Editors on '1917,' 'Bombshell' and 'Marriage Story' Reveal How They Created Conflict

11:30 AM 12/15/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

The pros describe their process for telling stories set in the trenches, newsroom and courthouse: "There was a lot of pressure."

1917- Bombshell - A Marriage Story - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures; Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate; Wilson Webb/netflix

  • '1917'

    "I got the script with a cover letter from Sam Mendes saying the film must appear to be one shot, and he basically prepped me beforehand by saying, 'You'll laugh when you read the cover letter,' " says editor Lee Smith. "And I did. I laughed. Then I read the script. I loved it."

    Smith (an Oscar winner for Dunkirk) had teamed with the director on his last James Bond film, Spectre, which opened with a Day of the Dead-set sequence that was also shot to appear as one continuous take. But while there were some lessons Smith learned that he carried with him into 1917, Mendes' ambitious World War I drama was an entirely different challenge that changed the editing process as Smith knew it.

    1917, which hits theaters Dec. 25, was filmed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins on location around the U.K., but Smith worked from his edit bay in London. "Sam wanted me to watch the dailies in 4K on a large screen, basically because they were watching the film on monitors," the editor says, explaining that the scenes were filmed in chronological order, and shots were immediately selected and edited to ensure that each new take would join seamlessly with the last. Mendes would have his select takes, Smith would have his, and together they would compare notes. "A lot of the time what I liked and what Sam liked would line up," Smith says. "It was really essential that we were picking the right take and in a much more detailed way than you would on a conventional film. All the takes ended slightly differently, so if you picked the wrong take it could be very problematic moving forward. So, there was a lot of pressure."

    At the same time, he also had to make creative decisions since the story required the sense of a ticking clock as the protagonists raced to deliver a message that would prevent thousands of British soldiers from marching into a trap set by the Germans. "You're just always looking at the pace and rhythms of the takes so that everything would flow and keep your interest," Smith says, adding that production did as many as 39 takes of a given shot — the longest being roughly eight and a half minutes.

    Smith notes that sound work also started early. "The film had to be finished basically as it was being shot," he says. "There's no traditional postproduction. We were doing very elaborate sound work. I also had four compositors madly erasing cranes and camera platforms — erasing all the things that would distract you from watching the film — so that we could get something that was very watchable very quickly."

    The editing team also quickly had to send selected shots to VFX house MPC, which was working on joining the shots with digital techniques (such as blending and adjusting lineups and speed) in addition to tasks such as background replacement. While there was some maneuverability, Smith says that the workflow effectively meant there was no going back — and therefore when production wrapped, the edit was finished.

  • 'Bombshell'

    "Our approach was about one thing: Telling these women's stories and letting them have the time onscreen to do it," says editor Jon Poll of Jay Roach's film, which centers on three female employees at Fox News and the events leading to the downfall of chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

    "We were trying to portray this as accurately as possible, to represent these women's stories as honestly and truthfully as we know they could be," he says of the film, which follows Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and the fictional Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). "We were not making it about politics. It's about human beings and their stories … feeling their emotions and honoring what a lot of people had been through."

    Set during the 2016 presidential campaign when Carlson and Kelly both went public with their allegations of sexual harassment against Ailes, Bombshell feels extremely timely and fresh. "[Screenwriter Charles Randolph] wrote this three years ago as it was happening, and it's been happening," Poll says. "We were certainly affected by the real world."

    Principal photography started in October 2018, and the film was completed in October 2019. While the key dramatic scenes didn't change much, there was a lot of experimentation with the film's structure. "We tried starting and ending the movie with [each of] the three characters at one point or another," Poll reveals, adding that they then landed on opening with Kelly. "Once we hit on this structure and starting with Megyn, the movie just felt right."

    Roach and Poll also tried different endings, including one that concluded with Kayla leaving the network. But for Poll, the ending focusing on Carlson was more satisfying. "Because of [Carlson's] NDA, there wasn't that much of her story compared to the other characters," he explains. "We thought it was a great way to end the movie with her being asked if she would speak again — she says, 'Maybe.' It brought it back to her, who started the whole process."

    Aside from one scene, the three actresses don't appear onscreen together. Instead, Bombshell intertwines their individual stories. "The movie gave us a lot of choices in how we did that," Poll says. "It allowed us to land emotion better and keep the suspense. I think everyone knows what's going to happen, but hopefully there's a part of the movie that keeps you on the end of your seat a little." Poll adds that ultimately his job was about choosing the right performances — and in this case, it was an abundance of riches: "All three women were amazing."

  • 'Marriage Story'

    Noah Baumbach's delicate drama aimed to portray a bicoastal breakup from both the perspective of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate the terms of their divorce, including custody of their son. "Noah shared the script with me very early on," says his editor and frequent collaborator, Jennifer Lame. "Editing-wise, I helped with the script, making sure it all felt even in that sense. During the shoot we were constantly talking a lot about that, adjusting scenes and making sure we got everything balanced. [Charlie and Nicole] are actually quite separate for most of the movie. I think on this film more than any others, it was about watching it from start to finish a lot, rather than spending time on the micro — instead, focusing on the macro."

    One of Lame's favorite scenes was one in which Charlie is served divorce papers by Nicole's sister, just as he arrives at his mother-in-law's L.A. home from New York. Before he gets the papers, there's a comedic back-and-forth between Nicole and her sister (played by Merritt Wever). "It was one of those things where you watch the dailies and you laugh, and then you cut it together for the first time, and you're like, 'Oh, it's not funny anymore,' " she says. "So then I was so obsessed with making that part funny, and then once he gets served and Nicole walks in, I was like, 'Oh, wait, this is also heartbreaking.' "

    Balance was once again vital, but this time it was about mixing the comic and the tragic. "What I found was I didn't have to pull back on it too much," Lame says. "Adam was so good in that scene, I found as long as I held on him for the whole time — I didn't cut away from him after he got served, and you just see this devastation on his face — it didn't matter how funny I made the previous scene. I could really just go for it. It could be as funny as I could make it, because Adam is so good, he just puts the brakes on everything."

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