'Dunkirk,' 'The Post' Editors on Making the Right Cuts to "Keep Up the Tension"

Dunkirk_The Post_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures; Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

When done well, editing can play a big part in upping the tension and suspense in a film. This theme is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which allows moviegoers to experience the critical World War II event simultaneously on the beach, in the air and at sea. "The story had to be separated and crosscut in such a way that the audience could stay with you on these three parallel storylines — and where the timelines meet about two-thirds of the way through the film," says editor Lee Smith, adding that it was "trial and error and many screenings. We kept watching it and tuning the level of suspense."

Smith says another consideration was that Nolan's latest was light on dialogue and heavy on experience. "We didn't have a great big scene with exposition. It was more of a visual experience of being with the boys on the beach, the guys on the boats and the pilots in the air," he says. "In that way, it was kind of fragile."

Dunkirk is one of several films this year that created tension by having multiple storylines playing out at the same time, leaving it up to the editors to build and sustain that pacing.

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is a fairy-tale love story between Elisa, a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins), and an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that is held captive at a government research facility. The tension rises when Elisa enlists her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) — and along the way her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) — to help rescue the creature, with the story's villain, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), in hot pursuit.

"There's a lot going on," says editor Sidney Wolinsky. "You have all the main characters involved, and the timelines are all interconnected. The challenge is really to keep up the tension and the pace and make sure the audience is following what's going on."

To do this, Wolinsky broke up some of the scenes during the editing process. For example, a section with Giles attempting to enter the facility as the getaway driver was shot as one sequence and broken into pieces. "So you get a little bit of action, then go to another character," he explains.

In a tense scene from Steven Spielberg's The Post, Katharine Graham (Meryl Steep) must make a crucial decision on whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, and she's on a call with colleagues including executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). The publisher silently weighs the consequences as the clock is ticking toward the newspaper's deadline before making the call. "Let's go," she says.

The film was edited by longtime Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn and, for the first time, Sarah Broshar, who had worked as Kahn's assistant. "The performances are so great," says Broshar. "In the end, it was about keeping up the tension and driving the story forward."

Kahn explains that Spielberg, as always, was very involved in selecting takes. "We agreed that some of the performances are so wonderful that you don't want to cut away," he says, "so we stayed with the performance."

That was particularly true of the take during which Graham makes her decision. "Sometimes not cutting is the best cut you can make," says Kahn. "We just stay with her and see her change her mind. It was quite amazing."

Adds Broshar: "[Streep] tells you so much with her silence, her eyes and her demeanor. A lot of her nonverbal acting carries so much weight." Still, the pair agrees that when it comes to editing, there's no formula, regardless of the scene or star. Says Kahn, "We just sit down and do it. It's a feeling that we have when we sit down."

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.