'Baby Driver's' Explosive Opening to 'Dunkirk's' Tense Ending: How Film Editors Built 5 Memorable Scenes

9:00 AM 2/26/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Oscar-nominated editors — including those who worked on 'I, Tonya,' 'The Shape of Water' and 'Three Billboards' — reveal the secrets behind some of their favorite cuts.

'Baby Driver' and 'Dunkirk'
'Baby Driver' and 'Dunkirk'
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures; Warner Bros.

  • 'Baby Driver'

    Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos

    Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

    Edgar Wright's Baby Driver opens with an explosive bank heist and car chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosions' "Bellbottoms," during which the editors had to introduce each character. "Baby seems quiet," but once the robbers go inside the bank, "he suddenly comes to life and is overtaken by the music track," says Machliss, adding that just as quickly, he snaps into "professional mode" as the chase begins. At one point, Baby switches positions with two other red cars under an overpass to give the slip to an overhead helicopter. "We had just a small piece of overpass and about nine to 10 bars of music before it shifts. We had to make sure we were out of the tunnel by time the music got to that moment."

  • 'Dunkirk'

    Lee Smith

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

    Smith had to intercut stories in the air, on land and at sea right up to the film's final minutes. "You are starting to wrap up the movie but still keeping everyone in danger," he explains. The men on a small boat are in peril. Tom Hardy's pilot Farrier shoots down the last German Stuka, but he's out of fuel and losing altitude. Later in the sequence, soldiers board a train in England and read Churchill's speech. Dawson (Mark Rylance) arrives on land with the body of young George, and then his son puts George's name in the paper while Farrier is landing his plane. "We were wrapping up the stories but keeping the tension until the last moment, when Hardy's plane touches down and the Germans arrest him," says Smith. "It was keeping everything going until the last frame."

  • 'I, Tonya'

    Tatiana S. Riegel

    Courtesy of NEON and 30WEST

    I, Tonya utilizes documentary-style "interviews" with the principal characters, and Riegel admits that the movie's "unreliable narrators" meant "the biggest challenge was going to be the tone. There are some very brutal and disturbing and tragic elements to Tonya Harding's life, and there's also a lot of comedy in the film. So it became a balancing act." One scene starts as a dinner conversation between Tonya (Margot Robbie) and her mother (Allison Janney) that "escalates to the mother yelling and eventually picking up a knife and throwing it at her. Then, there's a long moment of tension. What is Tonya going to do? It's broken with the bit of comedy from our interview with the mother saying 'everyone has problems,' and it's a huge release of tension."

  • 'The Shape of Water'

    Sidney Wolinsky

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

    In an emotional scene, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) tries to persuade her friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to help her spring the fish-man from captivity at a government research facility. For Wolinsky, it was all about finding and cutting the performances. "When I saw the dailies, the performances were riveting — Sally's signing and facial expressions and when she hits Richard when he doesn't seem to be taking her seriously," he says. "And the device of having her demand that he repeat her signing works so well. It makes the scene so much stronger because you don't have to read subtitles. He's narrating for her, he is also responding as she says she found someone. It was important to find those moments but stay on Sally because she is driving the scene."

  • 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

    John Gregory

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

    Gregory is a fan of the scene in which Mildred (Frances McDormand) comes home, only to be confronted by a priest urging her to remove the billboards that call on the police to solve her daughter's rape and murder case. "It's a simple scene, but it was about how to play it. They all gave great performances," he says. He decided to focus it on McDormand. "She was so good in that scene; you could just see all of the various emotions that she was experiencing. Then I just built in reactions of the priest and her son, Robbie [Lucas Hedges], when necessary. At the end of the scene, as she tells the priest to get out, I didn't go to his reaction since she was so good in her disgust."

    This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.