Unbroken: Editing Angelina Jolie's War Drama
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Kylee Peña : Unbroken: Editing Angelina Jolie's War Drama
Unbroken - Official Trailer by Universal Pictures
"I don't think anybody can edit a film to be the best it can be by themselves," editor Tim Squyres, ACE, told me when I asked him about his first time as co-editor. "You need to push each other and try other things and react to what someone else is doing." Which was exactly the push and pull process in crafting war drama Unbroken with editor William "Billy" Goldenberg, ACE, in the very next editing room. The second narrative feature directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand and tells the true story of US Olympic track star Louie Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell), an epic that includes World War II, a plane crash in the Pacific, drifting about on a life raft for 47 days, and spending over two years in Japanese prison camps.
Squyres mentioned that "Everything just worked flawlessly," with Goldenberg adding "I think I crashed once the entire time I was on the film." Not bad. And paying as little attention as possible to the technical side of things allowed the editors to focus on their collaboration with Jolie, who bounced between edit rooms giving notes and watching scenes.
This wasn't Goldenberg's first time co-editing a film, and he praised the additional set of eyes the process affords him. "You can show an edit to the other editor first, a free pass, another person who is like a director -- since most editors can look at something like a director -- and you can take all their notes and make the scene better before you actually show the director. It's one thing to be critical of your own work but when you're sitting in the other chair, you can see things a lot more clearly."
Unbroken is Jolie's highest profile directorial challenge to date and the editors described her director methodology as particularly protective of the actors and sensitive to their performances. Squyres said, " I always really enjoy the performance part of editing. That's always been one of my favorite parts, so it was nice to have a director that was so tuned into that." Goldenberg also noted this side of Jolie's working style, saying that "Angie saw things from an actor and director's point of view, which made for these incredibly rich performances that stayed in the film. There were moments she just loved as an actor that sometimes would have been cut away, like a look or the way someone held their head."
Not that all great directors aren't sensitive to performance, but a long-time actor turned director is just different. Goldenberg went on to describe how he saw this in Ben Affleck while cutting Argo, which Affleck also starred in. "With Ben it was incredible because it was very interesting watching someone direct themselves, then react to that in the editing room and look at the person on screen as if they were a different person. I asked him how he was able to detach himself like that and he said basically, practice. You're watching yourself on the monitor take after take and you get used to it. It wasn't that way at first when he did The Town, but by the time he did Argo, he'd watched himself thousands of times. The advice he got from the other actor-directors was to never short change your own performance. Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, and others all said the tendency when you shoot your own coverage is not to do enough takes because it feels very self-involved."
(L to R) Director ANGELINA JOLIE works with JACK O'CONNELL as Louis "Louie" Zamperini, DOMHNALL GLEESON as Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips and FINN WITROCK as Francis "Mac" McNamara on the set of "Unbroken", an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Zamperini who survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII – only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. Photo Credit: David James. Copyright: © 2014 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Similar to Affleck, Jolie was in the edit room often during the process, sitting in or taking notes but giving the editors the freedom to try things. Unbroken physically moves to many different locations, so the editors took time to try different paths in the structure....and eventually settled back on the original screenplay (co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, among other writers in the process.) Goldenberg was quick to note that "it wasn't because something wasn't working, it was just a matter of not leaving any stone unturned. We tried lots of combinations, and we ended up coming back to the original script. There were things removed and tightened, but the structure of the movie was what was in the screenplay. It's good to have a solid screenplay. In movies where you can move the scenes around a great deal and it still works, it's probably not that great a screenplay. "
Sqyures added, "In a way [the film] does move like a bunch of really different pieces but what carries us through it all is our main character Louie [Jack O'Connell] who is consistent. He goes through a huge range of emotions as his situation changes, but he stays recognizably himself. It's a really interesting performance that ties the whole movie together." And as for the challenge of balancing all those different pieces, he said "It's nice to change the tone, to have these flashback sections when he's young be fun and exuberant, and cut from that straight to a plane crash. As an editor, you really look forward to those things."
One major editorial challenge in the film was actually a challenge Squyres has faced recently with Ang Lee's Life of Pi: three guys on a life raft for a harrowing 47 days. "It's very hard to portray people sitting endlessly day after day on a life raft without the audience starting to get bored. You want to get the impression of drifting endlessly and aimlessly without the movie drifting endlessly and aimlessly." Sounds like they hired the right guy for the job.
(L to R) Mac (FINN WITROCK), Phil (DOMHNALL GLEESON) and Louie (JACK O'CONNELL). Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.
Another challenge was deciding how much of the action in the film's opening scene to disclose to the audience. Unbroken starts off with an intense action sequence of a bombing run attacked by the Japanese, and the decision was made early on in the process by Jolie and director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, to keep much of the perspective from the protagonist's point of view inside the plane. Squyres noted, "Often in a scene if you try to make everything perfectly clear, you make the scene boring. You always have to think of where the balance is between making it clear and making it exciting. In post, we did add some exteriors to help clarify what's going on and where the plane is going and coming from. Some things to open it up, to help understand what's happening and add visual excitement. For the most part, we stayed with Louie and came out just enough to understand the peril he's in."
But what about when you don't want it to be confusing and chaotic? I asked Goldenberg to expand on this editorial process. "In a scene that is really complicated like in Zero Dark Thirty, when they're raiding Bin Laden's compound, it's night time, very dark, all the soldiers are wearing the same uniform and night vision goggles. What we did there was find something the audience can anchor on, a geographic element that grounds the audience so they know okay, when I'm here, this is what's happening. In that particular movie, it was a sniper on top of a little prayer house. We went back to that angle over him to re-orient the audience over the course of the raid so they would understand where they were, hopefully in a way that wasn't obvious.That's often what happens. In Unbroken it wasn't as necessary because it was supposed to have a feeling of being confusing, like you're in this flying tin can getting beaten up."
After all this collaboration and experimentation, how do you know it's even working? Both editors agree: it's a feel thing. "You decide when you start cutting what story you're telling in that scene, what the text and subtext is and where you are in the film. When you're done, I think it's your own personal decision: this is a good version of this scene and I'm ready to show this to a director. I think that's intuition, experience and feel that lets you know." Squyres added, "Over time you get jaded about a scene and it's easy to fool yourself. Often, your emotional responses the first time you see the footage and the first time you put it together are quite accurate." He paused, laughing."The other thing is to show it to people. If there's a joke and nobody laughs, it doesn't matter. It's not funny. If they laugh, it's working. This isn't a comedy, it's a drama. Screening it for audiences initially is friends and family. Often there's a section and you think it's great and you're sitting there watching it with an audience and you're thinking "oh man, this is so wrong!" And you didn't know it until you watched it in a room full of people and it becomes clear." Strangely comforting that the screening process never becomes easier, even for Oscar-caliber editors.
Actor Jack O'Connell. Photo by David James
Both Squyres and Goldenberg are busy guys, with big-time work hitting theaters year after year. But this is the second year in a row that Goldenberg has two films being released when awards season is just beginning to pick up steam. How does anyone balance such a busy life in post? "Time off is really important for me, it allows me to clear my head and re-energize. I put everything I have into my work, so by the end of a job I'm pretty exhausted. Lately I haven't had the time off I'd like, which is a blessing and a curse. I'm fortunate to be working and I don't take that for granted, but it takes me away from my family which can be difficult. When I do have time, I love to travel and do things outdoors. I spend a lot of time in a dark room, so when I not at work I'm outdoors as much as possible. We are taking our children to Europe for the first time over the holidays and couldn't be more excited to be able to show them other parts of the world."
Photos Copyright: © 2014 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.