“The best way to approach a performance like Natalie Portman‘s, is to get out of its way,” says Oscar-nominated editor Andrew Weisblum. In the case of such a powerful and spot-on performance the editor has to be careful not to overwork or manipulate it.
“It’s all there. She gave us everything and then some. You can’t create that,” continues Weisblum. “Mostly it’s an exercise of going through the arc of the film and calibrating it so that it starts at one point and ends up at another in terms of it’s intensity.” As the character descends into her insanity, the intensity of the performance ratchets up, allowing the audience to follow the increasingly disturbing journey of the character. All the choices made along the way by the editor and director support that dynamic.
The hallucinations, including the manifestation of the double character that Nina Sayers experiences during the course of the film, are a primary device that the filmmakers used to visually signify the character’s breakdown. They knew that she would have these breaks with reality, but the question they asked themselves was, “How far can we push those breaks?” Care was taken during the shoot to get the perfect balance. If the hallucinations were too much, the potent scenes could lose their effect. If it they were too little, the scenes would go unnoticed.
“Basically, we experimented with these little ticks of moments where she would see things like the painting move,” said Weisblum. “When we showed it to people in post, we realized that we had about 20 instances or so where we would see Natalie as another character. Usually any given audience member would only pick-up on half of them. We realized that they knew something was going on, but they could not necessarily pinpoint them all. So we knew that we had an effect that was working subliminally, which was great because it meant that the people were on edge. They didn’t quite know what was coming at them, but there was something off-kilter.”
The team decided to push that aspect of the film with the consequence of exploding the visual effects budget. “Every time we could, we would manipulate something in the frame or the scene that was secondary,” explains Weisblum. “If there was a reflection in the shot, we would do something to it that would make it seem off – change of speed, or adjust it a little bit so that there were things lurking in the corners of the frame all the time that were unpredictable. We would never give you time to rest on it.”
In the club scene, where Nina goes out for the night with Lily and decides to let loose by taking ecstasy, these subconscious suggestions build to a crescendo. The filmmakers hid as much subliminal imagery as they could in that 45-second sequence – a massive collage of manipulated still images, as many as a thousand, from Swan Lake and Nina’s life depicted as duplicates dancing around Nina and Lily.
Originally tested in pre-production as a series of strobing images shot by cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, Weisblum discovered in editing the sequence that most of what was coming across in the editing were single frames from the strobes, still images essentially, with frames of black in between. Although the footage was shot in a traditional way so that it would flow, he discovered that they could chop it up to tell the story. It was possible to play with those still images any way they wanted without it registering for the audience, as long as the viewer had something to latch onto in the foreground, which was Nina dancing with the guys and girls and getting lost in the whirlwind of activity.
“It kind of sums up the effect of the movie in a lot of ways, what we were trying to do there,” Weisblum reveals. “Her perception of reality is aggressively skewed. In the same way that she can’t get a grip on what’s going on in her life, or what’s real and what’s fantasy, we wanted the audience to be experiencing that as well.”