Editing for Character, Working With Paul Greengrass, and Watching Movies from the Third Row

The big-budget thriller is enjoying something of a renaissance lately – lots of people are excited by blockbuster action pictures like Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard, but the arrival of a newer, grittier James Bond last year in Casino Royale was a development that was greeted with critical and public acclaim alike. And while the trilogy of Jason Bourne movies that began with 2002's The Bourne Identity (and which arguably influenced the new direction of the Bond franchise) has been popular from square one, the series outdid itself with the release last month of The Bourne Ultimatum. A huge portion of the credit for that is borne on the shoulders of director Paul Greengrass, whose penchant for documentary-style camerawork gives his films a nerve-racking tension, but it's film editor Christopher Rouse who has to keep up with the imagery, finding the narrative links that will hold all the footage together.

Rouse is no stranger to action cinema – he worked on The Bourne Supremacy in 2002, and followed that up with demanding co-editing gigs on The Italian Job, with director F. Gary Gray, and Paycheck, with director John Woo, in 2003. But he really hit it off with Paul Greengrass, with whom he has cut two Bourne films as well as United 93 – the latter scored him an Oscar nomination (with Clare Douglas and Richard Pearson). F&V caught up with him by telephone as he was preparing to leave Los Angeles for London, where he would prep for work on his next project with Greengrass. Watch a video clip, below, to get a feel for the Greengrass/Rouse approach to action.

FILM & VIDEO: You’ve worked with Paul Greengrass on three films, now. How did that relationship begin?
CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Our first project together was The Bourne Supremacy. I had worked on The Bourne Identity – the producer, Frank Marshall, had brought me in during director’s cut. When Supremacy rolled around, Paul was brought on as director. He was interested in making a big-budget Hollywood film but didn’t really know any of the people that worked in that environment. Frank had recommended me to him and we spoke on the phone, hit it off well, and he hired me. As soon as we got together it was just one of those meetings of the minds that you really hope for. We were off and running.

Did you have discussions about what his aesthetic was, or how he saw the narrative moving forward?
We did. Ultimately it was about me trying to wrap my head around his sensibilities and the way he works. Having looked at Bloody Sunday, I knew that he really embraced a verità© style – lots of long lenses, a continuously moving camera. That was the language he spoke. We talked about how that would translate to a larger piece, and how the action would reflect that. Because the script was very much in flux, the initial conversations were more about character and the way the narrative was evolving and less about the specifics of style. The great thing about working with Paul is he gives me a lot of latitude to do what I do. What he responded to pretty early on was his belief that I was in tune with his sensibilities.

For these three films, and especially The Bourne Ultimatum, there’s been a lot of praise for the camerawork and the cutting. It seems like there’s something special going on in your collaboration with Greengrass.
Yes, but very rarely will we talk about the specifics of the editing – what pieces should be joined with which in what particular order. We never speak in that regard. It’s always about the larger aspects of the piece. Over the course of three films it’s become like any relationship – the more time you spend with someone, the less talking you have to do. You begin to intuit what it is that they’re after. When the footage rolls in, generally I can tell by the way it’s shot that there’s a certain attack that makes sense to me and I’ll pursue that.

I’m curious if you have any specific ideas about the cutting of action scenes, and how audiences respond. Sometimes people will say, of improvisational jazz or jammy rock music, that a piece feels like it’s on the verge of chaos, but it holds together somehow. And that’s how I felt about some of the scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum – it was on the verge of falling apart, and yet it stayed together. It was very exciting because of that.

I think that’s very apt. I try not to, and I hope I don’t, cut action sequences the same way for different directors. When I’m working with John Woo, for example, his style is very different from Paul’s. John clearly has signature moments where things slow down, action becomes much more protracted – at times it’s almost balletic, the way he approaches action. Sometimes the action is overlapped. But you really get a sense of the moments being expanded so that you can swim in the specificity of them. At the other end of spectrum are the Bourne films, where sometimes in the blink of an eye something will occur and you’ll go, “Wow, did I – I’m not quite sure what I saw, but it was something aggressive and powerful. And now I’m on to the next thing.”

The way I’ve approached the action is, hopefully, reflective of the specifics of the Bourne character and his state of mind and state of being. He’s a man that’s never quite comfortable in his environment. He’s not anchored, he’s moving. We’re never particularly settled as he’s never particularly settled. As opposed to an action scene being an objective, studied piece of how a fight might occur, it’s more about being in his head. If you’ve ever been in a fight, a fight isn’t a studied, choreographed event. It’s about chaos and frenetic moments and violence and you don’t always see everything that’s occurring. The closer you can bring the audience to that experience, and particularly the experience of the Bourne character, the closer you’re going to be to Matt and his character. As you move through the piece you’re not as distanced. You’re moving with him as he moves through it.

So in terms of what you can convey in the edit, you’re taking your cues from and following that character.
If you have a scene where Bourne is crossing the street and staking out a house, for example, there’s a methodical, logical, easy way to cut that – where you see him crossing the street in real time, you see what he’s looking at – and it would have to do with natural rhythms, how you would see a moment like that unfold. The way I tend to approach a moment like that is to make it a bit more jumpy, a bit more erratic, for two reasons: A, because that’s his state of mind and B, because sometime it’s just more interesting to look at.

You feel like you’re always moving forward. The character is learning something and then acting on it – every plot point just pushes ahead.
Indeed. And at a certain point, as we experience things in life, we don’t always see everything in real time in a subtle way. Often times we’re just seeing snatches of things and glimpses of things.

So in part it’s about the way we experience things we see or go through in our own lives, how we perceive those in our own heads. Just like it’s not a stage show seen through a proscenium arch – a lot of the time it’s a run-and-gun camera in somebody’s hands.
Yeah. And if you look at, again, the way Paul shoots, he rarely enters a scene in a conventional way – wide master, into mids and then the close-ups. He likes to have the camera over a character’s back, walking, as he enters a scene. That’s my bent as well. Particularly on a Bourne film, I’m always looking for the first-person way to enter a piece that’s a bit more odd, a bit more interesting, and keeps you closer to the character.

Have you heard the complaints from some viewers that this specific style of filmmaking – handheld camera, quick cuts – makes them physically ill?
Often. [Laughs.] At the end of the day it’s a big tent. There’s room for many, many styles of filmmaking. Probably my favorite filmmaker of all time is David Lean, who has a style that in many ways couldn’t be more antithetical to the way we shoot a Bourne film. I’ve had people say to me, “Gosh, I watched your film from the third row of the theater, and I was getting physically ill.” Fair enough. Personally, I wouldn’t watch any film from the third row of a theater, and if I were to watch Lawrence of Arabia from the third row of a theater I’d probably get physically ill myself. It’s an aggressive style, so it’s going to attract more attention, but I think it’s a style that absolutely supports the film and the narrative. If you like it, great. And if you don’t, that’s fine too.

It’s funny that you used the third row as an example, because the third row sounds like a great place to see a movie to me. Watching The Bourne Ultimatum, I was pretty close to that screen and it didn’t make me sick at all.
I remember being at the Cinerama Dome before they revamped it and turned it into the Arclight, and I was always in the first row at the Cinerama Dome. As a kid, seeing films like Grand Prix, I couldn’t get close enough to the screen. But now, as I’ve gotten older, I tend to sit two-thirds of the way back, and it’s more about experiencing the frame in a different way. I may be showing my age a bit in that regard.

Maybe, but I sure envy you seeing Grand Prix at the Cinerama Dome.
It was fantastic. Absolutely extraordinary. But, yeah, it is funny how much attention the style gets. People get up in arms. It seems quite polarizing, because people either really like it or they don’t. The nice thing is, it seems that people have responded well to all the films, and particularly the last one. Most people like it.

I read that you wanted to edit The Bourne Ultimatum in HD but did not for practical reasons.
To cut Ultimatum [using Avid's DNxHD 115 codec] was going to require a lot of storage, and there were some questions out there that weren’t being answered quickly enough to my satisfaction. I just opted for a higher-resolution SD. We came in at 3:1 as opposed to 14:1, which is the norm for most shows, so we had a really good image even in SD. I talked to a couple of friends of mine – Stephen Mirrione was working on a film using the new DNxHD 36 compression and it was sort of a good-news/bad-news experience. He was kind of beta-testing it at that point. I knew that, given the nature of the Bourne films, a lot of the process tends to be very much in flux, and I didn’t want to introduce another variable. At the end I opted for safety and we went with the 3:1 SD ratio. Now that DNx 36 is an official release, the plan is to do my next film with Paul in HD. I can’t wait to get my hands on it and see what it’s like to work with.

I understand it really transforms what you can do in the editing room – turn the lights down and fire up the projector.
When I work, I’ve got my monitors in front of me, and then I’ve got what we call a “client’s couch,” where Paul, our producers, and the studio people come and sit, and I’ve got a plasma screen in front of that. And as good as a plasma screen is, it’s not the same as seeing something projected. And DNxHD allows you to take something straight out of the Avid and throw it up on the big screen. You can actually see it and it looks good. The problem we’ve always had with an Avid output is the minute you put it up on a big screen, it’s faded and artifact-y. It’s very exciting that we can do something in short order – spit it out of the Avid, throw it up on the big screen, see what it’s going to feel like in the theater, and then go straight back into Avid and get to work.

And using DNxHD helps if you’re doing a lot of screenings. Did you have a lot of screenings on The Bourne Ultimatum?
Actually, we never previewed. We had two friends-and-family screenings and a premiere, but it was an anomaly for a big studio film in that we never had a proper audience preview.

Did you ever go see it with a public audience to see what the reaction was like?
Actually, I haven’t. I went to the two friends-and-family screenings, went to the premiere, and I had worked three months in a row without a day off. When we finished, I kind of wanted to get away and think about anything but Bourne – see some other movies, spend some time with my family. I’ve got to go to London to meet with Paul, and I think I may pop my head into a theater back there and take a look at Bourne with a London crowd. I’m looking forward to that, actually.

What is your next project with Paul Greengrass?
The working title is The Green Zone. It’s about the first year of the war in Iraq and the hunt for the weapons of mass destruction. It’s a terrific script, and I’m looking forward to getting started. We’re scheduled to start shooting sometime in January.