Poor Things

Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE, discusses his longtime collaboration with whimsical director Yorgos Lanthimos on the Golden Globe winner for best musical/comedy.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE, the editor of Oscar-shortlisted Poor Things.

Yorgos was an ACE nominee for The Lobster. He was nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar and won the ACE Eddie for The Favourite. In addition, he’s edited The Killing of a Sacred Deer and has over 100 international film credits. Yorgos was a previous guest on Art of the Cut for The Favourite.

The music is very interesting, and I would think it would have been very difficult to temp because there’s nothing else out there like it that I can think of.

We didn’t use temp. As a matter of fact, it’s the first time [director Yorgos] Lanthimos used a composer. In all his previous films, we used classical music mostly, but Yorgos listened to [the composer’s] album.

He liked his music a lot, and he suggested composing the music. The music for Poor Things was composed months before the shooting started. Not the exact music as it was in the final film, but the general themes so we could have them when — in a certain stage in the editing — we needed them. 

So after the first cut, we started using music. But also [the director] used a lot of this music in the shooting. I could hear a scene with three different pieces of music, so there was no decision about what piece of music was going to be where. It was trying stuff.

So, yes, from the beginning, in the process of the edit, after the first cut, we started using the music, and this is what we usually do. Sometimes we had to edit the music, add some meters,  take out some others, to combine it. Sometimes it was done nicely.

Sometimes, we had to send it back to [the composer] with feedback and have him finalize it. It was not temp. It was this music from the very beginning.

You mentioned that you could hear it on set, and he was playing multiple choices. Was he trying to get the actors to feel different by playing different pieces of music?

Yes. It’s not the first time. He’d done it also in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). there was a lot of music for the actors to get in the mood, and also in Poor Things,  like, for example, when Bella.

Is exiting through the roof and sees - for the first time - the rooftops of London. Different music was played back for her to somehow get inspired by the music — to have this surprise of — for the first time — seeing something.

There was also music to set the inner rhythm or their external movements because [the director] likes the choreography of the actors — not only the facial expressions — and this way, the movement, internal or external, is influenced.

Many movies start off where the audience doesn’t quite know what’s happening — it’s a bit of a mystery how the film starts — and Poor Things is like that. You don’t quite know what’s happening. How long can you be in that place of having the audience be in that mystery?

The script at the beginning was that we start with Bella in the black and white as a strange creature, a baby woman. But there was another option we had already discussed with  Yorgos [director].

There was this fantastic shot from the back of her, without revealing her face, zooming towards the back of her head, and then she falls. And this does create, as you say, a question mark.

“What is happening?” We keep that in mind, and in the editing, it’s not like the images of the situations succeed one another. It’s more that they’re overlapping. And there is a point when you need to answer this question.

And yes, the explanation of the answer has to be created formally somehow, and this was: the same woman, now the front of her face, but also the music. 

It’s the same music when we hear the music first in the beginning and then in the revelation when Godwin Baxter says, “…I shall (tell) because it is a happy tale,” and the music starts, so we do connect.

That all depends on us being able to understand the same way our brains allow us to understand. So yes, up to that point, there are small question marks. And yes, this revelation happens at the proper time. Editing is a process directed to our brain. It’s not only the length of time. It’s what information we have accumulated up to that point when it is best to give the answer to a question and when it feels right to give it.

And it is always formulated using different means. But it cannot be too long - the distance - because people will forget. Also, you don’t want them to get a surprise and wonder and think, what is that now? Instead of an understanding  No. It has to be smooth and formed accordingly.

I follow the thought patterns usually: how we perceive reality,  how our brain perceives ‘reality’. The distance has to be quite close but also filled with a lot of information, keeping that flame burning somehow.

Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE

“Keeping the flame burning” is a great way to put it. And it’s different than the way the script is, right? The script can be written one way and feel like the revelations are happening correctly, but then, when you cut the film together, it feels different.

Yes, it’s true. And we did know that we had to reach that point earlier. As a matter of fact, at the assembly we follow the script exactly. We look at the details and the actors’ performances, but the length is all there, intact.

Then we have to make a lot of decisions in order to shorten the time. For example, there is a sequence after Max comes into the house and starts observing her. There were a number of scenes for this: when she wakes up, eats breakfast, plays with her bicycle and in the operating room, and when she feeds the animals - all this had to be compressed and made into a sequence somehow, shortened.

Also, there was a sequence before the revelation when Max is involved romantically with Bella and Godwin Baxter takes advantage of that to keep Bella and him in the house. These were a series of scenes in the script. But we had to make a montage sequence to compress the situation in order to reach that revelation point - which is quite important - earlier in the timeline of the film.

There are a number of shots that use an extremely wide angle: a fisheye lens. Did you need to understand the director’s vision for those, or was it just that they appealed to you like any other coverage?

There was no discussion about when to use them. In the first part and also in the second, there were — almost in every scene — the usual pattern being a fisheye lens, or the 4mm lens with the iris mask, then a long take with movement combination, zoom in or out with tracking shot.

Usually, my editing brain needs a reason to use them. For example, the first time we used this 4mm lens was when Godwin Baxter went down the stairs, heard the piano playing, and then we cut to him. He looks at her and smiles. At that moment, I thought, “Okay, that 4mm lens would be a nice point of view from this strange man.” 

Then the next time was when Max comes in, Bella runs and embraces Godwin Baxter like a baby. I thought it was funny: a grown-up woman being like a baby, maybe seeing it through Max’s eyes for the first time - this strange situation, there are always small reasons. Subliminally they might say something to a viewer.

Also, in the dance sequence, we use it once when there is this strange and unexpected situation when Duncan fights this old man. So these are some small decisions, and sometimes it’s like punctuation.

For example, when they are in the cruiser, there is this situation when Bella Baxter says to Duncan Wedderburn, like another Diogenes to Alexander the Great, “You’re in my sun!” so we cut to this 4mm lens when he throws the books away, just to punctuate the situation. Different reasons all the time.

So many of the scenes have a very simple cut transition. At one point - and I love dissolves, I always think there’s a purpose to them - there is a cut to Bella in bed tucked in with her father, and then there’s a dissolve to her finger pointing at a map. Why choose to use a dissolve at that point?

Well, we are always looking for formal reasons to use them at particular points. I think the lingering image of her sleeping was important to us, just to see her sinking into sleep as her face is sinking into the map of the next day.

Then her sleep is interrupted by her finger hitting a point in the map. Also, there’s another nice dissolve after Godwin Baxter finishes the explanation of who this woman is and Max asks him, “Does she know?” Godwin Baxter replies, ‘No, but would you rather not have Bella?’

And he says this in the 4mm lens which makes a very nice graphic match dissolving with the roundness of her eye waking up. So the reasons are, most of the time, graphic matches or the creation of meaning. We don’t want to use them just to indicate a passage of time.

Also, we don’t use it when it could be used as a time transition, like later in the scene when she meets her previous husband and they have a discussion, there’s a close-up of her. Maybe someone would use a transition of her to have the time passage from the dinner to her bedroom.

No, it’s a straight cut because, at that moment, it is important to stay with her thoughts, ‘How do I escape now’ and this could be lost in the dissolve. We don’t need that.

Avid Media Composer timeline

Was it scripted on when to go to color and when to go black and white?

It was [the director’s] idea from the beginning to have the first part be a kind of homage to the old Gothic films shot in black and white.  But we broke that by introducing the color picture in the beginning.

Also, it was broken in an interesting way when Godwin Baxter recites the story of Victoria Blessington: how he found her, being pregnant with the baby, was shot in color.

So there was a good juxtaposition between black and white in the office narration and the color of her suicide and the discovery of her body, which also breaks interestingly the time continuum between the two situations that are kept continuous with his narrating tale. 

Then the rest of the film, after her leaving London, was in extreme color and also in different hues of color. For example, the first part in Lisbon was shot with color negative.

The black and white was also negative, and then in the cruiser mainly — and in these parallel color situations in the beginning. It was shot in Ektachrome. [The director] went to the trouble to find this German guy who had started developing Ektachrome for the first time after it had been abandoned for so many years. He used it because of the difference in the saturation of the Ektachrome.

This was more darker and more pensive. She’s in the cruiser, and she’s learning about things and learning about the true nature of human beings. It’s not like in Lisbon, where it’s very colorful and bright. It’s more dark there.

Emma Stone in Poor Things

Ah! So it wasn’t all shot in color, and you could choose?

Oh no! It was shot in black and white, Ektachrome, and 35mm negative. As a matter of fact, all the tests had been done long before the shooting started, the lens tests and also the color tests.

The director likes to work seeing almost the final product when we’re editing: how it will look, we don’t imagine it, it’s there. Of course, there were differences after it went through color correction, but the basic palette was there.

Does having that palette help you, as an editor, feel the scenes properly?

Definitely. It definitely did change my feeling, but also it’s something that Yorgos [the director] wouldn’t allow not to be there. We cannot work if the feeling is not there. Not only in the colors but in the sound as well and in the basic visual effects that my assistant had to do — taking out the tracking rails, filling in the skies, or even combining some of the animals.  It has to be as good as we can during the edit procedure.

Emma Stone in Poor Things

There was a discussion at dinner about marrying Bella, and there are flash-forwards and flashbacks. Was that always scripted, or did you find that you needed to change the way the script worked?

I mentioned it before as a way of compressing situations. It is a method that we have developed very early. As a matter of fact, we first did it when we worked on Dogtooth (2009). We did it a lot also in The Lobster, in Sacred Deer, and, of course, in The Favourite (2018).

Yorgos [the director] likes to shoot his films in time and space continuity. He doesn’t edit during the shoot, and so all these are scripted and shot as different scenes. But of course, we felt that it was a big scene, the dinner — a lot of discussion going on — followed by or preceded by other scenes when Bella is alone in the house, and she wants out of the house. 

There is also a scene where she is playful with Max, and Godwin Baxter walks in, and he finds them in this situation. And, of course, it’s the scene after that when  Max proposes to her.

And then there’s a scene when Duncan Wedderburn arrives outside with a carriage and presents the marriage contract. We felt that we had to use our montage method: keep the dinner as the main focus but then intersperse the other situations in the edit where we felt it would benefit the rhythm and punctuate the main points of the other scenes.

We didn’t have to see the whole scene of Bella waking up, going to the window, and seeing the lock in her window trying to break away. It was just enough to see her one shot trying to open the locked window.

It combined with a phrase Godwin says to Max, “But you must be here with me all the time.” So a connection is created. These scenes take a lot of editing time, or sometimes they don’t work as nicely as they should, then you have to try combining and juxtaposing them in an interesting way.

But also, this is done for the main purpose of giving some internal combustion to the movement of the film when you feel that it’s lagging a bit. All the unnecessary time had to be eliminated so as to keep the audience interested while watching the film and to see the narration move forward organically so they do not get ahead of you, be bored, or lag behind.

Willem Dafoe and Ramy Youssef in Poor Things

She has dinner with a general. It’s a fairly lengthy dinner table scene. I noticed multiple times — to have the most interesting shots — you needed to jump the 180.

That was quite a difficult task to keep the eye-line and the correct 180-degree axis. Usually, the way I did it was by switching to the other direction of the movement without losing the 180 axis. When the camera went around the back of a character, that would be a good point.

Everything was allowed as long as I kept the eye-line correct so as not to disorient the audience. We also used the movements for these transitions and then the straight cuts from movement to stillness in order to emphasize a thought or feeling or some reaction.

The difficulty was that when you wanted to change a shot of her or of him, you had to do a whole different dance of eye-line direction, so that was the main difficulty, that you had to find the moment to go from one direction to the other or from one situation to the other.

I had it both directional ways in the rushes, but they could not combine between them without a transition. It had to be either this or that. So it was all a matter of balancing these different movements.

There’s a lovely scene where Bella dances without a care in the world. I would think that would have to be so difficult to cut. Can you talk about cutting that dance scene?

Yes, as a matter of fact, the first time I started editing that scene, I was following the wrong way because I felt that I had to keep the choreography intact and ‘correct.’

Of course, it was very nice to see her in a situation with other dancers, and I thought it was nice to keep this situation with the other people dancing around her that was so funny. But in the end, it was too long, but also, it was not what it was supposed to be. 

This girl is about 16 years old at that time, maybe less. She sees people dancing for the first time, and the particular music excites her and she wants to dance, but she hasn’t danced before. So it had to be a bit awkward.

The idea in the end was that the dance was “a microcosm of the big world of the film.” She is dancing, and her movements are rough and awkward, but she doesn’t care about this or about what other people would think. And we didn’t have to care if her movements were choreographed or ‘correct.’ It had to be spontaneous. 

The choreography had to concentrate on her situation: Everybody wants to control her, so the main part of the choreography we had to keep were these movements: When Duncan puts his arm around her, trying to manipulate it, and she reacts, trying to free herself. This dance scene is a microcosm of the whole life situation.

Emma Stone in Poor Things, behind the scenes

…the story of the dance is the same as the story of the whole movie…

That was the final decision, to keep that and take out all the embellishment of the choreography which took away from the simple, authentic facts.

Does the fantastic nature of the story make it easier or harder to edit?

I do not think Yorgos has ever done a film that is realistic, or a representation of ‘reality.’ He does like to create a new world all the time in all his films. Once you are immersed in this world, you tend to accept the fantastic nature of his films. The difficulty for his films is the difficulty of his films! (chuckles) 

The way he approaches them and the degree of difficulty of his films. Much more difficult than any other film I have edited because we also always have to find a new way to say things.

The language is there. It’s easily recognizable that this is a Lanthimos film, but we have to be free of our customary way of doing things, not to repeat ourselves, but at the same time stay truthful to that same Lanthimian worldview.

The difficulty doesn’t arise from creating a  fantastic world. On the contrary, this allows for playfulness. And at the same time all this is directed to the viewer’s perception and plays with it.

It gives the viewer a more interesting way to approach it — not as a representation of a ‘reality’ but as a proposition, as an essay. All the time, the edit is trying to make the viewer a co-creator with what you’re doing.

There’s always something that needs to be missing in the edit, and one must trust the audience to fill the gaps and put their own perspective to the situation.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things

Are you conscious of trying not to put a perspective on so that it’s easier for them to put their own idea?

Always, and if I’m not, Lanthimos is there to remind me. We’re not doing something to represent it to the audience. We need them to get involved, proposing something: Let’s talk about this, not as a strict thesis, but as an essay, that poses mainly  questions for the audience to answer.

Of course, the essay does give a very definite direction to Bella’s understanding in the end, she goes through a lot of experiences, learning a lot of things. In the end, it’s not like she doesn’t know what to do.

She has decided that she’s going to fix the wrong aspects of humanity and dedicate herself to science directly with her husband. This situation is presented in a way that is not a must. And it’s not the usual romantic love affair. 

They are getting married, and maybe they are in love. But the main purpose is to work on science and keep their freedom. Don’t forget that in the end, she’s bringing her girlfriend from the brothel in Paris. So, small details contain a bigger world.

Emma Stone in Poor Things

You mentioned a little bit about how you collaborate with Yorgos and you’ve done multiple films together. What is that process? Does he bother looking at scenes you’ve cut when he’s shooting, or has he got other things to do?

He never looks at what we’re doing while he’s shooting. Only rarely, for example, on Lobster, while they were shooting, there was a scene when suddenly, in the middle of the day, there was rain, and they had to stop shooting. So, I had to edit to see if we had enough or if they would reshoot the scene. That was the only time, as I remember. 

Mostly I do the assembly here (in my home or office), and I present it to him two weeks after the shooting ends. Poor Things was such a long assembly that we couldn’t watch the whole at once. We would watch sections of it.

I would take notes from Yorgos and also make my own notes. We usually meet weekly — once or twice a week — to see what I have done and discuss different options.

During this process, at the beginning, we concentrate on the actors’ performances, on the edit in relation to his decoupage, which shot he likes or not. We work on the mood and formulate the characters.

In Poor Things, when we had reached this point where everything was in place, we had a very long three and a half hour film. Then the music comes, and we do what we call “the deconstruction of our construct.”

We have constructed it. Now let’s take it apart and see what we can do to try this or that. He’s very precise in what he wants, but usually, the edit has to improvise on how to achieve it. 

He doesn’t say much, but since we’ve edited together for almost 25 years now, I know what he means, and I know which way I have to tackle it. I have a lot of freedom from him to try things, even if they were not discussed. If I have an inspiration in the middle of the night, I will do it.

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. After many trials and errors, many hours, and many films together, we have reached a very understanding way of working. I believe that Poor Things was an easier film to edit.

Not easy in the usual sense, but in the sense of understanding immediately the needs of the film and going towards this direction from the start, not losing ourselves in the process

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone, behind the scenes

You mentioned having a brainstorm in the middle of the night. Were you cutting at home or…

Usually we do have our office where we meet, but I don’t go to the office when I’m working alone. I prefer to do it from my house. I see it — not as work  — but more as a creative hobby, and it’s easier for me to do it in my place because I can do it any time. We do have our office, we have a big screen with a projector to watch it. 

Mainly I go to the office to sit with your Yorgos [the director], do a screening or have a technical pass, go through places for me to take notes.

But most of the time, I work on my own because I don’t think there’s any point in the director being there when you try things, or you throw away, or you cut a frame, or you cut ten frames. It’s better to to have the director when he is needed, when he can comment on the big picture.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things

I’m trying to remember: did the two of you meet cutting TV spots? Cutting advertising?

Right. There is a generational difference between us. I’m 20 years older than Yorgos. I was in the commercial business for many years to put food on my family’s table, but mainly interested in motion pictures. Yorgos came into the commercial business later.

He started by doing some video clips on his own. Also, he directed theatrical plays, and then he started working on commercials. I did cut his first commercial. After this, we did a lot of commercials together, and it was that period that connected us in the sense that our main love was films.

It was not commercials. And commercials also gave us the opportunity to practice: the detail of a frame or two frames to try to create an impression or an emotion in 30 seconds. 

Yorgos became a very well-known and successful commercial director. Everybody wanted to work with him, and he used commercials as a means of trying different narrational and aesthetic ideas. He was building his own way of narrating things with his unique audiovisual language already in the commercials.

He understood and treated the commercials as his own unique creation, with his own idiosyncratic filmic language. I have been in many presentations when the client was asking “Can we have this close-up?” He’d say, “There’s no close-up. Take it or leave it.” Yorgos does have the final cut of the films, and he likes to control every aspect of filmmaking.

Emma Stone in Poor Things

Yorgos, thank you so much for joining me on Art of the Cut and for this fascinating discussion about this film.

Thank you very much, Stephen. It was nice to see you again after 2019. (our discussion of The Favourite).