admin On maggio - 10 - 2014

by Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Every movie has three different versions: the script, the shoot and the final cut. But the one that reaches audiences is only the latter. Hence, film editing is the crucial part of the creative post-production process, which determines the version that will go out into the world. The combination of raw footage, shots and sequences determines the outcome of a good or bad film.

This craft is exquisitely handled by the accomplished film editor John Axelrad, member of American Cinema Editors who has cut movies such as ‘We Own The Night,’ ‘Crazy Heart,’ ‘Two Lovers’ ‘The Switch’ and most recently James Gray’s period film, set in 1921 New York, ‘The Immigrant’, starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix.

In this Exclusive Interview, John Axelrad, reveals the artistry of editing motion pictures:

Most people who aspire to enter the world of film either go into to acting or directing, what fascinated you of editing?

I went to the University of Southern California Film School, and like everyone who goes there, I had dreams of becoming a director, a writer, and it really was something that dawned on me as I progressed in my studies. I realised I didn’t really like being on set that much. I was a cinematographer and was being groomed in that department, I actually got a scholarship for cinematography at school. But the enjoyment of putting a movie together,  by being in your own head space creatively, really working with the elements that make the magic, has a lot of parallels with being a writer, when you’re an editor. But the difference is I’m not just dealing with the blank page and words: I’m dealing with images, sounds, music and how it all comes together. That is why there’s a saying amongst editors that the first draft is the script, the second draft is the shoot and the third draft is the edit.

Since editors get the final draft how do you feel about audiences getting to see your version of the film?

You’re somehow a director with the footage and of course you work closely with the director. I think editors are usually very under appreciated. Mostly because the work we do is largely invisible. With different mediums, like documentaries, the editor has far more importance in the making of the film. In narrative you can try things that the director did not anticipate. Often the director has a certain vision of the film and the footage is going in a different direction, so it’s a balancing act to make it the best it can be. A lot of the editing awards go to flashiest, when you really notice the editing. Whereas I think that the skill in editing is really when it’s subtle, especially when you work with someone like James Gray.

Speaking of James Gray, you have a consolidated collaboration together (The Immigrant, Two Lovers, We Own The Night), what is it like to work with him?

James is a marvellous filmmaker, and one of the reasons is that he really understands the subtlety and power of editing. More than most directors I’ve worked with. He is very neoclassical in his approach and somehow he challenges the viewer, since we are all accustomed to faster cutting and faster pacing. But with James it’s so much more of a methodical approach and the way we work together is we are very performance driven. After having worked with him on three films I really understand his instincts. That’s part of the process. With any director you work with you really need to develop that second hand language and truly understand what he wants.

So is it determining to understand a director and share his vision, do you take notes on the dailies before you even touch the film?

A lot of directors and producers may ask what style you have and I usually answer that my style is to be adaptable. I think this is the mark of a very good editor, because you’ve got different personalities and ways of working. With James Gray he is very hands on, he sits with me the entire time. I admire that. There are others directors I work with who just don’t want to be in the room and give me notes. It’s fine either way. As an editor I really try to diversify and test different styles, because I don’t want to get pigeonholed or get limited to a certain genre. That is why I’m always striving to work with different kind of filmmakers.

So do you tend to choose a project according to the script or the director?

Usually it comes down to the script or to the material. That being said, if the material appeals to me, I want to make sure that the director is someone I can work with, because you are stuck with them in a dark room for many many hours. But then again you can have material that isn’t great on the page, but you know the director has vision and a way of storytelling that elevates it from the page.

When editing, then, how do you figure out how to place the character within the bigger picture of the narrative, the action, or the plot?

Mostly it’s connected to the conversations with the director. I try to speak with them as much as possible to understand their vision. Often the editor is on board on the first day of shooting. I think the editor should be involved also in the pre-production process, because the editor’s insight into the screenplay can be helpful for how things will translate during the shoot. So that is why I try to communicate with the director during the shoot, to figure if tonally it’s going into a certain direction.

Editing isn’t only technical, it’s also emotional, how do you accomplish that?

I do like films that are very emotional, there are films that aren’t and are more intellectual. Emotion has so much to do with performance, the mood and pacing. That’s what I really like to thrive with and I’m very focused on that. It’s hard when you’re cutting a film out of order, based on how they’re shooting it. The question is how to get in that emotional space and it’s somehow a checkerboard process: filling in the holes as we go along. That’s why they call the editor’s first cut an “assembly, ” because you really don’t have the advantage of  building it from beginning to end, seeing the arc. My happy time is once the assembly is done and we can look at the overall movie and make adjustments, through technical artistry, sound, music and sometimes finding moments even before they call action, where the actor has expressions on their face that somehow tell the story. You look for those little gems.

Is there a film you enjoyed the most editing?

The film I’m proud of the most, for the way it turned out, is probably ‘Two Lovers’ and also ‘The Immigrant,’ which I think is one of James’ best works. But the films I enjoyed the most doing were probably ‘Crazy Heart’ and ‘Rudderless.’ The reason is that these two films I was able to cut in order and I came in just after the shooting ended, which is not the ideal way to do it, but it was wonderful for me to focus on that emotional arc.

Currently what are you working on?

I’m finishing up a film called ‘1:30 Train,’ which is Chris Evans’ debut as a director. He is the actor who plays Captain America and did a fantastic job on this movie, he’s very talented, a true artist. His tastes are very different from the movies he’s acted in. He tends to like the more adult theme, slower paced dramas and has a very fluid hand-held camera style, with jump-cuts. ‘1:30 Train,’ is very post-modern in a way. It’s an amazing film, not just for a first effort, and I think he’s going to go on to bigger and better things in his career as a director.

Is there a genre you still haven’t tackled you would like to try out?

Action. I’ve done action sequences, which has been great, especially in ‘We Own The Night’ but it would be nice to do something more oriented to adventure, just because it’s fun to cut and you’re not worrying so much about nuance. It’s just a visceral experience. Hopefully James (Gray) will be working on ‘The Lost City of Z’ sometime next year and that will be an action-adventure biography, so we’ll see.

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