Editor Andrew Weisblum on the making of Fantastic Mr Fox
Michael taylor, Ace
Wes Anderson’s regular editor Andrew Weisblum joined Metrograph for a Q&A on the making of Anderson’s 2009 film.
JOSEPH KRINGS, ACE: This is the first event in what we’re calling the American Cinema Editors Presents series. ACE means American Cinema Editors. So whenever you see that on a credit behind somebody’s name, that’s what it means. We’re an honorary society of about 1,000 editors across the country and abroad, and it is the mission of American Cinema Editors to advance the art and science of motion picture editing. That means many things—one of those is educating the public on exactly what it is we do. Editing is a multifaceted discipline, and involves a lot of different things, and it’s easy to misunderstand it. With the Academy last year deciding to devalue some of their awards and present them in the commercial breaks, it started a public conversation about the role of a film editor, and how vital it is to the final outcome of any movie or show. We wanted to further that, having screenings where the public could come see a great film and then talk with the editor afterwards to learn for themselves what it is the editor does. So that’s what this is all about. We’re so glad that it seems to be a popular idea, that there’s a lot of you here.
Tonight, we’re really excited to present Fantastic Mr. Fox, with one of the editors of this film, Andrew Weisblum. Andrew is a New York-based editor who’s very accomplished; he was nominated for an Oscar just last year for his work on Tick, Tick… Boom! He was also nominated for an Oscar in 2011 for Black Swan, and he has a long working history with the director of that film, Darren Aronofsky, including on his most recent film The Whale. He also has a long working history with the director of this film, Wes Anderson, going all the way back to The Darjeeling Limited. He also worked on The French Dispatch, Moonrise Kingdom, among others, so we’re very excited for him to be here.
MICHAEL TAYLOR, ACE: So some editors specialize in certain genres, and Andrew works a great deal, obviously, with Wes Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky. Two very different kinds of directors.
ANDREW WEISBLUM, ACE: Well, the films are different, but in terms of their attitudes towards filmmaking and the process, and the level of, I guess, autonomy that they’ve established in their careers, they have a lot of similarities in their methods—in terms of their attitudes about creativity, and filmmaking, collaboration, all that.
MT: Could you elaborate on that in some way, like in terms of how they work with you, and how you approach them with ideas, and back and forth?
AW: Well, they’re very loyal, and very trusting with the people that they work with regularly. And I’m lucky to be one of those. They’re kind of in a position now where they don’t really take notes, if that makes sense. They’re both “final cut” directors, which means that ultimately they get the final say of what the film is going to be, how it’s going to be edited. Obviously, that’s a collaboration with the producers and financers, but ultimately it’s their project.
In terms of work methods, it’s a little bit different in that when I work with Darren I put together the cut first, without us having much conversation about it. He’ll call me during the shoot and say, “I want to look at this thing, see if I’m missing x or y,” or I’ll call him and say, “I think you need this shot at this moment.” We check in every day. But we don’t really talk about how it should be edited, so the first time he watches he’s able to look at my take on things, which will inevitably give us ideas, or give him ideas, and it’s kind of our dialogue. I’ll show that to him and go through it scene by scene. Inevitably, we will watch all the dailies again together so that we can make new discoveries now that we have the context of watching the movie, and he’ll watch a scene and I’ll say, "That’s great. That’s exactly what I thought." Or else I say, “That’s good, but I was thinking this,” or I’ll say, “That sucks.” Whatever it is, we openly discuss it and put together different Frankenstein versions of what his ideas were, what mine are, what the new ones are, until we get to the end.
With Wes, it’s different. I assemble stuff, but he doesn’t really look at that first; we end up usually cutting a version of the movie together that’s entirely his selects and decisions on how we’re going to make the cut, because he’s so specific about how it’s been shot and what his choices are that, really, until we get the idea that’s in his head on the screen in front of us together, it’s very hard for him to process alternatives. So we do that first. And we look at that together. And then once that is done, the floors kind of open. I can do different alternates, different ideas, and throw them against the wall, and he’s ready for that and open. I get his intentions, and then he’s interested in what my reactions are. So it’s the same ingredients in the stew. But the order is a little different.
"Wes’s filmmaking changed completely on this movie."
MT: We’ve all just been watching Fantastic Mr. Fox. What was the technical process in terms of doing an animated film like this? Was this new for you? Or for Wes?
AW: Yeah. We’ve since done another stop motion film and little bits of stop motion, or animation in other films. But when we did this one, it was the first time that both he and I had done any animation. There’s a very kind of classical, insulated world of stop motion animation out there that was involved—incredibly talented, gifted people, but they’re kind of their own little posse that navigates from movie to movie around the world.
The process for us was really a learning experience. We didn’t know what we were doing. We learned as we went. One thing I’ll say about Wes is he’s rarely interested in how things have been done before as a shortcut to how he’s going to do things. The worst thing you could say is “How we do this is…” because then inevitably we have to come up with a new way. Only because he’s just suspect of it, it’s just questioning: “Well, then it’s just going to be like those other movies, so why don’t we do this differently?” So for instance, on this film, one of the first things he said he was told is that all the actors that you get together all record their voices separately in ADR stages, and he said, “That’s completely antiseptic, why don’t we all get together and record in a real environment?” So we went to a farm in upstate New York and got as many of the actors that we could together at once, it was, I think, George Clooney and Bill Murray, and Wally Wolodarksy, and his brother, Eric [Chase Anderson], I think was there—remember it’s a long time ago. Oh, Jason Schwartzman. So we recorded live, we would find different spots on the farm and kind of block it. I was there taking notes, we had a boom operator. It was all acted out, and videotaped, and a lot of that became referenced later on for our animation.
What’s great about it is that actors were able to interact, which is not something you usually get in the animation. It became a linchpin of our animation process, that we’re always looking for labs— which is what we used to call them—which is just the video footage of how we think the performance should be. So quite often Wes or I or other people in the environment will act something out, and edit that, and that becomes an animation reference later on. Animators do that on their own of course—they act things out in front of a mirror or whatever—but it became part of an editorial process for us.
Anyway, we had several storyboard artists working together, and we put together what’s called an animatic, which is a moving version of the storyboards just kind of paste out with an audio track that was like a radio play, basically. That becomes the template for the animation. But there are a lot of things we didn’t take into account for that, because we’d never done it before—like how long it might take for a puppet to move across the frame, or across a room, and everything was too tight so we had to keep opening it and closing it. Things like that. So it took us longer maybe than it might take somebody who’s done it before.
MT: Was it easier to do it on some of your subsequent projects, like Isle of Dogs, or some of the graphic elements in The French Dispatch?
AW: Yeah, I mean, a lot of techniques developed. I think Wes’s filmmaking changed completely on this movie. Because his eyes were open to—just to take to double back a little bit, when we did Darjeeling Limited, we had no storyboards, we had no animatic ideas, anything like that, it was just much more freeform the way it was shot. There’s a lot of planning, but things change during the shoot. They’re influenced by the set and the environment, and he wanted to be open to whatever was going to happen while we were there shooting on location. But, with Mr. Fox, what he realised is how much you could actually plan and how beneficial that could be to us. So we started doing animatics for live action features as well. So we did them for sections of Moonrise Kingdom. And then I think the entirety of Grand Budapest Hotel was an animatic. Certainly The French Dispatch was mostly animatic.
The benefit of that is you can be really economical. If you know exactly what your shots are going to be and how you’re going to put it together and really refine it, if you’re building however many sets you have to build—which, like, The French Dispatch was infinite. There were more locations than on any movie I’ve ever worked on, but the way we were able to do that and do it on a budget is that we knew exactly which way the camera would be looking. Most sets you see are one direction, there’s just a wall. That one is decorated and decorated to the edge of what the frame is going to be. And that’s the way the work is that focused. So there’s kind of a pre-editorial process that informs all of that. That never would have happened if we didn’t do an animated movie first. So it changed the way his films look.
MT: That’s really good to know. One question I wanted to ask you about your career in general, have you experienced—I imagine you have—where a director has left you alone with a scene for a while and you’ve come back with something quite different from the original intention of the script? Something you discovered on your own that you were able to show the director later on, maybe that changed their thinking about the scene or the film?
AW: I think it happens all the time. Sometimes I’m conscious of it, sometimes not. It’s really hard to think of a concrete example. Certainly on Wes’s films, you know, there’s been restructuring things that had happened that I don’t think had occurred to him. That I just did and they clicked. It’s hard for me to pinpoint a real example. But I’ve definitely it’s happened on many films. It must happen for you.
MT: I think at a certain point, it becomes organic. You’re not even always aware of it.
AW: One thing I’ve developed over time, particularly when I’m working with the director I’ve never worked with before, is that I always have versions of a scene, meaning completely different versions of scenes. And that’s from the initial assembly. So even if I’m happy with a version, I will force myself to say, well, what if I started the scene this way or with this, and that’s always available, so that when it comes time to show the director the scenes that I’ve worked on, it’s never “This is how I think it should be, or this is what it is,” it’s automatically a conversation, it’s automatically “Well, we could go like this, or we could go like that, or we could do this, or we could do that.” And they are invited to immediately engage and have ownership and dialogue with me about what they want to do. I’m there to help them find their movie, not to tell them how I think it should be, right? Because that collaboration is important. And ultimately, I’m a firm believer that a filmmaker needs to have in the auteur theory ultimately, that there needs to be somebody making decisions that’s consistent with their visions and intention or their passion for making that film. So it’s never just showing them what I think should happen. I’ll tell them what I think. But it’s always there’s always an option available to do it another way. You know, there’s a bigger target. I’m less likely to screw up and have them say why that sucks?
It also forces me to think about what the potential problems are—with the movie, or performance, or things we’ve got to be aware of. Because it’s really not obvious until you start to play around that. We’re steering this the wrong way.
MT: Let’s open up. Does anyone here in the audience have a question?
AUDIENCE: What’s your favourite aspect of being a film editor?
AW: To me, it’s where the storytelling really happens. There’s so many other contributions that go along the way but that’s the moment, that’s the final rewrite where you really get to shape it. When I started working in film, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be an editor, but I knew working on little films of my own that that was the part I always had fun doing. But working as a PA on set, I hated everything about it. Because I found that I couldn’t be more removed from the creative process if I tried, you know, locking up traffic. And I knew that editorial was a space where it was really precious and sensitive and really make or break. I knew I didn’t want to be a director pretty early because I hated all the politics and pressure that they had to face. And I didn’t know that I really had a passion to be the main storyteller. I felt like I could watch a film and understand what or wasn’t working about it. And I like being a part of that collaboration without the ego or ownership, if that makes sense.
AUDIENCE: How do you use music in editing?
AW: So that’s a really great question. It’s completely different based on directors. When I’m assembling something, I don’t use any temp music at all. And I hold off on using any temp music until as late as I possibly can. I refuse to show cuts to directors with temp music. Because I think it just kind of influences and hides the warts of what is or isn’t working. Some people can’t watch without it but those are not people I want to work with. Because you have to be able to face the problems of the film and attack them, and make the film as good as it can be before you start to enhance it with sound and with music. That’s my personal theory.
Of course, with Wes, he’ll pick the songs when he’s writing the script. That’s different, because the intention is there already. It’s baked in. So when we know that, and we have that. And that’s the context that this film is going to live under. Then I have to use it. It’s a very important tool for us. On this film as well, it was the first time really that Wes—he had worked with Mark Mothersbaugh, but there wasn’t really the same kind of sophistication to score overall. There would be songs, and then there would be pieces that Mark would write, that were really kind of evolved songs, but they were not a score. So he had to find his way to work with Alexandre Desplat, the composer—we both did. And what happened on that film is Alexandre gave us some sketches. Wes responded to the ones he liked, and the ones he didn’t, and so he worked on those a little bit more. Then we started to play around with them in in the cut, and Wes asked for stems—the separate isolated track, the parts drums, bass, winds, whatever—so we got those stems and we started to re-cut the movie very closely to those. Then we’d ask for versions at different tempos. The score was completely built by this deconstruction process we had editorially. And the picture was re-cut to work with that. When that was all done, we had this tempo roadmap; Wes sat with Alexandre and he added these beautiful flourishes to it that tied it together, instead of just like this blueprint for a score where it was cartooning and hitting things. And he made it beautiful, instead of just serviceable.
That has become the process on all our films with Alexandre. That’s the way we work. And now, automatically, when he gives us a sketch, he gives us all sorts of stems. And we build a tempo map that way. On Isle of Dogs, all the music was the same bpm. So we could interchange the music cues at any point in the movie. And most of the cuts that have anything to do with the music are at a consistent tempo from beginning to the end of the film.
"That never would have happened if we didn’t do an animated movie first. It changed the way his films look."
AUDIENCE: I’m curious about the difference between a live action film and an animated films, like, how much content you have to work with? I would just assume that animated, you’d have less to work with.
AW: You know, it’s a very different process. You get to play around and experiment with the drawings in the animatic world. And that becomes the blueprint for all the puppets that are built, in the sets that are built. And that is all that is going to get shot, plus a little bit of a handle so you could extend or whatever. But there could be as many as 30 shots being animated at the same time, and Wes will get a regular feed of those. And that was true even then—this was remote work world before there was remote work, back in 2008, whatever this was—so the real pressure of that is to look at those animated shots and catch right away if there’s a problem. Catching some detail that you expect the shot to have, put it in the edit, and make sure that everything around it is going to work. There would be often late nights where we would get the shot and we had to tell them that the shot was good, be able to wrap it and move on, or else the whole schedule was offset where we would recut the whole scene around it because we realised a shot doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do at all, and doesn’t tell us this bit of expositional information visually. So we have to figure out how to do it in another shot, or scrap this and redo this shot. The edit is running alongside the production. So when the shoot is done, so is the editing.
AUDIENCE: I read online that apparently there were some big changes to the film.
AW: Well, there was a narrator. It was Jarvis Cocker’s character, but it wasn’t Jarvis Cocker. It was somebody else’s voice. But the idea was we knew we had certain narrative problems. And I will say that the film itself really is nothing like the script. In the end, we did a lot of rewriting as we were shooting. But the plot holes that we had, we figured out with our narrator, if that makes sense. We realised we had certain things we had to explain. So we wrote this narrator part and kind of intercut it. And just by the exercise of doing that, we solved our narrative problems. We were starting to animate the narrator when we’re maybe a shot and a half in. And we showed the film to someone and they said, “Why do you need the narrator? This all makes sense without it now.” So we paused. So it wasn’t that much that was thrown out. It was maybe a shot or two. But that was an interesting learning experience, to go through that exercise of, of solving our narrative with a literal narrator.
MT: And in the end, it’s a very simple device, but the title cards do so much for showing us where we are at any time. Usually, you’re able to do that with a sense of humour also. So you’re not just giving us information, it becomes part of the style of the film, the typography on Wes’s films, obviously, things like typography are quite a big detail.
AW: Big part of the movie.