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October 2014
Issue: June 1, 2006

THE EDITING PROCESS: A Q&A WITH SUPERMAN RETURNS' ELLIOT GRAHAM

By: Daniel Restuccio

Elliot Graham is a classic example of how talent, hard work and persistence pay off. Raised in Southern California he and his high school buddies made movies together and he eventually edited them. When he went to film school at NYU and that trend continued.

“I wanted to edit. I wound up editing my films and everyone else’s films, just because I was the guy that liked to be in the little room by myself putting everything together.”

In five years he went from being a production assistant in development at companies like Miramax and Merchant Ivory, to co-editor on X-Men 2 and now, Superman Returns.

Post: So how did you get to be the co-editor of X-Men 2 and now Superman Returns?

Graham: A friend of a friend of a friend knew [editor] Mark Goldblatt (X-Men 3, Pearl Harbor) and gave me his phone number. I say, “Okay I don't have anything to loose,” so senior year I start writing him post cards, letters. Finally he took my phone calls and we tried to meet. He was always busy. Finally, after I graduated and was out here, we had lunch. He was editing Hollow Man at the time.

I must have asked the right questions because a week later Steve Norrington called. He directed Blade, and he was taken with Trainspotting and wanted to do something edgier (for his next movie). He directed (The Last Minute) on his own in London.

He came back [to Los Angeles] didn't edit during production. He's friends with Jim Cameron and was editing out of Lightstorm in Santa Monica. He had been editing it himself for about a week, on film, then decided this isn't the way to go and wanted to edit on an Avid. When he started having everything transferred, he realized he needed an assistant. Cameron didn't know any non-union assistants and called Mark Goldblatt. Mark didn't know any, but said, “I met this kid.”

So I get this phone call from Steve Norrington and he hired me as his first assistant editor. I couldn’t afford an apartment at the time so I was sleeping on a couch in a room at Lightstorm. I just started cutting in my spare time. About a month later Steve promoted me to editor with him. I guess he respected the hard work and liked the cuts.

It was a huge break, I could have spent years assisting. That led to some music videos and I was really doing pretty well at it, but I wanted to get back to film. I wasn’t able to get a studio film because that (Norrington) film had not come out.

Post: And the connection to Bryan?

Graham: I met Bryan a few years earlier socially. He knew people in New York that I knew. He was scouting locations for X-Men. They were having dinner, drinks and invited me along. Then I didn’t see him for a couple of years because he was doing X-Men, and I was doing the independent film and music videos. But I really wanted to get back into film.

So he was going off to do X-Men 2. I called him up and said, I know you have John Ottman, but I would be willing to go back and assist if you need anybody. It took a couple of months, but eventually he said, “All right, come in show me your stuff.“

I showed him a bunch of stuff from the Steve Norrington film and the music videos, and he like it. He got Fox to bring me up as an assistant. I spent the first month on X-Men 2 assisting during the day, and sort of the same thing I did on the Steve Norrington film. I would then stay up all night and edit. I’d say, “John, can I edit that scene over the weekend? Can I get the dailies and edit that scene?” And I did.

They were planning on having two editors on the film because it was such a large movie. And John (Ottman) had composed and edited before for Bryan on smaller films. He didn’t do X-Men 1. He wanted a second editor. After that first month he showed Bryan this footage and said, “Well Elliot’s been cutting this,” and Bryan liked the stuff I showed him before, so they both decided, let’s promote Elliot.

Post: So how do the two of you approach editing a project?

Graham: John and I split the material during production, he takes scenes I take scenes.

Post: How do you determine who gets what scenes?

We never really argue about, I want to cut this scene, I want to cut this scene! It's, “Hey, I'm going to cut this scene Elliot. Okay, I'm going to cut this scene John. Okay.” Then we show it to each other and give each other notes. The fun thing about the door (points to a door connecting his and John Ottman’s editing rooms) is that we just leave it open and yell back and forth, “Hey want to see something?”

It's a really nice relationship. There’s a flow to it. We split it up, we go back and forth, and we give each other notes and by the time he has to go off to compose we're in a good place with the architecture of the film. John goes off composing and Byran and I continue making changes and I get more involved with visual effects.

Post: On the “Blue Tights Network” blog episode # 9, “Big Scary, Lit-up, Director Face” you talk about how you were not getting dailies any faster even though you were shooting digital?

Graham: They were shooting in Tamworth, few hours north of Sydney. Here (in Burbank) we have 12 Avids, in Sydney we had like six Avids, and they set us up at Fox Studios in Sydney.

Tom wanted to do a very detailed grading on what he was shooting before it arrived at post, in the pursuit of everyone involved with the project understanding that the Genesis camera was really delivering the goods he wanted. And to make sure that we were seeing material that looked like what we would want to deliver at the end of the movie after a DI (digital intermediate).

It wasn't faster because we were doing that detailed color correction. It could have been if you threw that out. They could have just taken the tape and I could have had it a few hours later.

So it had to go through that “telecine” process. It couldn’t be, here’s a tape plug it into the Avid. It turned out to be great because it put us in a position of having a good idea what it was going to look like with a camera that had never been used before. That blog was shot during our second week of photography. There were a few stumbling blocks the first few weeks because it was a new technology and they had to figure that out.

Post: So the Genesis technology is pretty transparent to your workflow?

Graham: It's wonderful and exciting to be part of digital, which is the future for reasons beyond shooting, to provide to theaters in a whole new way. To us, we're not about the technology, we're about the storytelling. If they shot it on paper, on whatever format, it’s still about working with Tom and Bryan about telling the story. On the Avid they give us dailies. It’s a bunch of shots. We put them together, and it feels the same as X-Men 2. Except we had to work out those kinks as to when we would get the dailies.

Post: How do you get into the head of your director?

Graham: Bryan is an extremely collaborative director. Bryan is all about the team he surrounds himself with, but he sets the vision, absolutely. He's been working with Tom Sigel since Usual Suspects, John Ottman since college. This is my third project with him. The writers, this is their second film together with Bryan. He really looks for each individual in their area to bring a lot of ideas to the table, and he has a lot of ideas, and we sort of throw them together and see what fits with this vision and then take it all and make something. He wants to hear what every single person has to say. In a visual effects session, he wants to hear what the writers have to say. As far as what the writers write, he wants to hear what John and I and the visual effects supervisor have to say. Each person brings their unique talent to it, so it really is a team effort. He's definitely the guy who says, “I like that, I don't like that.“ He’s definitely the leader, but it’s wonderful how collaborative he is.

He doesn't sit here and tell us, “Cut it like this. Cut it like that.” He may have something in his head already, but he doesn't want to tell you. He definitely wants John and I to put something together, in case there's something he hadn't thought of, and then come in and watch it. Often he's surprised and says, “Oh, I love that.” And then he also says, “That's not it. Try it again, or what about this. This is what I had in my head.”

But he gives you the opportunity to have a lot of freedom to begin with and that 's nice.

Post: Does he sit at your shoulder or does he go away come back?

Graham: Both X-Men 2 and Superman Returns – 90 percent happened on stages. He was shooting right underneath us, or right next to us. He was in the editing room eight times a day. He would come in between camera sets ups. He would come in at lunch. He would come in the morning, after dinner or after wrap and see what we had come up with and give us feedback.

Post: The scene in the trailer where Superman rescues the jet, how did you put that together?

Graham: They had a previs of the exterior of the events, not the interior. There are people being thrown around inside, that wasn't in the previs. [Singer] gets detailed in the previs, but when he gets into the shooting, he cuts that loose. In a scene like that John and I use the previs as a map. Once we start to intercut with the interiors you discover, oh, I need the exterior to be this in order to get to this event that's a happening inside. Once it was shot we realized we needed to have the plane do this to get the reaction inside. So we need to change the previs. It was a tool without which I don't know how we would have cut the scene, but then it changed with the edit.

Post: As an editor how you approach storytelling?

Graham: It has to do with the director coming to understand what's going on in their head. One of my first priorities is spending some bonding time with the director before hand - it’s helpful - and watching all their work. Before I went and worked on X-Men 2, I watched every Bryan film, studied his style, to give me some insight to what things he might like. I don't know how to express how I approach it other than with gut reaction. The reason I love editing is because I love seeing those little moments come together. I think production is boring because you sit on set. To me they're out there collecting all the puzzle pieces, but I get to put the puzzle together with Bryan and John.

I think what John and I both like about it is that you get to see those moments come together for the first time, because we get to watch movies all day. To me, the most magical part is seeing that character moment come alive, that story moment come alive. I think it's just sitting there and working on it until you feel something happen that wasn't there before. hat's when you run down the hall and say, “Hey, Bryan I have something to show you!”