Editor Monika Willi Reflects On "Tár," Collaborating With Writer-Director Todd Field
Monika Willi
This season's honors thus far include a Best Editing nomination from the Film Independent Spirit Awards

The wait was worth it for editor Monika Willi. Eleven years after being approached to work on a prospective project that ultimately didn’t come to fruition with writer-director Todd Field, Willi got another call from the master auteur--this time yielding Tár (Focus Features). Among the plaudits received thus far by Tár--Field’s first feature in some 15 years--is a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination recognizing Willi for best editing.

Willi treasures the opportunity she got to collaborate with Field, describing him as “very precise” and prepared. “He’s a director who is really in the cutting room,” not one to just pass by and check in from time to time. “He’s there from morning through evening.” Willi said that she and Field worked closely together for “a very intense first three months” to wrap the first cut. 

Tár delves into the life of a gifted artist at the peak of her career. The fictional Lydia Tár, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is a lauded composer, musician, philanthropist and conductor. The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner, mentored by Leonard Bernstein, is the first woman to preside over a prestigious German orchestra. At the outset of the film, Tár’s career is continuing on a seemingly irreversible ascent as she prepares to debut her autobiography “Tár on Tár” and complete the Gustav Mahler cycle with the orchestra. But after being introduced to the celebrated genius and breaker of the glass ceiling, slowly the private Tár comes to light when we see her anxiety, seemingly almost haunted by an unseen yet felt force as her lofty status begins to erode amid allegations of misconduct.

Blanchett gives yet another tour de force performance, last week named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle--which also bestowed Best Director distinction upon Field. This came on the heels of Field winning Best Screenplay honors at the Gotham Awards. The aforementioned Spirit Award nomination was one of seven received by Tár--the others being for best feature, director, screenplay, cinematography for Florian Hoffmeister, BSC, actor for Blanchett, and supporting actor for Nina Hoss.

Field also brought Willi together with the sound designers during the editing process. Having these different artistic perspectives on picture and sound mesh was part of Field’s quest to make the end result, said Willi, “as perfect as possible.” 

And tied to that striving for perfection, continued Willi, was to keep focus on “the path that Lydia [Tár] is taking, to concentrate fully on her and how her life is going.”

Inherently that honed focus meant losing some brilliant scenes, observed Willi. Having to leave such material on the proverbial cutting room floor, she said, caused her “to suffer a lot--but in the end it’s always about the film and never about anything else.”

The wealth of material can be attributed in large part to Blanchett’s talent. Willi felt privileged to work with the actor’s performance. Invariably, though, there were so many stellar scenes that some had to miss making the cut.

Willi added, “What I really liked about working with Todd is that he’s not postponing things. We really worked on scenes as long as it was needed.” There was no postponement in dealing with what had to be addressed from one scene to the next. Willi affirmed that Field kept working in the moment, perfecting a scene before moving on--not that there wouldn’t be changes later on but he made a concerted effort to get a scene as good as it could be from the get-go, having elements such as sound and visual effects already in the room so there would be no surprises later.

At times the nature of the cinematography kept cuts at a minimum. In a recent installment of SHOOT’s Cinematographers & Cameras Series, DP Hoffmeister noted that in the movie we first meet Tár during an on-stage interview in front of a live audience with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. The interview is shown in real time as if we are members of the audience in the room with Tár and Gopnik. Hoffmeister said the idea was to not move the camera. 

This observational bent best served the story, related Hoffmeister who shared Field’s piece of advice that a cinematographer “sometimes wants to contribute too much.” If a scene works a certain way, it doesn’t need any comment. “We were able to watch this interview without any commentary,” explained Hoffmeister. “Any [camera] movement would have been a comment to try to guide the audience. To use a phrase that Todd uses, ‘Don’t gild the lily.’”

Shortly thereafter in the film, there’s another long sequence, presented as one continuous shot, with Tár teaching at Julliard, walking about the room, addressing the students, including one who annoys her with a politically correct attitude towards music. Clearly music is Tár’s passion and now after being constrained, the camera follows her about, capturing Blanchett’s remarkable performance which reveals much about Tár as an artist and person. 

Hoffmeister shared that Field taught him a lesson about how restraint can be a cinematographer’s storytelling ally--and then when that restraint is selectively removed, freeing the camera, the impact can be that much more profound. If restraint is what a scene calls for, “less is more” and “even less is even more,” smiled Hoffmeister.

Willi gives us less and more at the same time, helping to realize Field’s vision in Tár

She has deftly helped realize other directors’ visions over the years, perhaps most notably Michael Haneke for whom she has cut assorted notable films, starting with The Piano Teacher (nominated for best foreign film at the BAFTA Awards in 2001; then Time of the Wolf, an official selection at the 2003 Cannes and Toronto film festivals; Funny Games, which made the cut at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival; The White Ribbon, winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010 and the Cannes Film Fest’s Palme d’Or in 2009; Amour, winner of Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, the BAFTA Awards and the Golden Globe Awards in 2013, as well as the Palme d’Or at Cannes; and Happy End, an official selection at the 2017 Cannes, Toronto and London film festivals.

This is the fifth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 95th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12, 2023.

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