Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Lee Smith

Continuing our Peter Weir Blogathon, Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-nominated film editor Lee Smith…

Lee SmithLee Smith began his career in the movie industry as a sound designer for internationally respected directors such as Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm), Jane Campion (The Piano), George Miller (Lorenzo’s Oil), and Peter Weir (Green Card). “I was fortunate enough to be working for a company that would let me do sound and picture work,” Lee informs me. “For quite some time I did start to specialize in sound, and with me moving back into picture I carried those skills with me.” Graduation day for the Australian as a film editor arrived when Peter Weir gave him the responsibility of assembling Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003); the trust was well placed as the native of Sydney received an Oscar nomination for Best Editing.

“As I work on cutting X-Men: First Class [2011] all those sound skills are needed because the [film editing] systems we are working on now can continuously create moods and atmospheres right from the inception of a scene,” says Lee Smith, “I see sound and picture as being impossible to separate because, as in life, everything we perceive is visual and audible.” The film editor, who received his second Academy Award nomination for Best Editing in recognition of his work on The Dark Knight (2008), tries to keeps an open mind. “Each scene is its own beast. If you can pull it off without showing implicit violence it can be a successful way of creating a scene. I also believe what you think you saw can be much more horrific.” Lee tries to remain objective in the edit suite. “My theory is that the longer you can resist putting music on a movie, the more you analyze and the more brutal you are on the images. Music is the great glue that can stick sequences together.”

Lee Smith Peter WeirAfter working on three consecutive films for British director Christopher Nolan, Lee Smith jumped at the opportunity to collaborate again with his fellow countryman Peter Weir. “The great thing with films is that you can go on a journey with the people that you are interested in watching. You almost feel a part of them,” remarks Smith who assembled the footage for The Way Back (2010), a World War II prison escape and survival epic. Financial and weather troubles delayed the $30 million production, causing a scheduling conflict for the in-demand post-production talent. “With Inception [2010], I came on to it a few months into the shoot because Peter’s one got pushed back; Chris Nolan very generously agreed to let me finish his film.”

Costing five times the budget of The Way Back, the dream within a dream heist thriller became a Hollywood blockbuster juggernaut grossing $824 million worldwide. “A lot of what you were seeing in Inception, what I am sure people were thinking must have been matte paintings and all manners of CG [computer graphics], were practical [effects],” reveals Lee Smith. “Of course there are CG elements in Inception. Paris doesn’t turn on its head for anybody… If you can capture reality and then augment it, it always looks better than a hundred percent creation, in my opinion.” The gold standard for utilizing practical effects remains a classic helmed by Stanley Kubrick, which served as inspiration for the gravity-defying hallway sequence in the picture. “The rotating sets in 2001 [1968], obviously we’re great fans of that.” He adds, “Kubrick had a great vision and [made] great use of wide shots. Both Chris [Nolan] and Peter [Weir] are into that.” When I tell him that my favourite scene occurs when the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes about setting the explosive charges in the elevator shaft, Lee chuckles, “That was very much like a space movie.” As for the reasoning behind Nolan choosing to have action-sequence dreams rather than surreal ones, the film editor believes, “I don’t think that thinking was driven by budget only. That was really just the film he wanted to make. He wanted to make a complex mind-bending film that would appeal to a massive audience and be entertaining, which is what I think we all want.”

X-Men: First Class sees Lee Smith collaborating with a new director for the first time since he teamed with Christopher Nolan for Batman Begins (2005). “Matthew Vaughn has his own unique view,” observes the Australian who is co-editing the comic book superhero film about the rise and fall of the friendship between Professor X and Magneto. “I’m not seeing much of him yet as we’re still shooting.” As for the performance of Jennifer Lawrence who is a major contender for Best Actress at the 2011 Academy Awards because of her role in Winter’s Bone (2010), Lee remarks, “She is very good in this.” He also tells me, “It’s a big film being done in a short amount of time. It’s going to be intense but so far what I’ve got has been very good. Everyone is happy with it. So fingers crossed.”

Lee Smith The Dark KnightQuestioned about his involvement with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Lee Smith answers, “I’m booked to start that on May 1st.” Upon mentioning the casting rumour that Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz might have a part in the highly anticipated conclusion of trilogy helmed by Christopher Nolan, Lee quickly responds, “Honestly, I don’t know anything about it and that’s how it always is with him. In the fullness of time I’ll get a script. Secrecy with his projects is paramount.” As for whether or not he will be helping Zack Snyder, who was selected by Nolan to direct the tentatively titled Superman: Man of Steel (2012), the film editor tells me, “I doubt it because I don’t actually know when that’s one going to go. Probably, the director will pick his own editor and that’s always a good idea.”

“At the end of the day movies are expensive to produce and basically they do have to make money,” reflects Lee Smith. “It depends on how brave the people are who are funding the projects. Some of the best films you could name were probably films that weren’t at first look guaranteed to be huge successes; someone took a risk and someone took a punt and said, ‘You know what? Conventional wisdom doesn’t think this is going to be a huge runaway success but I like it. I think it’s got a chance.’ And they do it. We’re in an age of economic rationalism and I think it’s killed a lot of our thinking.” In regards to Inception and The Way Back being strong contenders for Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards, Lee remarks, “I would be very happy to see that happen. They couldn’t be more completely different movies but I wish them both well.”

Many thanks to Lee Smith for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

Peter Weir Blogathon
Dark Knight: Lee Smith talks about Christopher Nolan

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

Around the Internet…

  • http://www.hurrahproductions.com.sg/ Corporate Videos Singapore

    What a good insight on the various important players on creating a film. The film editor was truly able to expound on a number odd ideas that could help anyone interested in making their own film.

  • http://twitter.com/forbiddentech Forbidden Tech

    Good article, even one year ago. Thanks for sharing it in #PostChat!