Unconventional. There’s no better lead in to prepare you for KILLING THEM SOFTLY or this article than the word unconventional. I suppose that could be expected with the auteur, Andrew Dominik at the helm. He has written and directed all of his films, including 2000’s CHOPPER and 2007’s THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. With editor Brian A. Kates, (A.C.E.?), Dominik spent countless hours building hundreds, literally hundreds, of variations of certain scenes before reaching the final product.
“Andrew loves editing and is very hands on,” said Kates. “We built more versions of each scene in this movie than for any other movie I’ve done in my career. In some cases we reached 200 different takes. There’s just the barest skeleton of a plot in this film so the challenge was creating absolutely truthful performances that were emotionally alive. Our challenge was finding the perfect balance between dialogue scenes, which are almost play-like in their simplicity, and the almost pure-cinema visual style of the action scenes. It wouldn’t have been possible without a great amount of playing around; including indulging any ideas I had, but we did it together. There would be a time for building, and a time for playing back what we built and when one of the versions of something we built was something special, we would know it.” Co-Editor, John Paul Horstmann, (A.C.E.?), added “Our workflow was a full exploration of the performances that Andrew had shot. Sometimes that meant re-watching footage again with new eyes, sometimes it meant throwing away things we loved and trying to do it differently, with different shots. But we definitely put the work in. Andrew has an incredible talent for watching and working performance, and a decisive eye. You can learn a lot just sitting next to him. My favorite scenes to edit were the robbery and the killing of Amato, because Andrew is so talented at playing with tension in a scene, and all those lovely dark spaces between lines. ”
Exploring the space between was also one of First Assistant, Tara Fidler’s favorite aspects of the film.
“I think it’s great to not have a cut every few seconds” she said. “It reminds me of older films where shots just played out. I think there was some intention of this from the beginning. Watching a single take, I could definitely feel suspense and emotion without sensing the need to cut.”
One of the more difficult scenes to film and edit may have been delivered through Ray Liotta. In the film his character, Markie, takes a vicious beating after a robbery that he is assumed to have been behind. Truth be told, I flinched, winced and eventually covered my eyes. I remember thinking to myself that they must have covered this fight from every angle, in every speed – and I was right.
Fidler confirmed, “We had quite a bit of footage. The scene was shot multiple times in different speeds (24, 30, 60, 120fps). It was very brutal going through dailies on those days. I definitely yelled out a few ‘ouches’ and ‘ooos’ watching.” Kates added, “It was extremely well covered. For instance, there was coverage of Barry (played by Max Casella)— the one doing the beating— head on, punching towards camera. In the end we probably use this angle for just one shot, which is less than a second long. There was coverage of the fight using the Phantom Camera, which is extreme slow motion, and John Paul built those takes into some stunning sequences, with droplets of rain and blood and flesh ricocheting in slow motion. In the end, however, we decided to favor the dirty medium shots. They had the most naturalistic feel, and the less stylized we went with the images, the more gruesome and horrible the fight felt, because it felt real.”
Mission accomplished. The sound of this movie only intensified the violence.
“Andrew worked very closely with our sound team to make a score composed of sound effects and backgrounds,” said Fidler. “Creating suspense and emotion without score is more of a challenge but I think we pulled it off well.”
Several other sequences in the film benefitted from this multi layered coverage, careful edits and specific score, including the opening, which laid the tracks for what lay ahead.
"The original concept for the opening was the same scene of Frankie (played by Scoot McNairy) walking in the wasteland of the recession,” said Kates, “but the music was intended to be a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues.” It always seemed a little ironic, so much so that for a long time we left the scene out, and started the film in an office. One day Andrew found a piece of music by Carl Stone, a composer who works with electronic loops and creates unconventional sound patterns.
Andrew thought the seeming random breaks and jumbledness was a great metaphor for the gobbledygook of the chatter of election propaganda. So we did an experiment where we cut the scene around the breaks in the music, completely letting Carl Stone’s pattern guide us. We loved it. The new version of the scene sat on the back burner for a little bit, but once we were bold enough to put it in we knew it was the right opening.”
Political sound bytes from President Obama, President George W. Bush, and Senator McCain all served as the echo of election propaganda, which served as an overtone narrative throughout the film.
“The idea with the political clips was to tell a story: there’s an economic crisis, there are calls for government intervention, the Bailout happens, order is restored. That’s the simplest version. However, there were also cuts of the film with additional story beats. For instance, McCain suspending his campaign to join the crisis-management, and also the eventual backlash against the Bailout. We kept shuffling the clips as the movie expanded and contracted until the very end.”
This was one of the few times I was mesmerized by casting. Think about the homage this was to the gangster genre. Brad Pitt has been in SNATCH and all three films of the OCEAN’S 11 franchise. Gandolfini will always be remembered as the iconic Tony Soprano from HBO’s “The Sopranos”, never mind that he and Pitt played cat and mouse together in THE MEXICAN. Actor Slaine (no last name) is from the new school of gangsters, with memorable turns in pivotal roles as a drug dealer and bank robber in GONE, BABY, GONE and THE TOWN, respectively.
“It is absolutely intentional casting,” said Kates. “Andrew wanted each character to come with his associations from other roles, and then deepen, or subvert them. It was a kind of shorthand. For instance, Trattman (Ray Liotta) was the social-climbing and likable mob guy in GOODFELLAS, but in our movie there’s barely any place to climb. He goes from living in a trailer to living in a very modest house and even though everybody ‘likes him,’ he ends up getting completely terrorized under the system. Similarly, Mickey (Gandolfini) comes with such an association of power from “The Sopranos” that his arc is about removing it until there’s nothing left. That’s one of the reasons why we started the scene in the restaurant with him barking at the waiter. There used to be quite a bit of dialogue before that, but entering the scene totally hard with him terrifying someone gives him a sharper fall.”
There are a lot of people talking about the brilliance of Brad Pitt in this film and, mind you, I could write a doctoral dissertation on the absolute robbery that continuously befalls that man come Oscar time, but if James Gandolfini doesn’t steal the whole picture on this one, I don’t know what scene stealing looks like. Pitt and Gandolfini make each other better actors, but it was the editing of their scenes that brought out the characters and palpable emotions in the room.
“I was also blown away by James Gandolfini’s performances,” agreed Horstmann, “particularly the scene in the hotel room. I remember us watching James’ dailies from start to finish several times, our eyes just glued to the screen. I loved the careworn quality of our Director of Photography, Greig Fraser’s cinematography and the production design, much of which was inspired by Jacob Holdt’s photography book, “American Pictures”. I was also fortunate to be a part of pre-production for the first time, which was incredibly insightful. We edited camera tests, actor auditions, and really explored Andrew’s visual ideas for the shoot in short visual sequences utilizing stock footage.”
You’d never guess it by how much of an editorial feat this film was, especially given the amount of coverage and mixed frame rates, but this was Tara Fidler’s first time manning the Number One seat. Never mind the surprise of hearing she was the first member of the edit team on board, going on location with the film to New Orleans.
“I learned so much working on this project!” she commented. “One of the biggest learning lessons was how to prioritize when I had a long list of tasks. Assisting two editors while also satisfying the needs of other departments (sound, visual effects, etc.) was challenging at times. It really came down to priority and who needed what first. Generally too, whomever Andrew was working with at the time had priority. Organization and efficiency is key!” Horstmann lauded “Tara was amazing at providing whatever was needed quickly, always with a smile and her trademark ‘No worries!’—No matter how harried the request. She was also very good temping visual effects, such as compositing the politician’s speeches into televisions throughout the film. I remember her going frame by frame in the handheld shots, keying the motion as she sipped her tea.”
Now there’s patience… And here’s Tara Fidler.
Q: Where did you grow up and did that background lend to an interest in film or editing in particular?
TF: I’m a Los Angeles native so I’ve been surrounded by the entertainment industry my entire life.
Q: How did you get your start in editing?
TF: I’ve always been interested in “behind the camera magic” since I was a kid. After graduating from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, I decided to enroll in some editing classes to learn the software. One of my Teaching Assistants, Misha Tenenbaum, had asked me if I would be interested in assisting him on a RED/Final Cut Pro project. I gladly accepted. It all took off from there.
Q: Is there one scene in television or film that you can remember having given you an appreciation for what an editor does?
TF: When I was a kid, I was always amazed by how the “Ancient Egypt” documentaries on either the History or Discovery Channel were put together since they had so many clips and pictures and no real story with dialogue to follow.
Q: Is there something you’ve cut or worked on that you’re especially proud of?
TF: I’m very proud to have been a part of KILLING THEM SOFTLY. It’s my first 1st assistant editor job I’ve been a part of from beginning to end. Everyone on the project was great and enjoyable to work with.
Q: Is there a scene in television or film that you would love to go back and put your own spin on or work with the raw material?
TF: I’d never want to feel that I would was messing up a piece of art! However, it might be cool to play around with the raw footage of a classic or masterpiece such as the shower scene from PSYCHO.
Q: What platforms are you familiar with?
TF: I work with Avid, Final Cut Pro, and all the programs that go along with them. I’ve worked with film, digital, and 3D in Avid while I’ve only worked with digital in Final Cut Pro.
Q: Technically speaking, what have you found to be your system’s best feature?
TF: It’s ability to track metadata!
Q: What feature are you hoping to see in the future?
TF: A version of Avid that does not crash.
Q: Is there one person in the industry, living or dead, be it director, editor, or otherwise would you like to work with?
TF: I’m a huge fan of the JAMES BOND franchise so I’d love the opportunity to work on a Bond film.
Q: What upcoming film, other than your own, are you looking forward to?
TF: I’m looking forward to seeing THE HOBBIT. I loved THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.
More from Video Symphony: Tara Fidler, Video Symphony Alumni