Award-winning editor, Michelle Tesoro, ACE, on the bold yet refrained nature of director/actor/writer Bradley Cooper’s ode to Leonard Bernstein.
Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Emmy and ACE Eddie-winning editor Michelle Tesoro, ACE, about editing Bradley Cooper’s Maestro.
Michelle won an Emmy and an ACE Eddie for editing Queen’s Gambit. She also edited the feature films Flag Day and On the Basis of Sex. And TV series, including Fringe, House of Cards, When They See Us, and Ballers.
Thank you, Steve. I am very proud of it.
The quote at the top of the movie is from Leonard Bernstein: “A work of art does not answer questions. It provokes them. And its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.
This isn’t a quote that Bradley had in the beginning. It’s something that he came across when we were editing and still kind of putting it together. It’s just something that I feel the movie was telling us how it wanted it to be.
I feel like how we’re presenting Lenny’s life is. He loved everyone. He was this way, and he was that way, and it was not really for us to judge or only present one version of him. At best, we really wanted to try to present him and his relationship with Felicia and Felicia, as well as truthfully as possible, without judgment.
And it kind of affected the way that we ended the movie, showing different sides of him, not trying to make anything too rose-colored and just presenting him as we think he was - from the stories that the Bernstein family told Bradley and from his own research. That’s kind of how the quote informed the filmmaking.
You’re talking about the window where they’re kind of silhouetted, and the party is going on inside while they’re outside – with their romantic banter of getting to know each other and getting the feeling that they’re together with the world outside of them.
Director Bradley Cooper and editor Michelle Tesoro, ACE
No. A lot of times, there wasn’t any coverage. The first day of shooting, which was that scene with William conducting the scene when he was much older, and even the scene with Ely, the first day, he got all this coverage of the orchestra and different angles to only do one more take.
That ended up being the magic take that we leaned on heavily, but every other scene, what you see in the film, is as Bradley intended and as we cut it.
I always felt in very good hands knowing that Bradley was thinking about how this scene was going to play within the entire body of the film. He knew that a specific moment was something he wanted to play “in one” - because he knew he was going to be in close-ups before or after that.
Instead of thinking about coverage within a scene, it’s really about the movie as a whole: How are we going from one to the other, and how are we covering the whole film? I know that sounds kind of weird, but the movie, instead of individual scenes, it’s movements - sequences that are made up of a variety of close-ups, oners, moving shots - things of that nature.
For me, I started to look at the film as a whole. How are we telling this part of their story, and how are we landing - not from A to B to C, but A to K, for example - throughout the film?
We’re using a lot of Bernstein’s music. It lasts perhaps over several of these scenes, so it has the general flow that you’re following as one of many moments within a sequence.
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan
No, it was incredibly easy. Sometimes people think – when you have a lot of coverage - “Oh, this gives me a lot.” But honestly, it’s like, “Where’s the direction here? What do you want me to do with it?” But with this movie, it was really apparent to me what the good takes were.
I never got any script pages that said, “This is the best take” or anything. He specifically did not want our script supervisor to indicate that at all because he wanted me to be able to look at everything - including any rehearsals or other pick-ups - and decide what was the best., just so he could see a different perspective before we got into it together.
Sometimes, there were just four takes, and I would use the third take and “Bob’s your uncle,” which is great. Obviously, the performances are amazing, and sometimes he would just stop after he knew that he got it, but it did make me focus on the scene as a whole.
So, once we got more scenes that were within the same sequence, that’s where the real work began. How do we compose this whole sequence?
Avid Media Composer timeline
Yes, as soon as I’ve got them in the Avid. I have bins that are represented by what I think the reels might be, and for me, I just go through the script and think, “Okay, this feels like this might be a 20-minute reel here, or a reel here,” just story-wise where do we end up?
I know I’m going to end up changing those choices later, once Bradley and I have gone through a pass of the film, and you really get more of a sense of what the reels might be. But as soon as I finish assembling a new scene or getting a oner and picking the one take, I would immediately put it into a reel.
That reel might have empty spots waiting for the material that they would shoot later. So once I knew I had a string of something together, I could look at it a little bit more and be able to send that to Bradley - as soon as I had something that he could watch and comment on.
That was shot that way. That’s their performance in the take.
Carey Mulligan in Maestro
This is a moment where they’re clearly already dating. It’s gotten to the level in their relationship that he’s taking her away on a weekend to Tanglewood - a very important place for him.
They’re at dinner, and it’s after he’s had this conversation with Serge Koussevitzky about how Lennie could be the greatest American conductor if he leads basically a “clean life.”
Then we slip into the magical realism worlds - the world of the musicals that he’s writing. She’s wondering, “Why would you ever give this up?”
And he says, “It’s not serious music. I could be the great American conductor.” And she asks, “Is that what you want?” That’s when he says, “Well, I want a lot of things.” And he’s looking at a single sailor. And I think it’s a moment where - if you didn’t know it before, he loves men as well.
It is our way of telling you that Felicia knows it as well, too. So, we’re hanging on her, and we’re seeing her take it in, and he’s taking it in as well. Then, he becomes a sailor and starts wooing her. So, it’s this really complicated way to represent the complicated nature of their relationship.
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Maestro
Yes. But, we always called it the “Fancy Free and on the Town” number. I love that sequence. Yes, Bradley meant this to be a microcosm of their story: how they would fall in love and have obstacles and finally come together.
That was so tightly choreographed by Justin Peck. Bradley did a really good job covering it and directing it, and it was a lot of fun to do because you have a musical track, and everything is sort of planned out. I love cutting dance because it’s like cutting action actually - beautiful action. I always feel like action sequences are also choreography. It’s definitely a very intricate choreography for this one.
In order to wrap my head around the dance scene and have something to follow, we did one huge “supergroup” of all of the setups and sunk it to the playback. Then I laid the whole thing in one timeline and I would just add an edit and go through all the different setups and land on which one that I wanted.
Every time I would add an edit, I would think, “Musically, I think I want to cut here, and then what is the best cover?” I had it in the timeline, so that actually really came in handy when it was Bradley’s turn to take a look at it and make the changes that he wanted and be able to say, “Oh, can you show me all of the takes of this?”
Or, “Oh, there’s another camera that I want to look at,” and we would just flip right through in the sequence without ever having to go back to the bin. They had at most two cameras, sometimes just a single camera, so it was really a bunch of single-cam setups.
Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in Maestro
Oh, this was a challenge! There were there were so many good moments! (She’s exasperated)
There were so many great moments, but you knew that the movie would be better when this wonderful scene is out: you leave it in and something’s wrong and you take it out and you have to play it again and gauge whether that made it better or not.
We had so many wonderful scenes. We had this wonderful scene of Young Lenny, when he was first a guest conductor after his debut at Carnegie Hall. He comes into rehearsal and the conductor strangles him because he can’t stand him. It’s out of out of jealousy.
Actually there’s a scene later on when he’s wearing the Harvard sweatshirt and he’s talking to Jamie about the rumors at Tanglewood, and he says, “Oh, you know, Arthur Burtynsky, he almost strangled me out of jealousy.”
That is the scene that he’s referencing! This wonderful scene that we had to take out. We had it in the beginning of the movie - like in the first 20 minutes – because we follow them fairly chronologically.
The first 20 minutes of a film is so delicate: what you include, how you draw the audience through their story, how you’re presenting, what you’re hypothesizing to them, what this film is going to be about. And it kind of held the movie back in a way.
It sort of reinforced the idea of the movie in the beginning as being a biography of Lenny, which it isn’t. The movie is a love story, and it’s about Lenny and Felicia. It’s a great scene…
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Maestro
It doesn’t support that. So, after living with it for months and months, we had to kill that very cute toddler of a scene.
Bradley had a very specific idea for that cue. His idea behind it was that you had the two sides - represented by Lenny and Harry and Tommy and then the family - and the guys coming in on the turf of the family. That’s how he felt: the vibe that West Side Story medley represented.
Bradley Cooper in Maestro
Bradley has balls. I will say that he’s got balls of solid steel. He talks about how he tried to shoot this movie fearlessly, and that is an example of where he felt strongly about this composition. He loves the fence there.
Bradley Cooper in Maestro
They’re obstructed. They’re caged. It’s this gridded prison that they’re in, and they’re in one little section of it: He’s in one section of it, and she’s in one section of it, and they’re far away from us. We’re kind of observers.
It really is the bookend to the Thanksgiving sequence where they’re far apart, and then they come together, but they’re in the same frame.
That was a scene that we put in and took out and put in. What’s so real is the arguing, and the fact that he stands up and he sits back down and the way that they’re arguing. You really just feel her wanting to say something but not being able to express herself.
At the end of that, we’re in the Thanksgiving argument scene, and she does express herself, and she basically is saying the things that maybe she wished she would have said in that one scene that you talked about near the pool.
That was written into the scene because the kids come in yelling, “Hey! Snoopy’s here! What are you guys doing?” It’s interesting that you say that because as we’ve been cutting it, we’ve shown this movie to so many people for feedback, and that came up a lot. Does it come up because of our expectations as an audience of what we’re used to seeing in a big dramatic scene? “We’re going to have a closeup now.” We defy the expectations.
I also think that when you deliver a scene like the audience expects, you’re doing the work for the audience. I feel like a lot of the way that Bradley decided to shoot it - and what we’re doing here is making the audience participate a lot more and setting up a scene of more tension.
You don’t know what’s going to happen in the scene. Beyond that, it just feels more spontaneous. You really get to see the performance.
You get to see body language. They’re really moving physically closer. He’s sort of crowding her. Even just the way she’s sitting on the sill above him, and he comes in - sort of laid-back - in the couch, and just the space between them.
Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in Maestro
Bradley uses humor a lot to kind of break up tension, but I feel like it really helps you to stay in the moment. It also gives the audience a chance to release the tension and be ready for more drama later.
I only saw benefits, to be honest. What’s lovely is that as an actor, Bradley can control the pacing in the scene, and he’s so aware of that when he’s in the scene. I didn’t realize that until later when we were cutting.
He told me, “It’ll be interesting if I just directed something and I wasn’t in it because I wouldn’t be able to control their pacing as much. When I’m in a scene, I can control it a little bit more because I’m in it, and they’re reacting to me.”
For me, having a director who is also on screen had a lot of benefits. What we were starting with in terms of the footage was really as close to the rhythm and performances as he could want.
Bradley Cooper in Maestro
That’s funny. Yeah. It’s good that you bring it up. But you know what? I never do that anyway. That comes from me sometimes not knowing the actor’s name. I know Bradley’s name, of course, but I know the character. I’ve just gotten so engrossed in what we’re doing and in this story that I just call the character the character.
Before Maestro, I edited Flag Day with Sean Penn, who directed and acted in it. I would always refer to Lenny as “L.B.,” “Lenny,” or in the third person. I never said, “You did this,” or “The take where you do that,” or whatever. What is good about Bradley is he’s not self-indulgent. He’s very aware of what he’s doing in the moment. So, there wasn’t a whole lot to correct.
There’s a shot of the singers, there’s a shot of the chorus, and there’s maybe three shots towards the end of the musicians as well as Felicia. There are maybe less than seven or ten shots that are not the oner in that whole six-minute sequence, but the oner just takes you through different angles.
Yes, we did have other coverage of the orchestra and other things, but every time we did try to cut to something else, I thought, “That’s not as good. I’d rather just stay in the shot.”
Then the shot reveals Felicia which ultimately is what really gives the shot its purpose, because you think you’re just experiencing the music he’s conducting - and you are - but you realize that the shot is the answer to the scene before, when she’s speaking to Shirley and she’s speaking her truth about why she can’t stay away from him and why she loves him and you actually don’t know whether she’s going to get back together with him until that moment.
So, you have all this tension until you see her blue dress over the shoulder in the reveal. So, it’s really meant to kind of answer that question.
Timeline screenshot of the Ely Cathedral/Mahler’s Second scene
No. No, I didn’t. I watched it after. There was a moment where I was looking through all the footage because we were looking for real things to possibly put in an end credits scene, so I watched it then, and I thought, “Wow, we were so close to what he did.” It was a really very good study on it and of Lenny and how he’s singing along with the scene.
Even when we cut out of the applause, I think in the mix initially there was a ring-out over the cut and we said, “No, no, no! It’s supposed to be a hard cut! No ring out! Hard cut! Super hard!
We’re making a statement.
At the mix, exhausted from making bold statements, it’s nap time for Bradley Cooper and his accomplice, Michelle Tesoro.
I love that sequence from when they’re arguing poolside and then we cut to him mid-composing of Mass, and then we go through the whole Mass and we land at Thanksgiving. To me, I really love that sequence.
I feel like, in general, what we do is musical. We’re telling stories with rhythm and we’re using pictures as our notes, right? I don’t consciously think of that, but I feel like even when I’m cutting, there’s a rhythm to how I cut because I use a lot of buttons on the keyboard.
I’ve been using this keyboard layout since like 1998, so there are some buttons that I actually don’t know where they are. I just have the muscle memory of how my hands move to remember how to get into trim mode or get out of mode or do this or that.
I just want to take what the director is looking for, and not have to think about the actual motion of doing it. In a lot of ways, that’s like playing an instrument. You don’t really want to consciously think, “Well, how do I get to that G note here?” You just want to do it.
Editor Michelle Tesoro’s keyboard
What I like is when we’re cutting, we cut a sequence and it may not have music or we’ve cut it together and we sort of are not paying attention to the music at first. We’re just looking at pictures and then we determine, “Okay, let’s put the music back in or turn the music back on.”
And it just sort of magically feels right, you know? Have you ever had that where you’re cutting and then you put a cue and it hits all the different swells? Especially classical music is so difficult to cut with, but when you put it under, it would swell at this great time, when we’re on this shot or that shot and it just lands!
That’s a really great feeling because then, you know you’ve rhythmically created something with the images that stands on its own. It has its own rhythm, but now it’s complementing the music.
Yes. … Oh, you were noticing that I was moving my hand up and down… for those who can’t see me…
Editor Michelle Tesoro playing the cello
What I try to do every time I do a different project is do something that’s going to challenge me as a craftsman. On this movie, because of the restraint and thinking about the editing in a different way that was just a wonderful challenge, because I think in a lot of ways, when you’re not cutting as much, it’s harder because where you’re cutting becomes even more important. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s just just another cut along with all the other cuts that are within 10 seconds,” right? Now it really sticks out when we decide to cut.
A lot of that was a gut feeling. “This is the right place.” There’s no real logical explanation. Sometimes the explanation is intellectual: you’re doing it for a reason, but there’s always a discussion to do it.
Michelle Tesero and Yo-Yo Ma
Yes. I think what separates this movie from the other things that I’ve done is that every cut is super important because of that. But I don’t ever feel like the pace is slowing down. It feels like a very good pace. I’m completely engaged and I don’t feel like things need to be cut here in order to be more engaging.
To me, it was a reminder of the other power of editing: the NOT edit.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.