Melanie Ann Oliver Reflects On Editing "Judy"
Melanie Ann Oliver
Two-time Emmy nominee is now in the Oscar conversation; she discusses working with director Rupert Goold, Renée Zellweger's tour de force performance
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Judy (Roadside Attractions) takes us back to two eras--1969 when Judy Garland, portrayed brilliantly by Renée Zellweger, is towards the end of her life. It’s at a juncture when Garland is in dire straits, has health issues, can’t get a good paying gig in the U.S. and is struggling with her third ex-husband Sid Luft over custody of their children for whom she can’t suitably provide. Her only viable alternative is London where she is still revered, and can make major money with a running engagement of live performances before sold-out audiences at The Talk of the Town theater.

The second era takes us to when Garland was a 16-year-old star--played by Darci Shaw--who’s cruelly manipulated in the Hollywood studio system. Garland’s past informs her present as an adult in the late ‘60s as we see, for example, the studio putting the youngster on pills to control her, starting a pattern of addictive behavior that carries through to what’s become a brittle adulthood.

Helping director Rupert Goold tell Garland’s story in two distinct periods of time was editor Melanie Ann Oliver, a two-time Emmy nominee for the miniseries Elizabeth I in 2006 and John Adams in 2008. The latter also scored her an American Cinema Editors Eddie Award nod in 2009, an honor she achieved again in 2013 for the feature Les Misérables. Tom Hooper directed Elizabeth I, John Adams and Les Misérables, underscoring a bond between editor and filmmaker that also extends to such notable work as The Damned United, The Danish Girl and the upcoming Cats, which is slated for release in December.

Advance word on the much anticipated Cats is akin to what Judy is already enjoying as both films have Oliver in the season’s Oscar conversation. But while Cats continues a lengthy track record with filmmaker Hooper, Judy marks Oliver’s first collaboration with Goold. Judy is just Goold’s second feature film (the first being True Story, a 2015 release starring James Franco and Jonah Hill).

Judy at the same time represented a return engagement for Oliver with Zellweger as the former cut the latter’s star turn in Bridget Jones’s Baby, released in 2016. 

Oliver was drawn to Judy on several fronts, including the chance to work with Goold and reunite with Zellweger--but first and foremost it was what the story meant to the editor. “Judy is about a working mom. I’m one of those...I wanted to help tell her story.”

Oliver recalled first hearing about the Judy Garland film when she was working on the Matthew Warchus-directed feature Pride whose producer David Livingstone had Judy in the pipeline. Livingstone sent the script for Judy to Oliver who recalled, “I was so taken by how gloriously magical it was and how apt it seemed for the times we’re living in. This woman was a survivor from an era where many misappropriations were swept under the carpet within the business. A complex character who not only had a substance addiction but also an addiction to perform, to be loved by her audience, but behind all that glamour and on a very basic level, she was a working mum just trying to stay afloat. This heavily resonated for me as she was always making compromises to keep her family together and pay the bills--something I readily understand.”

The editor enjoyed the give-and-take between her and Goold. Oliver related, “Rupert envisioned Judy as a Technicolor epic that would call for big production design, costumes, cinematography, music and dance choreography. He always knew it would be a collaboration between all those film crafts and he saw the editing as the technical bridge that would tie it all together. We worked very closely during the shoot to keep on track with the style and story as with the budget we had there was no going back. I have a reputation for speed which was essential. Overnight I would give him multiple options on how we could cut scenes to mine the various complicated storylines.” 

Woven into the human story is the music itself and Garland’s larger than life presence. Oliver observed “The musicality of a scene--its pace, rhythm and structure, the way it breathes and the emotions it imparts, all come from a universal musical language; a language that transcends mediums. When that language is used on a film whose subject or content is music, the result can be incredibly powerful. I’ve been lucky enough to contribute heavily to several musical films: Les Misérables, Judy and currently Cats, and feel as an editor that this language of music is something I innately understand. The challenge of using the many threads and layers of editing to create a tapestry of images, sounds and music; mining the footage for unique psychological moments and interweaving them into an emotional musical arc is something I love and strive for in my working life.”

As for the giant shadow cast by Garland’s character, Oliver related, “She and her music are so iconic, the pressure was very much on me to bring out every performance element, to make them sound amazing and to balance this epic, magical celebration of classic Hollywood with a very intimate story. I think everyone was ready to hate it so you had to cut it in a way that didn’t make her a victim but also didn’t shy away from some obvious darkness in her life. It had to become a celebration of a BELOVED entertainer. It was an incredible challenge to take on and a journey I feel very grateful to have taken.

“For me making films is ultimately all about making emotional shapes and chasing an inner pulse which can be led by the drama, music, sound design or just silence. Everything is about rhythm and I dance from the heart...It’s my compass.”

Of course, helping to keep that compass on course was the bravura performance by Zellweger. “She’s an extraordinary woman who never stops working. I’ve seen that in people like Judi Dench. They never stop. They never complain. They just get on with it all the time. I love that about Renée. I worked with her on the Bridget Jones movie and see how she brings humanity to a role. Renée completely inhabited the world of Judy Garland, caustic, vulnerable, giving her an unpredictability. It’s an honor to cut people like that. There’s no artifice. They become the character.”

This is the first 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, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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