Filed in: Awards, Contender Portfolios, Crafts, Editing, Featured

Contender – Editor Jon Harris, 127 Hours

February 11, 2011 03:19 | By

Editor John Harris was nominated for an Oscar for 127 Hours

“You hang around in the right spot long enough and sometimes you get lucky,” says editor Jon Harris about his first opportunity to work with Oscar-winning director, Danny Boyle.  He had previously worked on two horror films with 127 Hours producer Christian Colson who introduced him to the director when Chris Dickens, Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire editor, was unavailable to take on the film.

One of the difficulties for a film, which focuses on one character’s singular survival, is to keep the viewer engaged. The flashbacks and imaginings that broaden the scope of 127 Hours are a large part of the story and a particular challenge for the editing. “Obviously it was all in the script, so that it was filmed, but what was very organic was the order of what he remembered, and the way in which he remembered it,” shares Harris. “The unknown factor going in was exactly how the flashbacks would sit with the main footage because the whole film was a very organic thing and felt very experimental.”

Boyle is on record as saying that it was the success of Slumdog that allowed him to do this film because how this project would work, was very hard to explain. “I know that Danny likes chaos and surprises. I don’t think he had a particularly rigid idea of how it would all work in the end,” reveals Harris, who also had questions about how the film would work. “I love the fact that I couldn’t really look at the script and put my hand on my heart and say, ‘Yes this will definitely work’ because I had no clue. That made it exciting.”

One of the director’s concrete fears going into the film was that the editing would become a repetitious cave, flashback, cave, flashback pattern where the audience would start projecting where the next flashback would occur. “Danny was very keen for it to be seamless. He shot certain flashbacks in such a way that Aaron (James Franco) is experiencing the flashback, but he’s still in the cave,” elaborates Harris. “He’s half in the cave, half in the memory. We tried to make that blend as much as possible, so that we are drifting in and out of his head.”

127 Hours (Photo by: Chuck Zlotnick/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

With Franco being on camera most of the time, his performance is central to the success of the film. Apart from the flood sequence, which was shot at the end of production because of its technical difficulty, the intense sequences in the cave were shot in continuity, a decision that aided the actor’s process. “You can do it because it’s in one location,” says Harris. “It was great because it allows everyone to chart his disintegration and the mood that he’s in. [It let] James have a collective sense of what he’d been through so far. Poor James really was stuck in that hole for five weeks. So the way he positioned himself was based on having been there for so long. Also, because of the digital cameras, it meant that he could film for twenty minutes at a time. If James had to do something like rig the harness, or even cut through his arm, they didn’t give him any help. If it took him an hour to throw the harness over the rock until it caught, then that’s what he did.”

In addition to the shear amount of footage, the camera was always fluid, so no two takes were blocked exactly the same. This method of filming posed a unique challenge for Harris because he couldn’t show the action in real time. “It was about compressing and making it palatable, but at the same time without making it seem like he did it really easily. That was quite hard,” explains Harris. “They’re moving around James. One 20 minute take isn’t just one wide shot. Within that shot there’ll be everything – camera moves, focus pulls. The shots are kind of documentary style. But there was one thing that was never going to change – his hand in the rock. You might have slight continuity issues, but that is also very easy to fix in CGI. The challenge was… I didn’t want it to be ‘jump cutty.’ Although I’m effectively jump cutting a twenty-minute take because the camera is constantly on the move, it doesn’t read as such.  You concentrate it down to the important bits.”

Another inherent challenge to the project was the fact that, because the film is a true-life event, everyone would know the story and how the film ends. The filmmakers turned that knowledge into anticipation with the editing. “You play with it a couple of times, like when you see him pull out the knife and you think ‘oh this is it’ and then you think, ‘don’t do it,'” says Harris. “Hopefully, by the point where it does happen, you’ve forgotten about that.”

Ultimately working with Boyle and receiving critical acclaim was a bonus for Harris. “The great thing about Danny is, he’ll do enough to get things going, but then he wants to see what people do,” shares Harris. “I had this mantra, that he didn’t want it to be ordinary. There was no way that it could be ordinary.”