Joe Hutshing, Julie Monroe and Supervising Sound Editor Wylie Stateman talking about "W" [Interview]

Director Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy, and his 2008 film W., as usual, raised a few eyebrows. Released in the last months of the president’s tenure in office, W. provides a realistic yet poignant treatment of the life and work of George W. Bush. The three editors who worked on the film have a long history with Stone. Julie Monroe has assisted on many Stone films, beginning with Salvador, and was an associate editor on JFK. After also working for Adrian Lyne (Lolita) and Irwin Winkler (De-Lovely, Life as a House), Julie returned to edit the last two Stone films, World Trade Center and W.—films which reflect a clear transition in Stone’s style from the frenetic, tough edge of JFK and Natural Born Killers, to a more traditional narrative approach. A twenty-year veteran with Stone and other directors, Joe Hutshing joined W. in Los Angeles after shooting was completed in Louisiana and worked on key sequences. Joe has been honored for his editing work on Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July. Often overlooked in a discussion on editing are the enormous creative contributions of the sound editing team, and to balance the picture, Wylie Stateman—also a longtime Stone colleague—offers insights as supervising sound editor on W. into the rich, complex collaboration of the postproduction process. Wylie and his sound team have received many honors for World Trade Center, Memoirs of a Geisha, Kill Bill 1 and 2, and JFK, among other films.
Separate interviews with these three editors were combined to provide the following discussion of the editing of W.

Cineaste: What was your approach to making a film about George W. Bush, who was still in office when the film was released?
Julie Monroe: We always knew that we wanted to take an observer’s look at the situation and not be heavyhanded. Let the circumstances speak for themselves, which hopefully they did. This was clear in Stanley Weiser’s script, which didn’t feel like it was forcing an opinion on anybody, and Oliver took a real fly-on-the-wall approach. We were always very aware of not being too caricaturey. The goal was to film a small slice of the presidency. There was so much material we didn’t go into, such as the 9/11 specifics, Katrina, and so on. Oliver picked certain episodes that he wanted to show; for example, we always wanted to have W.’s religious background, the Christian aspects of his life, and how that affected his presidency. If Oliver made this movie ten years from now or had made it five years earlier, it would be a much different film.
Joe Hutshing: If it had been made just a bit later, I’m sure we would have put in the shoe-throwing incident! Yes, obviously there is a point of view in W., but we didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it, as, say, in a Michael Moore film. I love Moore’s films, but we didn’t want to make an entertaining film that was so one-sided. It could have been very easy in editing to manipulate the situation and turn someone into a buffoon. We did not want to do that because it would have been too easy. There was no need to. I mean, history speaks for itself.

Cineaste: How do you as an editor work with a director like Oliver Stone?
Monroe: Oliver is like an incredible open vessel to ideas. As opposed to going through the minutiae of the editing, sitting with the editor during the step-by-step process of a cut, Oliver reacts to sequences emotionally. We spend a lot of time with him in dailies, getting his first reactions such as, “These are my selected takes, these are my performance preferences, my blocking preferences,” but after that, he sits and absorbs and reacts. Because he’s a writer/director, he’s got an idea in his head of what he expects to see, but he is always open to ideas about structure. He has never changed in that. His projects are so complicated storywise, there can be a lot of restructuring, moving things around and telling things differently. But unless there is a problem with the way something is constructed, he mainly reacts to the overall sequence and any problems therein.

Cineaste: What goes through your head when you receive a mass of material to edit for the first time?
Monroe: JFK was the first associate editing job I had with Oliver and it was a mass of footage and styles. There were times when we were completely lost in what we were doing and trying to figure out how to tell a story with diverse combinations of dialog, structure, and visuals. His ideas from the get-go were to tell a story through flashbacks and documentary imagery. The process was a lot simpler in the two more recent Oliver films I did, World Trade Center and W., in that he shot a lot less and the stories were very specific. It was still a lot of footage, but it was definitely dialog telling the story more than imagery telling the story.
Wylie Stateman: There is a tremendous amount of important story-driving dialog in W. Our dialog mixer, Gary Summers, is a four-time Oscar-winning re-recording engineer. He said there was more overlapping dialog in W. than any other film he’s ever done. Oliver is a writer of the highest order and he is not afraid to have actors interact through the use of intricately-crafted words.
Monroe: The actors sometimes bring incredible things that you would have never imagined. Seeing what they do with their characters is always exciting. Often things happen on the day of the shoot. There was an amazing collaboration between Oliver and the actors, and we had some great pieces of improvisation from both actor and director. What you do with that material in the editing room has infinite possibilities of new, authentic moments. If the actor and director come up with some great idea on the set, then you as an editor always want to find the best bits of the story and the best bits of the characters to tell that story.
Hutshing: First impressions of the material are so important, and I learned that from Oliver. He would always have us keep a “1-R log”—1-R meaning his first reaction. As we watch the footage over and over, he would ask, “What’s my 1-R on this shot?” And we could look it up in our log from when we first watched the footage. Oliver knows you only get your first reaction one time; after that, it’s changed. In that way, I put myself in the place of the audience and react just the way anyone would. Why was something funny when I first saw it? Why did that first spark my interest? A lot of times in watching dailies, you zone out, drift off. But why am I zoning out? It could be I’m tired! But often the footage is not compelling. My first impressions are usually very reliable.

Cineaste: Do you collaborate with the sound editor from early on in the process or does sound work occur after you have assembled the film?
Monroe: Wylie and his sound team came up with ideas for sound very early on and gave them to us to incorporate within our cuts. That way, Oliver got a sense of what the final sound was going to be. Wylie’s collaboration was absolutely there from the outset and progressed afterwards, so by the time we were at the temp dub, we were already final-mixing in a sense. It is great to get his ideas early on so that all the material becomes part of the whole film every time you screen the movie with the director, and you’ve got some of that sound design that will ultimately be part of the film.
Stateman: The editor is in such a unique position to be literally the right hand of the director, and some editors do insist on having their hands in every facet of postproduction. The editor is the most senior creative person in postproduction behind the director. It can serve a film well when the supervising sound editor is the most senior creative person on the sound side. Ultimately, postproduction is more smoothly accomplished by allowing people who have a very specific focus to have a certain amount of autonomy and self-direction. While the editor is in most cases capable of accomplishing every aspect of postproduction, experienced editors often learn to delegate responsibility. In the case of W., anything you hear in the finished film has been a conscious choice shepherded through the mixing process by the supervising sound editor.

Cineaste: Can you describe some sequences involving sound in W. that might have been structured early on in your collaboration?
Monroe: The thread of the baseball game was very, very important. The sound had a very introspective feel. The baseball field linked the film in three places.
Stateman: Oliver’s thoughts on those baseball stadium scenes were very clear. He saw the stadium as a place where W. was very comfortable, in touch with his constituency. A place where he felt in control of his work and where he experienced interacting with his people, the masses. A stadium is a complex acoustical environment because it is a mass experience. We played with stadium sounds so that in all of the stadium scenes the evolution of the sound that W. is experiencing is not just baseball. It starts with regular stadium baseball sounds and people yelling for him from the stands, and blends into news conference reporters firing questions at him, and Senate applause for the State-of-the-Union speeches that he would experience later in life as president. The sounds become a sort of foreshadowing of his life work, the way he experiences the people he believes he represents politically. The sounds seamlessly work through those moments and provide a bit of a subliminal pastiche. It’s not designed to fill space like putty, but to advance the story by foreshadowing.
Monroe: W. was more straightforward in sound, being such a heavy dialog film, than World Trade Center, where the sound was continually coming out of the silence underneath Ground Zero, with fireballs shooting out or pieces of debris dropping, and so on. But Wylie has the knowledge and sensitivity not to overdo anything. For example, Josh Brolin is a very physical actor and he did subtle things like clicking his teeth when eating or licking his fingers. Some sound editors would clean out the sounds behind these nuances and make pristine tracks, but Wylie instinctively left them alone because these physical quirks were part of the actor’s characterization. Josh Brolin did this one action where he shifted his sleeve, probably at least a half dozen times in the film. I asked Josh, “What’s up with this… It looks like you’re not comfortable in your own clothing. Did you mean that?” He wouldn’t tell me if it was intentional or not, he just laughed, and I could only assume it was very well thought out. Wylie enhanced the action in Foley, so that if it was, in fact, something that Josh was trying to portray about W., Wylie very subtly added to that.
Stateman: You know, as a sound editor, you are always looking for ways to anchor an image with a sound that validates the visual. Often with special-effects films, with all the CGI, we are basically working from scratch and it’s truly our job to validate what has no physical possibility of occurring in the real world. In the case of W., where we were dealing with big dialog sequences, we wanted to keep the soundtrack from just floating in the air with only words. So we would often create little bits of movement, footsteps, and other anchoring sounds to tie those words to reality and give the audience clues that this is all genuine, all real, and from that moment of the day. We worked very hard to validate the reality of the scenes.

Cineaste: I would imagine simple activities, like Bush placing a glass on a table or chewing a sandwich, are special moments that you can accentuate with little sounds that we take for granted as an audience. How do you determine which sounds are important to include?
Stateman: The selection of sound is a conscious choice. As well, there’s a particular effect that can only occur through the removal of sound. Whenever I am asked, I always say my favorite sound is silence, simply because whatever happens after a moment of silence is given greater weight and importance. In all of Oliver’s films, we make a conscious effort to work with silence. In fact, W. ends in a moment of silence after a grandiose play in the stadium and George W. Bush loses the ball. My style is usually to decide which moments to make extremely real for a certain period, then to drift off into the surreal or a dream sequence, like the stadium scenes. You have to create a basis of reality before you can depart from it. In a film like W., we worked with the dialog tracks that John Pritchett so well recorded for all the principal characters. He gave us enough raw material to sort from and make conscious choices of the bits and pieces we could harvest from multiple takes. At one point, everything becomes so well-manicured to smooth out the inherent problems an actor might have had in recording from day to day, or in a close-up versus a master shot. Visually, the films are all cut up, but sonically there is an opportunity to heal a lot of those cuts and make them disappear by having continuity transition over cuts. In this way, your mind is not jarred by the disoriented shift in visual perspective. Rather, the consistency of the soundtrack heals those cuts from time being expanded or compressed visually.

Cineaste: In a number of scenes, the editing seemed to enhance a dreamy or otherworldly feel to what was happening. For example, when W. is jogging and collapses on the road, you hear the expected sounds of birds and his running steps. But you also suddenly hear thunder on a sunny day. How did that sound help to transition into the next scene with W. and Reverend Hudd (Stacy Keach)?
Monroe: The intention of that scene was very subtle. The jogging, as originally cut, had specific backgrounds—the sound of birds, leaves rustling in the trees—and these sounds actually continued into the next scene with the Reverend. This was a kind of sound ghosting, as if to say W. would remember from one scene to the next when he had hit rock-bottom in his life.
Hutshing: I had a completely different idea on how to do that scene and Oliver didn’t like it. Instead of thunder, I had spooky church voices coming in because the preacher in the following scene was talking to members of his congregation. So I made his voice very echoey, and it was slapping all over the place while W. was on the ground. Then I had the voices coming in with the wind, followed by seeing the mosaic picture of Jesus and then the Reverend. I thought it worked really well, but Oliver didn’t like it at all, so gone. Probably too obvious.

Cineaste: Wylie, would you elaborate on the impact of the sounds used in that jogging scene?
Stateman: A film is filled with many opportunities to create tension, to heighten the anticipation of an action or event, although some are not as obvious as others. When W. goes jogging in the park, he collapses from exhaustion, but also has a religious experience as he’s suffering on the ground. Instead of playing the obvious wind swirling in the trees and angels singing from the heavens, we introduced sound elements that telegraphed the next scene with the preacher—which the audience hasn’t yet experienced—into the present scene of the jogging. It is almost subliminal, but it keeps the audience thinking, engages them with the character, and moves the story along. As for the thunder, that is an interesting acoustical sound. Thunder only occurs up in the heavens, but it also reverberates off the clouds, off the ground—it’s a truly magnificent natural sound. So we chose thunder primarily because it is acoustically very honest, and at a moment where we are in a very delicate situation storywise, Oliver insisted on honesty. Thunder can certainly be a cliché in horror films and it can be an ominous chord too. But it was ultimately chosen over other more heavenly sounds because of its beautiful acoustical space and because what W. was experiencing at that moment was new life and a world of great breadth. It was basically his burning bush, which could have been visually expressed in many ways, but there were very few ways it could be delivered to allow the audience to draw their own conclusion and experience it without being cliché.

Cineaste: How did the music convey the overall religious mood of the film?
Monroe: Our composer, Paul Cantelon, who is the son of a faith healer, did a simple yet beautiful sort of religious, churchy-sounding score. We had demos from him very early on. Most of the time in editing, you use temp music either from the composer you intend to work with, based on scores that have already been recorded, or other composers whose material fits. This helps you to create the rhythm of the picture. Paul, however, was on location with us in Shreveport, with a little Casio keyboard, and he came up with themes and endless pieces of music for us to experiment with. He was just a music machine giving us anything we talked about! Thus, we incorporated his music into the film from the get-go. By the time Joe came on when we returned to Los Angeles, several musical themes had already been established, and Joe could give a fresh ear to and hone in on what worked best for particular scenes.

Cineaste: In addition to an original score, however, you also judiciously used some songs that were perhaps tongue-in-cheek, would you say? “Yellow Rose of Texas” seems like an obvious choice, but why “Robin Hood” to underscore two of W.’s scenes?
Monroe: We found various versions of “Yellow Rose of Texas” to use as kind of a Kubrickian theme throughout. But I wish I had chosen “Robin Hood”! [Laughs] Actually, Stanley Weiser came up with the CD. Before we started shooting, we sat with Oliver one afternoon listening to tons of material, and he absolutely loved “Robin Hood” because it suggested this delusion of grandeur theme for Bush. As soon as we got the dailies back for the Crawford Road scene, which is where we first used that song in the movie, it was pretty obvious it belonged there: W. and his band of merry Cabinet members plodding on behind him, and ultimately they miss the turn in the road.

Cineaste: A little irony there.
Monroe: Yes, the simplicity of the man and his delusions of grandeur.
Hutshing: The irony of the song seemed a little off to me. W. stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? I don’t think so! [Laughs] But the use of the song really made me think.

Cineaste: Joe, would you elaborate on the heavy dialog scenes you worked on specifically, like the Cabinet meeting in the Oval Office and the tense conference room scene about going to war? What editorial decisions did you make to keep the audience involved in scenes with so much discussion?
Hutshing: I basically followed the script, of course, but I tried to inject some humor if the scene allowed it. For example, in the Oval Office scene, I tried to play up the looks exchanged between Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove for a little humor. In one instance, Rumsfeld was drawing a picture of Rice, and her look at him punctuated his action.

Cineaste: So that exchange wasn’t scripted?
Hutshing: No. I had footage of those actions, but inserting the looks between Rice and Rumsfeld was not scripted. Somehow I wanted to include what the actors did with those little actions when I saw them because I thought, “Oh, that could be a good moment.” You want to keep a scene modulating so that it’s not so even, so dry—perhaps I shouldn’t say dry, but when there is a lot of talking and business, it’s nice to have humor sometimes. It’s part of the seduction of good entertainment. When I saw Condoleezza’s look, I knew I wanted it to be in the scene somewhere.

Cineaste: Did that shot become like the spine or core around which you built the scene?
Hutshing: It’s not the spine because it’s more a fun thing. The spine would be Josh Brolin’s performance, for example, but the little bits are the ornamentations that you set in to keep people alive in the scene with an exchange of looks. The eyes are so important—the scene means more when people are looking at each other. As for the long conference scene discussing the proposed Iraqi War, that was fifteen pages in the script, about fifteen minutes of screen time, very long. When the film came out, I think it was close to eleven. It was not an overly covered scene, so the key there was to find the performances first, then cut in the reactions to keep it from being the same over and over and over. It’s like having a big plate of vegetables—nothing wrong with vegetables, but sometimes you need a little meat, a little starch, maybe even some chocolate afterwards! In that conference scene, there was obviously tension between Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove because Colin was the only one against the war. So we used music to underscore his views—adding something more to the vegetable plate.

Cineaste: Using emotional music at such dramatic moments in Colin’s speech could border on melodrama too. Why did you feel music was necessary in that talking scene when you did not have it in the Oval Office meeting earlier?
Hutshing: Actually there was a bit of music of an evangelical quality at the end of the Oval Office scene when W. calls for a prayer. But one of my favorite things in editing is to put in music where it can heighten the emotion or amplify the direction in which you want to take a scene. Putting in the music is like frosting the cake. If the music is hitting the notes of the scene in the right places, getting the emotions in where I want humor or drama, then it’s thrilling for me. Even when I show it to the director, my heart is pounding because I am so excited. With Colin’s speech, I used music to underscore his passion for what he was saying. He had a pivotal line about his opposition to the war and I stopped the music at that point so his line would stand out. Then, because he had more to say, I brought the music back in after that point to continue his speech. Otherwise, the speech would just be endless and the audience would begin noticing the length of the scene more. However, then I used slightly atonal music to underscore Dick Cheney’s manic look when he says to Colin, “There is no exit strategy.”

Cineaste: Do you think the audience picked up on the musical shift?
Hutshing: Cumulatively, with the visuals and the performance by Richard Dreyfuss, I think they might think this guy’s off somehow. And that is the music throwing a weird spice into the mix!

Cineaste: In these and other prolonged dialog scenes, what guides your choices when using action/reaction shots? Sometimes it’s not always the speaker who is seen, but rather the listener.
Monroe: Yes. The lunch scene with W. and Cheney is one example that very much played on many of Josh’s reactions to what Richard Dreyfuss was saying rather than on the speaker. It is never really a formula. You watch dailies and find an amazing reaction shot and you note that to yourself. On that scene, I believe there was a B camera covering a wide shot or an overhead shot, but the first coverage was on Josh. I think a lot of Josh’s work was from his first takes. Later, the camera turned around and did all of Richard’s coverage. To be honest, probably two takes were prominently used because Josh nailed the scene right away. No matter how much you feel like you’re being a lazy editor working with only two takes, you have to realize, No, this isis the through-line. I need to use those reaction shots because they’re saying so much. Whatever Richard threw at him, Josh’s reactions were so genuine in those early takes that they became the primary part of the scene. the performance, this

Cineaste: Speaking of a shot that may say so much, I have to ask you about the barbecue scene…
Monroe: Are you going to say the corn shot? [Laughs]

Cineaste: As a matter of fact, yes. The hostess of the barbecue is leading W. over to meet Laura for the first time, and, as the hostess is speaking to him, you cut to her foot stepping on a corn cob. Why?
Monroe: We had a great second-unit D.P., Danny Hiele, who shot an unbelievable amount of footage of “gluttony” for that scene—people eating potato salad, the rich Texas barbecue—which included an actor stepping on a corn cob. That is not even the hostess stepping on the corn. I just loved that foot shot when I saw it and, to be honest, I don’t know why I did it! I made the hostess step on the corn cob by cutting the shot of the extra’s foot into the dialog scene. I have heard many ideas about what the corn shot must mean. For some, it represents the gluttony of the rich. Someone thought it was an ethanol reference for clean corn-burning fuel! So many people commented on the corn at one screening that we pulled out the shot, it was becoming too big a deal. But at the next screening, everyone was asking where the corn shot was! Oliver doesn’t care what it means; it made him laugh, so we kept it in.
Hutshing: Actually, there’s a lot of spirituality in Oliver’s films, like dancing Indians in The Doors, and references to Native Americans in U-Turn and Natural Born Killers. When I saw the corn cob, I said, There it is, another—maybe bad—symbol of the Native American! Or, this woman is introducing W. to Laura after she steps on the corn cob. Uh-oh, is this a bad omen? I even found a sound effect for it—I put in a leather squeak, but maybe stepping on an egg would have been better! [Laughs] Really, those kinds of images are like brush strokes that work poetically and add to the surreality of the moment.

Cineaste: Other quick shots like that can also capture the essence of a character, like the several belt-buckle shots you used?
Monroe: Yes, that’s very much Oliver’s style and we incorporated it. He did that a lot in Nixon, with pieces and images that identify the characters. For the preacher, a close-up of the gleaming buckle is his flashing glamor. For W., who wears presidential and gubernatorial belt buckles throughout the whole film, it’s a little touch of Texas, who he is.

Cineaste: Likewise your use of transitions, such as dissolves or fades, to characterize a moment in time within the story?
Monroe: Transitions are all connections, visual ways we can join the cuts in a film, as Wylie suggested earlier about sound continuity. In one case, after W. collapses on the road, a close-up of his eye dissolves into the eye of the Jesus mosaic in the room with the preacher. In another, Bush turns out the light in his bedroom and the light next switches on in the conference room. It’s a way to truncate time, connecting points along the story line to tell the story most efficiently. Not every scene has to have a beginning-middle-end, and such transitions make the same connections in different scenes and link them storywise.

Cineaste: Looking back, do you think the story of this film captures the truth of Bush’s legacy as president? W. seems very poignant in his baseball scenes, on the one hand, but the final startling press conference—when W. stammers to answer the reporters’ questions about his decisions—seems to show him at his worst. How scripted or recreated was that scene to convey this truth?
Hutshing: That was word for word. We get asked that all the time!
Monroe: We enhanced W.’s statements with cuts to the reactions of the Cabinet and the reporters, but that was the actual conference, sadly, yes. It is available on YouTube. It wasn’t that W. was necessarily feeling any culpability, but he was shaking his head and not understanding what he did wrong.
Hutshing: Having worked on so many of Oliver’s films, I tend to sum their essence up in a word, like Wall Street would be greed. Talk Radio, hate. The Doors, excess. Born on the Fourth of July, sacrifice. JFK, conflict, because there were so many conflicting stories of what happened there. Oliver said JFK was like his Rashomon.

Cineaste: And what is your word for W., Joe?
Hutshing: I have to think about that one… Failure. It’s a tragic story.

By Gabriella Oldham, on 2009.

Source: http://www.cineaste.com/

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