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Contender – Editor, Elliot Graham, Milk


Prior to working on Milk, editor Elliot Graham was familiar with the story of Harvey Milk and felt it was an important story to be told. He had also been a fan of Gus Van Sant since Drugstore Cowboy and had the director on a shortlist of people he’d like to work with. They eventually met several times, and the result was Graham being hired to edit Milk.

Forming the spine of the film are scenes of Milk recording his thoughts about his life into a tape recorder. This narrative device was used in the original script, but in the course of editing, Graham and Van Sant wanted to enhance some other areas of the film, so the writer added additional scenes. “It helped bridge gaps and jump time periods, which is useful in a biopic,” says the editor.

The overall level of performance lifts the film to a higher level and there is already a buzz about Sean Penn’s Oscar-worthy performance. This level of performance is every editor’s dream. “It was clear from day one that Sean was doing something special. We were spoiled by the performances, which I think are universally fantastic. I found them extraordinary and a joy to cut,” reveals Graham. “There was a certain feeling of responsibility not to screw up his great work, but that’s a really nice challenge to have.”

A fun editorial challenge was all the stock footage incorporated into the film. Hundreds of hours were viewed to find pieces to augment the story and to add a sense of time and place. Although the use of archival footage had always been planned, no one knew how significant it would ultimately be in the storytelling. “There were always a couple of pieces we thought we would use. Diane Feinstein at the beginning was always my idea,” says Graham. “A little news report on Dan White resigning was an idea, but we had no idea how or when to use it, so that was something we played with during postproduction. We ended up liking it. There was a version of the film that didn’t have as much, but we kept building and playing with the stock footage until it got to the point where we felt it was very beneficial to the story.”

Shot in 35 mm, the film was cut in HD on an Avid Adrenaline. Graham’s assistant, Eric Hill, had a big job just keeping track of all the stock footage that came in a variety of formats including super 8, 16 mm and 35 mm as well as various video formats. “That was a bit of a nightmare for him,” says Graham. “But he did a good job and kept it well organized.”

Graham confesses that he likes period pieces and even though there were big scenes, such as the marches that go on throughout the movie, Penn’s performance and Van Sant’s directing kept the film personal. He did not have favorite scenes, but loved “the whole film. It was always interesting. I was excited about everything on this film,” he says. “Everyone involved, every cast member, and certainly the crew members I know, felt very lucky to be a part of it. That was exciting.”

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