Editor Jay Cassidy on the Technical and Creative Challenges in a 17-Month Edit

Jay Cassidy A.C.E. has been editing director Sean Penn’s films since The Indian Runner in 1991. He’s also well known (and awarded) for his editing of An Inconvenient Truth (with Daniel Swietlik). Other notable films he’s edited recently include The Assassination of Richard Nixon, September 11 (the USA section), and The Replacement Killers. Since Into the Wild, he edited Johnny Got His Gun.

Read how Entity FX created a flash flood at night from a daytime desert shoot, combined a crane and helicopter shot into one seamless shot, and more for Into the Wild.

STUDIODAILY: How did your relationship with Sean Penn begin?

JAY CASSIDY: I met him through friends in 1990 when he was trying to get The Indian Runner made. He shot a proof-of-concept piece with different combinations of actors including the cast he finally made he film with, to demonstrate his ability to direct and the strength of the material. I ended up cutting that, for nothing, and that’s how we got to know each other. I think he liked my choices in the performances. That was his initial attraction to our working together, and we went from there.

Did you go on location with Into the Wild? How did dailies work when you were on some of these remote locations?

It was 17-month project for me. It started in April 2006, and it really went right up until the point that we took it to the film festivals in August 2007. The company moved a lot on this movie because there were four trips to Alaska, a week of shooting each, to get Alaska in the winter, the spring and then in the full August summer. Between the last two trips, Emile Hirsch was at his most extreme weight loss. He started at 155 and went to 115. He needed to lose another 10 or 12 pounds in Alaska, so we stopped for two weeks to let him do that.

The film shot in at least 30 locations. I would go to the location where they were going to stay for more than three or four days. I went to Arizona a couple of times. I went to South Dakota. I went to Oregon on both of those trips, and the California desert because that was so close to LA. There, the screening process of dailies was fairly simple. We wouldn’t even bother with a DVD. We’d just get media from the Avid and screen it with a little portable projector, directly from the media. It looked better and was easier.

The Alaska parts were difficult. They shot in Cantwell, Alaska, maybe 250 miles from Anchorage. Housing was limited, so I wasn’t there. There was almost no turnaround time for making dailies there, so there were just about no dailies in Alaska. I remember one of the shipments of film got delayed. We asked Alaska Airlines why they delayed our shipment, and found out that a load of fresh salmon bumped our film off the flight. The logistics were clumsy, so no one expected to see much out there. I screened the footage in Los Angeles so I could tell if there were problems. I sent a couple of screener DVDs.

But that turned out to be okay, because we all knew what we were doing. With the little breaks after the Alaska trips, there was time to screen them in a more relaxed venue.

Describe the workflow for Into the Wild?

There is one big factor that is different than most other films I’ve worked on. The Avid is completely portable now. It’s shrunk so that it’s a software-only editing tool and you use this little accelerator called a Mojo. Because it’s all small and runs on a laptop, we made the decision that the assistant [Dana Mulligan] would stay in the edit room in Marin County [where Penn lives], and we would just communicate by the Internet and ship little drives back and forth. I think I went a couple months and never saw the assistant editor. We talked every day and sent things back and forth, but we split it up. It was so simple to be on location with the laptop, the Mojo and a drive.

What were the benefits of being on location?

First of all, we’d all screen the material together. When you’re closer to LA, the turnaround is quite good. We were looking at something the next day or the end of day two. That’s very helpful to know what you’re doing. As well, I would work on sequences that had been shot and Sean would see those, so he’d know what things were starting to feel like as we went along. Because there were breaks in the 8-month shooting schedule due to weather and Emile’s weight loss, we’d work during the breaks and make substantial headway on scenes, and that was very valuable.

Once the shooting was done and everybody was back on earth, we edited the film in Marin, where Sean has his family.

Was there any downside to being separated geographically from the assistant?

Not really. We could electronically communicate as we had to at lunchtime. I would have much rather been on the set. We debated about Dana coming along, but it meant bringing along more equipment, and she preferred to stay in Marin County where she had the support of the office where she worked. Sean’s assistant was there, so there was a bit of a support system for her, and consistency. A lot of her work is on the phone with the lab and the telecine. It was much better to have her in a fixed position. Since I’ve worked with Dana a couple of times, we were familiar with one another.

Did you use any new technologies?

If we were doing this movie today, we would have done it in the Avid DNx36 format. That’s such a wonderful workflow. As it was, we didn’t get to do that. The shooting schedule was so long and the location screening was so “catch as catch can,” that we did not telecine HD dailies. We just did SD dailies, but loaded from DigiBeta, so they were good quality.

Because we hadn’t seen anything at proper resolution, we decided to scan and conform earlier in the process than some films might and then do an initial conform and color correction pass to make a master for screenings and previews. The money we didn’t spend doing HD dailies, we then spent doing the DI, in our case three or four times, because we kept conforming, screening and re-cut, and then conformed again. Towards the end, we pretended the DI suite was a big Avid and kept conforming. Ideally, you only want to conform and color correct once and output. But if you don’t have any HD material and you’re not quite done with your editing, you tend to use the DI suite as an extension of the cutting room, to look at the movie in a good resolution, with the color correction really close. But we went in with a cut that wasn’t locked. I hope never to do it that way again. It’s not particularly efficient. I think what’s going to happen in the future is you’ll just have DNx36 dailies, and then you’ll be back to conforming and DI just once.

What’s interesting to me is that conforming the DI and looking at it in finishing resolution meant you had the benefit of what was essentially a work print to make your final judgments on the material. We’ve all been asked to sacrifice with the work print-less workflows. I’ve done a couple of films where you don’t see anything at anywhere close to film resolution until the film is done-done.

What were the most challenging aspects of cutting Into the Wild?
Sean stopped writing the script at a point where it was a linear story. He intended to shoot it that way but he always knew the story of Chris [McCandless] in Alaska and Chris on the road getting there was an interweave. He said, ‘I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t know how until I shoot.’ That meant that, with the knowledge that we were going to interweave them, we put the film together in a linear fashion as a first assembly to see what the parts are and then figure out how to interweave them. The edit was just the final rewrite of the script.

It wasn’t a new way to work. You’re always doing some variation of that. The editorial period is always the final rewrite of the script in every film. In this case, there was an acknowledgement that the script as a working document in no way represented the final structure. It’s a readable structure, but you know it’s going to change. A script is a tool that is temporary and inadequate ‘ they’re only alluding to what the visual language is. Sean didn’t want to waste the time trying to imagine how the pieces would go together in script form. It’s just easier and better to put it together when you see it.

Did any scenes that stand out as particularly challenging?

There was no one scene that was more problematic than another. Certainly, the end took a lot of thinking and we pursued some ideas that we abandoned. But that was part and parcel of getting the structure right.

Essentially, what the audience sees in the theatre is the director’s cut. There are no outtakes that go into the DVD. I’m not necessarily a fan of the director’s cut, that somehow there’s a version that got released in the theatres and there’s a better version somewhere else. What was wrong with the one I saw in the theatres if there’s one I can’t see? That confusion has almost become a marketing tool.

What about the scene where Chris leaves the homeless shelter in LA? How was that scene constructed, and what kind of special effects were used?

We were trying to think about his impressions of the city, and how they’re affecting his head, not what he’s literally seeing. We wanted to think of ways to create that feeling. Here’s this kid that’s just spent 36 days in a cave in Mexico and now he’s in downtown Los Angeles looking at people on the street.

We always felt that some proportion of his reasons for cutting himself off from his family and reinventing his identity was because his parents had lived a lie about their marriage. But a greater proportion had to do with his personal revulsion at civilization in a sense, and his idea to find a purer state for his own life. That meant that when he’s in LA, he’s in the belly of the beast.

Certainly the way it was shot, it was distressed photography to begin with [by cinematographer Eric Gautier]. We wanted to continue to distress it with the little freeze-frames tucked in, and the little speed-ups and slow-downs. You’re warping the time a little bit as well as the look of the film. Also, when we went and color corrected it, we made it a little more extreme. There’s a beautiful sound effect by sound designer Martin Hernandez. Martin, who worked on Babel and Amores Perros and was a very well known DJ in Mexico. I’m not sure what the literal sound is. It’s his secret and he brought it to the movie, and we’re ever so glad.

How do you & Sean work together?

You go into a room together for some number of months and you’ve checked your ego at the door because you have this larger consideration, which is the movie. My experience with movies is that you put the pieces together, and there’s some magical moment when the movie has a life of its own and it’s telling you what to do if you’re willing to listen to it. That doesn’t mean you don’t try things and approach it with a degree of skepticism, but the film accepts and rejects because it has its own life. Sean recognizes that process as well.

Sean is a balladeer. His thinking about movies is they’re a ballad. He carries so much emotional and, in many cases, story freight through the music. He’s done that since the beginning on The Indian Runner. We had the wonderful experience of Eddie Vedder becoming interested and inspired with the material and coming up quite quickly with songs that were undeniably part of the movie. We also found the advantage of this consistent voice of Eddie throughout the movie, in some way representing an unconscious part of the story telling. That came at a perfect time for us, because we knew where those ballads had to go. We put the first cut together using those songs that Sean had suggested originally. Then the Eddie songs came along. And that was a huge surprise, how great it was to have one consistent voice all the way through.

What should we ‘ what does Sean ‘ want people to take away from the film?

When a movie works, a member of the audience finds his own movie in the movie. The movie exists between the screen and the audience. I don’t think Sean has a checklist of things he wants people to take away from it. He hears peoples’ reactions to the film and he knows that they’re taking something away that is a positive reaction to the material. Chris McCandless is in many ways a complete contradiction as a character. On one hand, he’s a lover of nature with energy and people are taken by him. On the other hand, he lies, he’s passive aggressive. That contradiction about this character and why he is doing what he does ‘ we’ll never know. It’s part of the mystery of the story. You realize there are certain things you can’t ever know about why somebody does something. But you can see the contradictions in their character and accept why they did what they did. That’s a long way of saying that when we see people have emotional reactions to the film, I think that’s enough.

Read how Entity FX created a flash flood at night from a daytime desert shoot, combined a crane and helicopter shot into one seamless shot, and more for Into the Wild.