA blah blah blah, Tom and I watched those dailies and it ran for like 12 minutes!

I’m looking at it thinking, “This is not possible! I would be a basket case.” So I made it my mission - and my bold statement was - that by the time I’m finished with it, I’m hoping it will be half that on my first pass. 

Now you don’t normally make sweeping statements because if your master’s running 12 minutes, it’s tricky to get it down. So there were those scenes that were just super challenging that you just looked at ’em and I thought: “two characters sitting for that amount of time, we’re screwed.”

We’ve gotta work out how to do that. And there was some material to intercut, but not a lot. We got a reasonable pass and I think in the end result it was reordered. 

Those are the really heavy-lifting scenes where - for most people watching them - they’re the least likely scene you’d ever imagine took any time.

And yet there was an amazing amount of time afforded to that sequence. Sam Rockwell, God love him, he is different in every take. So you also got trapped with different takes, different things that were happening. I mean he’s an amazing actor.  

What about you Tom? A big challenging scene or a scene that you loved working on?


HARRISON-READ: The most fun apart from the train was where they go into the apartment and the guy bursts out of the floor. That was a really fun action scene and the whole scene when they raided the building. Sam Rockwell was ad-libbing a lot and I think we mined a lot of good things out of that.

It was just quite a lot of cutting down, making stuff tighter. There’s scenes where the ones that that work a little bit less well or are obviously way too long and you have to find a solution for are probably the most satisfying things.

I think at the end of the day when you kinda say, “I cracked that.” The day that Matthew said, “This scene where you introduced Ritter is finally working” was an amazing relief to me ‘cause we had tried it in so many different ways and even came up with new characters that weren’t in the film! 

All the bad guys’ in the fictional world have a counterpart in the real world and we realized one of the bad guys doesn’t have a counterpart in the book.

We even went to the extent of inventing another character to see whether that would help clarify that the fictional world is the same as her real world where everyone has a counterpart.

The scene that I really love is the head-crushing scene because it’s where Matthew’s pushing it a bit on whether this is gonna be acceptable to an audience: that they’re talking about crushing skulls and comparing it to watermelons and cracking an egg.

Sam Rockwell was nailing it on that one and just giving us good adlibs all the way through it. 

Argylle, Avid timeline

The one that Lee just talked about in Hyde Park in the script, the fictional heroes and the real heroes will all be trying to solve the same problem when we intercut.

Matthew, at one point said, “Maybe we’ll do this in split screens,” to which Lee responded to saying, “If we’re doing that, Tom, you are doing all of that. I’m not going near it,” which I think was a call callback to X-Men: First Class where there is split screen. But that’s a 1960s aesthetic where split screens kind of made sense. 

I think Lee asked Eddie to do a lot of that stuff because he’s not a fan of split screens and I’m not a fan of split screens and I said, “I’m gonna try and make this so we don’t have to have split screens and to make the intercut as bouncy.” It’s dry exposition really. They’re trying to go through firewalls and things like that. 

You need to cut that in a way where that is not the point of it. The exposition and the information you’re getting is in it, but that’s not the point of the scene. And the point of the scene is that all of the worlds are kind of intersecting with each other and we’re having character beats and we’re having fun with it. 

If the fun drops too much in a movie like this, you’ll start to lose the audience. We both did a version of this intercut and it was a very symbiotic experience. Matthew was absolutely delighted with it and we didn’t have to do any split screens.  

That shows your success right there.


HARRISON-READ: Exactly. Exactly. He never mentioned split screens again, so that was a big win.  

And Lee, the idea of having this long dialogue scene that you - on the first cut - almost cut in half. That's pretty unusual, but I can understand why. It's so interesting that you said it's a scene that you wouldn't have thought was that difficult, which makes you think all these awards for editing - you'd look at that scene and say, “That's an easy scene to cut.” But it's not.

SMITH: That’s the thing with editing awards: only the editors know the complexity of what they’ve done. I know films that I’ve cut that were just acutely complicated and they don’t get any interest from the awards. That’s the nature of the beast.

There’s sequences I’ve cut in movies that I always get asked about and they say, “That was amazing! How did you do it, man?” And say, “That was easy. That didn’t take any time. That was a joy. What you’re missing is the other scene that was a fucking nightmare and we were pulling our hair out and it was all shot wrong and they were undercovered.” 

The other scene that I forgot that I really enjoyed was when Brian Cranston reveals himself in the Savoy. Again, that was three great actors in a room. It was just a joy to edit that sequence. Again, it’s a seemingly simple sequence, but it was just intensely enjoyable. They were all good in that scene and that was a lot of fun.

Tom, Lee, thank you so much for joining us on Art of the Cut. It was so enjoyable talking about this movie.

SMITH: Thank you, Steve. And thank you, Tom. 

HARRISON-READ: Thank you. It was great.