The American Cinema Editors’ (ACE) annual panel featuring Oscar-nominated film editors went virtual for the first time but like in years past the latest session held over the weekend (4/24) yielded plenty of insights. Another familiar constant was Alan Heim, ACE--the Academy Award-winning editor for Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and a nominee for Sidney Lumet’s Network--who moderated the roundtable, dubbed Invisible Art/Visible Artists, for the 19th time in its 21 years. Heim, current president of the Motion Picture Editors Guild and former ACE president, quipped that the session was launched back in the day to give the public and industry at large a sense of “what we sound like when we come out of our dark rooms.”
Indeed from the dark sprung some light that was shed on the art and craft of editing by all five Best Editing Oscar nominees/ACE panelists this year: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen who wound up winning the Academy Award the next day (4/25) for Sound of Metal; and fellow nominees Chloé Zhao for Nomadland (for which she won the Best Director and Best Motion Picture Oscars); Alan Baumgarten, ACE for The Trial of the Chicago 7; Yorgos Lamprinos for The Father; and Frédéric Thoraval for Promising Young Woman.
Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal features a tour de force performance by the Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. Rather than focus solely on the character’s isolation as a result, Marder also shows the support and belonging that can be found in the deaf community. During the course of the film, Ahmed’s character loses his identity, then finds a new one only to struggle with trying to regain his original lifestyle before experiencing a defining self-realization.
Nielsen, whose longtime commercial editing roost is Rock Paper Scissors, noted during the ACE discussion that a priority for him was to take viewers on Ruben’s journey. “You can never be ahead of Ruben,” Nielsen observed, adding that hearing members of the audience, however, suddenly feel out of the loop well into the story as Ruben starts to embrace sign language. At that point, related Nielsen, “the hearing person should feel like the minority,” akin to how deaf people feel regularly in mainstream society. This builds another layer of empathy as the audience is invited into and experiences the deaf world on different levels.
Nielsen and sound designer Nicolas Becker, who won the Best Sound Oscar for Sound of Metal, put the audience inside Ruben’s head and ears. Nielsen earlier noted in an installment of SHOOT’s Road To Oscar Series that Becker gave him a level of empathy for the deaf community that was inspiring and eye-opening. The editor shared that he became more aware of sound and silence after attending a “sound camp” that Becker devised for him and Marder. The camp was designed to help the filmmakers explore the nature of sound and deafness subjectively, gaining a first-hand feel for Ruben’s sonic perspective. “You have method acting. This was method editing,” quipped Nielsen. “We got to experience loss of sound for ourselves.”
Meanwhile Baumgarten earlier this month won the marquee ACE Eddie Award, topping the dramatic feature category for his work on The Trial of the Chicago 7. The film was based on the 1969 trial of seven defendants charged by the federal government with conspiracy and more, arising from anti-Vietnam War protests which turned violent as demonstrators clashed with police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Baumgarten noted that The Trial of the Chicago 7--directed and written by Aaron Sorkin--was 14 years in the making. Sorkin coped with starts and stops before finally bringing the project to fruition. Baumgarten observed that the lengthy wait in one respect was worthwhile in that the release of the film came at a time when related social issues and police brutality are front and center. The story became all the more relevant in light of recent events, reaffirming the importance of free speech, dissent and peaceful protest. These rights need to be protected to ensure peace and fairness in a democracy. Baumgarten observed that while the film shows all this based on events 50 years ago, it still carries lessons that apply today.
Staying in rhythm
Zhao not only directed and cut Nomadland but also penned the adapted screenplay based on Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century.” The film introduces us to Fern (played by Frances McDormand in what turned out to be an Oscar-winning performance), an independent spirit who after the economic collapse of a small company town in Nevada packs her van and sets off on the road as a modern-day nomad, encountering unique places in rural America and even more unique varied characters including many played by real people (a staple of Zhao’s filmmaking), the key exception being actor David Strathairn who emerges as a friend and a subdued potential love interest.
In editing the film, Zhao said during the ACE panel discussion that one of her concerns was “how long we can hold on someone’s face before it becomes too long,” particularly relative to the non-professional actors. While McDormand as a consummate professional could give exactly what a scene required and be on camera for extended stretches, real people are quite different yet still contribute great value, particularly with stark realism, including mistakes in speech, observed Zhao who added that she had to recognize that value and do justice to it as the editor.
Zhao related that there’s a rhythm and flow to “a road movie” in the context of Fern’s emotional journey and an editor has to know when to speed up or slow down to be in sync with that rhythm.
Thoraval shared that Promising Young Woman featured a story “unraveling slowly so you don’t know where it’s going,” which in turn informed his editing. However, chapters in the story are delineated with bold Roman numerals, underscoring that something is up as the big picture gradually comes into view piece by piece.
Marking the feature directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a medical school dropout whose once promising prospects have fallen off a cliff. She’s working at a coffee house and spends her free time either moping about or pretending to be blind drunk at nightclubs where she ultimately shames guys who try to take advantage of her seemingly impaired state. It’s an inexplicably strange double-life until we become privy to what made her quit med school, a despicable trauma suffered by her dear friend and fellow student, Nina, years ago. This genre-busting film plays at times like a dark comedy, a comic tragedy, a thriller, a psychological tale that perfectly dovetails with the #MeToo era, all the above and more.
Fennell won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Promising Young Woman. In an earlier Road To Oscar conversation with SHOOT, Thoraval credited her with having a major hand in his Oscar nomination. “She is a brilliant everything--writer, director, an amazing person. She made an impossible dream come true for me.” The editor described the script as one that “you start and just can’t stop reading. I could see very clearly from the outset that she had a very clear vision of what she wanted to do. It was the kind of movie you knew instantly you wanted to be a part of. When we first met two years ago, it was not a job interview. It was more of a talk and we connected very quickly.”
Lamprinos’ editing approach to The Father in large part was “being inside Anthony’s mind,” a reference to Anthony Hopkins’ Best Actor Oscar-winning portrayal as an elderly men with dementia. Moderator Heim said he was struck by “the complexity of the structure of this film” and its trust in the intelligence of the audience to stay connected to the story.
Lamprinos concurred, noting that director and co-writer Florian Zeller wanted “the audience to be active.” Lamprinos said his orientation was to do justice to the narrative and the characters, affirming that taking on The Father was “not about being a flashy editor.” In fact, continued Lamprinos, he had to embrace “a pace that reflects Anthony rather than what reflects me as an editor.”
ACE dedicated this latest Invisible Art/Visible Artists session to Diane Adler, ACE who had passed away just a couple of days earlier (4/22) at the age of 97. Adler’s editing credits included such TV series as The Rockford Files, Kojak and Spenser: For Hire. A member of ACE and the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Adler was a lead player for two decades in organizing the Invisible Art/Visible Artists panel roundtables, held the day before the Oscars.