By Leonard Klady
When Curtis Hanson was looking for someone to cut Wonder Boys, he turned to veteran editor Dede Allen, A.C.E. whose impressive resume includes The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon and Reds. Allen hadn’t done a feature since The Addams Family almost a decade earlier, but she was game. There was just one condition: Allen had to learn how to operate an Avid.
“It was a new tool and over the years I’ve seen a lot of new tools,” Allen said at the time. “It’s just about learning the mechanics; the task remains the same.”
Allen would earn her third Oscar nomination for the film.
Of all the crafts, film editing is arguably the most magical. You cannot hear it, you cannot see it, but you can feel it. Every film has an alpha rhythm, and there are countless stories of pictures transformed by subtle tweaks and juxtapositions from plodding death marches into breezy cinematic sagas.
Editing also allows, as Jean-Luc Godard insisted, what every film requires: a beginning, middle and end … though not necessarily in that order. Take, for example, Elephant, this year’s top prize winner in Cannes. Edited by director Gus Van Sant, it chronicles a Columbine-inspired incident at a high school but views it Rashomon-like from a variety of different character perspectives. Similarly, time gets scrambled in director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams, edited by Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E. as the drama evolves by focusing on characters whose lives and actions bleed into one another. However, the story develops emotionally rather than chronologically.
One cutter who rarely gets his due is Roderick Jaynes, who once again collaborates with Joel and Ethan Coen on Intolerable Cruelty, a screwball comedy with a madcap pace. Jaynes displays the same sort of versatility as the Coens but is so closely associated with the filmmakers he’s been unable to work with others.
Genre and spectacle (and sometimes both) tend to have an edge when it comes to nominations in this category. Zach Staenberg, A.C.E. received an Oscar for his work on the original The Matrix and returns for its two 2003 installments. Staenberg’s work could well cancel itself out or his peers could opt for the year’s most rollicking swashbuckler and box office blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. While there’s no denying the pace and momentum of Pirates, members of the branch have a bias against films with multiple editors and the film has three: Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, A.C.E. and Arthur Schmidt.
Two very different genre challenges worth noting include Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Phone Booth. Sally Menke, A.C.E. nominated for Pulp Fiction, doesn’t have as complex a time structure to make sense of but nonetheless has to provide a pace and style to the globetrotting thriller that splatters the audience with a wicked, darkly humorous underbelly. That irony is also evident in Phone Booth, but editor Mark Stevens, working with Joel Schumacher for the fourth time, has two other hurdles. His achievement is keeping the tension in the unusual story told in roughly real time and almost entirely shot within shouting distance and the confines of the title object.
One can also point to The Italian Job as a prime example of work that combines pace and tension or the high-octane quality of The City of God from Brazil, which has both a unique energy and a rhythm that appears to derive from the locale and its traditional and contemporary music. Music and myth also are of prime importance in David Coulson’s cutting of Whale Rider, a haunting and uplifting saga of new traditions from New Zealand.
Another extra hurdle is securing a nomination for a sequel. This year’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King seems certain to make the short list for Jamie Selkirk’s work. Both prior Rings also made the ballot but neither ultimately took home the gold. Though Selkirk cut filmmaker Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners and Heavenly Bodies, this is his first Rings work and voters may find it difficult to single out his contribution with a statuette.
Of the smaller prestige films, few can equal the emotional wallop of In America, the first major editing credit of Naomi Geraghty. Director Jim Sheridan is notorious for long post sessions in the cutting room shaping the final versions of his movies, and his current effort is no exception. The emotional pitch of his material combined with period music and the sights and smells of New York City is the type of organic experience that requires a deft balance of the raw and subtle. Another film that relies on intimacy and exposed nerve ends is Mystic River, cut by Joel Cox. A character thriller prodded along by three diverse characters, it’s a movie where the craft is often invisible but unquestionably accounts for the potency of the experience.
Finally, there are the more obviously muscular challenges of 2003, including the period drama adventure The Last Samurai. Steven Rosenblum, A.C.E. a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Ed Zwick and first time feature cutter Vincent Du Bois capture the sweep of history in this saga of clashing cultures set in 19th century Japan. It’s an epic endeavor, and as with this year’s lengthier outings requires a rigorous precision to hold our attention. Even more daunting is the task encountered by William Goldenberg, A.C.E. on Seabiscuit, the 1930s saga of the legendary racehorse and the three men responsible for making his run for the roses the stuff of dreams and record books. Writer-director Gary Ross’s insistence on hoeing more to the facts than a neat narrative could have easily rendered a choppy, fitfully compelling yarn, but Goldenberg smoothes over the rough edges and captures the excitement of the chase in some stunning track sequences.
A two-time Oscar winner, Walter Murch, A.C.E. again lends his hand to Anthony Minghella’s ambitious adaptation of Cold Mountain. Based on the weighty, elliptical novel by Charles Frazier, the filmmakers have gone to considerable pains to enliven the meditative nature of the source material, and while one can quibble about the direction taken, there’s no denying the first-rate quality of Murch’s work. A far more successful literary translation is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, based on two of the novels Patrick O’Brian wrote about the British navy in the early 19th century. Veteran Australian cutter Lee Smith marks his third collaboration with Peter Weir (Truman Show, Fearless) in this ambitious outing that captures both the sheer adrenaline and tedium of life aboard one of the fighting ships of His Majesty’s fleet. It is the essence of professional work in its attention to detail, pace and unfussiness. Were it not to make the ballot, one would be well advised to flog members of the branch and put them in irons.
By Leonard Klady