Cutting a Feature on a Low Budget with the Software-Only Avid Media Composer

If any single movie can be identified as the toast of Sundance 2012, it might be The Surrogate, which arrived with little fanfare to tell the bleak-sounding story of the late journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, a quadriplegic polio survivor spending much of his time in an iron lung. But O’Brien had, against the odds, a successful writing career that makes his story inspirational. One of the pieces he left behind dealt with his experience seeking a sexual surrogate. Writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, drew heavily on that piece for a film that made a big Sundance splash, selling to Fox Searchlight for $6 million days after its first screening. Oscar nominee John Hawkes plays O’Brien, Helen Hunt his surrogate, and William H. Macy his priest.

The Surrogate  was shot on the Red One MX and edited on a software-only Avid Media Composer system by Lisa Bromwell, A.C.E., an Avid veteran who took on the film as a rare unpaid gig because she believed in the material. When we spoke to her this week, she had just returned from the film’s world premiere in the cavernous Eccles Theater in Park City and was already back at work cutting two episodes of Criminal Minds, but she said The Surrogate represented a satisfying departure from her normal mix of editorial jobs. “I wanted to work with a filmmaker that had a story they cared about,” she told StudioDaily. “That’s what this film is, and I’m really proud of it.” We asked her about working with Lewin, Hawkes’ performance in the film, and how she really feels about Final Cut Pro.

Did you make it to Sundance to see the film?

My husband and I flew up on Friday morning and saw the film on Monday. I’ve been editing for 20 years, and I’ve never had a film at Sundance before.

That must have been quite an experience.

It was so amazing. It screened for 1200 people in a huge, sold-out theater. We’ve been working on this movie for a good while, and we screened it for a lot of people, but never a stranger – not for people who aren’t connected in some way with the film. I don’t think that’s a good idea, but that’s the way it happened. I was anxious to see it play in a theater full of strangers, and I could not have been more astonished and pleased. You can always tell if the audience is with you or not. They laughed at the right moments and sobbed at the right moments. It was really an extraordinary experience. And a standing ovation. I was kind of overwhelmed.

Let’s start by talking about your set-up for the film. What were you cutting with?

I had an Avid Media Composer 5.5, which was donated by Avid. I have to say, they were extremely generous. We cut on a software-only system, with the program running on my Mac Pro. I did make a few upgrades to my computer – I made sure I had enough RAM, my assistant had me use eSATA connections, and I bought a separate drive for the programs so the system would run more smoothly – but I have a three-monitor set-up, so once I was working, it was no different than being in front of my full professional system. I had done other software-only projects, but it’s still astonishing to me that it works at all. I didn’t need Sapphire plug-ins, and I wasn’t doing any real mixing, so I had everything I needed. I could still lay out the titles, and maybe I couldn’t have animated them as well, but I turned that over to a title designer. I don’t think I ever crashed. It didn’t feel like I was working on some junior version of Media Composer.

Did you have an assistant working on a separate system?

No, we had just one. I only had the assistant for dailies. I lost the assistant – because the production didn’t have any money – and then brought someone in again later to do the turnovers and picture and sound finishing. There was an on-set DIT who transferred the media to DNxHD 36, but my assistant did the transcoding. There was no post house involved in that.

Now, you have worked during your career on features and major television series …

I’ve worked on all levels of things. When I started as an editor, we were on film, and I did some big-budget movies on film. After the turn to digital, I’ve done everything from short films and TV shows to small feature films. The Surrogate was a pretty low-budget project. I’m not used to working without an assistant. That’s scary for me. But I know everything I need to know as an editor, and I’m comfortable with the Avid.

Is the Avid your system of choice? Do you prefer it to Final Cut?

I despise Final Cut. I feel I can say it with authority. I’ve cut, I think, three movies on Final Cut Pro, as well as a recut of a documentary. To me there’s no comparison. And I was adamant about that when I started this project. When they hired me, they were already proceeding as if the film were to be edited on Final Cut, but I insisted that we were going to cut with Media Composer. My biggest fight was convincing the producer that it wasn’t going to cost him more money in the end. And it didn’t! Nothing had to be done differently, except that they had to redo the transcode for the first few days of shooting. People don’t know that you can use Media Composer on a low-budget project. They assume that if you don’t have money, you have to cut with Final Cut Pro, and that’s just not true.

So how did you get the job in the first place? And what convinced you this was a project you wanted to cut?

It’s such a fabulous script. You can’t take jobs for no money very often, so if you’re going to do it, you need to choose wisely. I’m friendly with Geoffrey Simpson, who was the DP. He shot Under the Tuscan Sun, on which my husband was one of the producers, and we all became close friends. Geoff is Australian, and he was telling be about this film. I thought it sounded like a great story and I asked Geoff if they had an editor. He called Ben Lewin, the director, and said, “You should meet Lisa.”

What kind of discussions did you have with him as you started work? Were you talking about the tone of the film, or pacing?

I know that Ben wanted to hire a women to cut this film because he thought a woman would have a better sensibility for the material. We talked about the script in terms of tone. It could have been, “Oh, poor me,” going down a self-pitying route. It could have been made overly sentimental. Other than that, we didn’t have a lot of conversations because he was already shooting when he needed to hire an editor.

Were you working close to where he was shooting?

They were shooting all over Los Angeles, and I have a little editing room in Hollywood that I use for small projects. I did the first cut there, but Ben wanted to cut the film in his house in Santa Monica, where he has an office in the garage. I thought it was crazy, but we moved to his garage and I stayed there for the rest of the process.

So was he with you through the entire cut, once shooting was over?

Once the first cut was done, he sat with me a lot. Ben’s a guy who says, “I like to fiddle,” and that’s a really good description. He likes to try different things and move them around. This story is told with flash-forwards. You’re in a session with the sex surrogate and then you flash-forward to a session with the priest, and then you’re back at the session with the surrogate. With that structure, you could put it together any number of ways. Where do you put those conversations with the priest? We tried them in a lot of places. So he would sit with me, but sometimes I would say, “I need some time to figure this out,” and he would sit at his computer or go up to the house to take care of some things.

But he’s a great director to work with because he has a lot of respect for my opinion. This film had a lot of things in the script that didn’t make it into the final cut, and it was a challenge to take them out. He had a lot of fantasy sequences that worked in the script but didn’t necessarily work in the film. They moved to about 15 different places before they came out.

Did you have a lot of footage to work with?

They were scheduled to shoot for 21 days and I think it actually went to 22 days. It was not an enormous amount of footage, but there was certainly more than one take of all the set-ups. It’s shot in a very traditional way, with no fancy camerawork. He made it clear that it was not his intention to make The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Sometimes you work on something that’s low budget and you don’t have all the footage you need, but I always had all the coverage I needed.

So there wasn’t anything really unconventional that you had to work through?

No, it’s really a straightahead narrative. I always thought it was kind of an old-fashioned movie. In the reviews that I’ve read, nobody has mentioned the editing, and I take that as a compliment. I think the editing is invisible, and it should be.

John Fawkes is playing a character who’s based on the experiences of a real person. Did that affect your approach to the film, trying to be sensitive to his performance and the true story behind it?

I’ve rarely been so impressed by an actor. His character is either in an iron lung or lying in a gurney or on the bed. He can move his head just to turn it to the right. That’s the only movement this man has. And yet his face was so amazingly expressive. It would change when he became Mark O’Brien. In dailies, he became Mark. Ben would yell, “Cut!” and John’s face would change. As an editor, I wanted to make sure I had the best pieces in, to make sure I could serve him, and his performance, and the story and emotion.

You mentioned earlier that the film was never really test-screened. Did that give you added concern, as you worked, about whether the tone was just right?

Ben and I had a lot of conversations about whether or not the movie was getting too sad. He was adamant that he wasn’t making a sad movie. We did show it to people and we took their comments seriously. By the time we locked the picture, I felt we had made the best movie that could be made with the footage we had, and I don’t always feel that way. So often, there’s such a tight schedule that you feel like if you only had more time, you could have made it a little better. We even took some breaks. I had a pre-planned vacation to see my sister, and I took a week off. Ben went to Australia. It was nice to come back and have some added perspective on it. You don’t get that luxury on most jobs. Film took longer to cut, and so you got to live with it longer. We’re all cutting digitally now, but the decision-making process never really changed. It always had to percolate in your brain for a while. And I think that really makes a difference.