Bradley Cooper knew exactly what he wanted for his musical performances with Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born.” They would be shot live from the perspective of being onstage with them for authenticity and intimacy. And after his hands-on experience in the cutting room with David O. Russell and editor Jay Cassidy on “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” he knew he could trust Cassidy to protect his vision on his directorial debut.
“Bradley went into it with very clear intentions on how he was going to shoot things in this world,” Cassidy said. “Bradley’s main idea was to keep the audience in the experience of what [Jack and Ally] go through when they perform in these stadiums and concert halls. That meant, just two or four cameras. And it was the same songs in different locations and even on the same set but with different dressing and different wardrobes.So during the edit, anything that didn’t adhere to that, we’d just steer around.”
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The movie opens with Cooper’s country rock star Jack Maine playing the loud “Black Eyes,” conveying the immediacy and intensity of his performing experience. It was shot hand-held with two cameras, two takes, with cinematographer Matthew Labatique operating the “A” camera. It established the point of view always being with the performer, with the backlight from the stage lights preventing any detail of the audience being visible and always kicking flares into the lens.
“The editing of ‘Black Eyes’ has a few very simple functions,” said Cassidy. “To see a hint of Jack’s substance abuse, the first shot of the film as he goes out on stage and in the limousine. To establish Jack’s musical world, the scale on which he performs, and his virtuosity with the guitar. And to rhymically establish that the dynamics will be bold — from the close up of the guitar lick into the near silence of the limousine — and to tell the audience that every song that will be performed in the film has a function in telling the story. ‘Black Eyes’ can’t be a bar longer without paying a big price in the rhythm of the storytelling.”
“La Vie en Rose,” which introduces Gaga’s first performance as Ally, is about Jack seeing her for the first time and being smitten by her virtuosity and charisma. “The scene is more editorially complex than other songs in the film because the blocking of Ally’s singing takes her across the club, onto the bar, and then lying on the bar in front of Jack,” Cassidy said.
“And she’s completely unaware of him until she lies on the bar and happens to look his way. The dynamic of the cutting is to feature Ally’s performance —we found that Jack anchored the scene with a minimal number of shots of him watching her. Any more, any longer, any tighter on Jack’s reaction, the scene could become dishonest very quickly. The less the audience sees of Jack’s reaction, the more they see Ally as Jack is seeing her.”
“Shallow,” Ally’s breakout performance (and the Oscar frontrunner for Best Original Song), is “structured as a pied piper’s call that draws Ally from the kitchen of the Biltmore to center stage of a large outdoor concert [shot at the Greek Theater], belting out the chorus,” Cassidy said. “The first instrumental pieces were written and performed to allow the intercutting between her and Ramon’s [Anthony Ramos] journey and flashes of the concert. Once they arrive, Jack’s virtuosity disarms her to the point that when he suggests that she come join him on stage, she is near collapse.
“At the end of the first verse of ‘Shallow,’ the camera stays on Ally and the audience watches her struggle and ultimately decide to join him. And the camera stays on her as she crosses the stage to the microphone just in time for her verse. The rest of the cutting is to see Jack as her biggest fan, encouraging her by mouthing lyrics while following Ally’s growing confidence, building up to the reverse two-shot of them singing while looking at each other. It is as if the whole surroundings have receded — the band, the audience — and they are alone together. As the song ends and they come back to earth, all she can say is ‘so many people.'”
“I’ll Never Love Again,” Ally’s final performance, became a powerful meta moment for Gaga. As Gaga prepared to shoot the song, she received the devastating news that her best friend, Sonja Durham, was near death in her battle with cancer. She rushed to the hospital, but didn’t make it in time. Yet Gaga returned later the same day to shoot the scene.
“I was not on the set that day at the Shrine, so I did not know Stefani’s personal backstory until later,” Cassidy said. “Though Bradley shot a few angles for ‘protection,’ his intention was always to use the Steadicam camera that moves around Ally in a medium/medium closeup as she sings.
“The Steadicam operator, Scott Sakamoto, Matthew, and Bradley worked out the choreography of the shot with the intention of shooting the entire length of the song in every take. There were two takes shot, there are three cuts separated by two flashbacks used in the final film. Two of the cuts came from the second take, one came from the first take.
Needless to say the editing of this song went through many iterations as the minimal nature of the cuts invested each cut with a power that has to be applied carefully. Suffice to say that, as our confidence in the editing of the whole movie grew, the cutting of the last song simplified. In hindsight, confidence resulting in simplicity is the story of editing ‘A Star Is Born.'”