Christopher Nolan is often cited as one of the best directors working today, and his acclaimed career is partly indebted to editor Lee Smith. The Australian film editor was coming off his first Oscar nomination (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) when he first collaborated with Nolan on “Batman Begins.” The partnership would continue on “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk.” The latter won Smith the Best Editing Oscar. In a new interview with D.C. radio station WTOP News, Smith looks back on his career-defining collaboration with Nolan. Smith is the first one to admit the challenge of editing Nolan movies is ensuring they aren’t confusing the audience.
“Chris does make very complicated films and I think my job in the whole process is to try to keep it as understandable as you can,” Smith says. “Because there’s nothing worse than a film where the audience gets lost to the point of being disappointed. The secret that we were always trying to do with his films, ‘Inception,’ ‘Interstellar,’ and ‘The Prestige,’ was being faithful to Chris’s original idea but never getting into a point where you’d be sitting there as an audience member feeling that you’ve been left out.”
Smith says that his editing process becomes fine tuned through the test screening process, but no edit is ever made to appease viewers’ sense of clarity if it takes away from Nolan’s original vision. “Those movies are very finely tuned,” the editor says. “Some people get them to great minute detail. Other people misunderstand them completely, but they still love them.”
Being Christopher Nolan’s editor meant Smith was tasked with editing together Heath Ledger’s Joker performance in “The Dark Knight” after the actor’s tragic death. Smith and fellow Australian Ledger had worked together before on the 1999 crime comedy “Two Hands,” a small Australian independent film, and watching Ledger effortlessly dominant an American blockbuster left Smith blown away.
“I saw [Heath] several times during the shoot of ‘The Dark Knight’ on the set and it was always hugely amusing,” Smith says, “Right from the first day of shooting, I was just completely in awe of how far he’d come from doing a low-budget film in Australia to standing there with his back to camera holding onto that mask as he commands the screen. I was sitting in a small trailer on location with Chris Nolan, the cinematographer, and everybody else and we’re just all sitting there going, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s amazing.’ Just the way he walks, the way he talks. He brought everything to that role.”
Smith said it was “terribly sad” when news came in about Ledger’s death. “We were about 10 or 12 weeks past the end of the shoot,” the editor says. “It’s of course incredibly sad when anyone passes away, but he was such a brilliant actor and he brought so much to that role. It was a great loss that he’s no longer with us.”
Ledger would go on to posthumously win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Smith most recently edited Sam Mendes’ war drama “1917,” which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards earlier this year. The film is now available to own on digital. Head over to WTOP’s website to listen to Smith’s interview in its entirety.