Award Worthy: Richard Chew talks about the Oscars and BAFTAs

Trevor Hogg chats with Richard Chew about what it is like being an Academy member and what it takes to be nominated for Best Editing at the Oscars…

“Recently I was looking at both the BAFTA awards and Oscar winners to see if there was any correlation between Best Editing and Best Picture, and even more importantly any correlation between the writing nominations and Best Editing awards,” reveals Academy Award-winning film editor Richard Chew (Star Wars). “Arbitrarily I went back to 1970 because that’s when the more adventurous film editing started to bloom. A good example from that year is the documentary Woodstock [1970] which was nominated for Best Documentary as well as Best Editing; it was edited with such verve and boldness, unlike most other American documentaries or movies up to then. It won the Best Doc Oscar, and not the editing one, but at least it got exposure for its cutting. Anyway moving forward from that time, I started counting up the winners of Best Editing Oscars and found that only four of those films – four out of 42 that won for Best Editing – only four did not also have a Best Picture or a Best Screenplay win or nomination behind them; they are The Matrix [1999], Black Hawk Down [2001], The Bourne Ultimatum [2007], and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011]. That suggested to me that those four films had outstanding editing merits on their own, and their recognition was independent of the momentum or popularity of a Best Picture to carry it along, or even a writing nomination to support it.” Upon learning that his Oscar-lauded colleague Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) found it strange to receive an Oscar nomination while the director did not, Chew responds, “She’s talking about the close collaboration between director and editor which determines anything that ends up in the picture. An editor is never going to make something stick if the director doesn’t agree with it. She’s right about the nomination not recognizing that.”

“As a member of the editing branch I can nominate films only for Best Editing and Best Picture,” explains Richard Chew. “Eventually all Academy members from every branch can vote in all categories on the final ballot. However, there are some specialized categories, like foreign language films or short films, where you have to attend a screening in order to vote.” The Los Angeles native and former philosophy student readily admits, “I don’t consider myself knowledgeable about every craft category when it comes time to vote, so sometimes I don’t vote in all of them. In voting for Best Editing, I wonder if actors or makeup artists or publicists know what to look for. Even editors frequently don’t know because we don’t know what is attributable to the screenplay, or which to the director’s style and or which to the editing. For instance, one of the editors who won the Best Editing Oscar for The Social Network [2010] said in an interview [my paraphrase], ‘We were just following what the script said.’ Now that in itself calls for a great deal of editing skill, but that assignment is a lot different from what Walter Murch [The English Patient] and I did on The Conversation [1974], where the final cut of that picture differed greatly from what the script structure was.”

“I look to see how a story unfolds and develops, and how conflict is introduced. And if there are parallel stories, I look to see how they are interplayed to advance the picture as a whole,” states Richard Chew when describing his criteria for nominating a movie for Best Editing at the Oscars. I look at transitions to see, as in the case of Moneyball [2011], how efficiently they are fashioned to suggest displacements of time or development of character. I also look particularly at montages because they are basically devices to truncate scenes or condense sequences that come at the wrong time or place or are too repetitive. Also I look to see how much a film breathes. I’m not a big fan of relentlessly paced films like a Moulin Rouge! [2001], which is like a song full of all eighth notes. I like to see some whole notes, rests, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes. I like to see an alteration of rhythm. So those are among the things that I look for in a picture and then of course, I become absorbed like any other moviegoer with the films that grab me, whether it’s funny, sad, or revealing.”

The Artist is an amazing film because I find that not having dialogue can really change the timing of how we cut a film,” marvels Richard Chew when reflecting on the Best Picture winner which was one of the five nominees for Best Editing at the 2012 Academy Awards along with The Descendants, Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Moneyball. “In The Artist everything was held a little longer so you’re forced to study the face of the principal on the screen because you don’t have the dialogue. You need to get what’s going on before cutting to a reaction. I liked how that picture was put together because it allowed a little more breathing within. It allowed us the sheer joy of being able to see how a movie works. Then of course there was that brilliant sequence where sound effects are introduced in the hero’s dream — reminding us of how movies were changing and how the hero’s world has disappeared. The Descendants I liked for different reasons. I liked how it honed in on the performance of the two main characters, the [George] Clooney character and his teenage daughter. I liked how we were allowed to dwell on Clooney, whether to study him in close up absorbing the gravity of the moment, or to watch him in long shot sagging sadly or running desperately. Some of its editing challenged the rules about how long to stay on something without cutting.

Hugo masterfully interwove so much of its visual effects with the editing style of the period of the story,” observes Richard Chew. “It was the dynamic duo of the Thelma [Schoonmaker] and [Martin] Scorsese collaboration – their intercutting of the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen [Borat] with the pathos of Ben Kingsley [Shutter Island] and the innocence of the young boy and girl. The pacing pushed the story forward despite it being so multi-layered with characters. I thought it was superb.” Commenting on the Scorsese-Schoonmaker cinematic partnership of over 30 years, which has resulted in three Oscars and six nominations for Schoonmaker, Chew remarks, “There has to be a particular mind-melt between editor and director. When you look at these collaborations that are so long-lasting, it’s like a left-hand, right-hand thing. They may work together or separately, but it’s for a common purpose, like playing the piano. And you don’t know until you enter into that relationship whether it’s going to be comfortable. As an editor you have your own ideas that you want to insert, but at the end it’s the director who’s the ultimate decider. It is not always easy; there’s a lot of tolerance and patience usually on the part of the editor, I would say.”

“The most recent Oscar winner offered up a full meal as far as editing is concerned,” notes Richard Chew. “I haven’t read the script for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but it’s an editing tour-de-force. There’s probably only one way you can edit David Fincher’s shooting style because it’s so energetic, and his angles so skewed and dramatic; his kinetic style is so muscular that it requires you to cut the film with an edgy, pulsing sharpness. It’s a great job, and others must have seen that too because this is one of those films which didn’t get a Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay spotlight to go with it.” Chew was also enthusiastic about Moneyball. “I liked the transitions. You would see the character react or not react to something, see him stew, then it would cut to a hallway and a chair would come flying out. It’s a time cut but it’s dynamic in terms of the action that follows a reflective moment. There are also some montages during the ballgames that slow the action down, which made it exciting without seeming like another sports movie. I thought that was terrific.”

Drive (2011) impressed Richard Chew. “The editing made that picture work. It was nominated at BAFTA for Best Editing but wasn’t nominated here at the Academy.” He is not surprised, however, that the noirish drama starring Ryan Gosling (Fracture) did not contend for Best Picture. “It was too dark for that.” One of the perks of being an Academy member is being able to see films that are not widely distributed. “I belong to the Foreign Language Film Committee which is my favorite part of being in the Academy. Within it I get to see the submissions from over 60 countries each year. Not that I see all of them, but at least when I can, I get to see different cinematic sensibilities. I like that. I saw a film submitted from Turkey that eventually wasn’t nominated. In it, I would say probably the first 15 or 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia [2011] only had about 10 shots in it. The opening scene was a long shot of three characters, one of whose back was to the camera, and we couldn’t hear the dialogue, and that probably held on the screen for two to three minutes. Some action occurs at the end, and you wonder what it’s about; then it cuts to a really wide shot out in the country where you see headlights of a few cars and that’s on the screen for another minute or two. The whole film was more or less told in shots that held for an extremely long time without a cut. Sometimes the camera moved and sometimes it didn’t. Maybe it’s because I had been seeing films that were so kinetic that when I saw this one I was really drawn into what was going on.” When asked about his personal preference in regards to which movie should have won the Oscar for Best Editing, Chew states, “I’m not going to talk about what I voted for because they all were superb for different reasons. Myself, I wouldn’t vote for a ‘Best’. It’s unnecessary and makes it like a sporting contest. Filmmaking is a creative task, not a competitive endeavour to be measured. It’s enough to nominate what is excellent and celebrate that.”

Opening photo courtesy of Liv Torgerson.

Many thanks to Richard Chew for taking the time for this interview and for more of his insights read his Cutting Edge profile.

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

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