David O. Russell's Shooting Style, Killer Features in the Avid, and the End of the Film Era

Jay Cassidy, A.C.E., just won an ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical) with co-editors Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, A.C.E., for his work on American Hustle. This Eddie is Cassidy’s second in two years, following his win last year for Silver Linings Playbook. Cassidy is also up for the Oscar for Best Editing for American Hustle. Among his other credits are An Inconvenient Truth (for which he won another Eddie), Into the Wild, and Waiting for Superman. He is currently working on Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller. Studio Daily’s Debra Kaufman spoke to Cassidy about his work on American Hustle.

StudioDaily: Silver Linings Playbook was the first David O. Russell film you edited. Tell me a bit about that experience and how it led to him bringing you back to cut American Hustle
Jay Cassidy: Pam Martin, the editor who had done The Fighter, wasn’t available when he started, so they began a search and my name came up. I only had a brief conversation with David because they had already started shooting. It was a good experience. I certainly got the tone that was clear in the script of Silver Linings Playbook, and that tone continued to American Hustle. He’s making real characters. I’ve often thought of David as the William Saroyan of filmmaking. Saroyan was the 1940s author of The Human Comedy and a lot of very wonderful books and stories based on real characters. David doesn’t come from a place of cynicism but a place of being interested in these people and eventually loving them.
What were Russell’s inspirations for American Hustle? What did he share with you? 
He’s inspired by a lot of things. Whether it’s GoodFellas — certainly people have compared Hustle to that, because that movie also begins with a lot of narrated backstory — David just made reference to movies all the time, bringing in DVDs on a weekly basis and asking what I watched that week. The references are alive, but in one sense, he’s really referencing the three movies in this series — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and this one. He thinks of them as a continuation of the others, each one an examination of family.
I know there are also two other editors on the film – Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten. How did you all work together?
It was fairly simple. On Silver Linings, I gave Crispin discrete sections of several scenes and he was responsible for those; his role grew a bit on American Hustle. David likes variations, to see the same scene with different performances. In order to afford him his process and because of the schedule, it was clear that we needed a very experienced third editor and we were happy to get Alan.
On American Hustle, each editor took responsibility for a big chunk. When you’re on such a short schedule, it’s inefficient to pass scenes around willy-nilly. The person receiving it doesn’t have the depth of knowledge about the material or know the evolution of the scene, how it came from the first assembly to what the fine cut is. There was overlap, especially in the third act, but we tried to keep the chunks fairly discrete. That being said, everything went through review with David and all of us in the room together, sometimes a couple of times a day towards the end.
What section were you responsible for?
I did the whole first act. You start with two characters who are not immediately likeable. How do you meet Irving Rosenfeld? He’s constructing his hair, taking his sweet time and [he] looks like a clown. But, by the end of the first act, when Amy Adams says, “What’s it going to be, Mr. Mastermind?” you have to be invested in their relationship to take you through the next two acts. I had to integrate and weave together the backstories where Christian and Amy talk about each other, not get mired in the details of their past lives and still get some involvement. We were refining it right up to the end of editing, and mixing and changing the picture right to the end.
Like many filmmakers, David is constantly re-examining his own work and asking how he can make it better. On Silver Linings, because we were waiting for Danny Elfman to write the score, we previewed the movie, then re-looked at all the dailies and did a lot of re-cutting and truly made the film better. On American Hustle, with the 170-page script and the amount of footage shot, we had a four-month post-production period. Sony very generously forgave us a couple weeks at the end, which we took great advantage of and which made all the difference.
Russell’s films are known to involve improvisation. How much was American Hustle improvised and how did that affect the editing? 
I think the improvisation myth has been a little overstated. It isn’t improvisation so much as refinement on the set. David is constantly rewriting the script in his mind. When he’s with the actors on the sets, he is not afraid to change dialogue if he or the actor comes up with a better solution. He takes that attitude of experimentation or revision into editing; he’s constantly rewriting as we’re cutting the scenes.
Does all that refinement on set result in a higher shooting ratio? 
I’m not sure what the ratio is. David tends to do a lot of resetting within the run of the camera. He’ll stop the action sometimes and give direction and then restart as things go. It meant there was a lot of film shot, just because it was rolling. One numbered take may have five or six retakes within it.  That becomes a challenge, and there was only one answer: Avid’s ScriptSync software.
Tell me how you use Avid’s ScriptSync.
I started using it in 1998, on Urban Legend, and became a complete convert. What we do is import the script, re-edit it after it’s imported and then mark takes and re-sets within the takes. What gets shot doesn’t always correspond to what was scripted, so someone has to go through and transcribe bits of variation, which we do. Then there may be little sections that contain dialogue that wasn’t scripted at all and those have to be transcribed and put into the script. As an editor, marking something or making a notation takes three seconds. The script ends up with lots of little annotations, and it helps you get back to it. Then you can go right to the dialogue, whatever it is. It’s a fantastic tool.
Setting up the script is an investment in time and effort in the beginning, but it so pays off as we editors are constantly looking for material. It’s one of the Avid features that keeps me from ever considering another editing platform.
Were there any other Avid features that helped you on American Hustle?
Avid’s ISIS is now pretty much replacing the Unity software, and it’s a huge improvement for the shared projects. It is a hardware improvement, because the computer talks to the server over Ethernet, and it’s a software improvement because they benefited by [developing] 10 or 12 years of Unity software. It’s not only sharing the media, but Media Composer has the ability to share the project, and once you do that you never want to do it any other way. It’s so smartly designed. On American Hustle, we had a lot of VFX. There were hundreds of shots replacing reflections in all the sunglasses people wore and we had to remove scaffolding off the Plaza Hotel. Because the ISIS communicates by Ethernet, the VFX company didn’t have to be right in our office. They were in our building, but the Internet that was pre-wired into the building could take the signal, so they were hooked up to the server. I would walk in in the morning and the VFX editor had already put in the VFX in the timeline. Any time you get those efficiencies, it’s huge.
I know American Hustle was shot on film. Did that impact the schedule and your workflow?
American Hustle was shot on Fuji film and, in the middle of shooting, Fuji told us they were going to stop making film. But, fortunately, they had enough stock for us to finish. Kodak was in receivership at the time, so it’s not like the old days, where every two years there was an interesting new technological innovation in stock, like T-grain and Vision stock.
We’re seeing the photochemical era end. But there’s an argument to shooting film stock — it’s wonderful. As far as impacting our workflow, the infrastructure to deal with film has shrunk but still exists. We processed at Deluxe in New York and Company 3 there handled the telecine. I grew up with film, so it was no problem. You get some workflow wrinkles in digital as well, such as waiting for files sent over Aspera. If you look at the film stocks now and in the 1970s, they’re completely different. Some would make the argument that the way they did things in the 1970s was better than what we’re looking at now, but who knows? Things change.