Interview: Film editor Lee Smith on making ‘1917’ look seamless
Oscar-winning film editor Lee Smith is no stranger to challenges. Known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, Smith has worked on seven of the director’s films, including Dunkirk in 2017, for which Smith won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Film Editing. Smith’s current film, 1917, is another war epic, but this time, it’s WWI and the director is Sam Mendes. Smith had worked with Mendes on 2015’s Spectre. Smith had his work cut out for him (pun intended) to deliver Mendes’s vision for 1917, which was written to be delivered as one uninterrupted take. Long, single shots have been done before, but to keep it up for an entire feature-length movie? Especially with all the complexity, moving parts and challenges of a war movie? I couldn’t wait to talk to Smith about how it was done and got him to spill the beans. Well, some of them.
AW: I have to get this out of the way first: please clear up the common misconception that this film, because it was designed to be one uninterrupted shot, has no need for an editor.
LS: [Laughs] Yeah, well, I can clear that up for you. It did need an editor. It was shot over 65 days, so I think that should clue you in that if it didn’t need an editor, it would have been shot in 24 hours. It wasn’t.
AW: Yeah, so explain that to me. Can you reveal how many cuts there were? I’ve heard a rumor but are you allowed to confirm it?
LS: No, we kind of agreed with Sam to not confirm it, but how many cuts do you believe there were?
AW: Well, I heard 5.
AW: I knew going in when I was watching it that it was supposed to be one cut and I knew that wasn’t possible so I kind of was looking for them and I’ll be honest, the word seamless is truly appropriate here because there were a couple spots where I was like, well, there’s an easy point for it, but it was so natural to the story. So that’s what I want to ask you…it was shot over 65 days, but you’re neither confirming nor denying that there are 5 cuts…
LS: Well, if you think about it, if you shot over 65 days…think about it.
AW: So whatever the answer is, whether it’s a high number or a low number, you don’t even notice.
LS: Exactly. The number is way, way higher than anyone will ever guess. You’re not supposed to know that. As we discovered when we test screened it, I said, if I’ve done my job properly, then no one will know. We checked with the audience and they were completely—I think somebody said, “No, there was definitely a cut when it cut to black!” and I said, “Yes! You are correct, there is a cut when we cut to black!” And that was actually in the script. It says, in bold writing, “Scho shot in head, cut to black.” There’s no way I can cheat on that one.
The thing with editing this film is there are obviously many cuts in it. But the whole idea was we wanted people to experience it as if they were watching a single shot, so that was always the mission plan, to conceal everything so you could feel as if you were experiencing this as a third party to the two boys who were going on the journey. That’s what we aimed for and, hopefully, that’s what we achieved.
AW: Well, I’m just astounded because it truly does work. What I truly love is that you don’t try and make it seem like it’s an illusion because I completely believed that there were no cuts except for the few, as you say, where they go to black. Would you say it was an illusion or just great skill on your part?
LS: Well, I’d love to say it was great skill! But, you know, it was just carefully thought through and planned. I’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of clues as to where to do that kind of work. It was a collaboration between all of us to try and make sure it felt like you were never seen, like a tape change. But that was really only one part of the editing. The other part is the sound and the music and the take selection and the performances and all that stuff that we had to do on a daily basis. Because unlike having conventional coverage where you could knowingly make changes later, this film basically had to work as it was being shot, so we were doing a huge collaboration with Sam to make sure, on a daily basis, everything was perfect that was very different from what I’m used to doing.
AW: So talk to me a little bit about that. Were you on set, because editors aren’t usually on set, are they?
LS: Well, it depends on the film, but I visited the set several times. Basically, I was based in SoHo in London and I’d be watching the dailies from the previous day’s shoot on a large screen, whereas everyone else had to watch on their little monitors. So I had the joy of seeing it on a gigantic screen and then I would talk to Sam, having watched it first thing, and then we talk about the take selection and come to an agreement on what the best take was and then they’d line up to shoot the next one. Because a certain level of choice had to be made on a daily basis to know how to get to the next shot.
AW: You’ve said it was like shooting a film a day, so it had to all be perfect. So, if you have in your mind at the beginning of the day that you have to get from point A to point B, because maybe point B was the place where there was a cut…was there ever a time when they didn’t get there and you had to sort of figure out a new place to pick up?
LS: It was still a very organic process, you know? There were times where it was very difficult to get one take and get the best of everything so sometimes there had to be a multiple pass of selections from different takes and then I had to figure out whether that could be achieved, because there wasn’t many places to hide in this movie and work out how to do it. I had to convince everyone that it could be done. We had to do all of that in the first few hours of every morning to prove that we think that this could work, and then I’d continue to work on it. I’d have compositors come in and work on it to try and make it as perfect as we could quickly, knowing that we still had a lot of firepower later, with visual effects to help to make things perfect. But it was kind of a nerve-wracking experience because you were just making decisions and just going, “Yeah, I’m sure this is going to work,” and people have to trust you that it’s going to work. I didn’t ever want to be proved wrong.
AW: You mentioned that at least one of the cuts was in the script. Were all the cuts in the script or, as you mentioned, they were all organic? How many of the cuts were the script?
LS: A lot of them were worked out. There was only one actual edit that was described in the script.
AW: During the Q & A with Sam and with Roger, they talked about the dance that this was—a choreography between all the departments. It had to be so precise. How could those 2 things sort of work together: being organic and also so rehearsed and precise?
LS: Well, when I say organic, I think some people might think that some of this was computerized, as far as camera moves and light and everything. If you shot this in an interior on a motion-capture rig, for example, you can guarantee, through the use of the camera or through the use of computerized lighting, you would be able to make a join of wherever point you wanted to because the camera would have the information, the lights would have the information. But this wasn’t like that. This was a couple guys holding onto a camera with Roger operating, shot in wind, rain, daylight changing, time ticking, sun moving. So, even though it was very skillfully conceived, you were still at the mercy of the elements and of physical things. The camera operator getting tired, for example, carrying the rig through multiple takes. The takes slowing down because they can’t keep up. There are a million different ways for this to go wrong— getting bumped by an extra or an explosion causing the camera to swing around and miss its mark. Well, what I think what makes it so good is the fact that it isn’t shot motion control, it isn’t shot with computer-controlled lighting rigs. I think the reason you buy into it is that it’s just more trickery and magic and dark arts rather than computers.
AW: Absolutely! And George was talking about how, in that last scene, when he’s running, he wasn’t supposed to be run over, but he just got up and kept going and that’s the one that ended up in the movie.
LS: Yeah, and that was a take that wasn’t even an approved take! When I saw it in dailies and I was talking to Sam, I picked that take and Sam was saying, “why do you like that take?” Well, he liked it too, but it was basically a series of fuck ups, that take. And I just said, well, I wasn’t there so I don’t know what is and what isn’t, I’m just sitting in a theater watching it and I was just cheering for George because he kept getting up!
AW: It looks so real!
LS: Well, the interesting thing: it was real! [Laughs] But because he’s such a good actor—I think a lot of other people would have gotten rolled on the ground, stood up and said, “cut, cut! Geez, I just got hit.” He just didn’t give up— you see it on his face—he kept running. We were literally cheering for him, watching it. That’s why I think that take is the best take. I think there were, like, 18 of those takes.
AW: What was the average number of takes?
LS: I know that we went up to 39 takes on one set-up and I think the least was maybe 5 or 6, so between 5 and 6 and 39. So, you know, there were a lot of takes to look at, a lot of choosing to be done.
AW: How was your prep different, as opposed to any other?
LS: Actually, not really that different. I watched a couple of films that used a lot of extensive single-take coverage like Birdman and The Revenant, because they have a lot of extended edits in them. I was just interested in how they worked and what they were doing, so I did a bit of a forensic viewing of them. And then I kind of made up my mind what I was thinking worked and what I was thinking didn’t work as well as what could have worked. With all of that, we tried to apply it, as you do. You do research and think it through. But more interestingly for me was just reading books on the war and reading letters that the men sent home and how they described their conditions and what they heard and what they saw and basically what they tasted. What the food was like. And then sort of try to immerse myself in that. So, when it came to doing the sound, we could be very particular about the sound because I’d read a lot of books that very much described it. And working with our sound crew, we tried to achieve it. And that was very entertaining.
AW: From a storytelling perspective usually it’s in the editing room that the story and the emotional impact come together. What was the biggest challenge for you with this one shot style, regarding the story that you were trying to tell?
LS: All of my input was happening more on a daily basis while we were shooting. Besides the input I had when I first read the script. We obviously had a lot of performances that we could manipulate simply because we had 39 takes, so I’ve got dialogue from 39 versions of a take, so you know some of the performances can be adjusted and retrofitted quickly with that amount of material. A lot of my usual editorial things come into play but, mainly, I’d have to be completely convinced, on a daily basis, that the pace, the rhythm, the camera, everything was perfect and, if not, I’d have to be calling Sam very quickly to voice any concerns about anything I’m seeing and a few of those pay dividends. Sam shot over a two-day period and we have the joy of watching the first half of the shoot so we could talk about it and figure out if it needed to be modified. And Sam himself was modifying on a on a take-by-take basis. There were a lot of adjustments being made. That’s what I meant by organic. If something didn’t feel right, we could make changes or ask for changes. You just have to do it quickly, that was the difference.
AW: You said you and Sam started to discuss this when you were shooting Spectre. You said you tried to do as much as you could in that film in one shot but then you realized there was a place where you had to abandon it, but was the seed planted with the 2 of you back then and you decided to do it?
LS: It was Sam’s idea. I was surprised when he said he wanted to do a whole film. I knew we wanted to do a big chunk in one shot in Spectre and I think it ended up being pared back a little bit. In the end it was probably 5-6 minutes worth of one shot. So, to make the leap from that to a 2-hour movie is pretty extraordinary. So I think I was more surprised than anything.
AW: Did you ever ask him, “why me?”
LS: Yeah, kind of. I said, “are you sure? Are you crazy?” He said “you’re the guy for the job” and I said alright. [Laughs]
AW: Well, the final product is truly astounding. I hope it continues to get more and more recognition and I hope that people understand that you actually had something to do!
LS: Yeah, that’ll be the hard part. I don’t think it’s something that’s easily understood. Sam’s been very generous in his Q & A’s, mentioning it, but in the end, the invisible part of editing is what this is all about. It all depends on how deep your knowledge is to know what that means.
AW: That’s why I wanted to do this. I was telling the person I went to see the film with that I was interviewing you and she said, ask him if he was bored!
AW: So it’s very important to communicate to people what you do.
LS: Yeah, it is. It’s nice that people are that interested. And you’re right, your friend is not on an island. But I can give you this: I was never bored, not for a second. This was as active a job as I’ve ever had. But I completely understand why someone would say that.
AW: But what’s important is that your peers know and I hope you get recognized by your peers at the very least.
LS: I’m not sure that my peers would know. It’s one of those things—until you’ve actually done one of these—I think even a lot of the editing fraternity would go, “well, that doesn’t sound too difficult.” You kind of have to do one to understand it completely. I think it’s just something that’s just an anomaly and very few editors will ever do one of these. And, really, there’s not much to compare it with. It’s a fascinating journey.
AW: Would you consider this the ultimate challenge for an editor?
LS: I would say it would come close to the ultimate challenge because it’s harder than a lot of films. But, you know, each film is its own beast. It’s difficult to say, but it was certainly a big challenge. I just think, though, that you would need a little bit of experience in this exact field to know that. It would be easy to overlook it and just go, “I saw a film with 2,500 cuts!” And they are recognized and lauded for their complexity, but editing is just not about joining 2 shots together. It just depends on your level of experience as to how well you know that. But it’s cool. I think for this for this particular story it worked a treat.
AW: Well, we will do our best to spread the word far and wide and get the appreciation for the invisible man.
LS: That’s very nice!