Keeping All of the Characters on Screen, Staying Out of the Way of the Material, and Honoring the Rhythm of Language

Film editor Hughes Winborne, an Oscar-winner for Crash in 2006, took on a formidable task when he started work on the screen adaptation of August Wilson's acclaimed play Fences. The play had originally opened on Broadway in 1987, with James Earl Jones in the lead role of Troy Maxson, a Negro-league baseball player turned garbage collector living in the Hill District of 1950s Pittsburgh with his wife, Rose, and their teenage son. The play was revived in 2010 in a 13-week engagement starring Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose. It's that version of the play that has been translated to the screen in a new adaptation directed by Washington himself, starring most of the same cast. 

The challenges for Winborne were many. He had to help execute Washington's strategy of making the narrative work as cinema without undermining its status as an American classic. The stage play won a Tony and a Pulitzer, and the film itself is Oscar-worthy, earning a berth among the nine Best Picture contenders along with nominations for performances by both Washington and Davis, as well as the adapted screenplay completed by Wilson himself before his death in 2005. We talked to Winborne, who edited 35mm film footage shot with anamorphic Panavision C-series lenses with Avid Media Composer software, about the rhythm of dialogue, the performance styles on set, and the challenge of getting out of the way of great material while simultaneously inviting the audience in.

StudioDaily: One of the key jobs of the film editor is to make sure performances shine through as best they can, and you did a bang-up job here. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were just — wow. Very intense. 

Hughes Winborne: I had good actors, so good material to work with.

And they were actors who knew this material inside and out, since they had done it on Broadway.

It's a screenplay that was somewhat sacrosanct, so I wasn't doing what I normally do on a film, which is dropping dialogue, moving scenes around, dropping scenes. Pretty much what was shot was in the film — there were a couple of dropped scenes, but they weren't in the play. The challenge on this fim was getting the rhythm of the performances right. Certainly the performances were there but, as you know, it's a very intense and relentless play. You have to pay attention, really lean in and be connected to the material. If you lean in and allow yourself to be taken away by the rhythm of the language, the play will give itself to you. It's a beautiful piece of literature in that respect. It's not just the content of the words, but the rhythm of the language. I've never worked on material quite so strong as far as the language goes.

But the same time, it has to work as a film.

I think that Denzel, from the outset, didn't look to make it a film in a traditional sense in that he didn't try to open it up in ways he thought would be artificial for the material. Having said that, the whole play takes place in the back yard. There are no scenes inside the house, or on the front porch, or at the sanitation department, or aboard the garbage truck. Denzel opened it up to some extent, but at the same time there is a sense of continuity in the way he blocked it that allows the film to maintain the rhythm of the language. Again, it all comes back to rhythm, trying to stay true to August Wilson's rhythm in the play.

You worked with Washington as a director before, on The Great Debaters. How did you connect with him and get that job?

Through Todd Black, the producer. I had just done The Pursuit of Happyness with Todd, and The Great Debaters came up right after that, and I did Seven Pounds with Todd. So that was three Todd films in a row. I've done four films with Todd — more than with anyone but my assistants. That's how it works, you hope. You work on one, and it does well, so you get a call from somebody you know to do another one. I love my agents, and they do a lot — but they're usually not the ones who get me jobs.

And you had also done The Help, with Viola Davis.

Sometimes you get 'em and you know they're good from the very beginning. The Help was one, Pursuit was one, Crash  was one, and Fences was one. Listen, by the way, I think Fences is amazing. I think it's a classic. I really do. I think this film is going to last and be on people's radar more and more as we go, as the years go by. I think it's so powerful, and I don't think they come along very often. But yeah, I worked on The Help, and Viola's amazing. She's so smart, and not many people can do what she does. That scene in Fences in the back yard when she lets Troy [Washington] have it and all that snot's flying? Not many people can do that. 

Thinking about the sense of geography and how you open up a play that originally took place on one location, the camera moves around and there are a lot of different set-ups — was Fences a single-camera shoot?

No, no, there are quite a few scenes that were two-camera, but it was hard because the space was so small. Even that bedroom scene where Denzel yells out the window was two cameras, but if you look at the scene when the phone rings and Viola gets up to go downstairs and answer the phone, you can see that she steps out of bed and right into the hall. It was so tiny. But a lot of it was two-camera. They didn't get in each other's way, but they didn't have much space to work with. It was very hard with the sound crew to get in there with the cameras and try to get everybody mic'd. And you never knew what anybody was going to do — especially Denzel. You never knew whether he was going to scream or whisper.


I was wondering about that bedroom window scene. Obviously it's a great scene with Denzel, but you're looking over his shoulder and seeing his face from an odd angle. I guess there could have been an angle from outside …

There was coverage from the outside. But for me — and fortunately Denzel agreed with me — you know, Fences is the kind of film that's right in your face. You're looking at people's faces the entire time. As you've pointed out, the space is tight and there are a lot of tight shots. I tried to vary it — to have not only a rhythm but a variety of shots so they would mean something. A tight shot would mean something when I went to it. But you know something? I love shots that don't tell you everything. You look at him from the back, and it's an opportunity to not spoon-feed, for lack of a better term, the audience, to let them imagine what's going on. Because they know. It allows more participation on the part of the audience — which, frankly, is something that's missing from a lot of American films. We always feel like we have to tell everybody everything or else they're not going to pay attention. But I think quite the opposite is true, and it's actually harder to withhold information, whether it's visual or verbal, to get people to think about it and get involved in the film in a way that they're not typically asked to participate in American films.

Fences is a play and screenplay that's not easy. You have to invest in it. It gives you what you need to know, but it gives it to you in a very organic way. It's not a traditional structure. Most movies have a pop song structure now. But Fences grows, and it grows in surprising ways. If you're willing to participate and pay your ticket and get on the train, the reward at the end is much more than it is in most films where it's given to you on a platter and you eat your dinner and leave. 

I like to do that. Michael Mann does that a lot. I have never forgotten a scene from The Insider. When Russell Crowe gets fired from his job, he gets in the elevator and crosses the lobby, an ostracized employee, and the whole time the camera follows him from just above his shoulder. You're with both the character and what is going on around him. It's so much more interesting than just having him look at you. Although that can be good, too.

But it certainly gives the film a different mood, and instills a sort of mindfulness in the viewer. 

I think that's true. That's the hope.

The opposite of that is some shots in Fences — and these are generally big performance pieces — where the camera would be pushing in, but the push-in was incredibly slight. The slow push is kind of a trope in these films, but this was so slow that you would barely be aware of it. It felt so delicate — a kind of fragile feeling as these emotions were being expressed. 

It's interesting that you noticed that. The thing about a film like this — first of all, I've done a lot of dialogue films, but this film especially, editorially, is easy to underappreciate. As I mentioned before, getting the rhythm right is not easy. But also, it's a matter of not getting in the way of the material. We don't want the audience to know that we're making the movie. It's not a film where you want people to look at it and say, "What a great shot. Wasn't that a dramatic edit?" Quite the opposite. In a way, that's probably the reason the shot over the shoulder and out the window sticks out for you. You don't get that very often, and it's saved for a moment when it absolutely is going to work out great. But only in that moment. And it's not just the editing. It's the music. Get out of the way. Don't make yourself visible.

And it's really hard. The score on this film is quite lovely and beautiful, but the composer [Marcelo Zarvos] is not going to get any notices about it. But it's very hard to do what he did, which is a little like what you're talking about with the zooms and the push-ins. And that is a transparent score where everything in the scene is allowed to breathe through the score without calling attention to itself. That scene where Troy is telling the story about being beaten by his father, you hear the score creep in ever so slightly, but it never comes in in a big way. And that's all Denzel, the way the music was used. This is only his third film, but he's a smart guy and it's quite remarkable how deep he goes, having only done this three times, because it is a learning process and you never stop learning. I temped the film with a very subtle score, but he went so much further than I did. And I think he's right. It doesn't need it — not until the very end of the movie, when the composer is allowed to cut loose with a beautiful cue.

Thinking about that idea of the subtlety of the shots and staying out of the way and not drawing attention, there is one shot where that rule was violated. it's like a punctuation mark. And it's the last scene we see Denzel in, addressing the camera, and you've got kind of a vignetting … 

Oh, yeah. The portrait lens. 


It's a weird moment that feels out of place with the film itself. But then you realize, almost immediately, "Oh my god, that's it. That's the last we're going to see him." And then it has a haunting quality — almost like you've seen a ghost.

You know, something else people have pointed out to me is that montage in the middle. The time-passing montage [with time-lapse footage of clouds going by overhead] is really a filmic device that wasn't in the play at all. A lot of people were bothered by that. They felt that was breaking the convention, and I understand that point as well. And the portrait lens. You're right. Listen, the clouds in the sky — they didn't do that on the stage, either. That's so filmic. But the portrait lens, that's an interesting comment. I haven't heard that before and it's very observant. Afterwards you get it, but when you go into it, it draws a lot of attention to the shot.

On a more macro scale, what kinds of conversations did you have with Denzel Washington about what he was trying to accomplish and what he hoped you could help him get on the screen? What was that collaboration like?

We talked a lot about how the language was the music of the movie. He talked a lot about it. As you can imagine, he does a lot of talking. But a lot of what he talked about was more philosophical than that. He talked to the crew about it as well. Ultimately, the thing to remember is the film is about love. Despite Troy's transgressions, the film was about love and they're real people, and at the end of the day it's not a dark message. However one wants to interpret it, it's we survive and we go on and we have built this love and bond with each other. That's what I took from it, and people can take whatever they want. The film allows you to do that. But he talked a lot about letting the words do the work, letting the performance do the work, and letting the rhythm of the cuts do the work.

We did not spend an enormous amount of time sculpting performances except in a few places. My cut, the first cut while he was still in Pittsburgh, was pretty close. We spent a lot of time on that scene in the back yard with Troy, when Rose [Davis] confronts him after he's told her he's going to have a baby. And we spent a lot of time on the scenes with Rose in the back yard with her son at the end of the movie. That's not to say we didn't spend time on every scene, because we did, but some of them were pretty close.

I'll tell you something we did do a lot of — and this is how the film is different from the play, and is trying to be like the play — we spent a lot of time on scenes where there more than two characters, trying to keep everybody involved. Denzel wanted to be true to the play. He knew the play quite well and knew what everybody's role was. But what's different from theater in film is, obviously, unless you film everything in a wide shot so you see everybody, you're changing the nature of the story from the very beginning, the first time you make a cut. So we spent a fair amount of time making sure we kept Bono [Stephen McKinley Henderson] involved, whoever else was in the scene involved, with whatever coverage we had of them, so they would still be in the film as they were in the play. If you're sitting in the audience in the play, you can watch everybody on stage. But when you start cutting around to coverage in film, you're losing people. Denzel didn't want to do that, and rightfully so. Trying to maintain the rhythm of the language when you're cutting around the room was tricky at times. And it's tricky not to make those cutaways or those inserts or those looks from people look too obvious, so they didn't stick out like — "Oh, we're cutting to Bono."

"Reaction shot!"

Yeah, right. It had to be smooth. Reaction shots are sometimes the hardest shots to put into a scene organically, where they feel like they fit, because they interrupt. I could sit on Denzel all day long — which I did, quite often — and watch his performance and maintain a rhythm, but when I had to start cutting around and get more people involved in the scene, it became a little more of a challenge.


Was there a lot of coverage, and did you have a lot of options in the edit compared to a typical narrative film that isn't adapted from a Pulitzer-winning stage play? Was it restrictive? Or was it freeing, in a way?

There wasn't a ton of coverage. To take an example, when Troy comes home to talk about after he's been to City Hall and he's been made a driver. Until they switch locations, even if it's moving from the living room to the dining room, they pretty much go through the entire scene. There's very little "Let's pick up that line" or "Let's do that line again." That whole scene in the back yard with Troy and Rose, they blocked out certain sections, but when they were in that section they ran through whatever was going to play there. They would run through a whole section from the same angle, and then they had two cameras. But there wasn't a lot of coverage. There was a lot of footage, because the takes lasted so long, and there were inserts because Denzel wanted to keep the other characters involved. 

I'll tell you where it was restrictive, especially in terms of Denzel's performance. Everybody else was very consistent. They had it. They knew what they were doing. Viola has done TV, movies and stage, so translating her performance to film was not hard. It was true with everybody else, too. They all knew what they were doing. In some instances they probably toned it down just a bit. But Denzel is a wild card. Like I mentioned before, the sound guy never knew whether Denzel was going to scream or whisper. And when he screamed, it's overmodulated. His performance was the most interesting in a lot of ways. Because he was the director, too, he was willing to try things. He tried a lot of different takes on the performance in specific scenes, and usually he would get it right in the next to last take, and the last take would be a real experiment.

Viola, she would go until she got it right. There were not a lot of takes. The "snot scene," I call it, when she really lets him have it and says, "I've been standing here with you the whole time," that was take eight. I remember watching the dailies, which were not easy to watch — I cried a lot watching her performance — and at the end of that take, Denzel snapped his fingers and went, "Got it." And she was exhausted.

One of the fun things about film is I like it when there are certain restrictions placed on what I can do. Sometimes that happens because a performance is not great, but in this film all the performances were great. I was afraid of the little girl [Saniyya Sidney]. She was one of the last actors shot, but she is amazing. She is a revelation, this little girl. That's another example of how good Denzel is. He's just amazing at casting. I know most of the people were in the play, but the little girl and Troy's son [Jovan Adepo] were not, and they both were remarkable. I think they both have long careers in front of them. But I like having the constrictions and having to work inside boundaries. It usually means, by the way, that the director has a good idea of what he's doing when he starts running film through the camera, which is not always the case. In the digital age, you can just turn the camera on and let it go. But "we'll figure it out in the editing room" has a lot of drawbacks.