Two-time Academy Award-winner Pietro Scalia, the editor best known as Ridley Scott's right-hand man on "Gladiator," "Prometheus," "Black Hawk Down" and many others, is planted in the Swiss city of Zurich for the week to fulfill his duties as a member of the annual film festival's international jury. Indiewire used the opportunity to sit down with Scalia — who got his start as assistant editor on Oliver Stone's classic financial thriller "Wall Street" and has since gone on to work with some of best directors in the business, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Gus Van Sant and Rob Marshall — to discuss his career, his work on Scott's forthcoming feature "The Counselor" and why he stopped collaborating with Stone following his Oscar-winning work on "JFK."
Given that you’re here to judge film, I’m curious: how do you watch a film? Can you focus on anything but the way the film’s cut?
I watch a film as an audience member. When I go to the movies, I just want to enjoy the film like I enjoy the Alps. I love movies just like everybody else. I want to be taken away. Every time you start a film, there are so many promises. I always want to forget I’m watching a film. When movies tend to stall, it’s not really working because it pulls you out. I try not to bring work into enjoyment.
A lot has been made of the role you played in restructuring “Gladiator.” The framing device of Russell Crowe’s hand in the reeds wasn’t in the script; that was your own invention. Did "Prometheus" go through a lot of rejiggering as well during the editing phase?
Yes. “Prometheus,” specifically at the beginning, something changed. Based on the script, we always had the opening prologue with the Engineers, but then there was supposed to be a direct cut to space, literally finding David (Michael Fassbender) alone in a spaceship. Only after the movie was cut and first shown to the studio did we realize that it would really help if there was an introductory scene to Noomi’s [Rapace] character. We had that, but they shot it at the end. It was always a question of where to put that introduction. How do we discover that character first? Do we discover it through David as she’s asleep in a chamber and then flash back? Or do we see it before? So there was a lot of moving around of pieces.
But with “Gladiator” it was simply a combination of two ideas that I had. One: was it possible to use an image as a thematic idea? At the same time, it was very important to build character. When you do a movie like “Gladiator” and introduce your hero, having a close-up of your character is a great way to introduce him/her on film. But looking at the classical narrative of the hero’s journey, it was a simple story of a man who wanted to return home. But a hero’s journey is one of personal transformation. I thought by using the image of the hand over the reeds, to use a thematic or poetic image before the close-up, would in a very simple move express the idea of the film visually. Just like with any symphony – the initial notes in Beethoven’s Fifth, he repeats it, variations of it.
Oliver Stone’s here with the European premiere of “Savages.” You haven’t worked with him since winning your first Oscar for “JFK.” Is there any bad blood between you two?
No, we’re still close. The thing is for me, Oliver’s been a great mentor. I started working with him as an assistant on “Wall Street,” with Claire Simpson as the editor. I really admired his work from the days of “Salvador.” My own background in film school was documentaries. I always wanted to work with him.
We had an amazing six years, from “Talk Radio,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Doors" and then “JFK.” After that last one we’ve been in touch, but somehow I got to meet [Bernardo] Bertolucci and he had offered me “Little Buddha,” so it was just for me a dream come true to be able to work with an Italian crew. I went down that path, but I’ve seen him over the years, and it’s been good.
After “Gladiator,” he called out of the blue. I was in Florence doing “Hannibal” with Ridley at the time. He called and said, “I really enjoyed ‘Gladiator.’” I said, “Thanks,” but I didn’t know why he was calling. He was working on “Any Given Sunday” at the time, so I think he was calling to see if I was available or not [laughs].
I’d be curious to see what you could have made out of “Alexander.”
Yeah, I don’t know. I know that he went back to re-cut it, but I only saw the initial one. I don’t know what happened there. It seemed rushed. I know that Baz Luhrmann was also planning one. I knew because during that time I was working with Dino De Laurentiis, and Dino was going to produce Baz’s film.You and Ridley have collaborated countless times over the years. What makes you two click?
For many directors, the relationship with the editor is important. Ultimately, you just have to get along and feel comfortable spending a lot of hours together. The thing is, the relationship with me and Ridley, it’s one of trust and creative freedom, in the sense that he leaves me with that. He knows that’s what I need – in terms of music, in choices of takes. I don’t fall in love with things I do, but I also have very strong opinions about certain things. He values a very honest and direct approach. It was the same thing with Oliver. You have to be honest and straight with the material. But ultimately you have to have a voice or a point of view. I mean yes, you’re there to implement the vision of the film, but at the same time you have to contribute. That’s what Ridley expects of his collaborators. You’re not just there to execute commands, you’re there to contribute on a creative level.
I tend to like things that are not perfect aesthetically. Ridley also sees that a lot. Imperfections are good things. Mistakes with actors are also good things. I always look for those things that are imperfect, that are not too thought out.
Have you ever had an actor approach you, unhappy with how you edited their performance?
One of the funny things was that on “Good Will Hunting,” with Robin Williams’ performance, the thing was, Gus [Van Sant] liked a lot of the improvisational parts of the movie. He just let them change the lines as they went along. Robin’s a great actor, both comedic and dramatic, but he tended to ask for more takes. I wasn’t sure why Gus was letting him do so many takes — he was already great in the first two or three takes. So my whole performance was lifted from the earlier takes, where he was not certain about his character, where he was finding, trying new things. As an actor, the more he became comfortable with the lines and the choreography, the more the lines became mechanical. You lose that early freshness, that insecurity, that fear.
When we screened it for him in San Francisco, he came up to me and said, “You did a really good job.” I said, “Thanks.” But he kept saying, “No, really, you did a really, really good job.” He was completely surprised about the performance he saw because it wasn’t what he expected. Cut to the Oscars, he wins Best Supporting Actor, and he writes me a letter saying, “Thanks, you do the kindest cut.”
How is Ridley's “The Counselor” coming along, following the passing of his brother, Tony?
It’s going good. We had the tragedy that happened right in the middle of the shoot. Three weeks in, we stopped for two weeks. It’s been a shock and hard for everybody. I knew Tony well. I hadn’t spoken to Ridley in a while. He came back after two weeks and there wasn’t much to say. He’s gone through a really hellish situation, I can’t even imagine his pain. I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him; I gave him a hug, and I could see he was getting emotional – a good hug. I said, “How are you doing?” And he said, “Just one day at a time.” I think it was good for him to get his mind off of that and just go back into the business of making a movie. He got right back into it – it takes your mind off it. But you can see the grief. It’s there.