When Should You Use a Laptop, and Why Should You Make Friends With the Camera Crew?

For The Greatest, the new Pierce Brosnan/Susan Sarandon drama in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, editor Cara Silverman found a new way of working – based in Los Angeles while the production shot in New York, Silverman let her assistant run the Avid Adrenaline while she cut footage on a laptop loaded with the software version of Avid Media Composer. Being untethered to a heavy desktop system has a freeing effect on creativity, too (especially on low-budget films, which don’t budget for state-of-the-art editorial facilities), making it easier to do the kind of mental work required to bring an edit together. F&V asked Silverman to talk about her work on The Greatest, as well as about cutting for HBO and working with Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese.
 FILM & VIDEO: The cinematographer on The Greatest, John Bailey, is a terrific DP.

Cara Silverman: He’s phenomenal. Shana chose him because the film that she was in love with stylistically was Ordinary People, and John shot Ordinary People. I came to The Greatest through John Bailey because we had just worked together on He’s Just Not That Into You. We had this fabulous working relationship editorially and camera-department-wise. I just adore the man. He’s a brilliant DP.

It’s interesting that you moved from film to film with the cinematographer.

I came up in the film world as an apprentice and as an assistant, and one of the important relationships you learn is to talk very closely to the ADs and the ACs. They become your conduit to all the information. It’s not just the script supervisor. You go to the source, and once you develop a relationship with them it becomes very fruitful. If they need something you can help them, and if you need something they can help you. It’s a very smart thing to do.

It must be very helpful to maintain connections with what’s happening on set.

They’re dependent on us for getting their dailies out, but if we feel that we’re missing something, we won’t just talk to the director. You do that, of course, and relay what you feel you have – or the fact that they’re missing something. To be honest, when you form a bond with the ADs, you stand a much better chance of getting what you need on the schedule. And with the ACs you have an idea of what they’re shooting and what their intentions are. It works to everybody’s benefit.

It makes the process more organic.

Absolutely. Plus, it’s more fun to watch dailies together! And because I came up in the film world, it’s a natural ‘ I feel very close to DPs. Knowing what they’re thinking on the set helps you figure out how you’re going to put together a scene. A lot of it derives from the director’s intentions. But if you see that they shoot something, even if they thought they’d never use it, you might see a use for it. And a lot of films seem to have montages these days. They might think lots of takes means you have the footage, but it might just be lots of takes. It might not be different things. If it’s a community [involving editorial and the camera department], it just works better.

When shooting is taking place, are you on location? On the set?

Well, they shot The Greatest in New York and I was not on location because it was a very low-budget film. I was in Los Angeles and I would get the dailies three or four days later. I’d cut the film and then have a conversation with Shana afterwards. But I was always talking to her through the process and sending her footage to look at. About halfway through, she got a huge chunk of the film. We discussed what we needed to pick up. Toward the end of it, they were hamstrung with some not-great weather, and they didn’t have any real cover sets. It was good for her to see what she could get away with with not having to pick up, because there was no going back.

So you’re at work on the edit in L.A. while she’s still shooting in New York.

Yes. On other films I’ll usually be on location, feeding the cut scenes to the director as they go.

Does it complicate things much, these days, to have that geographic difference?

No, not really. The only thing that became more complicated was that we were in different time zones. But it worked to my advantage that it was later in the day for them. They would wrap, and I was still in the middle of my day. Because it was so low-budget, we had to wait for the transfers and for Fed Ex. I was three days behind, so if I felt we didn’t have something and we needed it, I had to strenuously argue for it. But for the most part, they got what they needed.

Were they shooting film?

They shot 35mm anamorphic and, in fact, we cut negative on the film. You probably haven’t heard of a film cutting negative in a long time.

Well, occasionally. Sometimes people are working on such a low budget that they don’t get the DI. Was this just an issue of money?

It was a DP preference, and Shana wanted to respect it. To be perfectly honest, it made no difference to me. I came from that school so it was easy for me to do. Luckily, it was a dialogue film so we had very few effects. I had two A-and-B dissolves, and in the beginning of the film – I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s an accident that takes place in the beginning of the film. And because I cut it very quickly – the shots are very quick – we ended up doing that as a visual effect. We scanned the negative because the cuts were so short, just two and three frames, that we didn’t think the hot splices would hold. We ended up doing that as an optical.

We cut on the Avid and people would see stuff on DVDs, or we’d output onto DVCAM and project that. Otherwise it was a seamless workflow. We had only one Avid set up during shooting. I have a MacBook Pro and I put Media Composer on it. So I was cutting on my MacBook as the assistant was loading on the Adrenaline. It was such a low-budget film that we had just one room, so I went and cut in another room. We had drives that we would shuttle back and forth as she gave me the media, and I would hand over the scenes that I had cut.

Did you work that way all the way through post?

No, once shooting stopped I was on the Adrenaline through the whole thing. We split shifts – I had the day shift with the director, and then the assistant would come in mid-day and work later. She would put in sound effects and stuff while the director and I worked on cutting. But [using the MacBook during production] was very flexible for me. I could cut anywhere. It will make it easier for future films because I can take something right to the set, and if the director wants to change something we can change it.

Is that the most significant development in your work process over the last few years?

Being so fluid? Yes. It’s been wonderful that I don’t have to be where they are shooting, that I can email cuts, that I can have access to material all the time and be cutting all the time. I’m not bound to whatever anybody else’s schedule is. I can go anywhere and cut anytime. It’s really terrific. It doesn’t limit a location for me.

And what’s good for your flexibility is good for your creativity.

You never know when something will strike you. Sometimes they’ll shoot the world and you’re thinking, “OK, what am I supposed to do?” You have to think. And just because you’re on a computer doesn’t mean you’re thinking faster, necessarily. You have to look at the footage and figure out how to make something work. If it hits you at 2 or 3 in the morning – not that I’ve ever done this – but you could get up and cut something.

Were there any specific creative challenges on The Greatest?

Very often, once you have a film in the cutting room you really change stuff around. You change continuity, you change ideas or intentions. Maybe you had something, and then you decide as you’re cutting you want to elaborate, or you want to take back, or you want to change the intention. In The Greatest, they shot a number of scenes that were supposed to go sequentially in the beginning of the movie, where our young lovers meet. The director and I worked through this and ended up turning all those scenes into flashbacks that happen through the course of the film. That greatly impacted how you respond to the film. You’re not being taken sequentially through the action. You’re being dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, and it’s a very different approach. Cutting on the Avid, we can just move stuff around very quickly and figure out how and where and what to place. We played with the time frame. It was an easy process to lift stuff out and drop stuff in and continuously tweak the story.

After you become so familiar with the material, how hard is it to scramble it and take on the perspective of a fresh audience member?

Well, it’s a learning process. A splice is just a splice. You put it together. I don’t instantly have the answers. Through experience I know that one thing might not go next to another thing, but I never discount it until I try it. The most glorious accidents happen just when you accidentally throw yourself out of sync, or you drop something in by mistake and go, “Oh my god, that’s brilliant.” I’m always trying alternates and exploring the footage as much as I can to see where it’s going to take me. Have we found the best takes? Have we done the best thing we can? Instinctively you know when you’ve arrived someplace. You watch people’s reactions, or their faces, and you say, “That’s the one. That’s the best it can possibly be. This works.”

You have to screen the film over and over again. You only get a sense what your work’s doing by watching it. Hopefully you’ve built enough time in your schedule to allow yourself to watch the film and watch the film and watch the film. You don’t cut it and say, “It’s done.” It’s not. Feedback helps you figure out where you’re going.

Has technology made it easier to test material with audiences?

Yes, it’s made it easier to do and, frankly, you also never lock the film. If you’re cutting a comedy, which is very different from a drama, you can keep cutting until the cows come home because there are so many different ways to play the timing of something. Certain films demand being screened more often than other films.

But you can fiddle with it too much, or be too unsatisfied, and overwork it.

You can. Sometimes you go to the movies and you go, “Wait a second, there’s a jump in that story. The logic ‘ what happened there?” And nine out of 10 times you go, “OK, they tightened this up so much that they took out the connecting tissue.”  They know the film so well that they’re assuming you’re on board!

I was looking at your resume on IMDb, and I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your career. I see you cut four episodes of Tell Me You Love Me, for HBO. How different is cutting for TV versus cutting for features?

You know, that wasn’t  different. HBO is such a unique animal. It’s not like cutting for television. It’s an extraordinary place to work because they actually treat the shows as though they are mini-features. The shows don’t go on the air until they’re basically done. Tell Me You Love Me was fantastic to work on. I wanted to work on it because I had been doing a lot of comedy before that, and I wanted to break and do something different. I worked on heavy drama coming up in my career, and then cut something called Party Girl, which put me on the path of cutting comedy. But Tell Me You Love Me wasn’t a stressful experience like I think a regular network show is, where you know you have an air date in two or three weeks. The schedules at HBO are looser than that.

You know how television shows have a rhythm and they look pretty much the same [from episode to episode]? In Tell Me You Love Me each director brought their own vision, and each of the shows actually had a different rhythm and feel. The showrunner, Cynthia Mort, had a very specific vision for them. There was no score whatsoever, which was particular to that show. There were occasionally source songs that played as part a scene, except for the end where each show had a song that took it out. But it had a feature feel. It didn’t feel TV at all. There was nothing TV about it. Every director brought their own different sensibility to it.

It looks like you were the first assistant on Cape Fear. I was thinking about being on the team with Thelma Schoonmaker …

I’ll sum it up for you: it was like going to film school. It was extraordinary. It was the last time I was a first assistant. I had just come off of Bonfire of the Vanities, and it was two very different styles of working. It was really, really like going to film school because Marty has a particular way of doing something. We previewed two times, I think, and there was a pick-up shoot in the middle of it. But the creative way he solved problems was extraordinary to me, and his relationship with Thelma was such a collaboration. It was remarkable. Everyone should have that experience in their life as a filmmaker.