Directed by Marielle Heller, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of author Lee Israel, a brilliant New York curmudgeon who began forging uncannily witty letters by cultural legends after her own career had stalled. With a less glamorous though no less authentic 1990s New York City as its backdrop, the film features an awards-worthy turn by Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E. Grant as her flamboyant wingman. The screenplay was written by another surprising yet symbiotic pair: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, who is best known for writing the Tony Award-winning book of the musical Avenue Q.
The movie’s editor Anne McCabe, an Avid editor since the mid-1990s, when the industry began transitioning to nonlinear technology, has also cut You Can Count on Me, Adventureland and acclaimed television series including Nurse Jackie and Damages. She is currently hard at work in the edit suite on the upcoming Mr. Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks. We spoke with her about how she and Heller found the picture’s momentum, the surprisingly big chunk of the film that ended up on the cutting room floor, and her favorite feature of Avid Media Composer.
StudioDaily: How did you come to this project?
Anne McCabe: I’d worked with producer Anne Carey before, on Adventureland, and we met and talked about the script before I interviewed for the job. I really connected with it because it’s about a grouchy women in her 50s — what’s not to love? But seriously, it’s such a great story about loneliness and not fitting in, and in the constantly morphing cultural tastes of the time, she’s become kind of invisible to other people. It’s partly why she’s able to get away with this crime for so long. People don’t really notice women of a certain age. I read Lee’s book about this time in her life as well. It’s a great book.
What was your process with Marielle Heller once it went into production?
I hadn’t worked with Mari before, but we really had a connection. I started the first day of shooting and would look at Mari’s notes from set. It was a crazy winter in New York, where it was snowing one day and then really nice out the next. We were able to take advantage of that by representing different seasons and different types of New York, from the snow to the rain to the sunshine. I typically start looking at everything and pull out different pieces that I think really resonate and then I also look at her notes. Then I’ll start to put the scene together. Sometimes I’ll start sending stuff while they’re shooting, just so the director can see how things are starting to look together. I did this with Mari and we’d email back and forth or hop on the phone. Then I put the assembly together. I always put a lot of scene cards up on the wall, one per scene with a thumbnail still from the scene and then you start moving these around. It’s like another rewrite.
In this case, the initial assembly was really long — more than an hour longer than what the final movie was. There were a lot of other scenes we lost in the final cut.
I’ll bet there were a few that were hard to sacrifice, given the wonderful chemistry between McCarthy and Grant.
Oh, there was so much that was painful to let go. Part of the challenge of this movie was just how much great material there was. It’s so beautifully written and the performances were incredible. There were some really great scenes, which are in the book as well, featuring actress Jennifer Westveldt playing this character that Lee Israel went and worked for. It was a series of scenes toward the beginning and both Melissa and Jennifer were very, very funny in them. But we had to shape the movie and knew the beginning was too long to really work. We had to ask ourselves, “How do we get going?” And as you might guess, it soon became very clear that you needed to meet Jack, played by Richard E. Grant, much earlier. To do that, we had to lose all of those wonderful scenes with Jennifer’s character. But he and Melissa are the ultimate misfits and such an odd couple that we knew the movie was more about maximizing their scenes together. By the end of the movie, our original 1–95 numbered scene cards were like 1, 6, 24, 32, etc. We’d moved so many things around.
The real Lee Israel was described, even by her friends, as someone who could be difficult to take. The script, McCarthy’s performance and Heller’s direction all humanize Israel in various ways. What were some of the things you did during the edit to help us warm up to this anti-heroine?
The real Lee had a very particular taste in music and several of the producers knew her and had talked to people who knew her. So we soon discovered she had a very specific list of female jazz singers, including Billie Holiday, Jeri Southern and Blossom Dearie. We used that list to partly score the movie. I think those songs reflect her inner romanticism and yearning that her gruff exterior tried to mask. Of course Melissa brought a lot of warmth and humor to the character, but we definitely used the period music as way to show that inside this very grouchy, pissed-off but very smart woman is a kind of yearning for something better, but also a yearning for another time where she can imagine herself finding her true place. It was a process. We put a lot of songs in, then took them out, but we keep settling on these very romantic songs, which struck just the right balance.
And let’s not forget the cat, which has its own emotional arc!
That cat was actually an amazing actor, and its trainer was wonderful. The real Lee had a deep bond with her cat, and that relationship is critical to the story.
There’s also nostalgia for a lost New York in every scene, since most of the independent bookstores depicted in the film are already long gone.
By revisiting these places, I think the movie taps into that yearning we all feel right now in an age of excess: for handcrafted things, for something better. I also think the idea that Lee can’t schmooze with the likes of the new blockbuster novelists at a book party resonates with men and women everywhere who are unable to get what they want in their own lives, especially in this time of outsized, reality-show personalities.
You started your career as a music editor. How did that early experience inform the way you edit today?
I come from a family of musicians and I’m a musician and music is such a big part of editing. Not that every editor needs to be a musician but I think the rhythms of music really help you with timing. I also was a big collector and had millions of records and LPs spilling over in piles in my apartment and I went to see a lot of live music. I began thinking of the pacing of a movie like a kind of set list: you have your slow moments, your up moments, your climactic moments, and so on. When a scene needs to feel more rhythmically up, I know it’s time to modulate the edit, to make it choppier and more abrupt.
As a longtime Avid editor, do you have a favorite more recent feature?
ScriptSync, for sure, is just so useful for reviewing specific lines. In comedies, it’s really good when there’s a lot of improv, so you can more easily hunt and find all the different versions of a line. Directors and producers also love it because you can access all the versions of a line and compare and confer very quickly. If I’m hunting for a specific word or even an emphasis on a word, I can use ScriptSync to do that. But for me, it’s most useful as a map of what I’ve got to work with: how many takes there are, how many angles there are, what the coverage is.
Which scene in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are you most proud of?
There’s a scene in the courtroom where there aren’t very many cuts, and I think it works really well in that moment. It can be really good when you are editing certain critical scenes not to cut a lot. In this case, it works best not to cut away from Melissa McCarthy when she’s doing this incredible performance. You’ve got to allow the actor to do what they’re going to do sometimes. The scene I’m most proud of, however, is the scene with her and Jack in the bar at the end. Without giving too much away, their performances were amazing but there were a lot of different ways to go with that scene. It’s a deeply moving moment that is also funny and heartbreaking, and really runs the emotional gamut.
And the scene that still makes you laugh?
I’m a huge Jane Curtin fan, so to be able to cut scenes featuring my idol and meet her during the ADR session was really special for me. The scene where Jane’s agent character is telling Lee she has to stop drinking and become a nicer person and Lee is obstinate as ever was just so wonderful.
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