Editing Feature Films – Editor Julia Bloch in Conversation
A few years ago I had the opportunity to chat with editor Julia Bloch over Skype about her journey into feature film editing (an associate editor credit on The Tree of Life via playing doubles tennis with Lars Von Trier), at that time she had just finished cutting Green Room for director Jeremy Saulnier.
When I discovered that she was over in London cutting Remi Weekes first feature film His House, I seized the opportunity to have a chat with her in her Soho cutting room.
Julia’s editor credits include Blue Ruin, In the Radiant City, Green Room, The Wall, Woodshock, Hold the Dark and His House.
She also holds an additional editor for Nasty Baby and assistant editor credit on Foxcatcher as well as numerous other feature films.
Here’s a shortlist of just some of the topics we discussed:
- Moving cities and countries as an editor
- Editing The Wall for Doug Liman with a flexible narrative, ending and no score
- Editing Woodshock for two fashion designer sister directors, the female gaze, Wabi Sabi and challenger opinions
- Working with first-time directors, the role of producers in post and how to decide who to work with
- How to cut dark material without suffering from ‘fear fatigue’ and the difference between creepy and scary
- Knowing what to do with scenes that aren’t working
Quick thanks to Martin from SpeedScriber for the free minutes that enabled me to transcribe my interview with Julia in (much) faster than real-time. I’ve previously written a fair bit about SpeedScriber here and I use it all the time to transcribe interviews on this blog.
What’s it like to up-end your life and move to a completely different city, just to edit?
Well, it depends on where you’re going. Because I’ve done it in a few different places, and it depends on how long you’re going to stay, and I guess what your attitude is in general – are you going to really settle in and have a life in this new place, albeit a temporary one? Or are you just there to work and don’t want to get too involved?
I went to Austin to work on The Tree of Life, which was originally only going to be for a few months, and then I ended up being there for a full year, so I got in pretty deep. Austin is a really easy place to live, and I’m from Nashville, so in some ways it was pretty familiar.
I went to L.A. to work on Woodshock, which was also only going to be like six or seven weeks and ended up being about five months, but I never really got used to it, even though I do have quite a few friends living there.
And now I’m in London for His House, which was from the outset supposed to be six or seven months, so I felt like I knew what I was getting into from the beginning… but I’ve actually been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed living and working here.
I could easily see myself in a New York – London kind of bi-coastal arrangement, rather than New York – L.A.
Does it affect your work life balance being away from home?
That has a lot to do with where you are in your life; it’s almost 10 years ago that I did the job in Austin, so I was just in a different place professionally and personally.
I’m maybe more focused now when I’m at work on location, just because there are fewer distractions. I’m staying in a really nice flat here, but it’s not my own home with all my stuff in it so it’s kind of emotionally as well as physically uncluttered; I find that relaxing actually.
And I don’t feel like I have to also manage a social life or whatever, because it’s temporary. I mean I am enjoying myself and I’m going out and doing stuff. I’m meeting people, it’s not like I’m just chained to the desk!
But in a way it’s easier to just explore the city at my own pace because everything is new, and I don’t have the same context of habit that I have at home.
Has anything changed in the way you edit since we last spoke?
As the films have gotten bigger in scale there’s more moving pieces. One of the things that I’ve been noticing is the importance of keeping ahead of the visual effects process.
The films I work on usually have a lot of practical in-camera stuff, a lot of special effects versus visual effects, which is really fun but even with that there’s always a certain amount of cleanup or there’s things that need to be tweaked.
But then there’s the other side of the scale, working with Doug Liman on The Wall, for example: he’s somebody who really uses visual effects as a whole extra dimension to the film. It’s constantly evolving, it’s like you’re always in production in a way, which can be challenging. Because normally in the edit you’re trying to work with what was shot.
But if you’re working with a director who essentially continues to shoot throughout post-production, by changing visual effects shots as a way of re-writing the story… we changed the ending of that film multiple times, entirely based on visual effects.
It’s a very realistic film, so it’s not like some alien suddenly comes out of spaceship or anything, but we’re changing things like, for example, do you know that somebody is dead or not? How ambiguous is the ending?
What were those changes based on? Audience feedback from test screenings or Doug’s changing sentiments?
A little bit of both. Mainly I think he just kept finding new ways to make the film better, like “It would be cool if we made the sand storm do this…” or it would look better/be more interesting/there’d be more tension if we did that.
But we did have a situation on The Wall where we had two separate endings and we screened both of them and they collected the data and figured out which way they thought would be more satisfying, but neither of those endings were the same way that it was scripted in the first place.
Is the ending that you thought was the best ending in the film or was it a different version?
Oh that’s a good question. That film in particular plays against expectations in a lot of ways. And I think Doug as a filmmaker, is a commercial filmmaker, in the sense that he wants to make films that give people what they want.
So it’s very unusual for him to make a film that’s all in one location with basically two actors and a disembodied voice. It’s really a chamber piece and it’s very claustrophobic — after you sit through that for almost an hour and a half, you feel a need for some catharsis or some big thing at the end. So that was what we were working a little bit against, given how relatively small-scale the film actually was.
Did it also change a lot because of the flexibility of having an off-screen voice that could be written fairly freely?
Yes, I mean that was almost completely rewritten, which was also fun.
But then you have to deal with the fact that while that character completely changed after the shoot, we still had to make it work with the main actor’s on-screen performance. Aaron Taylor Johnson was amazing – I mean there was somebody on set who was reading the lines over the radio, but it was just a disembodied voice that Aaron was reacting to the whole time.
So that’s the stuff that’s really fun to do. But it can also be a little bit daunting because I like to work within a certain amount of restraint.
One thing you said last time that particularly stayed with me was that ‘unless you tuck in one corner of the bed sheet, you’re just constantly moving it around’ meaning that you might be changing things, but are you making it better?
Were those re-writes just you and Doug figuring things out, or did they bring the writer back in to polish some of the lines?
It was Doug and me, but also one of Doug’s producers Alison Winter – she was instrumental in writing the new dialogue with us and thinking through all the plot points and the story beats and the character development.
What was your proudest achievement in editing The Wall?
Well one thing that was really cool is that there’s no score.
I like to cut pretty dry, in the beginning anyway, because I’m always a little bit nervous that if you start putting music in too early it will colour the scene too much, or you’ll just rely on it to carry the emotion, and so I usually like to wait as long as I can to put in a temp score anyway. And Doug sort of felt the same way.
Don’t get me wrong, I love putting music in the movies I work on, it’s just that I want to wait until a certain point because you want to know that a scene is working, before you add music in. Otherwise you might be holding on a shot way too long just because there’s three extra beats in the music.
There are some pretty intense moments in the film, but we really tried to use the sound of the wind and the sand and the radio crackle to tell a lot of the story, because part of the plot is what they hear and what they don’t hear and what they think they’re hearing…every time we tried to put music in, it just felt really fake.
Because we, as the audience, are so in the situation?
Yeah. There is music that comes in at the very end. But over the course of the whole film it just didn’t feel right.
So it was fun to have that discussion and to really stick with it.
We did have a great sound team on The Wall, so when we had finished and we were screening it, the sound was just so present and so realistic, and I think that was a big part of the success of creating the feeling that you are really in that situation.
Did you temp in your own sound effects, or did they give you specific stems to work with?
We temp’d in a lot of stuff just for timing mostly and for story telling because there are moments where the soldiers are trying to figure out where the enemy is based only on sound – they can’t see where the shots are coming from, so the audience needs to hear the ricochet of a bullet the way they do.
I’m limited by the Avid to make it sound super cool with a big reverb and all that, but I can do enough that you get the idea. But when we were on the mix stage we could really play with the distance and the time and all of that. That was really fun.
What was it like cutting Woodshock?
I actually got the job on The Wall while I was still on Woodshock, which is funny because they couldn’t be more different in terms of storytelling, the directors themselves, the circumstances…everything.
So Woodshock was already started by another editor, I came in about half-way through. And I should mention that the directors are two sisters: Laura and Kate Mulleavy. They are fashion designers, they have a label called Rodarte.
They both have backgrounds in art history and are way more cinema-literate than I am. They were constantly referencing different films and paintings; they are extremely visual, creative, artistic, smart people.
They had worked on short films and related projects through their fashion but not in a narrative, feature film kind of way. So it was a new medium for them.
And they were approaching it with, I would say, a stronger visual sense maybe than the average director. Which is a special thing, but as an editor you’re always trying to make meaning.
So we would have all these conversations around “Yes these images are beautiful, but what do they mean?” Or yes these images are disturbing or these images are thought provoking or evocative…but what are we using them for? What’s the story we’re trying to tell? What does this beat mean?
I felt like I had to kind of overcompensate for the logic side, because they were so fluid and emotional, but overall I think it was productive.
You don’t want to just work with people who are only reinforcing your own opinion, at least I don’t. I want to be challenged.
We definitely influenced each other throughout the course of the project.
And we would have amazing conversations about feminism and film. The female gaze was something we talked about a lot. They were really interested in exploring what it means – not just to make a film about a woman or by women – but how does that translate into the craft itself? What kind of decisions are we making to tell this story in a way that feels specifically feminine?
I don’t know that we necessarily landed in a particular place with that. But we talked about it a lot. And it was really fascinating and exciting to think about the language of cinema in that way.
So something completely different to Doug Liman and The Wall then?
Yeah – not exactly the same vibe as an Iraq War sniper story with John Cena. But that is where I was coming from when I met Doug.
Woodshock was completely non-linear. Extremely abstract and associative, much more like The Tree of Life kind of editing than anything else I’ve done before or since.
We talked a lot about this Japanese notion of Wabi Sabi, which is the idea that there’s a beauty in imperfection and when things are old and cracked and have a patina, that’s actually more beautiful than if it was perfect and brand new. Terry (director, Terrance Malick) was the first person to introduce that concept to me.
But it was very difficult at times on Woodshock, it was really hard for me to figure out how to tell a story with the fluidity that Laura and Kate wanted, and to wrestle with that sense of imperfection.
They’re very interested in decay in nature and the film is very much about death and dying and our planet dying, about people dying. It is pretty dark… (laughs) I really want to do like….
A happy film?
Yeah just once, just one time! (laughs)
Given that you have worked with so many directors on their first feature films, what have you learned about picking the directors who you work with, given that it’s often their first time?
I think it’s something to be weighed very carefully. Because it’s a lot more work. In some ways there can be more reward, but it’s a lot more work.
It’s fun and exciting to work with someone who is kind of new and less tied into old patterns and you can do more exploring, but if they’ve never worked with an editor before you also have to introduce them to that process, to what the editor/director relationship is.
I feel more useful in a way with first-time feature directors because I’m in a situation where I have more experience than they do. And I do think it’s part of my nature to be patient and to be able to explain the process. I enjoy the process. I actually enjoy being able to say ‘OK now we’re going to do a spotting session, and this is what that means…’.
I mean I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m being pedantic about it…
But you’re guiding them through it…
Exactly, a guide.
But it’s more work and there’s a lot more responsibility and you’re kind of, what’s the expression? You’re herding cats a little bit! So in those cases I rely a lot more on my post-production supervisor and my assistant editor to help keep things streamlined.
It’s helpful too when the producers are as present in post-production as they are in pre-pro and production, but that’s not a given. When they are, it helps to shape the process for the director. But especially with first-time directors, the editor has to take on a lot of that kind of ‘management’ stuff.
When you’re having those initial discussions with a director, and you’re getting to know them a little bit personality-wise, how do you discern whether you can lock yourself in a room for months at a time with this person?
That’s a really good question. It’s a little bit of blind faith and a bit of feeling if you have some chemistry.
Generally by the time I’m meeting with somebody, I’ve either read the script or seen a rough cut – I’ve seen something so that I know that I’m interested in the material already.
And then when you meet with the director, you just have to see how it feels, just like when you meet anyone. But there are specific questions I like to ask, about how they like to work – practical things like what hours they keep, do they prefer to be very present in the room or come and go?
I like to work with directors who have kids, because they tend to keep much more humane hours. I want to know what drew them to the project in the first place, etc.
But I’m also looking out for how they talk to me – what kinds of questions are they asking me?
I was a little bit hesitant to do His House at first because it’s a horror film, and I would really like to do something a little bit lighter as we were discussing before.
But it was a very good script, and I was intrigued by the idea of working outside of the U.S. And then when I had a Skype interview with Remi, it was very much his personality, his openness, that convinced me we could work well together and made the whole thing seem more interesting. I was really interested to see what his take on this story was going to be, how it would develop.
Thinking about editing dark material, how do you decide where you draw the line on how much you want to show and how much you don’t want to put on the screen?
Like how to calibrate that?
First and foremost I am always hoping to work on something that, even if it is violent or scary or a thriller, it is not only that; there is a real story and there are characters that have some meat to them and there’s some drama to be worked out as well.
So that’s what I try to focus on initially, and almost treat the violence and other stuff as like, it’s almost just another element like score or sound design.
And then when you get down to the nitty-gritty of fine-cutting it’s a little different.
I think we talked about that with both Blue Ruin and Green Room because Jeremy is so fascinated by gore and violence and so adept at portraying it.
So in Blue Ruin with the arrow in the leg, are we going to stay on that arrow in the leg or do we go to see Dwight’s face when he’s screaming in pain? Which is the one that’s actually going to be more effective?
Or in Green Room when Pat got his arm all cut up — we had all the angles of it, all the gnarly close-ups. It was a late night locking reels and I remember we went back and forth and back and forth about whether it should be this disgusting close-up or a wider shot where you could see the hand bouncing a little bit on the end of the arm… (laughs) and in the end that was actually more disgusting.
I feel that kind of ‘less-is-more’ thing is true on both the micro level of the scene and in the cumulative effect over all. Do you just get desensitised at a certain point to bloodshed?
In this movie (His House) – without really talking about it — it plays a lot with ‘what did I see’? Is something really there or not? And as is often the case, what you don’t see is almost scarier than when you do see.
But I mean the scariness of something is so subjective.
There are certain things like the ‘jump’ scare which are always going to get people – there’s a physical reason why a jump scare is scary – really it’s more startling than anything else.
But other things, like a recurring, unexplained noise in the dark, may take longer to freak you out, or they will really get under one person’s skin and not so much others, so you just have to figure out what the balance is.
What’s interesting to me is the difference between something being scary and something being kind of creepy.
And I keep saying this, but I’m really not a horror film person and so I don’t even know what makes me qualified to work on these things… But it just so happens that a lot of films I have worked on use fear or suspense to propel the story.
And I am fascinated by the visceral reactions that we can pull out of people when they are on the edge of their seat. I mean, when someone says ‘you’re on the edge of your seat,’ what does that mean? It means that you’re leaning forward and you want to know what happens next. That is the baseline for storytelling.
So to be able to create that just using creaky floorboards and moving shadows, is pretty cool.
My follow up question would be then, as the editor, how do you know when not to change the cut because it was scary the first time you saw it, but now you’ve seen it a thousand times, you’re immune to it?
Fear fatigue is a real thing. A big part of the job in general is to try to constantly approach it as the audience would when they are watching it for the first time.
But at the same time it’s unrealistic to say that you’re going to keep your eyes fresh all the time.
That said, to put yourself in the point of view of the audience is where the analytical stuff comes in, where you’re forcing yourself to remember that they don’t know the previous scene got deleted, that they don’t know that we’ve changed the dialogue here. To try to take things at face value in a very literal way.
Because you can’t fake yourself into thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next.’ But I think you can train yourself to watch the cut from the point of view of taking things as they come, and being present, to use a trendy term.
What are we actually saying with this shot? What information did we actually give them in the previous scene in order to inform this one?
How do you read an audience during a test screening, how do you get valuable feedback from a test screening that something is scary?
I remember watching the Judd Apatow Masterclass and he said he records the audience’s laughter during a screening and syncs it up on the edit to see where he got the biggest laughs, or where a joke needs more work. He said “If they ain’t laughing, it ain’t working.”
What I think is tricky with that is, that with this kind of ‘scary stuff’ it is very finely tuned. It’s very dependent on a lot of different things working in concert; that you’ve got the timing just right, and you’ve got the sound perfect and you’ve got the music just right.
And a lot of that stuff, for me anyway, comes later in the editing process. It’s not broad strokes stuff, it’s really more fine-tuning. Where you’re trimming frames and doing very careful sound work and other things that you’re not really doing until you’ve gotten pretty far along.
So that’s one of the reasons why you might want to screen later in the process, because it’s more execution dependent.
I mean, a joke is a joke and it’s either funny or it’s not. You can make it more funny by fine-tuning the timing of it and all that stuff. But with someone creeping around a corner it could be completely meaningless or it could be terrifying, depending on the execution of it.
Remi and I talk a lot about that scene in Mulholland Drive when the guys are in the diner, and one of them is recounting his dream and they go outside and they kind of creep around back in the parking lot and this weird trash-heap guy jumps out.
The first time I saw that it scared the shit out of me. And even now that I’ve seen the film many times, and I know it’s coming, that part is still scary.
And Remi has a theory that, contrary to the ubiquitous jump scare, it’s actually more scary if you know something bad is going to happen because you’re engaging in the anticipation and dread.
So the crucial part of the scare becomes about giving the audience the information they need, so they can anticipate the moment?
Yeah, you’re waiting for it to happen, so you’re already engaged.
Switching topics now, how do you deal with situations where a scene isn’t working? How do you diagnose what’s wrong with it and then how do you fix it?
Any scene, so not necessarily a scary scene? I can’t think of any specific examples right now, but some things are obvious when they’re not working, for example if it’s supposed to be funny, and it’s not funny, or it’s supposed to be scary and it’s not scary.
But it could be that something’s not working because you don’t believe the chemistry between two actors who are supposed to be in love and I’m not feeling it or… The whole thing is pretty intuitive I think.
And you can always have a situation where the director might think it’s working and I might not or vice versa.
But what is interesting I think, is that you can take a scene that is doesn’t seem to be working and move it into a different part of the film and it works, or sometimes it’s not that specific scene that isn’t working but it’s something that happened 10 minutes earlier that you need to go back and change that will actually impact how you feel about this scene.
I think all that kind of diagnostic stuff is very intuitive.
Are there any particular genres you’d like to edit? Or just something that’s more upbeat and cheerful?
I don’t know. I mean this film (His House) has a lot of drama in it. And it has some really amazing emotional scenes between a husband and wife that are really powerful.
So I feel like I’m getting a little bit of that, and it’s funny too.
I don’t know, it’s not like I want to do a comedy or anything. I think I would like to do a period piece, like a Merchant Ivory film would be my dream.
What attracts you to it?
I love the formality of the language. And I’d love to do a literary adaptation.
Your background is in literature isn’t it. I guess someone like Terrance Malick’s films are very literary in their aesthetic and their use of narration, right?
Yeah, and they are also always referencing literature. Even some of the voiceover that sounds like it’s coming from the character is often a quote from poetry or from scripture or from some sort of classical source.
Which is interesting when it’s de-contextualised like that, that it can feel almost like it’s a southern farmer from the 1950s who’s talking about his crop, but it’s really from the book of Genesis or something. (laughs).
So the kind of literary formality, or that sense of period, would make it appealing?
I’ll tell you what it is, it’s the comedy of manners. I really appreciate a very keen sense of social observation.
I think it would be really fun to work on something like that, where there’s a lot of subtext.
My answer would be a western, I think, or a procedural thriller…
I mean it might also be science fiction. I’m discovering a very lapsed interest in science fiction, because I think when I was growing up, I had a lot of prejudice against it.
I think sci-fi used to just mean mean Star Wars or Star Trek…
Yeah, or like Dune.
All these scrawny pimply boys in my high school would just read Dune, and I was like no thank you. I’ll be over here reading Jane Austin thank you very much. But now I’m fascinated.
When I saw Arrival there was a lot about it that I didn’t respond to as much, but the fundamental essence of the idea of there being a circular language and how that would affect our way of thinking and our sense of time…once I got to that part in the movie, where I realised what was going on it was so thrilling.
And I think that was totally in the editing. The way that they conveyed that was like a physical, almost anti-gravity feeling.
Sci-fi, especially the near-future stuff, has the ability to question your whole fundamental world view and you have to deal with it on every level of the storytelling.
It’s like the idea of tucking one corner of the bed sheet in again, where there is this basis of reality but let’s take it to its extreme logical conclusion.
One thing we talked about last time was the idea of creating new ideas inside the audience’s head, with a cut.
Because they can have idea A and B, but when you join them together they create idea C in their heads, but the idea of C isn’t in A or B, it’s created by the audience through the connection.
Exactly. There’s a very simple scene in His House where one of the characters goes to the doctor and is getting a check-up.
She’s a Sudanese refugee who’s just arrived in England and she’s very much out of her element and the doctor is this sort of petite, white, very amenable British woman who just wants to make everything OK but it’s really not OK.
And so there’s this inherent tension and what’s actually happening is they are just these two women sitting in a doctor’s office and one of them is getting her blood pressure taken. But we wanted to build in this awkward silence in the beginning, where they’re not sure what to say to each other.
There was an awkward silence that happens later in the scene, so we had to take it out of there and find a way to fit in earlier without making it feel too cutty…
So that’s not even plot related but it’s rhythmic. And we worked on it for a really long time, and finally we found a rhythm where there’s a balance between one of the women looking at the other one and the other one avoiding the look or returning the look.
And then it’s just this whole thing about glances and looks, you know — I think the scene went from being 30 seconds to being almost twice as long, but when it was 30 seconds long it didn’t work as well, and actually felt slower, because it didn’t have as much direction. It wasn’t saying anything.
Well that was a good place for us to end, as that was a good example of a scene that wasn’t working and then by moving some thing around and re-working it, it starts working and adds something to the whole film.
Julia, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your wisdom.