Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

Interview: Matthew Friedman on the delicate balancing act of cutting ‘The Farewell’

Matthew Friedman’s story is like many Hollywood stories; he wasn’t from Los Angeles, he grew up in the south, rural east Tennessee, to be exact. While he expressed interest in filmmaking at a young age (his parents gave him a Super 8 camera when he was a kid), he didn’t find himself back in the fold of filmmaking until he was an adult. And no, he didn’t study Extinct Ancient Languages in high school, no matter what IMDb says.

I talked with Friedman about how he came into a career as an editor, that sketchy IMDb bio and his collaborative relationship with Lulu Wang. Along the way, Friedman reveals a true stroke of editing genius from The Farewell that shows how emotion can override logic and what guides him in every editing decision makes.

AW: I was looking at your bio on IMDb, which is…kind of wild. You studied extinct ancient languages and then went to Northwestern and have a degree in economics and from the University of Queensland. You’re all over the map.

MF: Ok, when I first moved out here [to Los Angeles] I worked as an assistant editor for a director named Adam Coleman Howard and he would love to play this game with interviewers where he would just totally make shit up. So, there’s truth in that bio, the bullet points are true. But no, I do not have a concentration in extinct ancient languages. That’s not true. (laughs) I do have an economics degree. I was bribed to vote for Bill Clinton absentee and the Northwestern part’s true. East Tennessee is true. The coal mining family, not true. But you know, at the time I wrote it, I was primarily a comedy editor, and I have a very sort of dry British sense of humor and I’m the guy who has to say constantly, ‘that was a joke’ to people. I was joking.

AW: That makes your bio even crazier. How did all of that get you to Hollywood for film?

MF: When I graduated Northwestern, I wasn’t quite ready to go out into the real world. I had just had a really pretty horrific break up. I had about three credits left for my econ degree. So that’s why I went to Australia. I wanted to get out of the country. I didn’t speak any foreign languages, so it was either England or Australia and Australia would mean that I would be able to go to summer and not winter. (laughs) I finished my econ degree, came back home and then really started to think, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with my life?’ I lived in east Tennessee, as we’ve already talked about. Hollywood was a long way away, so I was going to start closer. I found some films that were shooting at Atlanta and I sent them a top 10 list of the reasons they should hire me. This was back, you know, when Letterman was really first starting doing that. So it hadn’t really become totally worn out at that point.

I faxed it out because that’s the age that we were in. I’m dating myself now, but I faxed it to the production offices and a got a call back pretty quickly from one that said, ‘Anyone who can bring all work at the production office to a halt with us laughing like that has to be down here with us. We don’t have any money. You can be an unpaid intern and we have art department or editing.’ I couldn’t draw and I always enjoyed editing when I was in school. You know, it fit my personality very well. So I took that internship and I was assisting for an editor named Emma Hickox, who is the daughter of Anne V. Coates’ [Oscar-winning editor of Lawrence of Arabia].

So I kind of stumbled my way into working with this great nurturing editor from a very storied filmmaking family. She really taught me so much of what I know about the creative process of editing. We got along great and she said, ‘You know, move out to LA. I’ll hire you on the next thing for money. I did and she did and I worked with her for I think, three or four films. That’s basically how I landed here.

AW: What do you think the biggest misconception is about what an editor does?

MF: I think there’s two. I teach advanced screen editing at AFI and sometimes there’s a misconception about young people in the film industry about what an editor does. But then there’s also misconception by people who are not in the film industry. I think what’s hard is, unless you really sit in the room and you see how a scene can change and be shaped in the cutting process, how performances can be either totally messed up help to make them elevated, unless you actually sit there and you see that there’s really no way that you can fully understand just how much goes into what we as editors do. I talk to my students a lot and one of the things I say over and over again, until I sound like a broken record, is that every frame counts. Every frame matters; literally every frame down to a frame level. Everything that’s in the movie, be it the frame, that picture frame, the sound frame of silence, it must be in there to support the story. And it must be supporting the story as a vehicle to get to an emotional reaction because that’s why everyone goes to movies; to have an emotional reaction, be it laughter or tears.

What was so great about The Farewell is there’s both; people laugh and people bawl. But every frame of that is worried over and constructed. When an actor says a line and blinks before they say it, am I going to put the blink in? If so, what does it mean? Is there a hair of a pause before they answer? Do they answer right off the heels of the other person’s line? Does it mean two different things in terms of performance? I think so hard on all of that stuff and there’s not a cut in any movie that I’ve ever done where I don’t know for a fact that the cut is coming on exactly the frame that I want it to because I’ve examined it.

AW: I think that’s where the phrase ‘a film is made in the editing room’ seems to make a lot of sense. There’s both a lot of power and responsibility there.

MF: Yeah, absolutely. Ultimately it is a collaborative experience, for sure. Part of what I love about it is I get to vicariously stick my fingers into a lot of different pies. The Avid [editing software] that I work on is called Media Composer and I do often think of it like composing. A real composer may have a conductor, may have a brilliant flutist and a brilliant violinist and they get to bring those threads of brilliance and weave them into the final tapestry. But you’re right, an inexperienced editor can mess things up. An experienced editor can elevate and bring added value, that’s what I hope to do. That’s what I strive to do on a daily basis.

The misconception that a lot of my students have, which is actually to me even more interesting is a lot of young editors come into AFI and think that the job of the editor is to get to the best cut of the film possible. When I was young editor that’s what I thought my job was, and it was frustrating. After doing it for seven or eight years, I changed my philosophy. So I now view my job as helping the director realize the best, most compelling version of the story. That is their vision, right? So it’s a subtle difference. But once I started doing that, thinking about it that way, the job became much less frustrating because when people disagree with me, it isn’t an obstacle to doing my job right. It also becomes a lot more interesting. You know, it adds a whole other layer of problem solving, and a puzzle-putting together kind of aspect of it that is incredibly satisfying. That doesn’t mean that I won’t challenge a director or suggest alternatives or play devil’s advocate. I do that constantly; suggest ways that, once I fully understand what their intention and vision is, maybe they didn’t even think of for achieving that. I have made directors extremely uncomfortable in the past, but once they understand that it is in service of their vision, ultimately, and I’m not trying to change that, they get it.

AW: That leads perfectly into The Farewell and your collaborations with its director, Lulu Wang. What’s the rhythm that your relationship has since you’ve worked on three projects together?

MF: First of all, I’ll preface this by saying I love Lulu. She’s such a smart person and I knew that from the beginning. I teared up when I went to watch The Farewell in the Arclight the other day because I had actually never seen it with a real audience. Sitting there in the theater, watching it with real people, I kind of teared up a little bit just because I was so happy for her and she deserves it so much. She’s the kind of person you know that you could meet at a dinner party and you would just never know she was in the film business. So I love it when good things happen to deserving people.

When I first met Lulu, it was doing a recut on her first film [2014’s Posthumous] and she hired me because she was coming up to picture lock and she just knew it could be better. She knew it wasn’t quite there yet. So I came in and went through the movie with her and started having these discussions that I was referencing earlier. You know, about finding out what the intention of each scene was and what was even going through each character’s mind. And after we did this for a scene or two I remember her telling me, ‘I had no idea that this is what editing was supposed to be. No one has ever asked me these things before.’ But unless you have those discussions how do you know that you’re both working towards a common goal? And if you’re not both working towards a common goal, the movie is gonna feel confused and it won’t be as sharp as it can be and ultimately not as compelling or moving as it can be. That’s part of the process I love so much. And it also circles back to the attention to detail and me wanting to know what is going through each character’s mind at any given moment. I don’t intuit it from the dailies, which you can do sometimes, but in the moments where filmmaking is so much about those nonverbal moments. Dialogue is one thing, but the moments of decision when characters have an obstacle placed in front of them, those nonverbal moments of making decisions I think are some of the most interesting in movies and you can’t deal with those if you don’t know exactly what’s going on in their heads.

Lulu was very receptive to that and she really appreciated that. After that [Posthumous] I did her short film [2015’s Touch] and then The Farewell and I would challenge her all the way through. I come from a background of studio comedy editing in my earlier years so part of what I do is make everything move absolutely as fast as it should. There were moments in The Farewell when I went onto it where, wait, have you seen it?

AW: Yes, twice!

MF: So there’s moments where she sits in these shots for a long time and there’s no dialogue and it’s just pace. And from time to time I would ask her, ‘So are you sure you want to be in the shot this long?’ Sometimes we would trim it down, we would talk about exactly what emotionally was happening at that moment and then sometimes she would say, ‘Yeah, trust me on this one, this should be long. She would explain to me why and we left it like that. So I would say we made each other uncomfortable from time to time but through that discomfort we elevated the story in the movie.

AW: I couldn’t agree more and that leads me to what I think is one of the strongest elements of the film; how balanced the tone of comedy and drama is. I think that’s one thing audiences will take away from it. So from script to shooting to editing, how do you know you have that balance?

MF: So when I was doing the studio comedies, it was much more veered towards, you know, comedy, obviously. There would be moments of emotion but not the balance that Lulu has. After a point I decided I really wanted to try my hand at doing some films that had more of that balance and were more character driven and story-driven and emotional, emotionally driven. So I started doing these smaller indie films and kind of cut my teeth on defining that balance. And honestly, it’s a very simple answer of how you maintain that balance. You ensure that everything that’s happening is true to the characters and what they’re experiencing in the moment. And if you do that, people will laugh and then people will cry and you’ll be able to make that turn. If there’s anything artificial about that and we don’t understand, the audience doesn’t understand exactly why the characters are doing the things they’re doing and it’s a cliché, if the audience is not vested in the characters, then you can’t make those turns. But as long as everything is grounded and true to the experiences that the characters are going through you can pretty much do whatever you want.

There was a shot in the wedding banquet when the uncle is having his breakdown on stage. It’s a comedic moment but it’s also a very uncomfortable moment and it has a large emotional charge to it. Right in the middle of that sequence there’s a shot of Mr. Li character just shoveling noodles into his mouth. It got a huge laugh at the Arclight the other night and I had to smile because, due to time constraints, they were unable to shoot Mr. Li’s for close-up coverage in that scene. So that shot is actually a shot from inside the family apartment that we stole. We cut out the background, we found a wide shot of the wedding banquet, blurred out of focus and comped the two. If you go back and look closely, you will see that in fact his wardrobe is completely wrong. He’s wearing what he was wearing from earlier in the movie and not at all what you see him wearing in the wide shots. But you never notice.

AW: You know, nobody’s picked that up that I’ve talked to.

MF: Because the emotion of the moment is working! [Three-time Oscar winner] Walter Murch, in his book, and I teach this at AFI, has a list of five things that he evaluates when he makes an edit. There’s things like screen continuity, continuity of space, is the character continuous across a cut on the z axis. Eye trace; when you make the cut, are you forcing the viewers eyes back and forth all over the screen? Story and emotion, right? Those are the things he evaluates whenever he makes a cut and then he assigns percentages to them. 51% of his decision-making weight is assigned to emotion. So if the cut works on an emotional level, it doesn’t matter if the continuity is wrong. It doesn’t matter if the character is completely in the wrong space. It doesn’t matter, even if the story doesn’t make any sense because if you’re having that emotional reaction, like we said earlier, that’s the whole point that people go to the movies for. So, and again, every frame matters in that shot. Mr. Li is in there designed exactly to the frame to get the laugh, to give people the space to laugh and then to get off of it before they have the chance to start thinking about other things such as ‘Wait a minute, was he wearing that?’ You know?

AW: That’s really clever.

MF: It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. A lot of smoke and mirrors and a lot of understanding how audiences’ brains process image and sound and using that knowledge to sculpt their emotional experience and make sure you have them thinking, and hopefully feeling, exactly what you want them to be thinking and feeling all the time.

AW: Matthew, thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m so happy for the success that movie’s had so far and I hope it continues as it gets a wider release this week.

MF: Thank you. Thank you. I do too. You know, when it was over, at the Arclight, I heard the guy behind me go to his friend, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to call my grandma tomorrow.’ And you know, Lulu has said in interviews as well, that if audiences take away one thing, that’s what she wants them to take away. So she succeeded it, at least with the person sitting behind me.

Next up for Matthew is Life in a Year, from director Mitja Okorn and starring Cara Delevingne, Jaden Smith and Cuba Gooding, Jr. He lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wonderful husband Chris and their son.

The Farewell is currently in limited release from A24, where it’s already broken box office records, and goes wide on August 2nd.

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