Four master cinematic surgeons discuss how they shaped some of the year’s most anticipated films.
An astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, soldiers on both sides of the war on drugs, postapocalyptic road rages and eight hateful travelers in the Old West. Here's how the arcs of these varied characters came together in the editing room.
Ridley Scott's The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is stranded on Mars when, presuming him dead, his crew departs. Once communication is restored, his crew and NASA focus their efforts on a rescue. "There were three different platforms where the action and drama would take place," says veteran editor Pietro Scalia, who won Oscars for JFK and Black Hawk Down.
"The basic structure of the film relied on first spending a lot of time on Mars with Mark then spending time with the orbiter Hermes crew and NASA. "One of the first challenges was to restructure the introduction of the Hermes crew and the storm, which originally came as a flashback after the first 40 minutes but just brought the film to a complete halt," he adds. "So very early on, we decided to put the storm at the beginning of the film."
For the Oscar-nominated editor of 12 Years a Slave, Joe Walker, Sicario was his first film with director Denis Villeneuve. "Both films feature relatively passive central characters, and there's a danger because that isn't the normal commercial formula," he says.
"We were careful to fine-tune the balance between Kate [the CIA agent played by Emily Blunt] seeing things and reacting to them and things happening by themselves. "For the most part, we are with Kate's point of view," adds Walker. "This is counterbalanced by the sequences of Silvio, the Mexican cop, and different types of surveillance shots.
Eventually, in the night tunnel sequence, there's a collision course of all the different viewpoints through thermal cameras, night-vision cameras and drone shots accompanied by a patchwork of sharply juxtaposed sounds. This heralds a major shift when we detach from Kate and follow Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro] across the border and into a bloodbath."
Margaret Sixel already has been recognized by several organizations, including the Boston Society of Film Critics, for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road. "It wasn't meant to be flashy editing — the style of the film dictated a certain cutting pattern. It was incredibly rigorous," she says.
"Everything had to earn its place because there was so much footage. [Director] George [Miller] likes every moment to have a shape to it as well as building of rhythms and never repeating a shot. We built the tension. "
The first cut was quite long — I think it was almost too much action," adds Sixel, noting that while cutting the film she had to make sure there were "not big leaps in what was happening. We took out 30 to 40 minutes. We looked at everything: Could it go? Were viewers staying with the characters?"
Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight finds a group of travelers at a stagecoach stopover, Minnie's Haberdashery. Shot in large-format 70mm, many of the interiors were wide shots that show most or all of the characters, allowing the viewer to see both actions and revealing reactions.
"Every editorial choice we made was to build up not only the suspense but also the mystery of who's telling the truth, who's lying and who's responsible," says editor Fred Raskin, who earned a BAFTA nomination for Tarantino's Django Unchained. "Who we are cutting to at any given moment is indicative of what the audience understands about what's happening.
"The Maj. Warren [Samuel L. Jackson] speech that ends act 1 is one of the few scenes that has a lack of reaction shots," he adds. "You're not really cognizant of it, but there are reasons for it. In not showing everyone, we are not telling you anything in terms of who did it."