Editorial Telepathy, Working With Music, and Meeting Anthony Minghella

Editor Lisa Gunning got her big break in 1998, when her affiliation with The Whitehouse in London led her into a gig working with director Anthony Minghella on a short project for Comic Relief. One thing led to another, and Gunning was eventually offered the job of cutting what would be, sadly, Minghella’s final film, Breaking and Entering, in 2006. She keeps busy cutting commercials, and her most recent feature project is Nowhere Boy, which looks at the life of a teenaged John Lennon and his two mother figures – his aunt, Mimi, whom he lived with, and his actual mother, Julia. F&V asked her to talk about collaborating with director Sam Taylor-Wood, editing a music-heavy feature, and her career to date.
What do you cut features on? Do you always use the same system?

I always use Avid – only because I know how to use it to the point where I don’t think about it being there. I do most of my editing in my head and when I’m going to sleep and when I’m walking around. When I’m actually doing the work, I don’t want to notice the machine at all. I assisted on an Avid when I first started out. It became so familiar to me. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Walter Murch and his groundbreaking methods [using Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain], but I find it enough to cope with the actual craft of editing. I’m interested in making the invisible machine more invisible. If advances in technology allow that to happen, I’ll be well up for any of that. But I’m more given to the actual craft.

Tell me about Nowhere Boy. What was your collaboration with Sam Taylor Wood like?

She’s an old friend of mine. We reconnected through Anthony Minghella, my hero and my mentor, who gave me my first big break. One of her criteria [in choosing an editor] was that we just get on very well. We have very similar tastes. I would go ahead and do a lot of work and then show her the results. Usually we’d be in agreement on what had come out of that. She’s not very hands-on at all, which I think is brilliant. She just allows everyone to get on with what they’re good at, and then nudges them from a good distance where she has a lot of perspective. Sometimes directors get way too close to everyone else’s department – so close that they’re not so useful anymore.

She certainly allowed me to do what I felt was right and respond how I wanted to the story, which we had a very personal connection to. The film is about John Lennon’s mothers, a subject close to our hearts and one that we both understood in a similar way. There’s an unspoken empathy going on, and usually my response was pretty much like hers was. It was sort of telepathy.

And I’d suggest some crazy stuff. She had never been through post-production on a film, and I had only done three before this so I’m relatively inexperienced. I’m not aware of a huge number of rules, although I did get a very big and wonderful bag of tricks from Anthony Minghella, who’s a master of shaping film and story. I learned as much as I could from him and applied it to this film.

Does editing a film about music and musicians present any special creative challenges?

There’s a huge number of disparate musical elements in the film. Certain music appears in the script that’s intrinsic to the storyline, [such as] scenes where Lennon actually performs, so those bits of music are set in stone, and they’re beautifully chosen and scripted in advance. The secondary layer of music was source music of the time. I did a lot of research to find authentic tracks from the 40s and 50s, which was great fun because I love that kind of rockabilly music. It weaves in and out of the story, creating a sense of place and time. There’s another musical element, which is the score. I got my dear friend Alison Goldfrapp [with Will Gregory, part of the music duo Goldfrapp] to score the movie using a full orchestra, so it has a different texture from the other musical elements. We ended up recording with a full orchestra in Abbey Road Studios – the same studio where John Lennon and The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper. It was a dream come true.

Lisa GunningWhat was that like? Did you have material from Goldfrapp to work with as the edit was coming together?

The story was emerging from the material. Obviously, you pick up bits of score from different films and use those to guide the story temporarily. I was talking to Goldfrapp, and asking if they had any ideas for a temp score, and they gave me a little CD very quickly with a couple of themes they did with a Mellotron – that’s a type of keyboard the Beatles used – and it sounded really beautiful. Some of the themes ended up being used for the final score. I positioned them very roughly as I was cutting and they became welded to the material. We were able to use the full orchestra to manifest those little sketches and make them into a full score.

On one occasion, Goldfrapp did an homage to rockabilly, which works really well in the sequence where John Lennon first starts a band and picks up a guitar for the first time. We tried to be as true to the time as we could, but we also tried to separate the score from that. It doesn’t sound good when you just copy things – it’s good to have a slightly glossy element to separate the score. We used Alison’s voice as a narrative element. It’s very subtle, so it sounds like an instrument. But narratively, because the film is about mothers, it works. It’s something feminine about what you’re listening to that helps underpin a central theme in the movie.

Was there anything especially difficult in this film – like resolving parallel narratives, or jumps backward and forward in time?

When you’re doing material justice, the main challenge is to make everything look like it was scripted right from the start and it popped out really easily. The simplest things are he most challenging. And the things that look complicated are the easiest things. Action scenes are easier to put together than emotional drama between two people. In this case, the biggest challenge was to try to coherently tell a story of a boy who, at the same time as his creative growth toward becoming the man we all know and love, had this very sweet story about him and his connection with his mother and his aunt. For an audience, there’s a constant balance between having too much of that drama and not enough of the musical story. It was a fine balance – just when you have too much emotional drama, you inject some of the musical story, which is what people expect from a biopic. In between that there’s pacing so that just when you think one thing is happening, there’s a lull and you take people on a ride they’re not expecting. It’s a very fragile, constant tension. You need to keep it taut.

You seem to move back and forth easily between shortform work (commercials) and features. Do those feel like different disciplines to you?

Completely and utterly, totally different. It’s like the difference between a vet and a doctor, or a nurse and a surgeon. Same species but different animal. Features require so much stamina, and different sides of you have to be exercised. Commercials are different. What’s great is mixing them up. You do a film, and by the end of that process you’re desperate to do a commercial. And then you’re desperate to do a film. I’ve learned so much from both,

Your first feature project was a film with Anthony Minghella. Tell me a little about how that happened.

I’m completely blessed. The first job I got was at The Whitehouse. I stalked this guy, Rick Lawley, around Soho and forced him to give me a job as an assistant. He edited a lot of amazing commercials in the 90s with Jonathan Glazer and Michel Gondry. The Whitehouse was an amazing place to be if you wanted to be a film editor. The company was extremely busy at that time, doing fancy commercials for Nike and Levis. There was a wonderful thing happening in London over those few years, where the caliber of work was extraordinarily brilliant, budgets were big, and people were doing exciting work. Seven editors at The Whitehouse were busy doing glamorous stuff, and I was just desperate to do rushes, when a charity job came in. Nobody knew who was actually directing the project, but everyone else was too busy, so I said I’d love to do it. I would do anything. And in walks Anthony Minghella. We got on really, really well and he was a beautiful human being. I was just so lucky to meet him. He was very loyal, and he made everybody feel extremely comfortable. I did the best work I could possibly do for him, and he kept asking me to do things. He flew me to SF, and I ended up on one of the first MediaShare systems doing a promotional piece for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Walter Murch is my hero, and one thing led to another.

[Minghella] seemed to think I was capable of doing a feature [Breaking and Entering, released in 2006]. It took me by surprise. I had to say yes, but I was absolutely terrified. He was mad to ask me to do that. I was so scared. Not only that, but I made it even worse by taking my assistant along. The lovely Katie Weiland become a brilliant editor herself, but she didn’t have a clue either. Neither of us knew what we were doing at all – but we gave 1000 percent to him. We did all our homework and made it happen. I don’t know how. A lot of love was thrown at it and us.

How do you see editing as a career changing? I hear a lot about how the old system of long apprenticeships has been collapsed as people have more opportunities to get their hands on editing technology. Any advice for young editors?

I’m all for people with some talent really being able to explore that as quickly as possible. People can get their hands on equipment and shoot their own stuff and figure out what they’re good at and make it happen. Before, even for the editors, the process was so much slower that there was an element of decisiveness involved, which we’re losing now. We have so many options at our fingertips every second, and we can work really fast. Sometimes you have to discipline yourself to sit at the material and be methodical and not be over-excited by the gadgets. Just sit there and say, ‘This is the film I’m going to make, this is what I’m trying to say.’ And say it decisively, methodically. That’s really hard to do when you’ve got all these toys to play with. I find it hard to sit and listen to what the film’s trying to tell you and make contact with that, as opposed to the technology of it all.

But advice to younger people starting out? Get your hands on as much material as possible and try to involve yourself in a cutting room somewhere where people are actually doing it. Watch people, and listen to the way they talk about what they’re doing. I encourage as many trainees as possible. I love trainees. They’re not jaded, they haven’t learned any rules. They’re learning all the time. It’s actually stimulating to have people like that around. Maintain that kind of innocence, that sense that anything’s possible, but tune into a methodical work practice. That’s what my advice would be.

What are you working on now?

I do a lot of work with Stacy Wall, such a brilliant commercials director. I’ve worked with him for years now, him and Style War. At the end of last year I was doing a lot of work with the two of them – a big Nike campaign with Stacy for the Olympics. I have more Nike stuff coming up, and a Liberty Mutual campaign with Style War in a couple of weeks time. I’m working on a short film with Dawn Shadforth, who works out of RSA, and I’m starting to do a bit of directing. But I’m still trying to be a really great editor. That is a huge challenge. You can try to be a director, but being a brilliant editor takes a lifetime. Walter Murch is a genius. If I could be his little finger, I’d be very happy. It’s an unyielding ambition – to really know what I’m doing editingwise.