'Into the Woods,' 'Selma,' 'American Sniper,' 'Unbroken': Editors on This Week's Releases

Find out how these films got their "final rewrite" in the cutting room

Some high-profile Oscar contenders have Christmas releases this year, including director Rob Marshall's musical Into the WoodsAva DuVernay's historical drama, SelmaClint Eastwood's biographical film American Sniper; and Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. Here, the editors of these movies describe their work. (Warning: Some spoilers follow.)

For Unbroken, editors Tim Squyres and William Goldenberg said they had to find a balance while telling the heroic true story of WWII vet and Olympian Louie Zamperini. That included balancing epic and quiet moments, and in the case of a tricky scene during which Zamperini is lost at sea on a raft for more than a month, conveying "tedium and boredom without being tedious and boring."

"There was a lot more stuff on the raft. You have to hit the action beats and suggest the stuff in between," says Squyres, who brought experience trimming a film about someone lost at sea — he earned his second Oscar nomination in 2012 for Life of Pi.

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Squyres added that the pace of the scene also had to fit into the overall structure of the film, which includes scenes of Zamperini with his family, buddies on the base and at various POW camps. "[The raft scene had to] give you time to get one feeling, or the transition to another feeling wouldn't be meaningful."

The editors also had to calibrate scenes that take place at Japanese prison camps, which needed "enough brutality shown or implied so that you understand he's overcoming it but not so much that the experience of watching the film becomes brutal," Squyres explains, adding, "We took some away; we played some off camera."

Goldenberg added that the editing was also about letting the audience experience the story from Zamperini's point of view, which benefited from the performance of Jack O'Connell. "There was so much story depth [in the performance]," said Goldenberg, an Oscar winner for Argo. "He's a super talented guy."

Wyatt Smith, who cut Rob Marshall's adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, explained that "the challenge of editing anything musical is it's very unnatural to be singing. Rob tries to work with the actors to make it most natural. The hardest is entering the song, finding the moment. You have to pace it so it comes naturally. Also, the dialogue should never double up on what's in the song."

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Into the Woods features various fairy-tale characters in interweaving storylines, something Smith said was a "blessing and a curse" when it came to the editing. "The first song is a 15-minute musical number," he said. "All of the storylines and characters come at you incredibly quickly, almost at an action pace.

"The movie naturally moves so quickly, and you reach what you would think is the end, happily ever after," he continued. "Then it gets very slow and very dark, so pacing was tricky. [If the change is too abrupt,] it could feel like you were watching a different movie and take you out of the film."

"We went to dark visually and with the performances," Smith said, adding that multiple departments contributed to the transition. "We reordered some scenes and added narrative, and musically there were some [new] arrangements. And visual effects did a transition shot."

Selma centers on Martin Luther King Jr. and the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

"If you pick it apart, it's a real human story within this historical drama," says editor Spencer Averick. "It's a story about a man and his inner conflicts and his fight for human rights. … It was important to balance personal, intimate filmmaking in this epic story."

To do this, the big "action" sequences maintain a lot of close-ups. "Specifically on the bridge scene, on Bloody Sunday, getting inside the characters as they are running for their lives," Averick said.

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This sequence was filmed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the police attacked demonstrators during the 1965 march, but Averick and DuVernay strayed from the script when editing to give it added emotion. "Originally, we had Bloody Sunday, and then after [the scene was] finished, we showed people watching on their TVs at home," Averick explained. "It was good, but there was something missing. Ava and I are constantly rewriting in the editing room. We decided to see how we feel if we intercut the scenes — sort of time jump around — with people watching it and their reaction to each club and hit. Once we juxtaposed a few images together, it was evident quickly that this was the way to do it."

American Sniper opens with the subject of the film, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — whose skills as a sniper made him a hero by saving countless lives in Iraq — at his post when he observes a woman and children walking, then notices the woman is concealing something, then sees her hand a grenade to a 10-year-old boy, presumably intended for use to attack nearby American troops.

His struggle to make a quick decision as to whether he should pull his trigger provides plenty of character development as well as tension in the film's first minutes. "It's built by the performance of the actors and the length of the cuts. The tension really picks up when you see the women hand the boy the grenade and then cuts back to a close-up of Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watching," said Oscar-winner Joel Cox (Unforgiven), who edited the film with Gary Roach, an Oscar nominee and fellow longtime Eastwood collaborator.

Added Roach: "Kyle's checking with his superior people, asking if they see what going on. They say its up to him [whether to fire]. In the story of Chris Kyle, this is maybe going to be his first kill — and he is looking at a 10-year-old boy and [presumably] his mother. And he is struggling, trying to balance his emotions with what he is trained to do."

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA

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