Monday, February 18, 2013

Interview: Making ‘The Master' with Editor Leslie Jones

Welcome to the sixth installment of "Making The Master," our series of in-depth interviews with some of the minds behind "The Master." We've spoken to many of the production's principal players (including writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, producer JoAnne Sellar, costume designer Mark Bridges, production designers Jack Fisk & David Crank and actress Madisen Beaty) that helped bring the film to life and today we have an interview with editor Leslie Jones. As she had also done with "Punch-Drunk Love" a decade earlier, Leslie came aboard the film after principal photography had been completed and worked with PTA to help find the shape for the film. (She shares a credit with editor Peter McNulty who worked on the film through production). Leslie spoke to us about the original 3rd act for "Punch-Drunk Love," the scene in "The Master" that was the most challenging to get right and the origin of the teaser trailers. Enjoy.

Cigarettes & Red Vines: I know you first collaborated on “Punch-Drunk Love” about a decade ago, but how did you and Paul first come to work together?
Leslie Jones: We met at the Sundance Director’s Lab in 1998 and we were both advisors there. I was going to screen a copy of “The Thin Red Line” which I had just worked on, and he offered to be the moderator for the Q&A afterwards. He was very excited about the movie and had so many questions and we just really connected through that movie. We just really hit it off with that film and the experience we had at Sundance with a great group of people, we got to work together there at the lab. I don’t know where the time went but a few years later, he was just starting “Punch-Drunk Love” and the editor he had during production didn’t work out. So he remembered meeting me at Sundance and called and said, “I’m doing this movie. I’m pretty much finished shooting for now. Do you want to come on and help me out?”

It was a very unique experience because he had to finish shooting prior to completion because of an impending actor’s strike. So he shut down and decided he was going to work with what he had until he had to go back and pickup scenes but never got to. So we had one of the most luxurious opportunities and experiences filmmakers get to have on a movie because we got to sit with the film and work on it and talk about it for a long time. It was a good 6 or 9 months and we didn’t have an end, the last 20 or 30 minutes of the film hadn’t been shot. So we got to really, really think about what the movie should be and where it was going to go. He had so many ideas, so many different ideas, than what we ended up with. He was originally going to shoot a very different movie at the end. We sat around and talked and talked and talked and talked for a long time and at the end of it, came up with something completely different. So he shot the end of the movie and we had a lot more time to work on that and screen it.

Do you remember what some of those earlier ideas for the end of the film were going to be?
Adam Sandler’s character was collecting these coupons for airline miles from the pudding and he was going to use those miles to travel for this contest where you would hit all these major cities around the world using these miles. Adam was going to fly to South America and all these different places and we were going to follow him through that journey. I forget now how that was going to affect his connection with the Emily Watson character so I think in the end the reason that wasn’t shot is because Paul wanted to stay with the love story and create more of a tension with the Phil Seymour Hoffman character. So he did ultimately stay with the love story because that was the most engaging aspect of the film.

Looking back, “Punch-Drunk Love” was really a turning point in PTA’s career. At what point did get the call for “The Master”?
Coincidentally I had the same sort of experience as “Punch-Drunk Love” where I got a call right after he finished production and he needed help. Peter McNulty did the first cut on "The Master" [while the film was in production] and he did a fantastic job. So I got to see the movie and then Paul and I started work on it. It was a similar experience in that the whole movie was shot, still very fluid situation. He was still trying to figure out what the movie was really about, whose story he really wanted to tell and what the focus was going to be. It was just a different experience when you don’t start in production, which is very pressured and quick and very stressful. There’s a lot of film coming in and scenes get cut very quickly and then they get put aside and there’s no real continuity.

So they were editing while the film was in production?
You’re always cutting in production but it’s fractured and stressful. It’s kind of nice to come on after that happens and you’re not burdened with the stress of what might’ve happened on the set, lab issues, 70mm complications, stuff like that which will always intrude into the process. So I love coming in later and getting to see the whole movie which is already there, cut and getting to collaborate with Paul when he’s in a more focused frame of mind. He’s not shooting, he’s there, present, in the cutting room and we get to just talk about what’s there. We sit in front of a continuity board which has flashcard pictures of every scene and they’re in order, so we just move the cards around all the time and think about different structures and hours would go by of just sitting and staring at this board and talking and moving things around and eventually trying things in the edit. But a lot of our work was just conversations, pondering and thinking. Then we would go through phases where we would look at things more under a microscope and take scenes apart, put them back together again.

You weren't cutting on film were you?
No, we cut on the Avid but we printed film. Dailies were printed, we saw film dailies and then a work picture was created based on our Avid cut list so we had film screenings.

What is that actual editing process like? Are you and Paul side-by-side the entire time, do you talk about something and then you go off and put a scene together and come back with something to show him?
For a lot of it, we would talk about changes and he would go away, I’d do the notes and he’d come back and we would do more work together. Most time was spent where he was in the room reading, writing emails, just there present but not focused on what I was doing until I said, “Hey, look at this!”

“The Master” and “Punch-Drunk Love” both seem to be PTA’s loosest films structurally. There’s a much more straightforward version of this story where The Master is much more of a villain or manipulator and this is obviously much more complex film than that. How do you get to the core of what the film is about?
The focus of the story wasn’t obvious in the beginning. There was a lot of a lot of story and there was a lot of backstory for Joaquin, there was a lot of backstory for Phil and the beginnings of The Cause, how he started the movement and also his relationship to some of his followers. It’s all good in its own right, in isolation it’s great. But you put it all together and it meandered in places. So we had to choose what was the most important and what was the most engaging and in the end it was Phil and Joaquin’s characters’ relationship with each other. All the other stuff that got in the way of that really needed to not be there. But still, it’s really hard to know how far to go with cutting stuff. You never know for sure.

We’d screen it over and over again, sometimes it was obvious and sometimes it wasn’t. But Paul is fiercely loyal to his own instincts and if there is something he loves and it’s clearly maybe not acceptable to other people, that’s okay for him. He really trusts himself and the film and that’s what I think is so special to Paul as a filmmaker. He really trusts his actors and his performances and you see that in the way he shoots the film and the way he holds on shots and edits. Where there may be a lot more manipulation happening in other films with a lot more cutting and using different takes, Paul doesn’t do that. He’ll find a performance, he sticks with it, he trusts it, he’ll stay in one shot. Sometimes it’s a little scary wondering, “Does this hold up?” But in the end, it really all does come together. I’m amazed sometimes at how he can see that. He can visualize how it’s all going to work together.

It must be difficult to know what to cut because the film really isn’t driven by plot, it’s driven by theme and character. So how do you know what you can tear away and what has to be there?
It’s just a feeling, I can’t explain it. I can’t explain why I cut something all the time, it’s just a feeling. And if it feels emotional, if it feels authentic, if it feels lyrical, then it feels right. I think he and I are on the same page that way, there are a lot of lyrical moments we fell in love with and when that works with the music, you know you really got something special and you kinda know it. The film became very hypnotic in a way because of those moments.

Is it tough to lose some of that great footage?
Yes, it’s very hard. But when it doesn’t drive the story along and you realize, “Oh, this is what’s getting in the way,” you know that the thing before and the thing after are going to be so much better when you take this middle thing out. Even though it’s funny or it’s this or that, it becomes a no brainer. Then you’ve made great progress and you get invigorated again with the movie. Then you have great material for a teaser! It was really fun using all those outtakes for the teasers. But honestly, most of that footage was out of the movie pretty early on. There were some alternate takes that were great but as a whole didn’t stand up, but we were able to take little pieces out like that piece in the jail, “Tell me something that’s true!” That take didn’t really hold up in its entirety so we didn’t use it but it’s great for the teaser.

I feel like that become one of the most iconic lines in the trailer but I remember my surprise during my first viewing because its not even in the film! But as many times as I’ve watched those teasers it still feels like its there in a way even though it’s not in the actual film.
So much of that footage we used in the teasers was voiceover padding, which allows us to use dialogue that will sum up a story in 2 or 3 minutes. It also gives you a sense of time and place and the feeling of the movie. So like the shot of Joaquin walking outside the Phoenix conference just after he’s beaten up the guy.

Yep, he’s walking in front of the white wall.
Yeah and he’s walking and walking and walking and walking. You just don’t have time for shots like that in a movie, well, sometimes, but not all the time. So there’s a lot of that stuff that comes out very early on in the process. But they’re just gold for teasers. Not trailers, not commercial trailers, but the teasers we made. It’s fun to be able to play with some dialogue or music and hold over a shot like that.

I’m going to come back to the teasers but I want to go back to the film for a second. Do you remember how long the editing process was?
I came onboard in the Fall of 2011 and we finished up around June of 2012. So about 8 months.

Was there any pressure to make a Fall 2012 release date or did it feel like you had the time to find it however long it took?
We had a really good amount of time. We didn’t really have the pressure of a release date but we knew there was one around September. Our only pressure was to allow enough time to complete the 70mm printing process which was, for us, kind of an unknown. We were making 2 different movies essentially: a 70mm version and a 35mm version. That was a very time consuming process because we were color timing photochemically and cutting negatives and doing that with two formats is just a little complicated. And nobody had really done it that way before. That was our only pressure to finish the film around June to get the prints ready in time for September.

Can you talk about how the movie found its shape over the course of that 8 months? Was there any invaluable feedback from one of those screenings or any ‘A-ha’ moment that made things click into place?
It was a very gradual process. We screened it quite a bit for Paul’s close friends and filmmaker friends of his. I would say the ‘A-ha’ moment came when we got music from Jonny [Greenwood]. There was a long period of time where it felt like he got to a point in the edit where he was really happy with it but couldn’t really go on until we got some more music. Those outstanding pieces of score were really going to tie some things together and inform some of the sequences and how they were cut and whether they belonged. Jonny’s music was coming in throughout the whole process but it was a situation where the cut would inform a direction that Jonny would take and then Jonny’s music would inform a direction we would take with the edit. So it was sort of a give and take. But towards the end when we got a lot of the final music it was like, “Wow, it feels cohesive now.” The music felt cohesive therefore the story does and it was very gratifying to realize that. But it was a pretty gradual movement of how we cut the movie and how it took shape. Though it was in pretty great shape when I first saw it, early on, just long and needed to be focused just like most movies do.

Was there a particular scene that was most difficult to find the rhythm of or anything you would say was the biggest challenge in editing the film?
The hardest sequence was the scene we called the ‘touch the wall’ scene, the processing sequence where Freddie goes back and forth touching the wall. That was the hardest scene, we had a lot of footage, a lot of different sorts of exercises that Freddie was going through and we really weren’t sure how those pieces fit together. It was a big puzzle and we weren’t sure what Freddie’s journey was going to be through this process and where he was going to end up, what arc he was going to take, so that took the longest amount of time to get.

It was clear every screening we would go into thinking, “Oh, we got it. We made some progress,” and then we’d watch it and think, “Oh God, we’ve got to go back and start over.” There were some pieces in that sequence that were really strong and we knew that those belonged but how do we fill in the space in between? Eventually we did and we got something great. That was a great day. We found a rhythm and when we screened it we knew, “Thank God, we got it.” That was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders because it was one of the most nagging issues that we had.

I know there were some films that were more touchstones for the writing and tone but were there any films you looked at for inspiration as far as the editing?
No. Paul had some references that he used with his production people and if he has something I’m happy to look at it. But you don’t want to rip anybody off and you don’t want to be distracted by something else you’ve seen. You want to approach the material with a fresh perspective and a unique approach and not be influenced by anything else. The footage you have is unique and you can only cut it in a way that works for that movie. Nothing else can really inform how you do it.

To go back to the teasers for a minute, how did those come about?
We started talking about it in the Spring of 2012. We did a lot of these little short pieces for “Punch-Drunk Love” where he was remembering things, we used a lot of the Jeremy Blake artwork to cut these little teasers. They were smaller than teasers.

The Scopitones?
Yes, the Scopitones! So he was reflecting on those and wanting to do something similar. We also had all this great music too that Jonny had done that hadn’t ended up in the final movie so he planned to do a series that he would release on his own and they were posted by our assistant editor through the cutting room. It was very exciting because we felt like we were so much on our own without the studio telling us what to do and how to do it and when to do it. We knew that The Weinstein Co. had their own campaign they were getting ready for and we were onboard with that too but Paul really wanted to do something out of the box as well. So we just started cutting these teasers and we started with one that featured Joaquin and then we did one that was more about Phil. I think we did one for Amy but I don’t think we ever released that one.

I don’t think so either.
Then we did one that we called the 'Love Teaser,' I’m sure it’s called something else now ["She Wrote Me A Letter"] but it was more about Doris and it was much more abstract and mysterious. I cut them pretty close to each other and they would just sit in a bin and we would have it and wait for Paul to be interested in them again. He would come in and say, “Let’s go look at a teaser again,” and we would get excited about it and we’d recut it. He would be very impulsive about it and just decide, “OK, it looks great. Let’s post it!” It was like, “Are you sure? Are you really ready?” It was so empowering that we could just put it out there ourselves and it would go out to the world. It was very exciting.

How close did you guys follow the response to them? Especially that first one when no one had even seen a frame of film to all of a sudden getting this two minutes of footage must have been incredibly exciting to watch the reactions coming back.
It was great. It was very exciting, very inspiring. It gave us a huge boost and made us want to do more. But you’d have to show some restraint, you couldn’t do too much at once. Paul and I had also cut a long trailer for Cannes which had gone before the teaser I believe.

The teaser actually came out the day before the Cannes footage, which I thought was a really cool way of leveling the field.
Oh okay, you’re right. I think we half-expected the Cannes trailer to get leaked out somehow but it didn’t. Then we were able to take that Cannes version and extend it and put a lot more in there.

That was the last one, the “Thank You” teaser.
Then there was a 20 minute version which is going on the DVD. A lot of that stuff we just tried to fit together and cut it a different way.

Are there any scenes that were filmed and cut together that didn’t make it into that 20 minutes?
There’s a few. [laughs]

Anything of interest?
I’m sure any of this stuff would be interesting to fans of Paul’s but it was stuff that didn't have a visual feeling to it, it didn’t tell a story, it wasn’t interesting visually. There was a little bit of that. Some scenes that Paul just knew he didn't get on the day -- that were just visually not interesting, not working -- and he knows it. He’s amazing and he’s so lucky to have producers that plan for that kind of thing where he’s going to have a bad day and [say], “Let’s reshoot it, we’re prepared. Tomorrow we’ll redo it.” He did that a number of times, it’s quite a bit of footage that was reshot.

But no major sequences or anything?
No, not really.

You worked with another revered auteur, Terrence Malick on “The Thin Red Line,” so can you just talk about any similarities or differences you noticed working with these two filmmakers?
Well, they’re both just brilliant at what they do and incredibly intuitive and trusting of their actors. But I think it’s clear they both have a unique style, maybe there’s a little bit of crossover now and then. I think Paul’s much more of an actor’s director who develops a really great connection with his actors and there’s a trust there that is invaluable. I think Terry’s inclination is less about the actor and performance and more about just a feeling, a glimpse in time. There’s so much movement and everything feels like its sort of flowing through space. Paul’s performances and characters feel a lot more grounded to me. So I think there are a lot of differences.

Paul goes into the editing process feeling like he knows exactly what he wants, and there ends up to be a lot of experimentation as there usually is with his process. But I think Terry walks in thinking, “I don’t know what I have,” -- this is for “The Thin Red Line” anyway -- “The script I wrote isn’t really the movie I want to make, so let’s go and see what we can do. Let’s mix up all these pieces, take out the dialogue and take out anything that’s linear, throw it up in the air and see what happens.” Paul’s approach is much different.

After working with Paul twice in the last 10 years, did the process change at all? Is he the same director he was a decade ago?
We both have had families. He’s got 3 kids now and that’s a huge difference. That can dramatically affect your work habits. I’ve also had one child since then. So it was really nice for us to get together again and have that connection and have more boundaries in our work habits and know that you need to stop at a certain time every night and go home to our families. That was a big difference but a very positive one.

Any plans for a future collaboration?
I hope so!

Are you getting on the “Inherent Vice” train?
I hope so. [laughs]

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  1. Is this the Unguided Message featured in The Master's Bluray?

  2. great interview, but i feel like you need to stop commenting in every single interview and article on paul's transition from his more structured films to his more improvisational films and how punch-drunk love was the bridge between the two.

    1. No! It is interesting to see different people react to the same questions! Keep it that way, guys!

    2. I agree. Keep the interviews as they are!

  3. That was incredible. I'm so ready for the next one. Greenwood would be ridiculously fitting.

  4. Fantastic Interview.Simply loved::Keep it as you are doing::Congrats

  5. Great as always. This is such a terrific series. You guys reach out to Johnny Greenwood at all?

  6. Speaking of PDL, Any word on the Punch-Drunk Love blu-ray?

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