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Editing the Narrative Complexities of ‘The Irishman,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ and ‘Little Women’

Directors Martin Scorsese ("The Irishman"), Noah Baumbach ("Marriage Story"), and Greta Gerwig ("Little Women") benefited greatly from their go-to editors.

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

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Three of the Best Editing Oscar contenders — “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” and “Little Women” — boast complex narratives about friendship and mortality, the forensics of divorce, and artistic liberation. And they employ creative use of flashbacks and montages as part of their storytelling arsenals, too.

“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 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 allows the audience to become engaged in a very special way,” added Schoonmaker. The director also deglamorized mob life: Being a hit man is a job. It’s about what kind of gun you use and how you dispose of it. For Sheeran, the desensitized World War II vet, he’s merely a loyal foot soldier. However, his job becomes complicated when he’s ordered to kill Hoffa, his best friend, when the mob rule is threatened.

“The Irishman”

Netflix

“Marty wanted to show the banality of the violence,” she said. “It’s not like the incredible camera moves or flashy editing of the earlier movies. 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.”

Meanwhile, the zigzagging flashback structure, covering four decades, never posed a problem for the three-time Oscar winner (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “Raging Bull”). “The film, interestingly enough, fell into place very quickly,” she said. There wasn’t the kind of rearranging that went into Scorsese’s Best Picture winner, “The Departed.” “There was something so well thought out on this movie between Marty and the writers [Steve Zaillian and then, briefly, Nicholas Pileggi] that just worked.”

And there was no problem with the three and a half hour length either. “We kept asking audiences if they thought the movie was too long, and they kept saying no — that they were gripped all the way through. And I was quite surprised,” she added. “The acting was so rich that the main challenge for me was making sure we made most of the extraordinary material we were given.”

Yet the innovative VFX de-aging by Industrial Light & Magic (vying for an Oscar nomination) definitely offered a new wrinkle. “We cut the whole movie without the de-aging because you don’t want to start that very expensive process until you’re sure what shots you’re using,” Schoonmaker said. “[VFX supervisor] Pablo Helman would send us all the de-aging shots and we would react to them. The main thing was we didn’t want to lose the subtlety of De Niro’s acting. And sometimes we did ask Pablo to put back a few wrinkles because we felt we had lost something. And we were able to get it 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.”

"Marriage Story"

“Marriage Story”

Netflix

In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” about the painful divorce between Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie, go-to editor Jennifer Lame helped create a stirring “snowball effect.” It opens with a bold seven-minute montage sequence, introducing the couple as they express their love for one another in two letters they’re composing in their heads. “The montage lulls you in with the Randy Newman music about being in love, and then you’re jolted out of that and they’re moving to LA and then the court stuff happens,” Lame said.

Another important technique was the periodic fade to black, which Lame was always nervous about. “It was all done in camera by [cinematographer] Robbie Ryan, and every time we’d have a long talk about it during shoots,” she added. “Are we OK with it? To me,  when you’re going through a breakup, it’s the most long and incredibly painful thing ever. And also it’s super fast. How did we get here? We were just falling in love. I wanted the fades to have that effect.”

The narrative structure contrasts Nicole’s forward progress with Charlie’s descent as a fish out of water in LA. “She knows why they’re splitting up,” said Lame (who’s currently editing Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending espionage thriller, “Tenet”). “She’s been thinking about these demons for years, and he doesn’t understand it until he reads that letter. He’s been obsessed with the logistics of it all, and not dealing with the emotions.”

“Marriage Story”

Netflix

That is, until they get into a vicious fight about their competition and resentment. Lame worked a lot on the pivotal scene with Baumbauch, going back and forth about dialogue and strategically figuring out the closeups in the shifting power play. “It was so fun to have that raw apartment space because it was all about the actors,” she said. “We worked so hard on it during the script and it was so intense during the shooting, that by the time we started editing, it came together quickly.”

Charlie’s surprise epiphany comes when he spontaneously sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at New York’s Knickerbocker Bar & Grill. Lame had nearly a dozen takes to choose from and they were all brilliant. The hard part was tinkering with the rhythm. “We did a couple passes where we cut to people watching him,” she said. “But it didn’t make sense. This was his [moment], he sang it live, and there’s so much in that performance. We just let it live up there.”

With Greta Gerwig’s inspired, non-linear re-imagining of “Little Women,” the interplay of childhood and adulthood comes into sharper focus for Saoirse Ronan’s proto-feminist author, Jo March, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Additionally, Gerwig more closely aligns March with author Louisa May Alcott, creating a meta movie about power and independence in a male-dominated industry.

“Little Women”

Sony

“It was such an interesting way to do it,” said editor Nick Houy (following up Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird”). “And it helped that it was such a well-known story. Greta’s intention was to create the past in a hyper beautiful way like a snow globe.”

In discussing the two timelines, though, Gerwig and Houy referred to the conceit as Terrence “Malick-y”: memories folding into each other emotionally instead of intellectually. “We were straightening out the first reel and getting those story lines in bigger chunks,” he said, “rather than cutting back and forth so much. That was one of the first things we had to get right so that it still had some mystery to it.”

Little Women

“Little Women”

Sony

However, dealing with the illness of Jo’s sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), proved difficult because she’s sick in two different periods. “In one she gets better, and in another she dies,” Houy said. “And in the one where she gets better, you also go into a wedding right after the funeral.” But their solemn moment together at the beach became Jo’s catalyst. “You can’t stop nature — it’s much stronger than you,” he added.

“And the only way to save her was to write about her. And that goes into our little training montage when she burns all her old stories and decides to write about Beth in her Great American Novel. It’s sort of like ‘Rocky’ up in the attic. And when we got to the end, when it became meta, it was an interesting way of understanding Jo in a different way.”

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