Soho. The heart of the London film industry. It’s a muggy evening in May and we’re running late on our way to an edit suite in the belly of LipSync on Wardour Street. By ‘we’ I mean myself and Max Selby an up-and-coming editor who, having earned his Master’s Degree in Film Production from Bristol University is in the early stages of a promising career. I’ve taken him along to help me interview Joe Walker, the editor behind this month’s incredible documentary achievement Life in a Day, directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott.
For those who don’t know, Life in a Day is an incredible and unique documentary detailing 24 hours of human life on Planet Earth. On July 24th 2010, Scott & Macdonald issued a call for footage, asking the whole world to upload footage of their day to YouTube with which they would fashion a feature length film to premiere at Sundance 2011.
Overall approx. 80,000 clips were uploaded totalling almost five thousand hours of footage. I was lucky enough to work on the film for a short period of time and the achievement of the entire crew was remarkable. The selection process was thorough and the production was unlike anything easily fathomable. Joe Walker, editor of Harry Brown and Hunger amongst others, was the brave man tasked with whittling this down to feature length.
I’ve asked Max to conduct the majority of this interview, with the intention of having an editor interview and editor, at different stages of their careers. Max was previously introduced to Joe at the Water Sprite Cambridge International Student Film Festival in March. As such this interview went on for almost 3 hours, and in not wanting to sacrifice any morsel of information it’s been split into two parts. Enjoy!
(Before you read part one of this interview, I highly recommend you seek this film out while you have the chance. The DVD isn’t released until October 14th and believe it or not this is an incredible big screen experience, alternately moving and funny. Wash the taste of Green Lantern and Bad Teacher out of your mouth and make the most of the opportunity to see great documentaries in mainstream cinemas. Alongside Senna, there really is no argument that there’s no alternative to the popcorn flicks…)
Max Selby: So do you kind of like keep the same group of people around you?
Joe Walker: Yeah that’s kind of a big issue. The thing is with an assistant, you’re usually finding people who are brilliant, but when you’ve found someone who’s brilliant they’re usually at the point in their career where they should be able to move on, do it themselves. So there’s this constant restless tide of people. I’ve been around for a while, so now it’s painful that all my favourite assistants are sort of editing and I can’t get them back. I spend my entire life trying to lure them back with trinkets and special favourites. I mean like Simon Brass, who probably is my favourite Assistant. He helped me out with The Devil’s Whore, with Michael Fassbender and the lovely … I’ve forgotten her name…
Bradley Porter: Andrea Riseborough?
JW: Yeah, Andrea Riseborough, thank you.
MS: Ha, I thought you were going to say Angela Lansbury…
JW: Yeah, she was playing opposite Fassbender. Angela Lansbury and Michael Fassbender I’d pay money for that! But yeah, Simon’s one of the best but he’s now cutting Skins and off he goes and he’s a brilliant, brilliant assistant. But I’m always looking for people and there is a sense of loyalty, it takes a long time to build up that trust and recognise those qualities in people the things that you need. The things that I need are first of all a fantastic human being to be with, because we’re going to be under pressure for 6 months, and the other thing is the ability to anticipate problems and sometimes detach a little bit and see the problems coming up and be ahead of them.
MS: I guess that’s one of the things about being an editor, having good people skills. You have to have one or two people, in the same space, underground if it’s like this place…
JW: I did my apprenticeship in the BBC and I had to contend with a huge amount of boredom. I don’t want it to be like the NHS where doctors like to make it as bad for their students as it was for them. Absolutely now, I absolutely delight in the fact that it can help people move through the industry a little bit quicker. But on the other hand if you’re looking for an assistant you’re looking for someone to help, and as much as I can reward people with the opportunities to hone their own skills and to have full access to my coterie of friends and contacts, I’m looking for someone to help me. But thank god they get very well rewarded… I haven’t had any complaints, let’s put it that way.
MS: So where did you start, you said you started at the BBC?
JW: Well if you want the full story, the very beginning I suppose there aren’t many chances for us to be pompous and a bit patronising, so here goes…My very first thing, was my parents were given an 8mm home movie camera, so we had a projector. When I was really young, I was fascinated so I bought myself 8mm B&W prints of things like Keystone Cops and Fritz the Cat and I looked at the frame by frame. I wanted to be an animator when I was little. Then I got into this thing because I was a really keen musician, doing all the music stuff, and I got to this thing of simultaneously running things really slow while playing 78 at 33 really slow and getting really depressed. This endless experiment in my bedroom of having really slow moving images with ponderous slow Wagner and things like that. And there was a really inspirational kids TV programme about animation with Terry Gilliam in it which I saw when I was about 14 and that fired me up, but I’d say the real spur was music and I thought I was going to be a composer… I do still compose, but that was the thing I studied and having used that background in music I started to get work as a sound editor, so my path to the cutting room was through sound. There was this family friend who was an editor, drama editor, he cut Death Wish and he used to take us to Pinewood and I used to sit in the projection area and look at bits of 35mm films. And you know, he’d been to Hollywood and he was this guy from where I grew up in suburban Ealing and he had this wonderfully glamorous life… well it wasn’t glamorous but it looked it to me.
My apprenticeship in film was at the BBC, I got in on a trainee assistant film editor course they used to run. I think I was the second to last course, in I think 1986…
MS: So what was your first gig so to speak, the first time you were trusted to be the film editor on something…
JW: That wasn’t till much later. I was going up the ladder, and I had a bit of reputation for working with sound so I was constantly getting called for that. There was a film called The Hour of the Pig with a very young Colin Firth and Donald Pleasance [about a pig who’s put on trial for murder], it was a sort of very clever historical thing. What I was massively into then was the synclavia which was like a really early digital way of, I mean really early like 1980’s early 90’s really primitive and extravagant thing to do. I’d done a film with gunshots in the Falklands, which if I’d done it the normal typical way you’d just have Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang…really metronomical, whereas when you do hear gunshots they have a slight variation all the time because they when you’re moving, they’re spraying bullets so I was early with all that stuff. So oddly enough, you can never tell when you’re breaks are going to be. At the BBC, after about ten years working there I was starting to really resent how fucking slowly my career was going. I’d been quite an arrogant guy in my 20’s thinking I was going to be the greatest composer ever. I’d had orchestral music played by 60 players and been applauded and brought to the stage and here I was doing effectively a librarians job making sure I found all these bits of film that were missing and I was thinking ‘oh my god this is going so slowly’. So eventually, my was across was to learn a new technology, I learned 3 machine beta editing. I had to give up the snobbishness of wanting to working in film, and as no one was going to give me that break in film so I thought I’d go and find it wherever it is and then I started cutting little 5min films. That’s a great thing to learn with a different director every day. I did this with the BBC, I was there a staff member there until the mid-90’s7
MS: Do the BBC get a lot of 5 minute shorts?
JW: Oh yeah, but no I’m talking about segments for magazine shows, really lowly beginnings, education programmes, language programmes, anything I could fucking do. The real break I got into drams was when Channel 4 asked me to do a job called Queerspotting. It was an all-gay production team and it was a clip show about how gays were perceived on television. It was a very cheap programme but I was charmed by the production team, they were the most fun I’d ever worked with, unlike the people I’d worked with at the BBC. So I threw myself at it, I wrote some music for them and shot the title sequence on my own camera and shot it off the screen and edited together. I really got involved; I thought I’d lavish this little thing with love and make it my own. For no other reason than I really liked them and it was a simple show to make. We had these two weeks and it happened that the exec producer was going to be producing Jonathan Creek. I loved Jonathan creek, so that was kind of my big break! I’d had a break before that but it hadn’t opened any doors.
MS: I’d imagine you get a lot of false doors…
JW: Yeah of course. I had a false door and it was literally that, I had a drama and I was like ‘I’m going to be cutting a Bond film next week’ and actually nothing goddamned happened. In fact people would look at my CV and say ‘you did this drama and then nothing for a while, what happened?’ Was I really bad, was I a drunk, you know, did I just shit myself in the cutting room… [laughs]. What is this reason? That’s the thing about CV’s, the things you get wind of. People like to see a director coming back to you time after time; they like to see you not working with just one director. And at that stage the thing I was desperate for was another drama, and then I’ve got a career.
MS: Does doing a lot of genres help, a bit of documentary, music videos, drama, horror….
JW: Yeah, you’ve got to get quick. Another thing you learn is that bedside manner, you get to learn how directors think. Directors are special people, and they really are special people and they think in certain special ways. You have to deal with this perennial struggle of ego, you don’t want to be a total ‘meow meow’ pussycat sitting in the corner doing whatever someone says because no one wants an editor like that. Lots of directors don’t understand; don’t want to edit it themselves. They want you to come at it and say ‘this is what I can do with it…’ get excited about what you can do with it.
MS: There are a lot of editors I know, just starting out who have this worry that a director will come in and basically delegate every single cut, that if they had the software themselves they’d be doing it themselves…
JW: I have to say, that’s never happened to me in my entire career and I’ve been at it for 30 years, 35, 26 years, how old am I, 47… 26 Years…
BP: Well you started at the BBC the year I was born…
JW: Oh no, don’t… It’s only kind of happened once, there was this first time director I worked with and I’ve done … quite a few of my recent films have been with first time directors as Steve [McQueen] was … so there was a guy and his only experience had really been doing his own short film which he did beautifully but nevertheless he could stay up all night with his friends and sort of like shuffle the cuts around themselves, and I was trying to … sort of … that particular job which, I won’t tell you which one it was … for fear of wanting to work with them again … that was sort of like being Ali and taking it on the ropes and just saying “ok, I’m going to wear you out”. We had nine weeks or something to do the cut and it was a really complicated feature film with sort of flash-forwards and flash-sideways, and what happened was, it was all, not being able to see the wood for the trees, and sort of like, finessing every cut, and going ‘That’s the perfect place for the cut’, and to me it’s not about the cut point itself, it’s about the content, and yeah I’ll find a nice place for a cut.
MS: A frame either side isn’t going to make a difference…
JW: Yeah, I’m going to find something that’s either going to be pleasing to the eye or it’s going to be hidden if you want it to be, but the bottom line is, what we’ve got to determine first of all is, ‘Is the story working? Is the structure working?’, and if it isn’t then ‘Fuck me; we’ve got to sort the structure out first’. So what I do is [gesturing to the wall covered in cards] put all the cards up on the wall and write down the scenes and for a while we don’t even cut on the Avid and we’d just try and sort out … and in the case of this film, with a really complicated structure and what wasn’t working was that by flashing away to something else you weren’t kind of picking up speed in either world, it was intercutting too much or too little…
MS: … and interrupting the momentum of the story.
JW: Exactly that, and the only way you can find that out is by looking at it slightly long, and yes there are things wrong and I know that irritates directors but you have to kind of look at it and say ‘Look, it’s half an hour too long in this place and also, what kind of film is it?’ Is it a romantic comedy or is it a straight drama? Is it thwarted love, or is it tainted love? You have to kind of work out what it’s going to be … ooh that was a bit of a rant! I’ve never had the experience of somebody saying ‘a few frames more’ or ‘a few frames less’ and if they do, not that I’m nasty to them, but I think they’d sort of realise … one director told me that the reason why he liked working with me was that I always used to click my fingers whenever he did in his mind and that we had the same tempo whereas the editor he worked with before, he’d say ‘I think there’ and she’d say ‘oh, well if you think so, darling’ and do it, and it’s like … it’s a rhythmic thing, there is a point where you want to go [clicks his fingers] and you all know what that point is , and sometimes that’s exactly where you’ve got to cut.
MS: Excellent, well that brings us nicely enough onto Life in a Day…
JW: Ok … you’ve fast forwarded through fifteen years of feature films but I’m happy with that! [laughs] No, no go for it, Max, I like it you’re an editor, you’re cutting it short!
MS: It’s just that it’s funny that you should mention, if I can just go back briefly, about the whole ‘one frame forward, one frame backwards’ thing, because the project I worked on for our dissertation film, the director in that, I mean I don’t know what it was but he was such a back-seat editor, it really was “Can we take it a frame that way, can we cut it a frame earlier?” and that just grinded so so much, on my nerves and it’s a relief to hear you say that that doesn’t really crop up an awful lot.
JW: Well I mean you know directors are sort of … special, special people, y’know and the best of them are kind of like, they’re more football managers, y’know, if they want to be the striker then they’re in the wrong game … y’know, and in a sort of funny way the actors, the writers, the cameraman, we’re all to be put into formation by a production team and by a director and sometimes they have to back you and trust your vision and most of the time that works and sometimes you argue about things and that’s good but there is a sort of … it’s like what I said about egos earlier, obviously you have to kind of find some way of being a second-in-command and that’s something I found very early that I could do and that I really enjoyed doing, which is that I can obey, actually, and happily, and try things out that I wouldn’t as a first thought to myself, and I’ve learned to do that, and it’s taken a lot of effort to, sort of, sublimate some of my arrogance of saying ‘this is how I cut the film’ and he’d just sit there and watch what I do. It’s a two-way process. I’ve learned masses from somebody saying ‘Just try something’ and then you go with it, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right. but sometimes pleasantly you’re surprised. You know, you’re reputation is built on being trustworthy in those moments.
MS: Of course, and from being proactive as well, because of course if an editor isn’t really willing to try something because they just don’t think it’s going to work … well …
JW: That’s murder. I’ve probably been guilty of that from time to time, and I think we all have, of being a bit cynical and dark and saying it’s never going to work…
MS: … so you don’t try it.
JW: … you don’t try it, there are times, but I will always if I do say it, I will say ‘Well what about this?’
MS: Oh of course, there’s being negative, saying ‘no’ and then carrying on and then there’s offering an alternative.
JW: Do you know, there’s a really inspirational film, which is inspirational in this way, it’s a film called ‘The Mystery of Picasso’ and to me it applies to all manner of arts, but what he’s doing is basically he’s painting directly onto the lens of a camera, and I think it’s this guy called Henri Clouseau … it’s a really charming film shot in the ‘50s I think and basically you don’t see his hand you just see what he’s painting and what happens is, he’ll do in a few simple strokes he’ll do a chicken … and you’ll go, ‘Oh my god! In three simple strokes he’s done the perfect Picasso chicken!’, and then suddenly he’ll tamper with it with another stroke and you’ll think, ‘Hang on a minute, don’t, don’t touch it, it’s a perfect chicken!’ And then before you know it, with two more strokes he’s turned it into a Roman helmet … and you’re thinking, ‘God, this is fucking fascinating’ and now you’re in it for the ride, and before you know it he’s constructed these massive beach scenes and things which he’s just finessing all the time. Now, the truth is there is a time when you’re going ‘Ok, I’ve exhausted that and I’ve tried everything, and this is what it is now’ but that’s slightly what you’re doing in the edit, and you’re sort of saying ‘Ok well it was this in the script stage, and it was that in the performance stage but actually what can it be in the edit stage?’ and you have to find out what the film is going to be, what you can do with it. You have to try a lot of things, and fail with a lot of things and screen it with people to find out if anyone else gets it.
MS: Mm, there’s a lovely phrase by Leonardo da Vinci, he said ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’
JW: Perfect, what a perfect phrase, and I think that there’s a time with a cut where you know that it’s settled, and to come back to Life in a Day, and I’ve looked at that, and we had so little time to actually cut that film and more time to view it than to cut it and of course I look at it and you think sometimes, ‘Oh jeez, if only, y’know … [groans]’ but actually the more I think about it the more I think well actually if we’d have done that, well, would it have been as good? Not really, it would probably be one percent either way, it could possibly be one percent worse, so ‘abandoned’ is a really good phrase to use, y’know, we abandoned that one quite quickly.
MS: How long did you have for Life in a Day?
JW: People don’t believe me but we had so little time.
MS: It was six weeks, wasn’t it?
JW: Basically seven weeks.
MS: For four thousand two hundred hours of footage?
JW: Four thousand five hundred hours of footage. We had the stuff coming in the week after they shot it and we’d been told basically there’s going to be, we were asking YouTube ‘what’s the most we’re going to get?’ and they were saying, ‘it could be almost double what we got on YouTube Orchestra’ which means you’ll get six or seven hundred hours of footage, and we got, like, seven times that. So, we had to hire people fast, and we had to view it and it took a little bit longer than we thought it would do to view, so we viewed and tagged for two months, and that was just me and a team of researchers, twenty-three or twenty-four I think, and there were all multi-black ridge speakers, and they were all taken from film-school, and there were friends of ours, and we got them in and they were tagging and we didn’t really know what the film was going to be.
MS: And you had the five-star system?
JW: Six. Six being, so bad it’s amazing. I’ve always liked the kind of, the, umm, the intention was always to sort of, whittle things down so that me and Kevin could look at the best stuff but actually some of the most exciting parts of that show was right at the beginning for me to actually look at everything and stuff was coming in quite slowly at the beginning and we had a chance to really pin down what qualifies as ‘good’ because there’s so much stuff that is ‘good’ basically, but there’s quite a lot of stuff that you work out you don’t want, y’know, whether it’s sort of whining teenagers in bedrooms.
MS: Which I imagine you got a lot of.
JW: Yeah, or sort of rather sickening charity feeling things, there was quite a lot of global stuff and we were very keen to see, kind of, the world in this thing, and sort of batten down that North American bias but on the other hand quite a lot of the stuff from the charitable third-world were films not made by the third world people themselves…
MS: …but people on behalf of them then.
JW: Yeah and basically American or English students who were out there making charity films, and I sort of made a very harsh judgement for which lots of people I think didn’t forgive me, but at one point I got really sick of watching films about disabled people being able to be just like us, and I said to them, to the researcher, ‘do not give them an extra star’ If this guy touches you then give it the extra star but if it’s just because it’s about a disabled guy then this isn’t the film we’re making, we’re making a film that, yes, will include people, and will include all life and all death and everything that we can possibly include, but it was like trying to find those ways without being harsh about disabled people or disadvantaged people it was like, y’know, how do films touch you, y’know, they touch me by doing, somebody does something recognisable, that I would do, or I would understand him doing, or does something, some response to the real world.
MS: That is characteristically human…
JW: … that is human and rounded and has depth, like a good wine, y’know, it’s like, um, and when somebody’s telling you that you should feel sorry for them it never illicit that response. Oh how we’ve all laughed at Anne Frank…
MS: I mean, like, were there any times where you really just got sick of all that footage or did every day have something else…
JW: Noooo, well, there was quite … there were horrible days where, I mean, less for me because I was having an overview, and we were looking at dailies every day, so I had the chance to really look at everything. But for some people, like for example our French researcher I think really struggled to find good stuff, and was very frustrated, really frustrated because she had this slightly patriotic urge to see her country represented and after all France supplied a lot of material but to be honest, it wasn’t the best stuff, some of it was just poorly made and it was predictable or clichéd or just dull so it was just unlucky sometimes, there were lots of places that just didn’t give that good material and then sudden unexpected places like the Ukraine which gave us loads of brilliant material!
MS: Just out of interest, how did Britain fare?
JW: Britain, umm, Britain was quite a few things in the film, I mean we got ‘Monsterburger’, I think is a very classic English tale but it’s also a universal tale about sons and fathers, so it qualifies as being universal and specific and the other one is the, sort of … I don’t know if he is a vicar but he seems to be officiating over a 50th wedding anniversary, and that is a very funny sequence, so we’ve got two classic sort of Viz style y’know English humour things that sort of work to a larger audience and I guess that’s why they’re in.
MS: I mean I’ve been in some edits and sometimes you find yourself going a bit insane. How do you stay sane, you personally, I mean is a just a lot of cigarette breaks or do you have practical jokes in the edit suites?
JW: I gave up smoking only recently.
MS: No, don’t say that!
JW: I know smoking and editing just seem to go together so well.
MS: Yeah, I figured that was kind of the best way to have a break, y’know, it’s ok and I can pop out for a fag break, come back, do another two hours and at least I’ve got somewhere to go!
JW: I mean, insane? I don’t know, I mean I’m sort of a passionate lover of what I do and I passionately love the film industry and I also love the fact that it is an industry, you know as well as being art it’s an industry and we’re under kind of commercial pressure and I’ve always been, I was brought up with, kind of avant-garde music and … the first piece of music I was involved with was Trans by Stockhausen which was a really, fiendishly avant-garde piece, and although I’m sort of fascinated by all that material, my own taste is more towards that side of art, I’m actually sort of a commercial person, I like successful story-telling, and if I could’ve cut any film it would’ve been probably Groundhog Day. I just think it’s an absolute genius story told so well, brilliantly edited and that, and everything else. So, um, yeah I’m passionately into it … am I sane? Probably not, y’know, the sacrifices are probably family, and sacrifices are time, also there are moments when, I mean I’ve now completely banned television at home, and I’m only thinking about myself I mean I won’t watch television anymore.
MS: Is there a TV in your house then?
JW: There is, but I only use it to watch films.
MS: I was going to say, which way does your furniture point?
JW: [laughs] Well, I mean it’s just a bit of a sad thing in the corner that just occasionally gets put on and I mean, I will watch TV when I get box sets like everybody else, watch … whatever, True Blood or something, I mean I spent so much of my twenties just watching whatever was on in the evening as a way of kind of relaxing after quite intense days in the cutting room, and I think by the time I got into my mind-thirties I realised that I’m wasting a huge amount of my life and my ‘life’ life is spent looking at entertainment and, sort of, edited fiction and things like that, and to be honest if I had a life at all outside the cutting room I should really be living it, so, y’know, I suppose my point would be that you do tire of things being on a screen and it’s an important thing to try and get some balance …
MS: … you spend long enough in front of TV programmes to kind of, not that you stop enjoying them but you don’t necessarily want to come home to it.
JW: Yeah, well precisely, and also we are here to be, and to love and hate other fellow human beings and I suppose it’s sort of, it’s one way of engaging with them cutting them …
MS: I guess you’re right, I mean, when you spend a lot of time kind of, trying to create emotion and momentum and rhythm with what you’re working with, it’s kind of almost, at least I found anyway that you want to experience it, it sounds a little bit naive, but when you spend so much time focussing on emotion and then you go home and the only emotions you’re experiencing are being sat in front of the television screen, and I find at least with me that I want to go out and do something crazy. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here today, you know Bradley just gave me a buzz and said ‘Do you fancy coming to London?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds great!’ I could kind of see how it would cut together in my head, almost!
JW: Well I mean Life in a Day has been a good inspiration for me because it’s sort of… I must say that since cutting it I’ve filmed more things and I’ve gone out of my way to film more things so for example I used to go to loads of gigs, Eastern European music and I’d never dream of taking a camera and so recently I’ve started to, just because there are all these funny groups in London where you’ll get these Hungarians doing these incredible thigh-slapping dances and I’ve seen them countless times and I’ve never thought actually, it’s worthy of filming and editing, so I’ve sort of done a lot of it. The other day a friend of mine invited me to join her where she was having her feet nibbled by fish, you know you used to go to the chiropodist and get your hard skin cut off, you see this isn’t going to affect you guys because you’re not old enough, but when you do get old and start getting eagles feet, then it’s like this. So I brought the camera and filmed that a little bit and then I made a little edit so that it was somebody bringing fried fish to a table straight after a shot of them nibbling my feet, and it’s just irresistible just to have a few, like, err … you know, you can involve film as a part of your down time but I think it’s important to kind of do something with my down time which I didn’t used to think in my twenties where I just wanted to learn and accrue and watch Twin Peaks and learn how it’s done and all this sort of stuff.
MS: That was one of the questions I had down here, regarding Life in a Day, I mean, when you’ve got all this footage coming in of these wonderful exotic places, and people aren’t necessarily doing anything terribly exciting, I mean they might be walking a yak down a dirt road in Mongolia but I remember when I was watching the footage at the Cambridge film festival, those little snippets, it made me really want to go out and see it for myself, and see all these things, you know, you must’ve been … I’m guessing it had a similar effect on you?
JW: Yeah, it actually took me back to one of my first temp jobs which was, sort of, um, I was working for the BBC as a temp in their gramophone library and I was sending out records to places like Kuala Lumpur and I used to sort of imaginatively dream myself in the place where I was addressing it to, so there’s a sort of slight hankering after this kind of world travel … I mean, no, I didn’t think about that a lot, I mean it is nice to feel like we’ve done something to represent as global an experience as possible and half the problem is the domination of US culture, I mean half of the material was American, and it’s not just the pure numbers, it’s the fact that Americans are sort of natural filmmakers, they know exactly when to pan a camera.
MS: Well it’s such a pervasive part of their society, so TV dominated…
JW: Well, I would still look at it positively, let’s say that it’s like letter writing was to the nineteenth century vicar’s wife, you know? It’s a means of, v-logging is an American way of communicating, and far more than the third world where you get all these incredibly stiff shots of people who look as though they can’t imagine that anything they’d say is of interest to anybody else outside their circle and who are often standing stock still in front of something fabulous that you wish the filmmaker had gone and made a film about, so it’s a difficult bias to try and sort.
MS: Did you often find yourself pleasantly surprised by the filmmaking abilities from somebody that you wouldn’t imagine would have that much experience with, from somewhere that isn’t necessarily as TV saturated as the United States?
JW: Yeah, I mean I really loved the South African clip which is where a woman explains how in their culture, in their particular culture a woman kneels before a man, and there’s something incredibly open about the girl’s face, I mean she’s got the most beautiful face and these huge eyes and the sound of the dialogue between the three people – the two people who are enacting this kneeling and the third person who’s filming it who’s an African too – was something really enviably open and enviably fun actually, and it wasn’t a pompous sociological study of kneeling which it might have been if it had been some people from Royal Holloway or something so it was just a straightforward fun explanation of something that’s slightly quirky and anachronistic even in their own culture, that’s the sort of thing that I would look at and sort of envy, just that fantastically open expression that the woman had.
MS: Were there any gems that you had to leave out?
JW: Well the only argument between me and Kevin in that whole six months… because we had basically agreed on what was funny pretty early on; men being pompous, I find that very funny and he did too, so we were all agreed on what the ingredients should be … but the only sort of true debate that we had was, the first thing I’d done, before we knew there was going to be, what the story was or what the structure would be I sort of got slightly terrified, being a drama editor I’m not really a documentary editor at all, I’m more used to working the day after shoots, so they shoot on a Monday and I’m cutting it on a Tuesday … so it had been about a month or six weeks and I’d been looking at this material and I was just getting to that point where it feels like your brain is about to be full up and I couldn’t grasp what it was going to be, and I thought well I really need to just start chipping away at this mountain and so something, even though it may not end up in the film something, I got to start, so I’d seen that there were hundreds of people that had been playing kit drum in their bedrooms, just endless kids in different garages and bedrooms and backyards, and it went from people who were really not very good to people who were absolutely bloody brilliant, so I thought well I’ll make one solo and the way I did it I just like, it took days and days and days but it was basically a solo that just gets faster and faster and it’s pretty ‘metronomical’, I just started it with the slowest loop and ended it with this incredible sequence of a guy who’s just a swirling dervish who’s got a sort of, one man band kind of drum which is being triggered by his feet and he’s swirling around in the streets, and he just goes completely mental at the end … so that was the first thing it was just this four-minute cut and I think it’s going to be in the DVD extras, at least I hope it is … but that was my only way of, kind of … they’re all gems, and I’d have loved that to have been in the film but the truth is, and Kevin is right, his view on it was that it wasn’t representative of the world enough, and there wasn’t enough material from the third world to be able to kind of like, take it out there, it felt like it resolutely wanted to stay a thing about white middle class teenage boys playing drums, which is what it sort of was!
MS: So you had kind of like a mantra throughout the entire film and that was that it was going to be representative of the…
JW: Try to, yeah, without being a Coca-Cola commercial we just wanted to it so reach as far as it had done, I mean after all we got material from 192 countries, so I felt duty bound to represent as much as we could and really try to represent life on earth for one day, so yeah it was not so much ‘mantra’ but it was like, we’re always … there were certain times in the early viewing period where we were looking at it and thinking, ‘My God, it’s actually very, very American, we need to break it up a little bit’, and it doesn’t mean to say ethnics, it means Australians, it means Indians, it can mean a British person to break up, or a Canadian, you know, this huge range of languages and racial types that we can cut to, and also story types.
MS: In fact when you mentioned Kevin I did have a thought, now obviously when a director has made a fiction feature what they’re bringing into the cutting room is essentially their vision, and you can see the director’s role because it’s kind of obvious, but with this kind of footage, I mean the directors are those that had the cameras, so how did that affect the relationship between the director and editor, and how would that differ from a more conventional project?
JW: Well I don’t think it differs at all, I mean I always look for the director as being an overview and for putting the brakes on certain things and of having an exertion a taste in how the film is, and Kevin did exactly that, and also with trying to structure. We had so little time that it was actually really good for me to be able to rely on somebody who is equally exercised in how do we order this thing to make the perfect structure, and we did that together so it was very nice to be able to get stuck into the nitty gritty of trying to make an edit work and knowing that Kevin was a step ahead, sort of thinking, letting me off the hook and saying … I mean a typical example was I was very fond, there was a wedding speech, an American wedding speech, and the guy was bloody funny and it ends up in the film talking about how it’s like hooded roosters, y’know, there will be blood, he’s sort of warning the couple that they will fight, there’ll be a lot of love but there will be blood … this speech went on and on and on and I kept referring back to it because it was things about the Guantanamo-style sleep deprivation of children and he was a witty guy but actually it was really badly shot and I was struggling to get it in there, and actually we didn’t need it and that’s the sort of thing where I was struggling for like a day to try and keep this thing in there which I really liked and Kevin was basically saying, ‘No, actually, no we just need one hit of this guy, and we’ve got too much of this mucking around’ and that’s what you need, somebody who’s got the overview. Now what’s so different between that and a fiction film? I mean, there is this auteur theory that directors precisely tell a cameraman that they want a low angle shot starting on a track that moves and accelerates towards the actor’s nose, and we all know it’s just not like that. They might come in with one idea and end up with something else, and that it’s a collaboration and it’s not that … some of the best directors I’ve worked with like Rowan Joffe was just brilliant at suggesting an idea without claiming ownership of it, and the old phrase we used to say, ‘Never divide up your record collection until you’re divorced’ … so I would say I’ve had lots of ideas on Life in a Day that weren’t Kevin’s and Kevin’s had lots of ideas that weren’t mine, and I won’t tell you which ones I had because it’s meaningless, the thing is we worked together and it would be exactly the same in a feature film I mean I’ve done sort of big, brave, bold contributions to films and got people to hack things out they never thought they’d be able to live without but the truth is that’s what we do, we’re filmmakers and we’re all in it together – what satisfaction would there be to say, ‘I told you so’ when a film doesn’t do well? You have to get in there a find some sort of way of improving it.
MS: Do you ever feel like with Life in a Day, obviously with so much footage, that you could’ve cut this film in a thousand and one different ways, I mean do you kind of feel as though the one that you and Kevin made was the definitive cut? Or do you wonder what else you could’ve done?
JW: Yeah, I mean I know that you could make a twenty-four hour art film of feet on earth or you could make a six hour film about people eating watermelons. I was always thinking … I sent out Joon [Goh] who was one of the brilliant assistant editors; I said ‘Can you go and find some new way of putting stuff together? What about people who are about to say something, could you make a sequence about people who are about to say something?’ So we’re just cutting the anticipation, of somebody just thinking about it and just at the point where they say something you cut to somebody else who’s also just bursting to say something and it was like … to do that would’ve been … I had the idea too late … I know somebody made an art instillation of people blinking and of course there are ways of connecting stuff together. Loads of people sent me videos when I started the job and they were always this boring thing of, like, a world made up of thousands of little screens and that was so pants and I never wanted to do that, but what I always wanted to do was to have those oblique left-rights so that you’re intercutting water about to spray on a Vietnamese boy’s face, or girl, I can’t figure out if it’s a boy or a girl, but there’s a shot of a Vietnamese child and it’s got slow motion droplets approaching them in a really hyper-slow shot and it’s intercut with people trying to grab a flag off the end of a pole on a yacht in two totally different places and then the next sequence was American GIs dancing in the desert and just by accident by having the sort of slow-motion shot of the child being sprayed with water in slow motion droplets and leading the sound of helicopters you’re talking about Vietnam because it’s an association …
MS: … it’s unavoidable…
JW: … it’s unavoidable. But those kinds of connections just arrive by accident and there’s a connection between, you can find a connection between any piece of footage and any other piece of footage if you do it the right way or find it.
MS: It sounds like that’s the intoxicating thrill of the edit.
JW: Exactly. That’s how I’d put it. Can you quote me as saying that?
JW: Can I just say that’s the intoxicating thrill of such an edit!
MS: I mean this is what sounds so appealing from my point of view, it sounds like it would’ve been something fascinating to work on, not just to edit but to assistant edit, the amount of different ideas you can come up with.
JW: It was a hard job for the assistant editors, let’s make no allusions, Gwillym [Hewetson] had the hardest job in London. You talk about people going insane, he was…OK, there were sixty different frame rates, everything had to be stuck through … there were three hundred hours of material that had to be put through a content agent which was a way to be able to get everything in sync, and yet it’s almost horrible to look at because it blurs when you’re trying to spread out whatever frame count it is to another frame count you end up with all these blurred frames because it can’t cope, and then we had to find some way of making everything look really good on a big screen without giving you motion sickness which is what this blurry thing does, so he had a sort of thankless task of almost conforming it frame by frame, so this is a film with no EDLs, it was online, always online and constantly had to be sort of updated so it was a horrible task and also the whole job of going back to people to ask people for their original material so that we get the best quality. Loads of people put stuff up, like the Angolan women, and it took Raquel [Alvarez] I think three months to find the guy. He put it up there and forgot about it. So we had a ten megabyte file which wouldn’t project well, it looked terrible, and where they were bashing you had a big blur, absolutely huge blur, every time they hammered, and they did it eighty times in the clip. So there was a whole job of people trying to find people, and trying to get back to people, trying to negotiate how to get footage down, getting it converted into a thing that we could cut and then beyond that, getting something converted so that it looked good with sharp edges on a big screen.
MS: So how important is it for you and for your edit assistants to be technically minded? If you’re an offline editor and you can sequence and there’s a talent for that, and that’s fine but would you say that that person would also know how to do, like, conforms, know the differences between files.
JW: Look, if I’m allowed to mouth off a bit, say, the big frustration for me with my background in sound is that people don’t understand about sound, so sometimes when I go to an assistant’s suite and then I hear that actually they’re listening to one leg, they’re listening right out of the left speaker and actually one leg is lower than the other and I think, well how can you help me here? And I spent so much time, I’d hate to think that some effort I’ve made to make the sound great is going to be swamped by somebody having a fader down and missing all the stuff I’ve put in so I do demand that people have a bit of a … they have to know about sound, and if they don’t know about sound I’m not going to work with them for very long. There’s not much to learn and most people can pick it up, actually it’s just sort of basically simple panning and mono and stereo and things like that, but I think nowadays most of the assistants are incredibly clever, they’ve worked on commercials or they’ve done on-lining or most people are doing this sort of stuff at home on their laptops, so I’ve kind of come to expect it as a pretty standard thing that people will know the title tool better than I do. But I know my way around, there are some things that I choose not to know, so I do know them but I don’t publically know them for the simple reason that we need to keep assistants in business and I need to not be an expert on everything, I want to kind of be a fluffy minded artist and think about the story, and as soon as I get sucked into doing QuickTime in H264 then it’s fine, I can do that but it’s actually slightly wasting my time, y’know, that’s a perfect job for the assistant, and let’s hope they get through it so they can help me with some of the fluffy, arty things to do as well.
Bradley Porter: I can say from my experience, that Life in a Day is by far the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had, and I know that sentiment’s shared with other people on the crew… It was a very unique experience, not sure I’ll find another one like it…
JW: It’s nice to hear that, and it felt like that to me as well and I think a lot of it came from Anne Lynch [who also worked on the recently released Senna], one of the best people in the world, and so warm and wonderful and wise and, no patsy, and a really brilliant experienced line producer, and also a lot comes from Kevin, and I always used to find the days when Kevin wasn’t there to be slightly less buzzy than the days when he was there and that was no reflection on the other people but it was by way of acknowledging that a director brings a huge amount of energy. You knew that you were working on a thing of quality with those names attached to it and his reputation is forged from having made great films.
[At this point there was a great deal of talking about trailers for the film, which unfortunately wasn’t adequately recorded to transcribe]
MS: I wonder if it’d be worth saying something about the coincidence with the skydiving shot, because that just blew my mind…
JW: Well that was just a really, really bizarre thing because we had this sort of recognisable paragliding shot, I think it was, where somebody comes down from this amazing mountain, that’s a very recognisable mountain in Rio de Janeiro and lands on a very recognisable beach and he had a very recognisable paraglider and then about a week later Sam who was our Portuguese speaking researcher said, ‘Oh my god!’ and I went over and she said ‘Look, look, look’ and basically it was a film about … it was somebody taking a film of driving in a car with a girl to go and pick a wedding dress in Rio de Janeiro and halfway through it they’re driving along talking about their own stuff listening to the radio and the person who’s filming starts zooming the camera and says ‘Oh what’s that?’ and then they notice a paraglider with exactly the same livery landing on exactly the same beach in Rio de Janeiro and she says to her friend ‘So do you want me to book you some paragliding lessons for your wedding present?’ and the girl says, ‘Nooo, I can’t stand paragliding.’ And for a long time I thought that would be a brilliant left turn in the film, but some of the things that I find amazing in the film are the things that connect that we didn’t even know about. I mean I looked at it recently and I realised so many stories are about missing mothers and neither me nor Kevin had sort of deliberately talked, or ever talked about that being a sort of, ‘Let’s make a film about missing mothers’ but there’s the family at the Necropolis whose mother died and they’ve got twenty kids, there’s the Japanese father and son, there’s ‘Monsterburger’ … you know, where’s the mum? The American family – the Leginski family –that’s the potential loss of a mother … many of the stories are about the loss of or the missing mother , it’s not all of them, because of course there’s Christopher Hirt who phones his mum and asks her for advice and there are mother and daughter, mother and son relationships and so on, but there’s a missing mother component, even the Indonesian maid in some ways is about a missing mother … ‘Was I a naughty child?’ is one of the questions she asked, it’s just subtly there in lots and lots and lots of clips, there are just connections that abounded. There was one amazing connection which I didn’t even realise when we were cutting it which is that the cow is slaughtered in Bologna and then I cut to a guy eating a spaghetti Bolognese sauce IN Bologna on the same day! And you just think, ‘Well, could that have been the same herd?’
MS: Yeah, you wonder! Is it a bizarre, sick variation of the paragliding one?
JW: There are probably more! I think there was one Lisa found, an amazing one on the DVD extras, there were six clips, one after the other all made by somebody called Linda … six totally different clips, in a sequence, totally unrelated except for the fact that they were all called Linda and we keep finding these little thins, something that might make Peter Greenway really excited!
MS: The kind of thing that would really fluff out an IMDb trivia page.
BP: Much more straightforward of course was the Love Parade tragedy [in Berlin] as well which forms quite a considerable portion at the end, isn’t it?
JW: Well I suppose the big thing there was that we were looking at the news thinking what was going to happen on the day and I remember before the day they were anticipating that there was big trouble with North Korea and there was the potential outbreak of war and warning missiles and stuff so we were looking and thinking ‘I wonder what will happen?’ sort of rather ghoulishly, and we saw that Love Parade, I saw that in the evening, and I thought ‘I bet we’re going to get a lot of stuff from that because that’s totally our demographic, of people in their twenties with flip cams and mobile phones. Every rock concert you go to is being filmed simultaneously, so I thought we would get a lot and Johannes [Schaff] who was the researcher from that one called me over and I just said ‘Look, actually let’s make all the Love Parade stuff five-star because we’re going to do something about it, it’s just so rich, the material’s so good and actually in truth there was a lack of dark stuff.
MS: I was going to say, wasn’t any of that pretty heavy?
JW: It is particularly moving. There’s no moral in the film really but we wanted that sort of thing of light to dark and birth to death – and Love Parade is the death – and morning to night, so these were our sort of three cross-cutting structures and there’s a load of other stuff, like birth in some sort of way develops into relationships which in some sort of way develops into love developing into fear, there’s lots of cross-cutting structures but the fact is that sort of … there’s a sense that all of us pursuing our own individual hedonistic impulse has the potential for tremendous danger, and it’s not a moral film but there was always this sort of little sense for example when you hear the skydiver falling to earth, as she gets close to the earth we used every single sound that was compiled by Matthew Herbert who’d asked people to record their favourite sound so actually what you’re listening to as she’s landing is the sound of a thousand people’s favourite sound and that can be anything from a kettle boiling to a Yamaha being revved up to somebody bouncing a ball on a patio but actually the sound of it all combined is a deafening, unpleasant buzz, one of the most terrifying sounds we heard, this wall of sound of everything played out full volume, and of course that’s slightly what Love Parade represents to me that sort of slightly chaotic crowd thing going out of control, and of course the terrible history is that in Berlin, it was their child, when it got too big they, sort of like a good parent, they let it go to other places, in Berlin particularly they saw it being something that it hadn’t been originally, it had become bigger, more unwieldy and ultimately fatal. So you know one of the most tragic things in that is that you have a wide shot of people dancing and you can hear people screaming with pleasure and with pain, at the same time if you listen carefully you can hear people dancing and dying.
MS: Was there footage from in amongst it?
JW: Yeah, we had to be really careful what we showed. We couldn’t show … we had to blank a face, and we had to be really careful … for example we had a lot of striking footage of people dancing right in front of ambulances and we had to be careful, we couldn’t use that, because the implication is that they’re dancing despite somebody dying, but the truth is that lots of people who were there didn’t realise what was going on and they just thought it was a great time, and you see these amazing shots of people in these funny party bunny costumes taking a mobile phone from their mum and dad saying, ‘What’s happening, are you alright?’ and they don’t even know that actually within 100 yards … but you know this happened to me, I was in Jerusalem last week and there was a crowd, there was a riot one kilometre from where I was, I was at the Western wall and a kilometre away the Muslims were being shot at.
BP: Could you talk to us a little more about the work Matthew Herbert and Harry Gregson-Williams did on the score?
JW: The score was a lot of work. Matthew’s brilliant, his music is almost like… the footnotes are almost as interesting as the music itself. How he arrives at generating music is fascinating, I could talk endlessly about it. It’s complimented by Harry Gregson-Williams who’s music is very emotional and just exactly what we wanted, but also somebody who isn’t daunted by … you know, we had Duruflé’s‘Requiem’ as our guide track and it was in this dawn sequences and it’s a huge piece of music, I think it’s like a two hundred piece orchestra with a hundred piece choir, and it’s this massive unapologetic mass and it’s like having Also Sprach Zarathustra on ‘2001’ it’s like saying ‘That’s our music, now top that!’ and like … poor Harry listened to it and went ‘Well, that’s what works about it and this is what works about it, and meanwhile we’re licensing the track thinking, well this is going to cost us twenty five grand to use this track, do we actually commit ourselves, is he going to be able to top it or not? And in the background our music clearance was sort of clearing the track in preparation for him failing, really, and of course he came up with something which is just, well, now when I think about it is just ‘us’, it’s our music completely, the dawn sequence is so beautiful, and it does all the things against the cut that Duruflé does, and it does it in some very small way the same way as the Duruflé, so he stole from the Duruflé what worked, but he wasn’t daunted by it and he made his own piece of music for us. That’s why he’s in the top six composers in the entire world because he’s sort of a scientist but also able of delivering kind of great humanity in his music which is just an amazing combination that few people have.
MS: Now you say you used to be, and still are, a sound designer yourself, did you kind of, want to have a crack at doing the score yourself?
JW: Well, I sort of got stuck in by sort of pummelling my iTunes library and sort of putting some music in there and trying to push the discussion along a little bit as to what would work and that sort of stuff but I’m really happy not to write the music for the things I’ve edited because I also want somebody to come along and … you know, for me it’s about cuts and sequences and when somebody comes along with music and it starts being about … you know that’s the skeleton and actually the truth that things are only revealed by the blood that’s running through the veins. I’m cutting a performance now of Michael Fassbender [in Shame the new film from Steve McQueen] and to be honest he’s battened down the hatches quite a lot, he plays it very straight, he’s got an amazingly expressive face and he never entirely does that, but there are those projects where … Bill Murray did it in that film Broken Flowers, of just playing it down and actually it takes music rather well, those kind of things, all the passion, all the yearning that’s inside somebody can be expressed, and in a way the music can complement the character on the bits that aren’t visible, which is a brilliant way to use music, is to render something audible and visible that isn’t otherwise there. I kind of think the worst music is the music that shows you exactly what’s there … ‘BANG!’ … with a big chord that goes ‘BANG!’…
–AND THAT’S THAT FOR PART ONE. COME BACK FOR THE NEXT PART WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THE BRITISH ISLES ARTISTIC POSITIONING BETWEEN THE US AND THE CONTINENT, 3D PORN, HYPONOTIST ASSISTANT EDITORS, PINEAPPLES AND DAVID LYNCH!—
Max Selby is an up and coming editor with experience in short film, factual television and music videos. On his slate is a feature film for Lionsgate.
Check out Life in a Day’s YouTube channel here to see more regarding the people mentioned in the interview: http://www.youtube.com/user/lifeinaday