On Working with Fincher, Splitting the Screen, and Editing on an Atomic Level

The skeleton of every film is a screenplay, but few can boast as strong a bone structure as the one provided by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, the fast-paced, fast-talking story of fast times behind the scenes of Facebook. Moving self-assuredly among a multiplicity of different settings – they include the Harvard campus where Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas were born, the Henley Royal Regatta rowing event where Zuckerberg’s classmates lose a race by a whisker, and the noisy Ruby Skye bar where Zuckerberg’s conversation with Napster co-founder Sean Parker is barely audible over a thick layer of club music – the film makes way for director David Fincher’s striking visual storytelling without ever submerging the sharp dialogue and story structure beneath the considerable cinematic pyrotechnics.

Give credit to the film editors, who are charged with doing justice to the narrative by finding the heart of each performance and making every moment the best it can possibly be. Film & Video got Fincher’s regular collaborators Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter to take a break from their work on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which is, like The Social Network, being edited with Final Cut Pro – and talk about bringing Fincher’s and Sorkin’s vision of Business 3.0 (and a bit of old-fashioned loneliness) to bracing life.

Film & Video: Angus, when you cut the opening titles for Se7en back in 1995, did you have any idea how far in your career that collaboration with David Fincher would take you?

Angus Wall: I met David in 1988, when he was this wunderkind director at Propaganda Films and I was the vault guy. He was a couple of years older than me, and I always looked up to him. I had always dreamed of being able to work with him. That’s stayed a constant. When the titles for Se7en happened, I was very excited, although I don’t think you can ever look into the future. But he’s an incredibly loyal person in a town that is – supposedly – not full of loyal people. And he inspires that level of loyalty in the people around him.

F&V: Tell me about your cutting room and what’s in it. For instance, are you working in ProRes (high-definition) in Final Cut?

AW: Ever since Zodiac, we’ve been cutting in high-def. It’s been a boon. People take it for granted now, but looking at a wide shot and not actually being able to tell what people are doing in the background was always a problem in standard-def. I think we had five Final Cut workstations attached to an Xsan. It was a pretty basic set-up. We had the luxury of being able to process all of our dailies and all the data, because David shot RED. He hasn’t shot film in quite a number of years. Zodiac was predominantly Viper, and because the Viper cam couldn’t shoot high-speed, there were some film shots in that. But David has been a big proponent of using digital cameras, and the cutting room has followed suit in growing its ability to manage the media that comes in from the shoot. We don’t go out to a lab to create dailies or do a conform. It all happens in our little editorial unit.

F&V: Is there a look dialed in when you get the files?

AW: It’s funny, because when we set up Zodiac, we created six looks, and a couple of days into the shoot he had settled on one. We had a blue exterior, a warm exterior, a cool interior … we developed all these different looks, and very quickly he liked one thing and he really stuck to that. There’s a basic LUT, set on the camera, that follows the digital negative all the way through the show. That’s what we used when we make the dailies. Basically it just de-greens it and drops the gamma, which gives it a very consistent look. That’s what he did when he shot film as well – whoever was doing the dailies set up to the color chart and rolled dailies. It’s not like he’s trying to generate a look in dailies. But the dailies we were working with were really beautiful.

F&V: What’s the division of labor between you and Kirk Baxter?

AW: It’s spread really evenly. It’s a very organic, collaborative relationship. Editing is one discipline where you can really share the labor if you have the right chemistry between people. It can be joyous in terms of sharing. It’s not even a very organized way we work. Whatever pops up and needs to be done, whoever gets finished with what they’re working on first takes it.

Kirk Baxter: With the exception that Angus is, at times, more keen to run in head-first into the battle – into something like Gallipoli. Angus doesn’t balk at an incredible challenge, whereas I’ll take three deep breaths and go, “Okaaaay.” The opening scene in The Social Network? That landed on Angus because he was getting the next scene, whatever it was. Boom, that was his. It was a toughie, but he doesn’t hesitate or try to dodge those.

AW: Well, they’re not going to go away. [Laughter.]

KB: I remember you did, like, 99 percent of Ruby Skye, and on a week when you weren’t around, David started talking to me about it. “Take a look at this line, and then take a look at that line.” My first thought was, “I could stall, and Angus would have to continue because he has done everything else so far.” But with David in front of you, you just jump in. David shouldn’t be burdened by anything between Angus and I. He doesn’t stop and say, “Now, which one of you … ?” That’s going to slow him down. He’s moving forward.

AW: We all work at the service at the story, ultimately. We’re soldiers, essentially.

F&V: The screenplay is written in Aaron Sorkin’s distinctive style, with lots of dense, overlapping dialogue. Did that style of screenplay have an impact on your work in the edit?

KB: It influences what David is doing. And whatever David is doing influences us. It influences everything, but we’re reactionary to what’s in the film.

AW: I think David actually asked Aaron to read him the screenplay, so he could see how long it would be and also to understand what pace Aaron had in his mind when he wrote it. It’s a 160-odd-page screenplay, which, by conventional rules, would mean 160-odd minutes. When Aaron read it to David, it was an hour and 59 minutes. Believe it or not, that’s how long the movie is now. After hearing Aaron read it, he applied that to the pace of the overall movie. In terms of pacing, yes, we’re trying to get as much information in there as possible and not lose the audience. But a lot of it is really dictated by the performances themselves.

KB: We knew, going into the project, that we had to keep it moving. There was pressure in the beginning to cut pages out of it, but David wanted to be true to [the script].

AW: Ironically, the first cut was shorter than the final cut. We had to blow a little bit of time into a few scenes for things to land adequately.

F&V: The timing of emotional beats, or letting a line of dialogue sit so the audience can think about its meaning?

AW: Or adding three frames to somebody’s reaction. It’s on a pretty small level – an atomic level!

F&V: But did you, as someone with a lot of experience on Fincher’s features, notice a different rhythm to what you were doing in the cutting room? Benjamin Button, for example, feels like a looser, more sprawling story, while The Social Network has a very tight, propulsive narrative feel.

AW: I don’t know that David has a set style. I think he’s also reacting to the blueprint, which is the script, and all of the decisions fall out of that. But one thing we’ve learned, over the last couple of movies, is that sometimes, if something feels like it should be longer, make it shorter. We’ve learned to cut things as tight as we possibly can as a general rule, to keep a story, as you said, being propulsive.

KB: Also, there are very few scenes in this movie that aren’t crammed with dialogue from beginning to end. There are no moments to sit around and sort of soak it up. It’s always going. That’s probably why it stands out as different from Benjamin Button. Like Angus said, the blueprint for it is ready-set-go.

F&V: Speaking of dialogue, Fincher has a reputation for shooting an awful lot of line readings. In the documentary on The Social Network Blu-ray, it becomes almost a joke as the different actors talk about doing their hundredth take of a given shot. But you’re not working with all of those different takes in the cutting room, are you?

AW: Maybe he’ll shoot 30 and he’ll print 23 of them. For the opening scene, Aaron Sorkin is very fond of saying there are 99 takes of that. I don’t know how many actual takes we had of that. It was maybe 60 to go through. There’s a reason for that. It’s hard, when you’re in the moment and watching it on set, to see the distinction. David is not like Billy Wilder, where he’ll do a funny take and a sad take and a flat take and then an ebullient take. He’s working and driving toward something really specific. Every take is within a very narrow spectrum of performance. It served this movie really well. We end up looking for these little gems of nuance. Our job is to be diligent enough to find those, to have our antennae sensitive enough to recognize when that happens. David is great about letting us know, “This is a good section for this, this is a good section for that.” When you start cutting these moments out of context and comparing them with like moments from other takes, you start to see there are really big qualitative differences between the takes. You go, “Oh that is better than this one.” But if you watch [that moment] in the context of the full take, it’s hard to see that.

KB: The selected takes can only bring you so far. If you’re doing a scene that’s dialogue from start to finish, and David has starred that as a good take, when we’ve done the final cut of that, we might be using, within that take, four different sections of a line. Unless he specifically says, “That section of that line,” generally it means it’s an overall good performance. As we get down to the fine-tuning of the film and we’re talking about a line where Eduardo says, “I was your only friend,” there might be four starred takes. But for that particular line, it’s our job to go through every single time it was said and double-check, not just for what was the best picture but for what was the best audio. We can get the best picture with the best camera [angle] and with the best head-turn, and then we can put the performance in his mouth. If he’s done 30 takes, when we’ve got our cut, we will check every single take. If three are the best, I like to stick all three in front of David. Just repeat them, and he’ll be like, “The one in the middle.” And then he knows for sure, and he can safely and happily move on without questioning it.

F&V: Do you composite different parts of a single shot together?

AW: Oh god, yes.

KB: Constantly. Constantly.

AW: With David, very often, if you’re in the meat of a scene it’s a lock-off. If it’s a two-shot, the actors will often give a little bit of room in between each line. Sometimes it’s nice to do a split screen on those two-shots and pull up the gap between the two lines.

KB: If you’re shooting over the shoulder, it helps keep continuity with the foreground person, as well, what they’re doing. You can go through all of their performance and make sure you’ve got your foregrounds matching to your back plate and you’re using the right performance in the main part of the shot. We’re constantly doing it. He’s also looser now with how he frames, so that we can move in and stabilize something in order to Frankenstein two shots together.

F&V: So that’s something you’re doing commonly.

KB: Even during the assembly.

AW: Oh yeah.

F&V: And how long has that been easy for you to do?

AW: We did it on Panic Room a lot. It was more expensive then, because it became an optical. You’d scan two pieces of negative together and send them out somewhere to be composited. Now, it’s something the assistant does.

KB: It’s unlikely for us not to have a split in any scene in the film. And that’s just one. Sometimes it’s 10. I don’t know what the count is [on The Social Network], but I’m sure there are hundreds.

AW: We rely on it so much that when you’re in a scene like Ruby Skye, where the lighting is changing all the time so you can’t do it, it becomes much harder, because you lost a trick.

F&V: Can you talk specifically about the “Facemash” sequence? [It depicts Zuckerberg hacking various computers on campus to retrieve head shots of female students for a tasteless, “hot-or-not” style website.] That’s a terrific sequence to watch, and I was wondering if it was a terrific sequence to edit, as well. Was it especially difficult, something you lavished time on, or did it come together as a function of the script?

AW: It was difficult in a different way. It’s much bigger scale than most of the scenes in the film. It’s more dependent on pictures and music. You get this intercutting of information, but there was a lot more freedom in figuring out how that scene went together. That made it more difficult and a lot more fun. In a lot of ways it allowed us to stretch our wings and go crazy, trying different things. It really helped us out when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gave us a track that was the foundation of the final track [in the sequence]. That whole movement in the film is musically based, and it sort of congealed at that point. It was the same thing with the race, the Henley Royal Regatta scene. That was pure pictures and sound, with no dialogue. It’s a sherbet course in the movie, and it was also a sherbet course in the edit, because it’s something completely different.

F&V: So it’s not like these things have been pre-planned and boarded out so that you’re following a specific blueprint?

AW: Not slavishly following something. It’s clear that certain things have to happen before other things. But it’s not like a dialogue scene where you know the conversation can only happen this way. There was some flexibility. For “Facemash” in particular, we were cross-cutting between things that were happening on different parts of the campus, and the timeline there could be a little more flexible.

KB: I’ve only ever seen a storyboard from David on two occasions, and mostly it’s previs for heavy VFX stuff: the submarine battle in Benjamin Button and something in the movie [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] we’re doing now. It rarely occurs. David has a clear idea of what he’s up to, and the rest of us play catch-up.

AW: It becomes really obvious what the filet of each shot is. You’re going through dailies and you say, “That’s a fantastic image.”

KB: David can shoot so many angles, and he doesn’t do it in a scatter-bomb way. He’s got a reason for each camera placement. In the beginning, it’s a language thing, how to block the scene. Once that’s worked out, then there’s a second stage, how to get meaning out of the scene.

F&V: What about cutting the Winklevoss twins, with the face-doubling VFX? [The twins were played, physically, by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, but Hammer’s facial performance was mapped onto Pence’s body in every scene.] Are there tricks to keeping up with that kind of performance?

KB: It takes more time, but you’ve got more control of everything. Because David knows he’s going to be splitting up the screen, there’s more room for us. You don’t have to take a performance at face value. You can dissect it and get things much more accurate. I loved cutting the Winklevoss twins.

AW: It’s sort of like using Photoshop, where you take a bit of this shot and a bit of this shot and put them together to make a better shot. Working on those scenes, you start to build the split screens, and then head-replacement kind of is what it is, and you can see Josh Pence as one of the Winklevi in each of those scenes. I actually started to forget that there was only one Armie. It is a testament to his performances that I started to believe there really were twins. I think that helps the cutting. You fully immerse yourself in the scene and believe everything you’re looking at.

KB: I was always racing to do those [split screens] as quickly as I could, to get that illusion up as fast as I could. You want to get rid of the tell-tale sign as fast as you can. That was a joy.

F&V: Any more tales you’d like to share from the editing room?

AW: There were two things that only became clear toward the very end, and they only emerged when we were pretty well finished fine-cutting all the performances. First, there was a point where Kirk and I looked at each other and went, “Oh my god, the movie’s funny.” It was weird, because it took a really long time to get there. It was always in the script, and David got it in the shooting, but it didn’t emerge in the movie proper until the very end. The other thing that was fascinating to me was how there wasn’t a traditional good guy and a traditional bad guy. These are people, and this is how they are acting in this situation. It’s an unusual movie because of that. Each character in the film is very complex, and I realized when the film was done that that was what we were working toward.

KB: The first time we sat and watched it with an audience, I thought, “All these guys behaving poorly, who’s going to root for any of them?” But as it fine-tuned itself, that became, “All these guys think they’re right.” It’s such a fine line. When Angus first cut the Ruby Skye scene I was so impressed by that close-up where it landed on Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker saying, “So where in the hell is Eduardo?” You get his intention in that scene. I love it. When I first watched it, I got, “OK, this is divide and conquer – I’m going to remove Eduardo and place myself there.” But the movie became less about wanting to do the wrong thing and more that he was saying, “I know how to help you. I’m right. This is the best way forward for you.” He becomes less a villain and more an opportunist.

F&V: And these are things that you didn’t always have in mind during the edit?

AW: Not necessarily. When you’re in the midst of it and working at a granular level, you focus on what’s immediately in front of you. You probably get seven or eight viewings of a movie before you’re deaf, dumb and blind to it. Occasionally, we would stop and say, “Let’s watch what we’ve got.” And it was very interesting as we got toward the end. It’s like you’re sealing up the last cracks in something and it finally sort of holds water. It’s a great feeling when that happens.