In the lengthy, frequently difficult collaborative process of movie making, the vital role of the film editor is sometimes overlooked. An “invisible art”, as one New York Times writer once described it, it’s the film editor’s task to sculpt what can amount to dozens of hours’ footage into a coherent narrative.
It was particularly fascinating, then, to get the chance to talk to seasoned film editor, John Gilbert, whose recent project, Blitz, is out in UK cinemas this week. We spoke to him about the process of editing this British cop thriller into its lean current form, directing pick-up shots, and working with Jason Statham, as well as his wider career to date, which includes the epic Fellowship Of The Ring and The World’s Fastest Indian.
What was the editing process for Blitz like?
It went on longer than I thought it was going to. These things always take a while to come together. It was sort of reinvented a little bit. The original script was more of an ensemble thing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the novels, but each chapter was devoted to each of the characters. It was much more episodic.
Instead, it became centred more around Jason Statham’s character. Audiences responded to him more. He was magnetic for people. They wanted to see more of him.
The pace of Blitz is quite mixed, isn’t it, with a lot of drama, but quite a few sharp action sequences in there, too.
There are moments of action, but it’s really a character thing. I’ve done two previous films with Jason. He’s known as an action guy. I did The Bank Job as well, and Blitz. They’re similar in a way. There’s character and story to them more than action.
How is it that you’ve come to work on three Statham movies now?
That’s a good question. I did a film called The World’s Fastest Indian for Roger Donaldson, and he was doing The Bank Job, so he asked me to do it. So, I went over to Britain to do that, and I met Jason and his manager. When they were getting Blitz together, they gave me a call. The Killer Elite was getting together immediately afterwards, so I went straight on to that.
The Bank Job was a different sort of picture for Jason, and maybe he thought that I’d made him look good. I’m good with drama, good with performance. As an editor, I work with story and character more than – I mean, obviously, style is important, but you’ve got to have a strong spine to a film, and story and character is what tends to capture an audience, and then you can attempt to look at doing it well, in a colourful, entertaining way. But you’ve got to make that backbone first. That’s what editing’s all about.
So, how do you go about making that backbone? What’s the procedure?
You’ve got to look at what the story’s about. You trim away everything that doesn’t support the story, so you’ve got one thing that leads to another to another.
Blitz is quite a good example, because it was an ensemble piece to start with, and it skipped around quite a lot. It switched characters and storylines without really going anywhere.
You’ve got to boil it down to what the film essentially is about, and work it back up from there. Once you’ve got your spine, you can throw back on the elements to support that, add character and depth to it, and leave out the things that don’t really go anywhere.
One of the more tricky parts of the film, I would have thought, is the on-foot chase sequence. Is it difficult to edit those kinds of scenes to the correct dynamic?
I enjoyed doing that. I went out and shot the pick-ups to help it along. I shot a few of the things at the railway station at the end. It was a tricky transition, going from the foot chase to the train station, so I shot a few bits and pieces there to help it out. Originally, they ran out of time.
I thought Aidan [Gillen] was fantastic to work with, too. He was living in that building for a while, the Blitz block of flats in the East End.
He was excellent. He reminded me of Sid Vicious out of the Sex Pistols.
Yeah. A lot of raw energy.
What was Jason Statham like to work with?
He’s an interesting character. As an actor, he’s untrained. He does film very well, which sounds strange, but he’s very focused.
You know his background as a diver and a model? He moves very well. You give a lot of actors something to do and they’ll fumble it, and trip over themselves and whatever. He’s very, very accurate, physically, which comes from his training. The precision of a diver.
He’s very good at action. He works very hard at the action, getting it right, the fights and so on. I ended up directing the fight on the rooftop [at the end of Blitz], so that was an interesting experience.
Doing those pick-ups must be perfect for you as an editor, then, because you know exactly what you need.
Yep, definitely. There are different sorts of pick-ups. Sometimes you’re doing something that fills something in a scene, so you’re just getting from A to C and trying to fill a gap. But you’re really matching what’s already been done with another shot. Or you’re shooting a whole scene, which is much less like editing and more like directing, where you’re making something from the ground up. You’re inventing the action, rather than plugging a gap.
One of the most high profile films you’ve edited is, of course, The Fellowship Of The Ring. How did you come to get that job?
I did some work on The Frighteners, which was Peter Jackson’s film from five years earlier. I came aboard for that, as Peter had only worked on film previously, and because of all the visual effects, they needed someone who could work in [digital editing program] Avid and electronically.
I came on board to do all the visual effects scenes to start with, and pretty soon, Avid was a really good way to work, because I could put things together a lot quicker than they could on film.
So, I ended up doing quite a lot of that movie, and because of that, I was originally going to do King Kong with Peter, because he was doing that before Lord Of The Rings, but that fell over, and Lord Of The Rings came up instead. He asked me to do that, which was pretty exciting.
I presume that Fellowship Of The Rings was a huge challenge, given the sheer scale of the story.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s a huge story that had to be condensed quite a lot, but still ended up being a three-hour movie. It was even longer at times. It took two years to do it, so it was just a question of doing one thing at a time, and working your way through it.
Peter’s a pretty solid director. He knows what he wants. In a way, it was difficult, because the size of the film and the number of effects shots – that hadn’t been done in New Zealand before. So, we were kind of reinventing the wheel, just in the scale of production.
If you were working in LA, there’d be a lot of people who’d already worked on a production of that size, but we hadn’t really done anything like that in New Zealand.
But it was just a question of breaking it down into small pieces and building it back up again and staying determined!
And, of course, the end result is fantastic. What was Peter Jackson like to work with, given that this was such a big project for him?
There was a lot of pressure. There was pressure on him from New Line and the people with the money, just because it was so much bigger than what he’d done before. But he’s very adept at keeping everyone in check and keeping in control of things. And I think we cut a sequence together in the Morian Mines early on and finished it as a piece of film, and it went off to Cannes about halfway through the process. The press and everyone fell in love with it, and everyone backed off after that and let him go for it, because it spoke for itself.
He’s the sort of guy who’s always doing twenty things at once. He was working on the pre-production of the other two movies, and working through the politics of those at the same time, so I only got him for two, three, four hours per day.
Some other directors like to sit with you the entire time, whereas I’d get him for a few hours here, a few hours there. He still managed to control the whole process. He’s pretty remarkable, really.
Did you get fairly free reign, then, in how you edited the film?
I wouldn’t say I got a free reign, because he’s always very clear about what he wants. But if I got in first and showed him something before he got his chance to make me do what he wanted, I could quite often show him something that was different to what he thought. Things like that stayed in the movie.
Film’s a very organic thing. You put it together, it’s four hours long. You whittle bits away, and move the parts around. You get to the end of it and think, “Who thought of that? Did I think of that part? Was that his idea?” You don’t really know in the end, because one thing leads to another. It’s a strange kind of chemistry.
Fellowship Of The Ring won numerous editing awards, which much have felt good after such a long process.
Oh, yeah. It’s fun to go along to the parties and so on, but the reality is that there are some fantastic editors out there doing great work on films that were very difficult. It’s a difficult thing to judge, one piece of editing against another. You never know what was the editor and what was the director, or what the material was like.
I think I’ve done some fantastic jobs on a couple of films that no one’s ever seen! But for me, it comes down to the profile of the film, who’s in it, how much money they had to spend, whether the marketing was any good – you know, whether they got people to go and see the film.
I’ve done some films that didn’t get particularly well marketed and no one got to see them. I don’t think you can get too worked up about awards. I think I’m my own harshest critic. I know when I’ve done something good, and I know when I haven’t. I’ve got to live up to my own standards, rather than some arbitrary award.
That makes sense. You mentioned earlier about digital editing and Avid. Just how much impact has that made on editing and filmmaking in general?
It’s had a huge impact. You can now do things so much quicker. You can keep fifty versions of a scene. Previously, if you cut something on film, you’d have to pull it apart to do something different, or get a reprint made, which might take a couple of days to put through the lab. So, there was the dilemma of, “Is this good enough, or should we pull it apart and risk not being able to find our way back to where we were before?”
Whereas digitally, you get to try so many different things. I think films are more complexly edited now. There are far more faster cuts, a lot more moving scenes around. You can manipulate the material so much more easily. And, of course, you can change the speed of shots. You can crop shots much more easily. Things that were opticals that might take days to come back from the lab, you can do it immediately.
You can work at the speed at which you’re thinking, rather than work out what you’re going to do and then spend an hour or two cutting up the pieces of film and moving them around before you can play it back.
I took to it straight away. A lot of people had this idea about the romance of film, or the tactile thing, that you had to touch it or whatever. I was never like that. I rejoiced when Avid came along.
Is there a tendency for some editors to over-edit? Do you look at a film sometimes and think, “That has way too many cuts in it”?
For sure. It’s really easy to do that. And you can camouflage the lack of story or excitement with a lot of editing. The sort of music video complex, where you keep things moving and hope that nobody notices that there’s really nothing going on.
Am I right in thinking that The World’s Fastest Indian was your next feature after Lord Of The Rings. Is that right?
I did another film or two in New Zealand. I did Perfect Strangers after that, and then Fastest Indian.
They’re obviously far more grounded in reality than Fellowship Of The Ring, and Fastest Indian was a real labour of love for Roger Donaldson. What was it like working on that after such a big fantasy film?
It was a lot of fun. [Donaldson] had made a documentary about Burt Munro, the motorcyclist, about thirty years earlier. He always wanted to make the film and he had the script in his drawer for thrity years. And he was talking to Anthony Hopkins about another project and he said, “Have you got anything else?” So, Donaldson pulled the Fastest Indian script out of the drawer and threw it at him, and he loved it.
So, that’s how it got started so much later. He had the documentary as well to show Tony Hopkins. He saw the character, who died a while back, and could see his accent, which is an unusual accent for New Zealand. It’s sort of Scottish and some other New Zealand thing, so he really had a great version of this guy he was trying to recreate and play.
Does the editing process change at all from genre to genre, or does your approach remain the same?
To me, in some ways, it’s the same. It’s about performance, and audiences respond well to performances that they perceive to be real. I took the approach, with Lord Of The Rings, that they had to be real, believable characters, and the fantasy was in the world and the creatures. Real emotion comes from real, believable performances. You’re always looking for what the actors can do that you can really believe and has some consistency in motivation.
You don’t want false moments in performances that can throw audiences out of a film. That’s your first task when you’re looking through material: what’s in the performance that really grabs me?
I’m not really a fantasy person, to be honest. I prefer reality. I prefer people I can identify with, myself.
Maybe that was an advantage in a way, when editing, because you had that emotional distance from the books.
Possibly. Tolkien, if you read the stories, was quite grounded. There’s fantasy in there, but he’s quite matter-of-fact about the characters. They’re just people that happen to be a bit smaller or a bit bigger or whatever.
How big was Lord Of The Rings‘ boost to the New Zealand film industry?
It really did give a boost. Before Lord Of The Rings, American studios would look at New Zealand and say, “No, they can’t do a big film down there.” I think they were nervous about funding a large film.
Since then, there’s been a big infrastructure built up, with effects houses and sound stages and so on, where Avatar was mostly filmed in New Zealand. The effects mostly came out of New Zealand. There’s been a number of big-budget films, and not just the headline ones, but ones that have been perceived as American films that have been made in New Zealand.
Certainly, there’s a lot of people going down there. The effects company, WETA, has become a big magnet for them.
And what about small films? Has it become any easier to get independent films made in New Zealand?
I think it’s probably much the same as it’s been for a while. There’s not a huge amount of money for small films. It’s probably much the same as Britain. There are a lot of people looking around to make two, three, four million dollar market films, or lower in some cases. They’re difficult to get made.
There’s the New Zealand Film Commission, which has a few million dollars a year to spend – don’t quote me on the figure – on four or five films a year. There’s a lot of competition for that money.
But those films are happening. I think they’ve got six or eight films in post-production at the moment in New Zealand, which, for a country of four million people, is a reasonable amount of production.
For me, I’ve got used to working on films with more resources and more ambition, I suppose. Those smaller films are generally with first-time directors, and I’ve done a lot of them, and prefer working with people with a bit more experience under their belt.
What was it like working with Gary McKendry on The Killer Elite, given that this is his first feature?
Gary’s great. He’s been around as a commercial director for ten years at least, I’d say, and he’s highly regarded. He knows a lot about camera and directing actors and filmmaking techniques, because you get access to a lot of tools in commercial making that first-time filmmakers generally haven’t seen. So, he’s very proficient and very determined.
I think he’s going to be a really highly regarded director.
And it’s more action-oriented than Blitz?
It is action-oriented, and the people making it certainly see it more as an action thriller, which is not to say it doesn’t have a strong story as well. It’s got a bigger budget than Blitz.
There are some great action sequences that people will really react well to. We’ve had a couple of previews and the action’s really working.
Do you know what you’re working on after The Killer Elite, or is it too early to say?
I’ve got a couple of maybes lining up, but I’d like to have a couple of months off, actually!
John Gilbert, thank you very much.
Blitz is out in UK cinemas on 20th May.