Dark Knight: Lee Smith talks about Christopher Nolan

To mark the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray and DVD, Trevor Hogg chats with film editor Lee Smith about working with Christopher Nolan on the blockbuster trilogy…

“My memory of it was I had just finished Master and Commander [2003] and I waited another couple of weeks [in Los Angeles] for an interview with Chris [Nolan who was in London at the time] because my agent had inquired as to whether they would meet me for the film,” recalls film editor Lee Smith as to how he became associated with Batman Begins (2005).  “Very uncharacteristic of my good self I decided to wait.  It was costing me a lot of money to stay here, my home awaited in Australia and I had been gone a long time; I was keen to get back to it.  I met with Chris and we chatted away for quite some time.  I eventually said I had to go because I had to go pick up my kids from somewhere.  I had no idea the job interview was going to last as long as it did and flew back to Australia the next day.  Literally as we were putting our bags down in Australia the phone rang and my agent said, ‘Guess what?  You got the job.’”  The native of Sydney was not previously familiar with the British filmmaker.  “I hadn’t seen Memento [2000] or Insomnia [2002] but my agent rang and talked about it.  Also, I wasn’t a great comic book person or of that sort of genre of moviemaking but through my agency they basically said, ‘This is talented director.’  I went out and watched both Memento and Insomnia and I went, ‘Geez.  Why haven’t I seen these movies?’  I said, ‘I’d be privilege to meet him.’  We got on well in the interview and the rest is as they say is history.”

“There are a lot of similarities and then there are little differences,” states Lee Smith when comparing frequent collaborators Peter Weir (The Way Back) and Christopher Nolan.  “The similarities are they are both super prepared. By the time the camera rolls both of them would know their material inside out and upside down.  In Chris’ case he has written the material.  In Peter’s case he has either written or rewritten it.  They’re so knowledgeable about the film they are about to make.  There is no rushing into it.”  Both Nolan and Weir like to keep their cinematic stories grounded in reality.   “Part of his whole keeping the CG minimal mentality works well much like Peter Weir in that respect.  Peter didn’t ever want anything to remotely look like a visual effect or even if it was something you would quote as a good visual effect, both Peter and Chris want the audience not to be taken out of the movie.  They want to watch something and believe that you’re watching something that has happened in this real world.  Both of them are good at creating that.”  Smith observes, “The differences I would say are during the filmmaking process.  Peter is organic and will change as the film progresses.  Whereas Chris has made the movie [in his head] and then makes the movie in the camera.”  When asked what it is like working with writer-directors, Lee answers, “It is a different animal working on a film where the director isn’t the writer.  It’s another interpretation of someone’s work.  If the director is the writer or someone who has rewritten it, the ownership is more profound.”

“I felt like I wasn’t worthy in some ways simply because I didn’t have a comic book history,” confesses Lee Smith.   “You do talk to a lot of people who work on these films who have grownup with reading comic books and profoundly knowledgeable about the arena that they are working in.  Sometimes I would feel a little on the edge about it and didn’t follow that.  You can’t possibly put a lifetime worth of history into you just before you make a film. Interestingly as it went on I’ve done films as I said like Master and Commander where I read some books Patrick O’Brian had written, and loved the topic and enjoyed the process.  Similarly with Batman it evolved as I was working on it. A good film is a good film.  I’m happy to work on a good film based on pretty much any topic as I long as I don’t’ find it personally offensive.”  Smith adds, “I can’t help but like the films I work on; even subconsciously you’re making them for yourself but you can’t help that.  You’re cutting and editing a movie to please yourself.  You have to.  If you do it to please someone else it becomes not really true.  Sometimes they looked to me as if I was someone walking into a cinema, not necessarily a Batman fan or a fan of this kind of movie, and ask, ‘Would they enjoy it?  Would they walk out thinking, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’”

“The standard practice for feature films is that you’re editing the whole way,” explains Lee Smith who assembles the footage while the principle photography is taking place. “You have to be quite up with the camera because there is not much point on a $250 million film to sit there when the director comes in at the end of the shoot and say, ‘This scene and that scene don’t work.’  People do a lot of reshooting in post but it is to be avoided at all costs.  I would only draw to the attention of a director a scene that I thought was either lacking on a shot or simply was not cutting with another sequence in a fashion that I know they’d be happy with.  I’ve got to say with guys like Peter Weir and Christopher Nolan that is a rarity for that to happen.  They know what they want.  They’re very knowledgeable about coverage. There’s always a thing. There’s always a moment and you think, ‘Wow, if I had a close-up of that.’  If I was watching a scene and could imagine being in an audience screening in ten months time and the audience would be saying, ‘We didn’t notice that the briefcase was unlocked.’ Things like little story points that you don’t want to miss; they’re simple to pickup while you’re shooting and expensive when the shoot is over.”  Nolan does not limit himself to shooting only with the principle cast members.  “Chris does his own second unit and that makes it a lot easier for all of us.  Though they do their best and try there is quite often times where it’s not the same.  I’d hate to say this for second unit directors but in an ideal world I would have the main unit shoot the second unit.  Sometimes it’s not practical and if you don’t have the speed of operation of someone like Chris who also has a profound sense of the schedule then that would be a disaster unto itself.”

“We watch the dailies every night,” states Lee Smith.  “We’re both great believers in that because it’s not just the notes; it’s a time where we can chat and I can talk about what I’m doing while the dailies are rolling.  It’s one of the few times you can actually sit down and have a conversation because of the speed and intensity of shooting a movie.  On occasion Chris would give a note to me on something that he thought weren’t obvious. Sometimes there would be a shot when something happened in a take early on and he’d say, ‘That never happened again.’ It might be something incredibly subtle so Chris would point that out to me as we were rolling through. And of course that would definitely help in the assembly as I would use the takes he preferred because in the end you’ll be going back to them anyway.  As far as picking takes he often leaves that to the secondary process.  There were just a few times Chris would point out something which was a change from the script that they had come up with on the day; he would make a note to me so I wouldn’t look at the dailies and think, ‘I wonder why they did that?’”  

“When I first started putting Batman Begins together he asked me to do it without ever using any kind of temp music,” remarks Lee Smith.  “Up until then I would and wouldn’t.  I couldn’t say I was someone who used a lot of it because I had learned early on if you extensively layer a film early on with music you get a false reading of the movie you’ve got because it’s not ready for music.  You haven’t done the hard yards yet to analyze your film and get it down to a reasonable length.  Chris was much more absolute about it; he wanted to sit with me when we were doing all of the first passes with a completely naked film.  He said, ‘In that way all the warts and rough edges are going to show.’  That was the first time I ever presented a cut where there was not one note of music.  Although I had smoothed out the sound; I’ve got a big sound history so I certainly made it watchable. It’s different when you’re watching if you can imagine watching a summer blockbuster movie without music; it’s like the world’s most expensive art house movie.”  As for when Nolan joins him in the edit suit, Smith says, “They give me a week to tidy up the last of the footage that comes in and then he’s in.”  The picture takes on several iterations.   “You begin the work by going through, tuning it up, taking out or reducing it in length if anything is obviously over lengthened. With some of the bigger action sequences you make sure that you’ve got all of the beats and story points in the correct order.  They’re the things that tend to evolve a little bit when they’re shooting because it is difficult on the page to write an action sequence. It’s more about when they get there and realize that the car can’t flip there; it has got to flip here. They can’t do this.  They have to do that.  You start reordering everything and checking that you’ve got everything that was shot because there is a huge amount of coverage.  It is always quite easy for me to miss something that he was thinking of at the time that would be good for a particular moment.”

“The first pass you’ve done the heavy lifting in constructing the movie and sequences,” explains Lee Smith.  “Past that point you’ve got a ten week director’s cut where you review, refine and pack the film down into a reasonable length.  There are literally thousands upon thousands of changes occur in that process because every time you tighten something or lose a moment that affects the next moment and the next moment. It is always a tricky house of cards.”  Pacing becomes an issue.  “Every time you tighten something then the next scene seems slow and that requires tightening and then the next scene.”  Despite the changes the shooting draft of the screenplay tends to match the final cut.  “In Chris’ films I would say that is reasonable true although there are always things that are juxtaposed and moved around. Sometimes we would play with the timelines so if you were reading a script you notice that scene has moved three scenes down.”  When it comes to keeping track of multiple storylines, Smith says, “It’s inherent in your mind; sometimes those points are obvious and sometimes you have to look a little harder for them.  It’s one of those things sometimes you’d try and then roll back, watch it and go, ‘It seemed good at the time.’ Once we started cutting every Friday we would run the entire movie.  That keeps us aware because each of these little changes can have profound affects on the rest of the movie.  Even though it might seem like a laborious process to watch the entire film every week it is important because you can quickly watch something that’s destabilized the film.   You can go back and say, ‘We made a fairly quantum change there. We moved those three scenes and though it worked well with the reel, it hasn’t worked well in the movie.’”

In response to the criticism that the movies made by Christopher Nolan are clinical and lacking in emotion, Lee Smith replies, “I think that’s unfair. A lot of it is misconstrued with the complexity of the story and complex stories sometimes can seem less emotional because your mind is working at a much higher rate to keep up.  For example, both Inception [2010] and The Dark Knight Rises [2012] have got a lot emotion in them more than the other films.  The emotion comes through by the nature; it is harder to gauge with different films.  Chris is also juggling a blockbuster which the audience is going to expect to be entertained, and have action and emotion at the same time.  We’re both emotion junkies and that’s the strength of the film. That’s what you want is some emotion.”  Timing was a big factor for the last instalment of The Dark Knight Trilogy.  “The Dark Knight Rises’ biggest challenge was getting it down to two hours and forty-five minutes because it was an epic shoot.  Unless we were really regimented that film could have run super long. Some people might say that it runs too long now.  We don’t think so.  That’s as tight as we could possibly get it.”

When the suggestion is made that Inception has influenced the storyline for The Dark Knight Rises, in particular with the opening plane hijacking sequence resembling the rotating hallway scene in its predecessor, and Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) getting the opportunity to stab the leading man again, Lee Smith laughs, “I don’t know what that’s about.  Whatever is successful and directors’ love you’ll see it repeat in many movies; that’s like listening to music from the same composer.  You can tell it’s that composer because it’s in them and I don’t even know if it’s a conscious or subconscious thing but they’re the things they like doing or think works. Chris never talked about it as a conscious rift on the other movie.”  Smith does agree that the portrayal of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a billionaire recluse was influenced by an aborted project about Howard Hughes.  “There are a lot of similarities in that.  He did work on a script at the same time the one with Leonardo [DiCaprio] came out back in the day.”  A problem that needed to be addressed was the muffled and distorted dialogue of the mask-wearing villain portrayed by Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).  “Bane’s voice was a complicated process and took a long time to get right.  We definitely did get it right but we were certainly mindful of it.  That’s the reason you keep screening it to people to make sure everybody is on board with what you’re doing.  We were confident when we finished that we had that right.”

“I try to read less now on the Internet other than high quality reviews because you can get lost in it,” states Lee Smith. “I’d rather talk to people and get feedback in that respect because a lot of times the bloggers are so into it either in a positive or negative way. It can be slightly misleading for the vast majority of people.  Also, when you’re reading stuff you have such a love of the film when you finish it’s hard to read any nasty or harsh words about the project. For all of us who worked on it, it was a labour of a lot of hours and love.  It’s like one of your children. You don’t want to hear anything bad about them.”  Tragedy has surrounded the acclaimed trilogy; Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), who won an Oscar for his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight [2008], died from an accidental drug overdose, and there was a fatal mass shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado.  “It’s a crazy world.  If I had an answer I would be a really wise person. I don’t know.  It’s the world we live in at the moment.  If I could fathom a way around these horrible tragic events I would let you know but unfortunately I’m not that guy.”  Regarding future projects for Christopher Nolan, the two-time Academy Award nominee notes, “When Chris says he is having a break that just means he is formulating something more complicated than we could ever think.”

Production stills © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Many thanks to Lee Smith for taking the time for this interview, and to learn more make sure to read his Cutting Edge profile as well as Theatre of the Mind which explores the career of Christopher Nolan.

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

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