Editor Alan Bell on Strengthening Plot Twists and Building the Emotional Value of 'Red Sparrow'
A plot with these many twists-and-turns requires an incredibly skilled edit (and editor).
Francis Lawrence's Red Sparrow follows Dominika Egorova, a beloved dancer played by Jennifer Lawrence. For various reasons, shit hits the fan and the dancer's career ends, leaving her with no way to support her ill-mother.
The film then introduces Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a close uncle who’s an SVR officer (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service), offering Dominika“help” in the form of a job that turns deadly. Now forced into a Russian spy school, Dominika tries to figure a way out without getting her or her mother killed.
It’s a story immersed in intrigue. There are high stakes, murder, seduction, a mole in the SVR, and a U.S. CIA Agent (played by Joel Edgerton) who attempts to "turn" Dominika —all wrapped in plot twists that you keep you guessing throughout.
The director tapped editor Alan Edward Bell, ACE, to bring all of these elements together. Having previously joined forces on Water for Elephants, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and both parts of Mockingjay, this is the collaborators' fifth film together. Bell shared with No Film School how he was able to build the suspense for this rather timely thriller.
NFS: The story is an adaption of a book of the same name by Jason Matthews, who co-wrote the script with Justin Haythe. For those who didn’t read it, what changed to make it more compelling for the big screen?
Alan Bell: A couple of things come to mind. One, which Dominika alludes to in the movie, is about seeing color. In the book, she sees colored halos around people to tell who is good or bad. That works in the book, but it would be hard to do in a movie about intrigue, confusion, and subterfuge. You can’t have orange halos around bad guys that the audience doesn’t know are bad guys yet. It wouldn’t make for a good story.
The other is that she is manipulated into the position she finishes the movie in. In the book, all the men around her are tricking her into doing these tasks. In the movie, we wanted to make her much more interesting. Even though she has been terribly victimized and is a flawed character capable of doing horrible acts of violence based on her emotions, you want to root for her. In the movie version, she’s pulling the strings of these male antagonists instead of the other way around.
NFS: Did you reference any previous films for Red Sparrow?
Bell: Tonally, we discussed things. We didn’t want it to feel too warm. We wanted it be more like David Fincher’s style of filmmaking than, say, Paul Greengrass. We didn’t want the action to overtake the story. We wanted it to feel colder.
"This is not to say I don’t cut pieces, but for the most part I try to keep the script intact."
NFS: How do you approach your first cut?
Bell: Some call it the Editor’s Cut, but I like to call it the assembly of the script. If it’s in the script, I’ll put it on screen because I think you need to show the director and yourself that which is on the page before you start lopping things out. This is not to say I don’t cut pieces, but for the most part I try to keep the script intact.
NFS: You mentioned Dominika being a flawed, violent person, and you’re right. Even so, she's still very likable. How did want to balance her character arc?
Bell: If you’re not too careful, it would have been very easy to make her super cold where the audience would be unable to connect with her. We had to put in certain moments that made her remorseful.
NFS: Do you recall anything specifically?
Bell: There’s a scene where she leaves a steam room after badly beating two people up. She then calls the police to report the incident and then looks down at her bloody hands riding the bus. It’s a quick moment that could have been easily cut, but if it were, it could have turned her character into more of a machine without remorse.
NFS: There are several plot twists in the story. How did you reach the understanding of when a scene was working or not?
Bell: You want to ask yourself what is the emotional value of a scene. Is it propelling the story? What is the scene doing to further the story and how is it informing the audience? I always maintain that if the scene works on an emotional level, it can suffer on other levels and you won’t notice. Obviously, you want it to work on all levels of emotion, story, character, sound, and music, but a scene should, at the very least, propel character arc and move the story forward. The story’s emotion and clarity are the most important and then everything else is secondary.
"I tend to gravitate towards close-ups, and so for me, it was a little bit of a struggle at first because it is so easy to do what you are used to doing."
NFS: Did you find yourself cutting scenes out to keep the audience in suspense?
Bell: We did cut quite a few scenes—some that will make it onto the DVD—but our main concern was keeping the audience engaged. We had a cut that was 150 minutes and showed it to people who thought it was awesome. Then we thought it would be great if we could get it down to 130 minutes. When we showed people that version to people, they didn’t like Dominika at all!
As an editor, you have to realize that it’s about whether you’re engaged or not, whether the characters and plot are enough to keep you involved. We learned something from that audience testing and so we ended around the 140-minute mark. Her character is much better because of that.
NFS: What themes did you use to create tension?
Bell: We tried to stay true to a wider set of filmmaking principles and have scenes not be filled with cuts—to take a more Euro approach to filmmaking in terms of style. I tend to gravitate towards close-ups, and so for me, it was a little bit of a struggle at first because it is so easy to do what you are used to doing.
NFS: Close-ups do tend to drive the emotion.
Bell: Yes, and the emotional connection between the audience and the character on-screen happens immediately and instinctually between the eyes. No matter if you want to or not, you’re going to look into their eyes. It’s a natural response.
NFS: Do you recall any scenes where you changed it from multiple cuts to more of a single shot?
Bell: There’s a scene where Dominika walks into the bar and manipulates her boss into sending in a good report on her. She makes a false advance towards him. We did have a version of it where we cut back-and-forth and it wasn’t as good, so we made it all one long shot. It’s hard to tell but it’s been manipulated to cut its length down. We actually erased some people in the background, sped it up, and made the background normal speed. In the end, it was truer to the vernacular of the film.
"That hotel scene was the very first sex scene we cut. I felt protective of her and a certain responsibility to be respectful in how we did it."
NFS: The nudity in this movie is not titillating. It’s not something that’s supposed to excite you. How did you approach the sexual situations that were, at times, very raw?
Bell: I’m not close with Jennifer Lawrence. We’re friendly, and I’ve been able to edit a lot of her work from the Hunger Games series, but choosing to take on this type of role shows a maturity in her acting choices. She’s not playing the typical spy seductress. She’s not a Bond girl. She’s is a real person stuck in a very bad situation.
It started with Francis and in terms of editing story, when you watch those scenes any sex that wasn’t rape or attempted rape was always initiated by a female.
NFS: One of those moments is when Dimitri (Kristof Konrad), a wealthy Russian, forces himself on Dominika. It turns quite violent. What was the emotional balance you were looking for?
Bell: That hotel scene was the very first sex scene we cut. I felt protective of her and a certain responsibility to be respectful in how we did it. I don’t know how you cut a rape scene respectfully, but it was something we were able to figure out.
In terms of the film’s violence, we were pushing it to the point where people would maybe shut their eyes and then come back. It needed to be real. That in itself takes a strong level of commitment from a director. Francis may hate me for saying it, but pushing violence is generally not his style. He’s a warm, approachable person. He doesn’t like to fight and his passion is dedicated to his work.
NFS: The score is subtle and balances well with the story using a different tone that you don’t typically hear in a spy film. What was the theme talked about going in?
Bell: Francis said the music in the movie should not be procedural. Meaning, that in some spy movies, there can be a tick, tick, tick, sound to them, something that drives it like you can hear in Atomic Bomb or the Bourne movies. It’s an easy place to go, but that wasn’t the type of story we were trying to make.
NFS: So how did you work with the music from composer James Newton Howard?
Bell:I try not to annunciate myself into the musical aspects of the film. That’s not to say I don’t put temp music in or don’t have an opinion, but I just believe the fewer voices between the director and composer, the better.
"I know some editors like to talk as if they are the ones making the film, but in reality, we are collaborators at best and a pair of hands at worst."
NFS: One of the music-driven scenes is the opening ballet sequence. Did you cut to a temp track then?
Bell: The ballet scene was scripted a lot longer than what you see in the movie. Shooting it, they used four different operas for the choreography, and so I found a common beat and created a click track or used silence to cut the sequence. Every cut is on a very specific click and then we sent it to James where he worked on the music demos fairly early on because we needed to get it over to visual effects as soon as possible for face-replacement work.
NFS: Wait a minute, are you saying Jennifer Lawrence isn’t both an Oscar-winning actress and secretly an accomplished ballerina?!
Bell: She did all she could, but the movie was shot in almost in chronological order because we had to tweak the ballet sequences with visual effects. There was a lot of work to be done there.
NFS: Is that one of your favorite scenes?
Bell: I know this is something I’m supposed to say, but I do like the entire movie. In terms of crafting an edit, it is one of my favorite scenes. The symmetry, the tension, and how tightly woven it eventually became from how it was in the original script all played out really well.
NFS: Do you have any advice for young editors?
Bell: Work hard and keep in mind that editing is really about providing a service. I know some editors like to talk as if they are the ones making the film, but in reality, we are collaborators at best and a pair of hands at worst. You don’t want to work as a pair of hands but with people who want to know what your opinion is and will take it when it’s appropriate.
Also, edit as much as possible to become successful and figure out what value you can add as an editor. Know what you can you do that other editors can't. But keep in mind that you’re in a service industry working at the behest of others. It’s how I approached it and it has worked out very well.