Past Lives

ACE Eddie nominee, Keith Fraase, discusses editing the Oscar-nominated Best Picture Past Lives. Deep dives into why you should never label a take “NG” and how long is too long to hold on a shot.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with editor Keith Fraase, about the Oscar Best Picture nominated film, Past Lives. Keith is also nominated for an ACE Eddie for Best Edited Dramatic Feature for the film. Keith’s past work includes the feature films: Knight of Cups, To the Wonder, Chappaquiddick, and Song to Song. 

Congratulations on editing this film.

Thank you so much. It’s been a trip to be a part of.

Any clue that this was going to have this kind of resonance with an audience…the Academy.

I have a ton of anxiety and a lot of PTSD from past projects of mine. Celine Song, the director, is a very confident person and she knew the story she was trying to tell and everything. And from the get go, she had so much confidence in the film and I was always very excited.

I’m never really sure how something is going to come out or how it’s going to affect people, so I kept waiting. We were showing it to people and people were having very moving experiences with it from pretty early on. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: When is someone going to tell us that this is just not working?

We’re going to have to fix everything or to strip it all down and rebuild it and stuff like that. It was even at our premiere at Sundance, I was trying to enjoy it, but I was just so nervous. We were walking out after the movie finished and there was a big applause and everything, and I was with my assistant editor, and I said, “Let’s just go.

I don’t want to hear what anyone’s saying. I don’t want to hear them tearing the movie apart” and so on and so forth. It wasn’t until the after party that we started hearing more from people, we started getting some reviews in, and I realized that, no, it actually was resonating with people. It wasn’t until like the last second where I was actually finally able to let my anxiety down and really embrace the fact that people are being moved by this.

How did you and the director find each other?

That was just through my agent. Celine interviewed a bunch of people for the job. I was a little reticent to take it on because she’s a first time filmmaker. I had nothing to base it on. The script came to me - a lot of her collaborators have said this in other interviews - it was just the script that made all of us want to sign onto this thing. It was an incredibly powerful script, and she had such clear voice in it already.

Then I talked to her. Our first interview was on Zoom. This was still the dog days of COVID, so we didn’t meet in person. We were talking over Zoom from the get-go. I could tell that she knew exactly what she wanted to say. She was very clear and understanding of what she didn’t know and where she was going to need help from a collaborator in the editing room.

Any doubts that I had were completely dispelled.

They were partially dispelled by the script and the power of the script, then it was fully dispelled just by talking to her. We just kind of hit it off, bonded over movies. Just a typical thing with an interview, and she trusted me enough to say, “All right, let’s do this thing.”

Where did you edit this?

Mostly I was just at home. I was remote for all of shooting. They shot first in New York for - how many weeks, I can’t remember - then we actually had a month off where Celine came up to me. I live north of New York City, in Westchester. She’d hop on the train, and come up to the little village where I live.

We worked for a couple of weeks together. And then she went off to film the Korean part of the movie. It’s really nice to have those couple of weeks to sort of get to know one another - to see what we had already. She was learning a lot on set. She learned a lot in that little pause with our time in the editing room so that she felt even more confident when she went to Korea to finish the shoot.

Then I was working remotely while they were in Korea, Then when that finished, we worked a little bit at my house, but then we started to go in person and we cut it at Company 3 here in New York City.

(L-R) Greta Lee, and director, Celine Song, Credit: Jon Pack

Talk to me about that little break between New York and Korea, and what did that teach you about the material you were about to get? In other words, when you got the New York dailies, you didn’t know her that well. Then when you get the Korean dailies, now you’ve had this chance to kind of understand her better. Did that make a difference?

Definitely. First off, it took off some of the anxiety for me about being anxious showing the director the first assembly. I didn’t have to show her the whole thing all in one go, so it felt a little bit more showing someone a work in progress like, “Okay, here’s just the bare bones of what we’re working with.” Celine had spoken to me a bit before shooting began about style and kind of the tone she wanted for the film and whatnot.

She had sent me a bunch of films to kind of use as reference points, so I had some homework before things began. We had those as sort of talking points so we could have the same kind of vocabulary when we were discussing how we wanted to do things. This is even before she shot a frame of footage - I was watching a lot of Kore-eda films (director, Kore-eda Hirokazu).

I was watching Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. We watched My Dinner with Andre, some Wong Kar-Wai films - stuff like that. These were all the things that she was sort of like thinking of as how she wanted to tell the story, from watching those films and having those discussions with her before she began shooting. I knew that we wanted to go into this with a very minimalist approach - cut as little as possible. 

She wanted every cut to have meaning and advance the story forward. So that was kind of my modus operandi while she was shooting that first batch: I’m going to challenge myself to see how little I can cut. When I was showing her that sort of stuff and I was playing around a lot with music and trying different things it was clear that we were on the same page of what we wanted the movie to be.

But we were still trying to figure out exactly the tone of what the music was supposed to be. It was during that time we decided that going forward I was just going to strip out all the music and cut the movie without any music, which is very rare for me. I usually do all my assemblies with music and I’m very “music forward” in my editing. So this was kind of a fun challenge: “Okay, we’re just going to imagine what the music’s going to be.”

We’re going to cut without a soundtrack. So that was one sort of realization that we came to working together. But, you know, it really was just kind of vibing each other out, just kind of getting to know one another, understanding what our tastes were and where she wanted the performances to go. I think what she was mostly looking at was how she was shooting stuff - how that stuff was coming across in the editing room.

She had never been in an editing room before. This was the first time and it was incredible how quickly she was able to learn from what she was doing - the feedback that she was getting from what she had been shooting and how it was working in the edit. She was very quickly to see, “Okay, I know how I want to shoot these upcoming scenes. I know how I want to do this and how is it going to transition into this when we get back into the cutting room?”

What Kore-eda films did you watch prior to starting this and how did they affect you?

The one that struck me the most was actually Still Walking from director, Kore-eda Hirokazu. I had never seen that film before. There was something about how exacting it was - how precise everything was. I can’t remember all the details about it, but I remember there being certain edits in that movie where they would cut to a new angle for the first time and it would kind of open up a new understanding of a particular character.

This one particular shot is of the mother in that movie where all of a sudden we cut. from an over-shoulder shot. She’s sort of in darkness and she’s saying something more dramatic than she had said before. I can’t remember all the specifics, but I’m sure that edit sort of opened the movie up in a different way.

That movie is so sort of paced - I won’t say meditatively pace - but it’s just flows and it goes along in its own sort of gentle rhythms, but the film never feels like it’s dragging or slow. It just feels like these little subtle changes here and there, whether it be in the edit or whether it be in the composition or the performances, you’re understanding the characters differently, so a pretty simple story all of a sudden starts to open up and have all these different nuances and subtleties to them that make you like a detective and trying to figure out what these people have been to each other.

Anyway, it was really kind of a revelation to me to watch these movies,  In the edit you’re trying to solve problems, you’re trying to fix performances, just jumping around in coverage just to make things work into flow. And I was very fortunate that the actors really knew what they were doing.

Celine knew what she was doing on set, the DP knew what he was doing. The footage that was coming back was wonderful and was most of the way there. It wasn’t like I was having to solve a lot of problems. It was more I could just say, “Okay, now I can use the edit to really convey new information - to convey new aspects of these characters and how they relate to one another in the way that Kore-eda was sort of doing in his films.

You were talking about the cinematography and composition. That must have spoken to you about the pace that needed to happen. Or was it more her telling you or the reference films telling you the pace that you should be going at?

I guess it was kind of a combination of everything. Celine never really spoke to me prior to getting to the cutting room about the pacing of the film and wanting it to have sort of have a meditative sort of pace. But watching these films definitely had a big impact.

Definitely once the footage started to come in, as always, just letting the material sort of speak to me and tell me what it wants, trying not to go against the grain.

The way things were paced in the dailies was very much the pacing of the movie. I’m riveted watching this stuff. I’m in it with these people and I want to sit with them. I want to sit with them as they’re thinking through what they’re going to say next, as they’re absorbing the information they’re receiving from the other characters, so I don’t want to rush that in the edit. Let’s hold back. Let’s let this thing breathe.

(L-R) Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, Credit: Jon Pac

Speaking of breathing, there are moments of “color” in the film that do give you story, and they give you character and they give you a sense of place. Things like when they go to the Statue of Liberty and there are shots of the wake of the boat (seen in the trailer). Talk to me about using those and why they’re there.

Celine and I quickly figured out that we don’t want to use establishing shots, but the movie is very much about a sense of time and place. New York City is very much a character in the film. Seoul is very much a character in the film. When they go to Montauk, that’s a character in the film.

All these different places can be characters, so we didn’t want to just cut to this wide shot just to get you situated in the place. Rather, we wanted to use these moments that sets you in in a place, but evoke something. They give you some sort of color of what the feeling of these places are.

So I’m always on the hunt for those types of shots that can ground you in the reality of the space and the environment - that evoke something. When I try to state what they are, they start to sound corny, like, the wake of the boat - the churning waters - having to do with what Nora and Hae Sung are feeling inside. But once you give it words like that, it sort of sounds corny, but if you just put them there and it feels right… those are the shots I play around with the most. Let’s take these random expressive shots and see where they drop in.

My favorite shot in the whole movie is when they first get to Montauk. Our first establishing shots is just of a lemon in a glass of water on a counter. I think she happened to shoot it when they had some downtime. It felt so painterly. I loved it and I knew we just had to use it somewhere.

So I would just kind of throw that shot around in different places in the timeline until finally I tried introducing Montauk with it. It has some sort of ineffable quality to it that feels like what a morning in Montauk is going to feel like and Nora entering this space with these emotions and feelings sort of floating around.

Early in my career, I did a lot of work with Terrence Malick, and he’s very much about the environs and how places can evoke certain things in you. They’re always cutting into different shots of flowers and trees and weeds and things like that, trying to express what’s going on inside the character through their environment.

So Celine let me play around a little bit with that, but was very clear about when something really struck a chord with her. She knew it and she would indulge a little here because we’re trying to really get into the inner life of these characters through the characters of the cities and the places around them.

ACE Eddie nominated editor, Keith Fraase

I love that you called a close-up shot of a glass of water with a lemon in it an establishing shot. What you’re saying is that even though it’s not a big wide shot of a place where the characters are, it’s establishing the emotional context of what you’re about to see. I completely buy that definition.

We’re following these three characters, so we’re always just trying to make sure: Where are these characters? Are we with them? What are they feeling? Especially when it comes to Nora, just tracking her progress. It never really matters where she is in the city, but it matters where she is emotionally and where she is in the emotional setting of the narrative arc that was always the name of the game with Celine.

Celine had her meaning in hand from day one. She knew exactly what she wanted to say, and that allowed the experimentation that I always want to do in the editing room. It made it so fun because when she feels it, I can trust that we’re on the right track.

I just talked to an editor that was saying that one of the biggest things that a director can do for an editor is just to be very confident in knowing the tone that they want and to be able to explain that tone to an editor.

100%. I never look to a director to have all the answers. I kind of want them to have all the answers. My favorite thing about editing is the collaborative nature. I want the director to be able to diagnose when something isn’t working. “We can’t move past this. We need to solve this.” Then I can say, “Well, here are a bunch of answers. Here are a bunch of ideas. I’ll propose, you dispose.”

I talked to Celine about this early on: I’m looking for a director not to have a clear vision about what they want, but they have a hazy vision. And over time, in the editing room - working to make that vision come into focus. My job is that I’ll be the optometrist offering, “Which one’s better, one or two? One or two?” And she’ll be the one who chooses and keeps leading me until that vision is clear.

Avid screenshot of an early cut of scenes 12-16 of “Past Lives.”

I had never heard the “propose and dispose” thing, but I’m stealing that because that is just brilliant. I absolutely love that!

The most fruitful stuff came out of: “We have a problem. The sequence isn’t quite working. I don’t quite know how to solve it. Let’s just shoot the shit for a little bit, and talk about movies that we like. Let’s talk about movies that kind of remind us of this moment. After an hour of chatting about movies, someone will say, “I saw this one movie… what about this kind of thing?”

Or we’re just talking about our love of cinema in general, and we can be talking about something that has nothing to do with that moment, but then it’ll spark something. It’ll spark some idea in one of us, like, “Hey, wait a second! That could actually be the answer. Let’s try this!”

So much of the editing room - at least when I’m in the editing room - so many of the solutions come out of these kind of conversations. Not just about movies, but about life in general. I just love those moments when we’ll be talking, and an idea will spark, “Hey, let’s just play around with this thing… it’s almost working…Let’s keep going one step further. It’s almost like the universe is providing you these answers.

The connection between you and the director - there’s something about that spark that the universe says, “Okay, I’m going to give you this sort of mental image of how to move this forward a little bit more” and that to me is really where the magic of editing exists. Sometimes it’s tension and friction, sometimes it’s pure harmony, but it’s that connection between the editor and the director where I think the magic comes from.

Amen. So much of what we do is not in the timeline. 

You mentioned the shot of the wake of the boat when they go to the Statue of Liberty. I’ve been on a lot of ferry boats in my life and I have stared into that wake thinking so often, but maybe that means something different for somebody else and it still works, right? You don’t have to impose the meaning of that wake shot on the audience. I can watch it and say, “That’s my contemplation spot.” And somebody else could say, “It’s turbulence of emotion.” And they have a totally different interpretation of the shot. And both of us get something from the film that is different, but equally valid.

In my projects, I always have a bin  of shots that evoke something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s just something about them. They just evoke feelings. So I just put them in a bin, and whenever I run into some sort of issue or some sort of transition that isn’t quite working, I throw them in there and just see. Sometimes I just close my eyes and randomly drop them into the cut.

I don’t like being precious about my edits. I very much advocate for: “If something’s not working, let’s tear it down and rebuild it just to see. We always have the old sequence, so why not?” Sometimes I’ll just take stuff and just quickly close my eyes and reorder every shot. I’ll even leave the soundtrack the way it is. I’ll just move things around and just see: “All right, Universe, tell me, is any of this working?”

Sometimes I’ll do that and there’ll be one transition where it creates something I wouldn’t have thought of. “This is kind of interesting. Hey, Celine, get over here. Take a look at this. Is this kind of interesting?” Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes I’ll build a scene based on that random transition that just happened to fall because I moved stuff around. This is all just sort of my philosophy of “You don’t have to say what the meaning is, it just has to move you and yet be aware of what’s moving you.”

But I always put shots off to the side somewhere and if there’s a scene that we cut out, where I think, “Okay, but this one moment seems interesting” I’ll put it in a bin and maybe that’ll become a flashback or a memory or a dream or something later on. Who knows? Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff that I love so much about movies: The ineffable. The thing that you can’t quite say what it is but you just know it has meaning to it.

Screenshot of Avid Project with “Boneyard” bin, which consists of a Boneyard “Selects reel”

Do you name that “evocative bin” the same thing on every project?

I call it my boneyard. It’s a term I’ve always just called it. I just assumed that was a term that everyone used.

Absolutely not. That is very interesting. I’ve got a buddy that has a “junk in my trunk” bin that he puts in every project.

I like that! “Junk in my trunk.” I’ve always just called it my boneyard.

Much of the film is dialogue-less. How are those scenes scripted or weren’t they?

Everything is scripted.  I didn’t have to build so much for this movie. A lot of times when I work on a film, I have to try to cobble together something that wasn’t really there before. But for this film, it was pretty easy to build that first assembly, so it was more about paring stuff down.

Not to sound pretentious, but it was a lot like poetry where you write a lot, then you get the red pen out, and you just cross stuff off until you have just what you need. Everything in there is doing something and evoking a specific idea or thought or emotion. That’s what we did with Past Lives. The first edit was probably 2:30.

We watched it, and thought, “Well, a lot of this feels really great, but we’ve got to cut it down. Way too long.”

What was the final time?

(L-R) John Magaro, Greta Lee, Credit: Jon Pack

I think was like an 1:45. So we basically cut out 45 minutes from that initial assembly. Some of that was pacing, but a lot of it was just things that we just felt -  like teeny little transitions and stuff like that.

Moreso than any other director I’ve ever worked with, Celine is so willing to part with something that she feels is not absolutely essential. A lot of writer-directors are going to be very, very precious about what they write, and are very, very precious about what they shoot.

Especially a first time filmmaker is super precious about it because it’s the first time they were putting their their soul on film. But she was so quick to be say, “I think we can get away without this.” And I’d even argue with her: “Wait a second, I love the scene!” But we’d take it out and she’d be 100% right. So there’s lots of stuff that was taken out.

To your thought about some of the silences and some of the spaces between stuff: every scene had dialog taken out of it. Celine wrote all of that - anytime there’s a long pause where she really wants the characters to be feeling something.

For example, there’s a really long pause during Nora and Hae Sung’s first breakup over Skype. She wrote all that stuff. She directed them all to just linger in this. My first cut of that scene, I think, was probably even faster-paced than what we eventually ended on, because she said, “No, no. I want to sit with him. I want to feel what Hae Sung is feeling here. Let’s just linger on him. He’s doing a great performance. We’ll cut away the last possible second right when his emotion finally breaks.” That was all her and her pushing for that.

I never thought any of it was overwritten. I think she would might say it was overwritten, but she would pare stuff down, take stuff out. Like during the scene where they’re in “DUMBO” (an area of NYC, Down Under the Brooklyn Bridge) and there are these really long, wide shots where they’re sort of walking and we’re sort of seeing them from a distance.

There’s a lot more dialog there, but we pulled it out,  so they’re just saying these little snippets to each other and we’re letting those words linger in the air. They’re mulling over it. They’re mulling over what they mean to each other, what these words mean. Celine said, “Let’s let the audience feel that as well.”

It’s our tendency in modern day life to just talk, talk, talk, as I’m doing now, rambling on. But because so much of this movie is about people feeling out what the situation is and feeling out what the other person is sort of thinking and wondering. We wanted to let those moments sort of breathe so the audience could feel it and try to become detectives as well, to see what each one was feeling.

Fraase’s Work-from-home studio

The “DUMBO” scene is also one where there’s what you would normally call an establishing shot of the whole park, right? Is that the one you’re talking about? And they’re walking way off. They’re an inch tall on the screen or two inches tall on the screen, something like that, very far away. And instead of eventually cutting to them in a Steadicam shot - walking and talking - it’s that wide shot for the entire conversation. Or very close to it.

There’s only one cut in there. We cut to one front-on shot at a very specific time and then cut back to that wide shot for when they leave frame. I don’t think Celine shot any coverage for that. She knew she wanted to do that.

It was going to be a little bit more of a talky scene than what it eventually became, because we did strip out lines from that scene. Because you can’t really see them  - they’re in the distance - so we thought, “Okay, we can take out as many lines as we want. You can’t really tell whether their lips are moving.”

But she knew she wanted to start on the train going by and coming down and gently following them as they arrive. It would just kind of belingering, experiencing this conversation with them, even though they’re really, really small. There’s something about it as they grow closer in frame, as they become more honest with one another, and they’re going closer towards us and we don’t cut.

The only coverage they shot for that is this beautiful front-on shot where the wind is blowing the bushes in the background. To the eagle-eyed observer, every other person in the park is a couple. That was one of Celine’s fun little directorial choices. So we cut to the front. We see that for the first time - everyone around them is together. That’s the only cut that we do in the scene is when they’ve run out of things to say.

Then we cut and we’re looking at them for a moment as the wind is blowing. That was such a fun thing to do, because I know we’re going to linger on this. Can we cut anywhere? Well, let’s cut it right at this moment where Hae Sung has just said something kind of honest, and he’s talking about the girl that he’d been dating back in Korea and why they split up.

And he’s kind of made some sort of self-reflection about his worth. Nora doesn’t know what to say. These are the kind of edits that were so fun to talk about. How can we be very, very precise about this and really have meaning behind these different jumps that we’re doing?

(L-R) Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, Credit: Jon Pack

There’s another non-cut (partial “oner”) scene that I wanted to talk about, and you may say again that there was no coverage for it: There’s a scene in bed where they’re talking about dreaming in Korean and most of it is played on a two-shot, but you could have cut back and forth on close-ups if you’d wanted to. Talk to me about that choice and whether you had coverage.

We did have coverage. We didn’t have a whole lot of coverage, but we did have it. We had to close-ups, some medium shots and everybody in that scene does have cuts early on in. It’s the very ending of the scene when they sort of turn towards one another and are kind of drifting off towards sleep and the camera moves in slowly.

That’s where we linger for a very, very long time. Celine shot some coverage for that last part. But I think it was always kind of implicit: I can tell this is meant to be done in a oner. All of the scene was building up to that moment.

That is a scene that was very, very tough because they’re not moving. They’re pretty much just lying in bed. The cuts have to be very precise to work for continuity sake, but then also because we don’t want to be cutting too much, when we cut to one of the actors close-ups we’ll linger on them for a while, they’re going to say some lines, they’re going to be listening. So what are the key moments where we want to be on Arthur? What are the key moments where we want to be on Nora? 

That scene was about twice as long as what’s in there now, so that scene has a lot of dialogue taken out of it. That was more of a calibration of trying to arrive at Arthur’s character. It was just a delicate balancing act, so Arthur didn’t feel too woe-is-me. He’s trying to be empathetic towards Nora and understand what she’s feeling. He’s also trying to express his own feelings and be honest about where he’s at.

It was a very delicate balancing act of not making it seem like he was trying to overtake her narrative by trying to center himself too much. So that was kind of tricky. That took a lot of back and forth to figure out what to take out.

It was the first half of the scene that took a lot of working and reworking to figure out how to do it so precisely so that when Nora and Arthur turn towards one another, she has this beautiful look in her eyes. I think she’s trying to lighten the mood a little bit.

She said something a little funny: “I’m just a girl from Korea,” and she gives a little wink to him. But he said, “You’re not really hearing what I’m saying.” Then she turned towards her fully. 

It’s at that moment that we cut wide to see the two of them together in the marital bed. They are as close as they’ve ever been in that scene, but we’re as wide as we’ve ever been in that scene. As he starts to share more and more about his inner workings, his thoughts, why he’s learning Korean - because he’s trying to connect to her - he’s trying to get closer to her.

He’s trying to understand what she’s saying in her dreams. The camera gets closer and closer. It just kind of felt right. The whole last part of that scene has sort of a visual narrative arc that sort of mirrors the emotional arc that’s happening in that moment. So, it was kind of obvious not to cut out of that too soon.

If you assume that the first scene in the movie is present day, the entire movie basically is a flashback. Was that the structure, I’m assuming, or was that devised later?

That was always a structure. There’s actually small subtleties - subtle changes that are different from the opening shot - where people are in relation to things versus where they are when we cut back to it at the end of the film. But that was always because Celine knew that she wanted to start the movie like this. So it was totally scripted, starting with the voiceover, starting with that push-in, then even the word choice: She said “24 years earlier,: and then later on it’s “12 years past.” 

There was a lot of discussion. People would say, “Why are you saying “12 years past” rather than, “12 years later.” But she said, “No, no. It’s so important - this word choice - because it evokes something happening. There’s an action to it. 12 years are passing. We’re not just jumping time and saying, “This is 12 years later.” We’re saying that what you just saw was time moving and it’s an experience you’re having. She was very specific about that.

To throw some more praise on her - how she’s thinking about these choices and how she was almost always 100% right.”

My relationship with A24 and with Killer Films - it was such a wonderful working relationship. I’ve always had challenges in the editing rooms where people have disagreements about where the film should be or where to go.

There are always fights. Everyone you know is trying to get their two cents in and this was such a pleasant experience. It made me even more paranoid, thinking, “What’s happening here? This is not normal. This is not a normal cutting room where everyone’s just kind of happy and totally on the same page.” Maybe that was just because they were so confident that Celine had a vision and things were under control

Celine knows the story she’s trying to tell. The proof is in the pudding. She’s getting good results. I don’t know if that’s just how A24 and Killer Films normally work. It was incredible to be part of something where everyone was in agreement about the things that were working. The relationships that we had in the cutting room were by far the best I’ve ever had in any cutting room.

(L-R) Teo Yoo, Greta Lee, Credit: Jon Pack

When you come to moments of awkward silence, or waiting, how long do you play them? You mentioned that Skype call - how Celine wanted to take it literally until the actor broke. Were there other scenes like that?

That’s always a matter of: “Let’s hold on the shot as long as we possibly can.” Actually, every shot was like that. Even if it’s a short shot. By the way, when I say “when the actor breaks,” I don’t mean he lost the character. It’s when the emotion changes or when we feel a musical shift in the performance. Sometimes we would just linger longer. Sometimes we felt like the rhythm had to be a little quicker and we wanted to see something different. A lot of this stems from the script.

I remember the first time reading the script, I thought, “The script is reading really well. I’m really enjoying this.” You finally get to the final bar scene and so many ideas that had been laid earlier come together. Then when you get to the final scene at the end where they’re waiting for the Uber, Celine wrote into the script: “And we will wait a full 2 minutes in silence as we’re waiting for the Uber to come” and it was even bolded in the script. I thought, “That is so ballsy. I am so excited to work on this.”

That set the tone for everything. If we’re going to be able to do that at the end, what else can we play with earlier on? How much can we push lingering on things and just letting these things play out? Let it breathe and not be too worried about the pace of the thing, because there’s not a whole lot of story that’s being told. Everything is sort of the feeling and the emotion and the vibes of it. So let’s just linger and look at these people’s faces.

Also, Teo (Hae Sung), Greta (Nora), and John (Arthur), did such amazing work and they’re such beautiful people on the inside. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them briefly, and they seem like such wonderful people. I just want to look at them. I want to experience them. I want to understand them through their faces.

So much of it was: just let the story be told with their expressions and their looks. I always kept going back to that. In the first break up between Nora and Hae Sung, you see Hae Sung’s expression change five or six times in one shot, and it isn’t until he’s ready to hang up that I want to cut away from it.

I want to linger with him and see the the road map of his face as he experiences the full weight of what’s happening. That’s sort of my mantra. In every cutting room, I always want to just linger on stuff as long as possible. I want to cut as little as possible. I think it’s just the kind of movies that I prefer, but this is the first time a director has said, “All right, let’s do that. Let’s challenge ourselves and really go for it.”

Waiting a LONG time for an Uber, (L-R) Teo Yoo, Greta Lee, Credit: Jon Pack

I love the idea that you mentioned how much you cut out of the film - 45 minutes but you still have 2 minutes of waiting for an Uber and you still have this long wait at the end of the Zoom call and you’re willing to sit in these moments despite the fact that you’re trying to make the film as propulsive as it needs to be.

Movies can be four or 5 or 6 hours long and feel like they’re 90 minutes, and a movie can be 90 minutes but feel like it’s a million hours long. As long as the emotion is potent and you’re with the characters, it’s going to feel like it’s all flowing along. So that’s really the main thing that we kept the mind.

The way I like to think about this can be summed up in one of the scenes that we cut out. There was a scene in the childhood section, right before we cut to the “12 years past” graphic. Nora arrives with her family to Canada for the first time and she’s at school. There’s a tracking shot of all the kids playing in the schoolyard.

Nora’s up against a wall by herself. Then we get to this close up of her and she’s sort of looking uncomfortable in this new world of hers.That’s when we cut away to “12 years past.” Well, there used to be a whole scene there where some boys come up and tease her and make her feel uncomfortable. We had that scene in there for a long time - close to the lock of the picture. It never was really landing quite right for us.

We always felt like it wasn’t the right tone for this moment, but we didn’t know how to get out of it. We’re making this huge leap. This the first time we’re leaping forward 12 years. This is very important. We found this shot of the young girl who played Nora that wasn’t meant to be used. They had started rolling the camera for the scene, but the two boys who were supposed to come in were off playing somewhere and they just forgot to yell, “Cut, “ so this little girl just sat there.

The camera’s on her and she’s looking uncomfortable, looking around, not sure what to do with herself and just being awkward in that way that pre-teen children are. We saw that and thought, “Great! This is perfect! Everything we want to say is in this one shot!” It’s a moment of silence.

So we used that instead of having this whole dialogue scene that we were supposed to have. It conveys it better than what was scripted. These moments of silence can convey so much more of the story than what has actually been written, and I think that that one case is a perfect example.

This is the actual bin from the “teasing” scene. Notice that no clip is marked “NG.”

The other thing that I think of when I think of that story - having seen enough dailies where that kind of thing happens - is that that take would just be written down as…

… “N.G.” Yeah.

Right! That would have been a clip where the script supervisor and the assistant editor would have just said, “This take is bad.”

I actually have told my assistant editor, Shannon Fitzpatrick - I do want to give her a shout out, she’s amazing. I’ve told her, “Never label anything ‘NG’ because I won’t look at it and I want to look at it. I want to look at everything. If it says, ‘NG” I know I’ll just ignore it because, as always, you’re getting a million dailies. You’re just trying to get through stuff.

I’ve seen, so many times in the past, “Wait, this thing that was labeled ‘No Good’ is a gem.” You always have to look at heads and tails of the shots and see what little gems await you when the actors aren’t fully acting out the scene that was written. No. Never, never allow ‘NG’ to be written in the dailies.

I love talking about assistant editors, and we definitely need to give them their due. Tell me a little bit about Shannnon and what she did on the film and about your relationship.

My assistant is Shannon Fitzpatrick, and she was actually credited as an additional editor on this film. I think all assistant editors are collaborators in the cutting room, but I do think Shannon went above and beyond. This goes to Celine’s philosophy of collaboration and how she collaborates with any of her partners on a film.

Celine, is so confident in what she wanted, but also very open and understanding of what she didn’t know and was open to receiving input. So that fostered a very collaborative environment in our cutting room. I heard it was the same on set, but I can only speak to the cutting room. 

We watched the movie constantly. We watched the movie every couple of days. Just Celine, myself and Shannon. Shannon would always come in and Shannon was always our eyes and ears. When Celine and I were trying to work on something crazy, we’d call in Shannon to tell us if it was working or not.

So Shannon was very much an equal voice in those discussions. Each one of us came to the cutting room with different tastes, different experiences. We’re all very different people in our personal lives, and it created this sort of triumvirate. Shannon, Celine and I are all in a text thread together. We’re always talking about movies and stuff like that and going out to eat together. It allowed us to feel like there was a team - like a tripod.

I never felt like it was all on me to solve it. It was never all on Celine to have to solve it. She was the one leading us and guiding us, but it really helped to have these different voices in the cutting room together. It just it made it pleasurable - made it enjoyable, and I think it really helped the work. We each had our little pet scene that we wanted to see in the movie. And if it got cut out, we’d say, “No! That was a scene that I loved!”

But by trusting the other voices in the room - if Celine and Shannon both think that the scene should be cut out - all right, I’ll let it go. When you can have a room that feels like that - where everyone is working in concert with one another in that way -  and you’re lucky enough to be three voices rather than just two, then I think it just makes the work even better.

(L-R) Teo Yoo, Greta Lee, Credit: Courtesy of A24

When you first met Shannon, what was it that made you think that she would be a good fit for you as an assistant?

I was actually trying to find a Korean speaking assistant, and I couldn’t. There’s a woeful lack of Korean speaking editors and assistants in the world, and I hope we rectify that soon. Celine is fluent in both English and Korean, but I wanted to have somebody in the cutting room who could help me as I was making the assembly.

Shannon just came to me because she was recommended by our post-production supervisor. I had a quick conversation with her. She seemed great. I had no idea that she was going to be that good of a collaborator, but she just has such a dense knowledge of film. She wrote her school thesis on the films of director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s the one who did Memoria, and he did Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

He’s a Buddhist filmmaker. His movies are very long and lingering and slow paced, and Shannon’s very much in that sort of vein. She’s very intelligent about what things can mean and looking at the different shades of meaning in a somewhat obscure, obtuse movie. So I just got lucky. She ended up becoming a stronger collaborator than I could have hoped for.

The film starts with this scene in a bar - some people trying to figure out what the relationship is between three people that they’re looking at - and later on, we come back to that scene when Nora’s husband and Hae Sung are talking and it’s played in a wide shot. Was there coverage there or you decided to play it in a wide?

I’m glad you bring that up. Yes, there was coverage and for a long time that scene cut to the “overs” for each one of them as they try to size each other up. That scene also had more on the tail. There was more to that scene. We cut it down for various reasons. I think this was one of the few times where I may have suggested it to Celine - usually she’s the one who’s suggesting something - “I love this wide shot. Can we just do it in the wide shot?” 

I remember this was another one of those moments where we were shooting the shit about different films. And I told her, “This reminds me of the scene in the Kurosawa film - the sequel to Yojimbo, called Sanjuro - where there’s a duel between the two Samurai, between Toshirô Mifune and the bad guy, and literally the shot is just one shot. It’s a medium shot of the two of them, staring each other down.

They have their hands on their swords and they’re not moving for a minute. 2 minutes. I can’t tell you how long it is. Finally, they both move at the same time. And Toshirô Mifune, his character, cuts the other guy and there’s just a gush of blood. It’s this incredibly tense and climactic battle scene that happens with just two characters staring at each other. So I kept telling her, “This is that scene. This is our Sanjuro scene.

I think that’s why it might work - just playing it in this wide shot - because we’re just going to look at them existing in a space next to each other. This is the first time they’ve been in a place together without Nora. What’s going to happen? It’s as tense is that samurai scene. That discussion sort led us to be bold enough to just sit in this wide shot and allow us to to lean in wondr, “How do they feel towards one another?

Are they being genuine? Are they open to one another? Is there still some reticence? There must be.” It just has so many more questions that are in the air if you’re not given the full picture of the thing. Whereas if you cut to the close ups, that’s what you’re getting. You’re getting exactly what everyone’s feeling at that time, and I think we want to make it a little bit more obscure in that.

(L-R) Greta Lee, Credit: Courtesy of A24

If I remember, we’re not even seeing their faces. They’re kind of turned sideways to each other. It’s almost a wide 50/50.

Hae Sung is turned towards him because he’s trying to talk to Arthur, but you barely see any of Arthur’s face. That’s what I like so much about it. You’re wondering, “How are you feeling, man? You just sat there listening, maybe picking up some of their conversation (which they had in Korean), maybe not.

He’s the inscrutable one. I kept wanting to lean to the side to see around his face. That’s what you want the audience to do. You want them to want something that they’re not getting because it makes them lean forward. I’m so happy that that ended up the way it did.

I think ending on the “Lean forward moment” - a great tribute to Norm Hollyn - is a great place to wrap this up. Thank you so much for a really fascinating discussion. I learned so much. Thank you.

My goodness. This was absolutely my pleasure. I love talking about the stuff. Yeah, this is great. Thank you so much.