'Bohemian Rhapsody' to 'First Man': How Editors Construct Narratives With "Emotional Resonance"

10:30 AM 12/11/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Editing pros on four based-on-a-true-story movies ­— including '22  July' and 'Mary Queen of Scots' — reveal how they made a cut of the real world.

'Bohemian Rhapsody,' left, and 'First Man'
'Bohemian Rhapsody,' left, and 'First Man'

  • 'Mary Queen of Scots'


    Liam Daniel / Focus Features

    Director Josie Rourke's historical drama Mary Queen of Scots centers on the relationship between Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). But apart from one scene toward the end of the movie, the stars never appear onscreen together. "We concentrated on the differences and similarities between the two women in the edit," explains editor Chris Dickens (an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire). "The script had a little more linear structure than we ended up with. We intercut a little more because we had to make it feel as though the women are in the same room. That was the main job. The core of the film was the relationship."

    That was achieved in part by linking, emotionally, their experiences. For instance, he intercut scenes of each woman governing their country, "surrounded by men and dealing with the culture at the time," says Dickens. "Josie wanted to create a sense of how they felt. They were written as individual scenes. We needed to intercut them to show the similarities between these women's experiences."

  • 'Bohemian Rhapsody'


    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    The film, chronicling the rise of British rock band Queen and the life of its legendary frontman, Freddie Mercury, ends with the band's set at the iconic 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. "The pressure of making this work was huge, because the entire goal was to end with Live Aid," says editor John Ottman (a BAFTA winner for The Usual Suspects, for which he also wrote the score).

    "Queen's whole thing was involving the crowd. Live Aid became the culmination of that," he explains, saying that it was critical to find the right takes of Rami Malek as Mercury while incorporating the crowd participation into the cut. "If you only showed the band, it would not have had nearly the emotional resonance."

    And because the performance is so iconic, Ottman adds, "the main approach was not do what we have already seen before. So if there was a way to be a fly on the wall or be on the stage at a different angle, that was the idea."

  • '22 July'


    Courtesy of Netflix

    22 July is a riveting drama from Paul Greengrass that traces the aftermath of Norway's deadliest terrorist attack on July 22, 2011. The film is shot verite style and told in three acts, starting with the attack itself, followed by the aftermath for the survivors and the country, and concluding with a tense courtroom drama.

    Editor William Goldenberg (an Oscar winner for Argo) says the attack was the most challenging, in part because it involved lots of cross cutting and juggling between all the characters' stories. Also, due to weather conditions, Greengrass had to abandon plans to shoot what would have ended the scene — an attempted escape by swimming off the island.

    "We had to come up with an editorial solution to get around that part of the story," Goldenberg explains, noting that they chose instead to stay on teen protagonist Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who was severely injured on that day. "It suited the idea of Viljar being a representation of the people of Norway and their injury. It actually made the sequence better."

  • 'First Man'


    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    To tell the story of Neil Armstrong in Universal's First Man, director Damien Chazelle wanted to focus on the more intimate aspects of the famous astronaut's personal story — prompting a cinema verite approach, inspired to some degree by handheld NASA archival footage that the astronauts themselves shot.

    Editor Tom Cross (an Oscar winner for Chazelle's Whiplash) says, "The feeling was that if we were showing the audience little moments that they might not have otherwise seen, then they would get more out of the story." This informed Cross' approach to the editing, which included choosing takes that he would not have considered for a film such as Chazelle's La La Land. "Camera mistakes, exposure changes, all of those things are hallmarks of documentaries," he says. "We found that you would find little gems in footage that on any other project you might think of as a mistake." He also included unscripted, improvised rehearsal footage of Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong; Claire Foy, who portrays his wife; and the child actors who play the Armstrongs' children.

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