An undercover look at Errol Morris’ latest documentary with long-time editor Steven Hathaway.
Today, on Art of the Cut, we speak with documentarian Errol Morris’s longtime editor, Steven Hathaway. This discussion is about Morris’s latest documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, a revealing look at one of the world’s most famous novelists… and spy, John le Carre. The Pigeon Tunnel was recently released in theaters and on Apple Plus.
First off, shout out to Igor Martinovic, the DP, who just did an amazing job. Gorgeous. He’s such a talented guy. It makes my life a lot easier to have all those angles.
Just gives me something to cut to and allows me to kind of smooth things out in a nice way. I like editing with MultiCam.
I feel like it really helps craft the story, and Errol and his team have been doing that for a long time.
It started with an ESPN short, probably around 2014, with Wormwood. I think it was like 12 cameras. This was, I think, five, but it’s nice in editorial because it just allows you to construct it in any way and not really have to worry too much about coverage.
The Pigeon Trailer Official Trailer
The Interotron camera, the frontal camera, is the one where I tried to stay on the most. I’m sure that’s probably the most used one, but I was trying to accentuate those other angles, try to find ways of using them in interesting ways, but also not in expected ways, so it’s not always the most emotional moment where you’re super close to them.
Sometimes, you pull away from them and make them feel a little bit lonelier. There’s this one shot in the movie — I think it’s only in there once — where he’s in the corner of the frame, and there’s just all this blue on the side of him, and he just feels kind of isolated, and alone, and I feel like that’s part of the story. He’s constantly kind of telling you he’s alone in this world and that he’s kind of a solitary figure.
So, I thought that the
framing that Igor and Errol did really helped tell that story.
The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carre surrounded by blue
It’s basically two TelePrompters facing each other so that the interview subject is looking at the director, and there’s direct eye contact between the two of them.
But it’s a pretty simple setup. It’s really just a loop of two teleprompters, and it’s something that Errol has been using since the early 90s.
Editor Steven Hathaway on set in Hungary
I think for David, who is a literary guy, he always comes to a work of art and asks, “What perspective are you taking here? Who is the narrator?” So he kind of throws that arrow at the beginning: “What kind of narrator are you going to be?
Are you going to be God? Are you going to be my friend across the fire? What are you going to be?” So I think he was really trying to capture Errol’s eye line as to how he’s going to tell the story. I think that that’s what that was mostly about.
Then, they get into a little discussion about interviews versus interrogation and David’s experience about being an interrogator and trying to capture people into revealing something about themselves unknowingly, which, in essence, is the nature of the film as well.
David Cornwall known in the literary world as John le Carre
Well, it’s the title of his memoir, but it’s also this scene in his early childhood that he kind of stumbles upon. He walks up into this kind of pigeon massacre. There are all these guys with guns laying on the grass shooting up at these pigeons who’ve been released through tunnels so that they can be used as targets, and he kind of understands a story that’s a self-fulfilling loop because the pigeons leave out of a tunnel and because they’re pigeons, they return where they live, only to be fed back into that tunnel.
I think David found that that’s what our existence is kind of like. We’re kind of leading to this fate, which in this case leads to death.
You can see it shown pretty clearly with the use of the footage from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in that opening sequence, where you see how David’s character starts at the wall and then ends with his fate at the wall at the end of the movie.
So you can kind of see how his works were constructed, like these pigeons, where a character unknowingly is searching down this road to their fate, which in a lot of these books means death.
David Cornwall aka John le Carre
Yeah, I mean, I think that’s what I’m most interested in as an editor, creating those kinds of moments and kind of combining two events or maybe three events, creating new juxtapositions and new meanings out of them.
I thought that by showing the inspiration of his work and the byproduct of his work, even though it’s a movie and not a book, you could get a sense of the artistic experience and how this scene really affected him.
It’s funny: that was one of the first things we cut was storyboards and that movie together, and we just had a scratch track.
We showed it to LaCarre to get him to do the film, and he really loved it.
No, it was the book on tape. So we just used his book on tape, put it under it, and showed it to him, but it was all boarded out. We did that about two months before the interview.
Yeah, we shot the footage in Hungary maybe 2 or 3 years after we did the interview. It was a long process. I think the interview was in 2019, and last year was when we were in Hungary shooting all that stuff.
The Pigeon Tunnel, Fact or Fiction clip
Before we shot that, it was mostly storyboards. And then, just like Getty clips of pigeons and, just kind of getting the themes in there. But most of it was boarded out as far as those vignettes go and the actual pigeon tunnel.
And then when we shot all that stuff, it kind of changed the piece a lot. Now, obviously, you just try to work it in where it feels the best.
That was last September, and I think we finished editing in January, so there wasn’t too much time to infect everything with all of the new footage. It was pretty well thought out before we got there.
There’s a story of his birth, which is this kind of imagined birth. There’s a story about him getting money from a bookie at a train track and being chased down by a thug.
There’s a story of opening a secret safe at the end of the movie and Hess’s pants.
The Pigeon Tunnel, Recruits 50s clip
Her leaving in David’s memory and whether or not she actually said goodbye to him because she left when he was five years old, in the middle of the night. He didn’t see her again until he was 21 or 22.
The Pigeon Tunnel, mother walking away with suitcase
There’s a great line at the end of it — I’m probably going to botch it — but it’s something to the effect of “We need a name for things that are still alive in us.” What is truth? What is memory? So it’s very David at his best: articulating that experience.
Oh, there might be 1 or 2 ADR things in there, but it’s the majority of it, if not 99% of it is all from the interview. Interesting. There might just been something that he botched, and we just had him clean up a little bit.
The mirrors: it was a kind of an Igor and Errol thing on set. Fractured memory is kind of a theme in this thing, so when Jeremy Lamb — the graphic designer who did all those stills — saw the mirror set up, he wanted to do something like that in the graphics.
So our process — me and Jeremy — is that I will put in the stills without much design content-wise in the offline, then he takes it over and does the style. Sometimes he’ll do some looks and I’ll kind of fake the looks in Avid just to kind of get ahead of him.
But Jeremy kind of came up with that design early on. He presents a lookbook to Errol and Errol approves it. And that was one of the designs that really seemed to work because it speaks to the interview, it speaks to the themes of the movie.
The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carre in mirrors
With the storyboards, first of all, I cut them short, because no one really wants to look at it still so the pacing of it just completely changes when it goes from storyboard. Errol’s storyboards are more inspiration. They’re not exactly what he ends up shooting. The whole process just becomes something different. There’s an idea there.
Obviously, the opening of the film with The Pigeon Tunnel and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold intercutting was always there and played out the way it was supposed to, but those other scenes were really reinvented from boards to what they shot.
So it was really trying to figure out the best pacing and how to use them and how to tell the best stories out of each one of them.
I think probably the Philby sequence and the train sequences are the ones I spent the most time on, just trying to figure out how to get those narratives right, whereas some of the other ones, like the elevator, Nick Eliot scene, or David at the hotel later on, those ones came pretty quick.
We had our whole feature film cut before we shot the visuals. So it was a 90 minute cut and it wasn’t exactly what you see at the end product, but it was pretty close.
The structure is pretty similar. Everything was kind of in place. It would be like an Errol film without the reenactments. Last August it was in pretty good shape and it was ready to take on this new material.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Avid timeline
Part of that’s driven by pacing and speech. Sometimes you’re cleaning someone up a little bit more, so you have to cover it with some visuals.
Other times it’s just like you want to be with David. There’s definitely some prolonged moments where you’re just hanging with him. It’s a pacing and emotional thing.
If you really want to be with the person making eye contact, you want to stay with him. I have a process of editing, which I call “passes.” So my first pass, I just cleaned up the dialog. I go through and just make it almost like a transcript: a clean transcript that’s easy to read.
Yeah. And then the second time I go through, I start making more creative choices. Like, “Okay, this telling is better than that telling.” I’ll take out certain parts that I don’t think are going to go through, and I’ll start adding some music, and then usually in the third pass is when it goes from a string out to a sequence, that’s when I really get excited, because all of a sudden I’m adding visuals, the music starting to take off, I’m adding a sound design.
It goes from basically three tracks in an Avid to ten tracks in an Avid, and you just start really constructing the thing. For me, as a filmmaker, that’s the moment of joy because I can see it come to life.
I pretty much stay on the Interotron. And then, if I need to shift or if I want to shift, I just shift it from there. So I stay with eye contact, and then I start moving around.
Everything’s grouped in Avid, so it’s just a matter of using the up and down arrow key to change the angles.
ScriptSync is a huge part of our process. Everything’s transcript-based. It’s a 16-hour interview that you’re cutting down to like 50 or minutes or 60 minutes.
You need to be able to get into the transcript, find things after you have a sequence, go back and search terms, and try to find different moments and see how you can fill things out. Transcript tool or Script tool (ScriptSync) in Avid is probably the main reason we’ve been working in Avid for the last ten years.
I know Premiere is kind of catching up now, but for Avid, that’s been the real reason why we’ve been working with it.
The Pigeon Tunnel, behind the scenes
Nope. He gives me the 16 hours of dailies. I’ve worked with him for a long time. I know what he likes. He gives me the entire thing and says, “Here are some moments that I like, but find what you can.”
He likes just coming in when there are scenes. So I can show him little scenes and see what he’s responding to. I usually have things like music, some graphics, and some visuals in place for him before we go through it. Obviously, he sat through the whole interview, so he knows the whole interview.
And if I miss moments, he says, “Hey, where’s this part?” But the first pass — the editors cut — he allows me to do.
I don’t like presenting long cuts. I’m not somebody who does three-hour string-outs and then makes someone sit through it because I think it’s just a surefire way of having people not like it. So, I tend to start shorter and build it out.
There was about a 40-minute cut of about a month or two after we shot the interview. I showed it to the producers; David saw it, so there was a cut of it pretty quickly. I don’t do the really, really long string-out thing. I feel like that’s self-sabotaging for editors.
What I like to do is cut something super fast — a scene, about ten minutes — and show it to all the producers and make them feel like, “Oh, wow, we have something here!” So the “Who are you scene” and the moment at the end where they’re talking about truth, I cut as a ten-minute video probably two weeks after the interview, and it’s pretty intact for what it was then.
That was just to show everybody because we did four days of interviews, lots of visuals, there’s tons of footage, huge amounts of transcripts, everybody’s wondered, “Did we get what we needed?” And just to put something out there that feels really good to everybody, it makes everybody happier.
CBS News, New documentary explores life of spy and novelist John Le Carre
Yeah, it’s that pass process that I was talking about. That’s just my process. Usually, what will happen is I’ll go through the first pass, which is usually about an hour long. That first pass takes out ten minutes.
The second pass takes out like 20 or 30 minutes, and then by that third pass, there are these scenes, and from those scenes, I start constructing a sequence.
Normally, Errol’s interviews are very linear. He has this thing where he says to the person, “I don’t know where to start,” and that kind of cues the person to start at the beginning, and they go through the entire story of however they were involved. This one was way more non-linear.
It was an interesting interview for me. It was different in that I did have to kind of shift things around and kind of figure out where things were going and just construct a narrative more from disparate pieces than just starting an “A” and letting it play out to “Z.”
I love that stuff. I love montage, and I love using movie clips, and that’s definitely a big part of Errol’s tradition. He’s always had movie clips throughout his films, so I’ve definitely picked up on that from him.
Some of it was: “We’re talking about The Spy Who Comes In From The Cold, so we’re going to SHOW The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.”
There’s other stuff where he’s referencing things that are kind of like Easter eggs for really big LaCarre fans, like where he’s talking about not really knowing his mother, and you’re seeing the opening shot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the BBC version with the Russian dolls.
The idea is there for anybody who hasn’t seen the movie but also wanted to have an edit that really, really diehard LaCarre fans would be thinking, “Oh, that’s Control from Tinker Tailor.”
“Oh, that’s, you know, Magnus from…” and they’ll get these meanings a little bit more than maybe everybody else will.
John le Carre with Director Errol Morris
I’m a person who needs music to edit. I drop music in almost immediately. There was a lot of different music as the scratch track.
I don’t know how many times I’ve worked with Paul Leonard Morgan, probably 4 or 5 times, so I have a pretty vast library of his work, and obviously, Errol’s worked with Philip Glass for 30, 40 years, so there’s plenty of music to go from there.
So, that collaboration between Philip and Paul was set in pretty early. The Philip music went in probably in that first cut that we showed David — the storyboard thing. I think that that was probably a Philip cue that was used to tell that story. Long story short: I mostly temped with the guys who ended up composing it.
I imagine — because I gave everything, then split track — they probably mute most of my temp and just figure it out from there.
The Pigeon Tunnel, Director Morris interview at NYFF
Yeah. I mean, I think it needs it. And for me, it’s the thing that I usually probably spend too much time on in the beginning: just trying to find the right music because it’s all about mood-setting and momentum.
And these films are a lot of talking, so to have something that’s pushing the narrative forward with score that can do that is really important.
And it’s also that moment where music and archival footage intersect and start becoming something magical. That’s like a drug for me. I love that stuff.
So I need music to really even be able to construct scenes, never mind sequences.
Not much, not for sure. We did the mix in WB in New York, and Lee was the mixer and sound designer. He did a really great job.
I think one of the things that he did really great was something that I don’t know if you’d understand if you can’t hear it in 7.1.
I don’t know how well it comes across on TV, but we were in a screening in London recently that had a really great sound setup, and you could feel the pigeons behind you, you know, like there was like an echoing going on.
And in that screening, I was just like, wow, these guys just did such a great job with this design.
The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carre writing
Yeah. I don’t remember what editor it was, but I saw an editor give a talk a few years ago, and he was talking about starting a project, and he said, The first thing I did was ask for the sound design for the last films.
And I thought, “Wow, that’s brilliant!” So ever since that moment, what I’ve done is — as soon as we finished a film — I get the stems, and I take all of the sound design from those stems and bring them into my offline.
So I have this vast library of Warner Brothers style sound design that I just pull into my offline. It’s probably the best sound design off-lines you can get because it’s not just like sound effect library stuff. There’s reverb on it that’s all been mixed. It’s really great.
It might have been. You might be right.
I thought it was brilliant: Oh My God! Why don’t I do this now?
None. But there’s a lot of really atmospheric and strange sounds that they’ve created over the years. This guy, Skip Lievsay, is a really famous mixer.
He’s won an Oscar. He did sound for The Unknown Known, and he was tasked with making Rumsfeld, who was the star of that movie, seem a little less correct. Like: “How can you undermine this guy?”
He came up with these rattling sounds that were just in the background. They’re not anything that you would really even pick up when you’re watching it. But they’re really amazing sounds, and I’ve used them ever since, just kind of adding in the atmosphere and a little ambiance and just kind of making things feel a little less settled.
Sound design work in The Pigeon Tunnel? Lee the designer — I really like what he did with the reverb on the transition effects, and I really like what he did in David’s voice when you’re cutting to the stills of words in David’s adaptations, and there was an echoing sound to it.
That was something that he brought to it that I thought was great and kind of mirrored the motif. I love watching all the different trades figure out how they’re going to interpret this fractured memory thing. Igor’s mirrors, Jeremy’s use of negative space, and the sound design’s use of echo and reverb.
Filmmaking is so much about collaboration, and you get to work with such talented people here, working with Errol, that I love seeing what everyone else brings to it.
Director Errol Morris with DP Igor Martinovic
He passed away before we finished it, so some of it is from previous recordings, and some of it is just from our interview.
When they happen, they’re gold, and you try to hold them as long as you can. David was, I think, 88 when we interviewed him and, surprisingly, was a pretty fidgety guy. So those things didn’t happen too often. So when they did, it was just a matter of letting them happen and holding them as long as they could. Every once in a while, Errol will really want them to even blink at the end of it, so you know that it’s not a still.
They’re still alive. There’s no filmmaking trickery going on here. This is a real moment.
The way Errol edits interviews is pretty wound-tight. He cleans everything up and speeds it up a little bit.
So any moment of kind of settling in, allowing people to think of what they’ve heard and, you have amazing cinematography to cut to it makes it easier and great score to cover it with and just creating these really cinematic moments so that people aren’t bored by the cutaway.
But you need space in these films, and it’s really about trying to figure out how to use that space and pace it out in a way that people can hear the story but not lose the narrative.
Deadline interview with Morris
You mentioned earlier the idea that when you’re cutting it kind of dry and early and with storyboards, you could stay on something too short because storyboards are boring, but then you get the graphic design. All of a sudden, it’s got all this design and other elements that your eye is drawn to. So how does that affect what you’re doing when you see, “Oh my goodness, this thing’s gorgeous! It’s not just a photograph!”
I kind of know where it’s going to go, so I allow it to be there in time, even when it’s just the temp. I’ve been working with Jeremy since 2008, so we have a really great relationship.
Yeah, I know whatever he does, it’s going to be really great, and I know it will stand the five seconds or whatever it is that the graphic is up there.
I think there are some sound bridges in there, not too much. It’s mostly just bleeding in atmosphere from interview into the vignettes, as we like to call them.
So there will be birds and ambiance coming in. I don’t think there’s anything too big. There are always moments that are hitting the graphics to give it a little more life.
I have a pretty good sense of what we’ve used. It’s not too hard to remember what to do in that respect, like when to use something or when not to use something, but it was trying to fill out the sequence with more and more of the visuals because they were so strong.
So I was trying to find moments we could use, maybe stuff that was left on the floor from the other scenes in other places. And that was definitely the case with the track stuff.
There was a bunch of really gorgeous cinematography that was upstairs in this space that we shot, and we ended up using that in the “Perfect Spy section” as being a young David and intercutting it with stills of David and probably footage of the character in Perfect Spy that is like a representation of David.
The Pigeon Tunnel
It’s pretty different from interview to the visual stuff. The visual stuff is kind of the normal kind of breakdown like the assistants will create stringouts of the key moments, and everything is kind of cut down to a certain size.
So you can kind of scroll through and find what you need. I was there on set when we shot all of it, so I was pretty aware of what we did, but I did watch it down while we were doing it and on the plane back here.
But the assistants, Molly and Jim, broke it down for me into different strings, so each vignette had a different string.
Molly Rokosz, Assistant Editor & Archival Producer (credit: Nafis Azad)
They had four days of interviews. For me, it’s that pass process. I usually start raw and just keep going down.
And then, I like to dupe my sequences each pass that I do, and usually, by the fourth and fifth pass, I have what I need to construct the story.
Errol doesn’t like mixing them too much. He kind of wants you to pick one version of the story and not mix them.
Every once in a while, there’s a line from one that we’ll steal from the other, but it’s more about, “Okay, this is the better version of this storytelling, and we’re going to stick with this one.”
He has a rule not to mix the tellings.
Oh yeah, for sure. For me. I’ll cut them both and see which one’s better. I don’t like to decide anything until I’ve had a cut of it done. I think the only way to know if something’s good or not is to cut it in Avid.
I would never do a transcript edit. That’s just not the way I would work. I’d want to sit with the footage, watch it, and actually play with it and see what works and what doesn’t.
And I have the luxury of time. Not everyone has the luxury of time.
Editor Steven Hathaway in his edit suite
I totally agree. For me, it’s more about finding things after the fact. So if someone asks me, “Hey, did he talk about Philby here?” I can search for Philby in the transcripts, but I don’t wait for a transcript to come in before I start cutting.
I just go right to the dailies and just start working with the dailies.
Absolutely. And I think that’s the most experimenting you do once you have that cut. You take that cut, and you start showing it to people and seeing how people respond to it — what’s working and what’s not working.
And then you start shifting things around to construct the best story you can. For the longest time, I had the story of him meeting Philby in Russia, really towards the end, because it felt like, “It’s a later story in life with the car.
So it should be at the end. It’s 1988. I’ll have it in the chronology.” But then we flipped it into the middle of the sequence, and the Philby story ended up having its own kind of life and its own kind of arc within it.
And it really helps the film because it brings back themes and ideas that, towards the end of the movie, no one really wanted to hear anymore.
But it took me a while to realize that scene really needs to be in the middle of the film.
Yeah, it definitely played that way.
It’s always the trickiest thing to really kind of figure out, too, because it’s just it’s so much about feel, and sometimes you need to watch it with people to feel that.
If you’re alone in a room with headphones on, you might not pick up on things as much as you do when you’re sitting around a bunch of people. I’m always amazed at how you can read the room.
You can kind of feel the anxiety in the room, and you kind of know what’s working and what’s not working even before people give you notes.
It was mostly through PIX, so it was mostly remote,
Nope. So it was stuff here with just my assistants, Molly and Jim and Errol and Josh, one of the researchers here, having a sense of what was working and what was not.
You’re not allowed to screen these things too widely when you’re making them. And we didn’t have any test screenings or anything like that.
We don’t usually do them. It’s shifted now because everything is online. When I started, we would have to because it was too hard to send DVDs to everybody.
But now you just share everything on PIX, and you get notes by email. It’s a very different process than it was 15 years ago.
My favorite scene is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold story in the middle of the movie — probably 20 minutes in.
I think it’s some of my better editing because we found this archival footage. The archival producer, Molly, found this great footage of this woman dangling from a window, trying to escape as the Berlin Wall was going up, and it just was so reminiscent of the end of Spy Who Came In From The Cold that when I started playing with that footage, I was just so excited.
That’s probably the scene in the movie that I’m most proud of.
Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been listening to your podcast forever. I’m so psyched to be on it.