Into the Woods, Disney's new film based on the beloved Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, is a lush, orchestrated rumination on modern life seen through a fractured fairy-tale canon. Directed by Rob Marshall and shot on the ARRI Alexa by Dion Beebe, ACS, ASC, the film was edited by Wyatt Smith, who came up through the music business cutting live concerts and music videos. He previously worked with Marshall on the movie musical Nine, his first feature film project as a co-editor. Marshall tapped Smith for that role after working with him on a Tony Bennett special for NBC. We talked to Smith about editing such verbally and musically challenging material, and he told us how the Sondheim songs themselves gave rise to the visual flow and pace of the film.
StudioDaily: What changed most about your workflow when you moved from music-related television work and edited Nine?
Wyatt Smith: It was always a dream to do something with films but given my background, I never thought it would be possible. On Nine, with all the narrative work, it's an entirely different animal. There are a whole lot of people working really hard on one thing and you have one opportunity to put it out there, for now and forever. That family, that risk and that intensity is what I very quickly learned makes films so different, so wonderful and so scary all at once. As the co-editor on Nine, I cut the film with Claire Simpson, who is a legend. She's as good as they get, especially when it comes to character. So learning from someone like that and having her mentoring me along was a dream. We all cut the film together: Rob, his partner John DeLuca, Claire and I were together at all times. I had very good mentors.
Had you seen a stage production of Into the Woods before you started on the film?
I'd seen the VHS of the original Broadway production with Bernadette Peters but never got to see it on the Broadway stage. My high school performed it. Some high schools and especially lower schools that put it on, you know, don't always perform the entire thing. A lot of them only take it to happily ever after, not careful what you wish for. Rob brought that up while we were working on it, because my high school performed it all the way through. But apparently the younger ones—and maybe the teachers and administrators—just love that happy ending without that lesson learned. That's completely fair—and weird, in a way, that it actually still works, on a very simplistic level, if you cut the show in half.
Were you intimidated at all by the density of Sondheim's music and lyrics during the edit?
It moves very quickly, and his songs and James Lapine's screenplay, from his original book, are verbose and not constructed with obvious language. For example, Cinderella in her pivotal scene on the palace steps says she is caught in pitch, not tar. Manipulating the pace of the film so that people could understand every word and look in the eyes of the actors and [not only] hear this beautiful barrage of words but also understand them, that was one of the biggest tricks. And we constantly worked with the music team to create the underscore of the film, because you can't temp a musical with music from something else. It just doesn't work. So we were constantly taking those pre-records and pulling different pieces and layers out and trying them as underscores and seeing if we could create musical motifs that worked with characters. It was so exciting when those pieces would click. When something happens with a bean, there's a series of chimes that ring in a very Sondheim scale and it was so great when we found it and put it where the beans appear. It was part of Sondheim's language, and yet it is a new piece of music specific to the film.
What else fell away from the original musical in order to translate it to the screen?
Characterwise, the Baker's father was changed dramatically. He was the Mysterious Man in the stage play, and that all has to do with the second act—which in our film is the third act. Because it is so dark and everyone is learning these lessons and there is a lot of gravity and emotion, on film we had to make sure it didn't suddenly feel like you were in a different movie. Unfortunately, because he was changed we lost a number of those original songs from the stage musical's second act. We wanted to be true to the stage musical, so the underscore you hear when the Baker breaks down and comes to terms with his reality is "No More," originally a duet between the Baker and his father and one of the songs that didn't make it into the film. But to keep the pace toward the ending, we knew the film couldn't handle another song there. Sondheim had also written a new song for the Witch, but Rob and I felt—and even Stephen himself and Meryl agreed—it had to go because it set up a question we never resolve in the final act. James Lapine also helped us shape a lot of the narration, much of which came from the original book of the musical.
Where in the narrative—or the recording process—did you start cutting the show?
You cut the film many times over the course of the edit. Obviously, the film is not shot linearly, so when I'm doing the assembly I'm not really cutting it together linearly. I wait until its complete to watch back that very first cut, so the linearity doesn't really matter that much. With Rob, he likes to start at the beginning, so once I started the director's cut with him, we did start at the beginning and march forward. The only thing we did out of order was the "On the Steps of the Palace" scene sung by Anna Kendrick, who plays Cinderella, because it had all those visual-effects elements of the slo-mo fires. We wanted to do a rough cut early to give to visual effects to help them start to develop what that would look like and how it would work. Of course, we recut that song a million times after that.
Which was the most difficult song sequence to cut?
"On the Steps of the Palace" ranks pretty high up there, but it wasn't so much the song itself as the entrance to it. In the Broadway show, Cinderella reflects on it, but it all happened in the past. She comes to the front of the stage and she sings this song, talking about what happened with the prince. Rob, taking it to a visual medium, brilliantly said, "No—we should be with her in that moment that it happens and watch her wrestle with this decision." That's what the song is really about: her struggling to decide what to do. He conceptualized the idea of freezing time around her. Unfortunately, that's not an easy thing to get across to an audience: she's running and running and suddenly steps in tar and everything freezes. It's so easy to describe that but it is amazing how many different times we cut that and how many different visual ways and wide shots and tight shots on the prince we worked with. Just figuring out the precise moment time stops, or even starts to slow down, was tricky, because we didn't want it to be so subtle it didn't register. We came back to that an awful lot until we finally found the right sequence of shots that brought everything to a stop, where you understood that she was stuck and that the prince was frozen in time. We had a terrific visual effects team: VFX supervisor Matt Johnson, producer Ken Wallace and in-house compositor Alex Lemke. By having them right there with us on the same floor while we were working, they were constantly developing ideas that we would look at and try. That number certainly saw a lot of back-and-forth to really get it to lock in. And then by complete fluke, it became a huge laugh to audiences because Chris Pine stops in this pose that we didn't even realize was funny while we cut it. We were too worried about whether the audience would understand that time was stopping. Not only did the audience get it, but they laughed, which was wonderful to hear.
How did Marshall approach the pre-recordings and were any performances recorded on set?
There were a lot of pre-records, but the key to the pre-records on this picture is that the process didn't start with everyone going into a studio to record the actors. For a film of this scale, it was actually shot very quickly and efficiently, but that's due to the fact that Rob mandated a really extensive rehearsal period. He worked with the actors and rehearsed the numbers with them on an empty stage, so when they went into the recording studio, they knew as they sang where they were running or turning or struggling. All of that emotion and performance, which normally feels so fake and can make a music video out of a film, was there with them as they recorded. The actors were able to perform with all those laughs and breaths in the studio because they knew exactly what they were going to be going through in the scene. But that being said, we also had opportunities when we were shooting, like the "Witch's Rap." That's live—that's Meryl rapping on camera. When Tracey Ullman is singing to Jack at the beginning of the film, that's all live. "A Very Nice Prince," sung by Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, is also very much a conversation. Yes, it's set to music and it's paced and timed to music, but there was no reason to lock them in, so they sang that performance live, and any places where they might have stretched or paused differently, our music team helped work all that out.
What about Meryl Streep's gut-wrenching mother of all songs, "Stay with Me"?
Yes, that was tricky for different reasons. For several months in the edit you're always crying as you work. I was telling someone this story recently where I had just finished cutting together the finale of the film, when the Baker is talking to his child and he's accepting his new life; it's just a beautiful moment. And James Corden just devastated me. I was really moved. I thought, I need a breather from this. So I decided to go to set. But when I got there, everybody had red eyes, so I watched the next take. It was Meryl singing "Stay with Me." That was one of the most emotionally draining days of my career. It's all because I refused to listen to the pre-records first.
Is that really Chris Pine singing?
Yes, really. I was surprised too! Like I said, I'm given the pre-records but I would not listen to them. I want to experience the footage and what those actors are bringing to it and I want to have that visceral, first reaction to it, as opposed to already knowing, "It sounds like this, so let's see what they do." The first time I was looking at the dailies for "Agony," the song Chris sings with theater and film veteran Billy Magnussen, I couldn't believe it but I was also so excited to see this show-stopping hilarity unfold in front of us. Billy also took what was a relatively small part as Rapunzel's prince and made it so memorable. The swamp scene with Rapunzel, where he regains his sight, is one of my favorites because it tip-toes around being a sappy, melodramatic moment and then he breaks it so brilliantly with his comment about her hair. His performance totally fixed the scene.
What did you most appreciate about the way Rob Marshall directed this production, in terms of your editorial workflow?
Obviously lighting and location and set dressing need plenty of time to get everything right, and Dion Beebe and Rob are brilliant at bringing that all together, but the fact that he did so much with the actors in rehearsal had huge benefits all the way through editorial. Time lost on blocking on a film shoot has always frustrated me as an editor because it just means you are not thinking about how you're putting together the film. What's great with Rob is, not only has he already thought about where everybody is and what they're going to do, but they've also already been doing it! This way, the actors can get right into it and work on their performance from the start of filming.
Was there a normal amount of footage to deal with on this project?
The film was mostly shot two-camera [and] very rarely more than that. Depending on what the scene was, some days produced more [footage] than other days. I was never hurting for footage or drowning in it. I was based at Shepperton Studios in England, where the film was shot. A lot of those forests were indeed real forests on location, and if Rob felt he wanted my input, there were a few days I was called to set and would go onto location with the team. But for me, when I needed a break from the editing I would go to set anyway. With that cast and that scale, the film was actually made for less than you might think, so the three-and-a-half month shoot was pretty aggressive. I stayed around for an additional time with a miniature unit, which is how we shot all the scenes with the giant. It was actually a miniature forest. Frances de la Tour's performance was shot at various frame rates to make the trees feel like they had mass and our sound designing team of Renée Tondelli and Blake Leyh worked out how the giant's voice would really work and reverberate throughout the forest.
Are you exclusively an Avid editor?
It's my preference, but I don't want to be known as a Final Cut editor or an Avid editor. I'm excited to get to learn Adobe Premiere again, and I hope I'll get to use it soon. I'm starting to play around with it. I really believe that every editor should know the full toolset of your trade, just as a cinematographer should be comfortable shooting digitally on an Alexa, Red or Sony. They are all just technicalities to your craft.
When did Sondheim see the final film?
We had an early friends-and-family screening in a small theater and we brought Stephen in. I was nervous and in a row behind Stephen and pretty much just watched him throughout to see his reaction. The first time he opened up and laughed was when Little Red begins to stuff her face with stolen cookies. That was a wonderful moment.
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