ACE Preview: Editors on Shaping Some of the Year's Biggest Performances

Gravity Twelve Years A Slave Split - H 2014
Warner Bros./Fox Searchlight

American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Awards — which will be handed out Feb. 7 at the Beverly Hilton —has proved to be quite reliable Oscar bellwethers. In fact, in nine of the past 10 years, the winner of the best edited dramatic feature Eddie has gone on to win the Oscar for editing. Additionally, in six of the past 10 years the winner in the ACE category for best edited dramatic or comedy/musical feature went on to win the Oscar for best picture.

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Live-action features are divided into two categories. This year’s nominees for a drama are Joe Walker for 12 Years a Slave, Christopher Rouse for Captain Phillips, Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity, Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan for Her and Mark Livolsi for Saving Mr. Banks. The category for a comedy or musical includes Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten for American Hustle, ?Stephen Mirrione for August: Osage County, Roderick Jaynes (the editing pseudonym for the Coen brothers) for Inside Llewyn Davis, Kevin Tent for Nebraska and Thelma Schoonmaker for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Of these nominees, the editors of 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips and Gravity also are nominated for the Oscar in film editing. The Motion Picture Academy also nominated Dallas Buyers Club editors John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa.

The Hollywood Reporter recently talked with some of the ACE nominees about the role that editors play in helping to shape a character's performance in the cutting room. 

Rouse is a longtime collaborator with this year’s ACE Golden Eddie recipient, Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, and an Oscar winner for editing Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum. He talked with THR about the retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship by a group of Somali pirates, and specifically about developing the character of pirate leader Muse. In Captain Phillips, Muse was played by untrained actor Barkhad Abdi, who scored a best supporting actor Oscar nomination with his debut performance.

“Muse goes through an intense emotional arc from the time Phillips tries to escape, up until his acceptance of the SEAL Commander’s offer to come aboard the Bainbridge,” Rouse explained. “Because Muse covered so much emotional ground, it was important to track the motivations for his behavior from beat to beat. I tried to use pieces that carefully followed his thought process, so we understood why he did what he did. If we didn’t see Muse evolve in a believable way, his character could have turned into a caricature pretty quickly.”

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Mark Sanger — who co-edited the survival story Gravity with the film's Oscar-nominated director Alfonso Cuaron — related that shaping the character of astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, who is nominated for best actress for the role) “was critical not only from the point of view of delivering her performance but also technically” as the production involved extensive previs and virtual cinematography techniques. “In the original assembly we found, initially, Ryan was coming together a little colder than we would have liked. As the film was from her point of view, we made sure the audience engaged with her character. Fundamentally we had very little coverage in terms of camera angles (due to the way in which the film was made), but we had a broad spectrum of performances. There was a lot of care and attention to be sure you could sympathize with her character.”

The editor of the pre-Civil War drama 12 Years a Slave, Walker noted that Oscar-nominated director Steve McQueen told the story “visually and aurally, not always relying on dialogue.

“In the case of Solomon [Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor], we did a lot to show his inner life without a word. For example the scene where he is singing [with a group of slaves], there was a very definite decision made in the cutting room about the story we were telling, with the timing and performance. He sees himself as an outsider; he believes — rightly — that he shouldn’t be in this situation. But in singing that spiritual song, he acknowledges he is part of that community, which was not felt before. He needs to go through that in order to be free.” Close-ups were shot later on and added to put emphasis on that storytelling goal.

Speaking for Oscar nominee David O. Russell’s American Hustle team of editors, three-time Oscar-nominated Cassidy offered an example of developing the character of con artist Sydney (Amy Adams, who's nominated for best actress for the role) in a scene in her apartment with con artist Irving (Christian Bale, nominated for best actor) after FBI agent Richie (Bradley Cooper, nominated for best supporting actor) has released them from custody. “This scene is the end of the first act as Sydney and Irving work out the new terms of their relationship based on the bind they find themselves in,” Cassidy said. “The scene as written and shot was amazing but too long. Our work in editing was to compress the scene — the dialogue and the blocking — while still tracking Sydney's emotional journey from ‘We need to leave. We need to run and we need to do it now' to  'What's it gonna be, Mister Mastermind?' "

Nebraska, editor Tent’s latest collaboration with the film's Oscar-nominated director Alexander Payne, tells the story of Woody Grant (Oscar nominee Bruce Dern), an elderly man who drags his son David (Will Forte) on a road trip to Nebraska after receiving a notice indicating that he won a $1 million sweepstakes. “Bruce was really great,” said Tent. “His character is unusual; sometimes he's coherent, sometimes he's not. Sometimes we would delay his responses, just by a few frames. This made it seem that he was just a little slow picking up on stuff, or maybe didn't hear something. We also used his looks a lot. He had great looks and reactions; for instance, a shot of him just looking out the window when he was riding back to his hometown.”

In Spike Jonze’s Her, Zumbrunnen explained that there was a lot of “rewriting” in the editing of a scene during which Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is in bed, talking with Samantha (his OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) after a blind date. “It evolved through the editorial process,” he said. “We had to know that she was connecting with him and feeling for him. You wanted to get the sense that the conversation was drawing them closer.”

“We needed to make sure she was challenging him and not coming across as a personal assistant. We wanted to give her character depth,” Buchanan said, adding that in selecting the images, they had to “rely on Theodore — who had to play both parts visually with his reactions.”

In addition to live-action features, Eddies will be handed out in animation, documentary and television categories. The Golden Eddie will be awarded to Greengrass; Career Achievement Awards will be presented to Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for cutting Rocky; and Robert C. Jones, who won an Oscar for writing Coming Home and earned three editing nominations for films including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and the Heritage Award will be received by ACE past president Randy Roberts (Chicago Hope).

Scheduled presenters include Oscar nominees Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and June Squibb, as well as Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Hamish LinklaterJames Wolk, Michiel Huisman, Will Forte, Sarah Paulson, Peter Krause and Oscar-winning editors Walter Murch and Alan Heim, who is president of ACE.

Twitter: @CGinLA