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How Unconventional Characters Are Driving the Best Editing Oscar Race

"Ford v Ferrari" and "Jojo Rabbit" are the sleepers in a race marked by unconventional characters and demanding stories.

"The Irishman"

“The Irishman”

Netflix

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This year’s Best Editing Oscar race among “The Irishman,” “Parasite,” “Joker,” “Ford v Ferrari,” and “Jojo Rabbit” is marked by unconventional characters and demanding narratives. There are complicated flashbacks (“The Irishman”), an unreliable narrator (“Joker”), imaginary relationships (“Joker,” “Jojo Rabbit”), a tricky two-hander (“Ford v Ferrari”), and a volatile ensemble piece (“Parasite”). And they all possess dream-like qualities to their life lessons.

“The Irishman” marks Martin Scorsese’s summary movie about mob life told from the perspective of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who recounts his conflicted life in trying to appease both crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). “It’s a different view of mob rule than Marty’s previous movies,” said three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker, the director’s long-time editor of nearly 40 years. “He wanted to do brushstrokes with history that were relevant to the characters, not make a documentary about Jimmy Hoffa. And Marty didn’t want to explain a lot — he wanted the audience to figure things out for themselves.”

But, unlike “Casino” or “Goodfellas,” Scorsese wanted a slower pace, and a deceptively simple style for “The Irishman.” This suited his unglamorous depiction of mob life and De Niro’ desensitized World War II vet. All his life, he was a loyal foot soldier, but it all falls apart when he’s ordered to kill Hoffa, his best friend. As an old man looking back, mournfully, he tries to come to terms with loneliness and regret.

“This allows the audience to become engaged in a very special way,” added Schoonmaker. And, uncharacteristically for Scorsese, there’s a banality to the violence. “It’s not like the incredible camera moves or flashy editing of the earlier movies,” she said. “Victims are killed in an instant — often in very simple wide shots. And his brilliant idea of slamming the titles in front of the audience (describing how various mob characters die) was a way of showing that being part of the Mafia is not a good idea.

Dipping bread in wine, known as Intinction, speaks to the shared Catholic traditions of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.

“The Irishman”

Netflix

However, the zigzagging flashback structure, covering four decades, never posed a problem because it was built around an integral road trip to Detroit, with Bufalino telling the clueless Sheeran over breakfast at Howard Johnson’s that he must kill Hoffa: “It is what it is.” But then everything about “The Irishman” is oblique.

Yet the innovative, Oscar-nominated VFX de-aging by Industrial Light & Magic offered a new editorial wrinkle. But it didn’t get in the way of cutting the whole movie ahead of the final renders. “The main thing was we didn’t want to lose the subtlety of De Niro’s acting,” Schoonmaker said. “And sometimes we did ask [VFX supervisor] Pablo [Helman] to put back a few wrinkles because we felt we had lost something.” But they were able to get it all back, including the look of intimidation on Sheeran’s face when confronted by Harvey Keitel’s Philadelphia mob leader, Angelo Bruno. “Thankfully, it worked out beautifully. It would have been a terrible disaster if it hadn’t,” she said.

“Parasite”

Neon

In “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed class divide thriller, editor Yang Jinmo builds the rhythm from a drizzle to a typhoon. The movie required suspenseful, escalating tension, and sharp contrasts, as the down-on-its-luck Kim family insinuates its way into the wealthy home of the Parks, only to discover they are not the only “parasites.”

The most important sequence was the “Belt of Trust” setup, in which the individual members of the Kim family become employed in the Park household as tutors, chauffeur, and housekeeper. “Director Bong was very mindful of this sequence, and emphasized how important it was to the film,” Yang said. “Naturally, this was the most time-consuming part to edit. Although we captured its essential structure during on-set editing, we later combed through all the takes to find the best shots and worked hard to perfect the rhythm of the sequence.” Yang even devised a series of jump cuts to speed up the final obstacle to get the housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) fired by feigning her allergy to peaches.

By contrast, the chaotic “Ram-don” soup sequence flips the con on its head with a rainstorm, the unexpected return of the Park family, and a hidden “parasite” in the attic that leads to a violent massacre. But the pace of the vegetable chopping was too slow. One solution was to stitch together wonderfully rhythmic shots. Yet the single most demanding shot was tipping point evident on Ki-taek’s (Song Kang-ho) face during the birthday party, when the cumulative impact of social humiliation turns the father into a killer. “That moment, the expression of disgust by him, and even after the stabbing, we see a glimpse of his face, and we really had to sell the emotion,” Yang said.

"Joker"

“Joker”

Niko Tavernise

With Todd Phillips’ phenomenally successful “Joker,” editor Jeff Groth effectively balances the reality and fantasy that drive Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck into becoming the legendary DC Joker. It’s a volatile, tour de force performance that’s carefully preserved by long takes and the camera’s embrace by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lawrence Sher. And the fact that Fleck is such an unreliable narrator liberates Phoenix into taking a lot of creative risks. But it hardly matters whether this Joker origin story is real, partially imagined, or a total fantasy, because we are implicated as voyeurs in his murderous revolt.

“We tried to cut in continuity because, as a character piece, you wanted to know where you were and where you were headed,” Groth said. “And it’s also about creating context in the early stages.” And that included changing the opening of the movie, which originally began with Fleck’s irritating laugh, kicking off his long encounter with the social worker. However, they instead opted for the scene where Fleck applies his clown makeup at work. “It allowed you to feel his presence, slowly, rather than being dropped into a crisis point,” he said. “He doesn’t say anything, and he becomes more sympathetic when you see him put on his makeup.”

Even so, the therapy scene was difficult. Groth trimmed it from six to four minutes (removing unnecessary exposition) in building the integral mental crisis in Fleck’s life. “There’s a lot in there,” he said. “You’re introduced to his laugh and he talks about his job and you got that he had some problems and he was on medication. It was almost like a mini-movie.”

Also tough was handling the delicate relationship with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), which changed from reality to fantasy during post. “There needed to be this love interest, but we turned it on its head in what I think is a really great way of letting the audience know that we didn’t give him a love interest,” Groth added. “It was something that he invented. Largely, we had things both ways during shooting. But there are clues. When they’re at the newspaper stand, she says all the things she wants to hear.”

“Ford v Ferrari”

Fox

James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” is not only the most realistic racing movie ever made, but also a compelling bromance between innovative car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and eccentric British racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale). And the 24 Hours of Le Mans circa 1966 offered a 30-minute mini-movie (shot in three different locations), with Miles pushing Ford’s GT40 to the limit with a meditative grace. Editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland do a brilliant job of splitting time between Shelby and Miles and using lots of cross-cutting to emphasize the tension with the Ford company ensemble. But they never lose sight of the big race through Miles’ perspective, which becomes a Zen-like experience where time and space converge.

“It’s a tricky two-hander,” said Buckland. “We start with Shelby and switch to Miles. But we speak a lot about point of view and how to weigh a scene. It’s interesting because the way Miles comes into the story in his garage, his presence is instantly felt. He emerges and takes over the narrative. And, for a large stretch of the movie, it’s Miles’ story [before landing back on Shelby at the end].”

But the centerpiece Le Mans race contained both racing action and other dramatic tension built around a three-act structure. “Miles is definitely our focal point and he’s driving the car,” added Buckland. “But there’s this other story in the pits with Shelby and the machinations of Ford applying pressure on him and Shelby trying to allow Miles to drive this race his way to win. And then the final beat [with the twist] at the finish line. It’s a testament to putting all the pieces in place, not rushing character to get there, and then you pay it off properly.”

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Jojo Rabbit”

Kimberley French

Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire, “Jojo Rabbit,” provides yet another complicated character study. It’s told from the perspective of a lonely German boy (Roman Griffin Davis), who fantasizes Adolph Hitler (Waititi) as an imaginary friend, but whose world is unexpectedly turned upside down with the discovery of a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the attic. Editor Tom Eagles deftly balances over the top black comedy with pathos, inspired by Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude.”

Again, the beginning was tough. At first, Hitler wasn’t in there but Waititi called for a reshoot when it cried for his entrance. “It’s our first scene with Jojo and we need to know he’s a fanatic but that he also has some self- doubt,” Eagles said. “And putting him in that scene allowed us to do that. You see why an imaginary Hitler exists in Jojo’s world…. it gave him a counterpoint and it struck a keynote for the tone of the film in terms of it’s so silly.”

But the absurd scene with Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo agent required careful massaging to balance humor with suspense. “He’s ridiculous but has this very creepy lizard-like quality in the way he just watches and waits,” added Eagles. “Then the battle scene at the end, with the roving camera and fragments of Jojo’s fantasies falling apart, has a fever dream quality to it.  It’s Jojo’s worst nightmare come true.”

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